Chord Electronics Hugo 2 DAC Review
Sometimes the sequel is better than the original
What is the Chord Hugo 2?The Chord Electronics Hugo 2 is a compact form factor DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Converter), preamp and headphone amplifier. It is a considered update to the original Chord Electronics Hugo that was launched in 2014. The Hugo was a hugely significant product for Chord Electronics. It took the company’s particular skillset and turned it into a product that had appeal outside of their conventional customer base. Even as it glides into retirement, the Hugo is still highly regarded and, in many regards, still pretty close to state of the art.
It wasn’t perfect though. There are enough aspects of the design of the Hugo that are still pretty maddening even having lived with one for three years. Since it has come along, products like the Chord Mojo and the mighty CPM2800MKII have showed that Chord can keep its design aesthetic but at the same time, turn out products that are much more user friendly. At the same time, the release of products like the DAVE DAC have shown that the company is keen on pushing the art of the possible in digital. If Hugo 2 can combine these two disparate improvements as it claims to, that’s going to be a big deal.
There’s also the thorny issue of exactly what the Hugo wanted to be. Sure it could do an impressive amount for a device of its compact size but there was the faintest sense that in trying to do everything, it compromised specific aspects of the performance. Superficially, the Hugo 2 appears to be the same collection of functions but there seems to have been a definite shift in priorities. The long and the short of it is that we need to decide if this revised device delivers on the promise hinted at in the specs?
SpecificationsKey to the performance of any Chord Electronics digital product is their decoding. Like the Hugo, the Hugo 2 is built around a Xilinx Field Programmable Gate Array. This is a tremendously powerful piece of hardware but in the condition that it leaves the Xilinx plant, it isn’t a DAC chip – it isn’t an anything. The ‘Field Programmable’ bit is the clue that these devices take on specific functions when programed by the new owner. In Chord’s case, designer Rob Watts has crafted and evolved decoding software over the course of a few years that is enormously powerful. Chord commonly makes reference to ‘taps’ – a filtering process called a tapped decay line that creates and shapes the output of a DAC. Competent DAC chips have between 20 and 40 taps. In the Hugo 2, you get 49,152 of them (the first Hugo by point of comparison muddles through with a mere 26,368).
Taken at face value, the processing power of the Hugo 2 seen relative to the tasks it is being asked to perform is like using Mjölnir to tap in a drawing pin. The classic 16/44.1kHz digital feed of a CD represents so little a challenge of the Hugo 2's notional abilities that Chord might as well have called it the ‘Overkill.’ There is method in the madness though. As well as immense decoding grunt, the power in the FPGA allows for the filtering and volume control functions to be handled by the same hardware and performed in a homogenous fashion. This also imparts an air of the bespoke to the process – Chord’s filters and volume are their own and work in a manner that feels very together for want of a better word.
Of course, format support is – as you might expect – pretty much total. The USB input of the Chord supports PCM to 32/768kHz and DSD 512 – an Octaple sampling rate. This is joined by a single optical and coaxial digital connections that are both 24/192kHz capable. The connectivity is completed by Apt-X Bluetooth which, like all other aspects of the Hugo2, is handled via bespoke decoding (Chord Electronics will point out they were doing Bluetooth long before it was cool). These inputs are then made available via a 3.5mm socket, quarter inch connection and an RCA stereo connection. All of these are available as both variable and line out signals. This means that while there are DACs at similar and lower prices that have greater connectivity, the Hugo 2 should cover many people’s requirements very simply.
Key to the unique functionality of the Hugo and now the Hugo 2 is that all of this is available on the move thanks to the presence of an on-board battery. Compared to the original Hugo, the quoted battery life has dropped slightly – even though the new model uses the more efficient Artix FPGA that we saw in the Mojo. Even so, Chord reckons the Hugo 2 is good for “in excess of seven hours” so it would handle a commute or European flight. Unlike its predecessor, Hugo 2 also charges via USB so you don’t need a separate charger. There is also no driverless USB connection as fitted to the original – the Hugo 2 will work via OTG cable into the main USB input.
