Chord Electronics Hugo Mobile DAC/Headphone Amp Review
Is it a DAC? Is it a headphone amp? Is it a preamp? All we know is that it’s called Hugo
IntroductionBritish engineering and manufacturing comes in for alternating criticism and praise depending what sort of political football it is being asked to be at the time. Beyond the shouting and the headlines, the state of play in 2014 is that the UK excels at making clever and technically innovative products and does this best when the volumes involved are not enormous. If you want 100,000 of something, UK PLC might not be the best port of call (at least not unless you bring some of the infrastructure with you) but for smaller numbers of complex products, the prospects are rather better.
The technical requirements and the quantities involved mean that the UK’s strong showing in the hi-fi industry should not be too surprising. With sensible volumes and the opportunity to apply high tech solutions to the products in question, we have retained an impressive number of companies that have a worldwide standing in the creation of hi-fi. Some of the products made in the UK are not hugely advanced- we have at least five companies who specialise in turntables for starters- but other companies have been hard at work creating some of the cleverest products on the market.
At the sharp end of the technical wizardry category is Chord Electronics. The Kent based company has consistently produced products that make use of innovative and sophisticated solutions to high quality audio. They were consistent advocates of DACs before the resurgence in the type and their willingness to try unusual solutions to existing design challenges has resulted in some very interesting products. Their latest arrival though is bold even for them. Contained within a small box, Chord has packed a DAC, headphone amp, preamp and Bluetooth receiver, powered it with a technology seldom seen in audio and then called it Hugo. Can such a small box possibly do all the things asked of it?
DesignChord has a long and distinguished history of looking at the expected form factor of a product and studiously ignoring it. Only the flagship components can legitimately claim to be a ‘normal’ size of full width (and these are hardly normal in terms of appearance with all manner of indentations and crenulations, to say nothing of the giant angled carapace that the Red Reference CD player uses as a door) and the rest of the models take the form of lozenge shaped chassis in two different sizes. The Hugo (named because you can take it wherever ‘you go’) is a previously unseen size point and takes the form of a rectangular block about the same size as an Observers field book or a NES cartridge depending on your age.
While other members of the Chord range are often capable of performing a few different functions the Hugo takes this idea and runs with it. The functionality defies easy description as a unit but the Hugo is at once a 24/384kHz and DSD capable DAC, headphone amp and preamp with Bluetooth functionality. Even this description is only the edited highlights. As well as the USB connection capable of handling the high res angle, the Hugo has optical and coaxial connections and a second USB input for driverless connection to a legacy computer or even an Android or Apple device via OTG cable. Want to run more than one pair of headphones at the same time? No problem. What if my headphones only have a quarter inch jack connection? It has you covered. What if you want to take it somewhere with no plugs? Internal batteries give you a ten hour life on the go. The best description I could come up with is ‘Portable, multi-function, digital preamp’ but I concede this is neither snappy nor truly informative about what the damn thing actually does.
The means by which Chord has managed to put all of this functionality in one small box has to do with how the company handles digital to analogue processing. Instead of a conventional dedicated DAC chip from a company such as Wolfson, Texas Instruments or Crystal, which is then used on its own or with an external DSP to handle upsampling and other processing, the Hugo uses a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) to perform the same task. As well as sounding cool, this is an integrated circuit that as the name suggests leaves the factory with no specific function but is assigned one ‘in the field’ (or in this case, the Chord factory). The FPGA in the Hugo handles decoding, allows for switchable DSP modes to be applied and enables volume control. Additionally, it allows for a completely bespoke Bluetooth implementation too. Although the FPGA is big compared to a DAC chip, it still takes up less space than the supporting infrastructure would generally require. The processing power on offer also allows for volume adjustment to be carried out entirely in the digital domain with no bit reduction or any other nastiness.
The use of the FPGA has one other important effect. It is outside the scope of my reviewing equipment to do a measurement suite on review samples but members of the objectivist contingent of AVForums may be interested to know that the Hugo is capable of outstanding measured performance and not merely by the standards of portable equipment but digital decoding full stop. Depending on who you believe, the Hugo is either close to the absolute benchmark for measured performance of a DAC or is in fact the new benchmark. Although it does a great many things and is usefully compact, it is very important that you realise that the £1,400 asking price of the Chord is buying you more than a clever trinket.
the Hugo is capable of outstanding measured performance and not merely by the standards of portable equipment but digital decoding full stop
Aesthetically, the Hugo could only really be a Chord Electronics design. The design ethos defies easy explanation but I think that the effect is what the BBC props department were gunning for in episodes of Blakes 7 and seventies Doctor Who but limited resources and the fact they were using papier-mâché prevented from achieving. Chord uses aluminium rather than wet paper and the Hugo is a fine example of their construction process using two machined sections. The top plate of the unit is dominated by three features. The first is the name engraved in the metal- which is impressively done but not something I’m completely sold on. The second is a ‘porthole’- something that many Chord products feature. This lets you see the FPGA and is edge lit with LEDs that change colour depending on the sampling rate of the input material. The third is a volume control that is a rubber thumbwheel that also changes colour depending on the level setting.
The Hugo is clever and feels solid but it isn’t perfect in terms of interface and aesthetics. Chord has long felt that labelling inputs and outputs is for kids so hasn’t bothered on the Hugo which means you’ll need to break the habit of a lifetime and check the manual to see which USB is which. The Hugo has actually seen some detail revisions since it was first launched including the size of the cutouts around the RCA sockets and the accessibility of the power switch. These features still aren’t completely perfect but neither are they too much of a problem once you are used to them and are a side effect of fitting a lot of connectivity on a small chassis. In many ways, the slightly quirky design gives the Hugo a unique character that it wouldn’t have if it was bigger and more spaciously laid out.
