Chord Hugo Review

I always thought that Chord products look rather like aliens had landed and given us audio gear. It was certainly far too exotic for me to ever consider that, one day, I might own anything like it. However, such an possibility reared its head in the form of the QuteHD, which a member of an Australian audio forum was waxing lyrical over (as he had the other DACs previously, ahem!) Given it’s core is the brains of the flagship QBD76 DAC with a USB input and single-ended output, my knowledge of USB power supplies and ultra-low-jitter S/PDIF converters meant that it could likely be coaxed (ha!) into performance far above its pay grade. 
 
So I put the idea of borrowing and reviewing one to the Japanese distributor. I was offered a week’s loan. Given my average for writing a review of anything is closer to 3 months it didn’t go ahead. Emails to Chord discussed long-term loaners, but nothing came of it. When the Hugo came out, a second effort was launched and somehow got buried under everything by both parties. But, finally, at the 2014 Spring Tokyo Headphone Festival I managed to coax a loaner from the lovely Hiroko Kuroki of Timelord Japan, the local distributor for Chord.
 
Better late than never (and more so given changes to the outer case since introduction) a package arrived at my doorstep on Saturday morning, right after I had managed to crack a rib practicing martial arts and thus was essentially chair-bound. What glorious timing, except when I had to reach behind my computer to plug things in. Not only that, but the weather was getting hotter and the thought of adding the cost of air conditioner to my already excessive bill generated by my audio rack had lead me to decide to use portable audio gear over the Summer. Speaking of which, portable headphone amplifiers have long had a reputation for poor performance with full-sized headphones until fairly recently, a trend bucked most thoroughly by balanced portable amplifiers and topped off by the amazing Astell&Kern AK240 and AK380. But this comes at a price, and one that puts it in full-sized component DAC territory and in the top-tier headphone component category. Unlike the AK240 it is a bit big to fit in a pocket, especially given it requires at least an iPhone or similar to store music for it.
 
However, being battery powered, the Hugo does make for good transportable kit. When Hugo somewhere. Geddit? It has a plethora of inputs and three headphone outputs. USB, coaxial S/PDIF and optical take care of computers and some portable audio devices and an additional low-resolution USB port is included for smart phones and similar devices that can’t handle high-resolution output. Even Bluetooth input is included! For iPhones and similarly-sized devices, 6 thin rubber bands are included, along with a short cable with micro-USB plugs and optical cables. To use an iPhone with the Hugo, the Camera Connection Kit (CCK) cable is required, which gives the iPhone a regular USB port in the manner of a computer. While not officially, an iDevice will send out audio over the CCK, but is limited to 16/48 (in iOS7 and below) unless streaming over wireless from a computer, or one uses the Onkyo HD Player, Music Streamer or similar software. When I tried both ports, my iPad Mini Retina refused to use the high-res USB port, popping up a warning message, but I managed to persuade my iPhone 5 to use the high-res port, allowing high-res including DSD playback with the Onkyo HD player.
 
Problematically, the first Hugos had tightly enclosed and recessed RCA sockets as Chord had not anticipated people using it in other than a portable manner. The outcry lead them to widen the holes around the RCA sockets, though users of cables with very large RCA plugs are going to have issues. Most of my Van Den Hul cables were fine, but my ALO Audio Reference 20s were no-go. While visiting Moon Audio recently I spied a box of discontinued Monster RCA double adaptors and promptly bought them, as well as a pair of 6 foot Silver Dragons so I could switch easily between the Studio Six and the ADAMs without continually re-plugging cables.

Chord Hugo

My first use of the Hugo was decided by the sale of my pre-amp, which I’d been using between my DAC and the Adam ARTist 3 speakers. Given the single-ended output and my lack of long RCA cables, it ended up almost squarely in the middle of my desk, hooked up to the Adams with a pair of 1 meter Van Den Hul The Orchid RCA cables — what I might call my poor man’s Valhallas, given their propensity once included in a system, towards highlighting any issues in a rig (“The speakers are toed in wrongly.”, “You rolled the wrong tubes.” etc.).

The lack of button and port labelling on the Hugo makes reading the manual a requirement. While the basics are obvious (RCA sockets are just that) the two tiny buttons on the front — or is it back? — of the unit simply change the colour of equally unlabelled lights inside the central round window atop the case. Respectively the buttons are the crossfeed settings and input selector. All settings, including volume level reset to defaults on power on. Rob Watts simply ran out of space on the FPGA to have them and otherwise would have had to compromise some of the programming for the highly complex and highly advanced digital audio processing.

