Looks can be deceptive in audio as in life, the Chord Hugo looks a bit big to be a truly portable DAC but way too small be a serious piece of electronics. Yet it is both at the same time, a battery powered headphone amplifier come converter and a 32-bit/3834kHz and DSD-128 audiophile DAC. We were told at its CES 2014 launch that technologically it’s the most advanced converter that Chord Electronics makes. Bit odd to put it in such a small and relatively affordable product, but quite nice for those end users who don’t have infinite reserves of spare cash. Apparently this headphone amp and DAC is designed to be strapped to a mobile phone, but in the flesh you realise that he phone would have to be even bigger than tea trays that pass for mobile phones these days. Hugo is 10cm wide and 2cm thick, it weighs 400g, yet Chord supply large O rings specifically to hold a phone with. I have to assume that there is some extra credibility to be had from lugging around an accessory that’s so much bigger than the actual phone, in Japan that is. That’s where mobile audio is taken seriously at the moment, Chord must be hoping the same thing will be happening over here one day too.
Hugo is a nice little lump of machined aluminium but it has a bewildering array of unmarked connections and switches. This because it can support up to three pairs of headphones, has optical, coaxial and two USB inputs as well as analogue out on RCA. So it’s clearly aimed at other markets besides portable audio, why else include the option for fixed output – albeit one that requires an extra button push on switch-on. And those buttons and switches are tiny. The holes for the RCA sockets were on the snug side too but this has been revised now and all future models can accommodate a range of plug types – on the first batch Neutrik Profis could just about cling on but Chord Co’s chunky VEE 3 were out of the question, I’m told that they too are now accommodated. Apparently even the power switch has now been made more accessible for the non elfin among us.
I sat Hugo on the rack next to a laptop and used a micro USB B to USB A cable to connect the two. While micro USB would seem to be sensible choice for portable use its not a connector you see on fancy USB cables as yet so there’s no danger of getting carried away with audiophile cabling, which makes life a bit easier. Sonically it doesn’t seem to be too much of a barrier to musical entertainment, in fact I got some remarkably revealing and enjoyable sounds out of this DAC. Chord DACs have always been better than average when it comes to timing and Hugo is no different, in fact it’s probably better than the Chord DACs I’ve heard in the past. But a lot has changed since I had one of those, notably the arrival of computer audio as a serious source. I started out with Hugo connected to my Macbook Air running Decibel music playback software, and the combination worked a treat. Really strong vocal imaging, blasting brass and a strong groove came out of Conjure’s Jes Grew, the whole thing sounding highly articulate and bouncing with energy. I also tried JRiver in place of Decibel, this delivered a warmer sound as it tends to but also plenty of dynamics and pace with Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit. It also pulled out the image depth in Henry Threadgill’s Bermuda Blues, an analogue recording of a jazz quartet from the seventies which has plenty of space and dynamics if slightly hard sounding saxophones. Going back to Decibel proved once again its markedly greater transparency which seems a worthwhile trade-off against the basic interface. It brought in the vibrancy and muscularity of the drums and bass that make the recording so immediate.
Hugo proved to be very good at opening up new records and showing you what is interesting about them, I picked up BB King’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds after hearing it on a blues programme on TV and was immediately drawn to the playing of a man whose work usually fails to engage me. I also dug out Joe Walsh’s ancient Funk 48 and revelled in the lovely phat bass sound, it sounds like either a Rickenbacker or a broken bass cab, there’s a burr to it that’s unusual but very clear on this DAC. I even indulged in a bit of contemporary pop courtesy of Adele (a DSD file), the girl certainly has a spectacular voice but the production on Rolling in the Deep is atrocious, you can appreciate the song until the chorus when the degree and nature of compression make it painful. I have yet to find an audio component that can fix that. I tried a number of other DSD pieces (over PCM, DoP) but didn’t find they offered a clear advantage but at least they didn’t sound overly large and floaty in the way that DSD often can. I even tried some MP3, as a form of penance I guess, and it proved listenable if not actually a pleasure. But this is largely because I avoid the format.
Hugo responds to what it's fed with remarkably consistency and apparent accuracy, change the source and you can hear it, change it the right way and you get more enjoyment from the music. It’s pretty transparent. Compared to a tube DAC (Astin trew Concord) it sounds fast, immediate and thrilling, not as relaxed of course but more involving and that is what I look for in a product. If I want to relax I’ll put on some relaxing music. Overall Hugo is a remarkable converter even when used in a domestic system, the fact that it’s portable is a bonus because you get a battery power supply and a very, very nice converter for a fairly sensible price. The buttons are a little fiddly and the fact that you need to press two at switch on to bypass the volume control is a minor irritation, but it's a small price to pay for what is a remarkably advanced bit of audio technology and one which delivers music in a transparent and inviting fashion.