Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
On the plane back to Toronto from Warsaw, Poland, at the close of Audio Video Show 2022, I watched—for the third time—Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. As I age, I find myself having more in common with Clint’s character, Walt, than with his fickle and ever-suffering children, or the neighbors with whom he bonds. I’m becoming that crusty, insular curmudgeon who’s resistant to new ideas.
Consider this: I have owned, used, and loved the same tubed, two-channel preamplifier for over 20 years now. My Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 has blunt, brutish 3dB steps in its volume control. It is equipped with neither a home-theater bypass nor a remote control. It weighs a ton and I’ve long since lost the box. It does one thing only, and it does it well.
When I look at preamps today, packed with gizmos—DACs, network interfaces, and software—I feel like Walt looking at the fresh-faced young priest who tries to befriend him. None of these new-fangled doodads will work after an EMP blast, but my tube preamp and turntable will allow me to listen to music as I slowly die of radiation poisoning.
Get off my lawn
Full disclosure: I own one of those jam-packed, gee-whiz components. My upstairs system consists of Estelon YB speakers powered by a Hegel Music Systems H120 integrated amplifier–DAC. It’s a great little amp and the high-quality DAC receives digital signals via USB from a Logitech Squeezebox Touch, so I’m taking advantage of all the H120’s features. The H120 makes sense for its current usage. It sounds great and works perfectly with my crusty Touch streamer that might as well be coal-powered, given the speed with which computer technology has advanced since I bought it.
While Hegel certainly produces a number of integrated components, the company hasn’t forgotten us Luddites who lurk at the fringes of the audiophile world. The company has always championed separates—power amps, preamps, DACs, and recently even a phono stage. If I were rebuilding my forever system I would once again choose separate components. The H120 is great, but I view it more as an appliance than a purpose-built tool that will outlast me. It’s a Vise-Grip rather than a set of individual box wrenches.
Now, compare the H120 to the Hegel P30A preamplifier ($8995, all prices in USD) that I recently installed in place of the control section of my SFL-2. This new preamplifier does one thing only and does it well—it amplifies or attenuates the incoming signal from a source component and passes it to an amplifier. It’s a component after my own heart. Oh—it does have a remote control, but I can forgive it for that.
The P30A is bare bones, almost to a fault. The front panel of this substantial single-chassis preamp is very sparse. There’s the central power button, a source-selector switch, and a volume control. That’s it. Each position of the selector switch is demarcated with an LED, but the volume control just carries a white dot to indicate volume level. This, really, is about as simple as it gets.
Around back, the P30A has more in common with my 20th-century SFL-2 than it does with a present-day, to-the-moon confection. There are two sets of balanced inputs and four sets of single-ended inputs—one of which is a full-throttle home-theater bypass—on the right side, and one set of balanced outputs and two sets of single-ended outputs on the left. As a nod to the year 2010, there’s also an IR-control input and a 12V trigger output.
The P30A is a sturdy, dense box. Weighing just under 16 pounds and measuring 4″H × 17″W × 12″D, there’s some serious heft to it. The P30A squats reassuringly on its three rubber-tipped feet. It’s got a purposeful feel, does this component. One small nit to pick: at this price point I’d like the RCAs to be chassis mounted, just to take advantage of the incredibly sturdy construction of the P30A’s bodywork.
The P30A’s simplicity makes my life as a reviewer somewhat difficult. Functionally, there’s not much for me to talk about, other than what’s not included. The volume control is—internally—a complicated little guy and there’s no digital readout, which, to tell the truth, I actually missed. When adjusting the volume from my listening position, I would have appreciated some sort of feedback. The volume steps up and down in a nice, seamless analog fashion, but it’s essentially impossible to set the level in some sort of repeatable manner.
The front-panel volume control feels in the hand like a conventional analog potentiometer, meaning it doesn’t have that spinny, fly-by-wire feeling that you find on something like the Simaudio Moon 740P. It also has definite start and end points, just like a pot. I inquired about the P30A’s volume-control topology and Anders Ertzeid, Hegel’s VP of sales and marketing, was informative but somewhat cagey in his response: “Exactly what kind of a volume attenuator is in the P30A is something we don’t publish, so at least we don’t make it easier for competitors. But it is an analog chip-based one. So digitally controlled.”
Internally, the signal passes through two transistors and that attenuator, all the while employing Hegel’s SoundEngine2 system of feed-forward error correction. SoundEngine2 is said to significantly reduce all types of distortion and dramatically improve dynamic range.
As you might guess, the P30A is fully balanced, from input to output. This would indicate—and I confirmed it with Ertzeid—that the P30A performs at its best with balanced sources, and when passing the signal to a balanced amplifier. Further, there’s generally an inherent gain difference between single-ended components and balanced components, and I noted this when switching between the single-ended Meitner Audio DS-EQ2 optical phono equalizer (review forthcoming) and the balanced EMM Labs DS-EQ1. The EMM Labs component was noticeably louder than the Meitner. There is no provision within the P30A to equalize the levels of the different inputs.
