Looking for a ‘do it all’ DAC/headphone amplifier at a reasonable price and, while we’re about it, size? Paul Rigby looks at – and struggles with – a prime candidate in Chord Electronics’ Hugo 2
I wanted to grab it for review because I’ve been a fan of the company’s Mojo for a while and have, since then, looked at several DACs and headphone amps from other companies that have provided huge competition. Does the Hugo 2 go one step further or does it struggle to keep up?
What you notice when the aluminium unit (packed with a colour changing polycarbonate button interface) emerges from its sturdy box is the size. Compact but much larger than the sister Mojo headphone amp, the Hugo 2 does add a host of connections. This means that you can access optical, coax plus USB ports. If you’re looking at wireless connections then you are supplied with aptX (supplying up to 16bit/48kHz streaming). You won’t find analogue inputs and balanced is right out, though.
What you do get, in addition to the 3.5mm headphone socket, is a full size 6.3mm headphone socket. This is not just a good idea but it’s a great idea. Partly because headphones, even larger models, can arrived in either termination type. The main reason for my smiles, though, is that you don’t have to resort to a convertor plug if your headphones are not of the correct size. Believe it or not, when you add a convertor plug, you reduce sound quality. I’ve done extensive A-B tests in this area and can confirm the differences.
You also receive a pair of analogue outputs which means that the Hugo can be operated as a digital pre-amp. Useful.
Based upon a custom coded Xilinx Artix 7 (XC7A15T) FPGA, the Class A chip supports 32bit/784kHz or DSD 512 (or Octa DSD to you, sunshine) sound support through one of the USB and coax ports plus 24bit/192kHz through the optical. The Enix Energies 3.7v 9.6Wh Li-ion batteries provide two charge modes, fast (offering four hours of play) and slow (offering seven to eight hours of play).
There’s a four-function switch filter offering sound EQ settings (although I preferred the default, I have to say now) and a digital cross-feed function from the original Hugo offering three operation modes. The system is there to reportedly duplicate the effect of listening to speakers and is based on binaural audio research.
Spanning 130 x 100 x 21mm and weighing 450g, available in natural silver or satin black, the unit powers down after 10 minutes of non-use. You’ll need a Windows driver to run it on a PC but nothing at all when used with a Mac.
In the box, apart from the Hugo 2, you’ll find a charger, 1.5mm micro-USB cable, micro-USB to micro-USB OTG cable and manual.
Larger than pocket size, the Hugo 2 arrives with a remote control which suggests that this product is a small footprint shelf unit rather than something to be used ‘on the go’. There’s nothing stopping you doing that, if you’re determined.
Professionally built and superbly finished, the Hugo 2 will be familiar in use for any Chord fan out there. Beginners may take a little time to get used to the colour coded messages that the Hugo 2 gives you in terms of volume, output and the like. Continuous use will provide familiarisation but the initial experience might be slightly bemusing. That said, the remote will seem like a god-send to traditional hi-fi users as it features standard interface commands.
I do have to add, though, that Chord is confusing the user here, effectively forcing the user to ‘learn’ two completely different ways of operating the product. Surely the company should commit to one or the other? Either the coloured marbles interface (chassis) or the traditional approach (remote).
I did ask Chord about this and it very kindly got back to me on that point, “This goes back to the design brief, being a transportable product plus Hugo 2 has a huge number of desktop users hooking into laptop and desktop computers. The remote control has been added over the original to support those folks using it in lay-back environments.” With a follow-up that said, “I think the expectation is that the vast majority of users will use Hugo 2 up close and will, therefore, appreciate the colour coding. The remote is simply an added bonus for the minority who use Hugo 2 in a rack and conventional system.”
None of which explains why the confused interface choices exist in the first place and why a remote wasn’t developed with the same colour coding to provide a smooth transition from the chassis to the remote (or, of course, vice versa). As it is, the change from chassis to remote and back again is wholly jarring. You feel that the remote doesn’t really belong in this package. That it’s been borrowed from somewhere else.
What really did frustrate me, though was that only certain RCA cables could be attached to the Hugo 2 because the chassis holes were frankly too small to allow me to use my reference Tellurium or Atlas RCA cables with, from my perspective, termination plugs that were fairly average in size for audiophile products. I had to use a smaller than normal termination attached to a lower grade Atlas cable instead. Not being able to use the cables I wanted impinged on my freedom – which was grating. Put it this way, my reference Benchmark rated at the same price doesn’t force me into a similar cul-de-sac.
