The analogue stage is not an afterthought though, especially as essentially the DAC sits on top of the analogue preamp section. This has been pulled from the company’s P20 line preamp or top H300 integrated, borrowing heavily from those upmarket devices. Similarly, the power amplifier stage of the H80 also borrows from the Reference class products, using Hegel’s own SoundEngine local error cancellation circuit design, which is claimed to deliver Class A linearity in a Class AB design, increasing damping factor in the process. It also uses hand-matched transistors in the input stage and the DAC, of course, bears a lot in common with Hegel’s 32-bit filtering, AKM4399-based 24-bit, 192kHz precision off board converters like the HD11. OK, so putting DAC, pre and power in the one chassis is never going to be quite as good as having them in separate chassis with separate power supplies dedicated to the task in hand, and the small chassis means there’s no room for the kart wheel sized toroidal transformer and power reserves found in Hegel’s 200W and beyond amplifiers, but this appears an exercise in specification reduction rather than sonic sacrifice.
Hegel’s products stress the minimalist approach. All black, one knob for source, one for volume, a power off switch on the underside of the amp below the source knob and a big blue LED readout. There’s a credit-card remote that accompanies the amp, and can control the computer’s playlists. It can turn off or even dim the large and bright display, too if you press it for three seconds.
But with no preamp output, there’s no upgrade path for someone wanting to add a bigger power amp. More importantly, there’s also no monitor, digital output or headphone socket, so if you want to listen through headphones, not only is it impossible through the H80, but it’s impossible to even take a feed from the H80 to drive headphones, which may be a deal-breaker for some.
Anders Ertzeid of Hegel confided in me that the code name for the H80 within the company was PIGLET (as in the cute one from Winnie the Pooh). But while that’s true from the outside, ‘PIGLET’ bares no resemblance to the sound it produces. It’s more ‘The Little Engine That Could’. It is deceptively powerful; yes, it’s a 75W amp, but it has the kind of grip over loudspeakers that makes it sound more like it’s double that. And it does so in an intrinsically right way. I tried it with a number of speakers (some of which are tested in this issue), but settled on the Raidho D1s as the perfect partners, with Crystal Cable providing the linkage everywhere except USB (one day, I’ll have mugged enough old people to afford Crystal’s Absolute Dream USB, but until then Nordost makes a good stand-in). The front end was mostly Apple-based, but my old Lyngdorf CD-1 was also pressed into service for its S/PDIF connections.
Like the H300 we tested in issue 98, the amp takes a fair while to spring to life. It’s a vapid, listless first few days with the H80, and that’s nothing like the amplifier it grows up to be. Hegel makes a sound that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but that’s what a good amp should do. And the DAC matches the amplifier perfectly. This is not an ostentatious, fireworks sound – it’s in it for the long game, with excellent precision (both in detail and in soundstage width and depth terms), super dynamics and most of all a sense of great poise and integration across the range.