Chord Hugo Review: Designed by Rob Watts the Chord Electronics portable USB Hugo DAC Amp is a DSD DXD capable unit that is an audio design masterclass. Let the review commence.
Chord Electronics, the Kent (UK) based audiophile aficionados of super premium Hi-
Please note that this is a review based upon a Professional Audio (Pro-
Similar to the Chordette range, Hugo arrives in a far to complex origami style package. Inside this package the Hugo, ‘you go’, is suspended by a cardboard cradle that, once removed, is virtually impossible to reassemble without a product design degree or passion for Mechano. However, below this corrugated confusion, you will be pleasantly greeted with a care package comprising of a Power Pax UK branded 12v transformer battery power charger, six thoughtful tight stretch black bands to attach your transport system to the Hugo chassis, an gold plated RCA to BNC converter, 1m standard ADAT cable, 1m ADAT TOSLINK compatible cable, 0.3m USB to extra long Micro USB cable, 1m USB to extra long Micro USB cable, an extra long Micro USB to Micro USB for attaching the Hugo to your portable transport system for USB audio out, and finally a somewhat tight Chord Electronics etched black 128mb USB key preloaded with Windows OS drivers. Personally I would have preferred if this USB key had a much larger capacity to sweeten the deal, but this is such a small preference that is barely notable or desired by the majority.
In other news, close inspection of the included cables reveals that, although they are indeed manufactured for Chord Electronics with their own specifications, they do not appear to have a construction that adequately reflects the refinement, performance, or price of the Hugo. The inclusion of said components is clearly to allow ‘plug in and play’ use across a diverse range as soon as the Hugo arrives and they work well, but more serious cable converts may wish to look at The Chord Company’s Hugo cable package. Continuing further I have to mention that you will be hard pressed to locate a ‘premium’ USB to Micro USB or indeed a Micro USB to Micro USB cable. After a considerable amount of research, I did manage to locate a rare Micro USB to USB and, contrary to audiophiliac belief, my findings were inconclusive as during a double blind there was no distinguishable difference between either cable.
Outer inspection of the Hugo is impressive. Physical dimensions of the case measure in at 5” x 3.6” x 0.9” and prove small enough to slip into a deep trouser or coat pocket with modest room for a transport system. Likewise with a weight of 342g Hugo won’t feel overly heavy or restrictive. Currently Hugo only ships in an beautifully fine handmade sandblasted, or etched, raw (silver grey) aluminium case with quirky embossed details including the ‘Hugo’ and ‘Chord’ names with elevated quad milled dimples. Additional aesthetic detailing on the faceplate is supplied in the form of a flawless 0.9” glass magnified spyglass to allow inquisitive minds to view the internal circuitry with much of the focus on the ultra powerful Xilinx Spartan 6 DAC chip and the internal LED tri-
On the back plate there are four clear rubber feet nearer to the middle of the case to inhibit damage or slipping on an work surface, the serial number, and finally another opaque window that appears to be located just askew to the Bluetooth module and battery output. What is clear is that the ‘small-
Something that is important to note is that Hugo has been assessed from the current circulation ‘second generation’ Hugo with modified casework. Unlike the first media prototype, this generation of Hugo has connectivity refinements to the RCA outputs, S/PDIF, ADAT (Lightpipe) input, and finally a pronounced on/off switch.
As Hugo’s inherent nature is to provide the listener with ultra high quality audio on the go, it would be pointless if Hugo could only last a couple of hours. Inside Chord have placed two-
Certainly one of Chord’s main aims when designing the Hugo was to produce the most adaptable DAC/DAP’s on the market. Sporting a litany of inputs and outputs, Hugo supports audio input via 44.1kHz Micro USB input, a separate HD Micro USB input for sample rates anywhere up to a ridiculous 384kHz (even up to DXD/DSD), optical TOSLINK, Coxial input, and finally an low energy ‘lossless’ BlueTooth aptX 4.0 compliant module. In use all inputs have functioned flawlessly with the slight exception of Chord Electronics own custom branded discreet BlueTooth (module) input due to a reduced operational range of five meters; typically you could expect up to ten meters. The reason for this reduced range is due to the lack of an antenna and faraday cage principle of the solid aluminium housing, yet is much more intelligent that what it might seem, being that when Hugo is used in its element, as a portable system, this reduced range reduces the effect of other wireless signals acting upon the purity of connection between the user and their technology without trailing wires to get caught up in. Likewise the intention of Hugo’s additional Bluetooth source connection is not for use in an typical domestic environment where other stationary sources are available. This is not to say that Hugo was never created to allow wireless music streaming in the home, this is still possible, albeit reduced.
