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?
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 Review
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.
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