The Chord Electronics Hugo USB DAC is the UFO of audio converters. Designed and manufactured in the UK, the Chord Hugo is battery powered and features a homemade DAC based on a Xilinx Spartan-6 processor, compatible 32/384 PCM and 64/128 DSD. This DAC is definitely not a cheaply made product and has been designed by a brand known for being used by prestigious names such as the BBC studios, Abbey Road studio, Air Studio in London or Skywalker Sound.
Priced at over 1600?, the Chord Electronics Hugo DAC is not within everybody’s reach, which is a shame considering the fact that anybody would enjoy its musicality regardless of the type of headphones it is paired up with.
The Hugo is compatible with PCM audio stream up to 32 bits and 384 kHz as well as 2.8 MHz and 5.6 MHz DSD files. It features a double USB input, one asynchronous and the other synchronous (16/48 PCM compatible) to work with Android devices (audio USB OTC compatible) or iPads (with the APN Apple connection kit). With no less than 3 headphone outputs and an RCA stereo line output, the range of connections is really comprehensive. Add its two S/PDIF inputs and its apt-X Bluetooth receptor and the picture is perfect.
You can take the Chord Hugo wherever you go, in your bag or in your pocket, connected to the USB port of an iPad (with the APN USB kit) or to an Android smartphone with an OTG USB audio output. Another possibility is to use the Bluetooth atp-x connection. Solid like a tank, this DAC is not afraid of being roughed up or even sat on. The battery lasts for about 12 hours before the red LED turns red indicating that it’s time to charge the device (note that the Hugo is still functioning throughout the process). It can be used at home with an integrated amplifier or power blocks (the line output is adjustable by default but its level can be set as fix. The Chord Hugo USB DAC can also convey digital signals coming from a computer, a NAS or any source with an S/PDIF output.
The device comes with a power chord, an S/PDIF Toslink cable, rubber bands (to attach it to a portable device or a smartphone) and a micro USB to USB cable.
The Chord Electronics Hugo is incredible. The British brand likes to stand out from its competitors and a quick look at the Hugo’s user manual is required. The device’s power switch is situated on the right side of the asynchronous USB port. The input selection (USB1, USB2, S/PDIF1, S/PDIF2) is done via a small button and each change is signalled by the change of colour of a LED placed right in the DAC’s circuit board. A second button lets you choose between 3 digital filters in order to adjust the sound according to your liking. These are low-pass filters set to different frequencies and aimed at reducing high frequencies. Right next to it are two LEDs which change colour in accordance with the charging level of the battery and the audio stream quality.
If all of this seems complicated to you, it was the same for us too. But you quickly get used to this incredibly musical DAC.
We tested this device with Windows 8.1 and the ASIO drivers from Chords Electronics as well as Foobar2000. We listened to a set of CD and Studio quality FLAC files as well as SACD ISO images (DSD 128). Note: with Foobar2000, streaming DSD files implies that you select the DSD output mode instead of the Hugo’s ASIO output. Make sure that the DSD files are within the range of PCM stream (DoP, DSD over PCM).
First, we listened to the Chord Hugo with the Sennheiser PX-100 and HiFiMAN HE-500 headphones, then we connected it to our hi-fi and home cinema systems. In the second configuration we used Viard Audio RCA Premium cables with a Pioneer LX-57 amplifier in direct mode with Focal Chorus 716V and Q Acoustics 2050i speakers.
Initial impressions after listening
It’s astonishing! The Chord Electronics Hugo offers a great sound composure regardless of the track. The signal is coherent, flawless and goes beyond what we experienced with the very (very) good AMI Musik DS5 USB DAC. The Hugo offers a very unusual sense of scale and detail. Does it come from the converter itself, the quality of its components, from the OP amplifiers or from the stable power supplied by the battery? Probably a little bit of everything. It goes without saying that we listened to complex tracks, seemingly poorly mixed and we always came to the same conclusion: this DAC can extract an unexpected quantity of information. It makes you constantly want to turn the volume up and the music you love. The Chord Electronics Hugo seems to have no weakness as the three ranges are successfully conveyed. Bass is swift and refined and can be either light or powerful, but always spot-on. The output level is nothing short of impressive and calibrated to accommodate high impedance headphones.
Asynchronous vs. synchronous USB port
As the Chord Electronics Hugo DAC is equipped with two USB controllers, we were able to compare the results of the 32/384/DSD asynchronous USB port and synchronous port (solely compatible with PCM and 16/44). To do so, we used CD quality files. We noticed some differences during our tests, but nothing outstanding. This confirms our idea that, more than the USB port, it is the power supply and the different pre-amplification and amplification stages which have a decisive impact on the quality of delivery. The synchronous USB input is less rigorous but still reaches an exceptional level, far superior to many asynchronous ports on less expensive DACs.
A few tracks
Hunter, Björk, FLAC 16/44, DR6
Being able to untangle the different sound layers in Hunter is a real accomplishment as they are so tightly mixed together and require so much from the amplification. The electronic bass is relentlessly roaring and puts a strain on many OP amplifiers and headphones. With the Chord Hugo, we clearly feel that the transducers’ cones are constantly under control. Take the intro for instance. As we are expecting the first waves of the aforementioned low-frequencies, we are taken aback by the speed and density of the percussions. Being able to excel when it’s not necessarily expected and surprising the listener, is definitely the mark of great electronics. Whether you like Björk’s Hunter or not, you will be mesmerized by such sonic mastery.
It’s Oh so Quiet, Björk, FLAC 16/44, DR13
A beautiful song that can easily turn into a disappointment. The general issue is that nothing is really audible, then there is a massive sound burst. The Chord Hugo extracts a very convincing sound stage from our lossless file. We would have liked a 24 bit / 192 kHz version of this album. If you are reading this, Qobuz…
All along the Watchtower, Jimmy Hendrix, FLAC 16/44, DR11
There are many variations throughout the song, yet every second is coherent. Hendrix?s vocals are perfectly placed right in the centre of an onslaught of percussions and restless guitar riffs.
Seul ou accompagné, BB Brunes, FLAC 16/44, DR8
This track is very well balanced, the snare is well placed and not overwhelming like it’s the case with so many DACs. The bass guitar is cleanly emphasized, the two electric guitars are easy to follow despite the tightness of the sound layers.
Supernature, Cerrone, FLAC 16/44, DR11
Incredible sound placement. The synthesizer intro is aerial and flows perfectly. The listener’s attention is not focused on the rhythm section but on the plethora of synthesized sounds. Never before have we heard it sound like this, which was a shame.
100 Black Coffins, Rick Ross, FLAC 16/44, DR4
This track is especially worth it for its low frequency thrashing. The Chord Hugo’s resistance is beyond reproach. Bass never takes over the rest of the sound spectrum. The articulation is excellent and we had no trouble hearing everything.
We listened to the Chord Electronics Hugo DAC for about fifty hours, from dawn until dusk and we were absolutely sold on this DAC, even with average quality audio stream (Deezer for instance). Not a single bit of harshness spoiled our pleasure. We can only sincerely recommend this DAC, whose price might be a little high but completely fair considering its performances.