or Connect
Head-Fi.org › Head Gear › Headphone Amplifiers › Amp/DACs › Chord Hugo

Chord Hugo


Pros: Incredibly natural musical reproduction and good headphone drive, especially with IEMs.

Cons: Big for a portable, bad control and port layout, non-isolated USB makes it PC noise sensitive, doesn't remember volume and input selection.

Note: I started writing this review in May 2014 (and posted it in Jan 2016). Even most of the pictures are old! I wanted to try and summarise Rob Watts' technology in the review before publishing it, but never got around to it.  Since I took so much time to write it, I decided to publish it anyway, with only a few changes and additions.


I always thought that Chord products look rather like aliens had landed and given us audio gear. It was certainly far too exotic for me to ever consider that, one day, I might own anything like it. However, such an possibility reared its head in the form of the QuteHD, which a member of an Australian audio forum was waxing lyrical over (as he had the other DACs previously, ahem!) Given it’s core is the brains of the flagship QBD76 DAC with a USB input and single-ended output, my knowledge of USB power supplies and ultra-low-jitter S/PDIF converters meant that it could likely be coaxed (ha!) into performance far above its pay grade. 
So I put the idea of borrowing and reviewing one to the Japanese distributor. I was offered a week’s loan. Given my average for writing a review of anything is closer to 3 months it didn’t go ahead. Emails to Chord discussed long-term loaners, but nothing came of it. When the Hugo came out, a second effort was launched and somehow got buried under everything by both parties. But, finally, at the 2014 Spring Tokyo Headphone Festival I managed to coax a loaner from the lovely Hiroko Kuroki of Timelord Japan, the local distributor for Chord.
Better late than never (and more so given changes to the outer case since introduction) a package arrived at my doorstep on Saturday morning, right after I had managed to crack a rib practicing martial arts and thus was essentially chair-bound. What glorious timing, except when I had to reach behind my computer to plug things in. Not only that, but the weather was getting hotter and the thought of adding the cost of air conditioner to my already excessive bill generated by my audio rack had lead me to decide to use portable audio gear over the Summer. Speaking of which, portable headphone amplifiers have long had a reputation for poor performance with full-sized headphones until fairly recently, a trend bucked most thoroughly by balanced portable amplifiers and topped off by the amazing Astell&Kern AK240 and AK380. But this comes at a price, and one that puts it in full-sized component DAC territory and in the top-tier headphone component category. Unlike the AK240 it is a bit big to fit in a pocket, especially given it requires at least an iPhone or similar to store music for it.
However, being battery powered, the Hugo does make for good transportable kit. When Hugo somewhere. Geddit? It has a plethora of inputs and three headphone outputs. USB, coaxial S/PDIF and optical take care of computers and some portable audio devices and an additional low-resolution USB port is included for smart phones and similar devices that can’t handle high-resolution output. Even Bluetooth input is included! For iPhones and similarly-sized devices, 6 thin rubber bands are included, along with a short cable with micro-USB plugs and optical cables. To use an iPhone with the Hugo, the Camera Connection Kit (CCK) cable is required, which gives the iPhone a regular USB port in the manner of a computer. While not officially, an iDevice will send out audio over the CCK, but is limited to 16/48 (in iOS7 and below) unless streaming over wireless from a computer, or one uses the Onkyo HD Player, Music Streamer or similar software. When I tried both ports, my iPad Mini Retina refused to use the high-res USB port, popping up a warning message, but I managed to persuade my iPhone 5 to use the high-res port, allowing high-res including DSD playback with the Onkyo HD player.
Problematically, the first Hugos had tightly enclosed and recessed RCA sockets as Chord had not anticipated people using it in other than a portable manner. The outcry lead them to widen the holes around the RCA sockets, though 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 recently 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.


