Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio Electronics Lab, click this link.
Have you ever looked closely at the coils of a moving-coil cartridge? If you have a jeweler’s loupe and a cartridge with a relatively open body, it’s worth exploring this tiny, elegant universe. The coils themselves are so small that it seems impossible they could be made by hand, or mounted inside a cartridge, or that they can work at all.
Those coils produce an appropriately tiny signal. Most moving-magnet cartridges output a meager 5mV RMS. That’s 400 times less than the plump 2V RMS generated by a CD player or DAC. And that MM cart is a monster compared to the 0.5mV RMS that the average moving-coil cartridge manages to squeak out.
A spec of “0.5mV RMS” may not look that small. But when you consider that it’s actually 0.0005V RMS—well, holy shit, that’s a microscopic signal.
So, too, with gain. Usually, I need about 65dB of gain to jack up the signal from my Roksan Shiraz moving-coil cartridge, to give my preamp a signal strong enough to work with. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? How hard can it be to crank out 65dB of gain—that is, to jack up a 0.5mV RMS signal to close to 1V RMS? Well, that’s a ton of gain: a 0.5mV RMS signal must be amplified to 2000 times its original voltage before it becomes 1V RMS—and that’s not easy to do without also amplifying all the noise it carries along with it.
Humanity has sent men to the moon, and audio circuitry is mature tech. You can buy an off-the-shelf chip that will generate that much gain without even breathing hard. But we’re not talking about just any electrical signal, we’re talking about music—an ambitiously difficult mission. That’s why, of all the types of components I’ve reviewed, the one that most fascinates me is the phono stage.
What’s old is new again
Hegel Music Systems, based in Oslo, Norway, is, for the most part, a manufacturer of digital gear. I own their H90 integrated amplifier ($2000, all prices USD), and while it’s an excellent amp, first and foremost it’s got a good DAC baked right in. I run the H90 in my secondary system, on the main floor of our house. I feed it with my refuses-to-die Logitech Squeezebox Touch, and it’s a magnificent combination. But if you’re going to use an analog source, or an external DAC, a Hegel integrated might not be your first choice—you’d be paying for an extremely good digital section that you wouldn’t use. Which is why a Hegel integrated probably won’t ever find a permanent home in my main, reference rig, which I use to play LPs. Period. There is no digital source component on that rack.
Hegel also makes a dedicated flagship preamplifier without a built-in digital section, the P30. In an all-Hegel system, that’s the one you’d likely use with their HD30 DAC. But what about vinyl?
Up to now, Hegel hasn’t had a phono preamp in their quiver of amplification arrows. Now that’s all changed. This here V10, which retails for a manageable $1500, makes for a complete, well-rounded product line from this Norwegian company.
What it is
The V10 phono preamplifier is a nicely turned out half-width component finished to match the other members of the Hegel family. Its painted finish of dark matte gray is low-profile, well applied, and refused to show my fingerprints. The top panel is well damped—it didn’t ring when tapped. A well-damped case is nice to have with most components, but with a phono stage it’s essential—you want the damn thing deader than Socrates. That noise thing, right? Every little bit of isolation helps. As is their wont, Hegel fits the V10 with three rubber feet—my review sample sat on these stably, but if you pull it forward on its shelf, be careful—it will end up rocking back and forth on its single rear foot.
Given Hegel’s engineering prowess, it’s not surprising that they’ve put a lot of thought into how to make the V10 sound good without breaking your bank—as Anders Ertzeid, VP of sales and marketing, explained to me in an e-mail:
We have long considered making a phono preamp, but initially wanted to make a “cheap” one. 5-600 Euro. They are simple in design. Only an op-amp and a simple chassis. Looking at the various designs they are very similar and after a bit of listening, they also sound very much the same.
And not just in that range. All the way up to 15-1600 Euros they are much the same, except for using more expensive op-amps and having a fancier design. I have compared some of those too and they are also very much the same in characteristics. But there are tonal differences now, depending on output stage.
Above that there is a hole, before you enter the world of “big boy” discrete phono preamps at EUR 2,200+.
What we suddenly found as our challenge was making a “big boy” phono stage for the same price as the op-amp ones. “Champagne sound for Sekt prices.”
