Chord Electronics Hugo Headphone Amp DAC Review
Founded in the UK in 1989, Chord Electronics has in 25 years, managed to forge an international reputation for doing things a little differently to the rest of the Hi-Fi manufacturing world. Not to say that is a bad thing, in fact, quite the opposite is true for this company.
These days, most new audio products start from the foundation of a familiar or proven design. With Chord however, one gets the feeling they throw caution to the wind and start with a completely blank canvas, injecting their wealth of knowledge and wisdom to create ground-breaking products which make competitors sit up and take notice.
This is the case with Chord’s latest pièce de résistance, dubbed the ’Hugo’.
When we heard about this product at StereoNET, we didn’t really pay that much attention - at first glance it appeared to be just another headphone amplifier. Meanwhile, it was reviewing well in other parts of the globe and gaining quite a lot of traction within the industry and with head-fi enthusiasts. Was it possible that we overlooked just what the capabilities of the Hugo were in this instance?
Chris Strom, the main man at Radiance AV, Australian distributors for Chord Electronics called me up and said “man you gotta get your hands on the Hugo and see just what it can do, I can’t live without mine …” Alright, I’m keen.
So with that, I started going through the press pack us publishers get bombarded with on a daily basis whenever a new product is released. What became immediately obvious was that the Chord Hugo was more than just a headphone pre-amplifier …
It’s a DAC too, and a world-class one at that!
Push everything aside and think back to the blank canvas. That’s what Chord have done. Rather than opting for an offering from Sabre, Wolfson or Texas and the like, Robert Watts, Chord’s Digital Designer, has dedicated the last seven years to designing, refining and delivering what he proudly boasts is “the world’s most advanced 32bit DAC”.
With that statement in mind, let’s go into a little bit more detail with three major design considerations, according to Watts.
The ‘interpolation filter’ is the key to recreating the amplitude and timing of an original recording. The human ear / brain can resolve 4µs of timing - that is equivalent to a 250kHz sampling rate. To recreate the original timing and amplitude perfectly, you need infinite tap FIR filters. “Hugo has the largest tap length by far of any other production DAC available at any price.”
The next consideration in his design was RF noise, a major influence on perceived sound quality and (unavoidably) present in all DAC’s. “Hugo has the most efficient digital filtering of any other production DAC - it filters with a 3-stage filter at a sampling rate of 2048Hz. The noise shapers run at 104MHz, some 20 times faster than all other DAC's”. Big numbers are great, but how does that affect the sound we asked? “RF noise at 1MHz is 1000 times lower than all other DAC's, so noise floor modulation effects are dramatically reduced, giving a much smoother and more natural sound quality.”
As a result of this quieter circuitry, the analogue section can be made even simpler as the filtering requirements are lessened. The old adage “less is more” springs to mind here. “Hugo has just a single active stage - a very high performance op-amp with a discrete op-stage as a hybrid with a single global feedback path. This arrangement means that you have a single active stage, two resistors and two capacitors in the direct signal path; and that is it. There is no headphone drive”.
Let’s not overlook that Hugo is first and foremost a headphone preamplifier, and Watts thinks this is often overlooked. So with the intended application in mind, unlike other competing products, the Hugo does not have 3 op-amp stages followed by a separate headphone amplifier. It is fundamentally simpler than all other headphone amplifier solutions.
So with all the technobabble out of the way, let’s look at what the Hugo does in the real world.
When Hugo arrived I was greeted by a hefty aircraft-grade aluminium wonder, measuring 100x20x132mm, and weighing in at 400 grams. Truly, it is a remarkable piece of engineering that is a refreshing change in a world full of plastic handheld devices.
Given Hugo is battery powered it invokes a belief that this is a portable device, and it is, but perhaps not what you’d think. Does it fit in my pocket? No.
So Hugo obviously hasn’t been designed for one hitting the streets streaming FLAC’s from their smartphone via Bluetooth (more on that later) and their chosen pair of ‘phones. Hugo is however smaller than many, if not most, portable headphone amplifiers, so it’s not like Chord got something wrong here.
Ultimately, I see the Hugo as the traveller’s companion; those on a public transport commute each day, Hugo safely tucked into a backpack. He’d be just as at home on a desk (I’m assuming Hugo is a bloke?) during a workday too. It would also be ideal for those corporate types travelling city to city and wanting high-res playback from their laptops and lends itself well to hotel room Head-Fi.
Given the battery will last 14 hours (from a 2-3 hour charge), it’s a safe bet for long-haul flights as well. I didn’t quite get that long from the battery, but I was turning it on, off, using various connections and generally giving it a hard time. One downside is being unable to charge from USB, and having to use the supplied wall-wart power supply, so ensure your Hugo is fully charged before heading off. Of course, it can also remain connected to mains power when being used on a desk, or in a hi-fi application.
