When Chord Electronics’ first Hugo portable DAC/headphone amplifier was launched at CES in January 2014, the world knew it was special – it was so good that many bought it to use as their main digital converter, rather than a travelling companion. That’s not to say it was perfect; the enthusiastic early adopters soon got to know its foibles. The socketry proved less rugged than was ideal, and I found the Bluetooth pretty flaky. Also, it was fiddly to use, with all that pressing of tiny buttons needed; user-friendly it was not.
Launched in 2017, the Hugo 2 was more expensive at £1,800, but was better made, easier to work and a much more satisfying ownership proposition. The 0.45kg, 20x100x130mm case is more modern looking, having lost its nineteen nineties ‘blobby’ styling. More angular, it appears more purposeful and the aircraft-grade aluminium case is more robust too. It sports four spherical control buttons, handling power, source, filtering and cross feed crossfeed functions. The original Hugo’s top-mounted colour-coded volume-control sphere has been retained and made larger for easier operation. Importantly, the new Hugo sits on a shelf much more securely now, and is easier to use – something further augmented by the addition of a remote control.
Were the changes to stop there, we would have done pretty well – with most of the oldie’s issues sorted. Hugo 2 is more than just a prettier face, it’s a whole new product inside with a real evolution of Chord’s digital conversion and and filtering platform. It’s been heavily reworked by its creator Rob Watts with a 49,195K tap-length filter, near double that of the original. To achieve this, it sports a much larger, Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) and advanced Watts Transient Aligned (WTA) filters. The Hugo – like all others in the Chord range – does not use bought-in, off-the-shelf converter or filtering chips.
“The original was the best that could be done given the FPGA available back in July 2013”, says Rob. “Hugo had exceptional musicality compared to other designs that I had done and set a new standard in performance due to a six-year program of improving all the major modules within the DAC. The new one has a far better FPGA so I can increase the WTA (interpolation filter) to give more accurate reconstruction of the original analogue signal in the ADC. I have better noise-shapers, giving more accuracy for small signals. This in turn, improves the perception of stage depth and detail resolution. Better op-amps are available today and this have has led to about half the noise of the original and even smaller noise-floor modulation. With the distortion increasing with more difficult loads, I have implemented a second-order analogue noise-shaper for the single amp in Hugo. This has also improved isolation from the battery power supply and the new system means that the sound quality does not change with difficult loads. We are now using a ten-element pulse array to improve resolution and lower distortion and noise.”
“There is an improved USB input,” he continues, “with the ability to run with DSD512, 768 kHz support, plus the ability to work with the new M-SCALER as found on our new BLU MK2 digital/CD transport. I have also added a four-stage filter option, enabling user to fine-tune sound quality to suit. John Franks has improved the industrial design, making it cleaner and sharper and we used the visual back-lit switches from Mojo for ease of use. We also recognised that the huge success of Hugo was, in part, down to music lovers using it in their main hi-fi systems, so we added a remote control for the new model.”
Rather than using a conventional display, Chord uses colourful LEDs to show its status. This is both good and bad; it is beautifully colourful (obviously) and a radical break from the norm, but requires you to “learn” the user interface, which some will find a chore. Four “spheres” light up in different ways to denote what mode is selected; for example the battery indicator goes between red, orange, green and blue to show between zero and fully charged. On charge, it’s red or light blue depending on fast or trickle charging. The sample rate indicator is the real challenge though; it’s red at 44.1kHz orange at 48, yellow at 88.2, green at 96, turquoise at 176.4, navy blue at 192 – and so it goes continues all the way to 768kHz with different hues. Just be make life simpler, there’s only one for DSD – white, which isn’t technically a colour! The volume control cycles through all colours of the rainbow, and if you press the X-PHD button on start-up to enable the direct line-level output, it goes lilac.
I always thought the original’s output stage was a key limiting factor, and the new model gets digital DC servos to replace the inline capacitors here. There is now a slight switch on delay as a consequence, but is no bother. The company claims a seven-hour battery life, and the charging system is now via micro USB – which makes it far easier to find a power source for your Hugo while on the move. It has two charging modes – fast (1.8 amperes) and trickle (less than one ampere) – and battery charge status indication.
The original was hugely fiddly to use, whereas the new Hugo 2 has far better links to the outside world. The socketry for the optical, coaxial and USB digital inputs appears more rugged, and they’re labelled with laser-ablated function-lettering. Sadly there’s no full size RCA phono coaxial digital input; this is achieved by a 3.5mm socket. Via USB, Hugo 2 runs at up to a dizzying 768kHz in PCM mode and up to DSD512 (Octa DSD). Its analogue outputs comprise RCA stereo phono sockets, and 3.5mm and 6.3mm headphone outputs. Headphone users will like the Crossfeed function – retained from the oldie – which has three modes of operation via one of the illuminated control spheres. It gives a 400 millisecond-delayed and shaped signal from each left and right output to the opposite channel, which gives more of a loudspeaker-like listening experience, should you so wish.
What struck me about the original Hugo – and indeed other Chord DACs since the DAC64 – is the timing. There’s something really rather special about the way they play music – which just ebbs and flows along in a really rather organic and uncontrived way. That’s precisely what you get with the new Hugo 2, except it’s even better than before. Take Nu Era’s Oscar Styles, for example. This is a lovely slice of retro techno from Marc Mac of 4hero fame. It’s not an audiophile recording by any stretch of the imagination, but the new Hugo scythes through the mushy, grey mix to deliver a wonderfully satisfying sound. The Hugo 2’s works brilliantly on two levels; it has a superb sense of musical flow and excellent tonality. Via USB from a MacBook Pro on its internal battery, running Audirvana Plus, it sounds fantastically bouncy, as if you’re on some sort of musical trampoline. At the same time, the sound of the classic Oxford Synthesiser Company OSCar keyboard seems tangible – you can almost reach out and touch it. The Hugo 2 brings superb texture to instruments – and indeed human voices – which its predecessor couldn’t quite do. The result is that the music bristles with things to enjoy – boppy rhythms set behind layers and layers of superbly textured sound.
Move to a better recording with acoustic, rather than electronic, instruments and vocals – such as Crosby Stills Nash’s Wooden Ships at 24/96 – and the Hugo 2 really starts cooking on gas. It’s soon apparent that this DAC has massive detail, thanks to its ability to carry every different strand of the mix in total isolation from the others. You start hearing things in way that normally only comes from high quality vinyl; a top turntable running a serious moving coil cartridge. Vocals sound so direct and personal, yet are creamily smooth; guitars have a wonderful grit to them, yet you can hear the noise of the valve amplifiers used in the studio; drums have a beautifully loose but natural sound with glistening cymbals. This DAC ticks all the hi-fi boxes – it is superb in this respect – yet the magic trick is that the listener doesn’t hone in on just this aspect of its sound. Rather you find yourself immersed in the musical event.
The first Hugo did sound a little ‘shut in’ spatially, whereas the new one presents a bigger and bolder soundstage, with slightly better depth too. Like its predecessor, it images with pin-point precision, being if anything better. The low level detail is staggering, again obviously an improvement on its forebear, and another area that’s come along is the bass. The new DAC sounds ballsier and more commanding. In other words, every failing of the already exceptional original has been fixed, yet improvements have still been made elsewhere. The user-selectable filtering option is interesting to play with, but I ended up sticking to the default setting which gave a wonderfully silky yet airy quality to the treble. Overall then, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford one, I can think of nothing better sounding at or anywhere near the price.