Chord Hugo £1400
FOR Terrific dynamic subtlety; portability; aptx Bluetooth AGAINST Connections and power switch are cramped
Hugo? That’s an odd a name for a hi-fi product. It’s a play on ‘you-go’, which gives a suggestion as to the focus of this portable digital-to-analogue converter.
Chord claims this to be the ‘world’s first reference-class portable DAC/ headphone amp’. That’s a bold claim, but the company’s track record in digital-toanalogue conversion is terrific since the DAC 64 was introduced 20 years ago.
Window of opportunity
So what does the Hugo do? It has an impressive range of connections – as well as the standard optical, coax and (twin) USB inputs, the Chord accepts aptx Bluetooth signals too, opening up use with smartphones and tablets. Alongside these inputs there’s a 6.3mm headphone output and a pair of smaller 3.5mm alternatives.
The Hugo’s portable nature dictates it has built-in batteries. It doesn’t take power through USB, as most other DACS do, choosing instead to take its charge from the mains supply. Internal batteries take around two hours to charge and should give around 12 hours of use.
Underneath that aluminium case, you’ll find a tightly packed circuit-board filled with some unusual electronic solutions. All the company’s best DACS, including the Hugo, have been based around the same Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) processing technology (large-scale integrated circuits, which can be loaded with bespoke software after manufacture). This makes Chord’s products different from most rivals.
The Hugo will accept input signals up to 32-bit/ 384khz, but only through one of its USB inputs. The second USB will work without special driver software – it’s intended for use with tablets and phones – and is limited to 16-bit/48khz.
The coax input keeps the ultra-high sampling rate of 384khz, but drops the bit-depth to 24. Optical reduces this further to 24-bit/192khz. While such numbers are impressive, 384khz files of either 32-bit or 24-bit are rare enough to render their inclusion moot. The ability to accept DSD music streams is more important, with the DAC processing these natively to protect sonic purity. Incoming sampling rates are indicated by a change of colour in the top-facing window.
The Hugo is arguably Chord’s most impressive number cruncher yet. We certainly think it delivers more insight than the similarly priced mains-powered Naim DAC&V1. There’s masses of detail here, coupled to the kind of organisation and dynamic subtlety that is usually only available at far higher prices.
Listen to a DSD file of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and you’ll find the Chord balances finesse and muscle beautifully. Higher Ground charges along with real momentum. There’s plenty of drive to the rhythm and a striking amount of punch to the song’s distinctive bass line. Stevie Wonder’s voice is delivered with all the precision, weight and natural warmth we could wish for.
We listen to a range of recordings from Mahler’s Symphony No.4 (24bit/192khz) to a CD rip of PJ Harvey’s White Chalk and a 256kbps version of Eric Bibb’s Booker’s Guitar, and the Chord doesn’t disappoint. The shortcomings in the Eric Bibb file are obvious, yet this DAC’S innately musical approach keeps our attention on the performance.
Right on the wire
”The Hugo is Chord’s most impressive number-cruncher yet, delivering more insight than similarly-priced rivals. There’s masses of detail here, coupled with the kind of organisation and dynamic subtlety usually only available at higher prices”
This quality helps when connecting to the Hugo via Bluetooth. There’s the usual drop-off in sound quality when compared to a wired connection – a little thinness in the treble and a loss of overall resolution – but on the whole the Chord manages to keep things enjoyable.
Tonally, the Chord is an even-handed performer, with no part of the frequency range taking prominence. This helps to make system matching easier. We try a range of headphones from Shure’s SE846 in-ears and Grado’s RS1S to Beyerdynamic’s T1s without issue.
Chord has equipped the Hugo with a ‘crossfeed’ switch that processes the sound to reduce the typical ‘in the head’ presentation headphones normally deliver. There are four settings from ‘Off’ to ‘Maximum’, and for the most part it’s a relatively unobtrusive system. After much listening we tended to alternate between the ‘minimum’ and ‘off’ settings.
Round of applause
A less obvious use for the Hugo – given Chord’s intended portable purpose – is as a stripped-down digital preamp. We try connecting it to our reference system and get terrific results when linked to our Bryston 4BSST2 power amplifier and ATC SCM50 speakers. Here we’re taken by the Chord’s dynamics and transparency. It never sounds out of its depth, and delivers an insightful, entertaining sound which keeps us hooked.
There’s no denying that the Hugo is a hugely capable product. We think it’s the best sounding converter we’ve heard at this price. Add its portable abilities, and especially its fine performance with Bluetooth, and Chord should be applauded on a stunning achievement. Chord has addressed the cramped design of earlier models which meant that connections were difficult to access, but we’d still avoid using chunky cables.
Otherwise, the Hugo is the bestsounding DAC we’ve heard at this price. Add in its portability, and it is a multitalented device that will transform your music listening so much you’ll wonder what you ever did without it.