Chord Electronics Hugo portable DAC and headphone amp review

Chord Electronics Hugo

How times have changed. The Chord Electronics Hugo is not simply a high-performance digital audio convertor that outclasses much of what's gone before it in the last 30 years. It is also small enough to slip into your pocket, and so economical in its power requirements it can be powered from its internal battery for hours at a time. See also: The best headphones of 2014

The minimal power draw alone is almost incredible. Fifteen years ago when this reviewer tested a digital convertor from the same designer – a unit with a similar digital architecture but possessing a small fraction of the processing power of the Hugo – it demanded an external power supply that ran so hot you could almost see the heat haze rising.

At the Hugo's £1,400 price, this modestly sized metal box may be outside the budgetary comfort zone of many casual listeners. But when you realise its technological innovation, its wide feature set, and most importantly its potential for better-than-studio sound quality, it makes more sense. Especially to audiophiles and golden-eared road warriors used to spending even more on such solutions. Yet great sound alone is not always everything in an age where ease of use has become equally paramount. So what is the Hugo and what can it do?

Chord Electronics Hugo: What is it? Play raw digital audio through headphones

The Hugo is a DAC and headphone amplifier. It takes raw digital audio data from a variety of sources – wider than any other we've tried in fact – and converts the digital signal into analogue, ready to be played into headphones or into any stereo hi-fi system.

It's built into a sandblast satin-finished white metal case measuring 131 x 97 mm, and at 23 mm thick and weighing only 342 g, it's easily pocketed for portable sound on the move too.

For this you'll need an audio source of course, and the obvious candidate today is a smartphone. It's now possible to plug an iPhone or Android into such a DAC, and play better-than-CD resolution audio by bypassing the phone's limited audio stages.

For the iPhone you just need Apple's Lightning to USB Camera Adapter (MD821ZM/A), or its 30-pin counterpart for pre-iPhone 5 handsets. For Android you need a USB on-the-go (OTG) cable, with one already supplied in the Hugo's packing box.

These adaptors and cables ensure that only data is being connected between devices, with no attempt to draw DC power over the USB bus from the phone.

To play hi-res audio you'll also need a suitable music-playing app. We tried AmpliFlac and found it nearly unusable, but Onkyo's HF Player for iOS worked much better. After tweaking the app's settings, it can be set to output a native DSD datastream using the DoP protocol to pass .dsf and .dff files, enabling an uncanny playback of SACD-quality audio on the hoof.

(For Onkyo's app, bewarned that while a free download it costs £6.99 to unlock hi-res audio playback; and Onkyo's licence agreement explains that the company will try to monitor your use of the app, harvest your data and send it back to the company.) Also see: 6 best budget headphones 2014

Chord Electronics Hugo

Chord Electronics Hugo: Build and design

Build quality of the unit is reasonably good, if short of what you might expect £1400 to buy you. We did not find the Hugo particularly easy to use, thanks to a complete absence of labels and some poor design decisions in its layout.

On one end is a splay of seven audio ports for analogue output and S/PDIF digital input. There are two 3.5 mm headphone jacks, set deep within the casework which makes it difficult or impossible to use with some earphones' plugs. Besides these two there's another 6.35 mm (1/4-inch) headphone jack, looking a little home-grown in its non-concentric mounting hole.

The main stereo RCA phono outputs have been revised a litle since initial launch, after universal complaints that the sockets were too close together and without any circumferential clearance to actually allow decent cables to be connected. Chord Electronics responded by increasing outer clearance by a millimetre or two, but the sockets are still too close to each other for comfort, and some cables will remain off-limits.

Also found on this end are RCA coaxial and Toslink optical digital inputs. The coaxial socket suffers the same fate as the analogue outputs, only here without any revision to allow many plugs to be used.

On the opposite end of the Hugo are two USB inputs, two anonymous press button switches and a DC input socket for power and battery charging. Note that the Hugo does not charge over USB so you'll need to carry its little wall-wart power supply to keep the battery topped up.

