I received a Chord Hugo on 2/25 and quickly connected it to my reference system. Even cold out of the box, it had a wonderful sound. I let it play for about an hour and then sat down and started listening.
I was blown away at how good the DAC section sounded. I have a well broken in Qute HD and Qute EX and only like the Qute DACs with the following chain:
iFi Mercury Cable > iFi iUSB power supply > iFi Gemini Cable > Audiophilleo AP2 > Chord Qute HD or EX
I don’t like the sound of the Qute DACs using only USB. Even though timing is good, the sound is too thin. The Audiophilleo AP2 with their PurePower doesn’t sound as good as the lower cost iFi iUSB. The AP2 and iUSB is the perfect match. Detail is really good and the sound has plenty of body (just right).
So with the new Hugo, I connected first my iUSB/AP2 converter and was totally blown away by how much more beautiful the music was compared to any DAC I’ve heard before. The only DAC I’ve heard (I was considering becoming a dealer for this one) that sounds similar is the MSB Analog DAC with their expensive Universal Media Transport. This is a $6,000 plus $7,000 proposition. For the Hugo to run in the same league as a $13,000 DAC system is pretty incredible.
I then connected a really good USB cable between my new MacPro directly to the Hugo and for the first time, really enjoyed the USB input of a Chord DAC. It was really good. Timing was slightly better than with the AP2 but, I still enjoyed the sound of the AP2 and SPIDF connection better. I’m a former professional piano player and know what live music sounds like up close. The converter and SPIDF was more true to what I am familiar with even though the USB only connection was really good and acceptable.
I have some Audeze headphones coming in about two weeks and only had a Sennheiser HD600 to connect. The HD600 when connected to the Hugo and with a USB only cable connected to my MacPro I found the sound really nice. What stood out, however, was the extreme quality of the DAC section. The headphone amp is really really good but a higher power desktop headphone amp sounds better. Yet, for portable use, the Hugo is probably the best sounding portable headphone amp/dac available.
I communicated with Dan-Alexandru, the owner of headmania and he confirmed my assumptions of best match for the Hugo. He was able to listen to the Hugo with the Audeze LCD-X headphones (as well as other top-of-the-line headphones such as the HD800 and others). The LCD-X has a 22 ohm impedance and is 96db efficient. At these specs, the Hugo probably puts out close to ¾ watts which is enough power to sound really good. Dan also confirmed as I found that the DAC section is stellar and the only limitation for the Hugo (in headphone mode) is the amount of power and not the quality of the headphone amp. With the right headphones (i.e. LCD-X) the Hugo is probably the best (by far) portable headphone amp made today.
The first batch of Hugos I received had none of the modifications made that we’ve read about by early reviewers of the prototype units. The RCA jack holes and the SPIDF jack holes were not enlarged and I couldn’t even plug in cheap interconnect cables with Neutrik plugs. What were the engineers at Chord thinking? Or maybe I should have said they weren’t thinking at all.
What’s interesting is that I own a pair of AG2 MG Audio Design solid silver interconnects (for my reference system) and they have locking barrel connectors that definitely won’t fit when left on. However, when I unscrewed and removed the barrels and plugged the RCAs in raw, they fit. The outer portion of the plugs, however, did touch the aluminum chassis but I was able to get a really great pair of interconnects connected to listen to the Hugo properly. In addition, I have a Grover Huffman SPIDF cable and peeled back the heatshrink and was able to get that to fit in the SPIDF jack. However, I don’t how many audiophiles with good or even poor cables will be able to use the Hugo as is. That was a big disappointment.
In addition, the on/off switch and two tiny tiny buttons needed to use this DAC were all so small that I couldn’t use them with my fingers. I either had to use a fingernail or a wooden toothpick to go through the paces. The engineers need to re-program how this DAC operates so the way you have it set up is the way it remains after you shut it off and turn it back on later. If you are using the Hugo as DAC for your home system and are not connecting it for headphone use, here is what you need to go through:
To set the Hugo to bypass the internal digital volume control, you need to stick your finder in the 2nd of two small buttons (1/8” or smaller set into a recessed cup) and push in and hold it in. Then you need to slide the on/off switch if you can even see it with your fingernail or toothpick and hold the little button until the DAC powers up. You can then let it go. Then you need to put your finger in the other little button to toggle to either the HD USB input or the SPIDF connection (my favorite). In the beginning, I hated this. After playing with the Hugo for a while, I decided to turn it off. I really missed how quietly and without any attention my Qute HD would just play music. I missed that.