My first use of the Hugo was decided by the sale of my pre-amp, which I’d been using between my DAC and the Adam ARTist 3 speakers. Given the single-ended output and my lack of long RCA cables, it ended up almost squarely in the middle of my desk, hooked up to the Adams with a pair of 1 meter Van Den Hul The Orchid RCA cables — what I might call my poor man’s Valhallas, given their propensity once included in a system, towards highlighting any issues in a rig (“The speakers are toed in wrongly.”, “You rolled the wrong tubes.” etc.).
The lack of button and port labelling on the Hugo makes reading the manual a requirement. While the basics are obvious (RCA sockets are just that) the two tiny buttons on the front — or is it back? — of the unit simply change the colour of equally unlabelled lights inside the central round window atop the case. Respectively the buttons are the crossfeed settings and input selector. All settings, including volume level reset to defaults on power on. Rob Watts simply ran out of space on the FPGA to have them and otherwise would have had to compromise some of the programming for the highly complex and highly advanced digital audio processing. 
Once I figured everything out, the result with the Adam’s Heil tweeters was rather eye-opening, and being that the Hugo (and other Chord DACs) are not typical designs with off-the-shelf digital conversion inside, rather more troublesome to compare. 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. 
While it was going to require plugging it in to a full-size speaker set-up to see where it performs in absolute terms, with a pair of Sennheiser HD-800 headphones, the soundscape presented was considerably better than I had anticipated. Warren Chi is always fond of recalling the moment I plugged the same headphones into the Astell&Kern AK240 player, putting on a binaural track and swearing in disbelief at what I was hearing. If I hadn’t had that experience I might have uttered something similar with the Hugo. I also put Audeze’s LCD-X and XC and Oppo’s new PM-1 planars up to the test. While the Audezes are more sensitive than their previous models, they demand considerable current from an amp to perform their best. The Hugo, with its 0.5W output would be challenged.
“Mambo for Roy” from Roy Hargrove’s “Habana” album was the track for this, along with ALO’s Studio Six to provide an amplifier for comparison. The second half of the track is almost all fast, intense drumming and a good test to see if an amplifier is running out of steam. Switching back and forth from the Studio Six and the Hugo’s built-in amp suggested that the tube amp delivers drum impacts with more authority than the Hugo alone, which seems to present from a few rows further back. Far from the Hugo being put to shame, however, it did a great job keeping up with the music and I doubt there would be a much of a difference with the majority of music I listen to.
A more musical companion for the Hugo would be Aurorasound’s HEADA. The neatly-sized amp spent a couple of months on my desktop where it added a touch of warmth and musicality without letting up on the detail, perfect for the HD-800s and very enjoyable with the darker Audeze LCD-Xs. Almost a fault with the Hugo is that its level of detail retrieval requires a suitably capable amp, and at least one other amp, the Bakoon HPA-01 simply did not make the grade, with a noticeable loss of detail when added to the chain.
In another direction entirely, fans of high-end custom in-ear monitors such as the JHAudio Laylas will find the Hugo a good match, not requiring a separate amp to get excellent results. Adding an ALO Audio Rx (2015 version) only revealed how transparent the Rx was, with zero change in the presentation. The only danger here is that with switch-on defaulting to a volume level around the middle, users of sensitive IEMs will have to plug and play with care and make sure the volume is turned down before playback.
With the arrival of a beta version of Hifiman’s incredible HE1000s, the limitations of the Hugo’s headphone output was more apparent, the dynamics that the HE1000s were capable of somewhat lacking. This was especially so if I had the Studio Six and ADAM speakers plugged in at the same time, the music becoming flat and un-involving. Aurender’s Flow, with its regular opamp-based output stage seemed to do a better job with headphones in general, though I had let go of it by the time the HE1000s arrived. The sound was simply more meaty and involving from the amp, if the DAC didn’t have a chance to compete with the massive computing power in the Hugo.
When I went to CanJam SoCal in 2015, I had the chance to borrow Cavalli Audio's Liquid Carbon overnight, and combined with the Hugo and MrSpeakers' new Ethers, the combination of precision from that, with the Liquid Carbon's bold and entertaining one made for a highly enjoyable combination. It was enough to cause me to text Alex Cavalli and ask him what the heck he had put in the amp, and I delayed going down to dinner with Warren and Jude as I wanted to finish up listening to a couple of tracks first.



