Pros: Excellent connectivity with a multitude of devices, sounds great even with less expensive gear
Cons: None to think of
It’s not often I get stirred to contemplate writing a review but needs & urges get the better of me at times and for my 3,000th post on Head-Fi I wanted to do something epically tantalising… I suppose I should start with a few of the necessaries for the technically challenged but in essence I will be primarily be concentrating on the portable aspects of Chord’s Hugo DAC/Amp…
DAC/Amp: Chord Hugo (UK cost £1,400)
Source: Sony Walkman ZX1 (UK cost £549)
Headphones: Heir 5.0 IEM’s (UK cost £380 approx.)
Accessories: Sony USB conversion cable (UK cost £25 approx) & Hugo leather case (UK cost £99)
File Types: Sony Atrac Advanced Lossless & WAV (both types uploaded from CD)
Disclaimer: I’ll make no bones about things, I’ve known people at Chord Electronics for a year or so now, this was in part down to when I was assisting Heir with a bit of marketing and got talking with Matt about the Chord Qute desktop DAC, I’ve since met some of the team including the owner John Franks & designer Rob Watts. You have to make your own mind up if my humble thoughts are valid but please do not expect any sycophantish meanderings just because I know a few people at Chord.
Starting the review with some basic Hugo underpinnings… Chord Electronics designs are maybe not for all, they are certainly less boring than plainly styled Germanic Bauhaus that I consider to be the normal route most portable DAC/Amps designs follow... bear with me on the next bit as I’ll get there eventually, most my life has been spent working in the construction industry which has led me to be involved in numerous major projects across the UK. One of the more interesting ones I was involved with was the Tate-Modern Art Gallery on London’s Southbank, the project was managed by a company called Stanhope though my involvement was with the main-contractor Tarmac (now Carillion). I had the occasion to be invited to a meeting with Peter Rogers (Stanhope’s MD) where I learnt a lot about ‘form & function’ unbeknown to me before the meeting was that his brother was the world renown Architect Richard Rogers a man whose projects I admire (see the Lloyds of London building at night, absolutely stunning)… now I won’t go as far to say that the Hugo was designed by Lord Rogers but it does have a ‘form & function’ feel pertaining to the design and offers something different to Bauhaus-bland, interestingly if you look at the Hugo casing from the either side where the band guides are grooved it actually resembles the view of the Tate-Modern from the River Thames (you have to use your imagination & get rid of the central tower)… the Hugo Tate, the modernist view to portable DAC/Amp design.
If you’re familiar with Chord products you will know that milled aluminium casings & ‘portholes’ are standard fair throughout the different ranges. You can take it de-facto you’ll be able to drive something of substance over the Hugo case and it will be left unscathed, surreally when I was at Chord’s premises I secretly crash-tested John Franks personal Hugo down a staircase, in a state of panic I confessed all to a great guy called Damien who proceed to laugh his bollox off (a typically ironic English trait when faced with adversity), not a dent, scratch or blemish was to be found on the Hugo so I quickly made a humiliating exit whilst the going was good… getting back to the case design, the central porthole has a dual purpose it allows you to see the what is going on inside & small lights indicate mode/charging etc., behind the circular ‘frosted’ porthole lies the RF Bluetooth connectivity, it also informs you what file type you are listening to via colour changes… the volume-pot design is also different from norm, instead of the ‘knob on top of a box’ you get a digital volume dial that changes colour as you move up or down the gears, I was a bit unsure of this at first as I thought it might be a tad gimmicky but after living with the Hugo for a few months now I’ve come to realise those lights and volume dial have their benefits as I will mention later during my ramblings.
Primarily designed as a ‘portable’ DAC/Amp the Hugo offers way more for consumers and I don’t believe any portable device comes close to the myriad of connectivity options afforded to users. Where there are various options for desktop, PC & hi-fi usage, I’m essentially using my Hugo as a ‘portable combo’ with my ZX1 as the source… unfortunately Walkman & Apple users have to use a couple of cables to connect to the Hugo, thankfully you can play all file types via the Hugo’s DAC which is not the case if you happen to own a Sony PHA DAC/Amp where you are limited to DSD/Hi-Res (Walkman owners only, everyone else gets the full Monty)… whilst I’m on the subject of the Sony PHA I think it’s worth mentioning the mini-USB ports on both devices, on the Sony the USB port sits flush with the casing which is ok for most but to me it is fraught with problems as I suffer with hand tremors, luckily enough the guy who bought my PHA-2 knew me so it was easy to explain the multitude of scratches & slight damage around the USB port. The Hugo’s mini-USB port is way more disability friendly, it is slightly recessed and is tapered outwards making connections a whole lot easier to accomplish.
You may be wondering why I’m not using my PC with the Chord Hugo the simple fact is that the Sony ZX1 is way better as a source, this will probably change at some point in the near future when I finally get into using computer audio as my home source… as I’m using the Hugo as a portable device I thoroughly recommend getting the leather-case, the elastic straps serve as a useful & secure DAP/Phone holder with the added bonus of being used for the management of cables… out and about I find it’s best to use the leather-case upside down, the handle allows you to slip a couple of fingers through so you can hold it securely as you would a clutch-bag, if that doesn’t suit the Hugo/ZX1 combo easily fits into a coat pocket. One of the benefits of the Hugo volume control is that you don’t have to fumble around trying to twist a knob when it’s in your pocket (it’s personal), a little finger caress across the top of the volume-control will take the volume in the desired direction.
