Chord Electronics Hugo Review


Chord Electronics HugoChord Hugo Review: Designed by Rob Watts the Chord Electronics portable USB Hugo DAC Amp is a DSD DXD capable unit that is an audio design masterclass. Let the review commence.

Review Preface:

Chord Electronics, the Kent (UK) based audiophile aficionados of super premium Hi-Fi technologies, recently concluded an extraordinary foray into the portable electronics market in which the most outstanding DAC and headphone amplifier was born. Dubbed ‘Hugo’, the moment that this cheerful design hit both the desk, and my ears, I could not deny its charming and formidable presence. In fact this complex creation by Robert Watts for Chord may just be the best DAC/Amp combo ever created. This is certainly a bold statement, but this is something that I cannot stop thinking about. Subsequently this review is most definitely a personal voyage of discovery filled with satisfaction and disbelief.

Please note that this is a review based upon a Professional Audio (Pro-Audio) judgement. The subsequent review is an analysis of its capabilities in this feild (not necessarily ‘Hi-Fi’ or ‘consumer’), is complex, and requires patience.

Unboxing, Build Quality, and Features:

Similar to the Chordette range, Hugo arrives in a far to complex origami style package. Inside this package the Hugo, ‘you go’, is suspended by a cardboard cradle that, once removed, is virtually impossible to reassemble without a product design degree or passion for Mechano. However, below this corrugated confusion, you will be pleasantly greeted with a care package comprising of a Power Pax UK branded 12v transformer battery power charger, six thoughtful tight stretch black bands to attach your transport system to the Hugo chassis, an gold plated RCA to BNC converter, 1m standard ADAT cable, 1m ADAT TOSLINK compatible cable, 0.3m USB to extra long Micro USB cable, 1m USB to extra long Micro USB cable, an extra long Micro USB to Micro USB for attaching the Hugo to your portable transport system for USB audio out, and finally a somewhat tight Chord Electronics etched black 128mb USB key preloaded with Windows OS drivers. Personally I would have preferred if this USB key had a much larger capacity to sweeten the deal, but this is such a small preference that is barely notable or desired by the majority.

In other news, close inspection of the included cables reveals that, although they are indeed manufactured for Chord Electronics with their own specifications, they do not appear to have a construction that adequately reflects the refinement, performance, or price of the Hugo. The inclusion of said components is clearly to allow ‘plug in and play’ use across a diverse range as soon as the Hugo arrives and they work well, but more serious cable converts may wish to look at The Chord Company’s Hugo cable package. Continuing further I have to mention that you will be hard pressed to locate a ‘premium’ USB to Micro USB or indeed a Micro USB to Micro USB cable. After a considerable amount of research, I did manage to locate a rare Micro USB to USB and, contrary to audiophiliac belief, my findings were inconclusive as during a double blind there was no distinguishable difference between either cable.

Outer inspection of the Hugo is impressive. Physical dimensions of the case measure in at 5” x 3.6” x 0.9” and prove small enough to slip into a deep trouser or coat pocket with modest room for a transport system. Likewise with a weight of 342g Hugo won’t feel overly heavy or restrictive. Currently Hugo only ships in an beautifully fine handmade sandblasted, or etched, raw (silver grey) aluminium case with quirky embossed details including the ‘Hugo’ and ‘Chord’ names with elevated quad milled dimples. Additional aesthetic detailing on the faceplate is supplied in the form of a flawless 0.9” glass magnified spyglass to allow inquisitive minds to view the internal circuitry with much of the focus on the ultra powerful Xilinx Spartan 6 DAC chip and the internal LED tri-light system that indicates the various operational states including visual indication of battery status, ‘Crossfeed’ mode, and selected input source. Other details include an aesthetically underwhelming 0.6” opaque ‘DAC connected’ light window, and finally a continuous clear backlit rubberised potentiometer that changes colour depending on the users volume input.

