Pros: Connectivity options, Unique original design, volume button design, can be used in normal Hi-Fi set up also, Hours worth of non fatigue listening.
Cons: Ideally could do with bigger coax and 3.5 jack ports on connection side and does not reset volume after each use.
I have been looking for a desktop amp/dac for a while now as I have not had one for the last few years (last desktop amp was a Naim headline 2 with NPSC power supply which was okay but nothing magical about them so tired of it after a couple of years) but never got around to getting a replacement for one reason or another, one being I only got the Sony ZX1 Walkman last year and was happy with my portable set up with my iems and was going to wait until I got a 1-2K pair of headphones (possibly Grado PS1000’s) before looking for a desktop amp but was intrigued when the Hugo was released as it was small enough to be semi portable with its respectable battery life for trips away and with its unique industrial design and emphasis on build quality which houses every connection available this opens this unit up to multitasking in a speaker set up as well which just left the last question does the SQ back up all the other boxes ticked so far above?
Firstly I am using various format & sample rates from Flac 44.1 to Flac high res in 24/ 96 & 192 to a few DSD64 tracks I downloaded and source is using either the Sony ZX1 or from the Windows laptop which is from both Flac & WAV files.
I will be using the Wizard 5.0 iem’s, JH16Pros ciem’s both with Whiplash Audio TWag V3 Hybrid cable plus a pair of Sony MDR-7520 headphones which are the better versions of the MDR-Z1000 (also has by pass mod to both cups with Hybrid V3 cable).
Would have tried my Tag Mclaren DVD32R cd top loader player through my Chord Indigo digital coax cable but apparently it needs to go on a diet to fit in the Hugo’s coax socket as it is too fat for it so a bit disappointed there as I was looking forward to that.
The build of the Chord Hugo is exemplary and cannot fault them apart from the one reservation with the ergonomics despite this been the improved second gen case for the Hugo the 3.5 jacks could do with accepting the via blue mini 3.5mm jacks which will be annoying as it would mean a lot of cables I have will need re-termination to smaller 3.5 plugs which hopefully is maybe something that could or be rectified on the Hugo 2 design to allow bigger plugs despite them already doing one mod for this, even if it meant the actual dimension of the case been a tad bigger to accommodate both the 3.5 jack & digital coax issue is possibly the only one major issue with the build design on this for me.
The actual design itself is Unique original, Iconic & exquisite to throw a few Superlative's its way, firstly with it's see through port hole window and use of three different colour led lights to give you indication of battery levels which changes through the discharge cycle and one LED light shows which input mode you are in and the third is for the filter mode when activated with it's three settings which again change colour for each setting. There is a fourth smaller white LED light for when it is charging and this goes out when charge is full.
There is then a separate round frosted plastic window which shows which sample rate the Hugo has coming through with different colours again for each sampling rate.
The uniqueness primary focal point of this device is the volume rocker which changes colour to show you what volume it is at and the feel of this volume rocker has been executed perfectly with the weight and touch needed to adjust volume feels just right and would be hard (if not almost impossible) to accidentally knock the volume by mistake.
The only downside to this very bespoke design of lighting method much as I like it and is part of what makes the design DNA of this device so original and iconic is remembering all the colour lights actually represent which is not so bad at home with the nice Hugo card manual that tells you which colour is what but when out and about it can be trial and error which colour is for which mode especially trying to remember what colour is the sample rate coming through. I guess having a bad memory puts me in the same camp as the colour blind Hugo users which means at least I'm not alone!
And my only second real gripe with this device apart from the connection ports is the volume level does not reset after each use so beware if you used high ohm headphones last and then plug in your iem's without thinking as it could hurt you and your iem's! Would be nice if Chord could incorporate a reset into this so each time it powers up it does not have the potential for this to happen.
