Chord Hugo Mobile DAC/Headphone Amp
Input: micro USB (16/48), micro USB 2.0 (32/384, DXD, DSD 128), Coax S/PDIF, Toslink, aptX Bluetooth
Output: 1 pair RCA unbalanced, 1/4" headphone jack, 2x 3.5mm headphone jack
Dimensions (W x H x D): 100 x 20 x 132mm
Availability: through Authorized Dealers
Wherever You Go...
Hugo. No, wherever Hu-go...Oh never mind. The Chord Hugo is a portable DAC/Headphone amp capable of passing up to 32/384 PCM, DXD, and DSD 128 data through its FPGA-based DAC to your headphones or hi-fi. There's a digitally controlled volume knob which you can bypass when running Hugo in DAC-mode, multiple crossfeed filter settings for enhanced headphone listening, micro USB, Coax and Toslink S/PDIF inputs, as well as A2DP aptX Bluetooth input so you can stream to the Hugo across the airwaves from iOS and Android devices. Everything is wrapped up in sparkly silver hard-anodised precision milled aircraft-grade aluminum with colored lights and level indicators shining through.
Over two grand for a DAC/headphone amp? That's nearly as much as the Astel&Kern AK240 portable player which includes 320GBs worth of storage and can handle 24/192 PCM and DSD data. I'd suggest that the way to think of the Chord Hugo is as a very capable DAC for your hi-fi that you can also take with you on the road for headphone listening. Its Xilinx Spartan VI FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) is, according to Chord, the most advanced processor they have ever employed containing a 26K tap-length filter, more than double the one used in the very capable Chord QuteHD DAC. Essentially the longer the tap length, the closer you get to mathematical perfection, in theory. The Spartan VI also draws less power, 0.7V, than previous less powerful Spartan FPGAs which made it possible for Chord to employ one in the battery-powered Hugo.
On one of Hugo's ends reside the self-powered micro USB inputs, one for up to 16/48 data and the other for all the fun stuff up to 32/384, DXD, and DSD 128 (via DoP), as well as the 12V power inlet, input selection button, crossfeed button, and power switch. Mac users are good to go while PC users will need to install the Chord Windows drivers to play back resolutions greater than 24/96, DXD, and DSD.
Around the other end are the two 3.5mm headphone jacks, the 1/4" headphone jack, the RCA outputs, as well as the two S/PDIF inputs (Coax and Toslink). Up top there's a circular window through which you can see three multi-colored LEDs. One indicates the crossfeed circuit employed (off = none, Red = Minimum, Green = Medium, and Blue = Maximum), the center LED shows your input selection, and the last indicates battery life status (Blue = fully charged, Green = 90%, Yellow = 50%, Red = 30%, and Flashing Red = "Captain we've got no power!" Recharge).
Also up top sits the recessed volume control wheel which also glows different colors depending on the output level as well as a translucent circle that glows different colors depending on the incoming sample rate for PCM and white for DSD. You can bypass the volume control by depressing the Crossfeed button when you power Hugo on which sends the output at full volume to all outputs including the headphones so be careful not to engage this mode when listening to your cans. Overall I found Hugo's various buttons and volume knob a pleasure to use although the power switch can be a tad difficult to get at depending on the size of your fingers but I'd imagine that's the point of its slightly recessed location so you don't accidentally switch it off during mobile play. Likewise the volume control has a nice stiff feel so you don't accidentally crank Hugo up.
While I'll touch on the Chord Hugo as a headphone amp, look for a full review of that functionality from our sister site InnerFidelity in the near future as this review unit is headed there next. According to Chord, Hugo can drive just about any headphone load you care to throw at it and its amplifier can even handle driving all three headphone outputs simultaneously (power output rated at 35mW at 600 ohms, 70mW at 300 ohms, 320mW at 56 ohms, 600mW at 32 ohms, 720mW at 8 ohms).
Listen Here Hugo
I mainly listened to Hugo in my desktop system driving my ADAM A3Xs, where it also doubled as a headphone amp for my Audio Technica ATH-W1000s, and in my main system paired with my MacBook Pro and Pass INT-30A, which was running as an amplifier only so I could test drive Hugo's volume control. Let's start with the headphones since this will be short and sweet—the Chord Hugo delivered some of the most engaging headphone listening I've experienced to date. There's a wonderful fluidity to music played through Hugo's headphone output coupled with an uncanny sense of scale, resolution, and tone color that made for a completely engaging experience. Chord claims "approximately 14 hours operation" for the battery power and while I did not listen in one sitting for that long, I did play music all day and into the night on a full charge.
