ELECTRONICS
IN-DEPTH CHORD
HUGO 2 £1,800
IN-DEPTH
Chord
progression
DETAILS
PRODUCT
Chord Electronics
Hugo 2
ORIGIN
UK
TYPE
DAC/headphone
amplifier
WEIGHT
450g
DIMENSIONS
(WxHxD)
100 x 21 x 130mm
FEATURES
l 32-bit/768kHz and
DSD512-capable DAC
l Inputs: mini USB-B;
optical; coaxial; aptX
Bluetooth
l Outputs: 3.5mm &
6.35mm headphone
jacks; 2x RCA
l Quoted battery
life: 7 hours
DISTRIBUTOR
Chord Electronics
Ltd.
TELEPHONE
01622 721444
WEBSITE
chordelectronics.
co.uk
David Price is one of the first to listen to Chord’s Hugo 2,
which promises the world and pretty much delivers
W
hen Chord’s first Hugo
portable DAC/headphone
amplifier was launched at
CES in January 2014, I
instantly knew it was special – it
looked, sounded and worked like
nothing else, and was so good that
many bought it to use as their main
domestic digital converter, rather than
a mere travelling accessory. That’s not
to say it was perfect. Enthusiastic early
adopters soon got to know its foibles,
but it sounded so superb that we
learned to live with them.
Much as I loved it, the original Hugo
had some niggles. The socketry was
my main criticism; it was less rugged
than was ideal, and I found Bluetooth
connectivity a bit flaky. Also, it was
incredibly fiddly to use, with all the
pressing of tiny buttons needed;
user-friendly it was not. The new Hugo
2 is substantially more expensive at
£1,800, but is far better made, easier
to work and a much more satisfying
ownership proposition.
The first thing that strikes you is its
casework; it’s now far more modern
looking. The angular styling appears
more purposeful and the aircraft-grade
aluminium case feels more robust too.
Music just ebbs
and flows along in
an organic and
uncontrived way
It sports four spherical control buttons,
handling power, source, filtering and
crossfeed functions. The original
Hugo’s trademark top-mounted
colour-coded volume-control sphere
has been retained and made larger for
easier operation. Importantly, Hugo 2
sits on a shelf more securely and is
easier to use – something further aided
by the addition of a remote control.
Were the changes to stop there, we
would have done pretty well – with
most of the original’s niggles sorted.
Hugo 2 is more than just a prettier face,
however, it’s a whole new product
inside with a real evolution of Chord’s
digital conversion and filtering
platform. It’s been heavily reworked by
its creator Rob Watts with a 49,152
tap-length filter, near double that of
the original (see Q&A). To achieve
this, it sports a much larger, Field
Programmable Gate Array (FPGA)
and advanced Watts Transient Aligned
(WTA) filters. The key point here is
that the Hugo – like all others in the
Chord range – does not use bought-in,
off-the-shelf converter or filtering chips.
The tweaks don’t stop there. I always
thought the output stage was a key
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ELECTRONICS
IN-DEPTH CHORD
HUGO 2 £1,800
CHORD ELECTRONICS
HUGO 2 £1,800
soon as you set ears on it, you can
hear the difference. What struck me
about the original Hugo – and indeed
other Chord DACs since the DAC64 –
is the timing. There’s something really
special about the way they play music
– which just ebbs and flows along in
an organic and uncontrived way.
That’s precisely what you get here,
except it’s even better.
Nu Era’s Oscar Styles is not an
audiophile recording by any stretch of
the imagination, but the Hugo 2 scythes
through the mushy, grey mix to deliver
a wonderfully satisfying sound. It 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. At the same time, the sound
of the classic Oxford Synthesiser
Company OSCar keyboard seems so
tangible that you can almost reach
out and touch it. The Hugo 2 brings
superb texture to instruments and
indeed human voices. The result is
that the music bristles with things to
enjoy – boppy rhythms set behind
Hugo 2 is a new
model both
inside and out
limiting factor, and the new model gets
digital DC servos to replace the inline
capacitors. There is now a slight switch
on delay as a consequence, but it’s not
a bother. A seven-hour battery life is
claimed and the charging system is
now via micro USB – which is a great
idea. It means it’s 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 rather fiddly to use,
whereas the Hugo 2 has far better
links to the outside world. The
socketry for the optical, coaxial and
USB digital inputs appears more
rugged, and is labelled with laserablated 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 6.35mm 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 speaker-like
listening experience.