But to achieve great sound for only $1500, Hegel had to compromise in some areas. Hence the small cabinet, and the lack of easily accessible impedance and capacitance controls. The little V10’s half-width, full-depth case nestled nicely into my equipment rack. It’s handsome, and its single blue-white LED didn’t impose on my late-night listening.
Adjustments to capacitance, gain, and impedance are accomplished by means of what Ertzeid calls a “mouse piano”: a bank of DIP switches on the rear panel. The power supply is a beefy wall wart, which likely costs less than a case big enough to contain an internal supply.
And it’s inside that little case, where it counts, that Hegel spent their allowance. The internal power and gain sections are separated by a metal partition and some empty real estate. The internal build quality is very good. The input stages are hand-matched FETs, with attention paid to ensuring that no DC is fed back to the cartridge.
The V10 keeps the signal mostly in the balanced domain, and around back are single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) outputs. The signal generated by a phono cartridge is naturally balanced, with positive and negative legs—as opposed to the positive and ground legs of a single-ended component. Very few phono stages take advantage of this. Instead, most phono stages convert the balanced signal to single ended, by shunting the negative to ground. This is what the V10 does. Although the V10 accepts its input as a single-ended signal, from there on its internal signal path is fully balanced.
The little V10 offers a fair bit of flexibility. For the most part, adjustments are made by tickling the ivories of that mouse piano on the rear panel. There’s a set of DIPs for each channel, and the two sets are mirror-imaged. Each switch has multiple values, and I found setting them somewhat confusing. Moving-coils can be set to 100 or 300 ohms impedance. For gain, moving-magnets can be set to 40dB, MCs to 60, 65, 70, or 72dB. The choices of capacitance for MMs vary from 47 to 367pF.
While Hegel implies that only qualified service personnel should attempt this, two more adjustments can be made under the V10’s hood, and seem reasonably doable by anyone with steady hands and the right Allen key. If you remove one board-mounted jumper from each channel, you can jack up the gain by another 6dB, to a very generous maximum of 78dB. Further, a small pot on each channel offers more choices of impedance. I didn’t change this setting—I was quite happy with 300 ohms—but for the sake of experimentation, I temporarily removed the gain jumpers. Yup, that resulted in ungodly amounts of gain, should you have a cartridge with unreasonably low output. I found that my EAT Jo No8 moving-coil sounded best with 65dB of gain and 300 ohms impedance—100 ohms sounded just a touch constipated.
The chunky wall-wart power supply has two connectors that plug into the V10, but Hegel states that the only reason for providing two connectors is to service the board layout. According to them, this power supply is custom-built for the V10, and is extremely silent. A testament to that silence: Near the end of my listening period I received review samples of Klipsch’s La Scala speakers, whose claimed sensitivity of 105dB (which seems reasonable to me) meant that I was unable to use my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp. There was too much hiss—it sounded as if I’d installed a sandblasting booth in the front of my room. Fortunately, I had on hand a Simaudio Moon 740P preamp, with which I’d planned to evaluate the system synergy, if any, with Simaudio’s Moon 860A v2 power amp (review forthcoming). The combination of 740P and 860A v2 is buried-alive silent; switching between the Hegel V10 and a dead input on the 740P proved to me that, yes, the V10, too, was completely noiseless.
Hooking up the V10 was simple. I used only its MC inputs, and from its balanced outputs ran interconnects to my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 or Simaudio Moon 740P. The only slight bit of confusion came during burn-in. Turns out the V10 turns itself off after 15 minutes of not receiving a signal, to conform to the EU’s Energy Efficiency Directive. As I leave my car idling all the time, just in case I might want to drive to the store to pick up one item, I felt the immediate need to disable this feature. A long press of the Power button does just that. From then on, I left the cool-running V10 powered up at all times.
Listening, because there’s nothing else to do
Over the course of 2020 I’ve fallen inward. The pandemic has meant that I’ve worked from home since March, and because restaurants, bars, theaters, malls, and social gatherings of all kinds have been canceled or significantly restricted, there’s been little need to leave the house. I’ve been OK, for the most part, but I feel reduced to a smaller subset of my usual self.
So, as I’m home alone most of the day, audio has become even more a constant of daily life than it was before. Between the two systems in our house, music is playing pretty much from the moment we get up until we set sail for the land of Nod. It may sound wimpy and precious, but music has become even more of a friend than it used to be.
