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December 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Chord Electronics Hugo Battery Powered DAC And Headphone Amplifier
An exceptional DAC, top-notch 'phone amplifier and, bonus, battery powered too!
Review By Tom Lyle

 

Chord Electronics Hugo Battery Powered DAC And Headphone Amplifier

 This isn't anywhere near the first review of the Chord Electronics' Hugo. I'm very happy that I'm finally getting to hear it, though, because from what I've read I feel as if I've been missing out on not only a very unique component, but an excellent one. Since it is a portable DAC/headphone amplifier the guys and gals at Chord Electronics named this rather small palm-sized player Hugo -- because you can take Hugo wherever "you-go". Get it? To make it go wherever you go, it includes an internal battery-charging circuit that enables one to play music for up to 10 hours without re-charging. Once you arrive at a wall outlet it takes it about five hours to reached a full charge, but can be used again long before it reaches that full charge. My guess is you will be listening to it while it's charging.

The Hugo's DAC is based on the ofttimes used Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) DAC technology that Chord has used in past digital products. Field programmable indicates that it can be configured by the user, in this case Chord Electronics. It is able to handle much larger and more complex digital processing instructions, and is also very fast. The converted music signal is the beneficiary, and as a consequence, the listener. Another advantage of using FPGA technology is that the engineers at Chord were able to customize it to alter its slew rate and drive strength on each output pin, which decreases the amount of ring that might occur -- and there are other improvements that affect the resulting signal that is delivered through its analog outputs that are discussed in prodigious detail on the Chord Electronics website. The Hugo is also a very flexible device, not only because it has so many digital inputs, but because of the processing power of these inputs. Its internal DAC can decode digital signals up to 384k with a word length up to 32 bits, and is also future proof in that it can decode DSD 128 data. It comes not only with the now standard RCA coax and optical inputs, but two types of USB, one for the ubiquitous flash-drive and other portable data carriers, and the other for what is now standard in most modern listening rooms, USB 2.0. The Hugo is also A2DP Bluetooth capable, and uses a custom-made module with the aptX codec to feed its digital signal directly to the DAC. I will freely admit that I'm not very familiar with or use Bluetooth very often, but my teenage daughter certainly does, so I have no doubt that she not only appreciates this wireless function, but expects it when listening to music coming from her iPhone. In regards to more technical information regarding the Hugo, again, there is an abundant amount of information on Chord's website. It's obvious that quite a bit of research and development went into not only designing the Hugo, but implementing its technology into a very user-friendly device.

 

Cool
Did I mention that the Hugo looks incredibly cool? Its cabinet is a bright silver, made from hard-anodized aircraft grade aluminum, and measures a miniscule 4" by 5" by 0.75". Yes, you read that correctly, this is an awfully small DAC/Headphone amplifier. There is a small window that permits the user to peek into its innards to view LEDs that light according to the different inputs that are selected, the sampling rates, and functions. The Hugo's digital volume control is located conveniently on the top if the unit, and as it is rotated it changes color in accordance with its relative volume level. More importantly the volume level works in the digital domain, so it does not affect the unit's sound quality at different volumes since it doesn't lose any of the music's bits when changed. The outputs of the Hugo are numerous – it has two mini-jack (3.5mm) headphone outputs, a standard 0.25" jack, and a pair of RCA outputs which enables it to be used as a system's outboard DAC. On the side panels there are push-buttons for the input source, and also a cross-feed switch that allows for three different levels of signal to bleed to the opposite channel to avoid the "music inside the skull" sound that occurs with some material. I've discovered that there is a greater need for this this circuit when using less-than high-quality headphones. I never needed to activate this circuit. Also on the side panel is the power switch. Because of its small size and location, its access is a bit restricted, so turning the unit on and off never became an intuitive action. I suppose this is a good thing since the unit might be buried in a bag or case when using it on the go – inadvertently switching the power off is not very likely if the Hugo gets jostled about. When using the USB input with one's computer no driver needs to be installed if using a Mac, but a driver is necessary for Windows users (me) and is available on Chord's website. This was no big deal; it only took a couple of minutes to install, and worked perfectly throughout the review period.