SetupThe Chord was tested in three distinct phases. It was firstly used as a headphone amp and connected to my Lenovo ThinkPad via USB and used with Grado SR325is and Focal Spirit Classic headphones with Foobar and Spotify used as the source material. I then continued using the Grado but substituted my Google Nexus 5 as the source via OTG cable. It was then used as a line level DAC connected to a Naim ND5 XS streamer and XP 5XS power supply and going into a Cambridge Audio 851A. The final stage was to use the fixed input of the Cambridge Audio to act as a power amp with the Chord acting as the preamp. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC, DSD and compressed audio from Spotify and Grooveshark.
Sound QualityThe Chord might have some of the brand’s idiosyncrasies in terms of design but first installation is usefully painless. Chord supplies a useful set of USB and digital cables and also puts a USB stick with their dedicated driver on it in the box. Connect the stick, click on setup and two minutes later the Chord is good to go. I had no trouble getting an ASIO connection running on Foobar and the Hugo connected to quickly and happily to my computer. Connection to a Nexus 5 via an OTG cable was also simple enough- with the proviso that I’ve had the Nexus running via OTG before so I had done the legwork software wise.
Using headphones initially, the Hugo shows that the headphone stage is far more than a convenience feature. The Grado SR325is is not a difficult headphone to drive but it is a revealing one that can show the limitations in a headphone amplifier without too much strain. The Chord simply grabs the Grados and delivers all of the performance that these incredibly talented headphones are capable of. As you might expect from a device that has put in the measured performance that the Hugo has, the actual character of the performance is mainly decided by the headphones. Switching to the Focal Spirit Classic gives you the livelier and punchier performance of the French headphone while still revealing comparatively little of itself.
More listening reveals that the Chord does exhibit some behavioural traits that are identifiably its own. The presentation is absolutely unforced- you don’t sit listening to it thinking that the bass is deep or the midrange is well defined- and wonderfully even from top to bottom. The detail and sheer realism that the Hugo is capable of is an elegant demonstration that accuracy does not need to be dull. Neither does it need to be merciless. Even when fed the distinctly lo-fi diet of The Prodigy Experience, the Hugo captures the early nineties magic of the album without showing up the decidedly limited recording quality. There are very few instances where I could see the Chord being anything other than a subtle and benign presence in a system.
This is a slight reflection on the DSP modes that the Chord offers as well. In truth, despite playing with them over both headphones and into the 851A, I never felt there was a massive difference between any of them. In fairness to the Chord, this is not specific to them. I’ve found that adjustable settings on products that measure well generally don’t introduce radically different presentations because the underlying balance is so straight down the line, tweaking a small part of it won’t make any massive difference.
Switching to using the Chord as a conventional DAC keeps the same underlying confidence in presentation. Using the Hugo as a fixed level DAC needs a little initial attention because the output can be raised far above normal line out voltage that will give you some clipping and distortion if you aren’t careful. With the output set correctly, the Hugo is a serious contender to almost any digital source I can think of below two thousand pounds. On balance I prefer the analogue output of the Naim ND5XS but this is unquestionably more coloured than the Chord is (although it is still an exceptionally accurate performer) but I can see the appeal of the nigh on studio presentation of the Hugo.
The detail and sheer realism that the Hugo is capable of is an elegant demonstration that accuracy does not need to be dull
What makes the Hugo so impressive is how accessible this performance is. Connecting the Hugo to a Sky HD box and watching a Ray LaMontagne concert on Sky Arts had the Chord finding the detail and the sense of the space the concert was performed in. The Bluetooth functionality is equally capable- something of a Chord speciality, it sounds entirely believable with a wide variety of sources. It did represent almost the only weakness in the Hugo’s otherwise generally consistent performance across all available inputs. Bluetooth performance is excellent but the Hugo doesn’t seem to have an especially long range- it is prone to dropouts and stuttering with some devices especially if they are more than two metres or so away. After a week with this little metal box, the summation of my criticism is that the convenience feature isn’t quite as convenient as it could be- make of that what you will.
Using the Chord as a preamp is easy and generally successful. I don’t feel I could use it like this all the time- I’m fat and lazy and I need my remote control- but I can’t criticise the Chord for how it performs. The volume ramp is smooth and even and completely free of any sense of bit reduction or other digital nastiness and it also moves up and down usefully quickly. On a desktop system where you sat in close proximity with the Hugo, using it would be simple and painless.
- Outstanding Sound quality
- Impressively flexible
- Very well built
- Quirky ergonomics
- Limited Bluetooth range
- Slightly fiddly as a preamp
Chord Electronics Hugo Mobile DAC/Headphone Amp ReviewPortable audio is one of the most keenly fought areas of the entire consumer electronics industry. We’ve moved from people spending a bit more money on earphones than they might have one done to products from companies throwing the summation of their technical knowledge at the genre because they know full well this is how they bring new customers into the fold.
Judged by this reasoning, the Hugo is incredible achievement. This is a truly awesome headphone amplifier- I deeply regret that the Sennheiser IE800 and Oppo PM-1 had returned to base before it turned up because I suspect that combining the Hugo with either of them would have resulted in the sort of performance that would have me listening all night. As it is, the Hugo takes good products like the Grado SR325is and makes them great. If this was all the Hugo did, I’d be singing its praises but the fact you can take this tiny powerhouse and use it as a truly world class DAC is where Chord has pulled a blinder. In a world of compact power amplifiers, active speakers and new form hi-fi, this is a product that can thrill you on your commute before coming home to thrill you in your living room. It isn’t cheap but given how much it does and just how well it does it, it makes a degree of sense in 2014 that few other products do.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,400.00
Ease of Use9
Value for Money9
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