Hegel H100 Integrated Amplifier Review 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Integrated Amplifiers
Written by Todd Whitesel   
Monday, 01 February 2010

Integrated amplifiers have come a long way in the last three decades. For years, they've had a reputation (deserved or not) as sonically inferior to separate preamp and power amp setups. Naysayers  argue any component containing pre-amp and power amp modules is subject to cross-talk and bound to introduce unwanted noise and distortion into the signal chain. Still, an integrated's advantages – lower cost, space saving and fewer connections – make it a popular choice for music lovers faced with budget and/or room constraints. I believe most audiophiles would prefer stereo separates, but it's tough to go wrong with a well-designed integrated amplifier serving as heart of an audio system. And well-designed describes Hegel Audio's H100 integrated amplifier, a 120-watt  designed to trounce distortion. Hailing from Oslo, Norway, the H100 is Hegel's entry-level amp. Though its $3,000 asking price may raise an eyebrow, there's more to this machine than meets the eye.

Design & Features

Audio manufacturers have long sought to reduce harmonic distortion that arises during output from an amplifier. When an original music signal passes through a transistor at a certain frequency, say 300 Hz, it will produce smaller amounts of harmonic multiples: 600 Hz (second harmonic), 900 Hz (third harmonic), 1200 Hz (fourth harmonic) – and so on – at output. High-order harmonics are particularly bad and can make music sound sharp and unpleasant. Hegel uses two proprietary technologies - SoundEngine and Fet-Tech - to eliminate all but the second and third harmonic. A cleaner music signal makes for more natural-sounding music. Hegel believes reducing harmonic distortion is only part of the picture and less important than dealing with Intermodulation Distortion or IM. With IM, the interacting signals are not related harmonically and can create a muddled blend of sound that changes the original signal's musical “story.”

Hegel H100 Front View

Hegel asserts, “These IM distortion components are made in the amplifier stages and cannot be removed. The problem is usually worsened by the use of global feedback loops in amplifiers. The amplified signal is fed back to the input stage of the amplifier, and so the IM distortion is also sent through once more and amplified... Some manufacturers have no global feedback. That is fine and reduces distortion, but at the same time they lose damping factor – a key to keeping deep bass and good bass control.” To combat these issues, Hegel uses feed-forward instead of feedback, which is supposed to significantly reduce IM distortion and increase damping factor. According to the specs, the H100's distortion measures less than 0.005% at 50 watts in 8 ohms, while its IM is less than 0.01% (19kHz + 20 kHz). Additionally, the H100 sports separate DualPower power supplies for input and voltage gain stages and the amp's current output stages – more distortion-reducing measures.

The H100's minimalist design oozes Scandinavian coolness, in the best sense. The front panel is constructed from a solid aluminum bar that is glass-bead blasted and anodized; the top cover, side panels and knobs are brushed/blasted and anodized aluminum. The display is lit by a non-dimmable blue light, and it works fine, but the text abbreviations indicating selected source are difficult to read. For example, if CD source is selected, the text is displayed in lower case letters; for Auxiliary, it's “AU”: select Tuner and you get a strange capital T missing the left top half and a lower-case “u.” It looks like a Cyrillic acronym. At the least, all text should be standardized and upper-cased.
 
The 32-pound amp comes in black or pearl silver finish; my review unit was the latter and up close the front panel has a sparkly, flake-like appearance and gentle wave contour. Unassuming to the point of sleepiness, the H100 sports just three front controls – source selector knob, volume knob and power button. It definitely conforms to the Hegel philosophy of being easy to operate.  The back boasts four unbalanced RCA outputs, one pair of balanced XLR outputs, a USB input and a Home Theater input. The latter is a maximum volume line level input with a permanent volume setting of 75 and for connection to a surround processor only with internal adjustable volume. The H100 delivers 120 watts into two channels at 8 ohms.
Hegel H100 Rear View

Hegel's RC2 remote is a classy, substantial unit made from a solid aluminum bar mirroring the H100's finish and design. I've complained before about manufacturers giving little thought to a component's remote, often offering cheap, unattractive plastic popsicles hardly befitting its master. If you cycle through the source options with the remote or control knob, you hit a “dead end” at the final option and have to bring it back instead of jumping forward to the beginning. That's a minor curiosity.

Despite its humble appearance, the H100 has several notable features such as the auto-volume fader.  When the amp is powered on, the start-up volume always begins at 0 and gradually increases to a default volume of 30 (99 is the max). This safeguard protects speakers and amp from accidental surges and provides a reasonable starting point for listening. Want it louder? Turn it up! Several stand-alone DACs and A/V receivers sport USB ports but not many integrated amps. The H100 features a built-in USB sound card that connects easily to a computer without drivers or other software. Lastly, the H100 stands on a trio of feet that makes for easy leveling and ensures stable operation.

