Chord Hugo 2

General Information

In 2014, we introduced Hugo, a revolutionary portable DAC and headphone amp that became a landmark product in the audio landscape. Advances in digital technology, including the latest FPGAs and WTA (Watts Transient Aligned) filters, have enabled us to introduce a next-generation version, Hugo 2, featuring flexible new features, plus next-generation technical and sonic performance.

Hugo 2 can be used both at home and on-the-go, either with headphones or within a conventional audio system. Its line-level output and full-function remote control adds real flexibility in full-size and desktop systems.

The device offers four digital inputs (optical, coaxial and HD USB) plus extended-range Bluetooth, with high-resolution file playback up to 768kHz and up to DSD512 (Octa DSD), via its HD USB input. Analogue outputs include 2x RCA, plus 3.5mm and 6.35mm headphone outputs.

A four-function switch filter offers a useful degree of user-selectable frequency-shaping, bringing warm and soft or transparent and incisive presentations, giving additional flexibility and user control. For headphone-listening, Hugo 2 retains the popular digital crossfeed function of the original and offers three operation modes. The system duplicates the effect of listening to speakers and is based on advanced binaural audio research.

Hugo 2 features four spherical control buttons, which illuminate with colour-coding information and control power, input, filtering, plus the unit’s crossfeed functions.

Battery playing time is around seven hours and two modes of automatic charging are included using the dedicated Micro USB charging port; an indicator shows charging and battery-charge status.

HUGO 2 – SPECIFICATIONS:

Materials: Clamshell precision machined aluminium casing with polycarbonate buttons, acrylic signal window, and glass viewing portal. Available in a choice of two colours – natural silver, and satin black

Battery: 2x Rechargeable custom Enix Energies 3.7v 9.6Wh Li-ion (lithium-ion (2600mAh) batteries

Play time: In excess of seven (7) hours

Charging: Nominal four (4) hours via Micro USB at 1.8amps (fast charge) – Nominal eight (8) hours at 1amp (slow charge)

Connectivity (input): Micro USB (White): 44.1kHz – 768kHz – 16bit – 32bit

Coax via 3.5mm Jack (Red):44.1kHz – 768kHz – 16bit – 32bit

Optical (Green):44.1kHz – 192kHz – 16bit – 24bit

Connectivity (input wireless): Bluetooth (Apt X) (Blue): 44.1kHz – 48kHz – 16bit

Connectivity (output): 1x ¼” jack headphone output

1x 3.5mm jack headphone output

1x stereo (L & R) RCA output

PCM support: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz, 358.8kHz, 384kHz, 717.6kHz, and 768kHz.

DSD support: Native playback supported. DSD64 (Single) to DSD512 (Octa-DSD)

Volume control: Digital, activated in 1dB increments. Last known state saved upon shutdown, with exception of line-level mode

Line-level mode: Activated via dual press of middle ‘Source’ and ‘Crossfeed’ buttons. Line level = 3v via all outputs. Reset by power cycle

Power saving mode: Auto-shutdown after ten minutes of input inactivity

Driver support: Driverless with Mac OS X and Linux, driver required for Windows OS

User Configurable Options:

Filters (Digital): Hugo (Ultimate Reference) (White)

Hugo HF+ (High Frequency roll off) (Green)

Mojo (‘Smooth’) (Orange)

Mojo HF+ (High Frequency roll off) (Red)

Crossfeed (Digital IIR): Level 1 – Light

Level 2 – Medium

Level 3 – Heavy

Control options: Manual

Remote control (included)

Key Features
Chord Custom FPGA DAC
49,152 Taps
7 hour Battery Life
768kHz Micro USB Input
384kHz Coax Jack Input
192kHz Optical Input
Bluetooth Apt X Input
1x ¼” Headphone Output
1x 3.5mm Headphone Output
Unbalanced RCA Outputs
Supports up to 768kHz
DSD512 (8x) Native
Native DSD Support
4x Playback Filters
3x Crossfeed Function
Supports up to 800Ω
IR Remote Control Included
CNC Aluminium Chassis

Included Accessories
2amp USB Charger
1.5m Micro USB Cable
Micro USB to Micro USB OTG Cable
Hugo 2 Owners Overview Manual

Technical specifications:

Chipset: Chord Electronics custom coded Xilinx Artix 7 (XC7A15T) FPGA

Tap-length: 49,152

Pulse array: 10 element pulse array design

Frequency response: 20Hz – 20kHz +/- 0.2dB

Output stage: Class A

Output impedance: 0.025Ω

THD: <0.0001% 1kHz 3v RMS 300Ω

THD and noise at 3v RMS: 120dB at 1kHz 300ohms ‘A’ wighted (reference 5.3v)

Noise 2.6 uV ‘A’ weighted: No measurable noise floor modulation

Signal to noise ratio: 126dB ‘A’ Weighted

Channel separation: 135dB at 1kHz 300Ω

Power output @ 1kHz 1% THD: 94mW 300Ω

740mW 33Ω

1050mW 8Ω

Weight: 450g

Dimensions: 130mm (L) x 100mm (W) x 21mm (H)

Boxed Dimensions: 220mm (L) x 122mm (W) x 85mm (H)

Latest reviews

Pros: Incredible transparency and detail, very revealing DAC. Will make the entire frequency spectrum so much more transparent on a revealing enough system.
- Breathtaking attack, speed, crispness, and decay.
- Wonderfully clean, airy treble.
- Extraordinary three dimensional sound stage and precise imaging.
- Bass monster without artificial boosting required. With a no compromise system, makes the Stax SR-009 slam home.
- Class A output stage, very good single ended headphone amp even for less efficient planar magnetic headphones like Fostex T50RP and its variations.
- Portable form factor with long battery life.
- Good amount of input selections and three analog outputs.
- Excellent aluminum build quality and aesthetics. Chord makes some of the most gorgeous audio products.
Cons: It's expensive (some will take issue with the price relative to the amount of hardware inside), but I prefer it to some even higher priced DACs.
Not only is the Chord Hugo 2 simply the best portable DAC/amp on the market right now and simply one of the best DACs I've heard to date (tested only with headphone systems), surpassing much bigger, heavier, balanced DACs to my ears.

Reviewing a DAC might seem tricky at first, but I don't believe it will be for the Hugo 2 since I have something to compare it to directly. The improvements it adds to most systems I've used is night and day. I will write about the Hugo 2's sound in the following systems:
  • Standalone portable DAC/amp powering the ZMF Ori and Blackwood headphones.
  • DAC for the following headphone system: Mjolnir Audio Pure BiPolar amp, Audeze LCD-4 headphones (200 ohms version), Kimber Kable Hero interconnects
  • DAC for the following headphone system: Mjolnir Audio KGSSHV Carbon amp, Stax SR-009 headphones, Kimber Kable Hero interconnects
Other DACs of note I have owned are the Bel Canto DAC 3 (used only in balanced mode), Chord Mojo, and Denafrips Venus (used only in balanced mode). An interesting sample set as the Bel Canto DAC 3 represents a high end, more traditional delta sigma DAC, and the Denafrips Venus represents one of the better R2R DACs one can buy and offers both NOS and OS modes.


I will not delve too much into how to use the device; it is button controlled but also has a remote control that I have never used. It has a 3.5mm coaxial input (44.1kHz – 384kHz – 16bit – 32bit), micro USB input (44.1kHz – 768kHz – 16bit – 32bit), optical TOSLINK input (44.1kHz – 192kHz – 16bit – 24bit), and bluetooth (44.1kHz – 48kHz – 16bit). It also supports dual BNC input via adapters using its 3.5mm coaxial input (44.1kHz – 768kHz – 16bit – 32bit). It also supports DSD64 (Single) to DSD512 (Octa-DSD). I have tested only optical TOSLINK (fed by a Breeze DU-U8 level 3) and USB directly from a Samsung Galaxy S9+, and I hear no difference.

The Chord Hugo 2 is battery powered (2x Rechargeable custom Enix Energies 3.7v 9.6Wh Li-ion (lithium-ion (2600mAh) batteries) which is charged using its other micro USB input. You can keep it plugged in without worry of overcharging, the Hugo 2 is a very intelligent device. It will even automatically set itself into a desktop mode if left plugged in for 24 hours, during which the battery neither charges nor discharges and auto shutoff is disabled.

It can be set to line level output which is fixed at 3v RMS, which is ideal if using it only as a DAC. The Hugo 2 features two headphone jacks (1/4" and 1/8") and dual RCA outputs, and the output stage is pure class A.

General Tonality

The Hugo 2 is a neutral sounding device that is extremely transparent and resolving, and capable of great dynamics. Not laid back at all like NOS R2R DACs or the Chord Mojo, it does not refrain from making all details extremely obvious. And it is a bass monster; if you are upgrading to the Hugo 2, expect a new body of bass dimension and much more bass slam to be added.

Of all the DACs I have owned (refer to the significant ones listed above), the Hugo 2 is the bassiest of them all, and it is not artificial bass boost, it is simply not recessing these frequencies. It sounds closest in tonality to the Bel Canto DAC 3, while the Chord Mojo and Denafrips Venus are both notably laid back with 1-2 KHz less treble extension (the DAC 3 also has 1-2 KHz less treble extension but isn't laid back sounding).

Those trying to create a laid back sound system (which is very common among high end audio enthusiasts) will have to plan around the Hugo 2 not being laid back whatsoever. I don't call it bright, it's just not laid back.

