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Top of the pops: Chord Electronics’ outstanding Hugo 2

  • Chord Electronics’ first foray into portable audio came three years ago with the Hugo — a DAC and headphone amplifier brick that goes where you go. The Hugo set this British manufacturer on a fresh trajectory, catering to headphone listeners on the go.

    What Chord didn’t anticipate was how the Hugo’s standalone DAC performance would see it land in numerous loudspeaker systems, on permanent recharge, where it might never see a headphone — not ever. Like the football cliche, the Hugo became a game of two halves, the second of which begat the tabletop Hugo TT.

    Now comes a new ‘remastered’ version – the Hugo 2 (€2195/US$2379, £1800), announced at CES 2017 in January but first seen by this commentator at Germany’s Norddeutsche Hifi Tage in Hamburg a month later:

    The revised aluminium casework ditches the rounded corners of the original for a crisper, cleaner look and a more solid, weighty feel. The glowing ‘gecko-eye’ polycarbonate buttons, inherited from the Mojo, make it much less fiddly to use than its predecessor.

    Addressing a common complaint about the original, both USB sockets now sit flush with the casework and one has been handed over to internal battery recharging. That wall-wart is no more. Any 5V source will do; a single amp results in an 8 hour recharge time (aka overnight). Twice the amperage halves it to 4 hours.

    Chord specify 8 hours as the average battery run time with hi-res files sucking a little harder on the Hugo 2’s fuel pipe than Redbook or lossy codecs. The Hugo 2 will auto power-off after 15 minutes of digital signal absence.

    The second (HD) USB socket is reserved for audio input. PCM support maxes out at 768kHz – twice that of the original Hugo – whilst the native DSD ceiling has been lifted from DSD128 to DSD512 — good news for those who like to push the pedal to the metal on server side up-sampling with HQPlayer or similar.

    At the opposite end of the chassis sit 3.5mm and 6.4mm headphone outputs, a pair of RCA outputs and two more digital inputs: 192kHz-capable TOSLINK and a (Mojo-like) 3.5mm 384kHz coaxial socket. On this, the (rather splendid) Hugo 2 manual reports the following:

    “Coax 1 configuration = Tip and sleeve, Coax 2 configuration = Ring and sleeve. The 3.5mm digital coaxial jack input supports ‘dual data mode’, where 768kHz files can be input as two separate 384kHz data streams, should devices support this capability.”

    Keeping that manual to hand is sound idea – it’s essential for quick referencing the Hugo 2’s (initially) complex colour coding.

    In the box, we get a range of basic digital cables (USB and TOSLINK) and phone-charger wall wart but the 3.5mm-terminated coaxial cable we must source ourselves. Mine comes from Zu Audio (hit up the Ogden, UT folk for more info).

    Why no MQA? My best guess is that Chord Electronics CEO John Franks is (understandably) protective of his special sauce: Rob Watts’ WTA filter that, in the Hugo 2, sits on a Xilinx Artix 7 FPGA, the latter visible through the top plate’s ‘porthole’.

    The Hugo 2 carries the very latest iteration of Watts’ interpolation filter which sees its tap length extended from the original Hugo’s 26,368 to 49,152 and, in tandem with a revised all-discrete output stage, promises lower measurable distortion than its forerunner (according to Chord).

    This 5-minute manufacturer-made video explains why Chord Electronics eschew off-the-shelf DAC chips in favour Watts’ in-house-coded solution:

    From the porthole glows an LED to indicate signal lock, colour-coded according to the incoming sample-rate. Red sensibly equates to Redbook (16bit/44.1khz) which comprises 99% of this reviewer’s digital audio library. Hooked up to an iPhone 6S Plus with Lightning-USB adapter, the LED glows red when locked to Spotify and Tidal streams.

    Interestingly, Chord Electronics have seemingly dispensed with the notion that the Hugo 2 can be strapped to a smartphone for a pocketable two-fer. The box reads “TRANSportable FPGA DAC / headphone amplifier”. The original’s ribbed indents and supplied rubber bands are nowhere to be found.

    Still, its handheld form factor means we can take the Hugo 2 to work and back. Or place it on an in-flight tray table. Or listen in a cafe. Or on the couch. In putting the Hugo 2 through its paces, I did all of the above (and more).

