A lot has been written about the new Hegel H390 since its announcement back in May 2019 at the 38th edition of the Munich HIGH END show. This is not another review. Plenty of them can be found on the Hegel H390 product page if you are interested in that kind of read.
I want to share my thoughts, impressions and feelings after four weeks into ownership of the H390 – the “Baby H590” or “Robin Hood” as it’s called by many. Pretty much all of the reviews attest the new addition to the Hegel product line-up great performance and especially exceptional value for money. The EISA decorated it with the “Best Product 2019/20” award in the High-End-Amplifier category.
As a quick reminder here are the Hegel’s H390 specifications:
Hegel H390 Specifications
Power output: 2 x 250 W into 8 Ω, Dual Mono
Minimum load: 2 Ω
Analog Inputs: 1 x balanced (XLR), 2 x unbalanced (RCA)
Digital Outputs: 1 x coaxial (BNC)
Digital Inputs: 1 x coaxial (BNC), 1 x coaxial (RCA), 3 x optical, 1 x USB, 1 x Network
Line level Output: 1 x unbalanced fixed (RCA), 1 x unbalanced variable (RCA)
MQA supported inputs: USB, BNC, Optical and Coaxial
Frequency response: 5 Hz - 180 kHz
Signal-to-noise ratio: More than 100 dB
Crosstalk: Less than -100 dB
Distortion: Less than 0.005% @ 50 W/8 Ω/1 kHz
Intermodulation: Less than 0.01% (19 kHz + 20 kHz)
Damping factor: More than 4000 (main power output stage)
Dimensions incl feet: 14,5 cm x 43 cm x 44 cm (HxWxD), 20 kg unit weight
Dimensions (US): 5.71" x 16.93" x 17.32" (HxWxD), 44 lbs unit weight
Special features: Set Startup volume ; Set max volume ; Software upgradable ; Configure all inputs as fixed level inputs ; IP control
What does all that acclamation mean for a regular listener like me? Can it all be reproduced in a standard living room setup? Putting together existing hifi gear that is not specifically hand-picked to perform perfectly well together with the H390 integrated amp as the centerpiece of it all.
Where did I come from?
To answer this question I have to go back to my former stereo setup that I used to listen to prior to the arrival of the H390. For a little bit more than five years I enjoyed a quite “classic” Rotel and B&W setup. It consisted of the Rotel pre-amp RC-1570 combined with the power amplifier RB-1552 MKII. The RCD-06 was the corresponding CD player. Bowers & Wilkins CM8 were (and actually still are – I will come back to that in a second) my choice of floor standers. Audioquest Red River interconnects completed the setup. To add further streaming capabilities I’m using the allo USBridge – the predecessor of the USBridge Sig.
When the “upgrade itch” set in a few months ago I was very much convinced by the idea that the speakers were the weakest part in my chain. I was absolutely sure that I had to replace them in order to realize a significant upgrade in my listening experience at home. Having been a strong disciple of Rotel and B&W combos back than, I came to the conclusion that the 702 S2 could have been that major update.
In theory it all made sense to me. So I headed of to the dealer to put some flesh to the bone. To my surprise it only took ten minutes to mess my plan up. The B&W representative convinced me quite confidently that my existing CM8 is capable of much more than what my amplifier combo is able to provide. This message stuck in my head. Do I really have to swap speakers or do they “simply” need more power to be driven to their maximum?
Is Bi-Amping the way to go?
As a I result I began looking into bi-amping to realize the idea of providing more power to the speakers. Unfortunately my Rotel RC-1570 doesn’t have the necessary outputs to build a bi-amping setup. That would have meant that I needed not only another power amp but also a new pre-amp. Meh! So I expanded my search beyond a Rotel-only setup leading me to the impressive PS Audio Stellar M700 double mono setup. To complete the chain I would have needed at least the Stellar Gain Cell Preamp to have a working setup. I really liked the PS Audio components as they pretty much promise everything that I was looking for:
Enjoy an unheard of level of control and command from your loudspeakers with the Stellar™ M700, one of the most extraordinary under $5,000 power amplifier pair ever crafted. The M700 combines the slam, linearity, control and pacing of a Class D output stage with the warmth, grace, and rich inner detail of Stellar’s Class A Analog Cell. The results are nothing short of breathtaking. Liberate all the toe-tapping energy trapped in your media library. Plumb music’s subterranean depths as your system gives you more bottom end than you thought possible. Revel in rich layers of fine, full detail. Marvel at the deep, extraordinary, wall-to-wall soundstage. Control your loudspeakers as never before. Effortless. Lush. Stellar.