So it is neutral, extremely transparent and resolving, and has awesome bass. What else? It also has zero noise floor, breathtakingly clean treble performance when the rest of the system can keep up (this is very important), and incredibly full bodied, weighty, impactful sound for all instruments unlike every other DAC I have owned.

Strings, piano, wind instruments, horns, everything sounds and feels as if there is no barrier between me and them, as if they are right there in front of me and I can reach out and touch them - this is of course with the Stax SR-009, KGSSHV Carbon, and Kimber Kable Hero interconnects. The attack is so quick and crisp and clean, the decay is much faster, adding to the transparency, snappiness, speed, and PRaT. My other DACs sound sluggish and blurred in comparison.


Other noteworthy attributes of the Hugo 2's sound are incredible 3D sound stage and imaging, far outdoing every other DAC I've owned here too. This may all sound like exaggeration, that a DAC can make such huge differences, but I will clarify: the differences are much less pronounced on non-electrostatic headphone systems. But when used with my Stax SR-009 + KGSSHV Carbon system with quality analog interconnects, every aspect of the sound is infinitely better than any other DAC I have owned!

But notice my emphasis on the rest of the system being up to par. If using generic interconnects or Audioquest Evergreen interconnects in the Stax SR-009 + KGSSHV Carbon system, there is notable treble harshness and sibilance. The same would occur if I had a much lower end amplifier I assume. But, insert the Kimber Kable Hero interconnects, and the difference is night and day, pure magic. No more harshness, no more sibilance, so much more airiness and so much better bass slam and body, instrumental impact and weight, sound stage and imaging, attack, decay, transparency, treble extension.

So if you're hearing rough treble, it's not the Hugo 2's fault, it is something else in your system.

The filters do make obvious changes to the sound, sacrificing treble for all the people overly sensitive to it. Crossfeed presents an interesting sound stage that is more centered and in front of you, but with any of these filters I hear some degradation in transparency and refinement, so I use none.

As a Standalone Portable Device

When using the Hugo 2 as a standalone device, it is supremely impressive. Of the three test systems listed above, this is the 2nd most impressive (and I expected it to be most impressive here, but I was wrong). True Hi-Fi sound in your pocket, or bag more realistically. Only in the modern era do we get to carry around a top notch DAC and high end single ended class A headphone amp bundled in one device. For this reason, I have referred to the Hugo 2 as a necessity for any traveling music lover.


The Chord Hugo 2 alone allows the ZMF Ori and ZMF Blackwood, which are inefficient planar magnetic headphones, to truly shine. Compared to the Chord Mojo as a standalone device, I hear the following differences:
  • Less laid back sound signature, upper mids to treble transition is more forward.
  • Significantly cleaner upper mids to treble transition and treble response, better treble extension and a bit more "air".
  • Greatly increased bass slam, bass is now much more full bodied and less recessed (biggest difference to me).
  • Improved transparency.
  • Slightly improved sound stage and imaging but nothing significant here to my ears with this system.
I felt the Hugo 2 was definitely worth the price difference vs the Mojo. Truly high end sound on the go, it's still hard to believe today how good portable sound can be nowadays.

The Hugo 2 also made my Schiit Lyr 3 at the time redundant, so I sold it. Adding the Lyr 3 to the chain with these headphones just slightly worsened the transparency of the upper frequencies if anything, not a big difference though.

But adding a good enough amp will of course come in handy. The Mjolnir Audio Pure BiPolar brought the ZMF Ori and Blackwood to a different level, as my reviews of those headphones describe.

Update: The Hugo 2 can also drive the ZMF Eikon with ease. The Hugo 2 + the Eikon is my new favorite portable system.

As a Standalone Desktop DAC
Before I sold my Stax system to move to speakers, this was the only way I use the Hugo 2 now. I don't even listen to music on the go anymore, because I've been so spoiled by the Chord Hugo 2 + Mjolnir Audio KGSSHV Carbon + Stax SR-009 + good interconnects that I no longer want to listen to anything below this.

But first, let me share my experience using the Hugo 2 with a high end non-electrostatic system, the Mjolnir Audio Pure BiPolar + Audeze LCD-4 using Kimber Kable Hero RCA interconnects with Neutrik RCA to XLR adapters. With this system, I compared it again to the Chord Mojo, and my impressions were... exactly the same as my impressions in the previous section, only less pronounced (and MUCH less pronounced than the differences with the Stax system).


The sound was slightly less laid back again, with improved and more forward upper mids to treble, with more "airy" sound. The bass improvements were still there, but less pronounced - it was a night and day difference before, but now not quite that. The difference in transparency was there but not as huge, sound stage and imaging improvements seemed about the same though.

I don't think the Hugo 2 is worth the price difference when using something akin to the Mjolnir Audio Pure BiPolar amp and Audeze LCD-4 or ZMF Ori/Blackwood headphones, but keep in mind these headphones are deliberately designed to not be the most revealing sound. A Focal Utopia with this same amp would certainly benefit more from the Hugo 2.

With an Extremely Revealing System
I suppose I got excited and already spilled the beans here, so I'll try to just fill out some remaining details. Enter the Stax SR-009, Mjolnir Audio KGSSHV Carbon, and Kimber Kable Hero interconnects (same as above). Some have noticed that I can't shut up about this combination here on Head-Fi. There's a reason for that, never before have I been blown away by an audio system or any audio upgrade that much. Not even when going from a Cooler Master "5.1" gaming headset to the AKG K7xx / Beyerdynamic DT 880, not even when comparing a Sennheiser HD 598 Cs to a Sennheiser HD 800/HD 800 S.

This Stax system is what made me really want to write this review. It makes the difference in analog interconnects and especially DACs infinitely more obvious than any non-electrostatic system.


The Chord Mojo is great for the price, but absolutely ruins this system. With the Mojo, the treble sounds like it's locked away in a cardboard box, all that air up top is trapped. Transparency is way down, many details are far less obvious, bass is gone, sound stage is now flat and two dimensional and seems to extend nowhere. Imaging is blurred and generic, the opposite of precise. And the Mojo is probably the best DAC below $1,000 (pretty sure I'd think so at least).

In this system, the Denafrips Venus sounds like a much better, cleaner version of the Chord Mojo. The Venus is in the same price range as the Hugo 2 and is a beast of engineering: isolated dual mono PSU with two huge power transformers, four 0.005% precision matched resistor ladders per channel allowing for 26-bit PCM and fully balanced 4.4v RMS output, excellent digital processing. Impressive engineering for the price.

But compared to the Hugo 2, it is too laid back, and I believe this speaks for most R2R DACs in the same price range (definitely NOS ones at least), since it is not deliberately designed to sound this way, and it reminds me of how the Holo Audio Spring DAC level 3 sounds but even worse. A lot of people will like this about it, laid back "slow" sound is really popular these days, but I prefer what sounds more realistic to me.

This laid back sound from the Venus not only really lowers treble response (but without ruining it like admittedly even the Mojo does, since this is comparing a $500 DAC to DACs valued at over 5x after all) and extension by 1-2 KHz, it really blurs/soften the attack, slows decay, and oddly/unfortunately lowers bass presence and impact, creating a slower softer sound with less PRaT so to speak.

Plenty of people like this (see all the HE1000 fans), but this reduces transparency. The SR-009 stands out for its speed, attack, crispness and clarity, and is a bass monster with the Hugo 2 and good interconnects. With the Venus, the SR-009's bass is now soft and muddy. With the Hugo 2, it's a rock concert when called for.

Ultimately this system allows the Chord Hugo 2 to shine, demonstrating that it is incredibly transparent with superior treble extension and quality, and compared to every other DAC I've owned, is so significantly superior in bass slam and body, sound stage, imaging, bringing out detail.

If you have not seen my extremely positive review of the Stax SR-009, check it out here, and realize that a Chord Hugo 2 or another similarly excellent DAC that isn't highly laid back is required for that review to be so positive. And so are interconnects at least as good as the Kimber Kable Hero, because even with the Hugo 2, so much of that magic is lost with cheap interconnects!

On a no-compromise system, the Hugo 2 injects layers of transparency into the entire frequency range like nothing I have ever heard before. The way it is able to not only clean up any treble harshness, make the attack much crisper and cleaner, and speed up and improve decay, but it is truly extraordinary how much cleaner and more transparent bass, mids, and treble all become. It opens up a window into the music that was previously sealed shut. Its improvements are hugely evident in all genres, and probably the most impressive to me in metal. Without the Hugo 2, instruments sound so much smaller and softer and less clear.
Last edited:
Rhamnetin
Rhamnetin
alota - Most if not all amps for Stax headphones convert single ended signal into balanced, so you just need RCA interconnects with XLR adapters.

