The story begins in 1988 while a man named Bent Holter was completing his Master’s degree in semiconductor physics at Norway’s Trondheim University. During his spare time from school he was also playing music in “The Hegel Band”. The band’s amps had terrible distortion, and kept breaking down, so what does a self-respecting physicist do? Obviously he decides to design his own amp.
All six of the original Hegel amplifiers Mr. Holter made are reportedly still in working order, and one of them is on display at Hegel’s headquarters. Throughout the early 1990s Hegel continued to improve its amp designs and in 1994 they expanded their line of products to include digital products – CD players and DACs. Today they offer a full line of hifi components from entry level integrated amplifiers to reference level preamps and power amps, as well as digital sources to match.
The Hegel H160 ($3,999) has a very solid feel and clean design. It offers a timeless appearance, with a softly curved faceplate and only two knobs, which are placed symmetrically on either side of the central blue display. The big knobs turn lightly and click softly between inputs and steps in volume. A satin black finish draws little attention to the unit itself, which is a quality I admire in an audio component; they are, after-all, meant to be listened to.
The specifications of the H160 place it nicely in the middle of Hegel’s integrated amplifier line-up, namely between the H80 and the H360 models. The power of this solid-state amp is rated at 150 watts per channel at 8 Ohms, and 250 watts per channel into 4 Ohms. The H160 is capable of producing a wide frequency response, from 5Hz – 100kHz, and with low distortion of 0.005% (at 50 W / 8 Ohms / 1 kHz). There is one very revealing spec to be noticed – the damping factor is “more than 1000”, which essentially translates into the amp’s ability to grip the speaker extremely well.
One thing that separates audio companies in this era are their proprietary technologies, which Hegel prides itself in being at the industry’s forefront. Mr. Holter’s original idea, called SoundEngine technology, is still employed in all of their amplifiers. Basically it is a feed-forward design to reduce distortion. A common method to minimize distortion in amplifiers is a feedback loop, sending a signal back from the output to balance out any noise and distortion. Mr. Holter thought that if you flipped it around, sending the original signal forward comparing it to the output (amplified) signal, maybe that would sound better. Turns out, it worked!
Hegel has implemented technologies in their amplifiers to lower distortion and increase the dynamic range. One of these technologies is their DualAmp design, which uses a separate voltage gain stage and current gain stage. They also employ a DualPower technology, which uses separate power supplies for each of the voltage and current gain stages.
As far as connections, the H160 has everything one could want from an integrated amplifier. For analog inputs there is one balanced XLR input, one line level RCA, and one other RCA that can be configured for either fixed level (for home theater use) or variable level. For outputs, there are both a fixed and a variable level RCA. The speaker binding posts are gold plated with clear plastic sheathing. The integrated DAC offers a total of 6 digital inputs: coaxial, USB, Ethernet, and 3 optical, maxing out at 24 bit/192 kHz file types.
An integral feature of the H160 is its integration with wireless devices with DNLA and Airplay. With an Ethernet connection between the H160 and a home network, wireless devices can send a digital audio signal to the H160’s integrated DAC, which then recreates that signal into an analog form. The DAC is a result of extensive development at Hegel using state-of-the-art measurement tools and listening sessions. They also developed proprietary technologies such as LineDriver to limit digital noise, and a MasterClock to reduce jitter.
A first for Hegel is the offering of a 6.3 mm headphone jack. During TAVES 2014 I got to audition the H160 with several pairs of nice headphones while listening to many different setups in the “Headphone Zone” of the show. I remember listening to the H160 and thinking that to create a comparable experience with an external DAC and headphone amp, one would likely spend several hundred dollars.