I was about ready to basket the Hugo and just live with my new QuteEX and burn it in. However, what I initially heard with the Hugo was so vivid and breathtaking, I let an hour go by and plugged it in again and went through the gyrations to get it to connect to my reference system. This time, with maybe an hours burn time on it, it just plain sang and sang and I almost couldn’t turn it off since it sounded so good. The sound quality was just too intense and I was hearing details I’ve never heard before. I was totally ruined and just couldn’t go back to listening to either my Qute HD or EX. I was hooked.
Ok. Here’s my last gripe. It took me about 15 tries to get the Hugo into digital volume control bypass mode. I have no idea what I might have done wrong but I do know the tiny switch and buttons my fingers could barely touch didn’t help any. What I did figure out, however, was something important to share.
I’ve been building an LDR based volume control that is the best I’ve ever heard. I’ve even gone to the extent of using the best solid silver wire I could find and then I run my final signals through solid gold and solid platinum wire. Yes, I’m a very anal builder that won’t settle for anything other than the best and I beat solutions into the ground until I find out what’s really there. If it’s there, I’ll keep going until scarred, bruised, and broke, I finally make a breakthrough, or I end up with a useless pile. It’s always one or the other.
During the many many times I tried abd couldn’t get the Hugo into volume bypass mode, I had both my LDR passive pre working along with the qute marble style volume button on the Hugo top surface. I was able to turn the digital volume up and down and also turn my LDR volume up and down together. What I discovered is that if I placed the Hugo digital volume at about ¾ full volume (where it turns purple), my LDR sounded the best and I gained an even larger ranges of use from my LDR volume knob. There really is no need to bypass the digital volume in the Hugo so this eliminates the gymnastics that I found really didn’t work well when first turning on the Hugo. The bit rate of the Hugo’s digital volume is high enough that there aren’t any lost bits if you stay above 50% volume. ¾ was the best for me.
So now, all that you need to do is turn on the on/off switch. Let the Hugo power up and change colors all over the place. Then when powered up, you stick a toothpick in the left most of the two tiny button recessed holes and press it three times to get it in SPIDF mode. That’s it until you shut it off and have to go through this process again.
Even with these design flaws, I still have to have a Chord Hugo in my home speaker based reference system. I can’t go back to my QuteEX. The DAC section is so good that I can live with it warts and all. I also realize that I should have a 2nd Hugo for portable use and use that system plus an iPhone to stream Spotify and wander around with it. The Bluetooth connection is excellent and the flexibility of the Hugo amazes me.
So here is my bottom line. Chord knows how to make a stellar DAC that is better than most anything many times its cost. However, Chord is not good at understanding how music is played and how audiophiles actually use and purchase equipment and what they end up purchasing over time. I know from experience that cables make a difference. So why would a savvy marketing company avoid being able to connect RCA interconnects (good, stellar, or bad)? That’s not an oversight, but rather, in my opinion, that’s plain stupid. There, I said it but what I just shared is very true.
So here is what I feel Chord needs to do to modify the Hugo to satisfy the audiophile market. These items are not mind blowing and not something that should be thought about. They are just too straightforward and common sense to avoid:
1. Enlarge the two holes for the left and right RCA jack interconnect plugs so the DAC section can be used in a normal and typical home audio system.
2. Enlarge the one hole for the SPIDF RCA jack so likewise, an audiophile grade or even cheap interconnect can plug in to it.
3. Re-program the Hugo so even if we have to go through gymnastics to get it connected to a home system, allow us to turn it off and for it remember the state that we put it in so we don’t have to touch the darn thing and poke it with toothpicks like some kind of weird gymnast.
4. Make the on/off switch useable with fingers, and not the fingers of some tiny person, but grown guys. Come on. You know that most audiophiles are men and we’ve got reasonable sized fingers and expecting us to first hunt (where my reading glasses) and then be able to actually move that darn recessed tiny switch? Oh well, I tried to express myself and hope others communicated loudly these problems.
FIX 1-4 BEFORE SHIPPING ANOTHER BATCH OF CHORD HUGOS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Don’t piss off a group of audiophiles who will love your Hugo and at the same time hate it. Make these changes and you’ll end up with a group of supporters that will follow you to the edge of the Earth and over.
5. Consider making a HUGO2 for home audio system - DAC only use. The sound is so absolutely breathtaking that this would be a home run and there would be no need to make the Qute HD or Qute EX anymore.
That’s it for now. I only had the Hugo for a day and have already sold it. I have more coming within the next month so eventually I’ll be able to keep one for myself and burn it in and do a more serious review around the sound quality. I plan on doing that but I feel that what I’ve already shared will help many others wondering whether they should consider purchasing a Hugo. The answer is (as you will find out from other posts and mini reviews – ABSOLUTELY YES!) The problem is, that this will be one of the most sought after DACs (with or without warts) that supply will not be able to keep up for many months.
Have fun and enjoy your audio journey. I sure am. Feel free to contact me if you would like more info than what I just shared.