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Review: The Spectacularly Quirky Chord Hugo

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by John Grandberg

Chord comes out of left field with a portable DAC/headphone amp to challenge the best of the best. Do they succeed? In sound quality — yes! In other areas … not so much.

Quick history lesson: Chord Electronics Ltd has been around since 1989 making high-end audio equipment. Their stuff tends to be on the expensive side, and historically not much of it has focused on headphones. That all changed last year when seemingly out of nowhere, Chord dropped an all-in-one portable device on the market they called Hugo ($2,495). When I say “all-in-one”, I really mean it — Hugo is a DAC, preamp, and headphone amp, with DSD and high-res PCM capability, crossfeed, and even aptX Bluetooth as one of the five input options. That’s a LOT of functionality on board — I’ve owned full-size desktop components that didn’t do half as much. Hugo is battery-powered and can last about nine hours (give or take) before needing a recharge. 

The first question I found myself asking … why? Who would want to spend that much cash on a portable device, even one so versatile as this? What target demographic was Chord shooting for? Ok, so the AK240 is an expensive DAP which seems to have no trouble drumming up a large user base. And many people these days use rather pricey custom IEMs on the go. So I guess Chord felt the portable market was mature enough to support such a device. Still, it seems a rather odd choice, especially for a company who hasn’t really done “portable stuff” in the past. 

Which brings me to an import point — it’s critical for us reviewers to keep an open mind on stuff like this. Just because I wasn’t waiting eagerly for a device like this to surface, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t still get a fair shake. I may not be the target demographic but I have to recognize those who are, and try to view it from that angle. Obviously, Chord determined there was reasonable demand for something like this, and in retrospect it seems they were right; the Hugo is very popular by now. And after using it for a long time, I definitely see (and hear) the appeal. But it also has some very frustrating aspects which I feel must be pointed out.

Let me preface this review by saying that I’ve lived with the Hugo for over a year. That’s a lot longer than I spend with most review gear, but it approximates the experience of an actual owner (versus that of a reviewer). The review has taken me quite a long time because I have such mixed feelings about the device — which, I confess, I still haven’t fully worked out. Second, I realize I’m coming late to the game here. Hugo has been discussed extensively on the forums and reviewed by many prominent magazines/websites (ed: see John Darko’s review on DAR from late last year as one touch point among a great many). If you’re reading this, chances are it’s not your first exposure to the Hugo. But this is Part-Time Audiophile, and we sometimes deviate from the typical opinion you’ll find echoed at other sites. Which is cool, because if we don’t bring up these issues, who will? So bear with me, as you may find this a bit of a different take compared to everything else you’ve read.

For the above reasons, I won’t be covering every little detail about the specs and features. You probably already know all that, and if not you can easily find it on the Hugo page. I’ll be mentioning some aspects that jump out at me, but don’t be surprised if I completely ignore some function or feature.

Design

The Hugo is most definitely a “transportable” device in my view. By that, I mean that it’s capable of being used on-the-go, but is not so small and convenient that it can easily fit in a pocket. It’s got some size, and more importantly, some heft to it — if your idea of “portable” is a solo smartphone, let’s just say you’ll be disappointed. Battery life seems to be anywhere from 6 hours to over 10 hours depending on my use, which again is portable but nowhere near the 30+ hours found in certain other devices. Let’s be clear: I don’t mean “transportable” as an insult — I just don’t want people to get the wrong idea about Hugo. Sure, some ultra-dedicated HeadFiers probably pack Hugo (with a similarly bulky DAP for transport) in the pocket of their cargo shorts as they walk around town, but that’s just not my style. Judging by the number of people I see lugging around massive phablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note and iPhone 6+, I may well be in the minority on that. 

With all those features on board, Chord only had so much room to space them out. Both ends of the device are packed fairly tightly with inputs, outputs, switches, and buttons. This makes for a tight fit, particularly with the RCA outputs. My early Hugo is unable to accommodate some interconnects due to spacing issues. Chord has since tweaked the case with slightly larger openings, yet there are still plenty of interconnects which don’t fit — definitely something to watch out for. 