Chord’s comment to this was, “These have been improved over the previous model but the issue was some of the thicker interconnects on the market can be so stiff and inflexible that they can lift the device off its surface putting lots of strain on the (soldered) USB socket.”
Chord is assuming that a cable with a slightly larger termination will cause that damage – which is not necessarily so. Also, why not add strength and reinforcement to the internals then? After all, this is not a £200 product, it costs £1,800! Is Chord stating that it’s £1,800 unit will effectively be damaged by a cable which, in hi-fi terms, is no more than average in terms of cable thickness?
Similarly, the USB cable – for the very high resolution files on offer – was restricted to a mini-USB connection only. Not offering a full sized USB socket hampered my choice of third party cables (once more) which, again, limited the possible sound quality potential. Chord can include two sizes of headphone socket but only one USB port size?
Again, I thank Chord for responding to my criticism. It said, “Hugo 2 was designed as a transportable unit as the 2Qute serves as the static small DAC in the range. With portability in mind, micro USB is the logical choice and although it might look like there’s room on the casework, the board could not fit both.”
So, give me a larger board then. Not a massive increase in size. Just slightly larger to hold a full sized USB plug. I repeat, the board provides for two – not the usual one…two – headphone sockets including a full sized socket. But not a full sized USB?
The issue here is that hardware is being prioritised over and above user requirements. Instead of asking, “What would a user require in this situation?” and then building to those requirements, Chord appears to have chosen a board first and then done its best given the hardware supplied. The user appears to have been second on the list of importance. As I said to Chord itself during our exchange, it’s a bit like saying, “Yes, the car would work better with four wheels but the chassis can only hold one and so, we’re restricted by the chassis size.” So, you’re given a one-wheeled car and the company is confused why you’re complaining.
If this unit was a real, true and honest-to-goodness mobile product then none of the above would matter but, due to its slightly awkward size and the remote control (which is also very large for any purported mobile product) as well as the RCA output, the Hugo appears to want to be a small footprint static hi-fi addition (portable or not, it’s static in operation). The design does feel a little schizophrenic, though. Being neither one thing or the other. Which causes frustration and again brings into question the relatively high price point.
I hate to say this but I have to ask, if these features were corrected then would sales of the £3,200-priced Hugo TT (positioned just above the Hugo 2) be threatened? I think so. And if the Hugo 2 were transformed into a genuine mobile product with the inevitable lowering in price then it would worry the Mojo (which is positioned on the next rung down from the Hugo 2). There does seem to be a measure of ‘range protectionism’ going on. The Hugo 2 sits in a difficult slot in the Chord range and appears to be intentionally shoe-horned.
Another additional layer of frustration was the requirement to add a pairing code when connecting to Bluetooth. That is, you can’t just pair and be done with it, as you do with most Bluetooth devices. You have to pair, with the Hugo 2 and then input a pair code of ‘0000’ and then the Hugo pairs. It’s an unnecessary and a silly delay. I’ve paired hundreds of Bluetooth products and never had to do this.
Chord’s response to this criticism was, “You need a pairing code to ensure that you BT couple to the correct source, otherwise you could connect to any mobile that was in the same room,” and “The BT protocol just reflects the way the device was engineered to work.”
I’ve used dozens of Bluetooth capable products that connect directly and to the right mobile every time. Even cheap and nasty stuff. I’m not sure about you but I pair one at a time anyway. That is, you press ‘pair’ or just switch on a product, then you look for it in the phone settings, confirm the pairing or not and away you go.
The bottom line to the above? I’m still not sure why you need a code.
Enough of the hardware struggles. Onto the sound tests. I started with my iPhone 8 and sent Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me over Bluetooth to the Hugo 2.
Because MP3 is inherently crippled as a music format, top quality components can almost play it too accurately. You really don’t want that. Hence a more sympathetic playback can be welcome, otherwise your MP3 collection can become unlistenable overnight. The Hugo 2 does well here, giving the midrange a softening effect. Yes there were some uncomfortable midrange edges and clinical response issues here but the spacious soundstage provided a relatively rich and mature playback.
I then used my Red Wine-modded Astell&Kern AK120 DAP and connected to the Hugo 2 via optical cable, playing Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing at 24bit/88.2kHz.