One wish list request other than the above to Chord would be (and I know this is me been fussy) would be nice if there is another metal finish, maybe preferably a smooth silver finish as that rough texture has always sent shivers down my spine, don’t know why it just does.. More scarred of that than I was Freddy Krueger in the 80’s! But would be nice if there was maybe some different case finishes or colours even if the cost was a bit more the option would be there for those who want it.
Imagine a Hugo in Pink, might get more girls into Hi-fi Chord? Anyway, enough of the comedy central as I digress….
First thing I noticed about the Hugo was how much detail could be heard even in the first ever two minutes I ever listened to it with its big natural feeling soundstage and accuracy & timing of this dac really makes it sound 3D in terms of the layers it adds gives it a dynamic listening experience every time and never sounds fatiguing or flat. The instruments have great, no… they have very excellent extension and no rolling off here with this dac/amp and there is no floor noise even with iems unless it is in the recording.
The last three nights because of this I have been rolling into bed at 2am knowing I had to be up for 5.30 am, that has not happened in a long time with a bit of hi-fi kit as this is what this is; Hi-fi meets Head-fi, head on and four days on it is so consistent with whatever you through at it whether it is flac files, wav which sound stunning from the laptop and now I am hearing it through the Hugo it seems to shine more with wav files more than it does FLAC, regardless of which sampling rates it is at it sounds nothing short of excellent through the Hugo. The Hugo has a natural organic sound it seems without staining with its own colouration stamp onto recordings which is a very positive sign.
It’s just excels in every department and what makes it addictive is its ability to just sound so analogue you forget there is a digital source at work. The amp section is of course been made to be as good otherwise it would have been a travesty to have a dac so good let down by a amp section not up to complimenting the chain. I only tired it with a pair of 20+ year old Sennheiser 560 Ovation open backs which @ 300ohm were driven effortlessly with authority by the Hugo. I do have a pair of old Beyer 600 ohms but they seem to be faulty at the moment so cannot try them unfortunately.
I just had to start with my old favourite test tracks that I am familiar with inside out all in flac 44.1khz like Yellow "The Race", Fleety Mac "Rumours" & The Dance, M. Jacksons Thriller & Bad all coincidentally re-master versions. Then moved onto a every single genre I have across the board from Acoustic to Heavy rock, dance & electronica, R&B to blues/jazz & OST's to live music as to be honest and have to state again is a very immersive experience once you get started with the Hugo.
Yellow “The race” really is one of the maddest tracks I use to demo gear as it test nearly every aspect from pace, rhythm and soundstage, mid & sub bass, control and separation all in a chaotic 8 minutes of Yellows finest song writing as the Hugo makes this sound alive and has a good sense of timing and attack as well as the stereo panning effects used in this song are accurately fast and smooth all making for a good dynamic listen. Michael Jackson’s recordings stand out with the Hugo and actually feel like they make these classics come alive as it reins in the slightly harsh hot top end on what is otherwise a good recording of Speed Demon and makes the over song more balanced and pleasant to listen to as it is a very fast energetic vibrant track anyway.
I will start with the Wizards 5.0’s which has a very good sound when paired with my Sony ZX1 or my Oppo 105 headphone out which is acceptable but pairing it with the Chord Hugo is another level and really is getting every last ounce of performance the 5.0's has to offer so this is what I am going to base my following experience of listening on as this it is at the pinnacle in how the 5.0 will deliver in terms of sound quality when paired with the Hugo.
Guitars really excel on the 5.0 especially the ones plugged in to the national grid but with acoustic material will lose natural rawness and openness due to the 5.0’s natural warmness and although listening to well recorded Brad Paisley or one of the most underrated acoustic guitarist around Adrian Legg still is a serious and enjoyable session on the 5.0’s albeit it is not its most strongest card which also makes it not the most natural contender for anyone who wants to just listen to classical music with these for the same inherent reasons if they want the best out of those genres.
