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."'
Since Chord had released the Mojo, which was only a 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.
The community had not been lacking in their criticisms of the ergonomics of the original and the Hugo 2, while much the same size, has changed quite a bit.
To start with, like the Mojo, the Hugo 2 has separate micro-USB port for charging and input. However at least a 2.1A charger is required for continuous use, 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.
With the included or similar powered charger, 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. To aid that, a fully-functional remote control is now included.
Most interesting are the two screw holes on that side, with word that there will be a future "2go" for the Hugo as there is the Poly for the Mojo.
The Hugo 2 maintains it’s plethora of inputs, but adds a second coaxial digital input allowing connection of an M-Scaler. While no portable version currently exists, it does suggest that in the future some serious portable digital hardware might be available to connect to it.
The 6.3mm and 3.5mm outputs are 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. However the RCA sockets of the Hugo 2 are still recessed, so users of cables with very large RCA plugs are going to have issues.
Most importantly is that the Hugo 2 is a significant step up over the original when it comes to performance. With around double the number of taps, courtesy of more serious FPGA power and Rob Watts’ code. The $2000+ DAC market is very fiercely contested, primarily by Schiit Audio’s Yggdrasil, which has just had upgrades, and Audio-gd’s new R2R 7, as well as the emergence of other R2R DACs in the last year.
When I reviewed the Chord Dave, I wrote:
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.
The Hugo 2, with top headphones, has some of that magic, seemingly able to tap into the very atmosphere in which a recording was made, going beyond realistic instrument reproduction, into expressing the very feeling of an entire recording.
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 the experience with you when you travel too.
The Chord Hugo caused a huge stir in the headphone audio community when it was released back in 2014 at CES. It was the first serious attempt at penetrating the portable audio market for venerable British Hif-Fi manufacturer, Chord Electronics. And it was a runaway success. The subsequent release of the even more portable (and affordable) Mojo enabled the Chord sound to reach many additional consumers for whom otherwise the stretch to a Chord DAC product might have been too far.
The Hugo ("you-go") concept was to create an all-in-one portable device, meaning a DAC, preamp, and headphone amp, along with DSD and high-res PCM capability, aptX Bluetooth, and a useful crossfeed function. But perhaps the real highlight of the original Hugo was the FPGA (field-programmable gate array) design of the DAC that Chord’s Lead Designer, Rob Watts, used as opposed to using an off-the-shelf commercial chip. I remember my first listen to the Hugo and being wowed at the time with the sense of realism and engagement.
Fast forward to 2017 and the highly anticipated Hugo 2 was announced in January, again at CES. After several showings at CanJam in NYC, Singapore, Los Angeles, and London, the Hugo 2 finally became more readily available to the consumer market this past summer. Was the wait worth it? You bet it was.
The Hugo 2 builds on the success of the original Hugo while making significant upgrades both in terms of performance and ergonomics. From the revised casework to the glowing and color-shifting spherical control buttons that give users visual cues as to the current settings on the unit, to the enlarged RCA output jacks, to the more solid micro USB connection points, the Hugo 2 has been completely overhauled. The included remote control is one of my favorite new features as this adds so much flexibility when using in full-size and desktop systems, as I do.
Under the hood, the Hugo 2 utilizes the next generation FPGA Xilinx Artix 7 chipset which upgrades the 45nm Spartan 6 used in the original Hugo. This translates into an increased tap-length capability from 26,368 to 49,152 using a 10 element Pulse Array design. More taps means a more finely tuned conversion response and combined with a newly revised output stage will provide, according to Chord, lower measurable harmonic distortion than the original Hugo.
The Hugo 2 is an all-in-one unit as its predecessor and combines a plethora of of inputs and outputs including micro-USB, digital optical, digital coaxial inputs, and RCA, mini (3.5mm) and ¼ (6.3mm) headphone outputs. Charging is done via a separate micro-USB connection and the unit can remain plugged in continuously whether in actual use or turned off. After 24 hours on a constant charge, the Hugo 2 will enter into Intelligent Desktop Mode where the battery is neither charged or discharged.
One of the key features of the Hugo 2 is the ability to tailor the sound using the built-in sound filtering options as well as the crossfeed function. The filters range from white (neutral incisive), green (high frequency roll-off), orange (warm), red (even warmer). These filter options in combination with the 3 settings of X-PHD crossfeed (min, med, max) can come into handy when faced with different music genres, levels of recording and/or file quality, and mood. My reference is the white filter but I also use green and red on occasion.
The sound quality of the Hugo 2 is for me, a significant step up from the original Hugo. It’s increased resolution, dynamics, and sense of timing enable me to get closer to my music and the fact that I can also use this a transportable device is icing on the cake. Although most of my listening is done using the Hugo 2 as DAC only feeding an external tube headphone amplifier, using the Hugo 2 on its own injects an increased level of immediacy and engagement. The Hugo 2 can pretty much drive any full size headphone (with the exception of the some of the harder to drive Hifiman headphones such as Susvara and HE-6). The headphones and in-ears I mostly use directly out of the Hugo 2 are the Focal Utopia, 64 Audio Tia Fourte, and Campfire Andromeda, all of which sound fantastic directly driven from the Hugo 2.
The Chord Hugo 2 retails for $2379 (USA). For anyone in the market for a DAC upgrade in this price category or for those looking to make the jump into their first high-end headphone audio rig, the Hugo 2 is a fantastic solution. With the added benefit of being able to go wherever "you-go". Enthusiastically recommended.