Chord Hugo – Review

At last, I’ve got my hands on this little device. When I’ve first heard of it and how much it costs, I thought I would never be interested, but after hearing it at a headphone meeting organised by avstore, I felt the need for deeper impressions and I am really glad I have the chance to review it.

I knew that Chord made only exemplary products as I have listened to some of their products, for example their QBD76 DAC, which really impressed me with it’s marvelous sound and build quality.

When I am saying it has good build quality, I want to express that a tank could go over it without breaking it. No….literally, a tank did go over it without breaking it:

So who is Chord Electronics?

Chord Electronics Ltd is a world-leading manufacturer of high-end audio products. Since 1989, under the leadership of proprietor John Franks.

Born from the highly demanding world of aircraft avionics, Chord Electronics maintains a commitment to exemplary engineering, cutting-edge technology and exceptional build quality. Ingeniously designed for high performance over the long term, Chord products are renowned internationally for their advanced technology which is amongst the best in the world. Since 1996, Chord’s collaboration with Robert Watts, a digital design genius with 30 years’ DAC technology development experience, has produced a number of advanced digital products that are, quite simply, without equal.

Chord’s passion for sound quality and exemplary engineering continue to produce audio equipment with exceptional insight into recorded music. Sparkling clarity, unrivalled transparency and huge reserves of high-quality power are trademarks that have become synonymous with the brand. Chord is trusted and admired internationally, and its global customer base includes: the BBC; EMI’s Abbey Road Studios (London); Sony Music Studios (New York) and Skywalker Sound to name but a few.

General Description

But let’s get back to Hugo. This is their latest release and it is basically a portable DAC / headphone amp.  Hugo is  based on powerful Xilinx Spartan VI FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) board that has a very very low and impressive THD + Noise that goes to -140dB being one of the quietest I know (after MSB with -144dB) . So it doesn’t have a normal DAC module inside, as the FPGA does the conversion too, which I consider to be a plus.

Chord Hugo - Review 3

Actually this is the most advanced processor they have released until now, having a 26K tap-length filter. That is more than double compared to the one they used in their Chord QuteHD Dac, and even more than their marvelous QBD76 that “only” has 17k.

The highest the tap-length is, the closest is gets to mathematical precision.

This little guy knows how to play everything (even on usb) ranging from 44.1KH to 384kHz(PCM) and 32 bit. In addition it can also process DSD128. It also has a very interesting feature, the A2DP Bluetooth that uses a custom-made module with the aptX codec to feed the digital signal directly into the dac circuitry. Will get back to this later.

You can use Hugo as a DAC from any iPhone, iPad or Android device.

Hugo has a built-in battery-charging circuit, with a full charge reached in approximately two hours. Hugo takes no power over its USB input (as this is severely limited with many partnering products) and only takes signal data, therefore, it is fully compatible with all iPhone, iPad and Android devices. Further features include an advanced reference-grade digital volume control that does not lose bits and changes colour with volume changes.

The build quality is typical to chord. It’s case is made from aircraft grade aluminium.

Technical Specs :

• Advanced digital volume control
• Crossfeed filter network
• Battery powered for approximately 14 hours operation
• Input, sample rate and volume level indication by colour-change LEDs
• 26K tap-length filter (more than double when compared to the QuteHD DAC)
• Headphone output: 110dB SPL into a 300ohm headphone load
• Output power – 1KHz 1V sinewave both channels driven 0.1% distortion
• 600 ohms 35mW
• 300 ohms 70mW
• 56 ohms 320mW
• 32 ohms 600mW
• 8 ohms 720mW
• THD – 1KHz 3V output: 0.0005%
• Dynamic Range: 120dB
• Output impedance: 0.075 ohms
• Damping factor >100
• Weight: 0.4kg
• Dimensions: 100x20x132mm (WxHxD)

Drivers

• On a PC (Vista, Win 7 or 8) Hugo will playback music up to 384KHz and support both DSD64 and DSD128, but for this you must install the supplied driver which comes in the box and is also available on this product page.

• On Apple Mac OS, iOS for iPhone/iPad and Android, no drivers are required and Hugo will work up to 384KHz and DSD64/128 if your playback software/app can support it.

Hugo has 4 Inputs:

• Optical TOSLink 24-bit/192kHz-capable
• RCA coaxial input 24-bit/384kHz-capable
• Driverless USB input 16-bit/48kHz-capable (designed for tablets/phones)
• HD USB input 32-bit/384KHz and DSD128-capable (for computer/laptop playback; see driver details below)

Chord Electronics Hugo

It also has 4 outputs:

• 2 x 3.5mm headphone jacks
• 1 x 6.35mm (1/4 inch) headphone jack
• 1 x (pair) stereo RCA phono output

Chord Hugo Review 1

The first picture shows that it has two buttons. Well, those are “menu” buttons. The left one is for choosing the input and the right one is for different cross-feed levels.