Taking a time-out from the basic bits & bobs it’s time to turn on the Hugo/ZX1 combo and plug-in my Heir 5.0 IEM’s for a bit of musical listening. I have a large menagerie of music which doesn’t include much classical. Rock (most genres), soul, folk/bluegrass, blues and a sprinkling of jazz fill my boots for the most though I am gullible to invest in a bit of MoR from time to time. Selecting music for review purposes posed a bit of thought as I detest sitting critically listening to music, I prefer to let notes ebb & flow around me if’n something sounds not quite right it is easy to pick out when you’re familiar with the selected music.
Moving onto the ‘Bawlers & Lovers’ part of my critique… a musical-poet I’ve come to have enormous respect for over the years is Tom Waits, I selected an widely acclaimed album of his called Orphans (Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards). Waits has a rollercoaster of a voice at the best of times and this triple album masterfully exploits it… tuning into a track that is quite poignant in relating to the Hugo is ‘The Long Way Home’, you may wonder why the poignancy?, well since owning the Hugo I’ve taken up this extreme method of exercise called ‘walking’. I’m a bit blessed where I live as my apartment overlooks a river, if I turn left when I leave my block I’m in the picturesque Kent countryside, turning right I follow the river & head for the historical city of Rochester so you’re probably realising why sometimes I just bypass my home and keep going when my new best buddy Hugo is entertaining me, I digress… the track opens with a catchy upright-bass beat aided by accordion & simple laid back percussion, the focus is clearly on Waits vocals and the Hugo brings way more gravel & delicacy to the proceedings than I’ve previously encountered with a portable device. Waits voice can sound the ‘absolute pits’ on some equipment, congested, harsh & unintelligible easily comes to mind but not so with the Hugo, it makes a great fist of things with Waits voice. Replacing the harsh vocals found on lesser devices, the Hugo offers Waits vocals grit, gravel & gruff and a level of tempered warmness that is intoxicating. Throughout the whole album the Hugo deals with Waits voice with great aplomb, the clarity of the lyric delivery was a revelation no matter what way Waits decided to sing a song on the recording.
As I reach the autumn days of my life I get this morbid fascination thinking about the songs I’d like played at my funeral, having some Welsh blood running through my English veins ‘Myfanwy’ is high on my list though it has a rival for that ‘bring on the tears’ moment, Who Knows Where The Time Goes by Fairport Convention. The singer Sandy Denny has/had one of the great female voices and this track (also written by her) shows off her dusky tones, from the outset the Hugo draws you into depths of her voice and caresses your mind to focus on the lyrics and the superb instrument play. The deep bass ambles along steadily, acoustic & electric guitars are integral to the subtle power that Denny portrays via her voice… this is one of those songs that will warm your heart on cold Winter’s day and have you looking to the skies for the return of the migrating birds of Spring.
Taking a brief time out from musical indulgencies before encountering the next album track, like most Head-Fi’ers purchasing equipment has its ups and downs, sometimes I feel Forrest Gump’s mother has a lot to answer for with that ‘box of chocolates’ remark, the times I’ve gotten all puppy waggy-tail excited when I see the ‘Parcelforce-Bob’ approaching my door, only to open the wrapper and feel somewhat dejected on hearing my new purchase… the Hugo is one of those rare bits of kit that comes along from time to time that actually improves everything you plug into it, cheaper headphones are a revelation which confuses the issues of chasing ‘mouse farts on a Miles Davis recording’ with more expensive offerings, you don’t need the very best to get exceptional results from the Hugo… the soundstage is immense, the speed & timing of the Hugo would of left Ferdinand Porsche panting at the first corner of the Nürburgring in his 911. The bass is impressively deep and has real impact as revealed on Simply Red’s Picture Book track from the album of the same name, the highs offer a lot more than ‘tsst tsst’ you know the coo, the highs that won’t leave you shuddering as if you just run your fingernails down a galvanized corrugated sheet of metal, the cymbals sound are full of shimmer and have excellent decay… the three principle architects of the Hugo, John, Matt & Rob should be rightly proud of the ‘Swiss-army knife’ they have produced for our sonic enjoyment.
There are so many music genres that one can explore, listen & enjoy then write about without fear or favour when owning the Chord Hugo, Bela Fleck’s bluegrass Drive album is simply astounding, the detail retrieval left me breathless and full admiration of the musicians involved, there’s nothing like a good pluck to get the juices flowing, well maybe a hot, fit woman might rival the Hugo in that department but when you get to my years it’s a close run thing which brings me nicely to my final thoughts… music invokes many memories and with the right ‘some of parts’ can take you back bygone days of your youth. One such memory the Hugo invoked was days of living at home with my parents, my Mum & Dad were fairly strict so I had to put up with constant interruptions if I brought nubile young girlfriend home. The trick was to be prepared for any eventuality if opportunity of being left alone arose; Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes on the stereogram and the lava-lamp low light seduction technique was always primed and ready for action back then, for a small device such as Hugo to take you back in time to relive such treasured memories is no mean feat and as I’m in such a charitable mood after enjoying the BBC’s ‘Children in Need’ perhaps it’s time to ‘Wake Me Up When It’s Over’ Pudsey ‘cause I’m living a Hugo dream.