HEGEL MUSIC SYSTEMS H390 integrated amplifier/DAC/digital media renderer
+ Multi-functional, power, control, poise, great sound, solid build and ease of use – everything you could want and more from an amplifier.
– Doesn’t have a headphone output nor a phono stage – but then again, that’s not why you’d buy one of this.
I HAVE to admit that until the Hegel H390 landed in my system for review, I had no prior experience of this Norwegian brand. Well, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction and rue the time it’s taken for it to come under my radar.
To call the H390 a mere integrated amp doesn’t do it justice, really. The H390 is packed with cutting-edge digital technology and represents what a modern-day audio component should be. It’s an amplifier, a DAC and a digital media renderer, all combined into a relatively compact package.
But let’s take a look at its lineage first. The H390 is the successor to the H360, but rather than build on the strengths of its predecessor, it takes design cues from its bigger brother, the higher-end and almost twice-as-expensive H590 further up the product line.
Hegel’s marketing team dubbed the H390 “Robin Hood” after the legendary rebel – not so much because it “steals” technology from the “richer” H590 but rather, it represents a rebellion by offering “extraordinary resolution and musical quality, typically found only in the most esoteric products, but at a reasonable price.” Not to say the H390 is cheap – it’s not, but on hearing what it does, it’s hard to refute their stand.
The foundation of the amp is built around Hegel’s proprietary SoundEngine 2 amplifier section. How the H390 minimises (or eliminates) any distortion is unique and bears some resemblance to a noise-cancelling headphone – in reverse. An onboard computer first compares the amp’s output signal to the source. Then, any difference in the two signals (presumably distortion) is fed back to the signal path in reverse phase, hence cancelling it out.
In terms of power, there’s not much the dual mono amp can’t handle. It pumps out 250 watts per channel into eight ohms and is stable down to two ohms – owners of planar speakers should take note as it handled my Magnepan .7 with aplomb.
Then, there’s the DAC section. As expected these days, the H390 handles pretty much all “audiophile-approved” formats out there; MP3, PCM, FLAC, DSD – and it even unfolds MQA-encoded files up to 384kHz!
Hegel calls it a “bit-perfect” DAC and has its own philosophy on how to do digital decoding. While some manufacturers implement upsampling technologies, the digital signal remains unchanged as it goes through the H390, which “downclocks” to the incoming sampling rate. Hegel says this gives it a more “natural and analogue” presentation, which I won’t dispute.
On top of all that, the unit also has network and streaming connectivity – Apple AirPlay and UPnP streaming, and other services like Spotify Connect, IP Control, Control4, and Roon. I did not get to utilise everything, but AirPlay and Spotify Connect operated without a hitch.
To access all this functionality, the H390 has a host of connection options. For the sake of brevity, I won’t list them all, suffice to say it has everything you need and possibly more.
The H390 is quite a hefty piece of gear – but considering how much is under the hood, the 14.5 x 43 x 44cm (h/w/d) chassis and 20kg weight isn’t all that much. The styling may be spartan but the build quality is very reassuring.
Inserting the H390 into a system chain is the same as any other amp and DAC. There’s quite a bit of real estate available on the back panel and everything is thoughtfully laid out so it’ll be a painless task. Once hardwired to the home network (the H390 doesn’t have WiFi), it will show up as a connected device. From then on, Spotify Connect and Apple Play (and presumably DLNA/UPnP) are enabled, but those using a PC as a source will need to download and install the appropriate driver.
There is some fiddling around with the internal menus if you want to set variable levels for the analogue inputs or some other settings. It’s not the easiest to navigate but nothing that a consult of the manual can’t solve – and frankly, it will be a set-once-and-forget-about-it process anyway.
Here’s something to note about the H390 – it’s a fully fleshed-out DAC and integrated amplifier, not a network player/streamer. It’s able to receive digital signals through the network, but you’ll still need a media player to send that data to the H390. WiFi connectivity could have been useful, but a hardwired LAN connection is always more reliable so I can live with that.
Now that we’ve established what the H390 is not, what it does purely as an integrated amplifier is quite amazing. Planar-magnetic speakers such as Magnepan are notoriously power-hungry, and it takes a special amp to really make them sing – the H390 is one of those.
Music simply flowed through the H390, which handled anything that I could throw at it with poise and ease. Vocals, instruments and percussion, and all genres of music from classical, jazz, rock and even metal – the H390 took everything in its stride.
Transients were lightning quick; there was something extremely satisfying in the way it rendered the thwack of sticks on drumskins – from the snare to the toms to the kick drum. Oh, and the detail it managed to eke out – the H390 removed a sheen from the music to a degree that I never expected was possible.
Its ability to resolve was one thing, but this was wrapped it up in an expansive and alluring soundstage. More than that, there was a sense of realism with the H390, almost as if it was portraying the atmosphere of the recording venue in my listening room.
Apart from the effortless dynamics, I was able to take my Magnepans to decibel levels which any neighbour would frown on. I reached the limits of the .7 speakers more than once but the H390 always seemed to have more in reserve.
It wasn’t all about brute power – what was heard at normal listening levels simply got louder when cranking up the dial, retaining its poise, control and grip of the music.
The H390’s DAC section alone was another more-than-capable performer. It is smooth but not overly polite, and notably performed remarkably well with lossy and CD-resolution files. To be frank, the DAC section, while excellent, is not what I like most about the H390. However, if I had nothing else available, I would be willing to use it as my daily driver – which is not an issue as I can always connect my external DAC of choice, anyway.
THE LAST WORD
I’ll state here that the H390 is one of the best amplifiers I’ve had the opportunity to use for an extended time. By amplification capabilities alone, it’s more than worth its asking price – the excellent DAC section and media rendering capabilities are just further icing on the cake.
Yes, it’s not cheap, but if you have the budget and the equipment to match, it’s unlikely you will come to regret owning one.
Sources: Sony HAP-Z1ES HDD audio player; Technics SL1200 Mk3 turntable with Hana SL cartridge; Triple 12AX7 tube-based phono stage with step-up transformer; Toshiba notebook running Windows 10 and jRiver Media Centre; M2Tech Young DAC; Chord Mojo DAC/headphone amp / Amplification: Odyssey Audio Tempest preamp; Odyssey Audio Kismet monoblocks / Speakers: Magnepan .7 / Cabling: DH Labs SilverSonic USB cable, Clear Day Double Shotgun speaker cables, an assortment of pure silver interconnects