    In a hotel lobby and armed with FitEar Air custom IEMs, I’d forgotten to pack the USB cable and turned to the Hugo 2’s Bluetooth input. Despite the the absence of AAC, and thus falling back to SBC, the Hugo 2 comfortably outperformed the iPhone 6S Plus’ own analogue output; a more palpable midrange presence, better bass propulsion and – most obvious of all – greater finesse with the finer details. Users of aptX-capable smartphones and tablets can expect even better audible results.

    Doubtful however that the average Hugo 2 user would see Bluetooth as anything more than a nice-to-have extra that keeps visiting friends and relatives in the musical loop. The best audible results come from hardwired hookups e.g. smartphone/tablet (USB), DAP (TOSLINK, USB), PC/Mac (USB), CD player (coaxial/TOSLINK), streamer (USB, TOSLINK, coaxial) TV (TOSLINK) or games console (TOSLINK).

    Back at home with the Sennheiser HD800S and the Hugo 2 USB-d to a MacBook Air, the Chord brick’s audible personality shines through: a clean and #supremely# detailed sound but (here comes that F-word again) with finesse supplanting the needles and pins and/or emotional distance that can haunt lesser (seemingly highly-detailed) D/A converters.

    Moving in the opposite direction, marginally warmer-sounding units like Chord’s Mojo and, less so, the original Hugo, tend to see musical layers congeal more readily. The new Hugo 2 outperforms both Chords on transparency and layer separation, especially when it comes to unpacking supremely dense and/or complex material — easily the Hugo 2’s strongest suit when listening behind headphones.

    As a standalone device, it’s hard to fault the Hugo 2’s elegant unfurling of Clark’s tightly packed Empty The Bones Of You or its ability to allow Telefon Tel Aviv’s complex Fahrenheit Fair Enough to really sparkle.

    This Chord DAC/headphone amplifier pulls hard on the microscopic details without ever sounding cold or remote. This is especially valuable with the Sennheiser HD800S, circumaural open-backs that already somewhat predisposed to a cold steel rail (although not as much as the HD800).

    It’s also hard to imagine any standalone DAP 1) capable of driving these same Sennheisers and 2) doing so with such elegance and flare and 3) with such a keen ear for instrument separation.

    In stark and threadbare contrast, the Sony NW-ZX2 can barely muster the strength to kick the HD800S out of bed and into life. So too the Pono Player. The Hugo 2 doesn’t ask us to match our headphones to the source device and instead asks: why DAP at all?

    Taking us down to the bone with music is one thing. Being able to deliver micro-dynamic flicker with tenderness is another (most welcome) thing altogether. These qualities allow the Hugo 2 to lay down a most satisfying listening experience, even at lower SPLs.

    Late-night, lower volume listening sessions in the company of Tom Waits and Jack Ladder are where the most incisive and (according to Chord) Dave-like filter comes in useful – to maintain aural alertness as the volume wheel rolls from blue to red. Here we look for the filter selection button to glow white.

    A second filter (green) stirs in some high frequency roll off – I prefer to run this in tandem with Bluetooth. The third (yellow) gives us a spoonful of additional Mojo-like honey – which pleasingly rounds the rough edges of LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream when heard at shower-sing-a-long volume. The fourth (red): warmth AND high frequency roll-off is best reserved for low-quality recordings and web radio.

    None of these filters stray too far from the Hugo2’s core personality: gobs of detail, delivered with tenderness up top and a wallop down below. The Hugo 2’s crisp definition of bold bass notes adds some much needed heft to the more lightweight-sounding Sennheiser HD800S.

    Hooking the AudioQuest NightHawk Carbon into the Hugo 2 sees the incisive filter as the best fit for all music. So too with the occasional thicker air of the FitEar Air custom IEMs whose extra-wide headstaging also benefit from the Hugo 2’s X-PHD crossfeed function that adds incrementally smaller amounts substance to the centre of the musical image. With the Japanese customs, I dig it. With the HD800S, not so much; I prefer to disengage X-PHD altogether.

    The point? Switchable filters and X-PHD crossfeed gives us two ways with which to season the Hugo 2’s output to best suit the headphones/IEMs/earbuds in play and, therefore, to taste.

    Headphones are only half the story. The original Hugo and Mojo became runaway successes because of their freakishly good price-point performance as standalone D/A converters.

    The Hugo 2 is no exception but it brings bells and whistles that enhance the user experience when dropping it into a loudspeaker system.