When you press each one of them, a small led light will change inside Hugothe color depending on the selected input or cross-feed level.

So, yes, it has cross-feed that may help some users that like this feature.

I never use cross-feed with any device, as I think it takes away from transients, dynamics and details.

Hugo can be used as a standalone DAC, and for that you have to press the cross-feed button while you turn it on to stabilize the volume at a default 2V output.

While the build quality is top notch, there are some stuff that could have been done better. The buttons are very small and sometimes not so easy to press, especially the power button, when you have both power and usb cables inserted.

The package in which Hugo comes, could be much better.  I’ve seen much cheaper products with much better packaging. After getting it out, the box and what is inside is like lego, being very hard to put it back in the box.

As John Franks, the owner of Chord Electronics stated in the first reply of this review, the package has been redesigned, so the new owners of Hugo will benefit from it.

Even if it comes with a normal micro  – A usb cable, it would have been nice if it also had a micro-micro cable for tablet / phone use.

Listening Experience

The tests have been done with Decware Taboo MK3Audeze LCD-X with Toxic Silver WidowBurson ConductorAudiobyte Hydra-X, Sennheiser HD800, Focal Spirit Classic, Focal Spirit One.

I have tested Hugo as a portable unit as well, but my main goal was it’s DAC section.

I was first impressed by it at a headphone meeting hold by avstore, while listening to LCD-3. I must say that they sounded really good from a portable amp this size and with those power specs. I’ve also tested it with HD800 and LCD-X and both sounded  good with it. They could use more power, but the sound was clean, detailed and enjoyable.

The other headphones like the Focals presented no problem to Hugo.

So the amplifier is excellent with portable headphones and enjoyable even with the big boys.

One very interesting feature was the bluetooth input. I was very skeptical about it, but it managed to impress me. Things went incredibly smooth from a user experience perspective. Just had to select the bluetooth input, turn the bluetooth on on my phone, scan for a new device on my Galaxy S4 and pair with Hugo. Went to winamp app and pressed the play button. Well that was it.

Besides the very straight forward experience, the sound quality was very very good, much more than I expected from the bluetooth input. It wasn’t on the same level as the usb input, but it was still very enjoyable.

Now let’s go to the hd usb – coax inputs. I’ve tested it with Hydra-X on the coax input vs the hd usb input.  I used the stock usb cable, as I didn’t have an audiophile micro usb cable.

While trying to insert the coax cable into chord, I noticed it didn’t fit as the input was too narrow, so I had to use another coax cable (the stock one that comes with Conductor).

However, Chord may change this in the future:

 [Editor’s note. Chord responded to this issue with the following: “Chord Electronics prides itself on the use of a high-quality local company for its casework. Our casework is ordered in very small batches and having the metalwork supplier within five miles of the Chord factory, gives us extraordinary control over production and quality, and gives us the ability to make immediate changes. Therefore, we will be making some minor modifications to Hugo to allow for the larger RCA cables associated with high-quality home-use applications.”]

While at first, on electronic music I thought the coax input with hydra is better than the hd usb input, as it had more bass that went deeper, on classical music I observed that the usb input had better details, speed, transients, dynamics, soundstage &  imaging and precision.

So the USB input is excellent by it’s own and has no need of an external interface to get the most out of it, as burson conductor does .

What interested me most in Hugo was it’s dac section so the most important tests were done for this purpose with Taboo and Conductor as amps.

Chord Hugo Review - 0

Let’s get into some songs for some deeper impressions.

The links that I am giving here may not be the exact interpretation or quality with what I really tested.

Chesky Vivaldi – Allegro ( La Caccia )

The presentation was incredible and very airy. The instrument separation and clarity was top notch. The violins and all instruments had a precise location and very good impact with exploding and tactile transients. The experience was so nice, that I got goosebumps. Ok, so the journey with Hugo started well, as it is goosebumps level 😀

Silent Strike – Asian Paper Circus

The control of the bass, the punch and details is amazing. The sound effects were coming out of nowhere with incredible speed and separation. The soundstage is incredibly spacious and holographic. The sound was so transparent that is just you and the music.