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Using both ends of the device is a little awkward at times. Toslink and coaxial digital inputs, plus RCA outs and 3 headphone jacks all land on one side, while the other gets USB, power switch, AC jack, and a pair of buttons for selecting input and crossfeed. During home use I end up with cables attached to both ends, leaving no real “good side” facing out on my rack. Hugo is not alone in this (see the power supply on ECP Audio’s L2 for another example) but it still bugs me at times. My big manly fingers also have trouble with the tiny buttons for input selection and crossfeed, to say nothing of the minuscule power switch placed in close proximity to a USB input. 

Speaking of USB — Hugo is fairly unique in that it features dual USB ports. The MicroUSB format was chosen for its space-saving properties which makes sense as I don’t think anything larger would fit, but it does complicate matters as you’ll need a special cable or else an adapter. The “HD” USB input, as it has become known, is thoroughly modern. All the bells and whistles are there including up to 384kHz PCM support and DSD64/DSD128 via DoP. The other USB port (which I’ve dubbed “SD”) is limited to 16-bit/48kHz or less — essentially CD quality. This is to allow maximum compatibility with a wide range of devices, including Android and iOS phones/tablets. The HD USB requires drivers on Windows machines (but not Macs), while the SD USB is plug and play across the board. Designer Robb Watts contends sound quality should be the same between them — assuming both are fed the same CD quality signal — thanks to effective jitter reduction techniques downstream. I have to say I enjoy having a fallback of sorts, and it came in handy with one Linux-based music streamer I tried which failed to recognize the HD USB connection. Other devices running a different Linux distro worked fine, so this was a unique experience and not necessarily something to be expected if you run a Linux machine.

The Guts

The most talked about aspect of the Hugo is, undoubtedly, the actual DAC chip itself. Or rather, the lack of one. Hugo’s designer Rob Watts essentially made his own DAC using a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) rather than using an off-the-shelf commercial chip. This is cutting edge stuff, with sixteen 208MHz DSP cores running in parallel to provide enough horsepower for the custom 26,000+ tap length WTA filter. Technically speaking, it’s an FPGA controlling a separate, discrete “Pulse Array” DAC, but let’s just call it an FPGA DAC and be done with it. Those so inclined can read far more in-depth about the design philosophy here (PowerPoint or compatible viewer required). 

Me? I think possibly the most interesting aspect of the design lies in the transition from FPGA/DAC to headphone out. Rob Watts explains it like so:

“In a conventional high performance DAC you have two I/V converters, a differential to SE converter, then a headphone output stage. That means the signal has to pass through 4 active stages, plus a lot of passive components to do the filtering.

With Hugo there is only one active stage — an I/V converter, which just happens to have a high power discrete output stage. Also, because Hugo does a huge amount of oversampling (2048 times) and filters the noise digitally, and because the pulse array DAC also has innately low out of band noise, then the RF filtering can be simple. So passive components in the direct signal path are two caps and two resistors.

So the whole analogue chain direct signal path is only 4 passive components and a single active stage. That’s it. And its one reason why Hugo is so transparent …. And why there is only one output device feeding 4 connectors.”

Since Mr. Watts has another bit of proprietary (see the theme here?) technology under his belt called the Direct Digital Feedback Amplifier, I strongly suspect that’s what we are dealing with as the active stage he mentions — probably a Zetex chip, to be a little more specific. The end result should be a very pure representation of the DAC’s sound, rather than coloration from further down the chain. Again this is all complex stuff and no matter how much we talk about it I suspect we aren’t even scratching the surface. Does that necessarily mean it’s better than more traditional designs? Maybe, maybe not. It really depends on the end result. 

The proof is in the listening, which of course is critical. But guess what else is highly important? Being able to comfortably use the thing. And that’s where I feel, for all the technical advances involved, Chord’s Hugo doesn’t live up to its full potential. It’s just not intuitive by any stretch of the imagination. The first thing you notice is the rather unusual volume wheel that glows different colors to indicate levels. Green is louder than yellow, and blue is louder still, while red is quiet and white is full-scale (and might wreck your IEMs). Got that? There’s a glowing circle that indicates sample rate — if you consider that info critical, plan on memorizing all 9 colors, each corresponding to a different rate. Then there’s the window allowing us to see three very small LEDs on the PCB. One shows battery levels. Another indicates which input is active. The last shows crossfeed which has 3 levels in addition to “off”. This is a lot to remember — get them mixed up and you’ll find yourself, for example, with crossfeed 2 selected and 30% battery left, when you thought you had crossfeed 1 and 90% battery remaining. That may sound far-fetched, but in reality those are just inverted from one another and thus very easy to confuse. 