Currently though I am actually using Kimber Kable Silver Streak Balanced interconnects with RCA on one side and XLR on the other; I requested this directly from Kimber who happily obliged, but thecableco will also do this.

https://i.imgur.com/Klm6RTv.jpg
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alota
alota
thank you. really interesting. i didn´t know this. i thought that Dr. Gilmore amplifiers accepted only balanced input. so i presume that the output voltage of hugo 2(and qutest) it´s enough for the amplifier.
Rhamnetin
Rhamnetin
@alota Definitely, 3v RMS is a fine and more typical value. With the KGSSHV Carbon and SR-009, my volume is always between 9 and 10 o'clock so tons of room to spare. The 4.4v RMS Denafrips Venus had me lowering the volume even more but it didn't matter in the end.
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Pros: Small transportable. Stellar sound out of any source. Colored light scheme is logical, once you understand. Superb imaging and sound signature.
Cons: The "see-through" of the two halves. Not much else. Somewhat costly for a portable, but once heard....well...
Chord Hugo 2-5.0



Initial impressions:

Upon finding out I was on the tour, I was pretty psyched. I was in somewhat of a lull, review-wise; so the addition of such a lauded component was a definite boost to my repertoire. I anxiously awaited, but was quickly distracted finishing other worthy equipment, in the review department. And as such, life took hold and distracted me mightily from almost any reviews. Thankfully, I am back, albeit in a different form, and with different goals (mostly), thus this may be somewhat a departure from my previous reviews, but the rough-“edge” will still be there…me hopes…



The Chord Hugo 2 retails for $2,379, and with the reputation of the first gen Hugo, and worldwide acclaim of the Mojo, high hopes were anticipated. Maybe not in the Apple iPhone X-genre, but the enthusiasm from the portable/desktop community was just as fervent. A fact I found upon my many readings while waiting for the critter to arrive in Middle America, USA.


Having never heard either the original or the Mojo, I was cautiously optimistic. I am a huge fan of UK stereo equipment, owning the wonderful Arcam AVR350 (called The Answer in some reviews…), which plays through our ProAc Tablette 8’s Signature Series, Paradigm sub (Canadian, I know…) and my Linn Sondek Axis TT. Not TOTL, but enough to make me appreciate the finer aspects of each company. To me my next upgrade, would be McIntosh, plain and simple. So, if you have not figured it out, I do appreciate a warmer signature. My portable gear echoes this, through my Shanling M1/M3s/M5, and iFi iDSD Micro BL/iTubes2/iDAC2. The Hugo 2 would be an excellent chance to add to my listening field, while hopefully garnering experience as to what a TOTL DAC/AMP should sound like. The closest I have come is the ampsandsounds Kenzie, which I would purchase in a heartbeat, had I the space to properly set up such a system. My BL is a quite acceptable substitute in the mean time.


Going back a bit (I hate to say old school, but I did of course throw in Stevie Ray Vaughan), I mainly listened to older Coldplay songs during my time, including the incredible YouTube vid of Technicolor ii. What a visual masterpiece, and throwback all at the same time. The Puppetry is first class and exemplary. Timing, scenery, and visuals themselves are enough to put a smile on Oscar the Grouches face, even with the filming faux pas.





Over and over I listened and watched that wonderful song. Just fabulous, and quite a parallel to the point at which I am in my life right now. PM me, and I might fill you in…a bit…


Follow that with Sky Full of Stars, and I do harken back (again) to my son’s College Freshman year playing soccer. Ahhh…memories. And they are National Champions to boot. Uplifting, challenging music for most anything worth it’s weight, both were exemplary through the H2, and I began to feel like I was becoming indoctrinated into a small fervent, passionate club of aficionados, and I was glad. Glad indeed to be chosen for this, and hope of worthiness, that my review would befit the H2’s sound. It was a good start.


This is what I thought, as I went for my run, a thunderstorm approaching. I delved deep into the lesser knownst of what I do not know of the H2, and all that I had read up to this point. Trying to decipher what I had read, trying to understand what I did not, as the bolts flashed around me. Quickening my pace (a bit), to match the rain, I began to understand the impassioned following of the Chord club. I understood that to purchase and own a Chord product was a major step for some, a “cliquish” thing for others, but most not without thought and questions similar to mine. Will this be all I need? Will this work with what I have? How will it sound with my XYZ2-c headphones? The questions rolled at me almost as fast as rain and lightning. Luckily, I was on the return and did not get too wet. I would not have cared. As I entered the abode known as ours, my wife smiled lovingly at me knowing full well that I had accomplished more than “just a run.” Glad, indeed.





Testing equipment:


MacBook Pro (mainly)

iFi Micro iDSD Black Label

iFi iTubes2/iDAC2 added into my gear, but not tested directly against the H2

Unique Melody Martian

Grado GH-2

Audioquest Nightowl


Shanling M1 (Bluetooth)

iPhone 6+ (Bluetooth)


While I did try portable DAP’s, I decided my main focus should be where I would most likely use the critter in Q, a desktop situation. While I did read a fair bit about Transportability of the H2, and I would most definitely use the H2 in that manner, this would mainly be a desktop situation for my purposes. And a worthy one it would be…


Befuddlement turned to paucity of appreciation at the orientation light-wise on the buttons. Once you realize (Thanks @-RELIC-!) that the color combination works like a light spectrum from “cold” to “hot,” a logical sequence is followed. The Scientist in me should have thought about that, but....





Specs of the Unit are from Chord's Website:

Technical specifications:

Chipset: Chord Electronics custom coded Xilinx Artix 7 (XC7A15T) FPGA

Tap-length: 49,152

Pulse array: 10-element pulse array design

Frequency response: 20Hz – 20kHz +/- 0.2dB

Output stage: Class A

Output impedance: 0.025Ω

THD: <0.0001% 1kHz 3v RMS 300Ω

THD and noise at 3v RMS: 120dB at 1kHz 300ohms ‘A’ wighted (reference 5.3v)

Noise 2.6 uV ‘A’ weighted: No measurable noise floor modulation

Signal to noise ratio: 126dB ‘A’ Weighted

Channel separation: 135dB at 1kHz 300Ω

Power output @ 1kHz 1% THD: 94mW 300Ω

740mW 32Ω

1050mW 8Ω

Weight: 450g

Dimensions: 130mm (L) x 100mm (W) x 21mm (H)

Boxed Dimensions: 220mm (L) x 122mm (W) x 85mm (H)



Music used:


Coldplay- Technicolor ii

Coldplay- Sky Full of Stars

Coldplay- White Shadows

Coldplay- Paradise

Coldplay- Lover’s in Japan

SRV- Mary Had A Little Lamb

SRV- Look at Little Sister

Daft Punk- Give Life Back to Music

Daft Punk- Giorgio from Moroder

Daft Punk- Beyond

Daft Punk- Motherboard



Build qualities/opening:



I was a might bit surprised at how small (but a bit hefty) the H2 was, upon opening the box. A tad heavier than my iFi BL, but not overly heavy in my book. Lighter than a decent Smartphone extra battery charging pack, certainly. As RELIC pointed out, both tour units had slightly mismatched aluminum halves. As such, the “light show” shown through the gap. Not bad mind you, but at this price I would hope the QC would tighten up for production. One aspect I did like was that looking through the RCA connections on the back. You had the distinct pleasure of staring Wall e in the face…to me anyway. And we really like that movie, too.








Also mentioned were the loose fitting buttons on the top end for the main controls. Again, I do not mind that much, but would hope for a bit better fit. That said (and others have, too), the volume wheel rotates tightly and with good authority. Other connections were tight, and solid from the dual RCA connections to the 3.5 and 6.5mm headphone jacks. Even to me, the USB connection on the front was on par with other devices I have tried. Overall, I would rate build/fit-n-finish a “B,” and would hope future iterations attained that “A” level. And we all know the sound is what we are after…that sound. And I can concur with the other reviews right off the bat; the sound is definitely at the head of the class. In fact, this could be considered that star student who went away for the summer, and came back even stronger academically, having spent the summer doing snow-melt research in the Antarctic, or something worthy of their time. Reading parts of reviews, which shared the comparisons between both versions, I can concur only that the H2 is nie-on phenomenal. And if this is a step up from the H1, then that is a certain accomplishment.







Switching between my Grado GH-2’s and the Unique Melody Martian was simply put, a treat. Then throw in the Audioquest Nightowl’s, and I was one satisfied listener. Easily switching between headphones, and listening formats, the H2 did all of that with nary a qualm. Change headphones? No problem. Change from RCA to Coax to Bluetooth? No problem. The majority of my time was spent with the Martian, due to family considerations, but when I was able to open the Grado or Nightowl up, let’s just say, that my wife would not approve of my volume choice! All the while no signs of distress, or overburdening of the H2. No sibilance, no going over the threshold, the H2 just worked. I like devices that just work. No fuss, no messing with hook ups, do your job, behind the scenes, and let me enjoy. The H2 did this with not a hint of argument. Over and over and over I listened and watched Coldplay’s Technicolor ii, gaping at that puppet mastery. Marveling at the doltishness of the adults. The sheer wonder in the eyes of the kids. I found myself enjoying the song through the bespeckled eyes of the young girl in the video. The one who KNEW what a treat this was, and that it was as real as she needed it to be. The adults did not…It was real. It was music, and it was pure. It was marvelous…






A good bit has been written about how the H2 presents a detailed listening environment. And I would concur. The level of detail is such, that one can easily pick out exactly where the instruments and vocals are on stage, or in the studio versions. Presentation from the Engineers product is exactly as it should be…where said Engineer intended it to be. Every breath, every note, every pluck of the guitar, or slap of the drumstick is clear and concise. Detailed, and full of an almost explosive sound. Not the best interpretation, but if you pay attention to the small details in Technicolor ii, then you get it. There are small details (intentionally placed), which one might not actually see, due to the visual appeal of the overall video. But with the H2 going, you cannot miss them. That cymbal falling (and subsequently picked up by the roadie), the conversation details going on behind the show (before the song actually gets completely going, during the India-detailed opening), or hearing the chains move of the “scenery.” All parts are full and detailed more than almost anything I can remember. This is good stuff, indeed.