On the back plate there are four clear rubber feet nearer to the middle of the case to inhibit damage or slipping on an work surface, the serial number, and finally another opaque window that appears to be located just askew to the Bluetooth module and battery output. What is clear is that the ‘small-batch’ casework of the Hugo is very fine indeed with a quaint handmade undertone that personifies Hugo and encapsulates what Hugo is all about; feeling awfully friendly and comfortable.

Something that is important to note is that Hugo has been assessed from the current circulation ‘second generation’ Hugo with modified casework. Unlike the first media prototype, this generation of Hugo has connectivity refinements to the RCA outputs, S/PDIF, ADAT (Lightpipe) input, and finally a pronounced on/off switch.

As Hugo’s inherent nature is to provide the listener with ultra high quality audio on the go, it would be pointless if Hugo could only last a couple of hours. Inside Chord have placed two-barrel rechargeable (via PowerPax UK power input) super premium Enix Energies branded 4.2v Lithium Ion batteries along the length of the shell. These batteries are exceptionally reliable, hold charge, and deliver a steady discharge that will keep the Hugo alive for a minimum of five hours after an approximate two to three hour charge. During our independent testing we found that the five to six hour mark was a fair ballpark for higher resolution playback whereas a standard connection you may even top seven to eight hours if not more. As a final note it is important to mention that Hugo’s batteries can only be charged via the included PowerPax UK charger and not when connected to a computers USB. Two reasons spring to mind for why this is the case with the first one being that Hugo’s batteries would only be able to be trickle charged from the low voltage bus output, and the second reason being that a consistent USB voltage is often prominent across a broad number of devices that would require additional space inside to regulate this voltage. If Hugo was on an exceptionally low charge then the USB voltage (up to 5v) would not be able to keep the Hugo’s DAC and internal amps going and charge it’s batteries effectively without significantly effecting Hugo’s capabilities.

Certainly one of Chord’s main aims when designing the Hugo was to produce the most adaptable DAC/DAP’s on the market. Sporting a litany of inputs and outputs, Hugo supports audio input via 44.1kHz Micro USB input, a separate HD Micro USB input for sample rates anywhere up to a ridiculous 384kHz (even up to DXD/DSD), optical TOSLINK, Coxial input, and finally an low energy ‘lossless’ BlueTooth aptX 4.0 compliant module. In use all inputs have functioned flawlessly with the slight exception of Chord Electronics own custom branded discreet BlueTooth (module) input due to a reduced operational range of five meters; typically you could expect up to ten meters. The reason for this reduced range is due to the lack of an antenna and faraday cage principle of the solid aluminium housing, yet is much more intelligent that what it might seem, being that when Hugo is used in its element, as a portable system, this reduced range reduces the effect of other wireless signals acting upon the purity of connection between the user and their technology without trailing wires to get caught up in. Likewise the intention of Hugo’s additional Bluetooth source connection is not for use in an typical domestic environment where other stationary sources are available. This is not to say that Hugo was never created to allow wireless music streaming in the home, this is still possible, albeit reduced.

If I may, I would like to revisit the discussion relating to why the Chord Hugo has a separate Micro USB input for higher quality audio tracks (above 48kHz). Upon first thought it would appear to the layman that a lower sample rate input would help to extend the life of the battery, and this is somewhat true, but the actual reason for why this is the case more complicated. Without jumping too far into an overly engineered or complex response, when Hugo is connected via the ‘HD’ Micro USB input a separate discreet asynchronous FGPA integrated circuit within the Hugo is used alongside ultra accurate crystal oscillators and the clock source of the music playing device is isolated. What this essentially means is that Hugo delivers a super mega low jitter performance. If we break this down this means that when music is played from your computer the waveform will be broken up into millions of parts and you need both the DAC and the source to operate in synergy. If timing is off then you will have issues with playback appearing distorted; similar to stretching or squashing a length of music in a DAW. Hugo designer Rob Watts explains that the ear is very sensitive to timing delays all the way down to 4ms so on the HD input he implemented an array of ultra high resolution crystal oscillators with super accurate timing. However, this is only half the battle as (FIR – Finite Impulse Response filter) taps play a huge role. Now in most devices, including premium audio interfaces, 254(x) taps is common and other devices settle for 100. Hugo settles for 26,000 whereas Chord’s Qute EX has 10,000. Taps count because they filter the audio by finite timing regulation – the more taps the greater the degree of accuracy in delivery of the audio resulting in a purer signal transmission.

