Hugo 2 DAC/Headphone Amp Review
THE HIGH NOTES
- Audio Nirvana
- Headphone Users, Rejoice!
- Shape Your Sound
Company & Product Overview
The founder of Chord Electronics, John Frank, got his start working in aviation engineering. When an audio component fails, the music just stops playing, but if an aircraft fails, you have a big problem. When you’re building an aircraft, quality and attention to detail are of the utmost importance. Frank took this philosophy with him when he started Chord, beginning with a series of uncompromising amplifiers.
Word got out in the UK recording industry that these new amps deserved a listen, and it wasn’t long before the BBC had several installed. Others followed, and today Chord products are found in nearly 50 famous recording studios and performance venues around the world, including Sony Music, Abbey Road, and the Royal Opera House.
Eventually, Chord recognized the growing popularity of high-performance listening on the go, including an ever-increasing selection of high-end headphones. Many audio enthusiasts were wanting to take their music with them and play it through their smartphone, without sacrificing quality. This lead the Chord team to develop a line of portable products that are easy to use and carry around but can provide the sound quality of ultra high-end home audio gear.
The original Hugo DAC quickly became a reference-level component for many headphone lovers. Eventually, Chord had developed their digital technology to the point that it was time for an upgrade, and the Hugo 2, the subject of today’s review, was born.
Design & Build Quality
Chord is serious about maintaining a high standard of build-quality. To ensure they meet this standard, they produce all of their gear in their UK factory, rather than outsourcing their manufacturing like many other audio brands today. The fit and finish on every part of the Hugo 2 is top notch. The CNC aluminum chassis feels really nice and substantial in your hand.
The visual design of the Hugo 2, and really all Chord products, is interesting and unique. They have a distinct look. The main body of the unit is a rectangular shape, less than 1” tall and is 4” wide by 5” long, so it can easily fit in a briefcase or travel bag. One side has both a full-sized and mini headphone output jack. Next, you’ll find analog audio outputs, followed by a mini plug coaxial digital input and an optical input.
The end under the buttons has a mini USB input and the mini USB charging input, allowing you to charge and use the USB at the same time.
On top of the unit are 4 rounded buttons and a raised section in the center with a larger button that rolls. The buttons illuminate different colors — code for information such as power, inputs, filtering, and additional functions.
Close to the center is a round glass window and along one side is the IR receiving window for the supplied remote control. While you can control everything from the Hugo 2’s button array when you are using it on the go, the IR remote is perfect for use at home in your music system. And trust us, the Hugo 2 is a perfect choice for either type of listening!
Features & Technology
Setting up the Hugo 2 is pretty simple. A 2-Volt charging adapter is included with the unit and allows you to fully charge your Hugo 2 in 4 hours, providing around 7 hours of playback time. If the power button is glowing blue it means that the battery is 80%-100% charged. Green is 50-80%, orange is 20-50%, and red is 2-20%. When the Hugo is about to die, the power button flashes red.
The Hugo 2 also has an impressive power management system. The easiest way to ruin a set of lithium batteries is overcharging them. After 24 hours of charging, the Hugo 2 will put itself in desktop mode where it will not use battery power. Also, when using it with no power supply plugged in, it will turn itself off after 15 minutes of inactivity, in order to conserve battery.
To select the input you want to use, simply toggle through them on the Hugo 2 by pressing the input button. The input button works similarly to the power button/battery indicator and uses color codes for each input.
If you are using the Hugo 2 as a portable headphone amp the rolling volume button follows a color scheme as well, so at a glance, you can tell where you are. It will go from black at the low end to red, yellow, green, blue, purple and finally white as you open up the volume.
When it comes to options for shaping the sound itself, the Hugo 2 has two really unique features. The first is a set of filters that can provide some needed warmth to a harsh sounding recording. Again, the lights tell you where you are in the filter section. They go from pure with no filtering, to a minor roll off of the top end, to one that increases warmth, and finally to one that rolls off the top and increases warmth.
The other neat feature of the Hugo 2 is what they call X-PHD. This is a crossfeed circuit that you should only use with headphones. It is designed to make your headphones sound more like speakers. It goes from off, to subtle, to medium, to max effect. The sound will spread out as you go from off to max.
While all of these features can be accessed on the Hugo 2 itself, if you’re planning on using it for a home audio system, you’ll likely find yourself using the handheld remote most of the time.
The Hugo 2 can handle all of the latest digital music formats. The USB port will take up to a 32-bit 768k signal as will the coaxial digital input. The optical is limited to 24 bit 192k. The Hugo also has full DSD support, and can even do DSD512. The Bluetooth input will even accept a 16-bit 48k stream. The center glass “eye” of the Hugo 2 will glow a different color depending on the incoming signal it is seeing — 11 different colors available in all.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, the Hugo 2 can be a real light show. We think it’s a unique approach and have found that some customers love it while others prefer a more straightforward approach to showing your settings. Really it’s a matter of personal preference, but the supplied remote allows you to dim all of the lights if you want a more discrete look. Personally, we like having all of the information available at a glance. It takes some time to learn what everything means, but it’s relatively intuitive and once you have it down it’s like looking at the cockpit of a spaceship!