Chord Electronics Hugo Battery Powered DAC And Headphone Amplifier

As I started writing this review Chord announced that an optional leather case for the Hugo was being made available. Chord says that they spent quite a while discussing the details of this case with dealers, their distributors, and especially their customers. The "high-quality durable leather" case is available in black or tan, and uses a "quad system" of elastic webbing straps with Velcro ends to hold one's player, whether this be an iPhone or other mobile digital device, to the case. Of course it allows full access to all the Hugo's controls and indicators. They also posted on their website that the Hugo's silver hard-anodized casework is also available finished in black.

 

Simple
The set-up of the Chord Electronics Hugo was simple. Connect the source to one of the digital inputs, press the input selector on the side panel until the corresponding LED becomes activated (for example, it turns red when the coax input is selected), connect the headphones to the headphone input, and let ‘er rip. Setting the volume was neat, as one rotates the smooth running volume control it changes color as the volume is increased. Also on the Hugo's top is a glowing opaque disc which indicates the incoming sample rate – red signifies 44.1kHz, orange 48kHz, yellow 88kHz, green 96kHz, light blue 176kHz, dark blue 192kHz, light purple 352kHz (DXD), purple 384kHz (DSD), and when it is white it is DSD 64 or DSD 128. The volume can be disconnected by pressing the cross-feed switch while powering the Hugo, so this will bypass the volume control to allow one to use the Hugo as an outboard DAC.

 

Listening
Initially, I did most of my listening using my mobile device, at least until I was satisfied that the Hugo was fully broken in. The iPod is limited to not much beyond "CD quality", so my music server was put to good use feeding the Hugo with a steady diet of higher than Red Book resolution file through its USB input, including a few DSD files. But man cannot live on bread alone, and as a huge amount of my favorite music is not yet in a hi-rez digital format (and probably never will be); I spent much of my time using my trusty iPod Classic as the source. The Hugo is a portable component, so not much rationalization on my part was necessary. And I assume many will be using an iPhone as their source. But I don't own an iPhone, so my 160GB iPod connected to a Pure i20 dock extracting its digital data would have to do. When using the i20 dock the only function of the iPod is reading a signal from its hard-drive, and selecting and controlling the music selection. For this I usually used the Hugo's coax input, but also checked out the optical input for a few sessions, but my MIT digital cable is much better than the generic optical that I have. After some time using the iPod, I switched to using the Hugo fed by my main system as a source, which one would assume would bring out the full potential of the Hugo, not only because it can send a music signal with a much higher resolution, including DSD files. By using a variety of sources and music I was able to determine the sonic characteristics of the Hugo.

The headphones I used were more often than not the top-of-the-line Grado PS1000, but also the very good Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic models that come surprisingly close to the high standard set by the Grado, but present the music from a different perspective. From time to time I used my 15 year old Sennheiser HD-600 that was rebuilt by Sennheiser USA late last year. Of course I couldn't resist using the Hugo as a DAC in my main system, and I bet that most readers would be disappointed if I didn't. This system is not quite state-of-the-art, but I consider it a cut above most mid-level high-end systems. Its digital front-end is built around a Dell PC used as a music server that has been configured to handle high-resolution digital files using its USB outputs. The open-source Foobar 2000 reads files that are stored on a number of multi-terabyte hard-drives. A Furutech GT-2 USB cable connects the computer's USB output to the USB input of the DAC. The Hugo's analog outputs were connected to a Balanced Audio VK-33 preamplifier (see next month's issue of Enjoy the Music.com's Review Magazine for that). The power amps were either vacuum tube driven PrimaLuna DiaLogue Six monoblocks or a Pass Labs X350.5 solid-state, speakers were either the dynamic Venture Audio Encore speakers (see review in the May issue) or a pair of my resident Sound Lab DynaStat hybrid electrostatic speakers.

