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Review: Hegel H80 DAC stereo amplifier

The Hegel H80 amplifier is an AB class hi-fi stereo model delivering up to 2 x 75 W at 8 Ohms. It is also equipped with an audio DAC able to handle PCM signals up to 24 bits and 192 kHz. Behind its apparent simplicity, the H80 is a technological amplifier with high quality digital clock-buffer using the patented SoundEngine technology and featuring a low distortion level. This technology combines the advantages of class AB amplifiers (distortion) and class A amplifiers (warmth and massive impulse response). The USB port allows the amplifier to be used as an external sound card able to handle audio streams up to 24 bits and 96 kHz.

Who is this amplifier aimed at?

With its 5 digital inputs and 3 analog line inputs (including one XLR), the Hegel H80 was designed for digital music and particularly for people who would rather use an external DAC to decode their CDs, DVDs or Blu-rays instead of relying on their source. Such a configuration benefits from the integration of a DAC to the amplifier as well as from the capacity of the aforementioned DAC to re-synchronise audio streams.

Un amplificateur richement doté en entrées numériques, avec 4 S/PDIF et 1 USB

A well-equipped amplifier in terms of digital inputs – 4 S/PDIF and 1 USB

Hunting down distortion

On this level, the Hegel H80 presents the indisputable advantage of saving you the expense of buying RCA cables, as they are often expensive and difficult to pick. Even cables with an excellent reputation have a specific sound signature which might not be completely compatible with all kinds of electronics. Since the H80 has a built-in DAC, the analog signal only has a very short distance to travel, which implies a very low amount of distortion. Just like the Aventage home cinema amplifier series from Yamaha, the Hegel H80 is fitted with a centre rear pad to limit interactions with its surroundings.

La face inférieure laisse apparaître des perforations et un dissipateur thermique. A droite l'interrupteur de mise sous tension. En haut le troisième pied de l'appareil. Cela respire le sérieux.

The amplifier’s underside has both air vent holes and a heatsink. At the bottom right, you can see the power switch. Situated at the top is the device’s third base support. The device emanates a serious, high-tech design.

A high precision digital clock-buffer

The Hegel H80 amplifier is fitted with a digital clock-buffer for incoming digital streams, meaning it’s not the source (CD player for instance) that regulates the data transmission but the amplifier itself. Thus, the H80 reduces jitter by using a clock-buffer. This phenomenon (jitter) causes sets of data to overlap each other and alters high frequencies, which has an impact on the delivery of harmonics.

Adaptive USB port

As we mentioned earlier, the Hegel H80 stereo amplifier’s USB control is compatible with PCM audio streams up to 24 bits and 96 kHz. If you are wondering why Hegel did not use an asynchronous USB control (state of the art in terms of computer audio connection), it is because the Norwegian brand already has asynchronous external USB DACs in its catalogue. The thing is, their price is often higher than this integrated model’s and the H80 has been designed to be an affordable integrated hi-fi amplifier.

What is the practical impact?

When using the Adaptive mode, it is the source that regulates the transmission of data sets instead of the DAC (which is the case in asynchronous mode). The Hegel H80 synchronisation clock-buffer is only used for S/PDIF inputs. The consequence is that if the source is not streaming the audio files in a regular enough way the sound will be affected. We started this test with the H80 set in a non-optimal way since we were using a Synology NAS connected to the amp via its USB port. The  NAS exploitation system (DSM) and its Audio Station application are not, however, natively made for optimal transmission (BitPerfect). Therefore, the first few tracks we listened to were impacted by a rather annoying bump in the higher-medium frequencies with our Q Acoustics 2050i, JBL Studio 530 or Dali Zensor 3 speakers.

Things got much better once we started using a computer with Foobar2000 and Wasapi support, in order to bypass Windows’ audio mixer. Yet, we were not really impressed by the transparency of the USB input, especially when compared to the S/PDIF inputs.

Le potentiomètre de volume est agréable à manipuler et très précis

The volume control has smooth handling qualities and is also very accurate

S/PDIF optical and coaxial inputs

These inputs let you connect any digital stereo source (CD player, DVD, Blu-ray, HD TV, etc.) and are compatible with audio streams up to 24 bits and 192 kHz. The results are very different from the USB port and the higher-medium frequencies sound much better.

Packaging contents and a closer look

The Hegel H80 amplifier comes with a power cable and a credit card sized remote control (which can be found with many models from the brand, particularly CD players). Actually, some buttons on the remote control are of no use to the H80. The design of the Hegel H80 is very simple, the front panel has a display screen with blue LEDs and two potentiometers (a volume knob and an input selector). The power switch is situated under the device, on the left. It is both elegant and convenient since there is no risk of mistakenly turning off the device.