What attracted me to the Hugo 2 immediately was the wide open nature of the sound presentation. That is, the soundstage was, frankly, enormous. The amount of space available for the band to use meant that each instrument had a lot space to perform in. This meant that previously shy sounds such as the bass guitar, the background synth and the normally rather pinched treble sounds of the tambourine were all ‘visible’ to the ear. It also meant that the drums could really stretch out and relax. This also meant that the lower frequency bass notes were very informative and, in relative terms, much more coherent than you would normally expect at the price point.
Keeping the configuration, I then turned to Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff at 24bit/96kHz. Noticeable was that the almost dub-like bass on this track was tight, tidy and without any sense of blooming to invade other, adjacent, frequencies. Because of this, the bass receded into the mix and sat alongside the midrange in a well behaved, yet still powerful manner. This meant the the rhythm guitar and organ were equally prominent. Weaker DACs allow the bass to almost mask these midrange essentials yet the Hugo 2 was supremely balanced on this score.
I then brought in the headphone amplifier, listening to the same track. The control and incisive nature of the sound was not up to the same standard via the built-in headphone amp. There was a not the same level of lower end control or coherence in the upper mids. That said, the soundstage remained beautifully open while the airy nature of the same allowed a host of detail to reach the ear while instrumental separation gave the sound an attractive and engaging feel.
Moving to the DAC again, I played Eric Bibb’s blues track, Meeting At The Building at DSD 256 via the USB port. This song is packed with activity. A host of organic instrument plus gospel-esque vocals threaten to overwhelm the soundstage. The Hugo 2 dealt with this sonic melange with flying colours, providing an ordered and spacious soundstage in which the heap of activity within progressed with both calm and a sense of satisfaction. There was no bumping or falling over each other, the guitars were superbly characterful and tonally accurate while the vocals were placed in a layered fashion to the rear of the soundstage and percussion was organic and rich in flavour with secondary percussion of the wooden blocks and cowbell types were satisfyingly clean and open in nature. The entire presentation was bountiful in detail with a transparency that was wholly involving.
There is a measure of confusion in terms of design for the Hugo 2: is it a mobile device or is it a static hi-fi device? Both options raise issues, when looked at closely and stem from a feeling that the chassis and interface design is unfinished or, at best, squeezed into an impossible position as it is shoe-horned into a crowded product range.
Nevertheless, the most important aspect of this design is the sound quality. The headphone amplifier output is very good but the DAC is simply terrific. In fact, if I could, I’d give this product two ratings. I would give Rob Watts – the designer of the DAC – ‘9’ for a brilliant sound output and I would award the rest of the company ‘6’ for letting Rob Watts down by wrapping his DAC with a confused and irritating chassis/interface.
Even so, the Hugo 2 provides supreme sound quality that threatens DACs many times its price point with a capable headphone amplifier to boot.
CHORD HUGO 2 DAC/HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER
Tel: 01622 721444
GOOD: spacious soundstage, transparent mids, insightful bass, feature count
BAD: interface learning curve, schizo design implementation, price
REFERENCE SYSTEM USED
Benchmark DAC2 HGC
Astell & Kern AK120 (Red Wine modded)
Aesthetix Calypso pre-amp
Icon Audio MB 845 Mk.II monoblocks
Icon Audio HP8 Mk.II [Update] headphone amplifier
Quad ESL-57 speakers with One Thing mods
Sennhesier HD800 headphones
Blue Horizon Professional Rack System
Vertex AQ, Atlas & Tellurium Q cables
Geoffreyvanhouwaert6th December 2017 at 2:01 pm
I completely understand what you are saying here. I don’t understand the way chord thinks about these dacs. It’s just as you say. Mobile not mobile. Usb not really usb. Rca but not all cables rca, and so on. It’s crazy. Make it bigger indeed. Would solve everything. Make something truly great and easy to use for 1500 pounds. I’m sure they could do this. But a lot of people don’t seem to mind i guess.
I have never used a chord product but just reading about them confuses me. So it is refreshing to read that an experienced reviewer like you also struggles with the use and philosophy of these products. And on a personal note. I don’t even like the way they look with the coloured balls and all.
Having said all this. I heard ‘the dave’ at xfi and the sound in that room was absolutely mesmerizing. Unbelievable. So they know how to make great digital sound. No doubt about it! But they should make things less confusing and more user friendly. If they did that i would buy one for sure.
