Chord Hugo £1400

FOR Ter­rific dy­namic sub­tlety; porta­bil­ity; aptx Blue­tooth AGAINST Con­nec­tions and power switch are cramped

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Dacs -

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.

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