Updated: Mar 17, 2020
review - hegel h120 integrated amplifier
It doesn’t seem so long ago since Hegel released their powerhouse H590 integrated amplifier, cementing the fact that it’s £9,000 price point wasn’t the exclusive domain of the pre/power amplifier. Off the back of this, the H390 was born, based on the same circuit architecture, and sharing so much in common with the H590 that Hegel had another success story on their hands, this time just under the £5,000 price point. The worldwide hifi press have been suitably impressed. Next in line was an update to the Rost, the only model in Hegel's amplifier line up given a name rather than a number as it was a slight departure from the rest of the range as far as tonal balance was concerned.
The very capable 75wpc amplification of the Rost was kept as is, as there was very little Hegel could do to improve upon it at its price point. The major change comes with the inclusion of the DAC chip and digital board from its bigger brother, the £3200 H190, effectively making the H120 a less powerful version of the H190. So does this make the H120 another instant hit for Hegel?
Based on a good 4-5 week period in my own system at home, my personal opinion is yes. The H190 became the sweet spot of the range when it was introduced, but with the arrival of the H390 and H590, this sweet spot no longer exists, just a range of extremely capable amplifiers offering great quality and value for money that few can compete with. And that’s fairly rare nowadays. So what do you get for the not insignificant sum of £2,200?
back panel and inputs
On the analogue side of things, there’s two unbalanced pairs of RCA inputs, either of which can be configured as an AV bypass for easy integration into a home theatre system. A pair of balanced XLR inputs are ideal for adding a suitably equipped source component, such as Hegel’s own Mohican compact disc player (which is excellent by the way). A pair of variable RCA outputs allow the addition of extra amplification or a subwoofer or two, depending which excess takes your fancy.
Digitally, there’s three optical inputs, one coaxial input, a Type B USB input, and an ethernet input, supporting file streaming of up to 24bit/192kHz.
Other than height, every Hegel amplifier shares the same front panel. Nothing extravagant or intricate, just a gentle outward curve with smooth, rounded edges, an energy efficient OLED display, a 6.3mm headphone jack, and a couple of dials, one for volume, one for input. They may not be the most eye-catching amplifiers (although the creamy white version does a much better job of grabbing your attention), but they’re functional, and you’re not paying a fortune for flashy looks.
With a lack of controls, you need a remote control. Like its bigger brothers, the H120 benefits from the all metal Mars Bar size RC8 remote control, which is a nice touch, particularly among the sea of tacky plastic remote controls that usually come with four figure amplifiers nowadays. Granted, the remote control doesn’t affect sound quality of the amplifier itself, but it’s a nice reminder of why you paid £2,200 for it. Your dog isn’t going to be chewing this one without any dental consequences...
The unsuspecting looks really don’t hint as to what the amplifier is capable of though. While the H120 can be used purely for its analogue and digital inputs, wiring it to your network via its ethernet connection opens up a whole new world. For starters, all software updates are carried out directly from the internet - no need to mess about with downloading files and using USB sticks to update. very easy. UPnP compatibility adds network streaming. Download the third party mConnect app (any UPnP app will also work) and the H120 will be able to stream any music you have stored on your home network. Via this app, you’ll also have access to TIDAL and QOBUZ streaming services to add the to the Spotify Connect that is already integral to the H120. If you’re an Apple user, AirPlay will accept wireless audio streams from your iPhone or iPad. And if your home runs on a Control4 system, the H120 is more than happy to become part of it.
Just a word before continuing - there is a growing number of great reviews covering the sound quality of this amplifier already, and there'll be more, so in this review I'm going to be covering the performance of the H120 as a central hub for an audio/visual system. More and more homes nowadays have their TV or Bluray player plugged into their hifi system in order to get great sound quality, and its usually better than a soundbar. If you don't, it's highly recommended. Anyone who popped into the Auden Distribution (U.K. distributor for Amphion loudspeakers and Hegel) room at the Bristol HiFi Show this year will have got a taster of just this type of set up, with modest sources being used in the shape of a laptop and a £200 Bluray player running though the H120 and a pair of Amphion Argon 1 loudspeakers. So for those with this type of set up, or those considering taking this route, this section is for you.
At the show, there was a huge amount of positive feedback. We had taken along a number of live gigs on Bluray, but we ended up mostly using Yello: Live In Berlin, as this seemed to be the most popular of those we tried. I'm a tad dubious as to how much of it was actually live, but the system showed how simple and easy it was to put together such a system, and how enjoyable sounding it can be, even without extra loudspeakers and a subwoofer. On the subject of subwoofers, the most asked question at the show, other than "which model Hegel amp is that?" (quite a few thought it was the H190) and "which model Amphion speakers are those?" was "where's the subwoofer?", after a curious look around and behind the ultra-low budget stand that served well to show what we were doing. Of course, there was no subwoofer, just a pair of 5.25" bass drivers providing everything below 1600Hz.
My own resident Jim Rogers JR149 loudspeakers at home are small, sealed box cylindrical shaped standmounts from the mid/late 70s, using the 19mm KEF T27 tweeter and 5” B110 mid bass driver. They’re pretty compact, not particularly efficient at 83dB (probably less in reality), and their bass is obviously limited, but being a sealed cabinet, it’s a very smooth, natural sounding bass, much like Amphion. I’m very attached to them, having grown up with my father’s pair during the late 70s. I’ve used my pair with a number of good quality hifi amplifiers over the last few years, including both Class AB and Class D designs.
