in , , , ,

Chord Electronics Hugo DAC & headphone amplifier review

  • Dine in or take away? With the Chord (Electronics) Hugo you can do either. Its understated aluminium chassis houses two batteries and a pair of Xilinx Spartan FPGA chips – one for USB signal marshaling and one for D/A conversion. The Hugo is small enough to go wherever “you go”.

    A casual glance might have two-channel-ers dismissing it as a portable DAC / headphone amplifier that doesn’t concern them, but the Hugo’s broad connectivity options hint at its aspirations to be taken more seriously. We’ll get to that shortly but first some thoughts on the Hugo’s performance as a portable.

    There’s nothing like a decent amplifier fed by a good DAC to remind us just how good the Audeze LCD-X can sound. I say that not to ring the fanboi alarm but to underscore thrice just how well these big-, bold-sounding headphones respond to juicier amplification and better source material resolve – they’re some of the most revealing headphones out there.

    Serious home-head-fiers will know what I’m talking about: running a dedicated DAC and headphone amplifier really bring headphones to life.

    Decent wall-powered units for the hi-fi rack or desktop can be had for upwards of $100. For streetlife it’s a different story. In this context, products start to get interesting from $300 and up. The Hugo will set you back a cool AU$2500 in Australia and US$2500 in the USA, both of which are comparable to the UK price of £1400.

    Also of keener consideration are the dimensions and mass of battery-powered transport, amplifier and DAC. Just ask the guys still rocking an iPhone, AlgoRhythm Solo –dB and ALO Rx Mk3-B strapped together as a single brick. The Hugo measures 100mm x 20mm x 132mm and weighs 400g.

    Then there’s the bulk of the headphones themselves to consider. As superb as they are, not everyone will be sufficiently committed to Audeze cans to taken them out and about. Nonetheless, we must consider all possibilities, even those not aligned with our own preferences. (In doing so home listening is implicitly covered).

    Consider the Astell&Kern AK120 II. It makes a solid fist of the LCD-X but allowing the Chord portable to take care of both D/A conversion and amplification drive nets an audibly superior result. The inclusion of a ¼” socket on the Hugo – none too common on portables – allows our Audeze fan to dispense with the top-heavy adaptor. Little wonder Dan Clark had a Chord Hugo sitting between (Gen 1) AK100 and his all-new Alpha Prime headphones at the New York Audio Show in Brooklyn this year.

    Once the Astell&Kern is wired to hand off its digital signal via toslink (cable provided) to the Hugo’s optical input the Audeze’s frequency response extends further in both directions whilst tonal flourishes ebb and flow with greater elegance. The absence of an analogue input on the Hugo means it can’t be used in amplifier-only mode like the ALO International+ (reviewed here). Talking of which, the ALO-AK120 combo trades in a dose of refinement – one of the Chord’s key strengths – for a more muscular rear end.

    No slouch in its own right, the Hugo also sounds better than the Sony NWZ-ZX1 Walkman. I witnessed a significant delta between the two when Chord Electronics’ John Franks first introduced the Hugo to these ears at the Munich High-End Show in May – that’s where I picked up the review unit – and that same delta is just as audible in Sydney six months down the line.

    chord_john_franks_munich
    Chord Electronics’ John Franks at Munich High-End 2014

    This Hugo’s lengthy review process has seen it take tours of duty with Ultimate Ears 7 Pro custom IEMs, Master&Dynamic MH40, Cardas EM5813, MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs, MrSpeakers Alpha Primes, Audeze LCD-X and KEF M500. Every single one of these ‘phones enjoys a lift in performance over and above the Astell&Kern AK120 II and Sony NWZ-ZX1; the improvement is most pronounced with the Cardas IEMs.

    The upshot? You opt for the standalone Sony or A&K if pocket-ability is your priority. Add the Hugo for greater low-end definition and a more nuanced delivery of (even more!) detail in the upper-most frequencies, especially when compared to the Sony.

    The Hugo was also put up against a first generation Astell&Kern AK120 pushing digital into the gritted-teeth grunt of Michael Goodman’s Glove A1 (reviewed here). Where the Hugo can come up a little short against its portable rivals is its higher centre of gravity due to a bonier backside; the Glove comes through with a soupcon more low-end muscle but it can’t match the Hugo’s gossamery top end.

