Review: Hegel H95 Integrated Amplifier

The $2,000 H95 is Oslo-based Hegel Music Systems’ least expensive H series integrated amplifier. You could call it their entry level model, but that would be misleading.

The H95 replaced Hegel’s H90 and in the former’s press release the company stated in a refreshingly matter of fact manner, The H95 is built around the platform of the H90, and in all honesty, their analog sections are quite similar. On the H95 Hegel made small improvements in the power supplies and in the implementation of the analog stage. If it’s big changes we’re after, we’ll have to step over to the digital side: The H95 uses the same DAC as the H120 and the H190, and this is a massive step up from the H90. It is quite simply a completely different level of D/A-conversion.

As with all of the company’s amplification products, the H95 is a Class A/B design, here offering 2x 60wpc into 8 ohms. Hegel does not provide output power into 4 ohms but states a “Minimum Load” of 2 ohms. There is no negative feedback employed rather, it is using local and adaptive feedforward technology if there should ever be any need for cancellation of distortion within the audio amplifier stages. Also common to Hegel’s amplifier ethos is the much higher than normal damping factor found in the H95 of more than 2000 (main power output stage) which should, in theory, translate into the ability to drive and control even gnarly speaker loads.

The H95 is a streaming integrated amplifier offering a number of digital inputs including Network/Ethernet (UPnP), AirPlay, 1x coaxial (RCA), 3x optical, and 1x USB. Running against the grain, the USB input on the H95 is limited to PCM resolutions of 24bit/96kHz while the S/PDIF and Network inputs raise that PCM resolution limit to 24bit/192kHz. The H95 does not support DSD playback nor will it act as a Roon Endpoint but Roon users fret not; you can use your beloved interface via AirPlay. However, since there’s no such thing as free hi-rez lunch when it comes to Apple, AirPlay downsamples higher resolution audio files to 16bit/44kHz for transmission so if you want to play back your hi-resolution music unmolested, you’ll have to use the Network / Ethernet input and a UPnP player such as mconnect or PugPlayer or one of the other digital inputs.

Hegel chooses not to talk about the DAC used in their products and I don’t blame them since a DAC chip does not have a sound of its own. The company does talk about their SynchroDAC technology:

The SynchroDAC technology is used together with the Direct MasterClock technology to keep jitter error and digital to analog conversion errors to a minimum. . .The syncroDAC converter technology is using truly balanced signal processing to preserve the highest possible dynamic range and to reduce distortion.

Hegel has done a lot of research to be able to design the DAC converter boards in-house to convert the digital audio data into high-resolution analog audio…

In addition to its digital inputs, the H95 offers a pair of unbalanced (RCA) inputs (there is no phono input). There is also a variable line out (RCA) for use with a subwoofer or home theater processor. Hegel has included a few convenience features which are accessible from the included plastic remote (press and hold the “Play” button) including a Sleep Timer (hifi never sleeps!), HT (allows you to configure the inputs for “Home Theater fixed high volume level”), and Update (firmware). My unit was due for an update which took all of a minute or so to complete.

Hegel hides the on/off button under the I-can’t-believe-its-plastic curved faceplate which leaves the front panel nice and uncluttered with just two equally sized knobs for volume and source selection which sit on either side of the OLCD display. A 1/4” headphone jacks fills out the front. The all black H95 sports a metal body and I find its looks simple, clean, and quietly appealing. Perhaps counterintuitively, I like the idea of the plastic faceplate as it looks as good, if not better, than some fancier ‘plates that act like forensic magnets where every touch leaves behind a crisp, clear, fingerprint. I also like the notion that using a plastic faceplate saves money. The H95 is reassuringly hefty, about 20lbs, and sits on three large rubber feet.

“Nothing great in the world was accomplished without passion.” ― Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing a number of Hegel amplifiers at shows and in friends systems. I also reviewed the Hegel Röst for AudioStream back in 2017 (unfortunately, AudioStream content is currently unavailable) and one common factor among these experiences was very appealing sound quality. The kind of appealing sound quality that remains in your memories and whispers Hegel [footnote 1] in your mind’s ear when you think about hifi you could live with. The Hegel H95 did much more than whisper.