Paul Rigby6th December 2017 at 2:08 pm
Thanks for that Geoffrey – absolutely. I would love to get my hands on a Dave, though.
Woolsey6th December 2017 at 3:03 pm
I don’t trust Chord. Their Dave magazine ad says ’50dB better noise performance than any other DAC’ — but that’s nonsense.
Paul Rigby6th December 2017 at 3:15 pm
Thanks for your comments Woolsey.
Greg W.9th December 2017 at 2:35 pm
Thanks Paul! I applaud Chord for recognizing consumers’ need for a 1/4″ headphone jack, but I also have a need for a standard RCA coax terminal – as I am partial to my current coax cable and don’t care to go through the process of finding and investing in another. And then you point out that the analog RCAs jacks on the Hugo 2 are not very accommodating. Guess the lesson here is I’ll always need two DACs. One to satisfy my mobile needs (thank you Audioquest) and one to meet my listening room needs (thank you Hegel)
Paul Rigby9th December 2017 at 4:36 pm
Thanks for your thoughts Greg
tim jury11th December 2017 at 3:38 pm
I have been considering buying a Hugo 2 (not before listening!) but at the moment my steamer is a microRendu (latest version) which only has USB output. Your comments about the micro USB input on the Hugo 2 suggest this would possibly compromise the sound, compared to a full size USB. To what extent might that be? Incidentally the microRendu has provided the biggest jump in SQ in my system for many a year…try to get hold of one or perhaps the ultraRendu, which should be even better.
Paul Rigby11th December 2017 at 9:24 pm
Well, that depends on your relationship with cables. If, like me, you see cables as just another hi-fi component then I want the best possible set-up that I need or want for any particular hi-fi chain. Mini USB cables force me not to use an array of cables that I might see as necessary to get the best out of any DAC or head amp. They force me to use poor quality bell wire-type cables and force me to introduce noise into my hi-fi chain which is anathema to my sonic sensibilities 🙂 Yes, you can buy audiophile mini USB cables but they are in the minority. I’m also suspicious of the mini connector itself based on…nothing at all yet 🙂 But I intend to do some tests.
Johannes23rd February 2018 at 12:28 pm
I don’t quite understand your comments on the USB cable. It is there only for data transfer (and a relatively small amount given the bandwidth of USB-c) and are very low current. There is no need whatsoever for a fancy cable with a special connector. You could probably insert pieces of tinfoil between the connection with no measurable effect.
Johannes23rd February 2018 at 12:30 pm
Sorry, meant to say USB instead of USB-c ofcourse, the type of connector has no influence.
Paul Rigby23rd February 2018 at 6:11 pm
Thanks Johannes – I get the feeling that we might have to agree to differ but I can hear differences in sound quality between different cables and that includes USB on my and other systems. That said, if you’re convinced that there’s no influence, that’s fine. I’m afraid I see things differently.
Alfy16th January 2018 at 1:00 pm
When reading this article, I realise many of the issues raised make sense, but as it turns out, the Hugo 2 is actually the perfect device for me. I don’t listen to music “on the go” much, and when I do, I do it straight from the source, so I don’t really need a truly portable unit. On the other hand, I travel a lot for work, and I wanted a very good DAC that would on one one side connect to either my computer or my NW-WM1A, and on the other side to my headphones.
In that configuration, the Hugo 2 is just terrific. The Mojo could have done the trick, but I appreciate the added power for some of the harder to drive headphones. I only use the USB cables when I’m on the move, no RCA, and quite frankly, I don’t think I even own a double full-sized USB cable (sorry, but as a software engineer by training, I am very suspicious – to say the least – on the impact of noise in USB cables). I realise people like me do not constitute a market per se, but as a nomade device, as opposed to a mobile device, the Hugo works really well. And I could see other segments: if someone wants a good DAC to use at home and at the office, but not to walk around with, for example.
Paul Rigby16th January 2018 at 7:20 pm
If the Hugo works for you then great. I have issues with the design, that’s true, and they’re all plainly stated in the review. Not the sound quality, I repeat, just the design. But I’m happy to hear that you find that it fits with how you listen to music.
RN28th February 2018 at 11:44 pm
I don’t understand how you connected avoiding the headphone connection. As I understand it, the RCA is the same connection (on the traces) as the headphone connection.
Paul Rigby1st March 2018 at 9:39 am
Can you elaborate please RN? Not too sure of your point. I did review the head amp section too, is that what you mean?