To make matters worse, everything resets when you power down the device. So despite your dialing in a nice volume level for your favorite IEMs, setting your preferred crossfeed, and choosing the Optical input (perhaps you pair it with an Astell&Kern device via Toslink), the next time you power Hugo up it resets everything and you’ll have to start all over. Rob Watts did mention that this behavior “annoys” him as well, explaining that he simply ran out of space in the FPGA to add configuration functionality. Adding that in would require the removal of an interpolation filter which was not a sonic trade-off he was willing to make. Since the designer himself acknowledges this issue, I’m not just tilting at windmills here … but of course each user has their own threshold of what they will put up with in the name of sound quality.

Listening

Being such a versatile device, there are several approaches to evaluating the Hugo. All seem valid to me so I’ll discuss each one — each intended use judged on its own merit. First up is maybe the most obvious: going portable. Now, I have to say that I personally find this device a bit too much for portable use. My particular needs on the go just aren’t that complicated — I tend to stick with a solo DAP such as the HiFiMAN HM802 or Sony NWZ-A17. These are used with relatively modest custom IEMs like the Noble 4C and 1964 Ears V3. Anything more than this stuff is just too expensive for me to be comfortable with potentially losing it, having it stolen, dropping it, or just subjecting it to natural wear and tear of life on the road. Not to mention on-the-go I’m usually not doing the most critical listening anyway, and therefore don’t have much need for anything beyond the systems I just described. So again — I admit I’m not quite in the target market if we look at Hugo as a portable device. 

Still, I assume others disagree, considering the number of units Chord has sold, and I can’t argue with that — their circumstances are undoubtedly different from mine. So, as part of my due diligence, I (carefully) took Hugo on the road with me daily. I fed it with a variety of devices: an iPad Air, a Cayin N6 via coaxial output, and an AK240 over Toslink. Let’s get one thing clear right from the start — this is NOT a compact portable like the ones from HeadAmp, Leckerton, or any number of others. It’s a larger brick that, while certainly manageable, requires planning. Chord sells a nice leather case for Hugo and I’ve seen various folks on HeadFi rig up their own system for packing Hugo with a phone or DAP. In my case, I just used rubber bands — Chord helpfully includes a thin pair which slot nicely into the Hugo enclosure — for attaching the N6 or AK240. It worked well enough — I wouldn’t necessarily call it graceful, but it got the job done. The iPad was used strictly as a transportable system so no attachment needed aside from the digital signal connection.

My experience with Hugo for portable use is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, I absolutely LOVE the sound quality. Hugo does things with detail retrieval, soundstage, and imaging that you simply have to hear to believe. You know that squeaky-clean, black-background, hear-a-pin-drop feeling you get when listening late at night on your really nice home system? Hugo allows you to take that experience on the road. I have to admit, it’s pretty damn impressive. This thing sets standards that even some rather expensive home gear doesn’t meet, which is kinda funny when you look at how small it is. Sitting next to some huge DAC with massively overbuilt power supply and bullet-proof casework, you’d never guess the little Hugo could keep up, much less sound even better. But (depending on the DAC in question) Hugo often does just that. It’s really a remarkable achievement. Grab a killer IEM like the Noble Audio K10 (reviewed here and here), and there really isn’t much else in the portable realm able to match the quality of your system. Turns out you really can take it “all” with you. 

On the flip side, the finicky nature of the Hugo actually detracts from my enjoyment to some degree. That volume control — I never feel confident I know what I’m doing, even after all this time. Those tiny buttons — which one is which again? And those indicator lights — It’s easier just to keep cycling through until I hear sound. While it’s amazing they packed all that technology inside such a small unit, I still don’t find it particular comfortable to lug around. It’s just a bit too large in each dimension, which means planning is required when taking this thing out and about. Honestly, if I really wanted to bring the concert hall with me on a hike, bike ride, or most any active use, the Hugo would not be my first choice. Again, the sound is absolutely ravishing, but real world use brings other considerations. If it was just the Hugo responsible for everything it might be doable…. but of course we need something to feed it, which means a smartphone or dedicated portable player used as transport. It all adds up. Of course, your mileage may vary in this scenario — I realize some people have less of an issue lugging things around. 

