Hegel. In this case, not the 18th Century German philosopher but a Norwegian rock band formed by one Bent Holter who would recycle the name in 1997 for an Oslo-based hi-fi company that’s been going strong ever since. Happy 21st birthday, Hegel Music Systems.
Hegel’s main thrust is integrated amplifiers. On their website we count five, each offering in-built UPnP/Airplay streaming and D/A conversion: H90 (US$2000), Rost (US$3000), H160 (US$3500), H190 (US$4000) and H360 (US$6000). Pricing isn’t astronomical and the casework isn’t fancy schmancy.
The product range is fleshed out by two standalone D/A converters, a single CD player, two pre-amplifiers and two power amplifiers, one of which is up there with the most powerful beasts on the planet.
Alongside the odd special edition and one-off (for testing), Hegel’s very first amplifier greets entrants to the company’s headquarters at the Oslo Science Park — a five-minute drive from the Holmenkollen Ski Jump tower and the former site of Norway’s largest research centre where Holter previously developed electronics for the oil industry.
Holter did his masters in semiconductor physics at Trondheim University in the late 1980s where he also spent the evenings as a mixing engineer for local bands (and once for Jerry Lee Lewis). He even built his own guitar amps and effects pedals.
For my February 2018 visit, Oslo is that Dylan song: nine below zero and three O’clock in the afternoon. Snow in every direction. Lots of it. According to Hegel marketing man Anders Ertzeit, the white stuff first arrived in October with regular top-ups ever since.
What I didn’t know before arriving at Hegel’s HQ is that they produce nothing but prototypes here. Manufacturing takes place in China, leaving the Norway HQ for product development, circuit design, parts sourcing, testing, repairs and software coding.
The Mohican (as in ‘last of the’) CD player’s servo boards (that control the laser pick-up) aren’t sourced from a third party; they’re designed in-house and for minimal electrical noise generation. How many CD player manufacturers can lay claim to that? None too many.
Holter agrees with my suggestion that a decent CD player transport will almost always better the sound quality of a consumer grade PC or Mac playing FLACs; one needs to dig deep for a high-end $erver/$treamer to extract comparable sound quality from file-based playback. The digital audio world’s dirty secret? Could be.
Hegel’s approach to software is similarly interesting. Their streaming boards favour an in-house assembly-coded custom OS over the more customary Linux mod. Furthermore, Hegel code their own fully MFI-d Apple Airplay implementation that, according to Ertzeid, is super responsive to client-side commands (e.g. volume up/down on an iPhone) and sounds quite a bit better than anyone else’s, especially Apple’s.
The streamers fitted inside Hegel’s integrated amplifiers leave the wall-wart angst behind for the streamer board to enjoy isolated power supply and galvanic isolation when feeding data into the DAC.
I ask about the possibility of a standalone streamer but Holter is politely firm with his “no”; that he considered it a few years ago but pulled back because didn’t want to make what might be perceived as a “me too” product.
“Everything about Hegel is scientific”, says Holter who, with the aid of a flipboard, walks us through the theory that underpins his Sound Engine circuitry.
The number one target is distortion: not a steady state aim (as per test tones) but a dynamic one that rises and falls with the up and down nature of analogue music signals and particularly problematic at high/er frequencies. Inside Hegel amps, distortion is tackled in real time.
Within each gain stage, Holter applies a summer to the original and inverted signals to constantly measure distortion. Should that distortion cross a predetermined threshold, the circuit will inject signal corrections to remove it.
He says this is especially important for the high-order harmonics generated by transistors that lend solid-state push-pull circuits their occasionally unfavourable reputation as sounding hard or cold. Holter uses a similar feed-forward loop to dynamically correct for crossover distortion in his amplifier’s transistor-based output stages. The result is (reportedly) superior micro- and macro-dynamics.
Earlier in the day, Ertzeid had asserted that everything made by Hegel must stand on its own merits.
Perhaps the Sound Engine and developments like it are why Hegel have enjoyed steady annual growth throughout their two full decades in the audio electronics business. Or perhaps it’s down to a slow n steady approach to product development. Every few years Hegel re-evaluate the transformers used in their amplifiers – the tighter the wind, the weaker the dynamics. A white chassis is only now being introduced and only to selected models after a long time on the ideas board and an even longer time taken to source just the right shade of white.
Hegel is the tortoise in a race run by hares. And we know how that story ends.
Further information: Hegel Music Systems