Hegel H190 integrated amplifier and Amphion Argon 7LS floorstanding loudspeakers

Integrated amplifiers
Amphion Argon 7LS,
Hegel Music Systems H190

So, in combination the sound is precise, clean and tight, with ample deep bass which underpins without overwhelming. Imaging is quite extraordinary, placement, whether singers, soloists or string sections is approaching holographic levels of precision; the Hegel/Amphion combination quickly starts to feel comfortable and confidence-inspiring. Pink Martini’s ‘Hey Eugene’ from Hey Eugene [Wrasse Records] is a good example. The solo vocals are firmly anchored front and centre, while the rest of the 18-piece ensemble is arrayed behind and to the sides and it’s easy to pick out the individual contributors, pretty much at will. And that’s not merely a party trick, it shows how strong this combination is with timing. Pink Martini, for all its size, always gives a tight and often surprisingly intimate performance, they’re always ‘on it’ and here you see exactly how good the individual musicians are, and how well they contribute to the whole.

The Hegel 190 wears its power lightly, almost deliberately so it would appear, because realistic levels require a volume setting somewhere north of 60 (it tops out at 100); the Amphions are pretty efficient, so this seems to be a design choice, perhaps to allow greater discrimination at lower levels. Consequently, venturing into the top third of the volume range became normal enough and the amp never exhibited any signs of stress; no harshness, shoutiness or grossly oversized, misshapen instruments. Indeed, composure under pressure is one of the hallmarks of the Amphion/Hegel combination. Yes, even with The Bad Plus’ ‘1979 Semi-Finalist’ from Give [Colombia] was powerful, with deep, tight, tuneful and very well controlled bass. The track starts with a simple, subtle piano motif, then explodes with a hammering drum riff. This was indisputably emphatic, but sometimes there was an impression that the overall presentation of the track was less energetic than I’ve heard it elsewhere. I don’t think that was the issue though, it’s quite likely to be an illusion due to the clean and fuss-free delivery. Sometimes that sense of energy is the sound of your system losing the plot. There was some slight impression of bass notes pressurising the room, a subtle ‘pumping’ sensation that isn’t apparent with my normal ported loudspeakers; I suspect this is partly indicative of the different way the Amphions seem to drive the room.

And different they definitely are, but not in the sense of being coloured or less than transparent. Understated, yet communicative in an almost subversive way, they speak clearly and emphatically, like a statesman, rather than bellowing in your face, like a drill sergeant. The opening percussion riff to Peter Gabriel’s ‘Red Rain’ from So[Realworld] is perhaps best described as ‘neat’: tight, fast, neither splashy nor over-emphasised, just in its place. ‘Here Comes the Flood’ from Shaking the Tree [Realworld] was poignant and affecting, underpinned powerfully by the superb tunefulness and harmonic impact of the deceptively simple piano part. The piano was a particular strength, invariably powerful but not overblown. Roberto Fonseca’s ‘Mi Negra Ave Maria’ from Yo [Jazz Village] is a case in point. This track can sound a bit bombastic and there’s clearly a huge and impressive piano here; Fonseca makes full use of its capabilities but his phrasing and range of expression is clearly heard, and the tunefulness of the lower registers underpins the harmonies, bringing out the thoughtfulness that’s clearly behind the musicianship.

Visiting the LSO Tchaikovsky ‘Capriccio Italien’ [Decca], the nicely focussed imagery helped lay out the different sections of the orchestra as the thematic material passed between them in the opening section. The system maintained its composure with a sense of the – sometimes exuberant – energy levels being carefully yet sensitively managed. Big, ebullient jazz, Abdullah Ibrahim with the NDR Big Band was presented with insight, clear and lucid. Sometimes Ibrahim’s piano can get a bit lost in the melee but here his expressive and sensitive phrasing came through clearly. In ‘Black and Brown Cherries’ from Ekapa Lodumo [Enja] the energy of the band was clearly apparent, well expressed but controlled. It was easy to hear into the complexity, and the tunefulness of the lower registers – in particular the trombones – was again a particular joy.

Of the pairing, I have to say it is the Amphions which impressed me the most. I briefly reinstalled my regular Albarry pre-power combination for a point of familiar reference. Despite conceding, on paper at least, some 40 Watts to the Hegel, the Albarry-Amphion pairing did deliver more vigour. There was a slightly diminished sense of order compared to the Hegel however, the individual parts perhaps not quite so clearly delineated. Given my bond with the Albarry amps runs very deep, that it didn’t simply ‘blow away’ the Hegel integrated says much for the Scandinavian integrated.

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