Chord Hugo 2 Review: Part 2
Chord’s original Hugo was something of an unusual revelation for me. I was quite used to thinking that high-end DACs had to be big, power-hungry beasts in heavy aluminium cases, and indeed top-of-the-line models generally are. As digital conversion with any serious degree of accuracy requires a very high degree of precision in the components, all that weight goes into both eliminating noise from the digital circuits, generated both from power supplies and by the digital conversion chips themselves.
To have my current DAC at the time knocked off its crown by a small, battery-powered box was crazy to say the very least. In the conclusion to my Hugo review, I wrote: Warren [Chi] commented: ‘Someone send this to Chord as my non-impression impressions: “Hey you guys, I’ve come to a decision… I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and I want y’all to be the first to know. I do NOT want to listen to the Hugo. I don’t want to try it out, I don’t want to be in any reviews of it, nothing. It’s like a couple grand, and EVERY M****F**** WHO HEARS IT BUYS ONE.”’
I remember visiting Moon Audio in North Carolina a couple of years ago, and at the same time I arrived, large boxes full of Hugos arrived too. Drew said that he couldn’t order enough of them for customers, so fast was the rate at which he was selling them.
Like any upset product, it disturbs what you know, or even think you know about digital to analog conversion. However, it had its faults. In Rob Watts taking a crazy shot at making a portable product, he missed a few things, like how picky we can be about digital input quality (granted, every manufacturer I can think of made the same mistake initially) and that people would want to use it as a desktop DAC.
Since Chord had released the Mojo, which was only a tiny bit behind the Hugo in sound quality, for a quarter of the price, it remained to be seen how Chord would improve on their design.
While the Hugo 2 has much the same layout as the original, most of the design has been updated for the better, with some ideas clearly taken from the Mojo. To start with, the standard power connector, which risked plugging in the wrong charger and killing the unit, has been replaced with a micro-USB charging port in the manner of the Mojo. This requires at least a 2.1A charger, such as the one it comes with, or the Hugo 2 will only show that it is charging at half the rate it is capable and the battery will eventually run out if left on all day.
Power management has taken a step up, however, as many people were using the Hugo as a desktop DAC, leaving it plugged in constantly. If the Hugo 2 is left connected to power, fully-charged, for 24 hours, it will switch into “desktop mode”, indicated by a change in the colour of the power button, and bypass the batteries entirely, preventing their deterioration.
USB input is on the same side again, but most interesting are the two screw holes on that side, suggesting that there will be a future “Poly” for the Hugo as there for the Mojo.
On the other side, we still have the optical input, but the coaxial digital S/PDIF input now takes the space where one of the 3.5mm outputs was and uses a 3.5mm plug, which can be TS (tip and sleeve), TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) or TRRS (tip-ring-ring-sleeve). This is because there are now two coaxial digital inputs, allowing connection of a Chord M-scaler (which sends via both simultaneously). Odd an option as that is, I can’t help wondering how it would be if Rob Watts designed a Hugo-sized M-Scaler like the Blu 2 to work with the Hugo. That would make for some incredibly epic digital conversion power. Importantly, the same digital cable I had custom made to connect from my FiiO X7 with the Mojo worked perfectly with the Hugo 2.
There is still a 6.3mm and 3.5mm output the latter now flush with the body, good for those people who have cables that use the big Canare or similar plugs that wouldn’t work with the original Hugo.
The analog outputs (6.3mm, 3.5mm and RCA) are all connected together, so using any as an output to any device amounts to the same thing.
As with the original Hugo, the RCA sockets of the Hugo 2 are recessed, and as I wrote in my Hugo review, users of cables with very large RCA plugs are going to have issues. Most of my Van Den Hul cables were fine, but my ALO Audio Reference 20s were no-go. While visiting Moon Audio I spied a box of discontinued Monster RCA double adaptors and promptly bought them, as well as a pair of 6 foot Silver Dragons so I could switch easily between the Studio Six and the ADAMs without continually re-plugging cables.
It is worth a revisit of my original impressions of the Hugo in my system, as it applies to a greater degree even now. I wrote:
“What the sound did remind me of was a good SET amp, but in the form of a DAC, if that can make any sense. For a long time I didn’t understand what people meant by “PRaT” until I owned a SET amp and realised that music has pace, rhythm and timing and a good SET amp has the capability to deliver it is a meaningful and engaging way. In a similar vein, the Hugo makes listening to music an engaging experience with every note, from quiet to loud, while at the same time delivering the music with effortless, unforced precision. In my mind, I see the music in an immersive 3D image and full colour unlike what I’ve experienced from digital reproduction before at this level. What is more, this came through seemingly without compromise direct from the headphone socket. “
Whereas great headphone drive from a portable was a rarity, now it has become the norm. Also has great performance from DACs in the Hugo’s price range. At the time of owning the Hugo, my main DAC was an early example of the Audio-gd Master 7, and I felt that the Hugo, at least with a good input (I had an Audiophilleo 1 at the time) was better.
