Review: Chord Hugo 2 Portable DAC – A Unique Blend of Style and Substance

Review: Chord Hugo 2 Portable DAC - A Unique Blend of Style and Substance- Explore the Chord Hugo 2, a groundbreaking audio marvel, blending cutting-edge technology, user-centric design, and unique features for audiophile perfection.

Chord Hugo 2: A Visual Marvel with Sonic Mastery

In the realm of high-fidelity audio, where conventionality often reigns, Chord Electronics disrupts the status quo with the Hugo 2—a portable D/A converter and headphone amplifier that stands out visually and redefines sonic excellence. Hailing from Maidstone, England, the Hugo 2 showcases a design reminiscent of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” offering a departure from the mundane aesthetics of traditional hi-fi products. Beyond its captivating facade lies a powerhouse of electronics dedicated to digital/analog conversion and amplifier technology.

The Hugo 2 beckons audiophiles into a realm where style meets substance, promising to elevate the listening experience to new heights. This review delves into the device’s unique design, unrivaled performance, and innovative features, exploring its ability to fulfill the demands of audiophiles on the go and enhance home hi-fi systems with a sonic prowess that defies expectations.

Chord Electronics, headquartered in Maidstone, England, stands at the forefront of audio innovation, crafting avant-garde audio equipment that challenges industry norms. Renowned for its visually distinctive designs, Chord Electronics seamlessly blends cutting-edge technology with aesthetic appeal. The company’s commitment to sonic excellence is exemplified in devices like the Hugo 2, where meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail converge. With a focus on digital/analog conversion and amplifier technology, Chord Electronics has earned a reputation for pushing the boundaries of audio quality. As they continue to redefine the landscape of high-fidelity audio, the company remains a beacon for audiophiles seeking a harmonious fusion of style and substance in their audio experiences.

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’ weighted (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: 365g

Dimensions: 2.1cm (H), 10cm (W), 13cm (D)

Boxed Dimensions: 8.5cm (H), 12.2cm (W), 22cm (D)

Unconventional Design, Unparalleled Performance

Aesthetic Innovation: Breaking the Mold: Chord Electronics takes a bold leap away from the conventional with the Hugo 2, presenting an unconventional design that captivates onlookers. Resonating with the allure of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Hugo 2’s visual aesthetics defy the norms of traditional hi-fi products. The device is not just a functional piece of audio equipment; it is a visual marvel that sparks curiosity and stands as a testament to the company’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of design in the audio industry.

Form Follows Function: The Essence of Performance: Beneath the captivating exterior lies a powerhouse of electronics meticulously engineered in Maidstone, England. The Hugo 2 isn’t merely a display of artistic ingenuity but a technological marvel with a singular focus on performance. Boasting unparalleled digital/analog conversion and amplifier technology, this portable D/A converter and headphone amplifier aims to redefine the benchmarks of sonic excellence. Chord Electronics marries form and function, delivering a unique design and an audio experience that transcends expectations.

From Vision to Reality: Crafting Sonic Prowess: The marriage of unconventional design and unparalleled performance in the Hugo 2 is not luck; it’s a deliberate fusion crafted by Chord Electronics. The device doesn’t just look different; it sounds different, elevating the listening experience to unprecedented heights. As users delve into the auditory realm curated by Hugo 2, they discover that its unique aesthetics are not mere embellishments but integral to the sonic magic it conjures. The company’s commitment to pushing the boundaries is vividly evident in every note, making the Hugo 2 a true embodiment of unconventional design seamlessly blended with unparalleled performance.

Inputs and Outputs: A Digital Symphony

Versatility Redefined: Diverse Input Options: The Chord Hugo 2 sets a new standard for versatility with various input options catering to the digital music landscape. Boasting USB, Toslink, and coaxial inputs, the device accommodates a variety of sources, ensuring compatibility with different devices and scenarios. Whether connecting via USB for high-speed data transfer or for Bluetooth convenience, the Hugo 2 adapts to the user’s preferences, making it a versatile hub for digital audio signals.

Headphone or Amplifier: Tailored Connections: On one side of the Hugo 2, users are presented with large and small headphone jacks, emphasizing its dual functionality as a portable D/A converter and amplifier. This thoughtful design caters to users who seek an immersive headphone experience, ensuring compatibility with a wide range of headphone types. Additionally, including a pair of RCA plugs adjacent to the headphone jacks opens the door for users looking to integrate the Hugo 2 seamlessly into their existing HiFi setup, extending its utility beyond the realm of portable audio.