During Talk, by Coldplay, hearing Chris Martin enunciate syllables perfectly is a fantastic treat to the already wonderful videos. I cannot stress this enough, the level of detail along with the embodied soundstage is extremely impressive. I can honestly state that I have not heard this combination of detail and soundstage before. I could just state that this is the most detailed I have heard the music in which I listen, and end my review right there….right…bloody…there.



But what is the fun in that? One must justify ones position, otherwise ye be knownst as a crackpot. And I hope to dispel that “rumor.” I am becoming enamored with this little critter known as the H2, and am beginning to understand how versatile this is, period.







Running the filters at the various settings, I could not really tell a difference, as some have mentioned. I would state that I thought I could between filter out and setting three, but I cannot logically verify that, so I am calling it a wash; especially with my high-end hearing loss.



Unsure I was hearing the big difference others had heard, I fell back to a standby album Daft Punk’s excellent (and varied) Random Access Memories. A solid bass would be an insulting-way to describe the album’s foundation. Bass, which IS the underlying foundation allows the Moog synthesizer, drums and assorted support instruments (electronic and “real”) to indeed come out and play. Inside the H2’s electronic gismos, I swear I can see the capacitors jamming like a fine German Discotheque. One where all are admitted, you simply sit back grab your drink and enjoy. Tight bass, like no other DAC/AMP I have used defines this foundation to me. While still running that slightly-too-small-for-me sound stage, this can be forgiven because the sound is so pure and clean. BLACK background without ANY hiss is not something to be shy about when mentioning the H2.







That almost blackness of trepidation, or anticipation, or heart pumping like a horror show at what might be lurking around the corner is how I would describe the H2/Daft Punk union. Scary from the outside, but once in, you marvel sit back grab your single-malt scotch, and simply say cooooooll. That smile of now knowing what it is like to be on the inside of one of the best DAC/AMP’s out there, pretty much regardless of price. And let me tell you, that Scotch was darn fine inside that aural psychedelically lit disco. Just incredible, it is.







Finale:



Running through more music fit for the H2, the above-mentioned script holds. SRV’s masterpiece, Mary Has A Little Lamb from Austin City Limits is timeless and nie on worthy of inclusion into that “Disco.” As is the effortless Look at Little Sister, replete with the seamless guitar change. Another Scotch verifies the coooool nature of where you stand in the crowd. The hierarchy of DAC/AMP-ness. It is as if I have been invited into an extremely exclusive club for as long as I want. As long as I can stand the inclusion. All of my other gear gets ignored. Not to exclude them, like they are not worthy of accompanying me, but because I must devote full attention to the H2. After all, I was invited into the H2 abode, without reservation, and without recourse. My other gear understands, knowing I will appreciate them all the more after my night at the Disco ends with a hangover. Not from the Scotch, but the intoxicating vibes of the music provided in that Disco. Daft Punk, SRV, Coldplay and twentyonepilots reverb through my cranial matter for days after. My only recourse is to play my music again, through my gear. A reminder of what we have, what we could have and where this industry has gone. Skyward, while staying underground in discos such as the H2, or Mojo. Not secrets, mind you, but tickets needed. Tickets with which you must be invited. None are exempt mind you, but some will not take that ticket, be they afraid of the cost (most spend more on vacations than this…), or the trepidation (unfounded what with Chord’s history of the Hugo & Mojo, transportable-wise), or the lack of understanding as to what this little Disco can do (more than I could state here, but others more worthy than I have penned such words and experience), or simply for the lack of “need” (ummm…drawing a blank here, what exactly do we NEED in order to enjoy our music; but this would rank at the top of that “need” list). And it would be a shame not to for they miss a night, which would go down in their memory neurons as worthy of imprints upon that gray matter. I had a night in St. Louis like that many moons ago, and I still recall it as if it was yesterday…much like the H2, once it leaves…



As I finish my time with the H2, I play Coldplay (anything and everything…) through my iPhone 6+ and the H2, ending in my Martians. I marvel at how good the music actually sounds. I am awash with mixed feelings…how can something so small sound so darn good? And actually make the Smartphone sound very decent? Awash with the price, too…you certainly pay a premium price for this sound. $2400 US is not small change by any means. Personally, I put together a very worthy iFi system for less than ½ the price, and with as many configurations, too. But for those who marveled at the H1, and the Mojo, they will probably gladly pony up the money, knowing (well before I…) the reputation Chord had for such fine products (home and portable). To those users, they will not think twice. Unfortunately I did, and ended up with the system I more than happily use, without regret or recourse. I would, though take an H2 in a minute, should the finances be available. It is quite good, and well worth a look for those that like the quality sound it presents, and want an all-in-one package.



I want to thank RELIC & Barra for inclusion in this fine tour. I bring up the rear, which isn’t at all bad. I have had the pleasure of reading the thread, and the reviews the most as a result. Plus, my time has extended a bit (oopps!) as an upshot, too. I heartily thank Chord for the use of their excellent Hugo 2, and wholeheartedly recommend the H2. It does cost a pretty penny, but as stated above and here, if we cannot enjoy our music, we have lost part of our soul. The H2 is that top class Discotheque where you go in knowing you must be in a pretty exclusive place, but the patrons do not act that way. They welcome you, fill your single-malt and tell you to sit back and enjoy, like no night you have before. It was worth the dressing up, too.



Pros: World class DAC, in a transportable/portable footprint
Significant step up from a Mojo, and a worthy younger brother to the DAVE
Cost effective way to get the experience of driving high efficiency speakers directly from your Chord DAC
Future proof, with connectivity to integrate with the mScaler in the Blu2 and Davina for 1M taps
Cons: Case design impractical and annoying
Will make you want to buy a Chord DAVE
Disclaimer: The black Hugo2 unit described below was provided by Chord as part of a demo tour, in exchange for posting an honest review when I was done with the unit. The loaner unit has been returned to the tour organizers (thank you @Barra). No other consideration was given nor received.

UPDATE: I did not have my Blu2 in time for this review (I originally wanted to do a comprehensive review of the Chord Mojo to Hugo2 to DAVE to BluHugo2 to BluDAVE), but have since received it, and posted a second part to this review covering all things Blu. You can find it here: https://www.head-fi.org/showcase/chord-blu-mk-ii-digital-cd-transport.22848/reviews#review-19675

Background

After many years of life getting in the way of enjoying high fidelity music, a couple years ago I went through a process of upgrading my two channel system (documented here: http://thingssoimpossible.blogspot.com/2016/10/speaker-quest.html), then diving deep into headphones to be able to take that experience with me (documented here: https://www.head-fi.org/threads/adv...-head-first-into-the-head-fi-deep-end.824351/ )

After spending countless hours with delta sigma DACs of various levels (mostly with my Oppo HA-1) and R2R DACs (mainly Schiit DACs, all the way up to the Yggy), I saw a posting pointing to $400 Mojo’s on the German Amazon site (score!). In my initial research, it had come down to the Oppo HA-1 vs Mojo/Hugo, but I went with Oppo because the Chord DACs were so butt ugly (and didn’t have a remote, but the ugly part makes the story better). $400 was too good to pass up, so I jumped into the Chord world.

On first listen Mojo was awesome, but also disorientating for some reason. It took a couple weeks, but my brain adjusted to the Mojo to the point where it was very difficult to go back to my Oppo or my buddy's R2R DACs. I considered that my Red Pill moment, where I started to hear things in recorded music that I hadn’t heard before. Based on that promise, I ordered a Chord DAVE and preordered a Chord Blu2. Although my left brain was certain those would be good decisions, my right brain was nervous as hell until the DAVE arrived, and my left brain was proven right.

I’m now a convert to the Chord sound, and the intoxicating effect of what I call the Chord Magic: music feels real and physical, and the emotionality of the performance becomes tangible. How does the new Chord Hugo2 compare to its two siblings, and how best to capture and amplify that magic?


Philosophy

Unlike other audio components, I find it extremely difficult to audition DACs, and nearly impossible to do direct A/B comparisons across DAC signatures. For me, the DAC is a critical component in creating the synergy between source material to DAC to analog reproduction to your brain and how it bends and adapts to what it is hearing. It can take me weeks to really become part of the new system and understand what it evokes. If I focus on any particular detail with a particular DAC, unless the DAC is defective that detail will almost always be there in other DACs if you focus hard enough.

What matters for me is how the notes come together to something larger, a resonance that is greater than the sum of its parts. Once I hear that something special, I can look for words to describe it (transparency, clarity, etc), but I find it very difficult to listen for those things a priori. DACs are at that crucial pivot point between a recorded representation of the sounds, emotion, and artistry at a moment in time, and recreating those sounds, emotions, and artistry in a different time and place. In a very real sense, it becomes a proxy for the artist, and the new source of all those sounds, emotions, and artistry. When evaluating DACs, I need to let go of the left brain, and immerse myself in the sounds, emotion, and artistry as I would at a live performance.

As an imperfect analogy of that experience for me, mixing coal + chalk + water + iron filings in ever more precise proportions using ever more esoterically sourced materials won’t result in a child that you will cherish and adore and make the center of your life. Arguing about the purity of the water or where the coal was sourced from and the magnetic properties of the iron changes nothing. The real debate is how they come together, and how it comes alive and becomes meaningful for you.