Later on, I was in Los Angeles for the launch of MrSpeakers Ether headphones, and one of the first public displays of Schiit Audio’s flagship Yggdrasil DAC. After the final production prototype of that had been left on a couple of days at the SoCal Head-Fi meet (later CanJam SoCal) the sound was outstanding and a clear upgrade to the Hugo, so I bought one to use as my primary DAC.
So then your next question…. yes, the Hugo 2 is another step above that. Not dramatically so, but another step all the same. This is where confusion between the varying impressions of other people, especially when comparing the Yggdrasil and Chord DAVE have seen a degree of variation. Something to bear in mind is that the Hugo 2 and DAVE also have a built-in headphone amp and the Yggdrasil, and Audio-gd R2R 7 (the third DAC I have here to review) do not.
Before I get into the fine details, I’d like to revisit my review of Chord’s DAVE, as it brings critical context to the review of the Hugo 2.
Within a minute of plugging my HD800s into the DAVE and beginning to listen I knew immediately I wanted one. I also knew that any language I’d used to describe DACs before was useless. Normal questions about the sound, such as those relating to tone, texture, detail and distortion, do not exist, as what I felt I was experiencing was something else entirely from what I’d experienced before.
I recall an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson test drives a Lotus track car that is almost, if not quite F1 race-car fast. He wasn’t driving it fast enough to get enough downforce to go through corners properly. The problem, he described, is that he had driven cars with that much power before, and ones that could accelerate that fast before, and handle that well, but not a car that was capable of all those things at once.
I feel a similar way about the DAVE. I have heard DACs before that impressed me as being as detailed, DACs that sounded as natural and “organic” in presentation, DACs that seemed to disappear and just let the music through, and carefully constructed systems that had incredible depth and dynamics, but never any single component that could deliver all of that at once. The best analogy I can come up with to describe what I’m feeling is that it is as if the music has been injected into my blood. Take the liquid beauty of the sound from an excellent vinyl rig, the instant delivery of the best SET amp, and the detail from the best digital and combine them, but without the compromises of any of those components.
Further listening and attempting to discern what I was experiencing has lead me to believe that the DAVE’s electronics have a transient response on a level at which it can reproduce the underlying harmonics of instruments that are too subtle to make out as distinct aspects of the sound. It is more than simply that there is more texture being reproduced, even more than the feeling of perceiving the feelings of the player when they were playing the note, but underlying substance of the texture of those notes. Every time a guitar note was plucked, or a note hit on a piano a strange sensation came over me making it almost hard to breath, let alone type this description. Cymbals, for example, were … transcendental, reproduction exceeding what I had previously considered excellent in other DACs.
“What I had previously thought was air and blackness between notes on other DACs I can’t help wondering if it was detail not being reproduced. In the past, when I’d audition better and better DACs, they seemed to be getting better at bringing out the black between notes — the less noise, from the electronics, that the reproduced, the more of the actual music seemed to be reproduced, or so it seems, each subtlety delineated yet more. What I believe was going on is that it was only ending up revealing the limitations of the silicon used in the DACs themselves and that blackness hid essential information. While you might have a more “black” background, in that “black” was the ultra-subtleties of the music that was missing due to the limits of the converter. With the ability to resolve sounds down to -350dB [NB: In the digital realm], I believe that all that was missing in the “black” has suddenly been made present, and that is what was causing the sensation of being overwhelmed with detail.
It is as if all the dark matter of the universe suddenly lit up, or our vision suddenly extended to included infra-red and ultra-violet. If either happened, we’d suddenly be overwhelmed with visual information.
To a degree, I felt some of this was happening with Schiit Audio’s Yggdrasil, as if the electricity in the air as the musicians were playing was coming through. With the DAVE it was this, but so much more. Instead of more black, it is more music.”
Listening with the Hugo 2 through the new Stax SRM-T8000 amp with a pair of SR-009s at the Tokyo show I was reminded of my experiences with the DAVE. While not as deeply sensational as it had been with the DAVE, some of that magic was immediately discernible.
Listening now to The Romeros and San Antonio Symphony Orchestra playing Vivaldi Concertos from the Mercury Living Presence CD set with the Focal Utopias, the instrument reproduction magic is there as well, with distinctly more depth than from the original Hugo, even when I plug both into my iFi iUSB 3.0.
Some time ago, after I showed a picture of my using an Astell&Kern AK240 as a transport with the Hugo, some people asked me if they should buy an AK240 to use as their transport. This, to me, was somewhat crazy given the price. However the Hugo 1, and the Mojo, seem to have better performance with better-quality digital transports.
I decided to see if this is the case with the Hugo 2. On the one hand I created what I jokingly called a “Hong Kong” rig (a humorous nod to friends there) consisting of an Astell&Kern AK380, custom Sysconcepts optical cable and HiFiMan RE2000 IEMs. That set-up sounded fantastic when listening with a selection of acoustic music, especially binaural, for which the RE2000 are most suited.