RN2nd March 2018 at 12:24 am
You claim the headphone amp is not very good. How did you claim the DAC part is good when there’s no way to hear it without coming out the headphone or RCA outputs (which are the same thing electronically)?
Paul Rigby2nd March 2018 at 9:19 am
Ah gotcha – through extensive listening tests, RN. Simple as that. There is a clear and obvious difference in the quality and personality of the sound from the headphone stage – that is, plugging my headphones into the headphone sockets – as opposed to what I heard via the DAC itself, via the RCA sockets.
Mark11th March 2018 at 1:58 am
Wasn’t the RCA > 6.5mm debunked by someone on head-fi? I think he stated that it could be the quality of the connector which I could totally see as some DIY and budget cables having bare minimum 6.5mm and 3.5mm quality connectors. According to the guy who retested his Focal Utopia headphones, that has a pretty high-quality cable, said it had close attributes to his Alo Audio Studio 6.
I’m not saying the Chord Hugo 2 is going to replace big desktop headphones but I ended selling my Woo Audio WA-22 when I upgraded my old DAC to the Chord Hugo 2 (as a DAC). I couldn’t drive my HE-6 but I never used them and ended up selling to a friend but the rest of my headphones work amazingly well with the power output of the Huge 2. Headphones ranging from 13ohm – 600ohm and all are driven to toe-tapping levels.
Don’t get me wrong I do miss the sound of my WA-22 but there are things I love about the Huge 2, but for me, saving all that space and seeing how well the CH2 performed, it worked out perfect. Sad to part ways with one of my favorite tube amps but I’m 110% happy with what the Hugo 2 offers me. Of course one day I would LOVE to add an ifi Pro iCAN headphone amp with the Chord Hugo 2, but for now, my pockets need some time to recover.
Paul Rigby11th March 2018 at 5:05 pm
Thanks for your thoughts Mark and, yes, I agree with you, I too love the sound of the Hugo 2 and for many users – like yourself – it will work fine.
Frederick5th April 2018 at 12:53 am
Thanks for documenting the frustration experienced with both the USB and the RCA connectors.
For RCA cables, my best choice so far has been an old pair of Anticables level 2 with the old Bullet plugs (the ones with just 4 segments, not five like the KLE Innovations). Otherwise I had to revert back to an old pair of Linn I bought with my first system 25 years ago!
I own the Mojo, the Hugo 1 and the Hugo 2, and the connectors are the one constant annoyance, the lack of user friendliness, which is only tolerated because of the sound quality, which in my limited experience is far superior to any other DAC
(I have compared the Hugo 2 to the basic DAC of the DSPeaker, to the better WoodAudio WA7, and to superlative internal DAC of the Devialet 200, and it’s a no contest every time).
Paul Rigby5th April 2018 at 8:54 am
Thanks for your insight, Frederick.
Will27th May 2018 at 8:21 pm
I also personally find the Hugo 2 a bit strange- for me and what I need.
At the moment second-hand Hugo 2 are about £1400 with new Qutest £1195. I heard the Qutest and practically never need to take a DAC outside the home. It sounded really really good.
Mojo- portable. Qutest- basic desktop. TT- proper desktop. Hugo 2- Corkscrew, bottle opener, DAC, toaster, kettle, preamp, remote, radio alarm clock, bluetooth, satellite phone.
I don’t need those extra things, but they’re only a little bit more money and I don’t want to miss out… plus, when they bring out the Hugo 2 screw on thing it’ll do 5 million more things that I’ll otherwise miss out on including maybe some form of asynchronous lossless teleportation.
Hugo TT2 is £4K. I don’t need two- how much can I sell one of my kidneys for? Where do you sell your kidney? eBay?
Cheers Paul- oh btw way the reason I wanted to write a comment- what about you having a Patreon account Paul? Steve Guttenberg set one up recently and he’s had a great response. Like your website- his daily videos are great- the Audiophiliac. I enjoy Paul McGowans youtube channel too at PS Audio. Your videos are great I really like them.
Paul Rigby31st May 2018 at 9:15 am
I’ll certainly mull over the Patreon thing. Thanks for the idea Will. And thanks for your thoughts on the DAC too.
SergeSE3rd November 2019 at 3:25 pm
Music-based audio measurements of Hugo 2 are very impressive – http://soundexpert.org/articles/-/blogs/audio-quality-of-high-end-portable-players#hugo2