Chord Hugo Mobile DAC/Headphone Amp

Device Type: 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
Weight: 0.4kg
Availability: through Authorized Dealers
Price: $2,395.00
Website: www.chordelectronics.co.uk

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.

Hugo playing back via Bluetooth with the Maximum Crossfeed filter selected and fully charged (3 blue lights lit)

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.

Wherever Hugo
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.



Associated Equipment

Also on hand and in use during the Hugo review; Ayre QB-9 DSD

COMMENTS
tbrads's picture

Michael,

Hi.  Great review as always! 

I have some feedback from a couple audio buddies who are stark raving over the Hugo (as a main home rig), and daring to compare it to $30K DACs, etc, and are quite amazed at the increase in analog-like sound that the newer FPGA horsepower gives them.  So I am looking forward to getting one and comparing it, myself, to my Chord Qute EX, for example.

Questions: 1) Chord products seem to take several hundred hours to break in, but not sure about this one as the analog section is likley different than standard home rigs.  Regardless, how many hours were on the Hugo when you described it's main rig sound as slighlty lightweight compared to Ayre?  2) you descibed what I saw at CES; that is, a very tightly cramped set of RCA and coax inputs/outputs.  Did you have any isues with the analog RCA outs, especially given that home use would likley involve interconnects with audiophile-sized barrels?  I realize Chord has responded to some of this, but there's only so much room on the thing.

With Chords multitude of product categories I would think it would not be difficult to introduce yet another home reference DAC based on the new higher-tap FPGA generation, and not really cannibalize the Qute (Chordette) line.

Thx

Ted_B

Michael Lavorgna's picture

To your questions:

1) I've had the Hugo since CES and used it in my desktop system for about a month before sitting down with it in the main system. So my estimate is well over 100 hours.

2) I did not have an issue with the RCAs but the ICs I use do not have massive connectors.

With Chords multitude of product categories I would think it would not be difficult to introduce yet another home reference DAC based on the new higher-tap FPGA generation, and not really cannibalize the Qute (Chordette) line.

I agree.

labjr's picture

Isn't the greater dynamic range of 24 bit a good reason to go beyond 16 bit material?

Also, with all this fancy clocking and and electronics for detail recovery, we don't hear a lot about the ADC process and how it affects the sound quality at playback. I'd think it's more important than the DAC since it's the first process and an irreversable one.

deckeda's picture

Now, about this:

Isn't the greater dynamic range of 24 bit a good reason to go beyond 16 bit material?

That noise floor can be measured, and sometimes you need to "overshoot the advertised spec" to get what you think you're getting. For example, in Stereophile I think JA has mentioned when a 24-bit DAC only produced about 20-bits of resolution. And then there's the historical example of the early Phillips/Magnavox CD players that only gave 14-bits of resolution.

I agree with Chord's assesment that we haven't always "used up" everything 16-bit audio can deliver, whether it's a full 16-bit noisefloor, artistic intention to squash dynamics or various other attributes the format can otherwise deliver but aren't.

But isn't that like saying LPs can be capable of "more" depending on where you're starting from in your comparison?

What I suppose never changes is, there's a format you prefer, or a format that for whatever reason sounds better and within that decision matrix is where you spend your money.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

But for those recordings that are only available as 16/44.1, its nice to know there are DACs that can make them sound their best.

labjr's picture

"I agree with Chord's assessment that we haven't always "used up"  everything 16-bit audio can deliver" 

I think it was Robert Watts of Chord who stated that a sample rate greater than 1mhz was neccessary to accurately capture the timing information of the music because the brain can detect differences of a microsecond.

 

dpod4's picture
I received my Hugo about a week ago. Did extensive listening through my new Audeze headphones. My main rig at home consists of ARC Ref 40 preamp, Ref2se phono preamp, AMG v12 + Innovation Wood + Spiral Groove SG1.1 turntables, Magico S5 speakers and Constellation Centaur amp. Digital has been PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC mkII, Modwright Sony 5400es cd player. Headphone amps are ALO Studio Six, Beyerdynamic A1, Sugden Headmaster, Pathos Aurium. It's taken me a while and experimentation and dough to get the home system sounding exceptional. Having said that, I could sell all that equipment and be perfectly comfortable with the Chord Hugo and a pair of Audeze headphones. The DAC section is world class. Besting any DAC my ears have heard. The amp section is superb, especially in combination with the dac section. Refined, musical, spacious, transparent, layered, textured, fully extended, profoundly agile and articulated bass, and the list goes on. On top of the sound is an incredible form factor and footprint (small, light, beautiful, machined, durable). And the interface is incredible and actually enjoyable (volume control perfectly resistant and smooth, switches recessed enough to not be accidentally toggled, lighting prompts for sample rate and crossfeed and battery life are ingenious). If Steve Jobs was an audiophile this is what he wish he could have designed. My new favorite piece of audio gear. Highly portable and Highly Audiophile.
ksalno's picture
I have also had a Hugo for a couple of weeks and have greatly enjoyed it in my desktop system. However, my one frustration for portable use is that I have not been able to find any short USB cables with a micro connector such as the Hugo uses for input. I have other portable headphone amps that use a USB mini connector and those cables are readily available including from some of the high-end cable manufacturers. For micro USB I haven't found much beyond a Belden with gold connectors and even that is a 1m cable which is way too long when using for a portable rig. Other portable DAC manufacturers offer custom cables to connecting an iPhone or iPod to their DAC. Perhaps Chord could consider this. I am also wondering if Chord will make field upgrades available to their early adaptor customers for the case changes they are making to accept larger coax and toslink connectors?
dpod4's picture

ksalno, moon audio sells a usb to micro cable (two versions) that will fit, and they have one that is super short. Price is reasonable too. I ordered one. dpod4

dpod4's picture

Great news for those of us who bought the early model Chord Hugo that has recessed USB inputs and tight openings around coax digital input and RCA outputs -- The Kimber Kable Illuminations D60 fits the coax input perfectly, and with its white jacket it looks perfectly mated to the elegance of the Hugo. Also, Herron makes very high quality RCA cables which fit securely in the RCA outputs. Another workaround is to use locking RCA cables and simply unscrew the caps on the end that goes into the Hugo. I am using a pair of Analysis Plus and they work perfectly.

dpod4's picture

Moon Audio makes two excellent usb to micro cables (blue dragon and silver dragon) -- both fit like a champ in the recessed USB inputs of the Hugo, and both come in lengths as short as 6 inches, perfect for a portable setup. Moon Audio rocks!

Golden Ears's picture

dpod4 by any chance are you in the Orange county area?

Golden Ears's picture

Send me a PM via Head-fi

ender25's picture

Wich Dac is better? Chord Hugo or Chord Qute Ex?

AudioFreqz's picture

VERY much so. I have both the Qute EX and Hugo connected to my Audio Research pre and swapping each one out using the same cable and input it's a night and day difference. The Hugo is so much more analog sounding. For the ~£200 extra that I paid for the Hugo there is tonnes more in sonic difference. They have some original chassis left. http://www.custom-cable.co.uk/chord-hugo-portable-dac-headphone-amplifie...

Astral berry's picture

Could the differenve be the DC source of the battery powered Hugo vs the AC source in the QB? Would love to hear how the Hugo compares to the AYre Codex, a shoot out for these times.
Michael L. says the Ayre QB is warmer, more solid sounding..

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