Review: Chord Electronics Hugo 2 – The New Master

DAC

The Hugo 2 in theory is a DAC and not an amplifier and I love using it at home as DAC only, especially with softer and warmer sounding tube amps such as the Lafigaro 339, Auris HA-2 SE (my fav combo) or with solid state amps such as the Violectric V200 and V281.

Some people wonder why the Hugo doesn’t have a balanced (DAC) output, as they would like to use it with the balanced inputs of their desktop amps, but Chord is very clear in that. Quote: “Fundamentally, balancing is a fix for a problem we don’t have. The idea of balancing a DAC’s output is to overcome problems associated with induced noise that enters into the analogue sections of a standard DAC chip. We don’t use off-the-shelf chips that are vulnerable to this, therefore, we don’t have those noise problems to overcome”.

I have two dedicated desktop DACs in my home system, the Violectric V850 and the Project-Audio Box Design DAC box DS2 Ultra but lately I have been using the Hugo 2 more and more as a desktop DAC in my SE systems. Simply because of the high level of detail, dynamics, speed and precision the Hugo 2 offers. I can assure you it doesn’t come anything short of a desktop DAC. Au contraire.

Inputs & Outputs

The input I’ve been using most is the USB-input in combination with my laptop, followed by the optical input with the AK SP1000 as source. While all of the inputs sound great, I (just like with the Hugo), like the coaxial input most as it has slightly bigger body and it gives the most analog feel to the music. My favorite sources in that case are the Luxury & Precision L5Pro and l. This is something very personal though, and it might be completely different for you.

The outputs I’ve been using most are the 3.5mm and 6.3mm output, together with the RCA outputs. Do check first if your RCA cables fit the Hugo 2 connectors as they are recessed inside the Hugo 2 case.

Vs Hugo – The original

Linus already covered how the Chord Hugo 2 compares to the Chord Mojo and I can only confirm his findings. Mojo and Hugo 2 share the same tonality but the Hugo 2 simply outperforms Mojo on all possible fronts (except for Mojo maybe being even more silent). The Hugo 2 has the higher tapped DAC of both units and so this difference really shouldn’t come as a surprise. While Mojo absolutely is great, I haven’t always been as enthusiastic about its performance. With the Hugo 2 this is different and I absolutely adore its performance and sound signature.

I’ve always found the original Hugo to be more soft (more natural voices), smooth and a little slower sounding in general, but also with great richness and sublime depth and layering. You could say it has a more analog presentation with slightly bigger bass and that’s probably also one of the reasons I’ve always kept picking it over the more digital sounding Mojo. Hugo 2 follows the same more digital presentation its little brother does but it has an improved performance which brings it closer to the high level of the original Hugo.

The Sennheiser HD800 is one of my fav headphones with the original Hugo but I don’t like it as much with the Hugo 2. The original Hugo to my ears sounds a little warmer, smoother and slower (with a tad looser/bigger bass) than the Hugo 2. That being said, Hugo 2 does have more micro detail/richness, better extension, layering and depth but it’s missing the warmer more analog touch and natural voices of the Hugo. There’s no doubt that the Hugo 2 is the better technical performer of both and it clearly is the best performer. Some ears might still prefer the original Hugo (the voices for me), but the successor simply performs at such a high(er) level, that it’s almost impossible not to like and fall in love with.

Even though I prefer the good old HD800 on the original Hugo, I always go for the Hugo 2 and I simply don’t use the Sennheiser in that case. The Hugo 2 just is too good not to be picked as the best transportable Chord DAC. Now the big question is if you should upgrade to the new Hugo 2 if you already own the Hugo, and that’s a very tough nut to crack. If you’re still happy with how your original Hugo sounds, I wouldn’t trade it in. If you want the best of the best however, and accept a more Mojo style of tuning, than the Hugo 2 undeniably is the one to go for. I myself have both Hugos and love them both but it’s the H2 that’s getting all the playtime. I guess that says enough.

Headphones   

For a large selection of IEM combinations/impressions, I also advise you to check part 1 of the Hugo review. As Linus has covered several (C)IEMs already I’ll focus on reference full size headphones in my part of the review.

There might be less talk about Hifiman’s He-1000 V2 with Susvara and Susvara Jr being available but I still like it a lot, even more so than the Susvara. The Chord Hugo 2 makes the V2 perform very good. The level of detail is incredible and the H2/V2 combo is rich and musical with great dynamics. The only thing I’m hissing here compared to a big desktop amp is the layering and depth. But all in all this combination is extremely good and I would be perfectly happy if this was my this setup.