Wizards 5.0’s Vocals really stand out with the Hugo and are fairly forward in presentation and sound tonally faithful which is one of the stand out attributes of the 5.0. It shows what is there in the recording of the vocals which show great nuances in detail especially with those gravely voices. The more I listen to the vocals on this it really keeps it fresh and alive for those long listening sessions.
The JH16’s just add even more headroom with weight and control, improved resolution even further with a great deal of accuracy and sound staging is perfect with the Hugo feeding the JH16’s with Yellows The race song. The vibrancy and speed of the bass notes and the highs bursting in on the brass section has real attack and is transient at the same time. It’s the same for the M.Jackson speed demon track of the Bad album really has great depth and accuracy with so many layers of information all at once but yet it is so easy to pick them all out individually. The bass of Fleety Macs the Dance is like it is at their live gigs with that unmistakable low kick drum bass Mr. Fleetwood hammers out. Through the Hugo the bass is the visceral and yet refined with hearing the change in bass notes throughout the bass kicking. The high hats and symbols are spot on having that zing sound to them that lends to a realistic reproduction of what they should sound like.
The Sony MDR-7520’s are a different proposition as out of the three these are the only headphones and have been further improved by having a mod done were the TWag Hybrid cable is run to both cups for maximum quality and these underrated cans are what the EU version, the MDR- Z1000 sister model should have been with some actual bass although still not going to cause an earthquake level but do have a sub bass to them with the treble issue the Z1000 had not as apparent on the 7520’s. With the cable mod done these greatly improved and is a good match for my ZX1 Walkman (much better than the Sony MD-R1’s) but yet again the Hugo takes things to another level with the 7520’s and for closed back cans they are more expansive through the Hugo.
The low bass is nothing like the 5.0’s or JH16’s but has a more natural balanced signature and the mids and vocals really shine with the 7520’s on the Hugo. It has a liquid smooth presentation with the Hugo helping the treble timing and tonal accuracy with high hats and symbol crashes sounding real. The sub bass only comes in when the recording has it which may point to not too much messing around with the EQ by Sony to the bass but when the Hugo delivers it the 7520’s have the ability to go low enough to clearly differentiate between the mid bass section.
Compared to other sources the addition of the Hugo really opens up the in terms of width and natural sound stage which is the first observation within the first minute of listening as I thought it was just the 5.0 and to an extent the 7520’s tended to have not the most wide open soundstage but the Hugo really helps with this and then it sinks in this is a very smooth, fluid and fast dynamic presentation which is very analogue sounding and feels like you are immersed by the music which is very evolving so can only imagine what the top end open backs will sound like with this Hugo (the mind boggles). Listening to big bands and classical is mesmerising with the 7520’s through the Hugo which really enjoy the high detail the Hugo throws at it I think because these Sony cans were designed to be used in the studio rather than the consumer models they do, so renders detail very well.
Across all three iems and cans the Hugo has the ability whilst listening to acoustic artist strings are full of micro details of the frets and resonating plucks of the strings which you can pick out still even though two more chords have been strummed out with all the other mix of sounds going on.
Dance beats or Electronica music, The North Borders sounds great in the bass and treble giving a lively snappy listen yet sound blissful and relaxing at the same time and Moby’s mix of Blues and electronics revel in the ability to sound ambient, deep and soulful. My favourite electronic music test tracks from Portishead & James Blake love the Hugo and with the combination of the Hugo been able to render the bass notes really well you can feel as well as hear those low sub bass notes which don’t roll off and you can hear them resonate clearly even with all the other information vying for your attention.
Listening to Tedeschi Truck Band – Made up Mind, Treme soundtrack or Eric Clapton & Wynton Marsalis Live at the Lincoln Center and really shines with brass instruments and the ambience and air of the Clapton/ Marsalis performance comes through with the live recordings like this. Sarah Mclachlan – Mirror Ball Live also a well recorded live concert which sound stella with the Hugo as it is a detailed balanced recording with plenty of headroom and ambience giving that like you was there feeling.