Les borniers à vis sont généreusement dimensionnés et agréables à manipuler. Nous avons utilisé des fiches bananes et du câble Viard Audio Silver HD12.

Screw terminals are an appropriate size and easy to operate. We used banana plugs and Viard Audio Silver HD12 cable.

Test configuration

We listened to the Hegel H80 amplifier with the Q Acoustics 2050i, JBL Studio 530 and Dali Zensor 3 speakers. We used our reference cable, the Viard Audio Silver HD12 with banana plugs. The source was an Acer laptop with Foobar2000 and Wasapi support (we used Direct Sound for 24/192 FLAC files). As for the USB cable, we used our reference model, the Audioquest USB Coffee.

Listening tests

Dire Straits – Brother in Arms (FLAC, HDTracks 24/96 – DR12) *

0004228244992_230We strongly recommend this HDTracks version in 24 bits and 96 kHz FLAC format. If you are like us and you liked the original 1985 CD version and its incredible dynamic range, you will be surprised to notice that it was reduced, but in favour of an outstanding remastering. The amount of information delivered is nothing short of amazing. The Hegel H80 delivers a delicious earful: the bass is as tight as could be and the medium is swarming with details. Never before have we heard Money for Nothing like this, Sting and Mark Knopfler’s vocals are perfectly evened out to the point that we can almost see them sing next to each other in the studio booth. The bass relentlessly rumbles right in the centre and the mesmerizing electric guitars benefit from an incredible placement. Why Worry sounded amazing and Knopfler’s voice was outstandingly present, strong and soft at the same time. The amp’s slight sharpness in the higher-mediums brings even more details and hits the nail on the head. The singer’s voice on the intro to Brothers in Arms is oozing with emotion. This edition is an absolute gem.

 

Le gros transformateur torique du H80 n'est pas étranger à ses très bonnes performances dans le registre grave

The large toroidal transformer in the H80 is known for its high performance in the bass range

Muddy Waters – Folk Singer (FLAC, HDTracks 24/192 – DR16) *

0000881120272_230Watch out: Reference record. The dynamic range is unbelievable and shows no aggression whatsoever. The Hegel H80 displays a constant rigour, the slapping sound of the guitar strings is simply incredible. The stand-up bass pushes our speakers without ever going too far. Muddy Waters’ slightly echoed voice is powerful and unique and the sound dives low with no flashiness. We completely realise how precious this amplifier’s damping factor is when listening to this type of bass filled recordings. We have no trouble following the bass drum which can get heavy at times.

Barry White – The Collection (FLAC, Qobuz, 16/44 – DR13) *

0004228347902_230A collection album which may be getting old but is nonetheless well mastered (with a very good dynamic range). The fullness of Barry White’s vocals is well conveyed and the Hegel H80 does great articulation work. Once again, the tightness and variety of the bass drum is a delight for our ears. We would have liked a little more space, but we are coming close to the limits of what a CD quality file can offer. The cymbals might be a little too sharp for our taste on tracks such as You’re the First, The Last, My Everything. At least that was the feeling we got with our test speakers.

Prince – Parade (FLAC, HDTracks 24/192 – DR15)*

0075992539562_230The sound stage is spacious and breathes well despite the downpour of instruments and chorus. The percussions on Girls & Boys stand out and the saxophone on the left doesn’t sound nasal. The artist sings as loud as he can and takes us with him on stage. Let’s not forget to mention the low sounding drums which are absolutely under control. The Hegel H80 definitely has much under the hood. The electronic drum kit sounds amazingly clear on Tom Jones’ Kiss and so did the instruments and choir placement… outstanding.

Conclusion

The Hegel H80 stereo amplifier displays a lot of energy and mastery. Its slightly high tone works best paired up with well balanced speakers (B&W or Dali for instance). We liked its constant serenity. Note that using an external DAC (Graham Slee Bitzie USB and Pioneer N-50 with Viard RCA Silver HD cables) cleared away the sharpness and confirmed the general feeling mentioned throughout this article.

* From now on, we will be displaying the dynamic range of every album used during our tests. This range is graded on a scale going from 0 to 20, with 20 being the best possible grade. The measurement of the dynamic range is given by the Dynamic Range Meter feature in Foobar2000.

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This post is also available in: French

About the author

Tristan Jacquel

Tristan est rédacteur chez Son-Vidéo.com. Passionné de musique, d'acoustique et de high-tech, il réalise notamment les tests matériels pour notre blog.

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