One Micro-USB 2.0 port will work with audio up to 16-bit/48 kHz with Windows and Mac OS X with no further help. The right-hand Micro-USB meanwhile is specified for use up to 32-bit and 384 kHz, working straight out of the box in OS X while Windows users will need to install a proprietary driver first.

Micro-USB ports, along with all other input and output connectors, are directly soldered to the PCB. We wonder how much real-life handling the USB ports in particular will withstand when the Hugo's carried in the pocket with cables still inserted. These USB ports are similarly too recessed and could not be reached by some Micro-USB cables we tried.

Alongside the HD USB input is a small slide switch, sunk into the same rebate. This is the main power switch, an awkward to reach and low rent-feeling way to turn on the unit. It became a palpable struggle to toggle the switch with our little fingertip with the USB cable actually plugged in.

Inputs are switched by one of the two little black switches on the side. Which one though? We could never remember, and an inscribed legend on the underside of the case would have solved everything; or even just a printed label applied here, with cribsheet reminders of each button and port's function.

The second little black switch is described as a crossfeed switch. Contrary to the stated intention of creating a more spatial ‘out of the head' stereo sound field, this seemed to simply narrow the soundstage. To our ears it made the soundstage contract and become more mono-like as the effect was stepped up – keep clicking the anonymous button and watch a tiny LED inside change from its red minimum (‘9 dB 700 Hz') to blue maximum (‘4.5 dB 700 Hz') in three steps.

On top of the Hugo is a clear lens window which shows off its circuit board, silicon chips and multicoloured LEDs. Also on the top surface is a rather recalcitrant volume control, a translucent plastic barrel that you must roll with your thumb – and requiring some pressure – to change volume. The colour changes as you turn it, even if it's difficult to see this while in motion since your thumb effectively obscures the changes to deny you much visual feedback.

The tiny input-selection LEDs inside are not the easiest to read. For the ‘HD USB' input, for example, the specified white colour looks greenish, made from an ad-hoc combination of red, blue and green LEDs lighting together.

In fact the Hugo has abominable visual feedback for most its operation. Peer through the little porthole and you'll see three main coloured LEDs. These are illustrated in the manual, but depicted upside down there to confuse users further.

The topmost LED (when holding the Hugo the ‘right' way up) shows rechargeable battery level. If it glows blue, you're fully charged. Green shows when 90 percent full, yellow 50 percent and red means you're down to 30 percent. When it flashes red it's time to recharge. And when it doesn't come on at all, you'll need to put it on charge and wait some time, perhaps 20 minutes, before you can use the device at all.

We found battery operation could be a little erratic. After one lengthy listening session on mains power, the unit had been connected to its mains adaptor for 48 hours. When we went to use it later the same morning, its battery was flat.

The overall battery life under normal conditions is said to be ‘up to 14 hours'. We didn't time the running time on a full charge but found it could last the length of one long-haul flight of 10 hours after near-continuous use, with a little juice to spare.

On a design note, we didn't like the opaque white window on the top. This shows digital input sample frequency in a range of just-visible hues, but it looks messy since only half its surface lights in any particular colour; and you'll barely see the colour in bright daylight either.

Overall build quality of the casework was let down by visible file marks on the top surface, and by its cast-metal construction in two halves that only just lined up when screwed together.

Chord Electronics Hugo

Listening to Hugo

The Chord Hugo is an exceptionally revealing digital-to-analogue convertor, able to reveal layers of music like no other DAC at its price.

We listened to it as a headphone stage using USB and Bluetooth inputs, from an Apple iPhone 5s plus a USB Camera Connection adaptor. And also as a line-level DAC using a Mac mini as music player with Audirvana Plus software, within a stereo system comprising Music First pre-amp, Chord SPM 1200C amplifier and B&W 802D loudspeakers.

It's important to remember the Bluetooth function is a convenience feature that helps to lengthen the features list but is less useful to the kind of audience that pays good money for the best sound quality. Used with Bluetooth sources with only the basic SBC capability, we heard background hiss and some faint repetitive ticks through the earphones. Used with an aptX-capable source sound quality was much improved but still well short of what a £5 cable will provide between phone and DAC; and Bluetooth audio is always limited to 16/48 quality at best even before further lossy compression is applied.