One night, a Saturday, I found myself in the Barn after hours (late for me these days is after dark) listening to my new copy of the recently reissued debut album from PJ Harvey, Dry, spinning on my Rega P3 (2000) sporting the Nagaoka MP-110 MM cartridge, with the Parasound Zphono Phono Preamplifier upping the signal to line level. As I turned the volume up and up again on the H95, I found myself thinking about PJ Harvey and how, to my way of thinking, she was so much more raw, febrile, and unrestrained compared to your basic classic rock (boy) band, providing a more direct connection to the roots / folk / blues music I find so captivating. I sat and rocked and sang along (something you don’t want to hear, ever), with PJ and the band bouncing off of the Barn’s interior creating a beautiful and blistering sound environment, and it was only when I opened my eyes as the end of Side 1 approached, that I thought about the Hegel H95 and how I was, ostensibly, working.

“For the price”, “punches way above”, “a giant killer”, “you’d have to spend x times the price” and so on. I often wonder why we hifi writers so often need to lean on other things in order to convey the value of the thing we’re writing about using such mundane and hackneyed phrases. I suppose ease of use is one easy answer but the value of a hifi component is not a comparative thing. Sure, offering comparisons to like-components in a review is very helpful in accessing relative value and level of performance but when its time to listen to music, those comparisons should fall by the wayside. Otherwise, we’re not listening to music, we’re listening to gear.

I have also argued, for many years, that a hifi’s value should not be judged by its ability to fool the ear into making us think we’re listening to a live performance (mainly because we’re not). Rather, a hifi’s value is gauged by how passionate we are about listening to music through it. Here, the Hegel H95 is world-class.

I spent the majority of my time with the H95 driving the DeVore O/93 speakers ($8400/pair) using both streaming (Ethernet and AirPlay) and vinyl as source. I know the O/93s very well, we are old friends, and I’ve heard them paired with more amplifiers than I can recall of all stripes including Class A, A/B, and D with glowing glass and without. One of the things I know about the O/93s is they rise to the occasion of the accompanying system, as high as you care to go. They also offer a benign load (sensitivity: 93 dB/W/M, 10 ohm impedance) making them easy to drive so you might think they work best with lower powered tube amplifiers. The Hegel H95 disproves that assumption resoundingly and I could easily live with this system.

The Hegel / DeVore combination brought out the finer points of all of the music I played, and since we’re talking about weeks of time, we’re talking about a lot of different music. When people ask me what kind of music I like, I typically go blank. Lately I respond “New”, which is as close to accurate as I’ve come. In my experience, another good gauge of a hifi’s performance is how insatiably we hunger for the new, or to put it in the negative, how much we’re driven back to a few old, overly familiar favorites (not good). Worse yet is the hunt for ‘good sounding recordings’, the death of hifi joy. With Hegel / DeVore at the helm, it was discovery central in the Barn.

Jyoti’s joyful Mama You Can Bet!, Bill Callahn’s Gold Record, It’s Time from King Midas Sound, Manuel Mengis Gruppe 6’s Into the Barn (older but new to me), and more streamed from Tidal and Qobuz. All of this music was given very full voice, where the distinctive sounds of each instrument sang out with clarity. Nuance, subtly, and rhythmic drive were presented with a natural coherence that allowed for a closeup view — following a bass-line or horn section — coupled with the full-on funk of the macro performance. The Hegel / DeVore pairing was as dynamically charged as the recording allowed, making for a roller coaster ride of seat-defying energy. Overall, we’re talking about top-to-bottom control in full voice making for some wow inducing listening as in , “Wow, PJ Harvey is so badass.”

I also have the GoldenEar BRX standmount speakers (standing on a pair of Sanus stands) which offer a more complex load (sensitivity: 90dB, with a nominal impedance “Compatible with 8 ohms”) and the Hegel H95 had no problem taking complete charge. I have to admit something — I spent some time thinking the BRX cost $799/pair because I saw that number on the GoldenEar website. I went so far as to think, “They’d be a great value at twice that price!” (while I think hackneyed thoughts, I try not to use them in a review). It turns out $799 is the price for just one BRX, making a stereo pair, twice the price.