Equally I cannot fault what I hear on the Ivory’s with real pianos which sounds rounded on each key stroke and is particularly just right in the mid to upper treble but have to say I have not heard much dedicated piano excerpts in the few days listening but what I have heard with normal full percussions/ bands sounds a very natural tone to it. The Hugo also gets the full range out of the JH16’s and I have listened to quite a few top end dac amp set ups with this now and although it has sounded very good with some of those set ups it has not quite sounded like it does with the Hugo.
Somehow the Hugo manages to be perfect balance in every area from the weight, attack and authority with the pace and rhythm, natural sound stage, killer resolution in the upper and lower mids as well as the mid bass and sub bass region have bags of kick and control even when under great loads sounds refined and so much detail in those bass notes with the other end of the spectrum with the highs been so crystal clear and detailed they simply real to listen to and not at all splashy or harsh, there is so much micro detail within each note or chord (pardon the pun) you hear the very slightest nuances which builds up a structure of information to making the sounds of the instruments sound more organic.
The good thing about the Hugo is there it has a really low floor noise and sensitive iems do not suffer and the Hugo works really well at very low volumes with either both iem and headphones. It’s hard to pick a hole in the Hugo and have been trying but it handles everything that goes through it with a consistent manner whilst retaining the habit of sounding non fatiguing way.
The 5.0is another good incarnation from the “The Wizard” at the helm and is really complemented by the Hugo dac/amp really helps the 5.0 show what a mid to high end iem can deliver although the it is far from been a natural monitor for anyone wanting it for studio use or is it perfect with every genre but if you just love music to sound rich, warm yet an accurate sound stage, powerful, fun (tried not to use that word!) with the instruments on the whole sounding tonally correct then this is worth a serious listen.
Both the JH16Pro along with the Sony 7520 headphone both also sound great with the Hugo and this dac really lets the Sony cans also shine to their full potential, I would be interested if there was another dac amp this size or any size come to that, could get more legs out of the Jh16 if possible at all but I’m doubting that very much until I hear something else that can…
The Hugo is a quest I have been on for a while now just waiting for that something different, special that comes along In a while to find a perfect desktop dac amp solution and for the exception of a couple of logistical hardware fit issues this is fully loaded with connections, small and still fairly portable considering what is on offer with the ability to run on battery for a respectable amount of time taking various factors into consideration and to make it all worthwhile backs it up with the sound been natural, immersive, extremely highly detailed, perfect timing and sounds great with all genres which is a hard feat to achieve… after hearing this think I may of found the Holy Grail at long last!
Also recently I have taken this to a couple of events and able to listen to different headphones/iems like the HD800's, Grado Bushmills, PS1000, GS1000, Beyer T1's Audeze LCD3, EL8 & AKG 812's, JHA Layla's, Shure SE535 & 846 and the Hugo partners in harmony with every one of those mentioned and just wished I had most of them to partner my Hugo permanently! But the fact is that the Hugo can scale low range and mid range cans like my Sony 7520's in terms of performance means I am very content and happy with what I've got until I can afford one of those flagship headphones to partner the Hugo.
I personally may call this the Hugo “Delorean” as the last few days it has transported me back in time with those recordings from the 80’s and made them sound so analogue again like the days of vinyl but with just the added benefit of the high definition of detail and silent floor noise added into the mix. I have been wanting a high end desktop dac & amp really since I let my Naim Headline go and always thought it would be a big box always plugged in to the mains all the time next to me on my coffee table and never would of thought the day would come where it was in a small package with this SQ been able to drive demanding headphones and it dawned on me to be able to just take this to bed at night on the battery’s like a normal portable amp has made my day, like having the cherry on top.
All I know is from this experience there is finally a high end small desktop answer for a combined dac/head amp that does not compromise on anything and really excels at getting the very best out of iems & headphones which is a great combo with all three I tested the Hugo with.
Anyone contemplating a Hugo is in for a many hours of listening to that collection all over again (and again.)