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Hegel H100 Review

December 14, 2009 By Geoffrey Morrison



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Hegel H100 Review
Hegel H100
Hegel H100 back panel

Mix together one part amp and one part DAC and you get Hegel's H100 Integrated Amp.

I am loving the influx of high-end audio gear that plays nice with computers.

It's taken long enough, but it seems like the audiophile companies are embracing computer-based digital audio for the future that it is.
    
Whch brings us to this, the Hegel H100 Integrated Amp.

Hegel H100 Review

Hegel is a small Norwegian company, and you're forgiven if you haven't heard of them. They only recently opened distribution in the U.S. Hegel is very much the baby and brainchild of founder Bent Holter. In college, Holter made amplifiers for his teachers and fellow students in his free time. I look back on what I was doing in my spare time in college, and I can tell you that all those hours of Counter-Strike really paid off getting me good at...well, playing Counter-Strike.
    
The H100 is based on their H1 integrated amp, but adds in a USB jack and a corresponding DAC. Hegel's philosophy is that you're going to have most of your music on your computer, not just on your iPod, so why not go to the source? Also, it's difficult to get a digital signal from the iPod, and hooking up via USB will let your computer do the codec decoding, and the Hegel do the digital-to-analog conversion. The DACs, called SyncroDAC by Hegel, are designed by them, as are most of the other parts in the amp.   
    
The 120-watts-per-channel amp stage uses Hegel's patented SoundEngine technology, which is a "local error cancelling system." Hegel describes this as a way to minimize the high frequency distortion found in typical amp stages while increasing the control over the speakers.
    
Fjording Along
    
Hegel H100 remoteThere's a classy, stark, beauty to the H100. The smooth and curvy front panel has a, no exaggeration, beautiful finish. Apparently it's made by blasting a piece of aluminum with glass particles and then anodizing it.

You only get volume and source controls, plus the power button, on the front panel. In addition to the USB connector, the back panel has one balanced and four unbalanced inputs along with two unbalanced pre-outs and a record output.

Also included is a "Home Theater" input that allows you to use the H100 as an amp for the front speakers in a 5.1 setup. The remote isn't going to win any ergonomic awards, but it's pretty and matches the H100’s finish.

One quirk: The inputs don't loop around, so when you get to one end, if you keep pressing the Next Input button, you're just going to look silly. Trust me, I know.
    
Hooking up the H100 to my laptop was as simple as plugging in any other USB device. The components talked to each other for a moment, and then I had all my computer audio via my speakers.  

I couldn't help but start with the audiophile-friendly Radka Toneff, who was, of course, Norwegian. "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" from her Fairy Tales album (and more directly, the Burmester Demo-CD 2) is a rather haunting song that is very open and has a delicate piano part, along with Ms. Toneff's incredible vocals.

Playing an uncompressed .wav file from my laptop, via USB, the Hegel did an excellent job re-creating this into sound (with the help of my speakers, obviously). There was a clarity to the sound that is lacking on many audio products. You could hear the individual piano strings slowly fade out—not just the initial attack and note. Her voice was reproduced perfectly, but so was the space around her voice. There’s an openness in the original song that’s not heard on many systems. It should sound like she and the piano are in some huge room, and on the H100 it does.
    
Hegel H100 back panel

I did an A/B comparison using the Brandenburg Concertos "No. 3" performed by the English Chamber Orchestra (SACD/CD Hybrid). I played the CD on a Pioneer BDP-09FD, which itself has some fantastic DACs. At the same time I played a .wav file of the same track on my laptop. The best way I can describe realism from audio equipment is to imagine peeling away layers of clear film.

With the most basic system, you can hear the music (and see through the layers of clear film), but as you increase quality, you peel away layer after layer, and the music becomes that much more realistic. There are fewer layers between you and the recording. With this head-to-head comparison, the Pioneer may have had one less layer of "film" than the Hegel, but it was so close, I doubt many would hear a difference. It would probably just come down to preference.

OK, so it can reproduce delicate wonderfully, and imparts a sense of realism to the music, but can it rock? Well a little Bowie never hurt, so I put in "Queen Bitch" from Hunky Dory (again the SACD/CD Hybrid). The H100 starts to get a little harsh at the highest of volumes, but at that point, it's past where you'd want to be in the same room anyway, so it doesn't really matter. Up to that point, it does an excellent job maintaining composure.
    
One downside to the H100 is the lack of an optical or coax digital input. It would have been nice to plug in a CD player or cable box digitally and use the H100 as the sole "receiver" in my setup. With the USB and analog inputs you can obviously work around this, but it would have been a nice addition.
    
The integrated amp with digital friendly bits is fast becoming a crowded category. Thankfully, each company seems to be taking a different approach to the concept. The Hegel H100 takes the unabashed audiophile approach, with solid amp parts, solid build quality and a great DAC to free the music trapped on your computer. I enjoyed my time with the H100 greatly, and in all it's one of the best audio pieces of kit I've listened to all year.

And look at that, the whole review and not one Viking reference.

Oops...

PRICE:
H100: $3,000

CONTACT: 641.209.3210, hegel.com

 Hegel H100

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