Having discussed the various inputs it is important to enter into a brief discussion regarding the source selection procedure. To select the correct input, you will have to locate the unnamed input source button on the side and cycle through a traffic light system to reach the correct state. Initially this operation appears to be cryptic, however spending a short time with Hugo allows you to become familiar with the quirks. If we now locate the button next to the source input selector you will notice that this operates Chord’s bonus proprietary ‘Crossfeed’ technology. If we break this function down, essentially adding three varying degrees of ‘Crossfeed’ you will experience a three-dimensional change to the spatial dimensions from a subtle airy quality to a more hard pressed clearing of the virtual centre sweet spot.

Outputs from the Hugo include the main ¼” jack headphone output, two 3.5mm jack headphone outputs, and finally an RCA output. During testing I was extremely shocked to discover how well the headphone amplifier circuit buried within the Hugo performed. Prior to use I was almost certain that each of the 3.5mm connections would be a tethered connection meaning that plugging multiple headphones in at the same time would disturb the impedance, thus reducing the output and disturbing the quality of audio across the board. Instead of receiving an anticipated insipid performance, Hugo seemed to have discreet output stages that, when multiple headphones were plugged in, did not have an immediate detrimental effect on the quality of sound or output level and Hugo welcomed headphone impedances from 4 Ω to 500 Ω. Likewise the RCA output pair performed well. To use Hugo’s outputs within a desktop system, Chord have allowed the user to bypass the main attenuated output of the RCA’s from the potentiometer via an extended press of the ‘Crossfeed’ button.

As we mentioned before, Hugo does require drivers for Windows based systems although it has been designed to be driverless in order to operate via USB audio output on portable devices such as phones, tablets, and music players. We found that Hugo was easily recognised without any latency or hindrance by every device that we could throw at it; iPhone 5S, Google Nexus 7, Motorola Moto G, iPad 2, and surprisingly an Google Chromebook. I must confess that I was shocked when I connected the Hugo to the base model Samsung Chromebook without any issues whatsoever on the standard Micro USB input. Immediately Hugo was recognised by the cloud based operating system and imminently implemented as an DAC. Please remember that if you do plan to use the Hugo with your transport then you will need to purchase a compliant USB audio output App for either your iOS 7 and above (iPhone or iPod Touch via Camera Connection Kit) or Android device. There are a few good Apps that allow this function. For Android we prefer to use USB Audio Player PRO by eXtreme Software Development for its ease of use. As a final note please be aware that if you intend to use Hugo, or any DAC for that matter, with an lightning port device that you purchase the Apple Lightning to USB Cable (part no. MD821ZM) and not the Apple Lightning to Micro USB. The latter will not work as its intention is to easily charge your iPhone and does not have USB audio output capabilities. Finally, when Hugo is connected via the standard Micro USB input it will be known simply as ‘USB DAC’ when in use with a computer, otherwise when in HD mode Hugo will be known as ‘Hugo’. During extended operation Hugo maintains a cool temperature which suggests efficiency whilst maintaining comfort and a consistent performance.

Sound Quality:

For the purposes of review it is important to clarify the signal chain. In this situation we have monitored performance with an array of headphones including our flagship Beyerdynamic T90’s and used an array of lossless ‘Red Book’ audio tracks on an Apple MacBook Air, played via Sonic Studio’s Amarra (in standalone Amarra playlist mode), out via USB 3.0 via the supplied 0.3m cable and into the Hugo’s HD input without crossfeed enabled. Personally I have noticed a significant improvement in the spatial dimension and general presentation of audio (formally known as ‘polish’) when using the HD input over the SD for tracks from 44.1kHz. It is for this reason that the following descriptive solely relies upon this connection.