At the same time, Chord has beefed up the viability of the Hugo as a device to slot into an equipment rack. The key addition is a remote control meaning that input selection and volume control no longer needs to be done on the device and as long as you have line of sight, it’ll work happily without you coming into contact with it. Against this, some parts of the spec have been cut back. As well as the driverless USB, Chord has switched the coaxial connection to a 3.5mm socket instead of a single RCA connection and the dual 3.5mm headphone outputs have been dropped – something that has made the original Hugo a truly indispensable earphone testing device over the years.
DesignThe Hugo has been around long enough and sold sufficiently well that we’ve become slightly dulled to its unique appearance but if you take a step back and approach it with fresh eyes, it really is a wonderfully bonkers piece of design. The metal chassis is a tremendously solid thing to hold and it is so unlike everything else on the market, it rarely fails to get people talking. At the same time, the original Hugo is – and I say this as a fan – bloody annoying. Every input, output and control is unlabelled and if you held a gun to my head right now and asked me which of the identical buttons is the input selector and which one controls the filters, I couldn’t hand on heart tell you. Combine this with cut outs around the connections that made the use of certain cables difficult and you had a great but somewhat flawed device.
The important news is that Hugo2 goes a long way to solving these issues. First, the connections have discrete button inputs, all labelled, in English no less and in a font you can read. With this huge bonus as a starting point, there are some other benefits too. Many of the connections are still recessed into the chassis so still don’t allow for an unlimited choice of cables but they will work with most sane models. The optical connection has a hinged gate plug rather than a removable one which should help you not lose it. This is a device that is much more practical and user-friendly than its predecessor.
It isn’t completely logical though. Like the previous model, the Hugo displays most of its status information via coloured lights. Each sample rate gets its own colour as does the input selected and the battery status. If you’ve got a mind for this sort of thing (I’m not going to say ‘good with colours’), it is probably very logical but it isn’t completely self-explanatory. Still with things labled correctly, this is not a tricky device to use.
Some mileage is being made elsewhere that the Hugo 2 is less portable than before. From where I’m sitting, this seems a little unfair. The new model is no less portable than its predecessor (and thanks to USB charging, easier to keep running in the field). What has changed is the competition. Other devices have come along – not least Chord’s own Mojo – that make the Hugo look a little bulky in comparison. This might be better viewed as part of a portable desktop rather than a true slot-in-pocket device but it’s no less wieldy than its predecessor.
Importantly, it still looks and feels special. This is a relatively small object for the £1,800 asking price but it manages to make you believe you’ve not made a horrible mistake. The build is excellent and all of the controls have a pleasing tactility to them – little details like the buttons on the Hugo 2 not being hard plastic like they are on the Mojo but instead being gloriously squidgy rubber makes all the difference. The looks might not be to be to everybody’s taste but the black unit is pretty subtle and there’s a dimming function for the lights too. The remote is a bit on the plastic side but it’s still nice to have one.
Importantly, it still looks and feels special
How was the Hugo 2 tested?The Hugo 2 has been connected to a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp with a pair of Neat Momentum 4i speakers. It’s been connected via USB to a Melco N1A2 NAS drive, via optical to a Simaudio Moon MiND streaming head unit and via coaxial to a Naim ND5 XS streamer with XP5 XS power supply. Bluetooth testing was done via a Motorola G4 Android Phone. Headphones used with the Hugo2 have included the Bowers & Wilkins P9, Audio Technica AT-H2000Z and the Noble Trident Earphone. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF files, Tidal and Spotify.
Sound QualityThere is a level of contradiction that is endemic to all audio equipment of this nature in that if you sit down to listen to the Hugo 2 in the expectation of hearing that vast amount of processing power in glorious effect… you’re going to be disappointed and that’s the way Chord wants it. The brief fad for making digital equipment sound almost ‘hyper real’ has passed and what you have instead is equipment that sounds entirely free of processing or any notion of ‘digital.’ Having spent a little time with the Hugo 2 and run some tests against the original Hugo as well as the Naim ND5 XS – both staggeringly good examples of digital equipment, my feelings are that the Hugo2 has moved the game on again.