The Digital Transformation: DAC Prowess: The Hugo 2’s prowess in digital-to-analog conversion is showcased through its traditional yet essential inputs. Utilizing USB, Toslink, and coaxial connections, the device transforms digital music signals into analog with finesse. The built-in DAC employs sophisticated algorithms, going beyond the conventional use of converter chips found in typical devices. Chord Electronics’ commitment to advancing DAC technology is exemplified by the Hugo 2’s reliance on a powerful FPGA chip programmed with a proprietary converter algorithm. This feature distinguishes it from mainstream DACs.

Charging and Connectivity: Seamless Integration: Ensuring uninterrupted usage, the Hugo 2 incorporates a second micro-USB socket dedicated to charging. This thoughtful addition lets users maintain the device’s power while operating, showcasing Chord Electronics’ attention to user convenience. The device’s ability to handle data streams of up to 768 kHz and 32 bits via USB reinforces its commitment to high-resolution audio, offering audiophiles an immersive and uncompromised digital audio experience.

In summary, the Hugo 2’s inputs and outputs create a digital symphony, providing users with a versatile and immersive audio journey, whether on the go or integrating it into their home audio setup.

Unrivaled Control and Sonic Prowess

Precision Personified: Rock-Solid Control: The Chord Hugo 2’s claim to unrivaled control becomes immediately evident as it takes charge of headphone drivers with unwavering precision. Whether paired with the Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro, Meze 99 Classics, or the Sennheiser HD 800 S, the device exhibits a level of control that ensures each headphone driver only responds as intended. The result is an audio experience free from undesirable distortions or artifacts, setting a new standard for headphone amplifier performance.

Taming the Sonic Landscape: Impressive Handling of Difficult Headphones: The Hugo 2’s sonic prowess extends beyond mere control, as it fearlessly tackles the challenges posed by a diverse range of headphones. With an iron grip on the Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro and the finesse required for the Meze 99 Classics, the device rises to the occasion even with the demanding Sennheiser HD 800 S. Undesirable resonances and distortions are kept at bay, showcasing the Hugo 2’s ability to breathe life into headphones, unlocking their full potential.

Bass to the Brink: A Resolute Stand Against Undesirable Ringing: In the face of bass-heavy tracks like James Blake’s “Limit to Your Love,” the Chord Hugo 2 stands resolute, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to sonic purity. Undesirable ringing, a common challenge with low-frequency tones, is kept at bay, even during the most demanding musical passages. The Hugo 2’s rock-solid control shines, providing a stable foundation for the listener to experience bass-driven compositions with unprecedented clarity and fidelity.

A Symphony of Resolution: Unveiling Sonic Nuances: The Hugo 2 doesn’t just control; it unveils the intricacies of the sonic landscape with exceptional resolution. Whether exploring the subtle nuances of a solo artist’s tongue click or experiencing the crystal-clear contours of a musical stage, the device delivers an audio journey marked by clarity and precision. Compared to competitors like the iFi Zen DAC V2 or the Cambridge Audio DACMagic 200M, the Hugo 2 leaves an indelible mark with its unparalleled sonic finesse.

The Chord Hugo 2 is a testament to precision and prowess, showcasing control beyond mere technical specifications and an ability to breathe life into headphones, creating an immersive sonic experience that captivates audiophiles.

Crossfeed Function: Expanding the Soundstage

Sonic Spatial Innovation: Introducing Crossfeed Functionality: The Chord Hugo 2 takes a bold step beyond conventional headphone audio experiences by incorporating a distinctive crossfeed function. This innovative feature seeks to recreate a speaker-like listening environment by cleverly redirecting portions of the right channel to the left ear and vice versa. This departure from the traditional stereo separation aims to immerse the listener in a more expansive sonic stage, revolutionizing how headphones deliver music.

Tailored Immersion: CrossFeed’s Impact on Various Headphones: The effectiveness of the crossfeed function is a dynamic interplay between the Chord Hugo 2, different headphone models, and the nuances of various musical compositions. During testing with headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro, Meze 99 Classics, and the reference-level Sennheiser HD 800 S, the impact of the crossfeed function varied. Nonetheless, the results were consistently fascinating, transforming the audio experience by moving the sound away from the listener’s head and towards an engaging, forward-focused stage.

The Art of Sound Movement: Enhancing Musical Dynamics: As the crossfeed function is adjusted, the sonic experience evolves, bringing forth a unique auditory journey. Individual artists, like Bat for Lashes with “Close Encounters,” transcend the confines of the listener’s head, creating a sense of movement and depth in the music. The Chord Hugo 2, when paired with the Danish National Girl’s Choir and the piece “Stille nu, med hjerte,” showcases how adjusting crossfeed can craft a realistic stage where sound moves forward, enveloping the listener in an immersive sonic landscape.