Next up, I used it at home as a DAC in my home rig. Which initially seems wrong on so many levels. My collection of DACs at home includes some fairly heavy hitters — Esoteric D-07x, Questyle CAS192D, Calyx Femto, Anedio D2, and my reference unit, the Resonessence Labs Invicta Mirus. All of these are significantly larger and far more bulky than the little Hugo. Regulated linear power supplies are the order of the day, there, and complete with thick aftermarket AC cables to prove my manhood. The little Hugo just looked out of place, as did its wall-wart power connection (which only charges Hugo’s battery power supply). I know all of this — but it still looks fundamentally wrong. On a related note, designer Rob Watts says it is perfectly fine to leave the device plugged in at all times, which is great news considering all the other “interesting” (i.e., challenging) usability aspects of Hugo.

The sonic character of Hugo is best summed up by the word “expressive”. As a really REALLY good sounding DAC, the more simplistic concepts like “bright” or “warm” don’t do it justice as capturing the whole picture. Hugo goes beyond those tropes. Timbral accuracy, note separation, and transient response are all extremely well done. One gets the feeling of digging deeper into the music than with most other DACs, including many bigger/more expensive devices. It’s a very satisfying sound.

Is it the best DAC I’ve ever heard? Not quite. I prefer the Resonessence Labs Invicta Mirus DAC a bit more, as it seems to have greater sense of authority and heft — not merely warmth, mind you, but more like power and scale. The Hugo might just match the Invicta when it comes to image specificity, but Invicta throws a more substantial soundstage. I notice this most when pairing with the JansZen zA2.1A-HP electrostatic speakers I have in for review, but I also get shades of it with monitors from Sjofn and Sonus Faber, and even with my Stax headphone setup. Unfair comparison? Perhaps — Invicta Mirus is a decidedly non-portable device which uses some fancy FPGA processing of its own. It also sells for roughly twice the price. Having established that, I do feel Hugo matches or exceeds most of my other more expensive DACs, including the Calyx Femto and Esoteric D-07x. As I keep saying — from a sound quality standpoint, the Hugo has a lot to love. 

It’s worth noting that the Hugo can be used as a combined DAC/preamp. In fact, it doesn’t even have an option to disable volume control, due to the way things are handled by the FPGA. If we hold down the crossfeed button while powering on, Hugo automatically starts up at a higher output voltage setting of 3V. But it’s not locked in, so volume can still be manipulated via the control wheel. 3V is a little bit of an odd choice…. not sure why they didn’t stick with 2V as that is more of a safe bet if we might be feeding an external headphone amp or preamp. Most devices should be fine but I’ve owned a few which didn’t like such a hot input via RCA connections. Hugo can be throttled down to “blue” on the wheel to land closer to 2V if your preamp lands in that category.

But wait…. why would anyone want to use a preamp with the Hugo? Isn’t a direct connection the best way to go for ultimate transparency? Won’t adding an outboard preamp stage just introduce more distortion, more complexity to the signal chain, and thus sound worse by definition? This is one of those areas where theory is sometimes trumped by actual use depending on the setup. 

Using Hugo by itself to drive a set of monoblocks — first some Ghent Audio ICEpower amps, then later the Merrill Audio Thors (reviewed here) — proved to be a satisfying experience. The results as heard through the Sonus Faber Venere 1.5 monitors were clean, detailed, and indeed transparent, with very little to complain about. Again I’d call it an expressive sound, one that gazes deep into the recording and is quick to spot the mastering differences from one album to the next. Imaging is a particularly strong point, being highly precise and accurate. If I wanted to save money, save space, or just reduce complexity in my system, Hugo driving my amps directly would certainly be a viable choice. 

Having established that, there are also plenty of good reasons why I might want to add a traditional preamp to the chain. First off is the most obvious — volume control. I don’t know about you, but I find myself adjusting volume rather often. It’s an absolute necessity for me — “set and forget” just doesn’t work with my widely varying musical taste. With Hugo alone, I’m getting in and out of my listening chair far too often for optimal enjoyment. Call me lazy, but this is quite possibly a dealbreaker for me. 