Gain matching with separate amplifiers and preamplifiers requires careful forethought. On first insertion into my system, the gain was too low when paired with the Meitner and my own Bryston 4B3. In order to keep the volume control in the meat of the middle range, I had to flip up the Bryston’s gain switch from 23dB to 29dB. Even when swapping in the EMM Labs equalizer, I was comfortable with keeping the Bryston at the higher gain setting.
About the remote. It’s a nice chunk of milled aluminum: weighty, solid, and a pleasure to hold. It’s packed with tiny, identical buttons, though, and I really only ever needed two of them. I turned the volume up, and then down. After memorizing the locations of these two buttons (bottom right), I had no problem accessing them without looking. But still, would it hurt to place the most-used controls somewhere central, and maybe make them a little bigger than the rest?
Just listen to me, complaining about the remote, bemoaning the lack of a volume display. What the hell—next thing you know I’ll be grumbling that the P30A doesn’t have a built-in DAC.
Actually, no, you won’t hear me say that. If I want a DAC I’ll buy another box. The P30A is exactly what it needs to be. It’s a high-quality, well-made, well-designed preamplifier. If I were to replace my SFL-2, it has exactly the functionality I’d want the new kid to have.
Installation-wise, there isn’t much to relate. I swapped the connections over from my SFL-2 to the P30A and plugged it in via a Nordost Vishnu power cord. At power on, there’s a one-minute delay and then the P30A is ready to play.
With its single-purpose mission, complete lack of distractions, and great build quality, I’d have been extremely surprised if the P30A hadn’t been utterly transparent. Let’s get down to it, shall we?
I gave the P30A a solid day to warm up before I actually started listening to it, which is always expedient, I feel. I find that high-end gear doesn’t like to be moved around, and it tends to sulk for a while until it gets used to its new home. The next morning, the P30A was very slightly warm to the touch, which I find vaguely reassuring for some atavistic reason. Turning the volume up full blast while switched to a dead input yielded near-total silence.
Listening to music through the Hegel, my first impression was a feeling of utter cleanliness. I knew I’d have some adjusting to do, coming off a fruity tube preamp, but even taking that into consideration, I was quite surprised by just how much of the actual recording is revealed by the P30A.
A year ago, I decided to spring for my first real pair of glasses. Being a lad of no half measures, I walked into my local Zeiss Vision Center and demanded their top-notch goggles. I’m not sure if Zeiss glasses are actually superior to a pair I could order online for a quarter the price, but I was willing to see how it all turned out; especially since a good chunk of the cost was being paid via insurance, courtesy of my wife, Marcia (my friend with benefits, as I like to say).
When I picked up the glasses and tried them on, it was, compared to my drug-store readers, startling. Like looking through razor blades; like a whole different world unfolding in front of me. I could see sharp, crisp edges and details that had previously been fluffy, blurred, and indistinct. Likewise listening through the P30A was similarly startling. The details, the inner workings of instruments, the overtones on voices—it was like I’d put on a brand-new pair of ears, if you will.
If you’ve read any of my previous reviews, you probably know that I love Talk Talk, and I’ve gone down a post-rock rabbit hole lately. I recently picked up a brand-new copy of Slint’s Spiderland (LP, Touch and Go Records T&G lp#64) and, my stars, it’s a difficult listen. I bought Spiderland right before I received the P30A, so fortuitously I was able to listen to this intense album through the Hegel immediately after hearing it via my SFL-2. As soon as I cued up the opening track, the P30A quite literally dragged me into the midst of a band having—by the sounds of it—a very difficult time. It was like I was surrounded. Spiderland is a sparse recording, but on “Breadcrumb Trail” it spotlit a raw, angry, untreated electric guitar that was right in my face. Right along with a raw, angry, untreated voice that was also right in my face. I felt that guitar and that voice, every crackling electron of energy, via the P30A. This preamplifier’s excavation of detail is astounding. I didn’t listen to that album, I endured it.
You know how when you’ve got something odd going on in your mouth—a filling coming loose or something of the like? How you can’t stop fiddling with it, poking around with your tongue even though it’s uncomfortable? Listening to Spiderland is like that, and the P30A intensified the discomfort, which, I think, is the intent of this album. I didn’t really notice it via my SFL-2, but there’s pitch-black space around the instruments. By this I mean that the P30A accentuated what wasn’t there. David Pajo’s guitar sounds like it’s been treated with minimal effects or post-production high jinks, and the P30A managed to encapsulate its raw, dissonant textures while at the same time expanding the physical size of the space it occupied. Short version: huge images combined with crisp, three-dimensional outlines.
At first it felt like the P30A’s bass was a bit thin compared to my SFL-2, but that impression didn’t last long. After taking a week or two to digest the changes, it became clear to me that the P30A was better at delineating the lower registers. By this, I mean that the P30A better tracks the ebb and flow of bass notes. It’s not so much that there’s less bass, but more like it doesn’t just roll along without definition. It feels like there’s a ton of dynamic range in the P30A’s low end, which is something I’m not in the habit of noticing.