Rob Watts himself noted different levels of sound quality with different PCs (http://www.head-fi.org/t/766517/chord-electronics-dave/1215#post_12220009) and so Chord went to work on the Hugo TT, intended to be the all-in-one desktop solution that the Hugo doesn’t quite succeed in being. Galvanically isolated USB and a separate, better headphone amp with front outputs and a remote control give the Hugo everything it needs when portability isn’t. That galvanic isolation is critical, as listening to the Hugo through the USB input versus listening through the optical input, there was a subtle, but not unnoticeable hardness to the sound.  



Usually with any component, especially digital ones, there is always a compromise of some kind. You can have your ultra-detail, but with a “cold” or “digital” presentation. You can have a rich sound, but it comes through as somewhat contrived, or from a non-over-sampling (NOS) DAC, which exchanges the unpleasantness of digital with degrees of mushiness or a narrower soundstage. The Hugo surprises by giving width, depth, and dynamics I’m used to from regular, high-end over-sampling DACs, but with the kind of musicality I thought only older-style, pre-Sigma Delta “ladder” or “R2R” DACs could deliver.
Some time ago I owned an old Parasound DAC1600HD. Based around a pair of Burr Brown PCM63K DACs, it held my proverbial crown as the piece of digital kit most capable of, well, not sounding digital. Regrettably it did not accept high-res input, and given my increasing library of music from HDTracks and Linn Records, its days were numbered. It represented many of my feelings about digital music reproduction, in that I felt that things had gone backwards, not forwards with the push to high-res playback and cheap Sigma-Delta DACs. 
As such I sometimes use an Audio-gd NOS1704 DAC — if the model name doesn’t give it away, it has dual R2R PCM1704UK DACs but without their usual DSP to handle oversampling and filtering. This I do instead using the included iZotope up-sampling in Audirvana Plus feeding my Audiophilleo 1 with Pure Power to the DAC. While that combination doesn’t have the large, encompassing soundstage of my regular DAC, the Audio-gd Master 7, with the lively ALO Audio Studio Six SET amp it strikes a nice balance and has some of the magic that old Parasound had.
The NOS1704, despite all my tweaks at work from the USB through to a clean feed from my PS Audio Power Plant Premier doesn’t hold a candle to the Hugo. In fact, in comparison it sounds almost rough!  Instruments come through the Hugo smoothly, but it is a “lack of distortion” smooth, rather than “rolled-off” smooth. Compared to other DACs I’ve owned, be it full-size or portable, it is rather like the first time you hear horn speakers in a well-set-up system or electrostatic headphones and think “Wow, I didn’t realise music could be reproduced like that!”. There is an immediate accuracy to every note, through attack and decay and down to the micro detail, but delivered with a high-quality glass-like, yet liquid clarity. This even more so when I moved the Audiophilleo set-up over to the Hugo where the sound quality was pushed over the line to a level I felt sounded magical.
It was not that the other inputs were poor — quite the contrary. It used to be with USB DACs that I’d simply give a the USB input a quick try to see how bad it was, then switch to using the Audiophilleo 1. Recent DACs, the Hugo included, seem to do a much better job through USB than a few years ago and the results from my MacBook Air through the high-res USB port or my iDevices through the low-res USB port were only marginally behind. Not as much, say, as I experienced with Cypher Labs Algorithm Solo +db, which sounded far better from my MacBook Air than it did from my iPhone.
Likewise with my other devices, a similar story was to be had using the AK240 with a Van Den Hul Optocoupler as a source, as well as from the FiiO X5 via coaxial, which is not ideal given the relatively poorer digital connection that a 3.5mm TS plug is for S/PDIF. While gross overkill as a transport, considering the AK240 costs as much as the Hugo and is more than capable in itself, it was still an interesting experiment. It is one that captured the imagination of people of sufficiently deep wallets to own both that Sys Concepts in Canada makes a special short, high-quality optical cable for this very connection, and similar cables can be had from most headphone-oriented suppliers, such as Moon Audio, who also make high-quality micro-USB and optical cables. Timelord also supplied a short optical cable from an un-specified maker in Taiwan to me, which they include when they sell the Hugo.  
Until recently I hadn’t ever thought of using a Bluetooth audio connection, but the promise of good performance using the much higher quality APTX protocol encouraged me to give it a go from my iMac, even if it was limited to CD quality. While the music slightly lacked dynamics compared to the USB connection, the result was very satisfactory. I could easily envisage myself using it for situations where the highest quality audio isn’t required but convenience is, such as watching music videos on Youtube or where I simply want to route audio through my system without having to muck about with more cables. 
In discussion with a friend recently, we talked about how the differences between DACs are only minimal, and USB transports fall into that category as well. But over hours of listening, those little differences add up to a lot and so in the end I stuck with the Audiophilleo feeding the Hugo, as the music subtly takes on a most magical and real quality compared with the other inputs, and lopped a row off my equipment rack. Later on, I purchased a couple of USB isolators, including a Schiit Wyrd, and found that I didn’t need the Audiophilleo if I used this instead, as it brought about the same results at less than a tenth of the cost. The Wyrd also allowed me to use my iPad as a music streamer without complaining about power draw. 
The transport experiments didn’t end there, the arrival of a Soundaware D100 Pro, which fed the Hugo via its coax input. Compared to the MacBook Air / Audirvana Plus / Oyaide d+USB / Schiit Wyrd combo, using the D100Pro with a Harmonic Tech cable resulted in a smoother and more musical presentation that didn’t seem to lack anything in detail.  That clearly bested both, raising the Hugo another level as a DAC and was to be the best I was to experience the Hugo before it ended up displaced by a Schiit Audio Yggdrasil in my main rig.  