The Mojo then DAVE have completely changed my experience of music. For the first time I've gone from “listening to music” to “participating in a performance”. Even with DAVE, different recordings evoke different levels of what I characterize as intoxication or euphoria from the performance. Classic recordings from the late 50s and early 60s in particular are remarkable with DAVE. They give a glimpse of transcending even “participating in a performance” to directly “experiencing an emotional truth” (what I think of as the art of the performance).

For me, this echos my experience of being delighted to happily listen to an amateur performance in a coffee shop or a subway that I wouldn’t in a million years listen to as recorded music (style or quality or content of music/performance); being in the presence of a real person expressing themselves through music is a magical thing. How close can you get to reproducing that emotional and artistic experience, and not just those noises?

Chord DACs are the best I’ve ever heard at crossing over from music to performance to even occasionally offering glimpses of emotional truths. I very much appreciate the opportunity to audition the Hugo2, and see where it sits on the spectrum between the Mojo and the DAVE. I was hoping to have my Chord Blu2 delivered in time for this review (to compare BluHugo2 vs BluDAVE), but that was not to be. When my Blu2 arrives, I will update this review with that comparison, with the sincere hope that it will take us even farther on that journey toward experiencing emotional truths.

As always, the chronicle of the journey is long. For those that want to jump to the end, I have a tl;dr section, and a story to sum it all up.


Hardware

Source setup:
  • Macbook Pro and Mac Mini, running latest OS X, content on local SSD, running Roon 1.3
  • Bit perfect either direct USB, or via direct ethernet to a Sonore Sonicoriber SE running Roon Bridge to USB, to the DAC

DAC setup

  • Chord Mojo ($600)
  • Chord Hugo2 (black tour loaner unit) ($2400)
  • Chord Hugo2 (silver) ($2400)
  • Chord DAVE ($13000)
  • MIA: Chord Blu2 ($13000) (hopefully coming soon)

Headphone setup

  • Sennheiser HD800 (with SR mod) ($800 used)

Traditional Two Channel Setup
  • RCA from DAC to Benchmark AHB2 amp ($3000) to B&W 802D3’s ($22000/pair)

Direct Two Channel Setup
  • RCA direct to Omega Super Alnico Monitors ($2000/pair)
  • For Chord DAVE, XLR direct (in parallel) to JL Audio F112v2 subwoofer ($3700), tuned to room and low end fall off of Omegas (~45Hz)
  • For Chord Hugo2, no connection to subwoofer

DAC settings
  • For headphones, crossfeed set to 2 for DAVE and Hugo2 (no crossfeed setting on Mojo), unless recording is binaural (0 crossfeed)
  • Neutral filter for Hugo2
  • PCM+ mode, HF filter on for DAVE
  • All DACs volume matched using a SPL meter
  • For A/B/C DAC comparisons, I put all the DACs in the same Roon zone for synchronized playback and switched headphone from DAC to DAC

Tag alongs for fun
  • Schiit Lyr 2 tube amp ($450) and Schiit Bifrost Multibit DAC ($600)
  • Martin-Logan Motion LX16 speakers ($500/pair)
  • Audio Zenith PMx2’s headphones (heavily modified Oppo PM-2’s) ($1800)
  • Noble Katana CIEMs ($1600)
  • MrSpeakers Aeon Flows headphones (closed) ($800)
  • Grado HP1000 (HP2) legendary old skool headphones ($priceless)


Content

My Go-To Chord DAC Demo tracks and what I look for in each:

Pink Noise (mono), from “The Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc” bu David Chesky (Chesky, 24/192 FLAC)
Yeah, its pink noise, but it tells you a lot about a set of headphones as you get oriented to system. For 2 channel, great way to see if your speakers are aligned and you’re in the right spot. Great baseline reference to make sure things aren’t wonky and you’re in a good place (and it is sort of fun to think about all this technology being using to play a 24/192kHz noise file :wink:

Murakkaz Ah Ya Muddasin, from “The Splendour of Al Andalus” by Calamus (MA Recordings, DSD64)
Remarkable recording in what sounds to be a majestic and spiritual centuries old cathedral in Spain. With the right equipment, you are transported to a place you’ve never been to but always want to get back to. When the full group joins in, it is profoundly challenging to reproduce the mids and highs without sounding shrill and congested. When the reproduction is effortless, it is magical (to say the least…my jaw drops every time when it’s “right”) If the sound chain is able to maintain that glorious soundstage, it is off the charts. Todd Garfinkle is a magician behind the microphone.

Noche Maravillosa, from “Salterio” by Begonia Olavide (MA Recordings, 16/44.1 FLAC)
Another gem of a recording and performance from Todd. The precision and clarity of the instruments (particularly the percussive ones) is intoxicating and tangible.

Voglia Di Vita Uscir, fremo “Buenos Airers Madrigal” by La Chimera (MA Recordings, 16/44.1 FLAC)
Todd also is a master at capturing performances in a more orchestral setting. These performances by La Chimera are a joy.

Mahler: Symphony #2 'Resurrection’, 1st movement conducted by Iván Fischer (Channel Classics, DSD64)
Mahler: Symphony #2 'Resurrection’, 5th movement conducted by Iván Fischer (Channel Classics, DSD64)

Near perfect performance with a perfect recording. The dynamics and power of this performance are vivid and real: the orchestra virtually screams with one voice during the climaxes. This recording beautifully captures the essence of horns and low strings, which are very difficult to reproduce. The closest I’ve heard to the experience of the dynamics of a live orchestral performance.

Rimsky-Korsakoff: Scheherazade, 1st movement conducted by Fritz Reiner (Analogue Productions Remaster, DSD64)
The most perfect recording of the most perfect performance I’ve ever heard. Listening to this recording on a transparent system is a life changing experience: you are standing with Maestro Reiner in Chicago as his orchestra reaches for a performance for the ages. A cultural treasure, and worthy of building a world class system around.

Organ Prelude, JS Bach Magnificat by Dunedin Consort (Linn, DSD64)
Motet, JS Bach Magnificat by Dunedin Consort (Linn, DSD64)

A breathtakingly lovely recording! The dynamics and harmonics of the organ can range from a muddy “eh” to “holy crap!” depending on the quality of the reproduction. Standing in the middle of choir is a lovely test of imaging and voice reproduction: the more precise the soundstage the more you can pick out individuals (including depth and height…remarkable).

Handel: Messiah - Chorus. O thou tallest good tidings by Dunedin Consort (Linn, DSD64)
Handel: Messiah - Hallelujah by Dunedin Consort (Linn, SACD)

A magnificent recording, reconstructing the original version of Handel’s Messiah, with a total of 12 singers. The normal complexity of the piece is captured in a way where you can hear each voice in the chorus, and how it comes together into a larger whole. An amazingly intimate performance when the reproduction chain can manage the complexity and dynamics and not have the soundstage become muddy and flat.

Arnesen: Magnificat - Fecit potentiam by TrondheimSolistene (2l, 24/192 FLAC)
This is such a lovely recording at any quality level, but goes from incredible to other worldly as the chain scales up. The orchestra, choir, and church should all have equal contribution to something far greater than the sum of its parts. When it all comes together, you can feel the three core elements feeding off each, creating a profound joy that is sweeps you into euphoria.

Stardust, from “Duets” by Rob Wasserman (16/44.1 lossless)
Every track on this album is a gem, but this one is particular is a fantastic test of sound stage and imaging. At its best, you hear each backing voice precisely in space, but still presenting as a harmonious whole. In real life, detail and precision spatial placement isn’t hard and clinical, why should it be in reproduction?

Oh, Lady Be Good, from Bassface Swing Trio Tribute To Cole Porter (DSD64)
Night and Day, from Bassface Swing Trio Tribute to Gershwin (DSD64)

These direct to disc Stockfisch recordings are extraordinary. Imaging and dynamics FTW. Recordings like these are why we obsess over the things we obsess about. I’m looking to get lost in the music, and the band appearing to be sitting right there. When tonal balance is just right, these performances just jump off the SACD.

Shamas-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja, from “Shahen-Shah” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (16/44.1 lossless)
The first track from what was my surprise 2012 album of the year (see http://thingssoimpossible.blogspot.com/2012/12/2012-albums-of-year.html for that backstory, with the surprise ending). A remarkable supremely spiritual performance by a remarkable man, captured in an “eh” recording. The question for me is what these DACs can do to elevate a middle of the road recording that is worthy of elevation.

Let Me Touch You For Awhile, from “Live” by Alison Krauss (DSD64)
I adore Alison Krauss. Having equipment that can reproduce the wonderful emotion and musicality of these amazing artists is why I spend so much time looking for the right speakers/cans/etc. Their Live album is special, and you can feel the humanity and emotion in this track.

Tenderly, from “While She Sleeps” by Art Lande (Blue Coast, 24/88.2 FLAC)
Cookie Marcenco has a gift for capturing piano, guitar, and voice as if you’re sitting in the room with the artist. If you’ve ever sat next to a wonderfully tuned piano with an extraordinary player, you know how magical that experience can be. The best pianos sing with resonances that envelop you. The best musicians know how to coax beauty and life out of the instrument. This recording from Art Lande captures that magic. The stronger the dynamics, soundstage, and precision of the system, the more lifelike this track becomes for me. I haven’t experienced this track topping out: the better the reproduction chain, the more lifelike it becomes.