Sound quality
Most digital-to-analogue converters
– with a few notable exceptions
from companies such as dCS – use
bought-in DAC chips from the likes
of Wolfson, ESS, Burr-Brown, etc.
– and as a result have a distinct
family sound. Chord by contrast
uses its own inhouse design, and as
If silver isn’t
to your liking,
go for black
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HOW IT
COMPARES
It’s hard to find a direct
rival to the Hugo 2, and
its price rise hasn’t
made things any easier.
Most buyers will use it
predominantly as a
home DAC and so it’s
not unreasonable
to compare it with the
Naim DAC-V1 (£1,420)
which is a compact,
half-sized DAC preamp
with headphone
functionality. By not
being portable the
Naim can offer better
connectivity and, of
course, a superb OLED
front display that tells
you directly what it’s
doing, whereas the
Hugo relies on its exotic
coloured LEDs. The
Naim sounds really
good, with an open and
powerful character, but
cannot match the sheer
musicality of the Chord,
which has a more
natural and organic
feel. The Hugo 2 sounds
even more propulsive
than the already
impressive Naim and,
of course, offers real
portability for use out
and about on the move.
The angular styling
is more purposeful
while the aluminium
case is more robust
layers and layers of quite superbly
textured sound.
Move to a better recording with
acoustic, rather than electronic,
instruments and vocals – such as
Crosby Stills and 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 a 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.
Chic’s Happy Man is a case in point;
at first I am struck by the clarity of the
sound and the wonderful way all the
strands of the mix play independently
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IN SIGHT
1
2
4
3
5
1
6.35mm
headphone output
2
3.5mm
headphone output
3
RCA analogue
outputs
4
Optical digital input
6
Micro USB port
for charging
768kHz PCM &
DSD512-capable
micro USB port
6
7
COLOUR CONVERTER
There’s a reason why Hugo 2’s instruction leaflet is in full
colour. 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
of one another. I am impressed by the
warm tonal patina of the recording
– it’s a classic late seventies disco track
after all, complete with authentic
studio drum sound and close miking.
Yet when Nile Rodgers’ lead vocal
kicks in, all such considerations recede
and I find myself immersed in the
lilting delivery of the singer. This is an
odd sensation, because almost all
other digital sources I’ve played this
through focus instead on the bass
guitar/snare drum interplay, largely
missing out the melodious content of
the song. Not so with the Hugo 2.
Indeed, any purchaser of this dinky
DAC will find themselves running the
gamut of their digital music collection,
to hear it in a lovely new light.
As someone that knows the original
Hugo inside out, I am interested in the
sonic differences between the old and
the new. The original Hugo sounds 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 so much
ballsier and more commanding. The
user-selectable filtering option is
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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 continues all the way to 768kHz with different
hues. Just to 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 turns lilac. Meet what is surely the world’s most
psychedelic DAC!
interesting to play with, but I end up
sticking with the default setting,
which gives a wonderfully silky
yet airy quality to the treble.
Conclusion
Better in every way, there is nothing
to dislike about the Chord Hugo 2
except its price – at £1,800 it’s £400
more costly than the original. In
fairness, it’s at least this much better,
but it still puts it out of reach of
many people’s range. If you’re
fortunate enough to be able to
consider one, then it’s an essential
audition; not just as a portable DAC/
headphone amp, but as the best hi-fi
digital converter at or near the price l
OUR VERDICT
SOUND QUALITY
VALUE FOR MONEY
BUILD QUALITY
FEATURES
OVERALL
LIKE: Beautiful sound;
styling; portability;
build quality
DISLIKE: No full-size
coaxial digital input;
complex status lights
WE SAY: Next-gen
Hugo grows up into
a thing of wonder
Q&A
Rob Watts
Designer, Chord Electronics Ltd.
3.5mm coaxial
digital input
5
7
IN-DEPTH
DP: What was right about the
design of the original Hugo?
RW: All of it! It was the best that could
be done given the FPGA available
back in July 2013. 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.
How does the Hugo 2 improve on it?
There’s 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 much better noiseshapers, giving more accuracy for
small signals. This in turn, improves
the perception of soundstage depth
and detail resolution. Better op-amps
are available today and this 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 10-element pulse array
to improve resolution and lower
distortion and noise.
Any improvements elsewhere?
There is an improved USB input, with
the ability to run with DSD512, 768kHz
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 users 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.
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