Which means I find myself a bit nervous when I make a change of component. If I don’t like the resultant sound, will I still enjoy listening? Will my shrunken world change for the better or for the worse? Despite my misgivings, I still regularly invite these strangers into my house. With Hegel’s unprepossessing little V10, I needn’t have worried. It settled into my system and over my listening like a warm sweater, or an electric blanket on a cold night.
Setting aside for a moment how the V10 reproduced all parts of the audioband, how it imaged and the like, my first, immediate impression was of a complex, detailed inner light. Without obviously highlighting any part of the audioband, the V10 added a textured dimensionality to instruments on the soundstage.
I’m not talking about the size or precision of aural images. An album I’ve come back to again and again in the last few months is from John Zorn’s band Masada: Sanhedrin: Unreleased Studio Recordings 1994-1997 (LP, Tzadik TZ 6007). At times intimate, at others exciting, Sanhedrin is a musical journey. For example, there’s so much going on in “Meholalot”: Klezmer meets Dixieland, with everyone doing something different. Yet, like Dixieland, it coheres, and every once in a while the bandmembers take a break from yelling at each other and rejoin to play the bloody melody. When they slide back into harmony, it can be a little tricky to differentiate Dave Douglas’s trumpet from Zorn’s alto sax, so well do they blend. Add in a busy drummer (Joey Baron) and a clever bassist (Greg Cohen) and a system that can’t untangle it all, and you’ve got homogenized soup.
The Hegel not only untangled “Meholalot” for me, it kept the instruments separate while revealing the discrete identity of each. My Aqvox Phono 2 Ci phono stage ($1400 when available) doesn’t quite manage to delineate the edges of each instrument so clearly—it provides slightly sharper, crisper dynamics, but at the expense of the organic completeness delivered by the Hegel.
One of our favorite morning albums chez Thorpe is Harold Budd and Brian Eno’s Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (LP, EG EGED-18). This swirling journey to a peaceful, neon Narnia is unabashedly beautiful. Since Budd’s death last December, at the age of 84, I’ve been spending a fair bit of time with his records, some of which had sat for years in my record rack, undisturbed but waiting, pregnant with potential. Budd and Eno’s The Pearl (LP, Editions EG EGED-37) is gravid with the mystery of an approaching storm front. The entire album takes place in the midrange, soft synthesizer washes atop a deep, juicy electric piano, and it was in the midrange that the V10 excelled. It had a very slight richness through the mids, but nothing that stood out nearly enough to be called a coloration. Rather, the Hegel presented midrange instruments—such as Budd’s piano in The Pearl—as full, rounded, and complete. It wasn’t so much that the midrange was prominent, but that the V10 conveyed more texture and granular details.
The Pearl led me to another midrange bomb: Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990 (3 LPs, Light in the Attic LITA 167). With Hideki Matsutake’s “Nemureru Yoru (Karaoke Version),” the V10 threw me into a pond of warm honey. This track is more than just ambient noodling. Along with that inner midrange light, the V10 peeled this onion, revealing deep, tight, quick bass—a deep synthesized thump interspersed with train-on-tracks sound effects. That deep-bass note locked to my room as the V10 provided a strong, clean bottom end. There’s also a repeated high riff that ascends through the upper midrange to the lower treble—the V10 did its spatial trick, keeping all these disparate sounds separate.
Ambient music? Klezmer? Bah! What about some good old-fashioned rock? That’s where any self-respecting phono stage has to put up or shut up, right? Jethro Tull’s most excellent Aqualung has been on my turntable at least once every few months for 42 years now. It’s been reissued a number of times, but in my opinion not with much success. It took The 2011 Steven Wilson Stereo Remix (LP, Chrysalis 0825646146604) to finally get Aqualung right, and the result is a record that showed off everything the V10 did well. No previous version of the album had much real bass, but here Jeffrey Hammond’s electric bass guitar is finally easy to follow. The V10 tracked it well, presenting a realistic, well-fleshed-out instrument, with some of the detail I’d heard in the midrange now also audible in the bass—greater highlighting of leading edges and transients made Hammond’s bass more believable. And the midrange itself? Well, I’ve already covered that, but Martin Barre’s crunchy electric guitar had more bite, more harmonics between the fuzz. And this pressing reveals a new crispness in the highs. While drummer Clive Bunker’s cymbals are still somewhat down in the mix, bandleader Ian Anderson’s sparkling acoustic guitar in “Mother Goose” was exceptionally well presented by the V10.
