Harbeth 40.2A - LFD NCSE Mk3 and Hegel H590 Compared


Many of you know I am a Harbeth enthusiast (Fanboy, LOL), and have owned several pairs of them.  
I'm currently running 40.2 Anniversaries and intend to keep them forever, whatever that means.  Actually, what that means is that I really love them.  Let's just leave it at that.
If you know these speakers, you've probably heard that two of the most touted amps to drive them are the Hegel H590 and the LFD NCSE Mk3.  

I have been running the LFD amp in my system for close to a year now, and consider it to be an extremely good sounding amp.  It's powerful, authoritative, clean sounding, and a lot of fun to listen to.  If you've never heard this amp. the best way I can describe it is that it produces a very "live" sound.  It's very exciting, as it produces a fast bass response, a very well defined midrange, and detailed highs.  This combination creates a wide and deep sound stage and great dynamic range.  My only complaint about it is that it does not have a remote control.  

After recently discovering that a local dealer had a Hegel H590 in stock, I decided to give them a call to discuss an audition.  The dealer not only quoted me a very good price, but also offered to let me try it at home to see if I liked it, with a full money back guarantee.  I decided to take the plunge.

I've had the amp in my system for about 10 days now, deciding to wait to post my impressions until I got familiar with the amp.  The first thing I will say is that the LFD and Hegel amps sound quite different from each other.  I would equate the LFD as sounding as tube-like as any solid state amp I have ever owned.  The Hegel is not at all tube-like.  Getting used to this key sound signature difference was important prior to writing my impressions of the Hegel.  Also, the Hegel needed a few hours of break-in, as it hadn't been used much prior to my taking the store demo home.  

The Hegel H590 Sound-
The first few hours with the Hegel were very nice, but after one day I felt that the LFD was the overall winner for me.  The same held true after day two, and even day three.  The Hegel was chunkier in the bass sound and not at clear in the mids and highs.  The sound was excellent, but not as light and airy as the LFD.  Sound stage with the Hegel was wide and deep, and what most impressed me was the ease with which the Hegel drove the 40.2's compared to the LFD.  To compare to two sound signatures of these two amps, I would say the LFD is akin to a high gloss paint finish and the Hegel is like a silky matte finish.  When I first switched, the matte finish was not as exciting at the glossy finish.  The biggest difference was made after I connected balanced cables from my sources to the Hegel.  Did I mention that the Hegel offers two true-balanced analog inputs?  This was a big selling point for me because both my DAC and my Phono preamp have balanced outputs, but I did not anticipate that the improvement of balanced would be as pronounced as it is.  Anyway, after changing to the balanced cables everything sounded much better to my ears.  The Hegel began to produce a liquid, buttery sound, with very deep and controlled bass and great slam.  Rich, smooth, buttery, liquid.  Hmmmm, I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.  My discovery with the balanced cables completely changed my impression of the Hegel amp.  I have fallen in love with it!  The last two nights I have listed about 4 hours each night and each time it was very hard to pull myself away.  The combination of an appropriate amount of break-in and the proper cable synergy has allowed me to see deeper into the music than I had ever thought possible.  

I've heard it said that there is no substitute for power when it comes to amplifiers.  The H590 is the most powerful amp that I have ever owned, and it is now that I finally understand what was meant by this statement.  It's akin to driving a high powered sports car compared to an SUV.  It's that feeling of having unlimited power and an ease of gliding through the landscape that the H590 provides that make the music play through the speakers with gentle ease.  This additional power allows me to listen at lower levels without losing the dynamic range of the music, at least not as pronounced as any other amp I have owned.  

Many of you Harbeth fan boys know that Alan Shaw, owner and designer of Harbeth speakers, has spoken very highly of the Hegel H590.  It's because of his endorsement of this amp that I have been so curious of how it compares to the LFD.  Now I understand what the fuss is about.  The Hegel H590 is a wonderful sounding integrated amplifier.  It is class A/B, 301 watts per channel, and runs very warm.  It runs as warm as a tube amp, and produces the most powerful and engaging sound I have heard so far.  It does not blow the LFD amp out of the water.  Not even close.  The LFD holds its own and should not be overlooked as an excellent option.  Price wise, the LFD is nearly $4K less expensive than the H590, so there's that.  The Hegel has a DAC and streamer built-in, which is something I don't need and are ultimately adding to the cost, but it's nice as a stand alone amp in a living space where stacks of components are not desirable.  Still, at $11K retail, these features seem a bit out of place to me.  They seem more appropo on a budget level amp aimed at the non-audiophille crowd seeking convenience over the ultimate sounding integrated.  This is a nitpick, I admit.  I guess I needed to find something to complain about, right?  ;)

In conclusion, I'm going to keep the Hegel amp in my system.  In some ways I had hoped I would prove that the LFD was better than the Hegel and I could return the Hegel without incurring more audio spending, but now I'm hooked on the Hegel.  I will probably hold onto the LFD for now, possibly for use in another system or maybe just for the occasional comparison of equipment that I enjoy as part of this hobby.  Thanks for reading.  Cheers.