Gradual Crossfeed Exploration: A Personalized Soundstage: The beauty of the crossfeed function lies in its adaptability. Users can tailor the crossfeed level to suit their preferences, allowing for a personalized exploration of the sonic stage. The more the crossfeed is increased, the further the sound moves forward, providing a unique listening experience where the music builds up in front of the listener. This flexibility caters to individual preferences and offers an engaging way to fine-tune the audio environment.

In summary, the Chord Hugo 2’s crossfeed function is not just a technical addition; it’s a dynamic tool that reshapes the traditional headphone audio experience. The Hugo 2 transcends stereo boundaries by introducing spatial innovation, creating an immersive and personalized sonic journey for enthusiasts seeking a more expansive and forward-focused soundstage.

DAC Excellence: Pushing Boundaries

FPGA Powerhouse: Beyond Conventional Converter Chips: At the heart of the Chord Hugo 2’s digital prowess lies a revolutionary approach to digital-to-analog conversion. Departing from the use of traditional converter chips found in most devices, the Hugo 2 leverages a robust FPGA chip—specifically, the Xilinx Artix 7 XC7A15T. Developed by Chord’s own Rob Watts, this FPGA chip is programmed with a proprietary converter algorithm. This departure from the norm represents a paradigm shift, emphasizing computational intensity and customized conversion to redefine the sonic signature of Chord’s DAC technology.

Stage Reshaping: Unleashing a New Dimension: The Chord Hugo 2’s distinctive sonic signature becomes most apparent when examining its impact on the stage image. The device transcends the limitations of traditional DACs, orchestrating a transformation where the music moves from left to right and gains depth. Instruments and vocals come to life, not just in proximity to the listener but also in their arrangement within the audio space. The Hugo 2 excels in reshaping the stage, allowing discrete instruments to shine without overshadowing the overall musical arrangement.

Room Reverberations: Capturing Spatial Information: In pursuing DAC excellence, Chord Electronics substantially emphasizes capturing spatial information within recordings. The Hugo 2 becomes a conduit for unveiling every nuance of the recording space by eschewing conventional converter chips and relying on FPGA technology. This is evident when listening to compositions like Los Temperamentos’ “Villancico Vaya de xàcara,” where the subtlety of discreetly recorded instruments gains prominence. The DAC’s ability to extract spatial information enhances the listener’s perception of the recording venue, adding a layer of authenticity to the musical experience.

Genre Versatility: A Sonic Tapestry Unveiled: The Chord Hugo 2’s DAC excellence isn’t confined to a specific genre; it’s a versatile force that adapts to the intricacies of various musical styles. Transitioning from the baroque fusion of Los Temperamentos to Roger Waters’ modern sonic tapestry in “Amused to Death: Perfect Sense Pt. I,” the DAC unravels layers of detail with precision. It elevates the rumble of thunder, placing it not just within the listener’s head but expanding it toward the room’s ceiling—a testament to the device’s ability to capture the essence of each genre.

The Chord Hugo 2’s DAC excellence goes beyond conventional boundaries. Embracing FPGA technology and a bespoke converter algorithm transforms the listening experience into a sonic journey where spatial information, stage dynamics, and genre nuances are unveiled with unprecedented clarity and authenticity. The Hugo 2 is a testament to Chord Electronics’ commitment to pushing the limits of DAC technology, offering audiophiles a transformative window into the world of high-fidelity audio.

Lights, Buttons, and Controls

Illuminating Functionality: The Allure of Lights: The Chord Hugo 2 doesn’t sound exceptional; it captivates visually with a mesmerizing array of lights that serve as more than mere embellishments. Positioned within the housing, these lights shine through buttons and controls, providing users valuable status information. The multi-color display not only adds an aesthetic flair but also serves as an intuitive indicator of the device’s operating parameters. From conveying the resolution of the music to indicating battery status, these lights are a visual symphony that enhances the user experience.

Acrylic Ball Interface: Buttons with a Tactile Twist: Navigating the controls of the Hugo 2 is an experience that blends functionality with tactility. The device features four acrylic balls on the side, serving as buttons for various functions. These buttons, not only visually distinctive but also tactile, offer users a responsive and engaging interface. The large acrylic ball on the top functions as a volume control, providing a unique and satisfying way to adjust audio levels. This fusion of form and function underscores Chord Electronics’ commitment to crafting an immersive user interaction.

