Specialist hi-fi maker Chord Electronics has a considerable reputation for creating exceptional audio components that enable music fans to get closer to their favourite albums as well as being beautifully engineered designs that everyone will want to own. As with the company’s original Hugo launched in 2014, the Hugo 2 retains is distinctive form as both a desktop and ‘transportable’ headphone amplifier/DAC with a top-drawer specification – a leather carry case (£125) is available to help protect the Hugo 2 should you decide to take this £1,800 component out and about.
The Hugo 2 builds on the hugely popular first-generation model with a slew of upgrades that are dizzying to keep up with. Chord claims to have improved radio frequency filtering along with reduced internal distortion, a significantly lower noise floor and a signal-to-noise ratio that is effectively zero. Power output is up to 1050mW at 8ohm, up from the 720mW in the first Hugo. Additionally, the number of filter taps, which I take to be the reference points for digital processing has been increased from an apparently stratospheric 26,368 taps to a new high of 49,152 taps. All of which points to a significantly mind-boggling set of improvements that sound like music to my ears.
Additionally, I note from my research and recollections of the first Hugo that the more forgiving and ‘portable’ curved corners of the original chassis design are now rather sharp and angular. Additionally, the coax digital input is now the 3.5mm jack rather than a standard RCA type, to me, this seems like a frustrating compromise for anyone wanting to use the Hugo 2 as a desktop DAC and there is no adapter provided.
As with all things made by Chord Electronics, the Hugo 2 has a nice feel to it. It is solid, compact, and despite the alloy, the chassis feels almost ‘soft’ to the touch and the recessed Allen screws on the underside are expertly placed. The Hugo’s height is a little more than a paperback but it is a slightly smaller footprint than your average thriller, measuring 21 x 100 x 130mm (HxWxD). It weighs in at just under 400g.
In the box, which borrows a lot from Apple’s stylish approach to product packaging, you get a user manual, safety instructions, a 5V 2A switching micro USB power supply, an IR remote control and a drawstring carry bag. Cables and adapters supplied include a micro USB-to-USB-A cable, micro-to-micro USB OTG cable, an optical cable and, usefully, an optical-to-3.5mm optical cable.
The remote control is barely used apart from when I connected the Hugo to a CD transport where it was especially useful for cycling between the DAC’s filters, selecting inputs and simply dimming the technicolour light show displaying the Hugo’s settings and sampling frequency output.
I have the Hugo 2, mainly on my desktop hooked up to my Dell XPS laptop. I am using Qobuz, but I do have Tidal Masters as well. I am using the ‘Highly Recommended’ Focal for Bentley Radiance headphones as well as a pair of Oppo’s PM-2s and the recently launched T+A Solitaire P-SEs (full review to come). My AudioQuest DragonFly Red has been usurped and has fallen into my desktop drawer for the time being.
A 2,600mAh rechargeable battery is built in and Chord claims it will give around 8 hours of play time. After an overnight charge, I have managed to use the Hugo 2 all day from the battery without running out of power, resulting in fewer wires trailing around and a tidy and compact setup on my desktop. I have placed the Hugo 2 on a cork mat for a little desktop isolation and I have not found heat to be an issue.
Operation and filters
The Chord Hugo 2 is simple to set up and get going connected via the USB micro to lead input lead provided from a standard USB-A from the laptop. You can choose the input setting for the Hugo with one of the four indicator buttons on its left-hand side, the buttons are colour-coded for the source, HD USB is white, and Bluetooth is blue, for example. Optical and 3.5mmm coaxial inputs are also available.
Input resolution of the USB micro port has support for PCM sampling frequencies from 44.1kHz to 768kHz and bit depths from 16 to 32-bits. DSD is also supported up to DSD512. The coax input gives similar PCM support but as is often the case, the optical input maxes out at 24-bit/96kHz. The Hugo’s Bluetooth with aptX wireless connectivity supports PCM formats up to 16-bit/48kHz.
One of the really cool things about the Hugo 2 is there is a small porthole peering down to the circuit board. It is lit by an LED glowing a different colour depending on the input sampling frequency of the audio signal – you’ll need to know your rainbow ROYGBIV for this.
Output-wise, there are two unbalanced headphone jacks (1x 3.5mm and 1x 6.35mm) and stereo analogue RCAs for connecting to a preamplifier. There are four digital filters to choose from and I have generally opted for the ‘warm’ filter option (#3) for my tastes. Filter #1 is ‘neutral’ and two others that offer varying degrees of ‘warmth’ and ‘roll off’ of the input signal. There are subtle differences between them, and I needed a decent pair of headphones to really hear the differences but was a good test of my listening resolve.
Additionally, there is a crossfeed button that allows for a degree of ‘bleed’ in the separation between the left and right channels. This is intended for headphone use mainly and is said to generate the ‘feel’ of speakers while listening on headphones. Again, this a nice feature and the four options from off to max are intuitive. Volume is neatly controlled with a rollover button – like the one on the arcade game Missile Command in the eighties – and changes colour as the volume varies. The illuminations can be all be deactivated if preferred.