Peter


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Hey Peter nice write-up and glad you like your new amp so much and I know those 40.2's are amazing speakers. One question have you tried going back to the LFD after listening to the Hegel? That can be a very revealing comparison if you haven't done so, anyway thanks for sharing and enjoy your tunes!
hey snackey - great to read your findings

as you know, we have similar rigs... i have had lfd le4 sig vs hegel h390, rost, h160 powering my shl5+'s at various points ... similar feelings, ultimately sold the lfd

-- lfd definitely a more 'spot-lit' nature in the mids and treble, definitely an up-tilt compared to h390
-- but hegels have a greater overall ease and better grip on low end, more natural less hifi depiction of transients
-- i first had a rost, then got the 390, then got a used 160... i feel hegel has definitely tuned the sound of their h390/590 (current top of line units) to be even smoother in the treble and upper midrange than before ... to me the h160 and rost are more linear and extended through the top of the range -- i think this is purposeful on their part trying to make their upper tier units sound more 'sophisticated' -- and to my ears, this is slightly to the detriment of the overall sound and deviates from the ideal straight wire plus gain idiom 

that been said, the hegels are wonderful and if anything, their tuning makes them imminently listening for long long stretches

also agree, the lfd is something special, but ultimately, not a keeper
Congratulations Peter.

I’ve heard the H590 and super HL5 many times. Great combo. With the 40.2 it must be insane. 
Enjoy 
Yes... informative review...

Have you tried the entire H590 system (the DAC, Preamp and Amp)?

It’s great with the 40.2’s, or 30.1’s. And... better justifies the investment in the H590. I use the BNC digital connection with the Bryston BDP3 player, which is typically better than USB, or Optical (the options on the H590).

I do think I slightly prefer the Yggy R2R DAC and the ARC 5se tube Preamp in combination with the H590 amp via XLR cables, of course. A bit more of an open, airy, spacious sound. But, the integrated H590 is close.

So... yes... all the reviews of the H590 are on target, especially with the Harbeths - which need the power and neutral sound. Which explains why Harbeth suggests it and uses it to demo their speakers - because it steps up their game to truly Gold Award sound.

I couldn't understand what all the fuss was over the 30.1's and 40.2's... until... I tried them with the H590 - it truly makes a big difference in their sound.  I would not have kept them otherwise.


@bassdude I have yet to listen to the onboard DAC.  I'm sure it is good, but I just bought a new Holo Audio May DAC and am completely in love with it.  It's not that I'm afraid to hear the Hegel DAC, I simply don't believe that it will sound as good.  But once I get more time with the current config I will try some listening comparisons.  

Your comment about how the H590 made the Harbeth speakers sound their best is very accurate.  I loved the LFD NCSE amp, but because of my preference for rock music, I felt the Hegel sounded more appropriate to me.  The Hegel produces a much more powerful sound, with greater slam than the LFD.  On the other hand, I think the LFD sounded better with jazz, vocals and classical music.  Either way, you really can't go wrong with either amp.  They are both wonderful with Harbeths.
The Holo Audio May DAC being an R2R ladder DAC will sound a bit better than the H590 DAC, though the H590 DAC does sound good.  

As I perhaps noted... I'm using the Yggdrasil R2R DAC, because it sounds better to me, than the H590 DAC, also.  

I think R2R DACs in general sound better than Delta Sigma DAC's.  
By the way... I'm trying out my Class D Audio SDS 470C power amp this morning... and... it's also fantastic driving my Harbeth 40.2's and 30.1's. 

Still using the Schitt Yggy as the DAC, and the Audio Research Ref 5se as the tube preamp.  This combination produces amazing sound - very close to that of the Hegel H590.  The highs are amazingly clear, detailed, holographic and airy with a spacious stage.  The bass is great also - though, perhaps a wee bit less controlled than with the H590. 

But... another demonstration of how well high powered SS amps do driving the Harbeths - the 470C provides 300 watts at 8ohms and 600 watts @  4ohms with a high damping factor - certainly enough to drive / control the Harbeths to perfection.