Listening

Hegel recommends letting the amp warm up about 1 hour for best sound. During reviews, I typically listen to components for 100 hours or more, which entails running them most of a business day or longer for multiple days. Then and long after, the H100 never got hot and barely got warm to the touch. Even after running for 8 hours or more, the chassis remained cool to the touch. Five top panel circulation grates do an outstanding job dissipating heat. If your listening area is already on the warm side, the H100 is a welcomely cool roommate.

From the first minutes with the H100, I knew it was special and perhaps the least sonically colored integrated amplifier I've heard. Bryston's B-100 SST is my benchmark in the $3K-$4K price range (and beyond) for its stone-like neutrality, but Hegel has something to say about that. The amp is transparent, detailed, with rich bass and utterly pure in the mid- and high-range. I've seen the H100 described as sounding like water, and I struggle to come up with a better characterization. Smooth and clean. Maybe organic? It's an exceptionally musical component – if not a shade reticent - and at home in the all but the most power-demanding systems.

I first connected the H100 to my Mac mini via USB and ran through some old favorites stored in iTunes. Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett has a catalog of solo releases on par with the best of his earlier band work. His 1978 album, Please Don't Touch, ventures down many roads. The disturbing fantasia “Carry On Up The Vicarage” is tempered by the lyrical instrumental “Kim” and the rocking “Racing In A,” with special guest vocal from Kansas' Steve Walsh. Hackett paints a colorful pastiche of guitar sounds and textures that never got lost with the Hegel, whose USB performance is good but not up to the performance of an external DAC like Hegel's excellent HD10. Working together, the H100 and HD10 took my computer music to the edge of high-end CD player performance. I like the convenience of a  USB DAC and amplifier under one roof but wouldn't purchase the H100 based on this feature. I would, however, buy the amp solely for its non-USB performance.

I was hoping to audition one of Hegel's CD players along with the H100 but didn't get the chance, so Emotiva Audio's ERC-1 player served as surrogate. The ERC-1 sports balanced outputs, making it easy to connect via XLR as Hegel recommends. My music collection is short on Norwegian acts, much longer on artists from neighboring Sweden. Brighteye Brison are one of that country's many fine progressive-rock acts with a sound harkening back to the 1970s. Brison's 2008 release, Believers & Deceivers, is a bold, ambitious and melodic set of just four songs, two of which (“The Harvest” and “The Grand Finale”) clock in at more than 20 and 30 minutes respectively. The band's arrangements were meticulously presented by the H100, with clean, balanced and broad soundstaging. Tonal balance and imaging are two of the amp's biggest strengths, but the bass reproduction – powerful and even with no flab - really caught my ears.

Benjamin Franklin is known for many things –  one of the founding fathers of the United States, publisher of Poor Richard's Almanack and influential politician. He was also a dedicated musician, composer and inventor of the armonica, an instrument employing tuned glass bowls arranged on a spindle and controlled by a pedal. The armonica found favor with Mozart and Beethoven, both of whom composed works specifically for the instrument. Pop singer Linda Ronstadt is a current champion of the instrument and co-producer of Cristal: Glass Music Through The Ages, a disc featuring Dennis James on armonica covering music from the 17th through 20th century. The armonica produces mesmerizing, almost otherworldly sounds. It's delicate, filigreed and translucent, as if light was somehow captured in a note. Those qualities shone through with the Hegel bringing Mozart's “Adagio in C Major, K. 356,” among others, to bloom with radiance and grace.

Miles Davis' “In A Silent Way” sparkled, too. This deceptively simple tune is one of the horn man's greatest arrangements. I love how the H100 puts “air” around John McLaughlin's gentle guitar lines, spaced within the celestial keyboard flow of Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, and Davis' muted horn. As well, Hegel's dead-silent operation makes the silent way even more so.

Sticking with the Zawinul connection, Weather Report's “Tears,” from the band's 1971 self-titled album is a moody jazz-fusion masterpiece. Clarion calls from Wayne Shorter's saxophone are interjected with Zawinul's electric piano, while Miroslav Vitous' rumbling bass, Alphonze Mouzon's stick work and percussion master Airto Moreira make sparks fly all around. The H100 does an excellent job of keeping everything cohesive and lets the drums, cymbals and other battery sound like real percussion instruments, with attack, decay and transients deliciously preserved.

Final Thoughts

If the H100 could be measured with a pH meter, it would register damn close to 7.0. It's one of the finest-sounding components in its price range I've had the pleasure to experience. Neutral yet detailed and refined. Beautifully built and brilliantly engineered, this is a superb amplifier and highly recommended.

System Setup

  • Hegel H100 Integrated Amplifier
  • Apple Mac mini
  • Emotiva Audio ERC-1 CD Player
  • Axiom Audio M80 v2 loudspeakers
  • Role Audio Sampan mini-tower loudspeakers
  • Better Cables Premium Anniversary Edition Speaker Cables (3 meter/bananas)





Like this article? Bookmark and share with any of the sites below.
Digg!Reddit!Del.icio.us!Google!StumbleUpon!Yahoo!Free social bookmarking plugins and extensions for Joomla! websites!
 
Joomla SEF URLs by Artio