With the coming wave of high-res portable players (Pono, Astell&Kern etc.), Hugo’s release is certainly timely. For this day and age, it’s almost surprising that only now can we stream or playback high-res content in high-fidelity, while on the go. Hugo is one giant step forward in this area.
Connectivity has been well thought out with four digital inputs, plus Bluetooth. Two advanced USB inputs are included; one for legacy USB devices requiring no software, plus a high-definition USB port for playback of files with a resolution up to 384kHz. There’s also two additional digital inputs; coaxial and optical, ensuring connection to just about any device with a digital output.
Most of our listening for this review however, was performed via the high-definition USB port.
Bluetooth streaming is something I’ve never really had the urge to get into. Despite the convenience, for me it almost contradicts the point of high-res playback and listening due to the limited bandwidth and resulting poor sound quality…until now.
Hugo employs ‘aptX’ described on the developer’s website as “aptX encoded audio fits neatly within the available bandwidth of wireless transmission standards to offer an efficient solution for band-width restricted connections.”
In reality, it is CD Quality (16Bit/44kHz) compressed 4:1 and decoded on the fly, and by far, it is the best wireless streaming protocol I have heard. In fact, in the office I was enjoying streaming my music collection from my laptop to the Hugo connected to our reference hi-fi system. For convenience I could certainly live with this streaming method.
In what could only be considered a ‘first-world problem’, the biggest decision to make is which method to connect with, given that the Hugo is so versatile. I used the Hugo as a DAC in our reference system, connected via USB from a Wandboard streaming device. No problems there decoding 24bit/192kHz material and then similarly connected to the Venom BlackBook laptop, using JRiver with output to a pair of Adam A5 monitors.
Hugo also provided a great chance to cycle through the myriad of headphones we have on hand here in the office. Chord advertises 110dB SPL into a 300ohm load via the headphone amplifier. With offerings on-hand including Grado, Ferrari (Logic3), Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000’s, and my personal favourite, B&W’s P7’s, with any source including aptX Hugo kept delivering. Enough gain is on hand to drive just about any load, and do so effortlessly.
Chord’s Hugo benefits from being one of what I call the “next generation DACs”, of which the likes of Chord and PS Audio are certainly pioneering. Watts stated recently that over the last seven years in development, his focus has been not on ‘sound quality’, but ‘musicality’. The term itself is quite subjective, but we know what that means. Playback of the source material should be engaging, and involve the listener emotionally. It should have the ability to tell a story in pictures rather than just words; capturing that emotion so easily felt when watching an intimate live performance.
This is what PS Audio’s DirectStream and Chord’s latest DACs are working towards. And I think in Chord’s case they’re well on their way. Hugo is most certainly transparent, and I kept coming back to one term through my listening tests, clarity. It’s honest, and believable. So impressed with Chord’s developments in this area I personally want to test Chord’s full size DAC in my reference system now.
Chord as a company deserve praise. They’re “in-touch” and as passionate enthusiasts themselves understand the market and their customers. And they occasionally get it wrong. The first release of Hugo had a serious design flaw in that the cut-outs for RCA connectors were too small and some high-end cables would not fit. They quickly re-tooled and the subsequent production run does not suffer this problem. Those that purchased first-generation Hugos would still have no trouble sourcing quality cables that do fit, and The Chord Company, UK's biggest cable manufacturer even released Hugo specific first-gen interconnects. Smart.
Which leads me to one of my only real criticisms, the connections, function buttons and corresponding LEDs viewed through Chord’s famous ‘port-hole’ are not marked. This means you need to keep their quick-start guide handy, until you’ve memorised the functions. It’s no big deal, but I certainly did have to keep referring back to it when cycling through inputs or checking input resolution.
There is also a ‘volume bypass’ mode which when used as a DAC in a system with a pre-amp, appealed to me. I assumed this mode (achieved by holding the ‘Crossfeed’ switch while powering on the device) would bypass the volume circuitry entirely, offering full output. While it does offer full output, it doesn’t bypass as such as the volume control is still operational. I’m not sure what this mode actually achieves.
Chord Hugo is arguably the most versatile portable headphone amp and DAC currently available to the market right now. It’s absolutely high-end, and would be the perfect companion for the traveller or audiophile ‘on-the-go’.
So what will Hugo cost you? $2495.00 RRP via Australian Chord dealers, which may seem a premium investment for your portable audio but we think it’s worth it. The build quality is second to none, and it’s fairly future proof given the compatibility and connectivity options.
And there’s good news. My loose calculations put the AU retail price a good $500 cheaper than US market pricing, which is refreshing for our little audiophile island. A job well done Chord.
For more information visit Radiance Audio Visual.
StereoNET’s Founder and Publisher, born in UK and raised on British Hi-Fi before moving to Australia where he worked as an Engineer in both the audio and mechanical fields.