If I may, I would like to revisit the discussion relating to why the Chord Hugo has a separate Micro USB input for higher quality audio tracks (above 48kHz). Upon first thought it would appear to the layman that a lower sample rate input would help to extend the life of the battery, and this is somewhat true, but the actual reason for why this is the case more complicated. Without jumping too far into an overly engineered or complex response, when Hugo is connected via the ‘HD’ Micro USB input a separate discreet asynchronous FGPA integrated circuit within the Hugo is used alongside ultra accurate crystal oscillators and the clock source of the music playing device is isolated. What this essentially means is that Hugo delivers a super mega low jitter performance. If we break this down this means that when music is played from your computer the waveform will be broken up into millions of parts and you need both the DAC and the source to operate in synergy. If timing is off then you will have issues with playback appearing distorted; similar to stretching or squashing a length of music in a DAW. Hugo designer Rob Watts explains that the ear is very sensitive to timing delays all the way down to 4ms so on the HD input he implemented an array of ultra high resolution crystal oscillators with super accurate timing. However, this is only half the battle as (FIR -
Having discussed the various inputs it is important to enter into a brief discussion regarding the source selection procedure. To select the correct input, you will have to locate the unnamed input source button on the side and cycle through a traffic light system to reach the correct state. Initially this operation appears to be cryptic, however spending a short time with Hugo allows you to become familiar with the quirks. If we now locate the button next to the source input selector you will notice that this operates Chord’s bonus proprietary ‘Crossfeed’ technology. If we break this function down, essentially adding three varying degrees of ‘Crossfeed’ you will experience a three-
Outputs from the Hugo include the main ¼” jack headphone output, two 3.5mm jack headphone outputs, and finally an RCA output. During testing I was extremely shocked to discover how well the headphone amplifier circuit buried within the Hugo performed. Prior to use I was almost certain that each of the 3.5mm connections would be a tethered connection meaning that plugging multiple headphones in at the same time would disturb the impedance, thus reducing the output and disturbing the quality of audio across the board. Instead of receiving an anticipated insipid performance, Hugo seemed to have discreet output stages that, when multiple headphones were plugged in, did not have an immediate detrimental effect on the quality of sound or output level and Hugo welcomed headphone impedances from 4 Ω to 500 Ω. Likewise the RCA output pair performed well. To use Hugo’s outputs within a desktop system, Chord have allowed the user to bypass the main attenuated output of the RCA’s from the potentiometer via an extended press of the ‘Crossfeed’ button.
As we mentioned before, Hugo does require drivers for Windows based systems although it has been designed to be driverless in order to operate via USB audio output on portable devices such as phones, tablets, and music players. We found that Hugo was easily recognised without any latency or hindrance by every device that we could throw at it; iPhone 5S, Google Nexus 7, Motorola Moto G, iPad 2, and surprisingly an Google Chromebook. I must confess that I was shocked when I connected the Hugo to the base model Samsung Chromebook without any issues whatsoever on the standard Micro USB input. Immediately Hugo was recognised by the cloud based operating system and imminently implemented as an DAC. Please remember that if you do plan to use the Hugo with your transport then you will need to purchase a compliant USB audio output App for either your iOS 7 and above (iPhone or iPod Touch via Camera Connection Kit) or Android device. There are a few good Apps that allow this function. For Android we prefer to use USB Audio Player PRO by eXtreme Software Development for its ease of use. As a final note please be aware that if you intend to use Hugo, or any DAC for that matter, with an lightning port device that you purchase the Apple Lightning to USB Cable (part no. MD821ZM) and not the Apple Lightning to Micro USB. The latter will not work as its intention is to easily charge your iPhone and does not have USB audio output capabilities. Finally, when Hugo is connected via the standard Micro USB input it will be known simply as ‘USB DAC’ when in use with a computer, otherwise when in HD mode Hugo will be known as ‘Hugo’. During extended operation Hugo maintains a cool temperature which suggests efficiency whilst maintaining comfort and a consistent performance.
For the purposes of review it is important to clarify the signal chain. In this situation we have monitored performance with an array of headphones including our flagship Beyerdynamic T90’s and used an array of lossless ‘Red Book’ audio tracks on an Apple MacBook Air, played via Sonic Studio’s Amarra (in standalone Amarra playlist mode), out via USB 3.0 via the supplied 0.3m cable and into the Hugo’s HD input without crossfeed enabled. Personally I have noticed a significant improvement in the spatial dimension and general presentation of audio (formally known as ‘polish’) when using the HD input over the SD for tracks from 44.1kHz. It is for this reason that the following descriptive solely relies upon this connection.
Delivering an astonishing performance akin to desktop solutions many times the financial burden, Hugo is a revolution of the finest kind. Presenting a deeply involving performance with minimal latency that sounds clean, articulate, and very well balanced across a broad genre table you may very well confuse this portable ‘wonder-
Describing individual qualities that encompass a truly ‘natural’ aural interpretation is a complex theory that requires several sonic factors to work in unity. For this reason it is especially difficult for even the most dedicated engineer to overcome a series of proportional qualities in order to create a holy grail analogous converter. Thankfully Rob Watts, mentioned before as Hugo’s co-
Hugo features an impressive dynamic range. Often when you hear classical recordings you will be used to hearing imperfections in the master due to the number of musicians in one place and moving as they physically express the musical progression; it’s a totally natural behaviour for musicians because they simply connect themselves to the emotion within the music. These are the micro-
Certainly Hugo is a transient beast that has a natural ability to reveal hundreds of layers, or instrumental artefacts, within any track structure. Specific types of reverb and multi-
Although we have set a precedent with the above explanation, maintaining an excellent composure across the frequency spectrum, the user can expect a deep healthy bass presence with punch and refinement, on the other end of the scale the treble frequencies sparkle and sound perfectly balanced and free of any harsh distortion. At the mids you can expect a clear luscious presentation that is free from low-
So, let’s look at how Hugo handles two very specific genres; ‘Accoustic Rock’, and ‘Electronic’. The purpose of this seemingly bipolar exercise is to clarify the performance expectations and judge competence in a straight forward manner. First up is Stephen Wilson with the sixth track on his album entitled ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’. Now this is a track that easily puts any technology through their paces with a beautiful introduction and harrowing lyrics that perfectly personify the artists frustration and grieving process. As such the track structure follows a building acoustic progression that leads into a medium-
Track Two -
Analysis has confirmed that Hugo’s performance is consistent with mastering quality interfaces costing many times the current retail price. Hugo is an exceptional interface that has no noticeable flaws. The sound is awe inspiring and sets an incredible precedent for others to follow; Hugo is the benchmark. The revolution is here. Hugo is awarded with a full five star rating, the editors choice award, and is an outstanding award winner. Finally, Rob Watts is a genius. We thoroughly look forward to future Chord Electronics releases.