The problem with explaining how the Hugo achieves its magic is troublesome, not just for the average person, but equally so for the audiophile who has taken more than a passing interest in how DACs work. We are used to reading about such-and-such DAC used, along with whatever components make up the USB and other inputs and send that to the DAC and then on through a circuit of some kind to the analogue output. Discussion then comes to how masterful the designer is at getting the most out of all of this, what filters are available or are used, how good the power supply is and how sensitive the inputs are to variations in transport and cables, for which we turn to reviews and auditions with familiar music. 
The Hugo, however, is so considerably different to a regular DAC that we almost have to start again, though some basic facts will bear familiarity. The centre of the Hugo is a Xylinx FPGA, a device that is essentially a blank sheet (or more appropriately blank circuit board) as far as function is concerned. Rob Watts isn’t the only person to use a FPGA in a DAC, but it is what he does with it that is unique. The model in particular was their latest at the time of design, capable of serious computation yet only requiring minimal power, allowing battery operation.
I remember as a child a neighbour, who I used to hang around as he fixed his motorbikes and car, joke that the answer to everything was to use a bigger hammer. Rob Watts has used the biggest hammer of all. While a regular DAC over-samples the incoming digital audio by a factor of 2-8x or up-samples to a preset rate, eg: 384 kHz, or multiples of DSD in the latest PS Audio DAC, Rob Watts realised that [TASK] and, in the most over-simplified of terms, the Hugo’s FPGA over-samples digital audio, using his own algorithms, based on 30 years of experience, a whopping 2048x. Pause and think about that for a minute. The output is then sent to an all discrete component bitstream DAC. Sorry, no DA chip arguments possible here. 
DSD, which the Hugo can receive through any of its inputs using DoP, is converted to PCM, since it otherwise would not allow the volume control and crossfade to work. Rob stated in a post on Head-Fi.org (which I really need to find) that he could do this without any quality loss, so those who hold the common perception that DSD should be output directly need not be concerned, but if presented with a choice of downloading a track as PCM or DSD, the former would be the better option.
The power supply has also received careful attention. Many audiophiles may be horrified of the idea of listening to a device that, when not using battery power, would use a cheap wall-wart, but the power supply is quite sophisticated, with 9 regulators and 12 RF filters built-in. Rob Watts also performed listening tests to the Hugo with and without the wall wart connected to ensure that there was no sound degradation with it plugged in. Of interesting note is that Rob spent a lot of time in the past investigating why power chords would make a difference in audio systems. His conclusion was that radio frequency (RF) noise entering the circuits was the cause of problems, and now he designs his power supplies to have a very high level of RF rejection, allowing, in the Hugo’s case, the use of a cheap wall wart for power without any degradation in the sound quality. The only disappointment in this regard is that not as much care was put into isolating the USB input.