While the features we’ve discussed so far are all great, the real magic in the Hugo 2 comes with the digital wizardry taking place inside the unit. As you may know, every product that is digital must have what is called a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) inside to change the digital signal into an analog signal our ears can interpret. While many other brands of DACs brag about the expensive chip they use, the Chord engineers opted instead to manufacture their own.
Chord’s goal is to simplify the circuitry, keeping noise at an absolute minimum and allowing through all of those tiny little nuances in music that get you more involved. One way they do this is by using a super accurate clocking system that has virtually no digital jitter. It runs far faster than other systems and keeps components to a minimum. The output section has only 5 parts in the signal path, which again keeps things extremely pure. Everything is controlled by Chord’s custom FPGA processor which runs 500 times faster than competing products. This technology is common across all Chord components with the quality of the parts in the signal path improving as you move up to the $25,000 DAVE DAC.
In terms of the ability to drive headphones, many DAC/Headphone amps have a tough time as the impedance of the headphones gets higher. The Hugo 2 can easily drive up to an 800-ohm headphone, which is pretty impressive. It had no trouble at all driving the Focal Utopia and AudioQuest NightOwl we used when checking it out.
We think the Hugo 2 has three common use cases — as a part of your portable music system, on your desktop paired with a computer, or as a key component in your home audio system.
While it is a simple matter to connect the USB out of your smartphone into the Hugo 2, its audio performance outshines almost all of the upper end digital audio players, so in some ways, it makes sense to pair it up with an entry level DAP. When paired with something like the Fiio X5 3rd Gen, you get an incredibly powerful audio player. You’ll have one more piece to carry around, but this setup will provide much better sound than the player itself, especially if your library contains lots of Hi-Res audio files.
To test the crossfade headphone feature, we decided to use some good acoustic recordings that weren’t subject to a great deal over overdubbing. One of our favorites for years (actually 40 years as of December 2017) has been Jackson Browne’s, “Running on Empty.” If you are a fan of folk/rock from the 70’s and do not have this album, you should check it out. It has a selection of songs recorded on their tour bus, in various Holiday Inn hotel rooms, and live on stage. HDTracks has a Hi-Res Audio version that is just spectacular. When you push the crossfade button, as you go from light to medium to heavy, you hear the instruments move further away from your head, seemingly outside your headphones. The Focal Utopia we used for this test was especially good at showing this off.
Another cool feature of the Hugo 2 is the way it interfaces with Roon. If you aren’t familiar with Roon, it’s a music library and interface that is taking the audio world by storm. Some components that are integrated with Roon allow you to play around with different digital filters. It works best on a nicer computer like a current model MacBook Pro. Using Roon via USB with the Focal Utopia’s gave us some of the best headphone sound we’ve ever experienced!
Finally, we put the Hugo 2 into our audio system. Don’t let the Hugo 2’s small size fool you. This is a great piece to integrate into your high-resolution home audio system. Our current DAC is a $6,000 Naim NDX. Naim does digital just about as good as anybody, so we were very curious to see how the Hugo 2 would compare.
While the Naim did outperform the Hugo, it’s less than half the price! Like the Naim, it gets the timing right in a way that most digital pieces can’t. You know you have a winner when you veer off the typical test playlist and just start exploring your library to see how good each song will sound. It’s easy to lose time this way, and the Hugo 2 makes it fun.
Our only complaint is the way Chord recessed the RCA jacks into the chassis. They obviously did this to keep the outside clean for portability, but the openings on the recessed jacks are a little too small for some of the higher-end RCA cables we like to use.
When you consider all of the ways you can use the Hugo 2, along with its audio quality, we give it an A+ in all areas. It’s easy to see why the minute it was introduced it started getting 5-star ratings from audio reviewers all over the world. Yes, a much more expensive DAC will be better in some ways, but there is nothing on the market we have seen that you can carry around, use on your desktop, and use in an audio system that sounds this good!
If you are serious about great headphone listening both on the go and at home, we’ve never heard anything that can perform as well as the Hugo 2 in both situations. If you’re looking to upgrade the digital side of your home audio system, the Hugo 2 will amaze you.
If you’re looking for something that can do all three, it’s really a no brainer — get the Hugo 2! We also wouldn’t be surprised to see Chord release a wireless streaming module for the Hugo 2 which will give it even more features and functionality. They recently did it with the Poly for Mojo — so it’s not much of a stretch.
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
The first Chord Hugo set the world on its ear due to it’s great performance. Chord has made improvements with the Hugo 2, offering even better sound and an incredible array of inputs and outputs, including Bluetooth streaming! Battery powered for use on the go, the Hugo also has everything you need for home use as well.
Headphone Users, Rejoice!
Not only can it drive virtually any pair of headphones with ease, but the Hugo 2 offers crossfeed options for a truly great headphone experience.
Shape Your Sound
We all have that album where we love the music but the harsh sound grates on our ears. With 4 sound shaping profiles on the Hugo 2, you can now fine tune your sound.