Once I figured everything out, the result with the Adam’s Heil tweeters was rather eye-opening, and being that the Hugo (and other Chord DACs) are not typical designs with off-the-shelf digital conversion inside, rather more troublesome to compare. What the sound did remind me of was a good SET amp, but in the form of a DAC, if that can make any sense. For a long time I didn’t understand what people meant by “PRaT” until I owned a SET amp and realised that music has pace, rhythm and timing and a good SET amp has the capability to deliver it is a meaningful and engaging way. In a similar vein, the Hugo makes listening to music an engaging experience with every note, from quiet to loud, while at the same time delivering the music with effortless, unforced precision. In my mind, I see the music in an immersive 3D image and full colour unlike what I’ve experienced from digital reproduction before at this level. What is more, this came through seemingly without compromise direct from the headphone socket.

While it was going to require plugging it in to a full-size speaker set-up to see where it performs in absolute terms, with a pair of Sennheiser HD-800 headphones, the soundscape presented was considerably better than I had anticipated. Warren Chi is always fond of recalling the moment I plugged the same headphones into the Astell&Kern AK240 player, putting on a binaural track and swearing in disbelief at what I was hearing. If I hadn’t had that experience I might have uttered something similar with the Hugo. I also put Audeze’s LCD-X and XC and Oppo’s new PM-1 planars up to the test. While the Audezes are more sensitive than their previous models, they demand considerable current from an amp to perform their best. The Hugo, with its 0.5W output would be challenged.

“Mambo for Roy” from Roy Hargrove’s “Habana” album was the track for this, along with ALO’s Studio Six to provide an amplifier for comparison. The second half of the track is almost all fast, intense drumming and a good test to see if an amplifier is running out of steam. Switching back and forth from the Studio Six and the Hugo’s built-in amp suggested that the tube amp delivers drum impacts with more authority than the Hugo alone, which seems to present from a few rows further back. Far from the Hugo being put to shame, however, it did a great job keeping up with the music and I doubt there would be a much of a difference with the majority of music I listen to.

A more musical companion for the Hugo would be Aurorasound’s HEADA. The neatly-sized amp spent a couple of months on my desktop where it added a touch of warmth and musicality without letting up on the detail, perfect for the HD-800s and very enjoyable with the darker Audeze LCD-Xs. Almost a fault with the Hugo is that its level of detail retrieval requires a suitably capable amp, and at least one other amp, the Bakoon HPA-01 simply did not make the grade, with a noticeable loss of detail when added to the chain.

In another direction entirely, fans of high-end custom in-ear monitors such as the JHAudio Laylas will find the Hugo a good match, not requiring a separate amp to get excellent results. Adding an ALO Audio Rx (2015 version) only revealed how transparent the Rx was, with zero change in the presentation. The only danger here is that with switch-on defaulting to a volume level around the middle, users of sensitive IEMs will have to plug and play with care and make sure the volume is turned down before playback.

With the arrival of a beta version of Hifiman’s incredible HE1000s, the limitations of the Hugo’s headphone output was more apparent, the dynamics that the HE1000s were capable of somewhat lacking. This was especially so if I had the Studio Six and ADAM speakers plugged in at the same time, the music becoming flat and un-involving. Aurender’s Flow, with its regular opamp-based output stage seemed to do a better job with headphones in general, though I had let go of it by the time the HE1000s arrived. The sound was simply more meaty and involving from the amp, if the DAC didn’t have a chance to compete with the massive computing power in the Hugo.

When I went to CanJam SoCal in 2015, I had the chance to borrow Cavalli Audio’s Liquid Carbon overnight, and combined with the Hugo and MrSpeakers’ new Ethers, the combination of precision from that, with the Liquid Carbon’s bold and entertaining one made for a highly enjoyable combination. It was enough to cause me to text Alex Cavalli and ask him what the heck he had put in the amp, and I delayed going down to dinner with Warren and Jude as I wanted to finish up listening to a couple of tracks first.

Chord Hugo

Rob Watts himself noted different levels of sound quality with different PCs (https://www.head-fi.org/threads/chord-electronics-dave.766517/page-82#post-12220009) and so Chord went to work on the Hugo TT, intended to be the all-in-one desktop solution that the Hugo doesn’t quite succeed in being. Galvanically isolated USB and a separate, better headphone amp with front outputs and a remote control give the Hugo everything it needs when portability isn’t. That galvanic isolation is critical, as listening to the Hugo through the USB input versus listening through the optical input, there was a subtle, but not unnoticeable hardness to the sound.

Chord Hugo

Usually with any component, especially digital ones, there is always a compromise of some kind. You can have your ultra-detail, but with a “cold” or “digital” presentation. You can have a rich sound, but it comes through as somewhat contrived, or from a non-over-sampling (NOS) DAC, which exchanges the unpleasantness of digital with degrees of mushiness or a narrower soundstage. The Hugo surprises by giving width, depth, and dynamics I’m used to from regular, high-end over-sampling DACs, but with the kind of musicality I thought only older-style, pre-Sigma Delta “ladder” or “R2R” DACs could deliver.