Aside from that, it’s not hard to assemble a system where the Hugo alone can sound a bit threadbare, or overly focused on detail retrieval. Extreme resolution also means every flaw in the recording, in the speakers, headphones, or elsewhere, will come through loud and clear and sometimes painfully obvious. If all you ever listen to is Norah Jones, Diana Krall, or audiophile instrumentals, then that honestly is a desirable trait. Meanwhile, in the real world, I too love my audiophile demo material but also want to listen to ancient Cannonball Adderly recordings. I want to enjoy Israeli pop-punk band Man Alive. Revisit classic hip-hop from MF Grimm, Peanut Butter Wolf, and Aesop Rock. Bounce along to Reverend Horton Heat. Or just zone out to the melodic retro-synths of Michael Cassette. Most of this stuff is mediocre at best in terms of recording quality, with some sounding downright bad. But, it’s my strong opinion that we should be able to play our favorite music regardless — the fact that one owns a quality system should certainly not hold the owner back from the musical variety they enjoy. If anything, a good system should encourage MORE musical exploration. 

To that end, I tended to prefer my setup with a nice preamp in the chain. At one point I used a Jeff Rowland Capri, which made for a more universally pleasing combo. Transients remained snappy but this time around I felt a subtle shift in tonal balance, where the presentation was simultaneously fuller and a bit darker up top. Certainly NOT rolled off … just not quite so effervescent or lit up. It seemed like a worthwhile trade off most of the time, though I can also imagine cases where it would not hold true. I also used a Violectric V281 headphone amp which doubles as a preamp. This was probably my favorite combo, as it had even more heft than the Rowland or the Hugo alone. It may seem counter-intuitive that adding more system complexity would result in better sound, and perhaps I’m simply adding a bit of pleasing distortion or coloration … but either way, I like it. As I said, some people might be completely sold on the Hugo alone driving their amps directly; this type of thing is always system-dependent. It just wasn’t quite the perfect fit for my tastes.

Let’s talk about driving headphones directly. The Hugo is surprisingly capable in this regard and can comfortably handle most of the headphones available on the market today. Only the difficult HiFiMAN HE-6 seemed obviously underpowered when connected directly to the Hugo’s 1/4″ jack. Other models I tried from Sennheiser, Audio Technica, Grado, Ultrasone, AKG, and many more, seemed to get plenty of grunt and drive. For portable or transportable use, the Hugo is definitely a keeper. That ultra-simple output transition I mentioned earlier means the intrinsic qualities of the DAC shine through loud and clear. And it drives in-ear monitors better than some dedicated desktop amps I own; background hiss is well controlled for the most part, but I do have issues with some of the more sensitive models. Just watch out for that volume control and be extra sure it is set low enough. 

For dedicated home use, the situation is a bit more complex. Hugo does perform quite well by itself most of the time, but I do find situations where I prefer using an external headphone amp. It’s not so much a case of Hugo lacking, but rather of other (expensive) dedicated headphone amps being more capable. My favorite amps include the previously mentioned Violectric V281, the Auralic Taurus mkII, the Icon Audio HP8 single-ended triode amp, and the Questyle CMA800R current mode amp. Each of these gives a different take on the presentation. And in each case I enjoy what I hear more than running straight from the Hugo’s headphone jack. Sometimes the differences are subtle and in other cases I distinctly prefer the outboard option — it really depends on the headphone being used, the music being played, and just my general mood at the time. My biggest complaint about the solo Hugo is that it sometimes lacks “emotion”. It’s just a tad sterile at times, which could also be called “honest” depending on your point of view. Again, for some people the Hugo alone might be an end-game solution, especially if those folks tend to mostly play jazz, classical, and singer/songwriter type stuff where the recordings are up to a high standard. 

Comparisons

How about comparisons? It’s tough to find much in the way of direct competition for Hugo — most of the time portables are for headphone amplification only. Occasionally we’ll get DAC functionality thrown in as well, though typically more limited in terms of inputs and outputs. Not to mention, it’s extremely uncommon to find such an ambitious design. Most portables are quite a bit more affordable, focusing on size and battery life over ultimate sound quality. So Hugo sits in a class by itself and is thus hard to judge in context of alternatives. I do have experience with two products which I think could roughly compare to Hugo’s excellence, just to give you an idea of value (tough as that is to really nail down).