This combo’s price tags already sum up to more than €5,000.- and still it’s lacking streaming functionality. Once more: Meh! Almost there but still not perfect. Luckily the H390 had already come across my way at that point in time. I had heard and read a lot about the brand new Hegel integrated amp that was known for its remarkable value for money based on the fact that it’s delivering the overall package all in one device: 2 x 250W dual mono setup, bit-perfect DAC, plenty of input possibilities and additional networking functionality. Bam! There you go! No need for a bi-amp setup…
The Hegel H390 is a heavy device. Total package weight is 22 kg. The amp itself weighs around 20 kg and even the very solid remote control RC8 is somewhere around 200 gramms. This solid piece of craftmanship offers expentional build quality and is for sure made to last. The overall appearance on the front is dominated by simplicity. A central display surrounded by two big knobs. Left for source selection and right for volume control – placed on the heavy, slightly curved front plate.
Everything on and within the Hegel is precisely manufactured. This also holds true for the backside of the device. All of the connectors are seamlessly integrated into the backplate. All screws a painted black. No scratches on them. This level of detail conveys an impression of the attentiveness this whole machine is built with.
The H390 comes in any colour you like as long as it’s black. Nordic chic noir.
One of the central features that sets Hegel amps apart from other manufacturers (and that includes the H390) is the implementation of their very own SoundEngine. This specific way of signal processing is meant to minimize distortion that usually comes inevitably with amplification. It was invented in 2001 by Hegel’s founder and lead designer Bent Holter and was granted a patent. Their current product line-up is equipped with the latest version SoundEngine2.
At the heart of the H390 is Hegel’s patented SoundEngine 2 amplifier section. The SoundEngine 2, in many ways, works like a noise canceling headphone. A computer inside will sample what comes into the amplifier and compares it to what comes out. The computer subtracts the difference (distortion) and then add it into the music but in reverse phase. The result being that, without any time delay, the SoundEngine cancels out almost all errors made by the amplifier. Leaving you with the most musical and natural sound you ever have experienced.
As described the implementation of the SoundEngine circuit topology leads to unprecedented naturalness in music reproduction that Hegel is knwon for. Check out this 2.5 min. video to see Bent explain his invention:
Coming back to my initial questions: What does all that premature praise mean? How does the Hegel H390 sound in my own home? And how does it compare to my former setup?
1. Low Frequencies & Timing
The biggest and most obvious difference to the Rotel pre- and power-amp combo is for sure the much better reproduction of low frequencies. I cannot stress enough how big that difference is. The gain in low frequencies is truely impressive! The Hegel delivers a whole new level of presence and substance coming through the relatively small 5″ paper/kevlar woofers of the CM8. It seems that the B&W rep was right. These speakers are able to deliver so much more. This is really re-defining the whole experience I had with the CM8 so far being driven by the Rotel amps.
Listening to Bishop Briggs’ The Way I Do reveals much of that newly gained substance. Full, deep, dry, energetic bass fills the room all across the soundstage. WOW! It feels like I’m hearig this track for the very first time. Or at least the first time the way it’s intended to be heard. This is massive. It’s not just bass. It is well-defined and controlled. It is crisp and punchy. You can litteraly feel all of the power the H390 has to offer.
This level of power allows the Hegel to be constantly present and to react instantly to dynamic changes. As a result the amp is super confident in almost all situations. With its sovereignty comes outstanding speed and timing. I don’t want to be mean but compared to this the Rotel amp is truely sluggish. It is missing a lot of that dynamic flexibility, punch and definition the Hegel is easily delivering. It sounds wobbly and floopy. It’s simply too slow. It almost feels like it’s lagging behind.
