I can’t remember a media player or portable DAC that has recently caused such hype in the audiophile hifi scene as the Chord Hugo; a quite highly priced DAC and headphone amp with pre-out that has pushed the budget limit quite a bit for many in a growing niche market. Let’s take a look into the phenomenon called Hugo.
Who the hell cares? Let’s start with specifications! I’ll get to this later…
Hugo is wordplay; a phonetic pun on the phrase “everywhere you go” … where you-go… hu-go… Hugo. I filed this under British humor (see what I did there?), which can sometimes be uneasy to get into. Anyway, the products name emphasizes the portable aspect of this handy DAC, which is its core feature, well, not the portable aspect alone, its prowess that matches mid to high-tier home setups that fits into your larger pocket. The size (approx. 13 x 10 x 2,5cm at 0.4 kg) might be a bit off-putting at first, but eventually you will make sure you always find space in your bag to take it along.
More like a fully spec’d personal computer, this DAC will make sure it is future-proof and will boost the sound quality of all your transportable devices. Inputs are covered well with USB, Toslink and Coax, the outputs are surprisingly high in quantity. If you dislike cables, use Bluetooth. Next to the regular stereo RCA output, there is a button combination to activate line level volume output for a serious home listening experience. When looking at Hugo, we are also looking at an extremely potent headphone amplifier with 2x 3,5mm and one 6,3mm headphone jack. Yep, three headphone outputs… simultaneously. If you were wondering, the output impedance measures around 0,075 ohms. This is fantastic for in-ear headphones with multiple drivers. (Read: CIEM. If the impedance is too high, the power is not distributed equally to the individual drivers and thus bending the frequency response. Most audiophiles will try to stay below 1 ohm.)
The icing on the cake is the crossfeed filter. Surely a feature some will be happy to use. So aside from versatility, what muscles have to be flexed to achieve high popularity in a fairly niche high-end market? A DAC that handles 32 Bit 384 kHz DXD and everything lower with ease; that’s what. Practically pro-audio studio monitoring quality for your bus ride to work, considering you have the necessary high-end headphones or high-end output amp with speakers with you. Companies are quick to boast specs and advertise DSD playback nowadays but only few can boast to run a Spartan 6 FPGA processor like Hugo has. Chord emphasizes the extremely competent WTA filters in use.
I quote from the website: “44.1 kHz sampling can be capable of accurately resolving transients by the use of digital filtering. Digital filtering can go some way towards improving resolution without the need for higher sampling rates. In order to do this the filters need to have infinite long tap lengths.” Chord claims that the largest commercial device has only about 256 taps – compared to Hugo who boasts 26k.
If you are wondering which input to use, here are some points to consider:
There are two USB inputs. One is for asynchronous 16, 24 and 32 Bit HD (up to 384 kHz), the other is your default 16 Bit (44,1 or 48 kHz). It might be confusing at first, but the reason for the lower spec’d input actually makes sense because it works with my Apple iPhone (and Android, obviously). Since my iPhone 6 Plus isn’t big enough already, I strapped it to Hugo. Good thing somebody actually called me on my phone number. Because when I finally held that big black combo to my ear, I saw relief in all eyes laid on me. Because who would hold a bomb to their ear? Jokes aside, this is actually a very handy feature to have, although I mostly use the HD USB.