One World, from “Session 1” by Sareena Overwater (Blue Coast, DSD64)
One World (Instrumental), from “Session 2” by Sareena Overwater (Blue Coast, DSD64)

Real magic from Cookie. These tracks are wired directly to deeply held memories for me, and the stronger the reproduction chain, the stronger the emotion that they evoke. There are better examples of piano performance and better examples of vocals, but the emotional truth and power of this performance is unmatched. More on this track at the end of this review.

99, from “Blue Coast Special Event 43” by Meghan Andrews (Blue Coast, 16/44.1 FLAC)
Cookie knows how to record guitar too, and Meghan Andrews knows how to bring a performance that is worth catching in a bottle.

Vous et Moi, from “Night and Day” by Willie Nelson (SurroundedBy Entertainment, 24/96 FLAC)
What if Willie Nelson was in a dispute with his label, got pissed off, and invited the best musicians he knew to the studio to record an instrumental album in full surround? Yeah, this actually happened, and it is as awesome as you think it is. The album is amazing in a musical surround setup, but a proper 2 channel system puts you right in the middle of the band. Incredible stuff.

Music in My Room, from “The Folkscene Collection, Vol. 3” by Cheryl Williams (Redhouse Records, 16/44.1 FLAC)
We’ve all had the experience of being in a coffee shop or small venue, when someone with a guitar and something that has to be shared commands the attention of everyone in the room, and you have a moment where the whole room is one. These CDs where engineer Peter Cutler captured intimate in studio performances at KPFK in Los Angeles are replete with those moments, but this performance by Cheryl Williams stands out for me. With a great reproduction chain, the guitar is real and present, and the voice and singer connect at a deep emotional level. A jewel of a moment, waiting for the right equipment to be a moment again.

All I Want, from “After Blue” by Tierney Sutton (BFM Jazz, 16/44.1 FLAC)
Tierney Sutton has a striking clear and present vocal style, and that is on full display on her “After Blue” album of Joni Mitchell standards. I continue to be amazed how ever better DACs extract ever more nuance and subtly of performance from top tier vocalists. It is a joy to hear the depth of craft and art of vocal performance on tracks like this.

Rosa fresca, from “Il viaggio d’amore” by Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen (Carpe Diem, 16/44.1 TIDAL Lossless)
“The journey of love” is a marvelous exploration of love through the ages, from multiple cultures and times. The whole album is a joyous wonder, but the opening track (“Fresh Rose”) of a traditional song from the 1500s is an invitation to join in joy and unbounded hope. The company of players is feeling it, and you do too. When you’re hearing every string pluck in the strums and the voices comes together into something much larger than the sum of its parts, you’ll be glad you accepted that invitation.

L’Amor, from “Bella Terra” by Arianno Savall (Alia Vox, 16/44.1 FLAC)
If “Rosa fresca” makes you fall in love with Arianna Savall singing about love, you’ll want to seek out her “Bella Terra” album. An accomplished harpist and vocalist, Savall is at her best when she brings both together: voice and instrument are one, and evoke marvelous sound and emotional resonances in each other.

Traveler, from “Little Crimes” by Melissa Menago (Chesky, Binaural 24/192 FLAC)
Airplane, from “Little Crimes” by Melissa Menago (Chesky, Binaural 24/192 FLAC)

A gem of a recording from Chesky: direct binaural recording, made in a church while it is raining outside. Like all Chesky binaural recordings, you are there sitting with the performers (Airplane), with special magic from the sound of the rain outside of the church (Traveler). Fantastic test of soundstage and spatial detail.

Hold On, from “Sessions from the 17th Ward” by Amber Rubarth (Chesky, Binaural 24/192 FLAC)
Don’t You, from “Sessions from the 17th Ward” by Amber Rubarth (Chesky, Binaural 24/192 FLAC)

More Chesky magic. No rain this time, but Amber’s rich voice + violin + guitar + percussion are amazing on any system, but the sense of being there scales beautifully as the reproduction chain improves (it is magical when your system crosses some threshold of transparency…all of a sudden you are there).

Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of, from “Open Your Ears” by The Persuasians (Chesky, Binaural 24/96 FLAC)
One last gem from Chesky. There is a profound difference to listening to a recording of a group of people sing, and being with a group of people that are singing. This is another recording that (at least for me), when you cross some magical threshold of transparency, the people become real.

Karamawari, from “Gamushara” by YAMATO the drummers (TIDAL MP3)
Drums are notoriously difficult to reproduce in the way you experience them in person. There is a physicality that is lost in most systems. Hearing a group of percussion masters really bring it on a system that can approximate that in person experience? Amazing.

Get Lucky, from “Random Access Memories” by Daft Punk (24/88.2 FLAC)
Another track that transcends pop when played back through equipment that really reproduces the full range and dynamics of the recording. The subtlety and layers on Nile Rodgers’ guitar work is incredible, and the recording is outstanding so you should be able hear it all. I listen for whether it is washed out, and how well I hear all the (considerable) nuances in his playing.

Take Five, from “Time Out” by Dave Brubeck (Analogue Productions SACD)
An excellent test of dynamics at the high end. As an aside, these Analogue Productions remasters are off the charts!

No Love Dying, from “Liquid Spirit” by Gregory Porter (24/192 flac)
Another lovely recording and performance, that on a balanced system hits a resonance that is next level for me (just sounds “right” and get the “wow!”) When things are not in balance or boomy/shrill, I hear it loud and clear.

Beethoven: Symphony #9, 4th movement by Suitner (OG Denon, 16/44.1 lossless)
This was the first CD I ever bought in 1984 (first CD ever made?) I know every second of this movement and every nuance. My current 2 channel setup was the first time I had ever heard the entire movement without a break (every other system I’d ever had/auditioned had some break at some challenging passage).

So What, from “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis (Japanese single layer SACD version)
One of the finest recordings and performances of the 20th century. Always the last track I play during any audition. Until there is a time machine to take me back to March 2 and April 22 1959, I will buy every new remaster of this album, and play it on every piece of high end audio kit I can find.

IMG_8342.jpg


Physical Impressions

Yeah, our listening session was a bit out of control (see photo above). From left to right, you have a lovely Scott Radke marionette, my JL Audio F112v2 sub, my beloved B&W 802d3 speakers, Omega Super Alnico Monitors (with some $100 speakers I forgot about sitting on top), Martin-Logan Motion LX16’s, a buddy's Silver Hugo2, a buddy's modest Schiit stack (Lyr2 amp + Bifrost multibit DAC), Black Hugo2 (tour loaner), and my Black Mojo. Heading down, you have my Chord DAVE (with Sonicorbiter SE hiding behind it) and my Benchmark AHB2 amp.

The Hugo2 is (physically) a mixed bag. It was much lighter than I expected (esp. after the Mojo) while still feeling very robust, but the sharp corners seem unnecessary. As a transportable, you’d definitely want a case to protect the unit and protect everything else in your bag. The weight of the Hugo2 was also surprisingly reasonable (esp. compared to that mini tank that is the Mojo). It could easily be an everyday carry device.

Having the silver and black Hugo2 side by side, both were very nice. Chord did a lovely job with the finish on the silver unit, exuding a refined sense of quality and depth. The black is consistent with what I have on my Mojo and DAVE, and my preference to keep everything in the family. I think most people would be delighted with either finish.

I was shocked at how horrifically bad the button/light design/scheme was for the unit. Any modern device where you have to study the instructions and fiddle with garish buttons and obscure color schemes to figure out what the hell is going on has taken designer affectation way too far. The only saving grace was that I had a clear favorite filter (so I could ignore that button), only used USB input (so I could ignore that one), and cross feed has such an obvious sonic impact that it is hard to screw up what setting you’re on. As frustrating as the button/light scheme is, the remote makes everything better. Keep it close and keep your sanity.


Listening Impressions: Headphones

Lets start with the most important question, and settle the debate that has been raging: Silver Hugo2 vs Black Hugo2?

After 40+ hours (maybe it was seconds) of critical listening, I can definitively state that they sound the same (sorry @doody :wink:

With headphones, the comparison between the Mojo, Hugo2, and DAVE is much more interesting. What does each 5x step in price at each level buy you?

I went through my full song list, switching back and forth between the three sibling DACs (see end for my detail notes/impressions). The differences were clear and consistent, regardless of track/genre/etc.

Mojo was very satisfying, and created a better listening experience than almost any other non-Chord DAC I’ve heard, but it only hints at the sense of euphoria and emotional engagement I get from the Chord DAVE and Hugo2. I consider it the best value DAC available anywhere, even up to 5x its price, but the danger is you hear that “something more” and your brain gets that rush of being in front of real musicians, and all sense of fiscal control goes out the window (guilty as charged).

With the Hugo2, those hints of clarity/reality become sustained. Spatial resolution goes WAY up, and individual instruments and people become much more resolved and distinct. Phrasing (vocal and instrumental) becomes vivid, and the musicality and emotion of the performance goes next level. An incredibly emotionally satisfying sense of presence at the performance, and a window into the artistry of the musicians.

