Back in 2014, U.K.-based Chord Electronics caught the personal audio industry a bit off-guard with the original Hugo. It was a somewhat novel approach to a portable DAC/Headphone Amp design, with its quirky, space-age metallic chassis and its color-coded glowing innards and volume dial.
But it was what was inside that made it even more novel, as Chord bucked the traditional off-the-shelf delta-sigma chips and resistor ladders in favor of building their own pulse array DAC technology on custom-coded FPGA (field-programmable gate array) chips. Don't worry, there won't be a quiz later, just know that it was pretty far off the beaten path. While Hugo wasn't Chord's first FPGA-based DAC, it was the first time they were able to make the technology portable, and it had an immediate and significant impact on the personal audio scene.
Sonically, the original Hugo was loved by many and despised by some, but since then, Chord has been constantly evolving their custom pulse array technology into newer projects, and with each successive product it has become harder to argue with the results. The pint-sized Chord Mojo was met with near-universal acclaim, while their latest flagship DAC, DAVE, is recognized by many to be the current benchmark for digital-to-analog conversion.
Enter the new Chord Hugo 2 ($2195). Taking the lessons learned from those subsequent products, Chord has re-imagined the Hugo into a more versatile and vastly sonically superior device compared to the original. While some people still don't expect much from a DAC that isn't the size of a refrigerator, I found the hand-sized Hugo 2 packed more than enough moxie to mop the floor with DACs many times its size. So what makes it so special? Let's find out.
Would You Like Some More Detail?
Tiny micro-details from the recording come forward very easily – from the instrumentalists breathing in the background to the subtle shifting of a shirt on a cello – Hugo 2 not only unveils information you didn't know was in the recording, but renders this low level detail with such definition that the little sounds are totally identifiable, without actually pushing them up in level. The ambient detail of the room is also very strong. While most DACs portray this in a somewhat vague sense, the Hugo2 makes the acoustic spaces used within the recording readily identifiable, especially if you have any first-hand recording experience. It is very easy to close your eyes and see the performance in very vivid detail.
Instrument separation here is also absolutely elite. Instruments have a squeaky clean edge to them. I feel that the bass really benefits the most here, as I was able to follow along with complex bass lines in busy passages with astonishing ease. Drums definitely benefit as well. Both of these instruments really tend to collapse under the weight of a sub-par DAC, and while there are several DACs out there that can help breathe life back into them, it is truly rare for them to be presented as clearly and naturally as they are on the Hugo 2.
Like all the other Chord products I've heard, the imaging is absolutely pinpoint. This is even further accentuated by the aforementioned clean edges of each instrument. There is a nice sense of blackness around the instruments, which makes their already strong sense of localization seem even stronger. And all these instruments live within a soundscape is very natural in size and shape, even if it doesn't quite exhibit the astonishing degree of depth and layering of its big brother, the DAVE. Relative to similarly priced options I've heard, this is a product that really excels on all the technical fronts.
Analog, Made To Order
The white filter (256fts) is considered neutral, green provides a little bit of high frequency roll-off, orange (16fts) is a bit warmer, and finally red is warmer with a bit of high frequency roll-off. With all of the filters, performance is quite excellent, and I think this added bit of subtle customizability is a welcome addition that will allow the Hugo 2 to fit a wider range of tastes and matching equipment.
There is also a crossfeed option that offers three settings once engaged. And it's actually very, very good! Paired with the HD800, I found these settings sacrificed a little bit of soundscape width for a deeper, more three-dimensional stage, and if nothing else, they were fun to play with. I found instrument separation generally improved with the crossfeed off, but some pieces sounded much more cohesive with it engaged, particularly older recordings that employ hard panning from side to side.
In terms of the actual sonic performance, I found the various settings had little to no negative impact on the sound in any way. Across the board, bass frequencies were quick, clear and incisive, with increasing amounts of punch and rumble with each of the progressively warmer filters. There are certainly some DACs out there that punch harder on the low end, but few approach the crystalline clarity of the low end on the Hugo 2. It is definitely not anemic in that area, just a couple of degrees behind the truly hard hitters.