This Hegel / GoldenEar combination was also completely engrossing, albeit on a smaller scale as compared to the DeVore O/93s. I will also add that the overall sound picture was not as intense in terms of tone color saturation, scale, micro dynamics, or bass reach but it did provide a seamless system sound that allowed for deep immersion into the music. The Barn happens to be a rather large space to fill (roughly 35’ x 40’ x 12’ overall) so for the GoldenEar I found myself positioning them closer than the DeVore’s, with the red chair also in closer proximity to the BRX. My best guest is for listeners with more typically sized rooms, the Hegel / GoldenEar system would be capable of delivering room filling levels.

Speaking system independently, or in terms of those traits that remained regardless of the speaker, the Hegel H95 offered a rich, muscular, yet finely nuanced presentation that made for a time defying listening experience. This was the case whether time traveling via AirPlay, Network, or vinyl where acoustic string instruments rang out with string-like sparkle, voices were full bodied and rich like in real life, and massed electronica never lost the details of the parts making up the whole no matter the level of sonic mayhem.

Using the AudioQuest NightOwl headphones, I took the H95’s headphone amp for a relatively brief ride (I don’t listen to headphones much because I prefer listening through speakers and I’m usually alone in the Barn). First off, plugging the ‘Owls in did a few things automatically — the speaker output muted, and the volume level adjusted itself to “20”. Nice! The headphone output of the Hegel is dead quiet while offering the same rich, finely textured sound sent through the speaker output. I could easily see these fine qualities leading to long and satisfying headphone listening sessions if that’s your thing.

In terms of a like-component comparison, I spent time using the Ayre EX-8 Integrated Hub / Amplifier ($7850 w/S/PDIF, USB, and Network options) (see review) with the DeVore’s. While this is not a fair comparison in terms of price, I was working with what I had on hand. The Ayre EX-8 offered a more crystalline sound, making subtle sonic queues easier to discern. My CD rip of Tom Waits’ “I’m Still Here” from Alice is one song I’ve been using for component comparisons for years [footnote 2]. Beyond loving this song (and album and artist) it contains some very subtle voices including Matt Brubeck on cello, Colin Stetson on clarinet, and Dawn Harms on violin. On some systems, these subtle voices can literally disappear or become indiscernible in terms of “What the hell is making that sound?” The Ayre conveyed these varied voices more fully as compared to the Hegel. While you may think this is one of those who cares examples of hifi navel gazing, it’s not because it is an example of how much subtly and nuance a system can unfold which translates beyond this example since subtlety and nuance are important ingredients in delivering music’s full emotive power.

Stepping away from the minute, the Ayre unfolded more of the music contained in the recording as compared to the Hegel — as it should for an additional $5,850 dollars over the price of the Hegel. It’s worth noting that the differences between the Ayre and Hegel are a matter of degree. Which is to say the Hegel H95 is one helluva fine integrated amplifier.

The Hegel H95 is one helluva fine integrated amplifier

I’m not surprised to find that the Hegel H95 is one helluva fine integrated amplifier since this has been my experience each time I’ve had an opportunity to hear a Hegel. I am also a fan of the company and the people behind the company as I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on a number of presentations at hifi shows from company founder Bent Holter where his no nonsense pragmatic approach, coupled with obvious enthusiasm and passion, make for an entertaining and educational experience. [footnote 3]

At times, hifi shopping can feel like its filled with uncertainty, what with so (so) many choices, so many claims, and so many words buzzing around like bees at a picnic. I have to admit, hifi reviews can add fuel to this fire by making comparative listening seem all-important. It’s not.

When it comes time to settle down and listen to music, what we ideally want is a hifi that gets out of the way. The Hegel H95 pulls off this disappearing act in such a convincing manner, you may just find yourself exploring music instead of hifi. I can think of no higher praise.

1. I always think of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel when I hear the name Hegel, but the hifi company was named after a rock-metal band that company founder Bent Holter played in called The Hegel Band. Hmm. Maybe the band was named after Hegel?
2. Using the same tracks for years becomes a useful tool when making comparisons but it’s no way to listen to music.
3. See this video from my friend Darko for an example.

Hegel H95 Integrated Amplifier
Price: $2000.00

Hegel Music Systems
PB26, Blindern, 0314 Oslo, Norway