Will there come a time when everything is in one box and that isn’t a compromise? If you look at some of the bigger names in the business this looks like the way the market is moving. We, the few true connoisseurs, may appreciate the benefits of splitting a system down into constituent parts while the many who want decent sound, but frankly lack commitment to audio nirvana, would appear to prefer it if there weren’t so much hardware on show. They would also like to be able to talk to it but we try to avoid novelty in this publication, if at all possible.
Hegel’s latest amplifier looks like all the other products from this surprisingly well established Norwegian organisation. Its founder, Bent Holter, has been making audio electronics since the early nineties. They are one of a new breed of companies that designs and sources components in Europe but does its manufacturing in the far east; it’s a logical model that keeps prices sensible and ensures that they can compete with bigger brands. The plain, even Teutonic, styling means that all Hegel products look consistent and that their aesthetic doesn’t age in the way that more elaborate creations always do (just see Volkswagen versus Ford for an example).
The H190 is the latest compact powerhouse amplifier with onboard DAC and network streaming capabilities. Its bluff facia is cast alloy and features only an input selector, volume control and headphone output; there is a power switch, but it’s hidden underneath. Once you notice that the button marked Eco on the handset puts the amp into standby there’s no need to touch the power switch. There is of course a display, a very clear OLED one that shows input and volume level in sensible high numbers means high volume style. Quite why manufacturers persevere with negative relative dB figures that appear to work the other way round beats me; it must be a recipe for confusion among those less obsessed.
The rear panel is clearly laid out with analogue in and outputs on the left; these include balanced inputs and both fixed and variable outputs, which seems odd when you have a high powered amp onboard, but does offer the option of bi-amping. The right hand flank provides a sextet of digital inputs that includes three Toslinks and an Ethernet connection in their ranks. That last connection is the key one here. Combine it with a third party control application such as BubbleUPnP and you have a network streamer that can pull music off of a NAS drive or audio server and send it through the DAC to the amplifier. It’s not a streamer in the full sense that a Naim or AURALiC is partly because there is no dedicated app, which means that internet radio and services like Tidal are harder to access (Hegel is working on a software fix). But if you have your own music library it will always sound better than online services. The H190 also has Apple AirPlay receiving capabilities, which gets around source limitations like net radio, albeit not as neatly as, say, Chromecast, which offers resolution up to 24/96.