In the top octaves, the V10 boasted some of the same qualities it displayed in the midrange. The tambourine in “Mother Goose” had never before revealed itself as a complete instrument. But through the Hegel, it and the guitar shimmered, sounding just a tiny bit restrained at the absolute top but compensating for that with rich, detailed sparkle.
Germany vs. Norway
As the Hegel V10 phono stage and Simaudio Moon 740P preamp were sitting right next to each other, and the Moon has two balanced inputs (my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp has but one), it was a moment’s work to switch between the V10 and my Aqvox Phono 2 Ci.
The two phono preamps could not have sounded more different. The V10 is all about subtlety and detail, allowing me to easily explore the musicians’ context and intent. The Hegel threw a better-defined soundstage—not so much in the positioning and separation of instruments, at which the Aqvox does just a slightly better job, but more in how realistic and well-fleshed-out those images were.
Down low, the Aqvox is a bit snappier and slightly more detailed, but the Hegel easily countered this by reaching lower and reproducing bass instruments more solidly and realistically.
I’ve been listening to the Phono 2 Ci for over a decade now, and it’s a superb phono stage that has kept me entertained despite the comings and goings of more and less expensive components. The V10 is certainly just as good—which one is for you will come down to your system’s tonal balance and your chosen direction.
With my tubed Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp, I preferred the slightly more incisive sound of the Aqvox—but when I slid in the far more neutral Simaudio Moon 740P, I leaned more toward the more composed Hegel. For most systems, I’d wager the Hegel will be the better fit. The V10 is also quieter—I could still hear some hiss and RF interference with the Aqvox hooked up to the Klipsch La Scalas.
Sold to the man with the La Scalas
A profound transformation is underway in high-end audio. Rather than being a format only for the nostalgic fringe, vinyl is once again mainstream. I see it playing out in our little microcosm here at SoundStage! Network: In the past six months, a number of fellow reviewers have hit me up for suggestions on how to assemble a vinyl-based subsystem. Their impetus has partly been plain old enthusiasm for an exciting new-again medium, but there’s also a professional angle: Many new preamps and integrated amps feature built-in phono stages, which wasn’t the case five years ago. This means that, to do justice to such a product in a review, the reviewer needs a turntable and tonearm and cartridge. And a phono stage.
As Hegel Music Systems early staked its claim in the digital world, you’d be forgiven for thinking that their V10 phono stage is something they’ve ginned up to gain a bit of vinyl street cred: “Yeah, we’ve got a phono stage—it’s over there, behind the DACs.”
From what I’ve heard from Hegel’s very first phono stage, the truth is quite different. After spending a good while listening to and working with the V10, I can tell you that it’s an ambitious product—a great-sounding, well-made phono stage.
If you already have a Hegel preamplifier or integrated amplifier and are looking to add a turntable to your system, the V10 is a no-brainer choice of phono stage. And if you’re looking for a standalone phono stage to match with components made by any brand, the V10 deserves serious consideration.
. . . Jason Thorpe
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Analog source: VPI Prime Signature turntable and tonearm; EAT Jo No8, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Master Tracker, Roksan Shiraz cartridges
- Digital source: Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Phono stages: Aqvox Phono 2 Ci, iFi iPhono 3 Black Label
- Preamplifiers: Simaudio Moon 740P, Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifiers: Bryston 4B3, Simaudio Moon 860A v2
- Integrated amplifier-DAC: Hegel Music Systems H90
- Speakers: Estelon YB, Focus Audio FP60 BE, Klipsch La Scala
- Speaker cables: Audience Au24 SX, Nordost Tyr 2
- Interconnects: Audience Au24 SX, Furutech Ag-16, Nordost Tyr 2
- Power cords: Audience frontRow, Nordost Vishnu
- Power conditioner: Quantum QBase QB8 Mk.II
- Accessories: Little Fwend tonearm lift, VPI Cyclone record-cleaning machine, Furutech Destat III
Hegel Music Systems V10 Phono Stage
Price: $1500 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Hegel Music Systems AS
PO Box 2, Torshov
Phone: +47 22-60-56-60
Fax: +47 22-69-91-56