With the DAVE, what the Hugo2 does so well goes off the charts. For me, this is the musical crack, tapping right into the emotional centers of my brain. Whereas with the Hugo2 I can hear individuals and their performances really for the first time, with the DAVE I get a vivid sense of how they are feeding off each other and the space they are performing in. Mesmerizing and enthralling, and emotionally vivid. This is an experience I never thought was possible with reproduced music, and like any good junkie, I want more MORE MORE. I can’t wait to hear what the Blu2 will bring to the party.

Some quick summarized impressions from headphone listening:
  • Mojo is better with crossfade, even if no longer bit perfect (bite the bullet and set up the filter in your playback software)
  • Musical congestion (large scale orchestral pieces, etc) really challenges resolution on the Hugo2, but is revelatory when a DAC like the DAVE can keep up (so much power in groups of people expressing music together)
  • As you go up the stack, there is a big difference for nuances in vocals, strings, drums, etc. The artistry really becomes palpable
  • Resonances and ambient reflections make a big difference for reality and balance. Space and mix get so much more natural as you move up the stack
  • The nuance of vocals and performance in a group setting is startling when you are able to start hearing it. I've changed my music listening mix to include far more choral and orchestral pieces than I ever listened to before (from <1% to maybe 40% now)
On my non-scientific impression scale of 1-10, calibrated so the Mojo was at the low end and DAVE at the high end so it is easier to see where the Hugo2 lands in between, the Mojo came in around a 2, the Hugo2 a 4, and the DAVE around an 8. Interestingly, this is close to the ratio of additional bits of temporal resolution as you go up the Chord stack (+1 bit from Mojo to Hugo2, +1 1/2 bits from Hugo2 to DAVE)

On this scale, almost any other DAC I’ve heard wouldn’t even get above 0. Rob’s DACs are in a league of their own. Within the Chord stack, the differences are not subtle, the experience fundamentally different and better, crossing some sort of phase transition from listening to music to being part of a performance. Great stuff, and I can’t wait to hear what the next +2 1/2 bits that the Blu2 gives us.


Listening Impressions: Traditional Two Channel

My perception of what I think of as the Chord Magic is more subtle in my traditional two channel setup. Like most things I’ve experienced with these kinds of high end system, you can move the needle in obvious ways, but very difficult to get transformational changes.

As I went from Mojo to Hugo2 to DAVE, there was progressively more richness and reality, and I know enough of what the rush from that Magic felt like that I’m able to find it easier and easier as you go up the ladder. However, you do need to listen for it, rather that it overwhelming you like the headphone experience.

That being said, this was with the Benchmark amp, which is a particularly fast/low distortion/low noise amp (to say the least). With the Schiit Lyr2 tube amp, the Chord magic was basically gone.

I’m fairly certain that a fundamental transformation of the traditional two channel listening experience will need to wait until Rob’s digital amp becomes available. I’m very eager to hear what my B&Ws can do once the digital amp becomes available.


Listening Impressions: Direct Two Channel

Based on Roy’s (@romaz) recommendation, I’ve long been intrigued about connecting the DAVE direct to a high efficiency single driver speaker like the Omega Super Alnico Monitors. If you can eliminate the power amp and the cross overs and the imbalance between different speaker drivers, could this be close to the ultimate two channel experience?

For this eval, I ordered a set of Omega Super Alnico Monitors (thank you Louis!) so we could try them in a traditional 2 channel setup (DAC to amp to speaker) and direct from the DAVE and Hugo2. During our listening tests, we also discovered the marvel that is near field listening with these single driver speakers. For kicks, we also did listening tests with the Martin Logans (high efficiency multi driver speakers with what should be a fast a ribbon tweeter)

Starting with the Martin Logans, the traditional two channel experience was OK for what you would expect for a modest bookshelf speaker (nothing special here). The Hugo2 (~1W) wasn’t beefy enough to drive them direct, but the DAVE (~2W) was. In far field, imaging was very limited and at best OK. I had zero sense of depth, and very limited spatial resolutions (maybe 4 distinguishable zones, and virtually no height). Dynamics were muffled, with no pop or attack. In general, playback was smeared, with limited detail. Piano sounded like a recorded piano, not a real piano. I’d give it maybe 1/10 (for the price) even driven directly from the DAVE. Not an auspicious start to our experiment.

Near field with the Martin Logans direct from the DAVE was a much better experience. Imaging may have improved to maybe 8 zones, but still no depth. For complex orchestral pieces, the soundstage collapse to seem like it was coming from two speakers. The speakers also lost musicality at low volumes. Maybe 4/10 (for the price). Better, but at best incremental and not transformative.

Net net: the Martin Logans are OK mid to low end bookshelf speakers, and except for brief flashes can’t keep up with the Chord kit, and can’t recreate that Chord Magic. Big miss.

On to the Omegas. With single drivers (no cross over, no concerns about matching the tweeter with the mid/bass driver, etc), and fast and responsive Alnico magnets with a low mass cone, we should get near perfect phase alignment between the channels. So how do the Omegas do? The Omegas were a completely different experience, and one of the finest experiences of music reproduction I’ve ever experienced and enjoyed.

Driving the Omega’s in traditional two channel setup (DAVE to amp to speaker) was incredible: vivid imaging, ultra fast and effortless highs, with amazing spatial resolution. Good resolution for height and depth, and a real physicality for things like horns and strings. The bass extension was surprisingly rich and deep, and highly musical. You can get away without a sub, but the right sub (fast enough to keep up with the Omegas and low distortion) adds that something extra that takes it over the top. Piano now sounds like a real piano, and you can close your eyes and see where people are standing in the choir. Let’s call it 7/10 (for the price, even though the Omegas are 4x the price of the Martin Logans)

Listening to the Omegas near field in a traditional two channel set up was next level again: depth and height imaging became fantastic, with a much more spatially balanced soundstage (esp. for more complex orchestral pieces). The musicality was preserved whether at loud volumes or extremely low volumes (amazing). Left right resolution is excellent, up down OK, and depth resolution very coarse (but it is there). Piano even more real, and voices the same. Call it 9/10 for price. An incredible two channel experience, well beyond anything I had ever experienced before getting the Chord DACs.

With all that, the real revelatory experience was going direct from the DAVE to the Omegas. In far field, soundstage becomes massive (all dimensions) and precise. Scheherazade is everything you dream it to be…you can almost hear individual instruments (almost), violin is angelic and soaring, and you can look in an arc around the orchestra like you’re standing in the conductors spot. Choral recordings cross into real territory, where you don’t have to use your imagination to imagine what the setting was like. Strings much more precise and real, and Stardust is a wonder…the vibrations on the bass are distinct and blend with the voice marvelously (interestingly, the precision of the bass vibrations makes the bass sound like it goes deeper). Much better depth resolution, and height resolution, and piano takes me back to sitting next to a real piano as my daughter is playing it. Cheryl Wheeler on guitar is that coffee shop experience (the humming of the guitar strings is what it sounds like on my guitar). 100/10 for the price…absolutely incredible and an experience that you must seek out.

As incredible as DAVE direct to Omegas is, listening to them in near field takes it to a completely different level: INSANE imaging, depth, height, evenness of soundstage…it is a real world stage. Everything that was awesome in far field made more incredible by the depth and vividness of the soundstage. The low volume musicality is off the charts….you can hear everything and lose no musicality by losing volume. 200/10 for the price. I am restructuring my living room so I can have this experience going forward.

Omega’s driven directly by the DAVE is (without hyperbole) among the finest music listening experience (reproduced or live) I’ve ever experienced. If this is any indication of what we can expect with Rob’s digital amp is available, I am grateful to still have the hearing to be able to appreciate something this amazing.

So what about the Hugo2? Can that tiny little box with <1W output touch that magical experience of driving Omegas directly from the desktop DAVE with its <2W of output? Incredibly, the answer is a definitive yes (with some notable asterisks).

First of all, it is otherworldly to hook up a Hugo2 direct to speakers and hear that kind of volume and music from a tiny portable. It seems like magic and an impossible thing emanating from that tiny box, but you can drive extremely satisfying music levels direct from the Hugo2. The experience is very reminiscent of the DAVE direct experience, but a similar step down as what I heard from the DAVE to Hugo2 with headphones. In this case, going from 100/10 to 50/10 far field, and 200/10 to 100/10 near field is a wonderful first world problem to have to deal with. In the right circumstances, Hugo2 driving the Omega Super Alnico Monitors is dollar for dollar the best musical experience I’ve ever had.

So what are the asterisks and right circumstances and all the caveats clouding the last paragraphs? For less complex pieces, like vocal, small jazz ensembles, etc, this is an ideal pairing. Make sure to be careful to adjust volumes for different albums that are mastered to different levels, since it is easy to over push the Hugo2 and start get some harshness (esp. in far field…in near field with comfortable listening levels, I never had to worry about it). With more complex pieces (orchestral pieces or pieces with driving bass or trashing hard rock), you lose the magic quickly: things just collapse back to “normal” (a very nice normal, but the magic is gone). The poor Hugo2 has limits on the complexity and dynamics it can drive on the Omegas vs what the DAVE can do.

If this is the path you’re going, I would drive direct Hugo2 to Omegas as much as possible, even if it means changing what you listen to. For pieces that overwhelm the Hugo2, get a nice baby amp like the Temple Audio Bantam Gold and swap it in when you want to rock the house, or spin up a large scale orchestral piece. Yeah, swapping wiring is a pain, but you’ll be very very happy. If you can swing the extra expense for DAVE, you’ll be happier still, esp. how amazing large scale orchestral pieces are with the DAVE direct to the Omegas.