As a standalone DAC with a CD player
Using an Exposure XM5 CD player as a transport, I thought I would try the Hugo 2 as a standalone DAC into my resident T+A PA 2000 R integrated amplifier. I would have prefered to use the coaxial output from the CD into the DAC but as none is supplied; there is a Chord Company Clearway 3.5mm mini-jack/digital coaxial cable that is £100 on Futureshop. The XM5 CD is a rather nice bit of kit (review to follow) but I thought the Hugo 2 may improve on the output based upon my headphone listening. Sure enough, using an optical connector to the Hugo 2, it presents greater depth and widens the already impressive soundstage output and reminded me that the best source handled well (in this case a CD transport), is a really nice experience. I was then into my usual luxurious cycle of jumping around different CDs, from Johnny Marr’s Playland, the MTV Unplugged CDs, back to Ryan Adams and then to The Beatles for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In this configuration, it is useful to use the remote control.
As a DAC/headphone amp from a laptop
I installed the Hugo’s driver for my Windows 10 laptop in less than a minute and from this point on, Qobuz desktop is a friend for life and worth every penny of the Studio subscription. The output from the Hugo 2 really is a listen to behold. Tracks I love and know inside out such as Thinking of a Place by The War on Drugs (24-bit/96kHz), or Apocalypse, by Cigarettes after Sex (16-bit/44.1kHz) are a totally new experience with a width and separation between instruments almost as if I were in a recording studio and I was fiddling with faders.
It is time to listen to Sgt. Pepper’s… to hear what’s really going on – there is always so much more to discover every time I listen to it. The 50th anniversary remix of A Day in the Life (24-bit/96Hz) is fresh and lively from the Qobuz library. Headphones are such an immersive experience and they really are the best way to experience high-end audio. Here, with the Hugo 2 and the T+A Solitaire P-SE, the bass line is so vibrant and clear it is a real treat. There are tambourines inside my head and maracas over to the top left of my head. One of the things I really realise is that what we are really after is to be able to actively listen to a piece of music or an album, and take new things from it every time and to actually listen to the recording.
I am getting similar results, in respect of width and separation of instruments with the Oppo PM-2s that I have and the very nice Focal Radiance headphones, thus proving the performance of the Hugo 2 itself.
Bluetooth on my desktop is suddenly a thing and the connectivity and quality are exceptional. I do listen to a lot of podcasts and music on BBC Sounds, audiobooks and the like while walking with the dog but I often fail to get to the end so I can now simply Bluetooth at my desk and finish them off. I am a big listener of The Jazz Show with Jamie Cullum on Radio 2 which suddenly comes to life on this desktop setup, even via Bluetooth. I heard the amazing voice of Lady Blackbird for the first time on the show – jazz fusion at its best.
In my view, if you want a proper high end audio experience, with a decent pair of headphones, what can give you a better and more immersive sound for this price?
I have long wanted to hear Chord’s celebrated Hugo 2 DAC/headphone amplifier for myself, and I am delighted to say that after spending some time in its company, at last, my expectations have been surpassed. I am in complete agreement with many other hi-fi reviewers that managed to get their hands on a Hugo 2 before me – the Hugo 2 does indeed sound truly great and its eye-catching design and format support are outstanding. It’s desktop and portable versatility (with practical battery life) make it quite an exceptional hi-fi product, and for a proper high-end audio experience with a decent pair of headphones, there’s nothing I’ve heard that achieves a more immersive sound at the price. It is an easy Editor’s pick for me, thank you Chord Electronics.
Battery life, less wires on desktop
Sample rate colour window
Standard Coax input
Balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn headphone output
Chipset: Chord Electronics custom coded Xilinx Artix 7 (XC7A15T) FPGA
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’ wighted (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
Dimensions: 2.1cm (H) 10cm (W) 13cm (D)
Boxed Dimensions: 8.5cm (H) 12.2cm (W) 22cm (D)
Materials: Clamshell precision machined aluminium casing with polycarbonate buttons, acrylic signal window, and glass viewing portal. Available in a choice of two colours – natural silver, and satin black
Battery: 2x Rechargeable custom Enix Energies 3.7v 9.6Wh Li-ion (lithium-ion (2600mAh) batteries*
Tap length filter: 49,152 – 10 element Pulse Array design
Play time: 8 hrs (Avg.time)
Charging: Nominal six (6) hours via Micro USB at 1.8amps (fast charge) – Nominal eight (8) hours at 1amp (slow charge)
Connectivity (input): Micro USB (White): 44.1kHz to 768kHz – 16bit to 32bit: Coax via 3.5mm jack (Red): 44.1kHz to 384kHz – 16bit to 32bit: Coax via (same) 3.5mm jack (Dual data mode: Yellow): 44.1kHz to 768kHz – 16bit to 32bit: Optical (Green): 44.1kHz to 96kHz – 16bit to 24bit
Connectivity (input wireless): Bluetooth (Apt X) (Blue): 44.1kHz to 48kHz – 16bit
Connectivity (output): 1x ¼” jack headphone output: 1x 3.5mm jack headphone output: 1x stereo (L & R) RCA output
PCM support: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz, 358.8kHz, 384kHz, 717.6kHz, and 768kHz. 16 – 32bit
DSD support: Native playback supported. DSD64 (Single) to DSD512 (Octa-DSD)
Volume control: Digital, activated in 1dB increments. Last known state saved upon shutdown, with exception of line-level mode
Line-level mode: Activated via dual press of middle ‘Source’ and ‘Crossfeed’ buttons. Line level = 3v via all outputs. Reset by power cycle
Power saving mode: Auto-shutdown after ten minutes of input inactivity
Driver support: Driverless with Mac OS X and Linux, driver required for Windows OS
* Non-user-serviceable batteries are covered by a limited 18-month warranty from the initial date of purchase.