When I started writing this review bassist Jack Bruce died. Of course most remember him as the stunning bassist, vocalist, and song writer for the super-group Cream that was on the scene from 1966 to 1968. Although I was too young to be aware of their existence when they were together, apart from the hits they had on pop radio, this band and Jack Bruce's stellar bass playing made a huge impression on me as both a music lover and a budding musician -- and continues to this day. As a young man my friends and I used to call his position in Cream "lead bass". Each and every song on each and every one of Cream's albums are etched permanently on the hard-drive located in the medial pre-frontal cortex portion of my brain, and this data remains easily accessible. I was in my late teens when I discovered Jack Bruce's solo album Things We Like, released in the UK on Polydor in 1970 and in the US on Atco the following year. The CD was released in 1992 on Polydor Japan, and I ripped my copy onto my computer using Exact Audio Copy, which converts the files to FLAC as it saves it to hard-drive. I also made a 96kHz/24-bit version burned from the LP when I had a sample of Benchmark Media's ADC USB1 in my system. I play this excellent album rather regularly, and even though I don't need an excuse, it was Jack Bruce's death that compelled me to play it through the Hugo for some late-night headphone listening. This album features Jack not on his Gibson EB-3 electric bass through a stack of Marshall amps a la Cream at the Fillmore West, but on acoustic double bass. He is joined by none other than John McLaughlin on electric guitar, plus his old friends from his Graham Bond Organization days Dick Heckstall-Smith on soprano and tenor saxes, and John Hiseman on drums. I was blown away when I first heard this album, even though it had lots of straight ahead 1950s style bop, it was infused with even more 60's free jazz which I was really into during my formative years. Even more surprising is that the album was recorded in London in 1968, at the height of Cream's success. It seems I'm not the only one who thinks this is a great album because according to WhoSampled.com, samples from this album have been used by over 20 artists ranging from DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince to A Tribe Called Quest.

The sound quality on the album isn't the best there ever was, but regardless of which version I listened to, the Hugo really nailed the sound of Jack Bruce's bass. The low-end response of the Hugo is excellent, with a warmth that I wouldn't expect from a solid-state unit. The bass frequencies seemed to go as low as the recording captured it when it was recorded live in the studio, and Jack's bass is mic'd close enough to hear the buzz of the strings against the fingerboard. The Hugo was able to capture details in the recording without ever sounding etched, and it was able to detect the touch of studio reverb added to enliven the sound of his bass a bit without it sounding out of place or drawing attention to itself. Even better was how I was able to get lost in the band's playing, especially by the time I reached the tunes that were originally on side two of my Atco LP pressing. The band's mood gets more and more introspective during the second of these three songs, and by "Ballad For Arthur" things take off with Jack Bruce playing repeated lines for the other musicians to comp off of. The session becomes more animated when McLaughlin begins to play in a style that many will recognize, because he joins Miles Davis's band not long after these sessions were recorded. The Hugo's microdynamic shading was also excellent. I was given the impression that I was hearing a note start before they started playing it, and if you've ever heard top-flight headphones through a top flight headphone amp you'd be able to decipher this fairly obtuse description.   When these traits are combined with a more than occasional outside-the-headphone soundstage these affects gets rather eerie. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but to feel as if you are one with the musicians on the recording is another thing entirely, and the Hugo is able to pull this off. Yes, the Hugo resides with other equipment in its price class where an audiophile would and should demand that it should be endowed with properties such as extended frequency response, low noise, zero distortion, etc. But when these are combined with attributes such as when instruments and voices take on the semblance of the real thing, regardless of the complexity of the material or genre of music, and  be transparent enough to be able to make itself disappear as a link in the audio chain, combined with what could only described as rendering the gestalt of the music – which is a term sometimes used to describe when the sum of these musical characteristics are greater than the whole – is usually only found in a handful of more expensive, expertly designed components. A "rightness" if you will. This is what makes spending more for a component worth every penny.