And notice it I did, especially—as contradictory as it seems—in records that don’t feature a ton of low end. It seems that the most valuable record in my collection so far (I’m entering them all into Discogs.com’s cloud-based database—see this month’s “For the Record” over on SoundStage! Ultra) is No Quarter, by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (LP, Atlantic 82706-1). I bought this record new when it came out in 1994 and listened to it once or twice, but its current resale price demanded another listen. What pleasantly surprised me, after all these years, was how lovable this album truly is. And on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” I heard copious examples of how delicately the P30A treats the lower registers. There’s some sort of huge drum that gets whacked a whole bunch of different ways on this track. The low end isn’t overt, but I got an enormous amount of detail from this one instrument. What was especially notable was the way the juicy bass guitar rolled in and out, interacting with but separate from the bass drum, sort of how the fruit cake I just made for Christmas keeps the flavors distinct—orange zest, for example, floating above the high-rent alcohol I had soaked the cake with. No, there’s plenty of bass evident in the P30A’s rendition of music that warrants it, but it’s distinct and doesn’t wallow all over the place.
In the midrange through the top end, the sensation of clarity continued. I still listen to King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (LP, Discipline Global Mobile KCLP 5) whenever I want to sort out what’s going on with a component, and it didn’t fail me this time. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part I” is jangly as all get-out, but it’s such a challenge to cleanly reproduce that it’s a reviewer’s dream. You wanna talk detail retrieval through the midrange? I’ve listened to this track a hundred times, but I never noticed that there’s some sort of low-lying vocalization going on in the first three minutes. Several times I just hit the mute button on the P30A’s oh-so-handy remote because I thought there was someone upstairs on a school day when nobody should be home. Once I realized there was something new going on there, I kept turning the P30A up louder and louder.
And yeah, I could hear that subaudible voice grumbling away, and I also got so many details in stark relief. Every percussion hit (and there are many), each of Robert Fripp’s guitar frenzies, John Wetton’s fingers sliding as he hammers on his bass—it was a detail extravaganza. More volume on this track! I turned it up to the point where it was almost concert-level loud, and those heaps of detail refused to harden and annoy me, refused to become irrelevant to the music. That contradictory sense of ease and clarity continued up through the very top. Cymbal strikes and guitar overtones—Bill Bruford’s splashy ride and the shriek on the top of Fripp’s effect-laden guitar—remained unfatiguing while continuing to provide a clear window into exactly what was going on.
I think here is where I really need to stress how the P30A affected the way I listened to music, rather than just rely on my breakdown of how the various parts fit together. Coming from my SFL-2, there was obviously an adjustment period, but it was far shorter than I had expected. After a week of solid listening, I truly settled in and found so much to enjoy about the P30A’s presentation of music, without much missing the slightly richer sound of my tubed preamp. The complete and utter silence of the P30A was a big selling feature. The silent backgrounds were readily apparent, and the huge dynamic range meshed so incredibly well with my DS Audio DS 003 cartridge and EMM Labs DS-EQ1, which, when combined, also feature lightning acceleration.
Bread used to be a nickel a loaf
Truth be told, before it landed I was a little apprehensive about combining the P30A with the DS 003 cartridge, DS-EQ1, and my Bryston 4B3. My SFL-2 preamp is the last vestige of my tube gear, my final connection to the past when I wanted everything in my house to be powered by tubes. So swapping in the P30A meant that I would—for the first time in years—be listening to an all-solid-state system. I wasn’t sure I wanted to like this change.
But like it I did. Once I’d adjusted to zero noise, to having a remote control, to not having to turn it off at the end of a listening session, and just relaxed into a whole new world of crisp musical insights and revelations, I found myself drawn into the music, down a pathway that I honestly didn’t know existed. In the end I found myself seriously debating whether I should move on from tubes altogether. At this point I’m still not sure if I’m ready to make what’s a huge step for me.
In all, I wholeheartedly applaud Hegel for deciding to build the P30A preamplifier. In this fast-moving world where technological advances become obsolete not long after they’re introduced, it’s uncommonly refreshing to see a company that’s technologically savvy enough to build a product that I predict will be as relevant 30 years from now as it is today.
. . . Jason Thorpe
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Analog sources: VPI Prime Signature turntable; EAT Jo No8, Sumiko Celebration 40, and DS Audio DS 003 cartridges.
- Digital source: Logitech Squeezebox Touch.
- Phono stage: Aqvox Phono 2 CI, iFi Audio iPhono 3 Black Label, Hegel Music Systems V10, DS Audio DS 003, EMM Labs DS-EQ1, Meitner DS-EQ2.
- Preamplifier: Sonic Frontiers SFL-2.
- Power amplifier: Bryston 4B3.
- Integrated amplifier–DAC: Hegel Music Systems H120, Eico HF-81.
- Speakers: Focus Audio FP60 BE, Estelon YB, Aurelia Cerica XL.
- 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, Musical Surroundings Fozgometer azimuth meter, DS Audio ION-001 Vinyl Ionizer.
Hegel Music Systems P30A Preamplifier
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