Some time ago I owned an old Parasound DAC1600HD. Based around a pair of Burr Brown PCM63K DACs, it held my proverbial crown as the piece of digital kit most capable of, well, not sounding digital. Regrettably it did not accept high-res input, and given my increasing library of music from HDTracks and Linn Records, its days were numbered. It represented many of my feelings about digital music reproduction, in that I felt that things had gone backwards, not forwards with the push to high-res playback and cheap Sigma-Delta DACs.

As such I sometimes use an Audio-gd NOS1704 DAC — if the model name doesn’t give it away, it has dual R2R PCM1704UK DACs but without their usual DSP to handle oversampling and filtering. This I do instead using the included iZotope up-sampling in Audirvana Plus feeding my Audiophilleo 1 with Pure Power to the DAC. While that combination doesn’t have the large, encompassing soundstage of my regular DAC, the Audio-gd Master 7, with the lively ALO Audio Studio Six SET amp it strikes a nice balance and has some of the magic that old Parasound had.

The NOS1704, despite all my tweaks at work from the USB through to a clean feed from my PS Audio Power Plant Premier doesn’t hold a candle to the Hugo. In fact, in comparison it sounds almost rough!  Instruments come through the Hugo smoothly, but it is a “lack of distortion” smooth, rather than “rolled-off” smooth. Compared to other DACs I’ve owned, be it full-size or portable, it is rather like the first time you hear horn speakers in a well-set-up system or electrostatic headphones and think “Wow, I didn’t realise music could be reproduced like that!”. There is an immediate accuracy to every note, through attack and decay and down to the micro detail, but delivered with a high-quality glass-like, yet liquid clarity. This even more so when I moved the Audiophilleo set-up over to the Hugo where the sound quality was pushed over the line to a level I felt sounded magical.

It was not that the other inputs were poor — quite the contrary. It used to be with USB DACs that I’d simply give a the USB input a quick try to see how bad it was, then switch to using the Audiophilleo 1. Recent DACs, the Hugo included, seem to do a much better job through USB than a few years ago and the results from my MacBook Air through the high-res USB port or my iDevices through the low-res USB port were only marginally behind. Not as much, say, as I experienced with Cypher Labs Algorithm Solo +db, which sounded far better from my MacBook Air than it did from my iPhone.

Likewise with my other devices, a similar story was to be had using the AK240 with a Van Den Hul Optocoupler as a source, as well as from the FiiO X5 via coaxial, which is not ideal given the relatively poorer digital connection that a 3.5mm TS plug is for S/PDIF. While gross overkill as a transport, considering the AK240 costs as much as the Hugo and is more than capable in itself, it was still an interesting experiment. It is one that captured the imagination of people of sufficiently deep wallets to own both that Sys Concepts in Canada makes a special short, high-quality optical cable for this very connection, and similar cables can be had from most headphone-oriented suppliers, such as Moon Audio, who also make high-quality micro-USB and optical cables. Timelord also supplied a short optical cable from an un-specified maker in Taiwan to me, which they include when they sell the Hugo.

Until recently I hadn’t ever thought of using a Bluetooth audio connection, but the promise of good performance using the much higher quality APTX protocol encouraged me to give it a go from my iMac, even if it was limited to CD quality. While the music slightly lacked dynamics compared to the USB connection, the result was very satisfactory. I could easily envisage myself using it for situations where the highest quality audio isn’t required but convenience is, such as watching music videos on Youtube or where I simply want to route audio through my system without having to muck about with more cables.

In discussion with a friend recently, we talked about how the differences between DACs are only minimal, and USB transports fall into that category as well. But over hours of listening, those little differences add up to a lot and so in the end I stuck with the Audiophilleo feeding the Hugo, as the music subtly takes on a most magical and real quality compared with the other inputs, and lopped a row off my equipment rack. Later on, I purchased a couple of USB isolators, including a Schiit Wyrd, and found that I didn’t need the Audiophilleo if I used this instead, as it brought about the same results at less than a tenth of the cost. The Wyrd also allowed me to use my iPad as a music streamer without complaining about power draw.

The transport experiments didn’t end there, the arrival of a Soundaware D100 Pro, which fed the Hugo via its coax input. Compared to the MacBook Air / Audirvana Plus / Oyaide d+USB / Schiit Wyrd combo, using the D100Pro with a Harmonic Tech cable resulted in a smoother and more musical presentation that didn’t seem to lack anything in detail.  That clearly bested both, raising the Hugo another level as a DAC and was to be the best I was to experience the Hugo before it ended up displaced by a Schiit Audio Yggdrasil in my main rig.

