Hegel Music Systems

by Alan Sircom |
Hegel Music Systems

Based in Oslo, Norway, for the longest time, Hegel Music Systems recently outgrew its post-war prefabricated office and moved to larger premises nearby. ‘Larger’ is possibly not the best choice of phrase here; perhaps ‘slightly larger’ fits better. Nevertheless, the company has now taken up residence in an office in Oslo’s main wood testing laboratory. This little factoid hides a little secret about Hegel; the company’s small team have a sly sense of humor. If you are reading this as a member of Oslo’s top wood investigation science team (think of it like ‘CSI: Fir Tree’), it was those Hegel guys who dummied up a fictitious cover of ‘Wood Tester Monthly’ magazine, complete with the headline “Yes, It’s definitely wood!” and pinned it to the noticeboard. Best of all, it took almost three months for any of the wood testing boffins to notice.

Taking a small floor of the laboratory, Hegel Music Systems has almost doubled the square footage of its premises. However,  given the team at Hegel is small enough that they could all go for a drive in the same car, the new Hegel Music Systems nerve-center is only slightly bigger than the size of a large two bedroom apartment. Hegel doesn’t need anything considerably larger. Still, it’s better than the last place, which used to be the staff housing for a nearby mental hospital! So, no “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!” signs in Hegel’s small office complex old or new.

The reason why Hegel can keep small is it neither builds nor warehouses products in its office. This has been something of a bone of contention among audiophiles trying to second-guess precisely where Hegel products are made. But regardless, Hegel’s HQ is dedicated to design, development, sales, and marketing. Three-fifths of the staff in Hegel’s head office are dedicated to design and development. The other two guys work in sales and marketing, and that means there is always at least 20% of the total workforce out of the office at any one time. If you were planning to drift into a corporate environment where you could move unnoticed through the ranks, or one of those freeloading jobs where you can phone it in and take the odd day out of the office, Hegel is not your company. They may have a strong sense of humour running through the corporate ethos, but it’s all strictly business!

Central to the Hegel concept is Bent Holter, chief designer and company top dog. An electronics engineer of note, Holter holds a postgraduate degree in semiconductor physics from the Technical University in Trondheim (NTNU, an acronym that is held in ‘MIT’ standing in Norway) and worked in broadcast engineering, until his early-years call to music and the sound it makes drove him back to making audio components. This was something of an inevitability; while still a student, Holter built six 250W power amplifiers for sound reinforcement in one of the local haunts. Five of them are still in use almost 28 years later, while the last is in Hegel’s own factory in a kind of hall of fame that is shared with boxes of transformers, a year’s supply of toilet roll, ten years of accounts and a plush toy pig – it’s that kind of company.

Bent’s first development in the audio field was his SoundEngine system, a feed forward technology which allows the output transistors’ operating parameters to be adjusted, as the waveform continually changes its characteristics, compared to most other typical class A/B operating amplifiers that set static operating parameters that cannot account for the changing conditions inherent to music. This was developed while Bent was working for the Norwegian SINTEF technical research institute. One of SINTEF’s backers was so impressed, he invested in Bent’s then new Hegel brand from the outset. Since then, Hegel’s business plan has been built upon a constant stream of technical innovations, many of which are shared across the entire Hegel range. These innovations are themselves subject to development and innovation, which often leads to the latest product also being the best, regardless of where it sits in the line-up; for some time, the entry-level H80 was an intrinsically better sounding amplifier than many of the company’s top-flight designs.

Fast-forward to 2016, though, and adding innovations to amplifiers isn’t enough. We are fast moving into an Internet-of-Things world, where products ‘talk’ to one another and the internet. A company making a product line today needs to think of its future competitiveness. And this can crush many smaller companies, because the R&D needed to create a robust app-based digital front-end is significant. Having such a small team actually works in Hegel’s favour, however, because it stops the company from spending man-years developing digital ‘folly’ that is outmoded and sidelined as it launches.

Instead, the company looks to better integrate its products into that future, than attempt to re-draw the future in its own image. So it’s perhaps no wonder that the company’s new listening room in its haven of wood-testing is one of the first places I’ve seen (outside of the USA) that was trying out the Amazon Echo. This clever device – about the size of two Coke cans stacked one on top of the other – is like a more open-ended version of Apple’s Siri or Android’s Hey Google! voice recognition app. Echo allows the user to command any wireless connected device by voice, and even allows you to scan the internet and have it read headlines back to you. And Hegel’s input in all this; making sure that, if you say ‘Hey Alexa! Play Metallica’, Echo/Alexa knows how to operate the amplifier, switch it to the correct input, and raise or lower the volume level at the sound of your voice. This isn’t app control, it’s system integration!

This was the main reason for the visit. Alongside the Mohican CD player (reviewed in issue 139), Hegel is keen to discuss its upcoming Röst amplifier. Röst (pronounced ‘raust’) is an old Swedish term meaning ‘sounds uttered from the mouth’) and the amplifier is a new departure for the brand. It’s a 75 watt per channel amplifier, using a new version of the SoundEngine error cancellation system, but it is also the most digitally connected device the company has made to date. It is expected to connect to AirPlay, UPnP, wired and wireless Ethernet, and use full Control 4 automation for Smart Home connectivity, as well as usual amplification duties. This white-fronted design is meant to draw new people to the Hegel brand, and into high-performance audio in general. So, it’s the logical extension of Röst’s basic concept to partner it with a talking Coke can that is able to access all your music if you ask it nicely. Best of all, the amplifier is set to arrive late this year with a price point of around £2,000.

Along with a few Nordic journalists, I had a unique opportunity to hear the prototype Röst – and the excellent Mohican – in Hegel’s new listening room. It’s still early days for the room, and is something of a work in progress (the bar, however, is fully functional – Northern Europeans have their priorities), but made differences fairly clear. As it transitions from ‘office space’ to ‘listening room’ over the coming months, I’m sure it will develop even more. Hegel have kitted the room out ambitiously, however, as it features a pair of large Magico S5 floorstanders (a tough challenge for a £2,000 amplifier), a variety of Nordost cable (Blue Heaven for the demonstration), and the UK’s own Audio Cabinet equipment stand, decked out in Hegel’s vivid orange.

What was surprising about the £2,000 Röst was just how well it worked with £35,000 worth of relatively hard-to-drive Magico S5, and how it challenged products like the popular (and more expensive) H160 in sound quality terms. This could, so easily, be a triumph of marketing and product placement, with relatively poor sound and lots of functions, but instead ushers in yet another step-change in the performance of Hegel designs. And it worked as expected from a connectivity point of view, too.

The company is named after German Idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Although I can’t see him doing something like brandishing a rubber chicken on a stick, I think an idealist would fit right in at Hegel!

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