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First is the Quables iQube v5 which is a compact device selling for $699. To my mind this is a perfect example of what companies shoot for when making a portable DAC/amp. It’s got fewer inputs and outputs, a lot less power for driving headphones, and is much smaller/lighter than Hugo. It also has far superior battery life. This thing can also handle DSD and high-res PCM via DoP, so in that respect it matches the Chord product. Overall, I think the iQube is a “true portable” while Hugo is (as I mentioned) merely “transportable”. I’d probably choose the iQube every time for on-the-go action — yes, there’s a clear drop in sound quality, but not enough to ruin the fun. And the compact size, lighter weight, longer battery life, and general ease of use really fit better on the road. This seems to me a worthwhile trade-off in the end — I just don’t know if I personally NEED much better sound when I’m on a plane or train. For home use, where I’m more apt to do critical listening, Hugo blows the iQube out of the water as both a DAC and headphone amp. Price difference notwithstanding, the Hugo is a clear winner in that context.

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The one product I’ve experienced which closest approximates Hugo’s capabilities is the Aurender Flow. The Flow is similar in size and general heft, similar in battery life, similar in headphone driving ability, and comes close to having the same split focus between life on the road and life in the home setup. Amos Barnett already covered the Flow for this site and I have to say I agree with him on most counts. Hugo is more insightful, more open sounding, offering a distinct improvement in size while rendering the sonic landscape. Aurender’s device is quite impressive for what it is, and I remain very satisfied by its capabilities — but in direct comparison, the Chord has a superior overall presentation. 

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Having said that, I do see the Flow as a compelling alternative for several reasons. First, as Amos explained, it seems far better designed. The layout makes much more sense, and to the casual observer it probably looks like the more expensive of the two. Second, the Flow does better with in-ear monitors. It has zero hiss, and the volume control is more precise, which makes it far more easy to dial in the perfect level (and impossible to accidentally blast your eardrums, which I have done with Hugo … several times). Third, the Flow has a bit more body to the sound, which makes for a better match depending on the headphone in question. I prefer it, for example, when using Sennheiser’s HD800, the Audio Technica W1000x, and the Ultrasone Edition 12. All of those models could be considered somewhat on the brighter side of the sonic spectrum, and Hugo may be too much of a good thing in those cases. Switch to something a bit darker and more full bodied — Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3 in particular but also Sennheiser’s venerable HD600/HD650 duo — and now it’s the Hugo that fits the bill perfectly. 

Flow does have the ability to mount a solid-state hard drive internally, making for a ready-to-go jukebox with shades of AURALiC’s decidedly non-portable Gemini. Honestly, I don’t know if this is a function that many people would have use for in this case. If it somehow allowed portable playback as an all-in-one system, the Flow might be a good alternative to an Astell&Kern player. As it stands, it seems like something of a missed opportunity, and I don’t consider it much of a benefit as compared to the Hugo which obviously does not have internal storage. The Flow does have a major price benefit — roughly half the cost of Chord’s machine. That’s enough to seriously tempt some potential customers away from the bigger expenditure. But I’m not sure Flow is high enough on the sonic totem pole to replace a really good home DAC, while Hugo definitely does have that potential. So it really depends on what one might be looking for. As with many things, there is no simple answer.

Conclusion

I notice a tendency for people to equate hassle with enjoyability. Like some sort of primal urge, there’s something inside most of us which says “I worked hard for this and endured substantial hassle…. I’ve EARNED this enjoyment.” Likewise, overly simplified transactions, while initially seeming welcome, can sometimes detract from the end result. Fiddling with a vinyl rig is half the fun right? Stunning sound quality aside, I wonder if this trait might account for some small part of the Hugo’s appeal. The “interesting” usability issues can be frustrating, but I can see how they might also (subconsciously?) increase enjoyment for some folks. 

Whatever the case, I see Hugo as a rather unique option. Good enough to hang with very expensive home devices, yet also capable of hitting the road in style. In this regard, Chord’s device stands alone — there really isn’t anything else out there capable of pulling that off. 

On the other hand, it could be argued the experience is less than ideal no matter what your usage. The enclosure is rather large for true portable use, and the operational and connectivity quirks detract a bit in a home use scenario. Is the glass half empty or half full? As you can see, I’m clearly still torn about this device. 