The midrange is presented with reference-style neutrality – it is not warm, syrupy, wet, dry, thin, or harsh – it just is what it is on the recording. For those of you who want to softly sob to your favorite vocal melodies, this might not be your first choice... you're probably better off with a gooey R2R DAC to get to that extra dose of lushness. For those who want a very faithful reproduction of the recording, you will likely be well-pleased with the Hugo 2's dutiful approach.
Likewise, the treble reproduction is quite faithfully done, unless it is being modified by one of the high-frequency roll-off filters. Even still, both high-frequency roll-off filters (green and red) are quite tastefully done and didn't come across as significantly colored, just a little softer up top. The treble, thankfully, is more forgiving than it was on the original Hugo and exceptionally accurate overall, to my ears. I didn't find sibilance that wasn't already in the recording here. High frequency sounds from cymbals didn't exhibit any oddities in attack or decay. Transients were crisp and incisive, contributing greatly to the sense of realism in the music. Overall, a very impressive performance.
To Amp Or Not To Amp
With the Abyss AB-1266, the Hugo 2 sounded full and impactful, but a got a bit distorted as I climbed up to louder volumes. Of course, this is one of the two or three hardest to drive headphones on the planet, so don't let that discourage you from pairing the Hugo 2 with other orthos.
With hard-to-drive dynamics like the 300 Ohm Sennheiser HD800, the Hugo 2 performed with flying colors. I found that, depending on the headphone and amplifier, there may be some subjective preference for the coloration provided by the amplifier. I found myself frequently preferring the more musical, liquid mids of my Wells Milo headphone amplifier ($1799, as reviewed) or the tubey, spacious goodness of the Rogue Audio RH-5 ($2,495, review forthcoming) to the dutiful precision of the Hugo 2, at times, but it was headphone dependent, not a blowout by any means and completely subjective.
What's more, it was abundantly clear that the Hugo 2 was not holding either amplifier back. The Hugo 2 has a very nice, wide soundscape. When paired with the Rogue RH-5, which is one of the widest sounding amps I've heard, the sheer openness of the combo was absolutely jaw-dropping! Playing with the adjustable crossfeed on this combo with the Sennheiser HD800 was especially interesting, as you could hear the dimensions of the soundscape change in dramatic fashion.
Listening directly from the Hugo 2's headphone output certainly had its own set of advantages, as well. Specifically, the soundscape felt deeper and more layered from the direct output relative to most of the amps I paired it with, likely a byproduct of the incredibly short signal path. The noise floor is also vanishingly low, so the background will almost certainly be at its blackest on the direct output. And on anything less that a phenomenal amp, it is quite likely you'll lose a bit of resolution over the course of the signal path, relative to the clean and pristine signal coming out of the Hugo 2's output. It's certainly worth comparing for yourself, as I found it pretty enlightening.
The point is, the Hugo 2's headphone output can stand very strong on it's own. The direct output never felt anemic to me with any headphone, and was only challenged in the most extreme cases. Depending on which headphones you have and your subjective preferences, you could certainly rely on the Hugo 2 as your only amplifier.
It's Not The Size Of The DAC,
It's What You Do With It
In addition to its ability to punch far above its weight class sonically, the Hugo 2 is bursting with options, offering well-designed filters and crossfeed settings that allow you to tune the device to your preference.
DAC recommendations can be a little bit tricky, but I think the solid sonic fundamentals and versatile tuning options make this a product that will appeal to many people, even those who didn't like the original. Some may still prefer a DAC with a bit more "wetness" in the midrange, and that is quite understandable. But for those who prize stunning levels of detail and first-class versatility, the Hugo 2 can deliver in very impressive fashion.
Additional Equipment Used
Voice: +44 (0) 1622721444