Delivering an astonishing performance akin to desktop solutions many times the financial burden, Hugo is a revolution of the finest kind. Presenting a deeply involving performance with minimal latency that sounds clean, articulate, and very well balanced across a broad genre table you may very well confuse this portable ‘wonder-box’ with a full blown workstation of first-class mastering quality interfaces. How Hugo manages to present such a flawless prevention, or stage of, sound is frankly awe inspiring and, credit where credit’s due, I would not take haste in considering Hugo for future professional audio applications. This is a one and only deal, subsequent critical analysis shall now focus on a complex sonic descriptive as immediate application impressions have now been discussed and the jury is clearly unanimous.

Describing individual qualities that encompass a truly ‘natural’ aural interpretation is a complex theory that requires several sonic factors to work in unity. For this reason it is especially difficult for even the most dedicated engineer to overcome a series of proportional qualities in order to create a holy grail analogous converter. Thankfully Rob Watts, mentioned before as Hugo’s co-creator, has implemented a harmonious pairing between hardware and software that effectively writes out the recesses between a user and a virtual digital world. Simply put, Hugo removes the chains and invites the user to a private concert experience that would, otherwise, be unobtainable without a venue and the musicians themselves – an awe-inspiring compliment. Yes you may indeed doubt these words, but connect Hugo with a source and a good pair of headphones and you will have the closest experience that you can get; audiophile nirvana guaranteed. So, how can we describe this soundstage without the words above? Basic dissemination yields a wide airy soundstage with a transient three-dimensional depth, no detectable or unnatural panning (far left or right) limits, absolutely no line noise, or distortion between the instrumentation.

Hugo features an impressive dynamic range. Often when you hear classical recordings you will be used to hearing imperfections in the master due to the number of musicians in one place and moving as they physically express the musical progression; it’s a totally natural behaviour for musicians because they simply connect themselves to the emotion within the music. These are the micro-dynamic qualities that I believe make music human, and sadly many interfaces lack the subtlety, the dynamic range, or power to adequately represent this. With Hugo I was surprised to find more of these beautiful details. They were not made louder, nor were they distorted, they were as they are; in the background and noticeable without questioning if they were there, you know they were there. I have used classical music here just as an example, but this presence was noticed across a broad range of genres; even those that we consider to be ‘over engineered’. Likewise I discovered that more transient instruments, such as drums, came across clear cut and fluid, never sharp or insipid due to the sheer control and elegance effortlessly flexed by the Hugo. As if like a jigsaw puzzle the instruments provided the glue on their own and, unlike some other DAC’s that turn to adding harmonics in the form of ‘warmth’ substitute their fallacies, the sound is remarkably pure and uncompromised.

Certainly Hugo is a transient beast that has a natural ability to reveal hundreds of layers, or instrumental artefacts, within any track structure. Specific types of reverb and multi-directional/tonal delay effect processes are easily identified, microphone and instrument characteristics can be appreciated, whilst convolution reverbs provide an eery listening environment. This transparency is paved via an explosive dynamic range, fastidious articulation, and subtle feminine rounded quality and this is Hugo’s magic trick… It almost seems to not exist. When Edison released his phonograph to the public in the late nineteenth contrary he packed a theatre full and played music for the very first time. Between the audience and the phonograph were two velvet curtains. Once removed, the audience were stunned to see that it was not an orchestra playing, but a box in the middle of the stage. Although incomparable to this defining moment for the future of popular music consumption and production, for some reason Hugo reminds me of this moment. Saying this, Hugo bares some similar resemblance in the fact that, more than just the first time, this wonder box yields a healthy glow of goosebumps upon the body. Don’t worry, you need no treatment… other than to keep ‘love drug’ Hugo close to hand for your daily fix.

