First Listen: Chord Electronics Hugo portable high res DAC/headphone amp
A Hi-Fi+ review project I’m working on at the moment involves the Chord Electronics Hugo portable high res DAC/headphone amp, which is priced at $2,395 in the US or £1,200 in the UK. In practice this makes the Hugo, along with Astell & Kern’s upcoming $2,400 AK240 high-resolution digital music player, one of the world’s two most expensive portable high-end audio components. As you can probably imagine, this fact alone means the Hugo raises a lot of eyebrows before it is ever turned on. Indeed, upon learning the proposed price of the Hugo, some have questioned whether a $2,395 portable product really makes sense, but quite frankly, once the Hugo is set up and running those questions fall away, typically to be replaced with enthusiastic approbation from listeners.
To give you some idea of what the Hugo is all about, let me transport you to the Hugo release party at CES 2014, where Chord’s engaging technology honcho John Franks greeted the assembled audio journos by holding up a Hugo and telling the assembled throng, “At present the Hugo represents the most technically sophisticated and quite possibly the best-sounding high resolution DAC that our firm makes.” Gulp. That, as they say, is saying a mouthful.
At first, I wondered how Frank’s, well, frank announcement would play amongst members of the Chord sales team, but as it turns out Mr. Franks meant precisely what he had said. Following in the same general footsteps pioneered by earlier generation Chord DACs such as the DAC 64, the Hugo does not use an off-the-shelf DAC chip of any kind, but rather takes the unorthodox approach of repurposing a massive Xilinx FPGA (field programmable gate array) device for use as a high resolution DAC.
According to Franks, this approach offers dramatic sonic benefits vis-à-vis even the finest standard-issue DAC chips on the market, not the least of which is that Chord’s gate array-based DAC allow much higher tap-length digital filters than standardized DAC chips do. For example, the Hugo’s gate array-based DAC allows 26,000 tap-length filters (the most sophisticated Chord has offered to date in any DAC product), as compared to roughly 150 tap-length filters for standardized DACs. Franks’ position, then, is that Chord’s gate array-based DACs have always sounded better than off-the-shelf DACs and that this is in part due to the fact that they support much more sophisticated digital filtering schemes than conventional DACs do.
But there is more to the Hugo’s big Xilinx-powered DAC than having zillions of programmable gates on tap, because the Xilinx device in question is a new-generation 0.7V device that consumes very little power. This very low power draw is, as much as anything, the breakthrough that has made the Hugo possible. As Franks put it, “If we had tried to build as powerful a DAC as the one in the Hugo only a few years back, it would have needed a power supply that weighed 150 lbs. or more, which of course would not be practical.” But what is more, the Xilinx device and associated analogue circuitry are very, very quiet, with a THD + Noise levels said to fall at around -140dB, which is very low indeed.
Moreover, thanks to the very low power draw of the Xilinx device, the lion’s share of the Hugo’s onboard battery can be held in reserve for powering its amplifier section. The Hugo amp is, in fact, said to be capable of driving quite low impedance loads with a goodly amount of power (720mW at 8 Ohms, 600mW at 32 Ohms). Whilst the Hugo is not the most powerful headphone amplifier we have run across, it is nevertheless capable of driving most any headphone load you’d care to name, up to and including the author’s Abyss AB-1266 planar magnetic ‘phones, which are plenty difficult to drive.
In our full-length Hi-Fi+ review we’ll go into more detail than we will here, but let me give you a quick summary of the Hugo’s capabilities. The Hugo offers TOSLink, coaxial S/PDIF, standard res and high-res USB inputs, and an aptX Bluetooth input. For outputs, the Hugo provides one ¼-inch (6.35mm) headphone jack, two 3.5mm headphone jacks, and a stereo pair of RCA analogue output jacks—where the latter can be configured either for variable or fixed (that is, line level) outputs.
In terms of digital flexibility, the Chord can handle any PCM format from 44.1/16 on up to 384/24 and is DXD capable and can also decode DSD64 and DSD128 files via DoP protocols. Importantly the Hugo is Apple and Android-device compatible and suitable for use the Macs, which need no additional device drivers, or Windows machines, which require a Chord-supplied device driver (included with the Hugo).
Like all Chords worthy of the name, the Hugo is beautifully made and sport all sorts of intriguing visual details (a beautifully machined external case complete with Chord’s signature viewing “porthole” on top, plus colour-coded indicators for input selected, sample rate, and volume levels). So, apart from sound quality, which we’ll get to in a moment, the Hugo is one of those well-designed objects that make you want to use them—to simply play with them early and often. This, I would have to say, is a surprisingly big part of the Hugo’s appeal; the more you interact with the it, the more rewarding it becomes to use. In my experience, listening to the Hugo can become kind of addictive.
As card-carrying Hi-Fi Plussers we are of course focused on sound quality and in this arena the Hugo does not disappoint. If I had to sum up the Hugo’s sound in one word, the word I’d choose would be “masterful”, and I’m not alone in that assessment. Just for fun, I took the review sample Hugo to a recent Head-Fi meet for show-and-tell purposes (and to gather feedback from those hearing the Hugo for the first time). The almost universal reactions held that A) the Hugo initially seemed dauntingly expensive, but that B) the price seemed fully justified once listeners heard the Hugo in action and came to appreciate the sound quality on offer. At least one Head-Fi member (who happens to be a manufacturer of very well-respected high-end headphones) said with genuine surprise and admiration, “That little Hugo really is a viable alternative to many high-end desktop or rack-mount DACs and headphone amps.”
As I have gotten to know the Hugo, I’ve come to admire it greatly as a complete package, but I also have come to perceive that it may, in fact, be a world-class DAC that is bolted to a very good portable headphone amplifier. In other words, when push comes to shove, the Hugo’s DAC section is what truly makes the product special. I say this, in part, because I have twice now configured the Hugo as a line-level DAC and then plugged it into ultra-high performance full-sized headphone amps (once with a Cavalli Audio Liquid Glass and later with an AURALiC Taurus MkII). In both instances, those expensive “big boy” amps revealed even more of the Hugo DAC’s performance than could be accessed when listening through the Hugo’s own amp section. Odd though it may seem, I think serious high-enders will want to consider plugging the roughly paperback book-sized Hugo into their full-sized hi-fi systems. The Hugo DAC section is, I kid you not, truly that good.
Note, please, that the foregoing comments are not to suggest that the Hugo amp section is a slouch, because that is not the case. It is, in fact, one of the two best amplifier sections I’ve yet heard (the other is the CEntrance HIFi-M8). But the essential point is that the Hugo is a portable headphone amp and is subject to the inherent absolute power limitations of the genre (whereas desktop amps can, for example, have massive power supplies that might be many times larger than the entire Hugo).
The DAC section of the Hugo, however, is just mind-blowingly good. How good is it? I’m still conducting listening tests, but let’s just say that prior to writing this blog, I was listening to the Hugo in DAC-configuration and discovered that it could give the terrific AURALiC VEGA digital audio processor a pretty convincing run for its money. That is simply astounding performance in light of the Hugo’s size and price.
How did the Hugo come by its name? We’re not entirely sure, but Chord’s John Franks responded to the question with a quip that went something like this: “We hoped you’d like the product so much that you would take it with you wherever Hugo…”
We solemnly promise the sound of the Hugo is every bit as good as that pun is bad…
Watch for Hi-Fi+’s upcoming full-length review of the Chord Hugo, where we will have more to say about this impressive new product. Until then, happy listening.
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