Listening to the 16/44.kHz rip of Calexico’s Algiers, the Hugo 2 is outstandingly unforced. The wonderful flow of the album is captured with an effortlessness that is really only apparent when you switch back to other devices. Joey Burns’ vocals are simply outstanding. They have the weight, texture and body required to be spectacularly real. The layered presentation of the tracks is opened out without losing the sense of the piece as a whole. What I’m trying – and I suspect failing – to get across is that the Hugo 2 simply takes the music in question and gives you all of it without presenting much or anything of itself.
What makes this a singular achievement is that it doesn’t matter what you choose to play, the Chord will handle it with the same absolute ability that it does the relatively simple utterings of a band from Arizona. The much more complex arrangements of Necrology from The Cinematic Orchestra presents In Motion #1 are dealt with the same way. Everything is so well composed and laid out that it simply makes more sense than it does listened to on almost anything else. Standard challenges for audio reproduction like massed strings are dealt with almost imperiously. Decide to completely change tack and play Get Your Fight On by the Prodigy and the Hugo 2 delivers every spat syllable and hammered beat with total control. While there is no sense of anything being added to the presentation, it doesn’t prevent the Chord from being huge fun when fun is the aim of the game.
And the better the signal you feed it, the better it gets. The 24/96kHz download of The Division Bell is a vast and expansive musical experience underpinned by bass that is simply phenomenal. If you have the good fortune to become the owner of one of these, you’ll soon become entirely enthused about just how good some corners of your music collection are. In return, the Chord is impressively undemanding. Services like Spotify are listenable and it’s only really poor recordings and negligible bit rates that really leave it sounding uncomfortable.
These virtues are no less present via the headphone sockets. Like its predecessor, the Hugo 2 is a truly outstanding headphone amplifier. It leaves nowhere for headphones to hide as the feed it provides is as near to the real deal as makes no difference. Listening to the Bowers and Wilkins P9 via the Hugo 2 emphasises the comments from the review. It’s an outstanding headphone but that slightly over energetic bass response is clearly audible via the Hugo 2. Some side-by-side tests with the original Hugo suggest that the new model is better with headphones (although not perhaps to the point where I’d suggest you chop the original in for it) but it has significantly better performance with earphones.
One area where the Hugo 2 is considerably better is the Bluetooth performance. The original has extremely short range and is prone to dropouts. While the new model still doesn’t have enormous range, it is rather more stable and impressive than its predecessor. The idea of using a device of this nature and price for Bluetooth might seem odd to the point of incongruous but it’s part of the ethos of the Hugo that it can be used pretty much however you see fit. Furthermore, Tidal streamed via Apt-x sounds far better than you might reasonably expect.
Picking holes in the Hugo 2 effectively comes down to admitting you like colouration in your music. I find the slightly darker and more forceful presentation of the Naim ND5 XS is something I like with musical genres that I listen to for fun. When it comes to it, I’m pretty confident that the Chord is delivering the more accurate performance. If you have equipment that is unquestionably coloured, adding the Chord might not achieve the results you are looking for. Similarly, with the emphasis on neutrality that it offers, the Chord is unlikely to ‘fix’ a specific issue you might have with your system. As you can see criticising a product for being neutral and well designed is scraping the barrel somewhat.
Picking holes in the Hugo 2 effectively comes down to admitting you like colouration in your music
- Truly outstanding audio performance
- Flexible specification
- Excellent build
- Quite expensive
- Controls still a little idiosyncratic
- Won't flatter poor signals
Chord Electronics Hugo 2 DAC ReviewReplacing a product that was still pretty much state-of-the-art has to be seen as a bit of a risk. Chord Electronics had managed to create a product that had – and I shudder a bit using this term – created something of a zeitgeist and alterations risked harming that. If the arrival of the Hugo 2 means some discounts are to be had on the original, you will still be buying a superb product.
It has however been superseded by an even better one. The Hugo 2 does everything that the original Hugo does with improvements in every department. This is a truly outstanding piece of digital equipment – one that offers performance that is utterly unfazed by whatever you choose to play on it. It isn’t cheap but you could simply attach a pair of active speakers to it and have a superbly capable- and extremely compact system. It isn’t perfect and whilst it’s a great deal more user friendly than the original, it isn’t without quirks. Viewed as a whole though, the Hugo 2 is a deeply impressive product that represents the new benchmark for digital under £2,000 and is an indisputable best buy.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,800.00
Ease of Use8
Value for Money8
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