I love both film and music, and usually find myself watching at least one movie every night, sometimes two. And when I’m not watching movies, I’m listening to music. So in the absence of full surround sound at home, I currently make do with my humble 2.0 system, just like the system at Bristol. For a movie to come across well on a 2.0 system, a good quality, well implemented DAC is a must. Check. And the amplification must give the loudspeakers precise orders and keep them under tight control at tall times. Check.
"Little hand says it's time to rock and roll".
(name the film, and the film that paid homage to it)
I watch a lot of films. And a lot of horror films. What can I say, I grew up during the "video nasty" era. It’s a crowded genre that has its fair share of mediocrity, but unlike drama or comedy, there’s so much scope with regards to not only the story line, but sound staging and music too. Music in any film can add a huge amount of atmosphere, even make or break a film sometimes, despite one of my favourite films having no music at all! The powerful, taut bass that underpins the performance of all Hegel amplifiers really brings out the menace in horror movie scores, even with my compact loudspeakers. Whether it's Howard Shore's classical accompaniment to David Fincher's excellent Se7en, which builds slowly and subtly throughout the movie, creeping up on you and getting under your skin, or the 80s style electronic synth scores of John Carpenter, the score really becomes part of the experience, an experience that seems to elude most soundbars and TV speakers. And this comes as somewhat of a puzzle - if these little speakers that have a rated power output of 60 watts are only reaching down to 75Hz at -3dB, where is all this seemingly low bass coming from?! It really sounds like the speakers have the subtle help from a subwoofer with some movies, making them sound much larger than they actually are. And that goes for modern electronic music from the likes of Aes Dana and Gaudium too. This is one of the benefits of an amplifier doing its job properly.
Dialogue is always clearly audible, except for the odd film where effects are excessively loud in the mix and drown out dialogue, but this is an issue even for full home theatre systems. Small details seem to be more easily noticeable. One example of this is John Carpenter's The Thing, where some of the team visit Blair after they isolate him in a shed. Upon finding he's missing, they search the cabin and find some loose floorboards, which they remove to reveal a tunnel leading down into the ice. As they enter this tunnel, one of the crew, presumably Carpenter himself, whispers to the cameraman to 'move back' as the actors approach the camera. This was something that was a struggle to hear, you'd have to be specifically listening for it, but on the H120 it was just there, plain as day, without any need to concentrate on it. The point is, this amplifier doesn't demand effort, it just presents everything to the listener, as is. Another point that should be made about dialogue in films is that in a two-channel system, it's not always that easy to follow - amplifiers that are overly warm sounding or smooth can make dialogue hard to follow. A good test for something like this is David Fincher's The Social Network, or the UK Bluray release of his masterpiece, Zodiac, which is encoded in Dolby Digital (the US release is Dolby TrueHD and much easier to follow heavy dialogue).
This level of detail retrieval will partly be down to the DAC used in the H120. A lot of amplifiers tend to have their DAC chosen for them based on keeping within a certain budget and end up sounding a little brash or result in a 'flat' sounding sound stage. It is obvious that the DAC in the H120 (and the H190) has been chosen carefully, and this helps to dispel the myth that two channel movie viewing sounds flat (the natural way of thinking having removed the rear speakers). Even feeding my budget Sony UBP700 UHD Bluray player into the H120 via the coaxial input, with the hi-res DTS and Dolby soundtracks converted to PCM, everything has its own space, there’s depth, there’s projection, there’s impact and there’s delicate detail. You will be made fully aware of the sound quality difference between DVD and Bluray, but you will be getting the best from both. This is honestly an amplifier I could quite happily live with purely for movies. If the H120 was compared to an equivalently priced all-singing all-dancing flavour-of-the-month AV receiver, I'd be confident the H120 would win out on detail, dynamics, sound stage, and control, both for movies and music, with a transparency the do-it-all box just wouldn't be able to match. When two channel movie listening sounds this good, you don’t miss rear speakers, unless your choice of movie viewing is dictated by the regular churn of the high budget, low substance Hollywood blockbusters. Even so, I'd still wager many would be surprised by how good stereo can be. If anything, stereo can be more enjoyable as you’re not distracted by noises behind or to the side of you, your full focus is in front. It may be less immersive than 5.1 or Atmos, but there’s certainly no lack of three dimensionality to the sound field.
Another type of product I'd pitch the H120 against is the modern 'lifestyle' all-in-one streaming systems that seem to be so popular nowadays. Most of these systems tend to be based around Class D amplification - not a bad thing in itself, but very few are able to compete with a well designed Class AB amplifier. These types of systems tend to have more budget spent on their visual appearance and outer materials to exude quality, despite full control apps on tablets being the interactive connection between them and the user. The H120 may well have slightly larger footprint, and may not look quite as pretty, but superior sound quality is there for all to hear, and the control app (mConnect) in use for all hegel amplifiers is stable and easy to use.
During 2020 and 2021, the little audio company will be putting extra focus on this type of 2.0 based system with the ability of being to offer complete audio solutions housed in a typical TV cabinet. We're firmly in the 'Netflix generation' era at the moment, and despite current video streaming services being heavily compressed in comparison to physical media such as Bluray and UHD Bluray discs (more on that in another blog soon), the benefits of such a system are still easily appreciated. I know, as I use Netflix too.
Thanks for reading and making it to the end! Feel free to browse the website, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0121 638 0721 or 0753 888 1969 for help or to arrange an audition or a consultation. We are a 1 mile walk from New Street Station, or 5 minutes on the Metro system that runs between Broad Street and Wolverhampton.
davidf @ the little audio company