Although we have set a precedent with the above explanation, maintaining an excellent composure across the frequency spectrum, the user can expect a deep healthy bass presence with punch and refinement, on the other end of the scale the treble frequencies sparkle and sound perfectly balanced and free of any harsh distortion. At the mids you can expect a clear luscious presentation that is free from low-mid bunching that can muddy the water. You have to hear Hugo to believe Hugo.

Track Analysis – Hugo Performance:

So, let’s look at how Hugo handles two very specific genres; ‘Accoustic Rock’, and ‘Electronic’. The purpose of this seemingly bipolar exercise is to clarify the performance expectations and judge competence in a straight forward manner. First up is Stephen Wilson with the sixth track on his album entitled ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’. Now this is a track that easily puts any technology through their paces with a beautiful introduction and harrowing lyrics that perfectly personify the artists frustration and grieving process. As such the track structure follows a building acoustic progression that leads into a medium-light rock outtro. Throughout the track Hugo sounds apt and reproduces the gentleness of the pianos chord progression where the diminuendo of the piano sustain peddle is fluid and analogous. As we reach the pre-chorus the drummer keeps the beat with a gentle tap on a closed hi-hat before breaking into a full drum kit choral. The sparkle and abrupt closure of sound is captured in such detail that you can feel between hits the exact placement based upon subtle differences. This is an extremely difficult task for any DAC to handle because the level of sensitivity that has to be judged is enormous. However, Hugo presents the Hi-Hat sparkle without any hissing or top end distortion and lower high end frequency nuances are detectable and natural with an exceptional level of refinement. As the track progresses the full kit is used and, yet again, the control held over the rhythmic elements is first class; Hugo never misses a beat, nor does it soften the edge to create a sonic blur (if that makes sense) that muddies the water. Once the bass guitar enters the mix the plumpness and power is remarkable and once again the musicians control over the instrument enters the environment, even amongst the drums, leading to a very natural and balanced multi-tonal showcase. Distorted guitars eventually enter the fray and so they do with elegance, control, and rawing power. Hugo doesn’t add any interim frequencies and the performance is deeply involving where the music supplies the adhesion and not the DAC. Surprisingly I have found that Hugo is great at somehow allocating each instrument with their own independent space. For example: the bass can have a powerful presence and rhythmically tight and at the same time the drums can have their own space in the rhythm with a phenomenal degree of attack. At the same time vocals have centre stage and are defined and separate, along with guitars having their own place. Everything sounds so right. It’s as if you are hearing exactly what you are seeing… if you look to the left and scan across to the right the performance is, well, natural.

Track Two – Infected Mushroom – ‘Artillery’ (2007 Vicious Delicious Album): Hugo presents an exceptionally clean performance across the electronic music genre range. There appears to be a great deal of depth and air across the instrumental arrangements with an larger than life explosive dynamic range exhibited during heavily produced rhythmic instrumentals. In terms of spatial dimensions Hugo, once again, excels in all areas. Centred instruments, such as vocals, clearly know their place whilst hard-panned supporting harmonies are allocated without cramping the centre line. Within almost every Infected Mushroom track, psychoacoustic instruments are used to form a highly technological rhythmic bass line, and at any one time up to sixteen of these are working in harmony. Hugo experienced no rhythmic issues, in fact it never missed a beat and never melted each instrument into each other. Every element felt as if it had its own place from deep gut wrenching sub-bass, to crisp snare cracks, right up to extreme piercing highs. The dynamic range and articulation was exceptional, explosive, and deeply involving.

Review Conclusion:

Analysis has confirmed that Hugo’s performance is consistent with mastering quality interfaces costing many times the current retail price. Hugo is an exceptional interface that has no noticeable flaws. The sound is awe inspiring and sets an incredible precedent for others to follow; Hugo is the benchmark. The revolution is here. Hugo is awarded with a full five star rating, the editors choice award, and is an outstanding award winner. Finally, Rob Watts is a genius. We thoroughly look forward to future Chord Electronics releases.

Edd Harris

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