If you are looking for an amplifier that has high-end credentials and just won't quit under pressure, the Hegel C55 has what it takes.
What do you want out of an amplifier? I know exactly what I want out of an amp… transparency. It should do exactly what its name implies, amplify a signal without changing it. Of course, accomplishing this is a tricky task in demanding applications. The more power you need on tap, the more hardware you need to handle it. Today, we're taking a look at the Hegel C55 amplifier that utilizes a modular architecture, wherein each channel is completely self-contained. The Hegel C55 is available in 3-channel ($6000), 4-channel ($7000) and 5-channel ($8000) configurations.
Here's one channel from the Hegel C55 amp. Photo by Mark Henninger
This is a seriously heavy piece of gear for a 5-channel amp, weighing in at 98 pounds. That's because inside you will find five toroidal transformers serving as discrete power supplies. this is a key element to its modular architecture, it does not have a shared power supply. Consequently, each channel can operate to its full capacity without impacting any of the other channels.
I borrowed a Hegel C55 for a few week to get a feeling for what life is like listening to it. The company was kind enough to include one of the amplifier modules on its own, so I could take some pictures of it and check it out without opening up the amp itself.
Hegel makes its own capacitors for use in the C55. Photo by Mark Henninger
You can see in the pictures, it's cleverly designed, there's no wasted space, and it's all very high-quality componentry plus workmanship. And it's not just for show, this is one of those amps that's able to double its power output when impedance is cut in half; the 150 watts per channel into 8 ohms turns into 300 watts per channel into 4 ohms. In other words, if you are driving 8-ohm speakers, the value proposition of this amp is not going to be as high as if you present it with a tougher load.
The reality of my experience with this amplifier is that I don't have any speakers that would present a significant challenge to it. All of the speakers that I have on hand stay above 4 ohms and are fully powered by this amp's rated output. in other words, it's able to handle 2 ohm loads, and I don't have 2 ohm speakers.
What I can tell you is that it's solid as a rock, and silent. Like, "turn the volume knob all the way up and hear no noise" silent. Also, when listening to good speakers with this amplifier, there's nothing whatsoever missing from the presentation. Music sounds as it should, with all the microdynamics and 3D imaging that's you expect and no signs of harshness that would prompt listener fatigue. In other words, the amplifier did its job right.
When you consider the beefiness of this amp my suspicion is that it's true strength lies in an ability to deliver its output at peak levels on a continuous basis without breaking a sweat. And ultimately, that’s what any exercise in hardcore amplification is about, handling the heat. You see, this amplifier uses a class A/B topology, instead of the more efficient class D. That’s why it weighs so much! But Hegel goal does try to mitigate the heat; in my experience with the C55, it stays cool inside its highly-ventilated but still passively-cooled case.
The C55 enclosure is designed to ensure adequate ventilation for passive cooling. Photo by Mark Henninger
OK, so far so good. Solid gear, over engineered, modular, sounds great. What’s the fly in the ointment? That’s a simple one… price. With modern, lightweight class D amplifiers that utilize switch mode power supplies performing as well as they do, the old notion that there’s a direct correlation between how much an amplifier weighs and how good it sounds is outdated. Not that well-engineered "heavy" amps don't sound great, it's just that it's no longer a necessity for great sound. Regardless, the key to this amp is matching it with speakers that will actually use its capability because with the 5-channel model it's over $10 per watt to power 8-ohm speakers but that drops in half to $5 per watt for 4 ohm speakers—a big difference for sure.
So what else? Well, you do get a choice of RCA or balanced XLR input, and a gain switch, and a phase switch on the back. Photo by Mark Henninger
So, not cheap. But, Hegel argues that its design, which dynamically cancels out distortion, makes it a suitable alternative to class A amps that weigh even more, are typically more expensive on a per watt/channel basis, and definitely get hotter.
Now, it is true that not all amplifiers sound the same in the absolute sense. But in theory they should, and in practice many amps operating within spec are audibly indistinguishable from other amps. Much has been made of this fact, and a cottage industry of denying this reality (the "signature sound" concept). Anyhow, some amplifiers meet specifications, others fudge. This is the sort of amp that delivers what it promises, no hesitation. And since high-end speakers tend to be 4 ohm (with dips to 2 ohms), not 8 ohm with dips to 4 ohms, Hegel's "overkill engineering may in fact be justified, if your speakers truly do present a sub 4-ohm load and you push them hard.
In my testing, I used an NAD T777 V3 AVR as the preamp. The source of music was Roon with a Tidal HiFi membership, running on my PC connected to the AVR via HDMI. My listening comprised a wide variety of music and movies and TV. I don't see any point in honing down into any one particular listening experience because we are discussing amplification whereas my room, the speakers, the subwoofer, the room correction algorithms, honestly just about everything but the amp Is affecting the sound more. I can't bench test amps, so that leaves me with this subjective hands-on experience
Truly, there is not much more that I can say about a good solid state amplifier. I'm posting this in case you are interested in what Hegel is showing. My hands-on experience is that this is high-end gear built with a "pro" sensibility i.e. it's ready to mount in a rack. Seems like it would last forever, really. But there's no way I'd claim it represents the best "value" in amplification when there are numerous great (if technically more compromised) options available for around a buck a watt.
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So, aside from the fact you can get awesome modular amps from Emotiva and Monoprice , assembled in the USA, for a fraction of the price, the C55 is impressive. It packs high-end amplification into a rack-mountable form factor. It hits high-end amp performance specs while staking out a middle-ground between audiophile and pro gear. If you can’t stand the thought of a shared power supply, do run tough to drive speakers, and have a thing for toroidal transformers, then this C55 potentially the amp for you. Ultimately, there's enough going on with the Hegel C55 to earn it a "recommended" designation, and regardless of whether it's the right amp for you or not, at least now you know about it.