 

Hi-Res Audio Files With The Chord Hugo
There is no question in my mind that one of the most important developments in digital hardware is the ability to play high-resolution files. Many current DACs on the market include the function of being able to play DSD files, and I imagine that most, if not all, digital devices will include this feature in the near future. That the Chord Electronics Hugo, which is about the size of a stack of two packs of large playing cards, can also boast that it is DSD capable is amazing, because the Hugo is so darn small. I don't have many DSD files on my hard-drive that I listen to with any regularity, as I'm not willing to pay for material that I won't listen to that often. But I do have many MBs of 24bit/96kHz files and many of them have a greater resolution, some downloaded from HDTracks, but an even larger number of these were made by converting LPs to digital using a high-end analog-to-digital converter. I've purchased albums from HDTracks from T. Rex, John Coltrane, the Led Zeppelin remasters, Yes, Talking Heads, The Clash, Joy Division, and many others. But let's be honest, HDTracks and other downloading services aren't going to stock what they can't sell in large enough numbers to make it worth their while, so burning the album is the only recourse fans of more obscure titles can enjoy on the go in high-resolution -- at least for now. But I digress. So when I played the files of T. Rex's album Electric Warrior through the Hugo's USB input in a much more listenable resolution than the standard Red Book "CD Quality Sound", the Hugo takes advantage of this and improves upon its sound quality by quite a margin. What I notice in all high-quality high-end components is the way in which they can separate instruments and voices within a large soundstage. T. Rex's guitar occupies a very different space than any of the instruments that might even be playing at the same level, or mixed with the same amount of left/right panning. The same is true with the vocals. Marc Bolan (a.k.a. T. Rex) loves doubling his voice with other members from his band and more often than not a few backup singers yet these distinct voices never became inarticulate, despite producer Tony Visconti's efforts to make them sound as one. No, it doesn't "ruin" the effect he was trying to attain; it enhances it, as I can bathe in the differences between the singing styles, the timbre of voices, and even the distance each singer is from the microphone.

Even though the soundstage that is produced when listening through headphones is very different from what emanates from a pair of speakers in a listening room, headphones are still able to separate the instruments and voices from one another and create, although quite artificially, a soundfield that somehow puts distance between the sounds that are generated. The Hugo possesses this quality in spades. When listening to the Electric Warrior album it is as if I'm surrounded by the band in the studio, and as a benefit these instruments and voices materialize not only around my ears and in front of my forehead, but break through to the boundary between my skull and the outside environs. Many have complained that they don't like the "inside the head" music produced by headphones, so there are some headphone amplifiers that have a cross-feed circuit that places some of the material from each channel into adjacent channel to eliminate some of this effect. The Chord Hugo has three levels of the amount of cross-feed, and it works as advertised. Personally, I've never liked using a cross-feed circuit. On some headphone amplifiers that use this circuit I hear a decrease in transparency when it is engaged. I don't hear any loss in transparency when using this circuit on the Hugo, but it doesn't improve the sound I'm hearing, it just changes it. Different doesn't always mean better. For those who use high-quality headphones, which produce less of this "inside the head" sound than less accomplished models, they most likely will not need to use this circuit anyway. For others, the Hugo is the only headphone amp I've ever used that has three increasing levels of cross-fade, and if they like the resulting sound, they will likely be able to discover the level of cross-feed that satisfies their needs.