Chord Electronics Hugo: DAC sound quality

Immediately evident was its relatively light and bright tone, setting an almost crystalline clarity to music. We found it was particularly insightful in its rendering of treble detail, relaying the shimmer and decay of cymbals in a most convincing way.

High-resolution music files sounded very fine, both 24-bit PCM and DSD audio. But perhaps more impressive was how it could make the most of regular CD-ripped 16-bit tracks too. It showed in etched relief the high-frequency content of CD music without actually making it sound especially wearing or ‘digital'.

But unsurprisingly it showed the very best it could do with high-resolution files, making the most of wider bandwidth music with its crucially improved temporal resolution. Pinpoint imaging of instruments in their stereo positions was a major strength, helped by the sense of lightning-fast transients, for example from strummed rhythm guitar or percussion parts.

From a recent DSD reissue of Fragile by Yes, ‘South Side Of The Sky' was stripped bare to show close-miked tom-toms struck at different points around their skins. And lead vocals from Jon Anderson became apparent as recorded in a screened booth rather than an open room. But with all that revelation came production warts too.

The ageing tapes from which the DSD64 master was transcribed betrayed some analogue artefacts hidden to lesser convertors, the audible tape splices with changes in hiss level, the lift and pull of desk faders, and tape or tape-head saturation heard as analogue overload. Put it down to time-domain resolution with the help of its proprietary 26,368-tape WTA filter, but we were also made quite aware of minute short-term pitch fluctations in some recordings – namely tape flutter.

Compared to Chord's own QuteEX – the replacement of the critically lauded QuteHD mini-sized DAC – we found the QuteEX just lacked the scintillating excitement of the Hugo. And if anything it made more of a meal out of some of the analogue master issues we'd heard earlier, leaving the Hugo as the more honest and unperturbed unraveller of those tape glitches.

Against our current reference DAC, the Mytek Stereo192-DSD, the Hugo could be heard as the more transparent and insightful decoder, able to see deeper and further into the corners of the recording.

The Mytek had a better grip on overall song timing though, sounding fleet and pacey where the Hugo could sometimes meander and occasionally sound somewhat dynamically muddled in direct comparison. This was only evident with the Mytek connected in its best FireWire mode, which is not an option for many computer audiophiles. And certainly not for pocket-sized music players.

Overall, the Hugo was found to be incredibly revealing, and versatile enough to play many styles and ages of archived musical history, showing us elements we had not always heard before without the tiring effect of artificially elevated detail.

Chord Electronics Hugo: Specs

  • High-resolution DAC and headphone amp
  • 32-bit / 384 kHz PCM, DSD64 and DSD128
  • 2x 3.5 mm and 1x 6.35 mm headphone outputs
  • stereo RCA phono outputs
  • 1x coaxial S/PDIF, 1x Toslink optical digital inputs
  • 2x Micro-USB 2.0 inputs (16/48 and 32/384)
  • lithium-ion battery
  • 131 x 97 x 23 mm
  • 342 g
  • High-resolution DAC and headphone amp
  • 32-bit / 384 kHz PCM, DSD64 and DSD128
  • 2x 3.5 mm and 1x 6.35 mm headphone outputs
  • stereo RCA phono outputs
  • 1x coaxial S/PDIF, 1x Toslink optical digital inputs
  • 2x Micro-USB 2.0 inputs (16/48 and 32/384)
  • lithium-ion battery
  • 131 x 97 x 23 mm
  • 342 g

OUR VERDICT

The Hugo has several usability issues which many sound-first users may be willing to work through, although we feel it could be a more universally loved product if addressed. For computer audiophiles especially, but also used alongside traditional non-PC digital sources, the sound quality is quite literally a revelation. While erring towards the light and bright side of neutrality and perhaps not even to every ear or system's taste, the Hugo covers the full musical range majestically with a performance even more colourful than its multicoloured LED lightshow. That it can be used as a portable headphone DAC with the finest high-resolution recordings available, simply plugged into an iPhone while away from home, is a startling breakthrough.