Bluetooth is also limited to 16 Bit 48 kHz, just like the SD USB. The A2DP/ APTX technology is supposed to have a range up to 20m. I admit, I cannot confirm the distance. My room isn’t that long and if I go into the next room, the sound cuts off or stutters. As long as I stay in the same room of approximately 40m^2, there are no issues. If your source does not have USB-out and if you are still wondering whether TosLink or Coax is the better digital cable for you, consider that the optical input is limited to 192 kHz whereas the BNC type Coax will give you the full 384 kHz range, both with 24 Bit
Packaging and Build (2nd try)
Chord ships Hugo in a sturdy cardboard box. It’s neither flashy nor tacky, just humble with a few design details. The top cover has black “Chord Hugo” printing on solid black background, the bottom lists the features and reminds you that the product is made in England by Chord Electronics Ltd. When you lift the top, both sides of the bottom cardboard box will show you the instructions and how to interpret the intuitive color code of Hugo. The device itself is held nicely in place by foam material with multiple layers – the first one gives you a little sneak peak at Hugo! Underneath Hugo you will find a Coax adapter and a Chord USB stick with drivers including a digital copy of the manual, although my unit came with printed manuals both in English and German. Lift up the inner velour coated plastic separation to find the accessories.
- 6 rubbers that serve as bumpers but can also be used to hold your iPhone in place, for example.
- 3x Toslink optical cables with two being short (3,5mm and default termination) and a longer optical cable for home use.
- 3x USB with two short cables (micro-USB and default termination) and a longer cable for desktop PCs.
- A dedicated charger with electricity plug only.
Hugo himself is strong like a tank. Or even stronger? Watch Stefan Schickedanz roll over Hugo in a 13 ton tank on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jkksIWX1wc. Yes, that’s an incredibly well built aluminum housing protecting the finest hand-assembled technology. The bottom has four hard rubbery bumpers to prevent scratches when laying on surfaces. To make it short, my unit didn’t show even the tiniest flaws in production quality or quality control. Every screw is as tight as it should be, all input and output connections are firmly in place, and the two push buttons on the back have a solid and tactile feel to them.
I chose the black version of Hugo that was released a while after the launch. You best refer to the pictures to decide whether you can dig his design. Hugo certainly features a very original look with a tendency to appeal to the tech nerds. A circular glass window allows a view into the technology inside. This feature actually serves a purpose as it shows multiple colored LED lights for several indications from battery, source, crossfeed and line output. Depending on the viewing angle, these might not be perfectly centered in the middle but nonetheless easy to find. Hugo really likes to show off glowing lights. There is a separate white-layered space with colored LEDs to inform you about the sample rate of your source. How cool is that?
But the actual showstopper is the unique volume control. It’s embedded in an oval form and allows careful volume adjustment via a solid knob that also glows in the colors according to the volume. Chord does know how much men like to play with knobs (there is a dedicated YouTube channel for that) and they did a perfect job there. If you are using Hugo in a dim environment, he will definitely draw your attention in a positive way. Personally, I like how the names Chord and Hugo are punched into the aluminum housing, Chord is self-confident enough not to plaster their name on the device, yet there will be very few people confusing Hugo with another DAC or amp.
I know, I know. There is a manual included with every Chord Hugo. But let’s be honest: who wants to read the manual when he unpacks a fresh new device? Nobody has time for that! But on the other hand, if you are reading this review, chances are high you don’t have a Hugo yet. So here’s my take on a simplified user guide so you know right away how to use Hugo when you hold it in your hands for the first time – at home or at a hifi-meet. If you’re a Windows user, you will have to install the included drivers on the provided USB stick. If you’re an Apple user, you can plug and play.
This is the back side. The power button is easy to find. Once you remembered that the HD USB is close to the power switch while the SD USB is by itself, there should not be any questions about the input connections. The button on the far left toggles the various inputs. It defaults to HD USB after every boot. The cycle goes as follows:
HD USB > SD USB > Toslink > Coax > Bluetooth > HD USB
The button next to it toggles crossfeed in various levels. The cycle goes:
off > minimum > medium > maximum > off
The front side has all outputs (3x headphone, 1x RCA) and the remaining inputs with optical and coaxial. So basically, what just sounded so complex is actually very simple. Volume, input and crossfeed reset after every reboot. Once you switch on the power, you hit the input button until the indication for sample rate glows up. Per preference you might hit the crossfeed button one to three times and adjust the volume accordingly. That’s it.
Page 2: Sound Impressions