A potential solution presents itself in the form of Chord’s new Hugo TT, which theoretically fixes my complaints to the tune of nearly $5k. As a true home unit, Hugo TT gives balanced XLR outputs, real USB connections (instead of those difficult micro USB connections on the original), a remote control, and quite a few other upgrades. But it comes at a hefty price increase for what Rob Watts admits won’t add up to much (or any?) boost in SQ, depending on the setup. Also, the new Chord 2Qute repackages Hugo technology in a compact home unit which omits headphone outs and preamp capabilities, and goes for $1,795. Personally I think that sounds like the best value of the bunch but time will tell if it really captures the hearts of audiophiles in the way its predecessor did. 

All I can say to potential Hugo buyers is this: think long and hard about the various complications I’ve mentioned here. If they sound like ridiculous, nit-picky complaints, not worth mentioning in light of the fantastic sound quality they accompany, then Hugo is definitely a top contender for you. But … if they sound like reasonable issues to be raised, that might detract from your enjoyment enough to cause distraction, then you might continue your DAC search elsewhere. Hugo is among the most noteworthy DACs I’ve encountered in a long time but that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. When I think of it more as a platform than a mere stand alone DAC, that’s when I can most appreciate what Rob Watts and Chord have accomplished — I look forward to seeing many exceptional offerings in the Hugo family for years to come. 

About the Author

photo (5)John Grandberg has a decent speaker-based system but spends most of his time with tiny speakers strapped to his head, or sometimes even inserted into is ears. Gross. John tries his best to eschew purple prose but occasionally has trouble avoiding sesquipedalian loquaciousness. Shockingly, he doesn’t “do” vinyl, being utterly content with his ever growing collection of music stored in lossless digital form. He is terrible at photography and apologizes in advance for the shoddy pictures he might force upon his hapless readers. Consider yourself warned.

He can be also found contributing to InnerFidelity.com where he covers “personal audio”, which includes headphones and amplification, desktop speakers, portable players, and more.

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6 Comments on Review: The Spectacularly Quirky Chord Hugo

  1. Cosmo Wisniewski // September 3, 2015 at 9:46 AM //

    Very well balanced and clear review, and I fully understand the mixed and difficult conclusions. While sound quality is all important in our dreams, we also have families and friends and as the years go by a remote control and buttons and connectors get more important. I’ve been looking at the Hugo TT, but feel the cost is too high for the convenience – which is almost contradictory of what I’ve already noted, and therefore completely consistent with the issues that Hugo products seems to create.
    Have just bought a pair of JansZen zA2.1a-HPs – the first out of the US, and the first in the UK. Very much looking forward to your comments, especially while I wait for one of mine to be repaired in Ohio and returned after being damaged in transit!
    Ah – and the new forthcoming Chord DAVE looks interesting if my searches for gold or oil (make that gold with current prices) in my back-yard pay dividends…

  2. John-great write up as always. One product that you might want to try that is similar but less expensive is the $600 Celsus Sound Companion One. It not only functions as a USB DAC and headphone amp for Mac, PC, iOS devices etc but can also serve as a wifi DAC via AirPlay and DLNA. In my opinion it sounds very good and I love being able to cut the cord and being able to wirelessly stream Tidal lossless music from my iPad or iPhone to the Companion One.

  3. Never really got over the Fisher Price aesthetics of the Hugo. I might need to check out this Aurender Flow. Since I started using FitEar ciems (MH335DW), hiss levels have become a much bigger factor in my purchase decisions. They’re sensitive as heck!!

  4. I don’t own either the “old” or “new” version of the Hugo, but in the photo of both illustrating the increase in spacing of the rca jacks on the “new” version, it looks as if you have the labels reversed. Am I wrong?

    • Part-Time Audiophile // August 19, 2015 at 11:05 AM //

      Good question. Spacing isn’t so much “between the jacks” as “around the jacks”. The newer Hugos allow for fatter RCA cables. The photo is correct.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Chord Hugo Re-Examined - Page 22
  2. Chord Hugo Headphone Amplifier-DAC | Ultra High-End Audio and Home Theater Review
  3. CHORD HUGO – REVIEW | Audiophilepure

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