The "Crazy portable rig" done as a piss-take on the kind of huge portable rigs some members used to carry with them.

It is inevitable that a comparison with the Astell&Kern AK240 is required, given its close price and near equal status as a phenomenally capable unit. The Hugo has the first advantage in that it doesn’t require special balanced cabling to get the maximum capability from its headphone amp. Initial comparisons have the AK240 taking a step back and delivering the music in a light and clear-sounding manner, but enough so that in some cases, such as with the Sennheiser HD-800s a slight lack of bass weight becomes apparent, especially in comparison to the Hugo, which impresses with undistorted and unveiled detail and dynamics. Is it possible to describe a presentation as more effortless?
Nothing is perfect and the Hugo is no exception. Given its portable pretensions there are compromises, the most major of which was the clearance around the RCA jacks which, while improved from the original will not accept cables with very large plugs. Likewise, those people who like their expensive USB cables will need to use an adaptor for the micro-USB socket. Also the volume and input reset to defaults when the unit is switched off, something rectified in the new Mojo. Finally, the Hugo is around $2500, which is high-end DAC territory, or even high-end rig territory, putting it up against a lot of highly capable gear, especially the Mojo and 2Qute from Chord, which now more adeptly cover the portable and desktop DAC markets. In my case, that was the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil (I haven't heard the TT) to best my experiences with the Hugo. The Yggdrasil provides what could best be described as even greater insight into the details of the music, to the point it is as if you can feel the very air between the performers, and notes from a piano seem to come as if you are there next to it. Sadly I can't fit an Yggdrasil in my bag!
As I was discussing this with my friends at Head-Fi, they naturally asked what I thought of it and if it was as good as reviews described. Fellow moderator Warren 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.”’ If there is a good summary of the Hugo it was that. 


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.)


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.

Chord Hugo

Inputs • Optical TOSLink 24-bit/192kHz-capable • RCA coaxial input 24-bit/384kHz-capable • Driverless USB input 16-bit/48kHz-capable (designed for tablets/phones) • HD USB input 32-bit/384KHz and DSD128-capable (for computer/laptop playback; see driver details below) Drivers • On a PC (Vista, Win 7 or 8) Hugo will playback music up to 384KHz and support both DSD64 and DSD128, but for this you must install the supplied driver which comes in the box and is also available on this product page. • On Apple Mac OS, iOS for iPhone/iPad and Android, no drivers are required and Hugo will work up to 384KHz and DSD64/128 if your playback software/app can support it. Outputs • 2x3.5mm headphone jacks • 1x6.35mm (1/4 inch) headphone jack • 1x (pair) stereo RCA phono output Technical specs • Advanced digital volume control • Crossfeed filter network • Battery powered for approximately 14 hours operation • Input, sample rate and volume level indication by colour-change LEDs • 26K tap-length filter (more than double when compared to the QuteHD DAC) • Headphone output: 110dB SPL into a 300ohm headphone load • Output power – 1KHz 1V sinewave both channels driven 0.1% distortion • 600 ohms 35mW • 300 ohms 70mW • 56 ohms 320mW • 32 ohms 600mW • 8 ohms 720mW • THD – 1KHz 3V output: 0.0005% • Dynamic Range: 120dB • Output impedance: 0.075 ohms • Damping factor >100 • Weight: 0.4kg • Dimensions: 100x20x132mm (WxHxD)

Model Name/TypeMPNEAN/UPC
Head-Fi.org › Head Gear › Headphone Amplifiers › Amp/DACs › Chord Hugo