Chord Hugo 2 review: Gobsmackingly astonishing headphone audio
There comes a point in any product type’s price scale where spending more doesn’t necessarily deliver where you might expect it to.
Spend £200,000 on a car, for instance, and you’d hope for the very best of everything: incredible speed, great handling and all the latest technological mod cons. All too often, though, you’re paying for a brand, a name, or a lifestyle choice. All too often, deliberate compromises are made.
The Chord Hugo 2 isn’t like that at all. It’s a have your cake and eat it type of product; a “you pay your money, you get exactly what you paid for” type of device. It’s one of those things that, if you have the money to spare and you care about your music, you absolutely must give an audition to.
Don’t get me wrong. The Hugo 2 isn’t for everyone. It costs an arm and a leg and all that gets you is a DAC and headphone amp. You can buy headphone amps for a lot less than this. Chord’s little brother, the Mojo, sounds fabulous and costs nearly £1,500 less. I own one and I love it.
But is it as good as the Hugo 2? No. No it isn’t. Not at all.
I paired the Hugo 2 with a pair of Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature headphones and to say I was blown away by the experience would be an understatement.
The pairing sounds better than any other speaker and amp setup I’ve ever lived with for any period of time. It delivers more detail, sound staging, instrument separation and musical texture than even the Chord Mojo and, once you’ve clapped ears on it, you’ll never want to listen to music in any other way.
Chord Hugo2 review: Features
The Hugo 2, in essence, is a rather simple beast. Its subtleties are all on the inside, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
First, let’s cover the practicalities. This is a portable headphone amp and DAC (digital to analogue converter) that has it all. It supports all the high-resolution audio formats you care to think of; from 44.1kHz 16-bit files up to 768kHz 32-bit and even supports native playback of DSD512 files.[gallery:3]
Plus, it’ll take a variety of different inputs. On the Hugo 2’s right hand edge you’ll find 3.5mm coaxial and optical digital inputs, on the left edge is a Micro-USB input port, and there’s Bluetooth AptX support as well, for streaming music from your phone remotely.
Outputs are just as impressive, with a pair of headphone jacks – one 3.5mm and one 1.4in – and stereo RCA phono outputs, though note that because the latter are recessed into the body of the mono, some bulkier phono plugs may not fit.
Couple that lot with an infrared remote control and the ability to switch over to a 3V line level output and you have a DAC that’s just as comfortable driving your main Hi-Fi system as it is a travelling companion.[gallery:4]
Chord Hugo 2 review: Usability and design
Compared with the Mojo – the Hugo 2’s little brother – the Hugo 2 is a bit on the bulky side. With a footprint about the size of a small paperback and sharp corners and edges all around, it’s not something you’re going to want to sling in your pocket next to your smartphone.
One feature the Hugo 2 has borrowed from the Mojo, however, is the control system, which seems, in turn, to have been borrowed from the flight deck of an alien spaceship.
Four multicoloured “orb buttons” are arranged down the left edge of the chassis, a small circular window – also lit with a coloured LED – sits in the centre while a back-lit rotary dial sits to the right of this for adjusting the volume.[gallery:2]
As you select various filters and inputs the colours of the LEDs behind all the various controls change to indicate the mode or level you’ve selected. The volume dial goes black when you’ve turned it down to zero and cycles up through red, yellow, green, cyan, blue, purple and, finally, white for maximum volume. The LED behind the window in the centre indicates the sampling rate of the music file being played: red for 44.1kHz, purple for 768kHZ and white for DSD.
The same goes for the mode selector buttons on the left. These are used to power the Hugo on and off, and select various degrees of filtering, all of which affects the sound to a greater or lesser extent. I preferred to stick with the “incisive neutral” mode, indicated by a white colour on the filter mode button, but you can warm it up if your headphones require it.
Next, there’s the X-PHD control, which in crude terms cross-mixes the stereo channels a touch to make your headphones sound more speaker-like. As with the filters, there are several levels to choose from here, and each offers a subtle tweak to the sound, but enabling any one of them does produce a more “out of the head” listening experience.
All of this, including the sheer musical genius of the Hugo 2, is enabled by Chord’s ingenious DAC design. Instead of using an off-the-shelf chip like the most of the rest of the industry, the Hugo2 uses an FPGA (field programmable gate array) chip. Essentially, this allows Chord to create its own chip designs without having to go through the rigmarole of manufacturing its own DAC chips. It also gives the company much more control over the whole engineering process.[gallery:1]
The chip in question is a Xilinx Artix 7, which is both more powerful and more power efficient than the chip in the original Hugo DAC. Incidentally, the battery (or rather batteries) inside the Hugo 2 are rated for seven hours of playback and charging takes around four hours via 5v Micro-USB.
Chord Hugo 2 review: Verdict
I’ve said it already, but the Chord Hugo 2 is a truly astonishing audio device. I’m already in love with the way its little brother, the Mojo sounds, but the extra depth in sound and the extra width, breadth and control the Hugo 2 brings to the table is truly amazing to behold.
Connected to your headphones or your Hi-Fi system and it sounds just wonderful, and you even have the flexibility to tweak the sound to match your output device if you find it over-warm or too dry.
The only problem (at least for me and my restricted budget) is that it costs £1,800. If you’re looking to treat yourself, though, you won’t be disappointed. This is one audio product that delivers leaps-and-bounds better audio than products below it on the price scale and it justifies every pound spent.