    The Hugo is definitely the more intellectually satisfying of the three – and so it should be at the price. Its skill in defining lateral and vertical layering also warrants mention. Here is a DAC-amplifier that throws pleasantly diffused house lights on the band, illuminating the spaces between players as much as the players themselves, making nonsense of the notion that a lower noise floor translates to a blacker background. The Hugo lights up everything.

    Takeaway #1: I’ve yet to hear a portable headphone amplifier and DAC that comes close to the Chord Hugo. You get what you pay for.

    The question then nags from the back of the brain: with a Hugo serving as DAC and headphone driver, does one need – or can one afford – an audiophile-grade DAP for file selection and digital playback control? Is that not like riding in a Porsche being towed by a Mercedes?

    The first of two micro-USB inputs directs us to the answer. It’s configured for low power draw operation – hello smartphones and tablets. Being a driverless input, a PCM ceiling of 16bit/48KHz applies to all digital audio streams. As part of the Hugo package, Chord supply thin rubber straps for piggy-backing an iPhone or Android phone without occluding its screen’s real estate. The inclusion of four recess-mounted rubber nipples on the back of the Hugo ensures you won’t scratch the back of your smartphone.

    chord_hugo_3

    iPhone users must bring their own Lightning-to-USB adaptor or Camera Connection Kit but Chord thoughtfully provide an OTG USB cable so that Android users are taken care of out of the box. Don’t like futzing around with cables? The Hugo accommodates aptX Bluetooth streaming – a feature that I used mainly with MacBook Air Spotify listening. Bluetooth sounds good but falls slightly shy of the sound quality heard from going USB direct.

    In direct-wiring a Samsung Galaxy S5 to the Hugo for some Spotify action I heard not a trace of the phone’s 3G/WiFi transmission interfering with the Hugo as a low level burble. WiFi streamers might find themselves sated with something as humble as a 5th Generation iPod Touch. Each configuration confirmed that the Hugo is indeed something special, a cut above the competition: it’s mellifluous treble handling means the transients of lossy streams rarely sound ragged or aluminum-tinged – crucial when air-shredding to Bowie’s “Cracked Actor”. The long-term effect of this is Spotify holds this listener’s interest for longer.

    Takeaway #2: the Chord Hugo makes nice with sub-optimal source material.

    With connection to cloud secured in these physically beefier rig(s) I momentarily forgot about the aforementioned Sony’s streaming-service advantage over the Astell&Kern…until it came time to head outside. The Hugo is too large for comfortable accommodation in a jeans pocket.

    Listeners committed to taking the Hugo wherever they go will see up to 10 hours use between charges. One of my very few niggles with the Hugo is that – like the Cypher Labs Theorem 720 – battery replenishment comes from a dedicated walwart. You can’t recharge the Hugo with 5V USB power. (Something for a MK2 revision perhaps?)

    Putting aside the lack of aesthetic elegance of the iPod Touch direct-cabled to the Hugo for one moment, I prefer the sound of this duo to the Astell&Kern AK120 II. The Hugo brings broader grace to the detail dig. And if we take as read that the AK120 II’s sound is identical to that of the oft-fawned-over AK240 with Redbook content, then the iRiver offshoot have something to worry about.

    Takeaway #3: A smartphone paired with the Chord Hugo sounds superior to the Astell&Kern AK120. Again, you get what you pay for.

    chord_hugo_2

    I’ve often pegged the Audeze LCD-X and MrSpeaker Alpha Dog/Prime as ‘indoor’ headphones. Chord Electronics have you covered there too.

    The second of the two micro-USB inputs allows for direct connection to a host PC for more commonplace desktop DAC/amp deployment. Here you can feed the Hugo up to 32-bit/384KHz PCM and DSD128. Toslink is restricted to PCM 24bit/192KHz and coaxial to 24bit/384KHz but their inclusion here is functionally more crucial in allowing for the Hugo’s deployment with Apple TVs, Logitech Squeezeboxen, Airport Expresses and disc transports.

    The Hugo is not only a portable headphone device. It has the potential to double up as a DAC in your main two-channel system. Power it on with the ‘Crossfeed’ switch depressed and the RCA outputs default to line level. Careful here though as the (stiff) volume control remains active, able to supply more than the industry-standard 2V and thus drive your pre-amplifier or integrated amplifier into clipping/distortion.