    From the manual: “After 24hrs on constant charge Hugo 2 will enter into Intelligent Desktop Mode where the battery is neither charged nor discharged. Hugo 2’s auto shutdown feature is now disabled.” When power light glows magenta, the unit is operating in this desktop mode.

    A more than serviceable remote wand gives us listening position access to filters and X-PHD as well as volume control, input selection and power on/off is also included. Very nice.

    At the DARhaus, this means the Hugo 2 has done time as a remote controllable pre-amplifier feeding a Schiit Vidar and KEF LS50. Digital (Roon) streaming came from the Allo Digital’s DigiOne Raspberry Pi HAT, BNC output, which fed the Chord brick via a coaxial Zu Audio cable and adaptor.

    The Hugo 2’s ability to maintain musical composure when faced with deep downward attenuation will challenge broader audiophile perceptions that digital volume controls deleterious to sound quality when run at lower levels. Whatever mathematics Rob Watts coded into the FPGA, I detected zero evidence of dents to performance when listening at low levels, just as I had with headphones.

    Furthermore, going digital direct with the Hugo 2 into the shoebox Schiit doesn’t trade in as much acoustic mass to the Vinnie Rossie LIO, interceding as analogue pre, as I would have expected. The Hugo 2 is a rare breed in this respect: a digital pre-amplifier without compromise. All the more surprising when we consider its form factor and go-anywhere utility.

    Those bemoaning the absence of balanced connectivity are directed to Chord’s own response, summarised by yours truly thusly: that balanced connections are often quieter but with the Hugo 2 there are no noise issues to overcome. Owners of the original Hugo will be pleased to learn that the new iteration accepts a broader range of RCA cable plugs, even the Eichmanns that terminate Curious’ new analogue interconnect.

    [Side note: inserting headphones does NOT automatically silence the twin RCA outputs.]

    Running the Hugo 2 in DAC only mode saw the Rossi black box stay put. The Chord trounces the LIO’s v1 DAC module in almost every respect but most noticeably when music becomes more complicated or dense e.g Aphex Twins’ “Didgeridoo”.

    It’s the same story with the Peachtree nova300 where the Hugo again delivers a remarkable upgrade over this integrated’s internal (and fixed) module. Realistically, we can’t expect DAC modules to compete with dedicated outboard designs.

    Conducting a short run of big box DAC comparisons, the Hugo 2 and the Aqua La Voce S2 could not be more different. In delivery musical liquidity, the Italian is creamier, the Hugo 2 more watery. Asked to pick the more resolving of the two, we’d nominated the Hugo 2 every time. Ask to choose the more forgiving of poorer source material, the La Voce S2 gets the nomination.

    Horses and courses, yes, but the Italian is a trick pony. The Hugo 2 does so much more.

    Heading toward the more luxurious end of the Aqua DAC range, the Hugo 2 bests the La Scala MKII Optologic on soundstage depth. Elsewhere, the La Scala owns the scene on tonality on scale. And price: US$7000 vs. US$2379. These are not brothers from another mother.

    Of the DACs to hand, the Hugo 2 is closest in audible personality to the PS Audio DirectStream (running Huron). On exposing electronic music’s inner spaciousness and image focus, the Hugo 2 rivals Ted Smith’s take on FPGA-coded conversion. The Brit’s detail retrieval smarts are also on par with the Coloradoan. Where it falls short is on acoustic mass and slam. And, again, price: US$2379 vs US$5999.

    And yet the Hugo 2 does headphones and the PS Audio does not. The Hugo 2 can accompany its owner on vacation and the PS Audio cannot.

    And that’s the overarching theme here. The Hugo 2 more than earns its price-point stripes as a standalone DAC. Where it races up the DARKO DAC Index to share pole position with the La Scala and the DirectStream is on use case flexibility: remote controllable pre-amplifier; headphone amplifier; aptX Bluetooth inout; user selectable filters; and – most potent of all – an internal rechargeable battery that sees the Hugo 2 where you go too.

    On sound quality and utility – judging it as a complete package – Chord Electronics’ Hugo 2 is the finest DAC I’ve seen/heard/used to date.

    Further information: Chord Electronics

    One final thought: anyone else notice the two vacant screw holes at the USB end of the Hugo 2? According to one Sydneyside reader, Rob Watts said during a local in-store promo event that we can “expect to see a Poly-like appendage [for the Hugo 2] in the future”.

    Written by John

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

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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