Status Lights and Information: More Than Meets the Eye: The lights on the Hugo 2 transcend mere aesthetics; they are a conduit for valuable information. Each light’s color serves as a code, conveying critical details about the device’s state. The resolution of the music is displayed by the lighting on the circuit board under the large porthole, with specific colors indicating different resolutions. The power button doubles as a status light for battery levels, and the color-coded buttons signify selected functions. While unconventional, this system enhances the user experience, providing nuanced information without needing a traditional display.

Remote Control Integration: Convenience at Your Fingertips: Adding a layer of convenience to the user experience, the Hugo 2 has a remote control. This remote allows users to command the device from a distance, ideal for situations where the DAC is part of a more extensive audio setup. The inclusion of a remote control not only enhances accessibility but also aligns with the device’s commitment to user-friendly functionality.

Practical Considerations: Desktop Mode and Temperature Management: Beyond the lights and buttons, the Hugo 2 introduces functional features like desktop mode. After 24 hours of continuous power, the device automatically switches to this mode, ensuring a consistent charge level while safeguarding its batteries. However, users should be mindful of the device’s temperature, especially during simultaneous charging and operation. Placing the Hugo 2 in an airy location mitigates heating concerns, offering a practical consideration for optimal performance.

In summary, the lights, buttons, and controls of the Chord Hugo 2 go beyond mere aesthetics. They form an integral part of the user interface, providing valuable information, tactile interaction, and practical features contributing to an immersive and user-centric audio experience.

Versatility and Portability

Pocket-Friendly Powerhouse: Chord Hugo 2’s Portable Brilliance: The Chord Hugo 2 effortlessly marries versatility with portability, positioning itself as a pocket-friendly powerhouse in high-fidelity audio. Its compact form defies expectations, challenging the notion that exceptional audio quality is reserved for bulkier devices. The Hugo 2’s portable design makes it an ideal companion for audiophiles on the move, ensuring that top-notch sound quality is no longer confined to stationary setups.

Dock and Upgrade: Chord 2Go’s Transformative Touch: Thanks to the Chord 2Go—a portable streamer that elevates the Hugo 2 to a high-end Digital Audio Player (DAP), the device’s adaptability extends beyond its standalone capabilities. This ingenious addition allows users to dock the 2Go to the Hugo 2, unlocking a new dimension of audio fidelity while maintaining the device’s portable nature. The seamless integration of the 2Go exemplifies Chord Electronics’ commitment to enhancing user experience through modular enhancements.

Micro-USB Mastery: High-Resolution Compatibility: While the Hugo 2’s micro-USB connection might seem traditional, its impact on sound quality is anything but. Capable of processing data streams up to an impressive 768 kHz and 32 bits, this seemingly old-fashioned port becomes a gateway to high-resolution audio nirvana. The device’s commitment to accommodating diverse data sources ensures that audiophiles can enjoy top-tier sound quality, whether connected to a computer, smartphone, or other compatible devices via micro-USB.

Wired Perfection: Multiple Analog Output Options: Versatility is evident in the Hugo 2’s portable capabilities and its seamless integration into existing HiFi setups. With a large and small headphone jack and a pair of RCA plugs, the device provides users with multiple analog output options. Whether enjoying a private listening session with wired headphones or integrating into a home audio system through RCA connections, the Hugo 2 adapts effortlessly to diverse preferences.

Remote Control and Desktop Mode: Enhancing User Experience: The Hugo 2 goes beyond mere portability with thoughtful features like a remote control, allowing users to manage their audio experience comfortably from a distance. After 24 hours of continuous power, the device automatically transitions into desktop mode, maintaining a consistently high charge level while protecting its batteries. This innovative approach to power management ensures that users can seamlessly transition between portable and stationary usage, optimizing the Hugo 2’s versatility for various listening environments.

In summary, the Chord Hugo 2 is a paragon of versatility and portability in high-fidelity audio. From its pocket-friendly design to modular upgrades and a range of connectivity options, the device redefines the boundaries of portable audio excellence, making it a compelling choice for audiophiles seeking a flexible and immersive listening experience.

User-Focused Ingenuity: Unveiling the Chord Hugo 2’s Usability and Unique Functions

Intuitive Operation: Navigating the Chord Hugo 2: The usability of the Chord Hugo 2 is defined by its intuitive operation, seamlessly blending cutting-edge technology with user-friendly design. The four acrylic balls on the device’s side serve as tactile buttons, offering a distinctive and responsive interface for various functions. Users can easily adjust volume levels using the large acrylic ball on the top, creating an intuitive and satisfying way to control audio output. Chord Electronics’ commitment to user-centric design ensures that novice and seasoned audiophiles can easily navigate the device.

