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Amps of Hegel's beastly power reserves often show chinks in their armor when asked for restraint - moping about in first gear on combinations of good speaker efficiencies, small rooms, near-field distances and low volumes, i.e. exclusively in the infamous domain of the first watt. To suss out the H-10's first-wattiness, I had just the yardstick. Enter Nelson Pass' FirstWatt F4. It's a pure class A no-feedback power buffer with just current and zero voltage gain. It'd make for a tough comparison without flying off the handle into single-ended triode land.

Verdict? Unlike the F4's very relaxed languidness, the Hegel H-10 is vigorous - lit up on top, with very wiry powerful bass and an aloof-ish, highly articulated character that's apparent already on audience applause which emphasizes the percussive transients of 'falling glass or needle pings' (the very first noise aspects of the slapping) and the hard reflective ingredients of the hall sound while downplaying the follow-up fleshiness.

Having just listened to Abed Azrié's stupendous live twofer Chants d'Amour et d'Ivresse [Doumtak] via my customary Yamamoto HA-02/Audio-Technica ATH W-1000 hi-eff headphone tube bedroom rig, the Hegel presentation was markedly different well beyond the obvious room/ear-speaker changes. The Hegel sound (with matching P-10 preamp) majored on soundstage sorting, assignation of localization cues and the heightened visibility of wiry impacts. The Syrian singer's deeply rich voice lacked in sonority however, the accompanying string quintet in woodiness. In short, tube-oriented listeners would ask for more body, more intimacy by feeling connected from the inside out rather than, as the Hegel does, approaching the sound from the outside in. It's down to the visible elements. We cannot see things but from the outside and the Hegel emphasized the visual elements of hifi playback.

Azrié's music is profoundly spiritualized. It sets to song mystical Sufi poems by masters like Rabiah, Omar Khayyam, Ibn Arabi, Al-Hallaj and other ancient texts like the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic or even the gospel of St. John. Without a heightened feeling response, the purpose of these songs evaporates. The Hegel sound focuses on accuracy, precision, articulation and transparency, arguably results of both low distortion and excellent control over the transducers. Compared to the F4 -- which wouldn't properly work in a speaker context requiring higher voltage gain -- it shifts far closer to the percussive edge; loses a bit of refinement and weight on top; and turns up the impact and punch on low bass.

Like Azrié's, Dan Gharibian's pipes are of the burnished low kind, with a handful of gravel thrown in for good measure. He is the lead singer of the Parisian Bratsch formation which remains the best 'Gypsy music' group I'm familiar with. Their tunes are deftly folkloric and combine masterful looseness of swing with quite virtuoso technique. They never sound trained or staid but rather, improvised. Freshly roasted. With the Hegel amp at the helm, this freewheeling time keeping turned more sewing-machine metronomic. In parallel to hollowing out midrange body (related to the lit-up treble and potent grippy lower registers), there was also a hardening up of a particular looseness which became more mechanical and exacting. In terms of Gypsy Jazz guitarists, call it the difference between the swing of Romane and the Teutonic precision of Joscho Stephan. While the latter is a technical monster, the former plays with far more charm.

Anything with machine-gun staccatos like Eric Fernandez' rapid flourishes on his latest [Verde Tempo] where Flamenco guitar and accordion sync up to perfection, the Hegel amp rendered like greased lightning. It has drag-strip speed and the massively paralleled output devices caused no blurring to very much act like a simple, high slew-rate circuit without audible timing errors. Adding up the above, one arrives at a very powerful, nimbly reflexed amplifier whose main failing, in the context of speakers which do well on 8 watts of superior triode power, was the lack of tonal body and ultimate finesse on decay trail elongation and overtone weight. For an infusion of thermionic density and tone color, I reached for the Thorens direct-coupled 12-valve Circlotron TEP 3800 preamp.

This added up splendidly. Inner pressure when tones seem post-workout pumped up increased significantly. This filled out the previous feeling of flatness which didn't relate to 3D staging at all but believable performer physicality. Now I could listen to Mehmet Celiksu's far-out 12:27-minute kanun solo on the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble's Grand Bazaar [Network] and enjoy all its ornamental trills and virile attacks without wanting for - well, soul. Apparent warmth had shot up without diminishing resolution. This suggested that the H-10's innate neutrality, coolness and speed are very responsive to 'harmonic padding' with a suitably attired preamp. Whether you'd see the need is not only personal but, as we'll see, also load dependant. For now and while still on my reference ASI Tango R speakers, out with the H-10 and in with various amps to test the P-10 on its own.

From my Yamamoto A-09S with EML bottles to WLM's Sonata with EI fat-bottle 6CA7s to the Nelson Pass F4 and F5, the P-10 proved true to its billing as an 'activated' passive preamp. Its minor sweetness, utter openness and benign (non-highlighted) super resolution very much reminded me of the FirstWatt F3 amplifier - in preamp guise. The remote volume's minor click-click-click relay advances worked flawlessly and insertion of the P-10 where it wasn't technically necessary such as with the Sasa Cokic Sonata integrated reinforced an old adage: passive pots can always be improved upon with (superior) active circuitry and linear impedance.

With the P-10 in the loop, the Sonata integrated (its own pot fully opened) gained in dynamics and impact with zero setbacks in ambient recovery. The added electronics and interconnects, contrary to uninformed opinion based purely on theoretical purity, undoubtedly benefitted the sound. This was testament to the P-10's off-the-charts noise floor and hence, dynamic range. In this A/B context of with/without preamp, the Hegel's expansion of the dynamic envelope was child's play to verify. Ditto for its very minor sweetening action which I noticed most on fiery strings.

As a NFB direct-heated SET, the Yamamoto already is a tone champ of the first order. It's not looking for help in that department. In fact, it's so well-balanced as to not really merit 'dilutions' or 'alterations' of its pure SET flavor. All it needs is an invisible volume control, preferably with coach-potato approval of remote. Hegel's P-10 wears that invisibility cloak to perfection --no thickening, no clouding, no blunting -- but the prior experiments with the integrated also showed some advantageous signal conditioning by running the signal through this device. These comments are deceptive. They seem little rah-rah for a statement preamplifier. But it's a rare compliment to marry the aqueous absence of electronic meddling hoped for from passives with the water-pressure increase of premium actives. The Thorens TEP 3800 goes further still by not only adding dynamics but also harmonic density. Depending on your proclivities, this could be called signal processing. Enhancements of tone. Some amps need and want it. Those which don't (I'd include many premium SETs) are truly perfect candidates for the subtle Hegel makeover.