The Hugo 1 in my living room system does double duty as higher quality output from my TV, via optical, and is used for playback of streaming radio via an iPad and Schiit Audio Wyrd. There is a very distinct difference between the sound quality between them, the iPad/Wyrd sounding generally nicer and the TV output sounding more “flat”. I tested much the same set-up, but using my computer via a cheap Sony optical cable versus via USB using the iUSB 3.0.
Listening to Three Guitars via my computer and the Sony cable, there was some uncomfortable bloom to the guitar notes that I didn’t like so much, especially fatiguing through the Utopias. Switching to the iUSB 3.0 set-up, that bloom was gone. It was a subtle thing, but the lack of fatigue and slightly improved delivery was noticeable.
That leads me to feel that the Hugo 2 has improved when it comes to transport sensitivity, though a good transport will still benefit.
The Hugo 2 has a more powerful amp than the original, which, while quite sufficient for many pairs of headphones, I felt was lacking in the ability to deliver the great dynamics of my desktop amps, which now include ALO Audio’s Studio Six, Audiovalve’s Solaris, and Audio-gd’s Master 9.
For most of my headphones, such as MrSpeakers Ether Flow, the Hugo 2 did an excellent job of driving them. Comparing the output to adding one of the big amps in the chain, I didn’t experience a significant enough benefit to using them over the headphone output.
The exception was the Focal Utopias, which seem to reflect in absolute terms the capabilities of upstream equipment to the point that, dare I say it, it revealed the differences in the capabilities of some of my interconnects. It also revealed which tubes I shouldn’t be using in the Studio Six, and ultimately which DAC really was the most capable.
I didn’t like the Utopias straight out of the DAVE. I initially thought it was the headphones themselves, but when I got them home on my own system, then there was the soundstage they seemed not to have with other systems. I suspect the sheer speed of the top tube and solid state amps are simply better in this regard, and the headphones themselves needed equipment that could match the speed of the drivers.
The Hugo 2 seemed to be pretty good in this case, unexpectedly seeming to be warmer sounding than if I used the Studio Six. However, much like the DAVE, it can’t match the ability to deliver the masterful speed and delicacy that the big amps can. I put this down to being similar to the effect of using the crossfade on the Hugo 2, matching the narrower soundstage of the lesser amplification and the consequent greater sense of bass***.
***2018-02 Edit: Rob Watts made a detailed post on Head-Fi about distortion and the perception of sound on Head-Fi. He believes that the Hugo 2 directly to headphones (at least ones that can be driven sufficiently, such as the Utopia) is still better than most headphone amps. Since I wrote this review I bought an aftermarket cable for my Utopias and the differences I reported seem to have disappeared, the Hugo 2 driving the Utopias as well as any amp I have here, if with subtle differences. Another Head-Fi member reported getting better results with his headphones using a special cable that connects to the RCA sockets. At present I theorise that there could be an issue of crosstalk in the plugs of some cables that might have been the cause of what I perceived. Further experimentation is necessary.
The lazy tunes on David Crosby’s “If I Could Only Remember My Name” (There is an irony here, I like this album but I don’t like CSN otherwise) is one of those technically excellent, but quite weird compositions the best appreciation of which is obviously of the skill of the performers. The finer details, as with Three Guitars, such as the precision of the guitar playing didn’t come through as clearly unless I used one of the big amps, especially the Studio Six or Master 9.
With IEMs the opposite was the case. Lately a trend has developed where people expect DAPs to have a balanced output. The Hugo doesn’t need a balanced output, nor a separate line output as its single-ended output, using a single, discrete amplification circuit after the DAC, is more than capable of performing both duties, within the limits I found above.
As it targets objective accuracy and ultra-low noise, the Hugo 2 is perfect for even ultra-sensitive IEMs. One of the significant changes made to the Hugo 2 was the extension of the volume range. With the Campfire Audio Andromedas I could easily go from zero volume, through very low volume levels up, and get the fine details on bass guitar and cello notes with ease. With no music playing there is only an extremely tiny amount of hiss too.
The downsides to the design are primarily that, if you do take one with you to use as a portable, you’ll get about 7 hours of use out of it, which is better than some portable players (DAPs) I have here, but it wont be as convenient as some of the new Sony DAPs with their 30 hours of battery life.
The other main negative is that when charging and playing at the same time, if there isn’t a bit of air flow around the unit, it can get hot enough that it will automatically shut off.
It wasn’t too long ago that I used to say that one couldn’t have a good enough DAC to go with a Stax rig, such was their resolving ability. Now I can say the same about Focal’s Utopias and HiFiMan’s Susvara, as they revealed things about my system I didn’t know it was capable of. However now I can say, almost in reverse, that you cannot have a good enough system for the Chord Hugo 2, such is its ability to bring out the actual music, and what is more, you can take that with you when you travel too.
Thanks to Chord Electronics for sending me a Hugo 2 to review.