Hugo's crossfeed options essentially move the performance from inside your head to out in front of it and I preferred the Maximum/Blue setting feeling that it gave the performance a more natural sense of space. I don't typically enjoy headphone listening for extended periods of time but with Hugo driving my Audio Technica's I could easily see spending some quality music listening time lost in tunes.
In my main system Hugo did not give any sonic hints as to its mobile origins. All content, from CD-quality on up, sounded plain lovely even at lower volume levels using Hugo's volume control with no apparent sonic degradation all the way down into the Red zone. The standout sonic traits that stood out first when listening to Hugo was its nimbleness and delicacy which gave a wonderful liveliness and natural sound to acoustic instruments and voices. I have to admit it took some time for me get a firm handle on Hugo's sound as it mostly seemed like it did not have much of a sound of its own besides the sound of the music being played through it. I view that as a very good thing.
Because Hugo's micro USB inputs are self-powered, you can connect your iPad to Hugo using Apple's Camera Connection Kit and play back your iPad-based tunes. I did so with some CD-quality music and it sounded plain lovely. I also used Onkyo's free HF Player app (see review) with my iPhone and played back HD content on Hugo using an Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter to go from the phone's Lightning output to USB. Nice. From a portable perspective, its awfully nice to be able to travel with just your phone and play back HD music.
I also streamed to Hugo from my iPhone via Bluetooth, just remember to select Hugo's Bluetooth input first otherwise it doesn't show up as an available device on your device. While the sound had a slightly closed in and thin quality compared to a wired connection, it was certainly enjoyable and the ease and convenience of Bluetooth strikes me as a wonderful option especially for sharing your hi-fi with other people who can play their phone-based music through Hugo with just a few taps.
I also tried out Hugo's Coax input using the Resonessence Labs Concero HD (see review) as a USB-S/PDIF Converter paired with a DH Labs Silver Sonic cable and the opening around Hugo's coax input was not large enough to allow the cable's connector to fully insert. While it worked, the connection was tenuous at best. Sonically, the results were very much along same lines as using Hugo's USB input. Running a Toslink cable from my MacBook, I also took Hugo's Toslink input for a ride and I ran into the same ill fitting problem as with the Coax connection—the opening around the Toslink input on Hugo was not large enough to allow the connector to firmly seat. While this is a minor quibble, for those looking to use Hugo's Coax and Toslink inputs its something to bear in mind.
[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."]
Overall, I'd describe Hugo's sound as delicate and detailed with a very nice sense of fine-grained resolution and clarity that doesn't strip music of its timbral richness. You feel as if you're hearing everything the recording has to offer. That said, compared to the review Ayre QB-9 DSD, Hugo does sound more light weight, with less apparent body to the presentation. The Ayre DAC sounds bigger and beefier compared to Hugo's more nimble and quick sound. In terms of personal preference, I lean toward the Ayre which comes across as richer and more engaging but I can see how other listeners would prefer the Hugo's more sprightly sound. Of course you cannot take the Ayre on the road and it does not have a headphone amp or Bluetooth input capability.
As with the Chord Qute (see review), I found Hugo to be very adept at playing back CD-quality recordings as well as higher resolutions including DXD and DSD but its with the regular old Redbook Standard that Hugo excels. In a video interview with Chord's John Franks (see interview Part 1 and Part 2), Franks suggests "...when the Redbook Standards were drafted, [they were] were very, very good. The problem has been that people have not had high quality, or high enough quality, DACs to decode that information correctly. And I think that a lot of these higher data rate formats, they are very, very good but they may not ever have been developed had the DACs been designed correctly all of those years ago." The difference and sonic distinction between various PCM sample rates and even DSD is indeed converging in a DAC like Hugo to the point where well-recorded music of an stripe is equally engaging.
If you're looking for a DAC/Headphone amp with Bluetooth capability that can go anywhere you go and do double duty in your main hi-fi while performing equally well in both scenarios with PCM data up to 32/384, DXD, and DSD 128 while making good old CD-quality truly shine, the Chord Hugo merits a serious listen.
Also on hand and in use during the Hugo review; Ayre QB-9 DSD