“Be prepared” seems to be the H390’s motto. It’s there. It’s present. Waiting to deliver outstanding (bass) performance whenever needed. The available power ressources allow for almost unlimited dynamic range. Its timing is very much to the point. It’s impressive how quickly it reacts to changes resulting in super tight and lively playback.
Music playback with the Rotel always felt pretty much detached from the speakers. Sound reproduction is happening in between, around and behind the speakers. You don’t have the impression that the music is coming directly from the speakers. Quite a few tests centered around speaker positioning were needed to get to this point where I’m pretty happy with the results. The H390 actually even improved that feeling of isolated, detached music reproduction within the room with the exact same positioning.
Even more compelling is the way the Hegel opens up the soundstage. It provides a much wider soundstage which then is consequently used to place any kind of sounds unerringly and replicable into the room. Compared to the Rotel setup the H390 is capable of a much better seperation of different sources of sounds. The horizontal and vertical seperation is happening on a much more granular level and therefore leads to a much more precise positioning.
Chocolate Chip Trip by Tool is a super impressive demonstration of what is possible regarding soundstage and positioning. The spacial reproduction of the track’s individual drums, samples and loops with the H390 is unprecedented. Close but a little less mind-blowing is Felix Laband – Black Shoes of his 2005 album Dark Days Exit.
This kind and quality of positioning is so charming and enchanting as it really leads to an immersive listening experience. For me it truely becomes a synesthetic process. It’s all happening in front of your mind’s eye. I can see the artists. How they are positioned in the studio or on stage. How they interact with their instruments, their surroundings and each other. It’s all there. Hear it, see it, feel it…
For me this works especially well with extraordinary live recordings. To get an idea of what I mean, listen to one of these remarkable tracks:
Dead Can Dance – Toward the Within – Rakim
Eva Cassidy – Live at Blues Alley – Bridge over Troubled Water
Fink – Wheels Turn Beneath My Feet – Perfect Darkness
3. Details, Details, Details
The third point is actually more or less the result and summary of the aforementioned aspects. In the end the Hegel H390 is so much more revealing in its playback than the Rotel combo. With its outstanding capabilities and characteristics it is “simply” delivering so much more details that are otherwise easily lost and/or overheard in other less potent setups. Not only do I get to know my speakers from a whole new perspective but also my music collection. It almost seems like the CM8s were waiting for this. Like they were bored the last couple of years playing way below their possibilities and therefore holding back all of the finesse, facets and details that can be found in certain records and tracks.
The addition of the Hegel H390 has been really eye-opening for me. It allows me to discover musical aspects and details that feel like they have been hidden behind a curtain before. Still I am very aware of the fact that these speakers are pretty much on the lower end of what is possible. For now I’m super happy with them and I actually like the fact that it opens up a future upgrade path with the H390 which will then hopefully bring back all the magic once more.
Steve Guttenberg lately touched on the topic “the weakest link in your system” in his Audiophiliac Daily Show. What he basically communicates is to have a look at the less obvious parts and possibilities to further evolve your setup and get more joy out of it. One of his suggestions here is to really consider an amp upgrade before you touch your speakers. I was really happy to see that after I took my decision for the Hegel H390. For me this has absolutely been the right way to go. The results I’m getting with this setup leave my speechless again and again.
While I wouldn’t consider the Hegel H390 to be particularly cheap I totally agree on the aspect of exceptional value for money. It delivers extraordinary performance in an all-in-one integrated amp that almost leaves nothing to be desired. Super impressive solid-state amplification combined with an evenly matched DAC and a wide range of connectivity.
There is almost no reason not to go for it. Only caveat for now is the fact that there have been a few challenges with the Roon Ready implementation. Therefore roon functionality is postponed for the time being. I’m really looking forward to the corresponding firmware update.
If you are thinking about buying a crappy used car, skip your thoughts and get yourself a Hegel H390 instead 🙂 You certainly won’t regret it. It’s going to be a highly impressive and deeply satisfying decision.