Pink Martini – White Christmas

“I’m dreaming of a silver hugo…” The voice has an incredible texture and timbre. It was also very holographic as I could “hear” the room. The part II came with an excellent chorus that was extremely well separated from the very tactile and sparkly instruments.

Rod Stewart – Winter Wonderland

The control, punch and speed of the bass is amazing. The voices were just incredible with a very good timbre and presence. The instruments were playing throughout the song from layer to layer in a very precise location, presenting excellent imaging.

I just felt the need to close my eyes and just listen.

Infected Mushroom – Noon

Hugo is amazing. It left me speechless. The bass is one of the best I have ever heard. It has an incredible level of detail, control, punch and depth.  The precision is really hard to describe. When I close my eyes I can see the sounds coming with incredible accuracy and speed from a pitch black background.

Mozart – The Marriage of Figaro

Every instrument had a full life of it’s own and could be easily heard, even if it was in the last layer, showing impeccable dynamics and microdynamics with an impressive level of details.

Zdob si Zdub – Miorita

Can Hugo rock? Yes it can? But can it ethno-rock? Well it sure can. The presentation was again very transparent with exploding transients and energy that puts you in a dance mood.

Leonard Cohen – Lady Midnight

The scene was very spacious again with an excellent layering and precision. Young Leonard’s Voice is very transparent and clean with an excellent natural timbre. The guitar gave me goosebumps again as it was like it was there near my ear with incredible presence & transients that gave a very notable pluck and a wonderful extension.

Chord Hugo Review

Summary

Bass

Hugo has one of the best bass I have ever heard in a dac. The control and precision are incredible, followed by the wonderful depth and punch. One word “Excellent“! This word applies to everything bellow, but I won’t repeat myself.

Mids & Treble

Both are top notch. The midrange is very rich with very present, detailed and tactile instruments and amazing voices that have excellent texture, natural timbre and feel. The treble is very well extended without being bright or unnatural.

Neutral & Natural

The presentation is very natural and neutral and  it doesn’t bring by force anything  in front. Actually this is the third non-delta sigma dac, or actually without a normal dedicated delta sigma chip as Sabre32, Wolfson, etc, that proves my theory that these kind of dacs usually sound more natural and lack the digital touch as the others have.

Transparency

With it it’s just you and the music. You can close your eyes and merge yourself into your favourite songs.

Details 

The level of detail is amazing. Don’t get scared because of this. Many dacs  that are very detailed tend to become analytically, loosing from the musicality, but this is not the case. The details come very natural and it reminds me of Analog Dac.

Dynamics

This DAC has one of the best dynamics and microdynamics I’ve ever heard. I can hear the air  being displaced by the conductor’s hands, while the instruments in the back are still very present and alive.

Conclusions

When I think of Hugo, only superlatives come in my mind and I can hardly restrain myself from writing “WOW, Amazing, Excellent, Incredible”, etc.

This small but wonderful DAC became a reference for me and I must congratulate Chord Electronics on this excellent new product.

While I started with the thought that it is very expensive and it may be overpriced, I ended up thinking it has an excellent price considering what it is offering.

This DAC has made it in the TOP of my recommendations, after MSB Analog Dac. Yes, it is that good.

When I’ve seen it, I thought that it was just made for portable use and would not compete with full sized units. While it’s amp section is “only” very good, the dac section is absolutely excellent and beats most of the full sized units I’ve reviewed.

Don’t get me wrong, the amplifier in Hugo is very clean and offers very transparent sound. However with power hungry headphones I feel like I am missing some energy, impact, control compared to the big guys, but it still offers very good transparency and details.

For example even if Conductor’s DAC cheats with a better usb interface (the Hydra-X), it is still quite below Hugo.

It is astonishing what Chord managed to do with this product and at this size.

You can use it as your main DAC in your full size system without any problem.

There are few products that actually inspire you while writing the review and Hugo was one of them. It was a pleasure writing the review and getting to know this little guy.

Pros

  • Incredible bass with excellent control, punch and depth, one of the best I’ve ever heard
  • Excellent mids & treble
  • Very good transparency that transposes you into your favourite songs
  • Excellent pin point precision
  • Top-notch transients with exploding attack, very fast decay and excellent extension
  • Excellent dynamics and microdynamics
  • Neutral and natural presentation
  • Good price/performance ratio
  • Very good build quality
  • Good & Very Clean headphone amplifier
  • Good Bluetooth input

Cons

  • Cheap Packaging ( from my understanding the package will be redesigned )
  • The coax input is too narrow for a lot of cables (but this may change in the future)
  • Some of the buttons are very hard to access

Chord Hugo Review - 4