Multi-Color LED Feedback: A Visual Symphony of Information: The Hugo 2’s multi-color LED feedback system is more than just a visual spectacle; it provides an informative guide to the device’s status and settings. The LEDs convey crucial details such as music resolution, battery level, and selected functions. This unique approach to visual feedback eliminates the need for a traditional display, offering a streamlined and visually engaging way for users to stay informed about the device’s operating parameters. The color-coded system enhances usability, turning the device’s housing into an intuitive information hub.

Remote Control Convenience: Effortless Command from Afar: A remote control adds a layer of convenience to the Hugo 2’s usability. Users can command the device from a distance, adjusting volume levels and managing functions without direct interaction. This feature is precious in scenarios where the DAC is integrated into a more extensive audio setup, allowing users to control their audio experience easily.

Crossfeed Function: Expanding the Listening Experience: One of Hugo 2’s unique functions is the crossfeed feature, designed to recreate a speaker-like listening experience with headphones. By sending portions of the right channel to the left ear and vice versa, the crossfeed function expands the soundstage, moving the audio away from the listener’s head. This innovative function adds a layer of spatial realism, offering a unique and immersive way to enjoy music beyond traditional headphones’ typical stereo separation.

Desktop Mode and Battery Management: Practical Considerations: The Hugo 2 introduces practical features like desktop mode, which is automatically activated after 24 hours of continuous power. This mode maintains a consistent charge level while protecting the device’s batteries. Additionally, users can charge the Hugo 2 while it’s in operation, showcasing a thoughtful approach to battery management. While these features may seem subtle, they contribute to the overall usability of the device, ensuring a seamless and reliable performance in various usage scenarios.

In summary, the Chord Hugo 2’s usability is characterized by its intuitive interface; multi-color LED feedback, remote control convenience, unique crossfeed function, and practical features like desktop mode. These elements collectively contribute to an audio experience that sounds exceptional and is accessible and user-friendly for audiophiles of all levels.

Final Verdict: Unmatched Performance

In conclusion, the Chord Hugo 2 transcends the boundaries of conventional audio devices, offering a harmonious blend of innovation and user-friendly design. Its intuitive operation, marked by tactile acrylic buttons and a distinctive LED feedback system, exemplifies Chord Electronics’ dedication to creating devices that cater to audiophiles and enthusiasts new to the high-fidelity realm. The unique functions, including the crossfeed feature and practical considerations like desktop mode, elevate the Hugo 2 from a mere audio device to an immersive tool that reshapes how users experience their favorite music.

As users navigate the intricate landscape of high-fidelity audio, the Chord Hugo 2 stands as a beacon of usability, providing a listening experience and a journey enriched with thoughtful features. Whether enjoying the portability and versatility on the go or delving into the intricate details of a home audio setup, the Hugo 2 leaves a lasting impression. With a commitment to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the audio domain, Chord Electronics has crafted a device that not only meets but exceeds the expectations of discerning audiophiles, reaffirming the Hugo 2’s status as a true game-changer in the world of digital-to-analog conversion and headphone amplification.

Reasons to Buy the Chord Hugo 2:

  1. Unrivaled Sound Control: Experience rock-solid control that optimizes even the most demanding headphones, showcasing unparalleled precision and performance.
  2. Versatile DAC Excellence: The proprietary FPGA chip sets the Hugo 2 apart, delivering a transformative DAC experience with enhanced stage dynamics and spatial information.
  3. Spatial Innovation with Crossfeed: The crossfeed function creates a forward-focused soundstage, moving away from typical headphone stereo separation for an immersive speaker-like experience.
  4. Usability and Convenience: Intuitive controls, a distinctive LED feedback system, and thoughtful features like desktop mode contribute to a user-friendly and enjoyable audio experience.
  5. Portable Brilliance: The versatility, portability, and the option to dock with the Chord 2Go makes the Hugo 2 a pocket-friendly powerhouse.

Reasons Not to Buy the Chord Hugo 2:

  1. Premium Price Tag: The Hugo 2’s exceptional features come at a premium cost, making it a substantial investment for those on a tight budget.
  2. Size and Portability Trade-off: While portable, its size may be less pocket-friendly than smaller alternatives, making it less ideal for on-the-go use.
  3. Learning Curve: The unique LED feedback system may have a learning curve, and its reliance on color-coded lights might be challenging for color-blind users.
  4. Alternative Budget Options: More affordable alternatives might be sufficient for users primarily seeking portable DACs without requiring the Hugo 2’s advanced features.

In summary, the Chord Hugo 2 is a compelling choice for audiophiles seeking uncompromising sound quality, advanced features, and portable versatility. However, its premium cost and specific design may not suit everyone’s preferences or budget constraints.