Hegel H95 Integrated Amplifier-DAC Review
Competition in the affordable integrated market has just got stiffer, says David Price…
H95 Integrated Amplifier
Hegel Music Systems’ H90 was a widely liked bit of kit that offered an impressive range of facilities and decent build at affordable price. Yet it was aimed more towards those who wanted a sensible blend of features with nice sound, rather than being a take-no-prisoners audiophile amplifier. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good listen; it was clearly better than its already able H80 predecessor in the sonic stakes. It’s just that some of its more paired-down, back-to-basics rivals gave it a tough time in the dem room.
The new H95 is a declaration of intent from Hegel. Rather than being content for its affordable integrated to be regarded as “a jack of all trades”, this Norwegian company has fitted the hi-fi equivalent of a hot camshaft, lowered suspension and Recaro seats. Continuing the motorsport metaphor, the company’s able SoundEngine2 is retained (this arrived with the H90 three years ago, and really boosted the audio performance; see here), but the amplifier’s onboard digital processing gets a snazzy go-faster stripe – an AKM 4490 DAC chip. Also used in the higher end H120 and H190 models, it’s a fine-sounding thing and confers more audiophile kudos upon the product.
In terms of design, there’s no hiding the closeness of the new H95 to its predecessor, but as well as that better DAC, Hegel engineers have done some work on the power supplies used in the analogue stage, so there’s a win for vinylistas and tapeheads as well as digital types. Head-fi fans will be happy with the circuit modifications that are claimed to reduce noise on the headphone output, too. This amp’s built-in streamer is based on that seen in its bigger brothers, and now offers Spotify Connect and a more stable UPnP connection, plus AirPlay2 compatibility coming soon via the amplifier’s firmware upgrade menu. This entry-level Hegel doesn’t quite stretch to its bigger brothers’ full feature count; for example, it’s not upgradable to the status of a Roon End-Point.
If you’ve ever come across the previous H90, you’d know this is a nice amplifier to use. As per my recent review of the H120, the designers have got the balance right between ergonomic simplicity and a healthy feature count. The result is a pleasing user experience that never overwhelms – if you want lots of switches, meters and knobs there’s always Yamaha’s new £1,999 A-S1200! Rather, you get a ‘less is more’ fascia with a crisp central display and a welter of inputs on the back panel. That’s two pairs of analogue RCA inputs, three TOSLINK optical digital ins, one coaxial digital in, a USB input and Ethernet socket, plus variable output via twin RCA phono sockets which gives it preamplifier functionality.
The H95 has many of the nice touches I liked about the H120; for example, you can individually configure the inputs, set the maximum volume levels for both speaker and headphone outputs, and specify the start-up volume. The amp will also wake up from standby when on a LAN, so when off you can still select it in Spotify, AirPlay, etc., to wake it up. The end result is a clean looking but versatile amp that looks and feels more expensive than it is. The icing on the cake is a claimed 60W RMS per channel power output, which should be sufficient for most people in small to medium-sized rooms. Still, it is a little lower than some price rivals and won’t be ideal for insensitive mini-monitors, especially if run in larger spaces.
Tempting as it was to compare Hegel’s new H95 to its relatively minimalist old school audiophile rivals such as Exposure’s £2,000 3010S2D or Naim’s £2,200 Nait XS3, that wouldn’t really be fair. In truth, this new product is sailing on much closer waters to the likes of the £1,300 Cyrus ONE Cast, thanks to its thick blend of connectivity, features and ergonomics. These things considered, I found this new integrated a most amenable listening companion. Like its bigger brother, it’s nowhere near as characterful of the likes of the aforementioned Naim for example. Rather, it has a self-effacing evenness and balance that makes it great for a wide cross-section of music.
Indeed, this new Hegel sounds similar to the considerably more expensive H120, but just a little softer and more rounded around the edges, as well as a tad lacking in punch. This is no bad thing; there’s still a lot of detail and a nice rhythmic flow to the sound, but the mainstay of its presentation is its clean tonality that doesn’t artificially flatter or indeed diminish any recording that you play through it. For example, Lazy Calm by the Cocteau Twins is a really delicate and dreamy piece of nineteen-eighties ambient music. It’s not there to bowl you over or transfix you, but a good system can nevertheless draw you in and hold your attention. It’s not the world’s greatest recording, and some systems will keep reminding you of this fact – but not so here. The H95 served up a smooth, balanced and nuanced sound, one that never grated yet still kept my focus all the way through not just the song, but the album.
Spin up some classic modern jazz and this smooth and sophisticated amp again hits the spot. Herbie Hancock’s The Prisoner proved pleasant enough, again the Hegel appearing to step out of the limelight to let me enjoy the great man’s ivory tinkling. I loved the louche, soft focus, laid back atmosphere of this late sixties Blue Note recording, and also the pleasingly panoramic acoustic. You don’t get a vast cathedral-like soundstage – this is one notable aspect where the H95 falls behind its bigger brothers – yet still, all the instruments in the mix are neatly located with decent depth perspective. Indeed it came over as just a little more three dimensional than I remember its Cyrus ONE Cast rival, which sounded a little opaque.
Enjoying the way this amplifier sashayed along rhythmically, I duly opted to move to more upbeat programme material. Debarge’s early eighties funk classic Rhythm of the Night was spun up from a Cyrus CD Xt silver disc transport, and I soon realised my feet were tapping along. This isn’t a particularly big, visceral and muscular sounding performer – it’s got enough power, but it isn’t over-endowed – yet still, it was able to lock on to the song’s multiple layers of percussion and knit them all together in a coherent way. The result was an enjoyable listen, one which bounced along nicely and got the musical message across. The Hegel doesn’t present itself as a super-fast and forensic amplifier that starts and stops at the blink of an eye but is still pretty deft and certainly proved able to squeeze much of the goodness out of a great pop song such as this.
I found it more rhythmically engaging than its Cyrus rival; the latter sounds obviously gutsier with stronger bass but doesn’t quite have the midband fluidity of the Hegel. Such thoughts did, however, draw my attention to the H95’s bass, which is good but lacks the weight and grip of some rivals. Like the rest of the amplifier, its low end is deft and engaging, but it did prove possible to take it out of its comfort zone more easily than its H120 bigger brother. For example, UB40’s Don’t Let it Pass You By has a wonderfully deep and dominating bassline which caused the amp to sound a little bit tired when played at high volumes into my big Yamaha NS-1000M reference monitors. Via my more benign Cambridge Audio Aero 6s, the challenge of that bassline barely registered and this new Hegel seemed much more at home.
In normal use and with most programme material then, most will find the H95 has enough beans for their purposes. This amplifier’s combination of all-round ability and innate evenness means you can run the gamut of your music collection without worrying whether it’s a good match for the amp. Even the hard and histrionic rock of Airbourne’s No Way But The Hard Way was fun; in absolute terms, it lost a little midband definition and there was a slight diminution of dynamics, but there’s nothing I have come across at this price that really does better. I loved the recording’s classic AC/DC-style heavy guitar licks and crashing percussion, as well as a general sense of menace to the music that’s so often airbrushed out by polite sounding ‘lifestyle-focused’ amplifiers. That didn’t happen here.
Hegel’s entry-level amplifier has just got quite a lot better. Of course, the new H95 is not a universal panacea – the answer to everyone’s problems – yet it still gets an awful lot very right at its price. The lovely build quality and ergonomics of its pricier siblings come as standard, alongside the benefits of wide connectivity and decent speaker driving ability. Most importantly though, across all inputs, it is genuinely pleasing to listen to – which for me is what really counts in large amounts.
For more information, visit Hegel.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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