Chord Electronics Hugo TT 2 DAC/Preamp/Headphone Amp and Hugo M Scaler

A Great DAC Made Better

Equipment report
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters
Chord Electronics Hugo TT 2 DAC/Preamp/Headphone Amp and Hugo M Scaler

As many music lovers know, the legend of Chord Electronics’ Hugo family of products started several years back with the first-generation Hugo, a wildly overachieving portable headphone amp/DAC that took the marketplace by storm. Though that first Hugo was ostensibly a personal audio product, it didn’t take audiophiles long to discover that it could handily compete with (or in many cases surpass) the performance of like-priced standalone DACs for use in full-size audio systems. Granted, it did make for a strange sight, as the system would be comprised of racks full of big, full-width components plus the compact little paperback-book-sized Hugo, which at least sounded big. 

Audio history took its course, so that the first-generation Hugo begat the critically acclaimed first-generation desktop-sized Hugo TT (“TT” stands for table-top), which was essentially the DAC section of the Hugo bolted on to an even more capable and powerful Chord headphone amplifier/preamp. As time moved on, those first-generation Hugo models gave rise to what was and is one of Chord Electronics’ greatest achievements: namely, the cost-no-object DAVE (Digital Audio Veritas in Extremis) preamp/headphone amp/DAC. 

From the beginning, two things set the Hugo/DAVE family of products apart. First, they possessed extremely quiet, powerful, and low-distortion amplifier sections. Second, they incorporated extremely sophisticated Rob Watts-designed DAC sections that used distinctive FPGA-based digital filters that support extremely long tap-length filtering schemes and could therefore use Watts’ proprietary WTA (Watts Transient Aligned) filter algorithms. (To avoid confusion, let me mention that Rob Watts acts as an independent digital-design consultant to Chord Electronics, although he is regarded as an honorary member of the Chord team.) 

What’s the significance of the ultra-long tap-length digital filter and of the WTA algorithms? In seminars given around the world, Watts has suggested that few designers recognize the full implications of digital audio sampling theory, which according to Watts points to an astonishing conclusion. Specifically, Watts contends that garden-variety 44.1kHz digital audio files could, if processed through a digital filter of near infinite tap length, yield analog waveforms every bit as accurate and complete as those produced from higher-res audio files, albeit with slightly higher noise floors. Stop a moment and let that claim sink in. Watts is saying, in essence, that a DAC with a properly designed filter system can deliver ultra-high-res sonic results from conventional CD-quality files. 

To give some perspective, most normal DACs use filters offering a couple of hundred taps, whereas Chord’s DAC filters offer tens of thousands of taps, or more (the DAVE, for example, offers a filter with ~164,000 taps). Each time new Chord Electronics products up the number of available filter taps, says Watts, the WTA algorithm has had to be revised to take advantage of the additional processing power, while sound quality has audibly improved. This “more filter taps = superior sound” philosophy forms the underpinnings of the DAC designs found in the Hugo, Hugo TT, DAVE, Hugo 2, and now the new Hugo TT 2, which offers 98,304 filter taps (second only to the DAVE DAC within the Chord Electronics range). The Hugo TT 2 is one of our two review subjects here, the other being the Hugo M Scaler, which we will get to in a moment.

To state things simply, the Hugo TT 2 is different from and better than the original Hugo TT in every way. It is quieter, yields unmeasurable levels of noise, offers greater dynamic range, provides a different and better power supply, produces much more output power, and incorporates a markedly improved DAC section. In short, everything the Hugo TT could do, the Hugo TT 2 can do better. 

The Hugo TT 2 sports a host of useful digital inputs: two optical, two coaxial BNC, one driverless USB (for use with tablets and smartphones), one USB Type-B, and an aptX Bluetooth interface. Analog outputs include: stereo XLR, stereo RCA, two 6.35mm headphone jacks, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. One set of dual DX BNC digital (expansion) outputs is also provided. By design, the Hugo TT offers three distinct operating modes: “DAC mode” with fixed line-level outputs, “Amp mode” with variable-level rear-panel outputs, and “Headphone mode” with variable-level outputs from front-panel-mounted headphone jacks. 

The amplifier section of Hugo TT 2 is very powerful, delivering up to 7.3W at 8 ohms in single-ended mode or a stonking 18W at 8 ohms in balanced mode. For this reason, and with headphone/hearing protection in mind, Chord Electronics advises owners to start out with extremely low volume level settings and to proceed with appropriate caution.