For those use to full range two channel setups like mine, what does this mean for you? If you have a highly musical sub (like my JL Audio) that is fast enough to keep up with the Chord kit, low distortion, etc., you’re left with a very very hard choice. The combo of DAVE direct to the Omegas and JL Audio (via DAVE XLR outputs) is breathtaking. Do I really need full range $20k speakers and all the goodies/baggage that come with them?

(Note: I did not try to drive the Omegas and sub directly from the Hugo2, so I can’t speak to whether that impacts how far you can push the Hugo2)

For now, I’m structuring my living room to have a “Direct Chord/Omega” zone, and a separate traditional two channel zone (B&Ws, Benchmark, etc), and waiting to hear how Rob’s work with his digital amp progresses. If Rob can even approximate what I’m hearing from the Omegas direct through the B&Ws, that will be an amazing experience. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

If/when I again have a private office at work, the headphones will get put away and I’ll have some Omegas on my desk in a near field configurations, being driven by a Hugo2. Until then, I’ll be using my close Aeons, driven by my Mojo (pending an upgrade to a Hugo2 once I sort out what the BluHugo2 brings to the party).


Listening Impressions: Scaling headphones with Chord DACs

I did the bulk of my critical headphone listening tests with my Sennheiser HD-800’s (with the SR mod), which I know well and scale nicely with my DAVE. But what about other headphones? How do they scale with the Chord Magic as you go from the Mojo to the Hugo2 to the DAVE?

For this test, I did a matrix comparing AudioQuest Nighthawks to MrSpeaker Aeon Flows (closed) to AudioZenith PMx2’s (modified Oppo PM-2’s) to Sennheister HD-800’s (with SR mod) to Noble Katana custom in ear monitors to a vintage set of Grado HP1000's. I did not evaluate which headphones are best from the usual criteria of tonality, distortion, etc (that is highly subjective, with different tonal signatures appealing to different people). Rather, I listened very closely for that unique Chord Magic of resolution and speed and musicality and physicality. Which cans were able to express the extra Chord awesome sauce as you go up the Chord stack?

To my ear, the Sennheisers were the best (consistent with my experience with my DAVE) with a surprising close second place going to the Aeon Flows. Katanas came in a bit behind, then the Grados, Nighthawks and PM-x2’s. Since Rob uses the Nighthawks in his development of these DACs, that was a surprise to me.

For the Mojo and Hugo2, there were differences, but all the cans were very close. It wasn’t until you got to the DAVE where the differences were more pronounced. I suspect that the Blu2 will do more to help find out where these cans top out.

Based on this test, I am motivated to sample some of the other TOTL cans. If there is anybody in the San Diego area with Hifiman HE-1000 v2’s or other cans that are well matched to Chord kit, drop me a note and we can try to set up a listening session.


tl;dr
  • Source material matters. Try to get as close to expertly mic’ed and minimal mixing as you can, and avoid compression like the plague. High res content is a bonus, but the Hugo2 elevated traditional redbook to high res levels (including lossless TIDAL streaming). Since getting my Chord DAVE, I don’t purchase high res music anymore, and the same applies to the Hugo2.
  • Hugo2 is surprisingly light, but really needs a case to avoid cutting up things. Definitely transportable, and portable for the committed.
  • Hugo2 delivers more of the Chord magic than the Mojo (at 5x the price), but not in the same league as the DAVE (at 5x cheaper). The differences are not subtle, but you’re going from very good to great to world class awesome.
  • Going direct from the Hugo2 or DAVE to high efficiency single driver speakers like the Omega Super Alnico Monitors is a revelation, and everyone owes it to themselves to find a way to hear these things…wow!
  • There is not quite enough oomph in the Hugo2 amp to direct drive the Omegas for complex music (how amazing would that have been?), but a remarkable experience at modest volume levels and more intimate music. One of the best dollar for dollar musical experiences I’ve ever had.
  • It takes surprisingly little of the suboptimal or wrong stuff (Martin Logan speaker, Schiit Lyr2 amp, etc) between the Chord kit and your ears to completely kill the magic. It takes very little for things to collapse back to normal (a very nice version of normal, but no longer transcendent). Minimize everything you can between the output of the Chord DAC and your ears. The more you can eliminate and more you can simplify or lighten, the more the Chord magic can shine through.
  • In theory BluHugo2 and BluDAVE should be very close in audio quality, but I can’t test that theory yet. If that theory works out, a reasonable play would be to put the money you would put into a DAVE into a Blu2 to go with a Hugo2. Stay tuned.
  • For those that have already taken the red pill, the Hugo2 a VERY worthy upgrade to your Mojo, and a great approximation of the DAVE at the office and when out and about. For those that haven’t taken the red pill yet, grab a Mojo if you’re nervous if the hype is real. If you like the hints of what you’re hearing, you’ll love the Hugo2.
  • Headphone experience can't touch the experience of DAVE and Hugo2 direct to Omegas (not even in the same zip code, with even Sennheisers….TBD if other headphones can close that gap, but these are the best Chord Magic headphones I have right now)
  • Winner scenario for sane people is Hugo2 direct to Omegas in near field, with a reasonable amp like the Bantam Gold as a stop gap when listening to more complex/dynamic music. Add a fast musical sub like JL Audio F110 to fill out the bottom and be in awe of what you’re hearing. Down the road, dive into Blu2 and Rob’s digital amp once that dust settles and cost gets better.


A closing story

I’ve shared this story publicly and privately to Rob and Cookie before, but I wanted to share it here to give a sense of why I care about this stuff and what it means for me.

Earlier I mentioned how Sareena Overwater’s “One World” (Blue Coast Records) is wired directly to startingly deep emotions for me. When I listen to it, I’m taken back more than a decade. My older daughter is in college now, but when she was younger she was a very serious pianist. As she began to blossom as a musician (around age 8), we needed to upgrade from our ratty console piano to something more appropriate.

After 6 months or so of looking, I found a used 1924 Steinway in Rhode Island that looked perfect. The woman who owned it had received it new as a gift from her parents when she was around age 8, but no longer had room for it as she moved into the final phases of her life. A miraculous instrument, maintained and played with love. My daughter was and is the second owner, and I am hopeful she too will be able to enjoy it for many decades to come, and pass it to some deserving musician when it is her time to do so.

I spent countless hours lost in the sound of my daughter playing that piano, and know the sound and feeling of that vintage Steinway in my DNA. Cookie Marcenco also has a vintage Steinway in her studio at Blue Coast Records, and she is the most gifted person I’ve ever heard at recording piano. With the Chord DACs, I listen to recordings of Cookie's vintage Steinway, and with some of her musicians I have the visceral experience of going into a time machine and hearing my daughter play piano all over again. It is like catching a smell or hearing something that instantly transports you back to your mothers kitchen: the emotional connection is intense and overwhelming, and the closest I can be to experiencing my daughter's music now that she's at college. The feeling and emotion of my daughter playing her piano is made real in Cookie’s recordings.

My daughters piano is in long term storage, waiting for the day she has her own place and is able to enjoy making music with it again. While I can’t wait to hear her play again, I am grateful to be able to enjoy the echoes and evocations from Cookie’s studio, via Rob’s DACs.

When I first listened to this song (which I knew well and loved as a song) with my Mojo, I felt glimpses of reality in this song and felt the emotional presence of my daughter. It persuaded me to order a DAVE sight unseen, reaching out for that completely unexpected hint that I had felt in the music. Listening to this song with my DAVE, I am overwhelmed with emotion and end up weeping every single time. With Hugo2, while not as intense as with the DAVE, the emotion and sense of connection is very real, and I am swept away in memories and a sense of overwhelming love and pride for my daughter.

Can I put a finger on what combination of timing and taps and noise floor modulation and voodoo and whatever else can take a piece of well known recorded music and turns it into an emotional time machine that brings me to my knees every damn time? I can't, but I am enormously grateful to feel the presence of my daughter and her piano again. An unexpected and precious gift that was hidden in the music all along, without me knowing it was there. Thank you Sareena, Rob, and Cookie for helping me find that emotional connection all over again.



APPENDIX: Detailed Ratings and Notes

Note: these ratings are calibrated so that Mojo is on the low end and DAVE on the high end, so it is easier to see where the Hugo2 falls in between them.

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Andrew DiMarcangelo
Andrew DiMarcangelo
Wow, this review is incredible. Standing ovation.
apmusson
apmusson
Amazing review. Love the comparison and your description of the differences. Also I've added a number of your test tracks to my library.

Comments

Audeze lcd 4 sound exceptional when driven via hugo 2 linelevel output into my speaker amp the VAC 70/70, which has 65 watt power & 8- 300b put tubes.The headphones are connected via the speaker post on the amp.The sound from my speakers is exceptional as well.

I think the hugo 2 is a bargain!
 
If you are thinking you can probably get 99% of the Hugo 2 for half the price elsewhere, then I guess it depends if you want to miss out on the 1% of fairy dust that brings the sparkle and magic we are all looking for.

I have been stunned by how magical mine sounds since upgrading :)
 
My Hugo 2 with GSX Mini amp and LCD4z with Norne Silvergarde cable still sound simply amazing. Someday maybe I can get a DAVE but until then, I don't feel I am missing a darn thing with this setup. For me, this could be end-game for all intents and purposes.
 
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