Chord Hugo

The problem with explaining how the Hugo achieves its magic is troublesome, not just for the average person, but equally so for the audiophile who has taken more than a passing interest in how DACs work. We are used to reading about such-and-such DAC used, along with whatever components make up the USB and other inputs and send that to the DAC and then on through a circuit of some kind to the analogue output. Discussion then comes to how masterful the designer is at getting the most out of all of this, what filters are available or are used, how good the power supply is and how sensitive the inputs are to variations in transport and cables, for which we turn to reviews and auditions with familiar music.

The Hugo, however, is so considerably different to a regular DAC that we almost have to start again, though some basic facts will bear familiarity. The centre of the Hugo is a Xylinx FPGA, a device that is essentially a blank sheet (or more appropriately blank circuit board) as far as function is concerned. Rob Watts isn’t the only person to use a FPGA in a DAC, but it is what he does with it that is unique. The model in particular was their latest at the time of design, capable of serious computation yet only requiring minimal power, allowing battery operation.

I remember as a child a neighbour, who I used to hang around as he fixed his motorbikes and car, joke that the answer to everything was to use a bigger hammer. Rob Watts has used the biggest hammer of all. While a regular DAC over-samples the incoming digital audio by a factor of 2-8x or up-samples to a preset rate, eg: 384 kHz, or multiples of DSD in the latest PS Audio DAC, Rob Watts realised that and, in the most over-simplified of terms, the Hugo’s FPGA over-samples digital audio, using his own algorithms, based on 30 years of experience, a whopping 2048x. Pause and think about that for a minute. The output is then sent to an all discrete component bitstream DAC. Sorry, no DA chip arguments possible here.

DSD, which the Hugo can receive through any of its inputs using DoP, is converted to PCM, since it otherwise would not allow the volume control and crossfade to work. Rob stated in a post on Head-Fi.org (which I really need to find) that he could do this without any quality loss, so those who hold the common perception that DSD should be output directly need not be concerned, but if presented with a choice of downloading a track as PCM or DSD, the former would be the better option.

The power supply has also received careful attention. Many audiophiles may be horrified of the idea of listening to a device that, when not using battery power, would use a cheap wall-wart, but the power supply is quite sophisticated, with 9 regulators and 12 RF filters built-in. Rob Watts also performed listening tests to the Hugo with and without the wall wart connected to ensure that there was no sound degradation with it plugged in. Of interesting note is that Rob spent a lot of time in the past investigating why power chords would make a difference in audio systems. His conclusion was that radio frequency (RF) noise entering the circuits was the cause of problems, and now he designs his power supplies to have a very high level of RF rejection, allowing, in the Hugo’s case, the use of a cheap wall wart for power without any degradation in the sound quality. The only disappointment in this regard is that not as much care was put into isolating the USB input.

Chord Hugo
The "Crazy portable rig" done as a piss-take on the kind of huge portable rigs some members used to carry with them.

It is inevitable that a comparison with the Astell&Kern AK240 is required, given its close price and near equal status as a phenomenally capable unit. The Hugo has the first advantage in that it doesn’t require special balanced cabling to get the maximum capability from its headphone amp. Initial comparisons have the AK240 taking a step back and delivering the music in a light and clear-sounding manner, but enough so that in some cases, such as with the Sennheiser HD-800s a slight lack of bass weight becomes apparent, especially in comparison to the Hugo, which impresses with undistorted and unveiled detail and dynamics. Is it possible to describe a presentation as more effortless?

Nothing is perfect and the Hugo is no exception. Given its portable pretensions there are compromises, the most major of which was the clearance around the RCA jacks which, while improved from the original will not accept cables with very large plugs. Likewise, those people who like their expensive USB cables will need to use an adaptor for the micro-USB socket. Also the volume and input reset to defaults when the unit is switched off, something rectified in the new Mojo. Finally, the Hugo is around $2500, which is high-end DAC territory, or even high-end rig territory, putting it up against a lot of highly capable gear, especially the Mojo and 2Qute from Chord, which now more adeptly cover the portable and desktop DAC markets. In my case, that was the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil (I haven’t heard the TT) to best my experiences with the Hugo. The Yggdrasil provides what could best be described as even greater insight into the details of the music, to the point it is as if you can feel the very air between the performers, and notes from a piano seem to come as if you are there next to it. Sadly I can’t fit an Yggdrasil in my bag!

As I was discussing this with my friends at Head-Fi, they naturally asked what I thought of it and if it was as good as reviews described. Fellow moderator Warren commented: ‘Someone send this to Chord as my non-impression impressions: “Hey you guys, I’ve come to a decision… I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and I want y’all to be the first to know. I do NOT want to listen to the Hugo. I don’t want to try it out, I don’t want to be in any reviews of it, nothing. It’s like a couple grand, and EVERY M****F**** WHO HEARS IT BUYS ONE.”’ If there is a good summary of the Hugo it was that.

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