    Advertisement
    LHLabs_GO_2015

    On usability, Chord has opted for colours over chassis labels – this takes some getting used to. Observed through the ‘porthole’, the input selector LED cycles through red (coaxial), green (optical), blue (Bluetooth – duh), yellow (lower power USB) and white (HD USB). The adjacent battery status LED continues the rainbow theme, as do the volume pot and sample frequency lock indicator: Red for Redbook (44.1KHz), Orange for 48KHz, Yellow for 88.2KHz, Green for 96KHz, Light Blue for 176.4KHz, Dark Blue for 192KHz, Light Purple for 352KHz (DXD) and Purple for 384KHz(DXD). White indicates either single- or double-rate DSD. That’s a lot to memorise!

    Can we really get full width performance from a handheld device? With Chord Hugo the answer is an emphatic ‘you bectha’!

    Whilst it doesn’t quite have the ‘grippiness’ of the PS Audio DirectStream, the Chord box gets close to matching it in all other respects, especially on finesse and dexterity with minutae. And much like the PS Audio, this is a DAC that might seduce erstwhile digital refuseniks. Might this quality be attributable to their mutual preference for dropping custom code onto an FPGA instead of using an off-the-shelf chip? Perhaps.

    chord_hugo_5

    The Hugo’s ability to duke it out with the big boys doesn’t end there. It teases out more instrumental decay than either the Resonessence Labs INVICTA Mirus (reviewed here) or the AURALiC Vega (reviewed here). However, it’s not quite so rich with tonal colour as the latter and it’s ever-so-slightly lighter on with acoustic mass than the former. That’s HD USB.

    A diversion to coax courtesy of the Resonessence Labs Concero HD closes theses gap through more substantive hip thrust. Schwing! Nowhere is this more evident than with Massive Attack’s “Splitting The Atom” or Clark’s remix of Nathan Fake’s “Fentinger” – here the Hugo’s coaxial input digs deeper into the lower registers and for a kick that comes on harder. Party on Wayne! There’s greater fluidity and sprayed-on skin moisture too. Flipping it around, the USB input sounds a shade more lightweight, a trifle drier, than (assisted) coaxial.

    Takeaway #4: If you’re going to run the Hugo in a main two-channel system then the coaxial input will yield more satisfying results.

    The Hugo never sounds forced or that it’s trying too hard to convey detail or dynamic reflex; that’s double-speak for effortless. A trait often relegated to high days and holidays when a short stop tries his hand in the big leagues. There’s no short man’s complex here, just quiet confidence.

    Even though stickered well north of two large, the Chord Hugo is a DAC that far exceeds price point expectations. It’s a portable that’ll hold its own in a main rig and competes with products two or three times the price. I’ve explicitly called out those products to avoid such a conclusion dissolving into meaningless cliché. The Hugo is go anywhere box made from pure win that’s far and away the most accomplished combination of sound quality and feature set below $3K that I’ve witnessed since DAR’s inception in late 2010.

    Takeaway #5: A round of applause and a DAR-KO award goes out to Chord Electronics for this one.

    Oh – the Hugo is also available in a satin black finish.

    darko_award_2013

     

    Audition Music

    • Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence (2014)
    • Massive Attack – Heligoland (2010)
    • Clark – Feast/Beast (2013)
    • David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (1973)
    • David Byrne & St Vincent – Love This Giant (2012)
    • Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians – Element Of Light (1986)

    Associated Equipment

    • Ultimate Ears 7 Pro custom IEMs
    • Master&Dynamic MH40
    • Cardas EM5813
    • MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs
    • MrSpeakers Alpha Primes
    • Audeze LCD-X
    • KEF M500
    • Astell&Kern AK120
    • Astell&Kern AK120 II
    • ALO International+
    • Glove Audio A1
    • PS Audio DirectStream
    • AURALiC Vega
    • Resonessence Labs INVICTA Mirus
    • REDGUM Black Series RGi35ENR
    • REDGUM RGi60
    • Zu Audio Soul MKII
    • Magnepan MMG

    Further information

     

    Manufacturer’s response: “Thank you for your concise and excellent review John. The only point I’d like to make is that although all current units have been for some time mechanically slightly different from very the first production batch shipped during the first quater of this year, ie enlargement of the RCAs etc. these were only running production changes and we have only produced one version of Hugo; there have been no Hugo 2’s produced to date. However I’m pleased to tell you that we have been busy in development and Hugo will be joined by several new products. Two of which we will be launching at the CES LasVegas in January 2015.” – John E. Franks (5/11/14)

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

    40 Comments

                              KEF to clothe LS50 standmounts in piano gloss white, blue

                              Murfie – the lossless download store you’ve probably never heard of