Chord Electronics Hugo Battery Powered DAC And Headphone Amplifier

I used the Chord Hugo as an outboard DAC in my large main system. It was able to easily bypass the Hugo's volume by pressing the cross-feed switch while powering the unit, as I described earlier. To connect the Hugo to my music server I had to use the USB cable that was provided with the unit that had a mini connector on its business end, but needed to acquire another slightly longer one for my needs. Neither had any audiophile credentials that I could discern, so I tried to keep this in mind when listening to the music that was produced by the Hugo. In the end the type of cable was hardly worth mentioning. Other than not being the most ergonomically convenient DAC when used this way (it's rather obvious that Chord focused their design for the Hugo to be used as a headphone amplifier, a portable headphone amplifier in fact, not an outboard DAC) it really wasn't that difficult to operate. It clearly took up less space that the AURALiC VEGA that's been in my system for the past half-year, and even though its controls aren't as assessable, it didn't really matter because the Hugo is basically a set it and forget it component. The sound quality of the Hugo when used as an outboard DAC was much more important to me than its ease of use or lack thereof. Its sound quality was very similar to its sound when used as a headphone amplifier – the bass was deep and very pitch stable, although it  had that bit of extra warmth that belied its solid-state innards. It was able to separate instruments and voices into discrete areas within a layered soundstage, and the sound of its treble didn't have a hint of grain or other nasties that might have been present in less accomplished digital components of the past. Compared to my resident DAC it doesn't have the beefy and more complex sound that makes it one of the best mid-level DACs I've ever heard, but the AURALiC cost a thousand dollars more, and is probably about ten times larger. Its larger size most likely allows it to have a more hefty power supply, and if the Hugo was available with an upgraded power supply that could replace the smaller outboard unit it is shipped with I would bet that it could compete with the units not only costing more, but that are meant to be used exclusively for this purpose.

I only have one nitpick that I'd like to mention. This is going to be a rather short section of the review since there is only one, but its small buttons on either side of the unit are definitely worth mentioning. It seems as if the power switch is the smallest control on the unit, and it is so tiny that I suppose those with limited digital flexibly (the other digital) might have some difficulty turning the unit on and off. I suppose it is located a slight recess of the side panel to prevent it from turning on and off inadvertently when it might be bouncing around inside a case when it is in transit, but combined with its small size one could imagine it even being a challenge for those who are even more nimble than I. Also, I wish the Hugo was less expensive, but often one does get what they pay for.

 

Amazing
The Chord Electronics Hugo is an amazing headphone amplifier/DAC. Its small size and battery operation makes it possible for anyone who uses either a backpack, briefcase, or even a large coat pocket to enjoy very high-quality digital audio on the go. When used at home in a quite environment one can easily recognize that this is no ordinary headphone amplifier, DAC, or combination of the two. It might be priced higher than some other units, but I'm not aware of many other units that combine such an exceptional DAC with such a top-notch headphone amplifier, and is battery powered, and is small enough to fit in the palm of one's hand. Bravo Chord. If you can afford a Chord Electronics Hugo, purchase one. Now!

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Portable solid-state stereo battery powered DAC with headphone amplifier
Inputs:
  Optical TosLink 24-bit/192kHz-capable
  RCA coaxial input 24-bit/384kHz-capable
  Driverless USB input 16-bit/48kHz-capable (designed for tablets/phones)
  HD USB input 32-bit/384KHz and DSD128-capable
Advanced digital volume control
Cross-feed filter network
Battery powered for approximately 12 hours operation
Input, sample rate and volume level indication by color-change LEDs
26K tap-length filter (more than double when compared to the QuteHD DAC)
Headphone output: 110dB SPL into a 300ohm headphone load
Output power - 1KHz 1V sinewave both channels driven 0.1% distortion
  600 Ohms 35mW
  300 Ohms 70mW
  56 Ohms 320mW
  32 Ohms 600mW
  8 Ohms 720mW
THD: 1kHz 3V Output: 0.0005%
Dynamic Range: 120dB
Output Impedance: 0.075 Ohms
Damping Factor: >100
Weight: 0.88 lbs
Dimensions: 100 x 20 x 132 mm (WxHxD)
Outputs:
  Two 3.5mm headphone jacks
  One 6.35mm (1/4 inch) headphone jack
  One pair stereo RCA phono output
Price: $2499

 

Company Information
Chord Electronics Ltd
The Pumphouse
Farleigh Bridge
Farleigh Lane
East Farleigh
Kent ME16 9NB
England

Voice: +44 (0)1622 721444 
Fax: +44 (0)1622 721555
E-mail: info@chordelectronics.co.uk
Website: www.ChordElectronics.co.uk

 

Bluebird Music Limited
320 Norfinch Drive
Toronto, Ontario M3N 1Y4
Canada

Voice: (416) 638-8207
Fax: (416) 638-8115
Email: sales@bluebirdmusic.com
Website: www.BluebirdMusic.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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