I’ve also been using the Kennerton Odin with the Hugo 2 but personally this wasn’t my most liked combo. I do prefer the Odin on a more powerful headphone amp, and in that regard the Odin is a lot like the good old Hifiman HE-6. It certainly isn’t a bad sounding headphone in combination with the H2, but it in a lot of regards sounds better to me from a more powerful amp. The good old Audeze LCD-2 is a headphone I really enjoy listening to straight from the Hugo 2. I’m still very much a fan of the LCD-2’s sound signature, even though the newer headphones sound considerably better. What bothers me most is the LCD’s headphone band & suspension system which makes it uncomfortable compared to its colleagues from other brands. Sound wise however, the LCD-2 and Hugo 2 combo simply works with good bass, incredibly good rich mids and energetic treble. I wouldn’t recommend this combination for all musical styles but that’s typical to the LCD-2. In short, if the LCD-2 is your preferred headphone, you’ll absolutely love it being fed by the Hugo 2.

The headphone I have been using most with the Hugo 2 is the Focal Utopia. While this headphone performs even better from my V281 and HA2-SE, it sounds incredibly good straight from the Hugo 2. (Filter 1 & Cross-Feed 1). The Utopia and Hugo 2 combo is incredibly detailed, musical and natural sounding. For me the Utopia is the best headphone out there at the moment and I prefer it over all of the other headphones mentioned in this article, and even the Abyss and Susvara. So it’s no surprise really that I also absolutely love the Utopia on the Chord Hugo 2. I’m convinced however that you will too.

I did want to include another dynamic driven headphone in this overview and I chose the Beyerdynamic DT1990PRO as it is one of my favorite Beyer headphones. With the professionally tuned DT1990PRO, I didn’t like any of the cross feed settings and I used filter 1, as I did with the rest. The result is a very clear, neutral and balanced sound with heaps of detail. I feared treble might be a little “much” but this wasn’t the case at all. If you want your 1990 to sound warmer, smoother or more bass however, than the Hugo 2 isn’t the source for you. If you want and like the DT1990PRO for what it was tuned though, you’ll love it on the H2.

In short, besides for maybe the HD800 and Odin there isn’t really any ear- or headphone that doesn’t sound good to extremely good hooked up to the Chord Hugo 2. It’s that simple.

Conclusion

Wowzers! Chord was going strong already and they keep on making better gear each and every time. While the Hugo will certainly be seen as a classic in the near future (as it was the first with such a high performance), it’s the Hugo 2 that will go in the books as the best performing transportable DAC/AMP combo of 2017 (and beyond?). With the Hugo 2 you’ll come as close as you can get to a portable DAVE, and that says a lot.

If you can afford it, I don’t see any reason why not to buy the Hugo 2. It looks great, sounds extremely good, is well built and has all the inputs and outputs you’ll ever need. It’s pure desktop quality in a transportable package. Is it too soon to declare this the winner of the 2017 DAC/AMP category already.

Specs, right after the Jump

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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. He's running Headfonia as a side project next to his full time day job in Digital Marketing & Consultancy. He's a big fan of tube amps and custom inear monitors and has published hundreds of product reviews over the years.

21 Comments

  • Reply August 17, 2017

    Marius

    Wonderful, thank you Lieven. It’s a very well crafted review and I’m always impressed how you skilfully translate your listening experiences to words.

    The fact that you dropped your HD800 for this new found love speaks for itself.

    I love, love my Hugo (1), but your raving review leaves me struggling, well, thanks for that! 😉

    Did have a chance to try your HD650 or LCD-XC on the HUGO 2?

  • Reply August 17, 2017

    Martin F

    I had the Hugo 2 for about 2 weeks and listened to it for about 2 hours each day and came to the conclusion that the upgrade from my Hugo 1 was not worth the extra money. While the Hugo 2 is a great DAC-Amp and works great with every source, i just don’t see why someone with a Hugo 1 would upgrade just based on the soundquality. I tested both the Hugo 1 and Hugo 2 as well as my DX90 (as DAC) and could not tell either of these 3 apart from eachother. The Volume was matched to +- 0,5dB and they were all connected to my ifi Pro-iCan. So i could easily switch between Inputs and there was basically no latency between switching the different sources. I also did some blindtesting between the DX90 (as a DAC) and the Hugo 2. Out of testing 20 times, i could tell the Hugo 2 apart on 6 tries. That is less then 50 % which is basically “guessing”. So i couldn’t tell them apart, which is why i returned the Hugo 2.

    • Reply November 8, 2017

      David lucena

      Very interesting!

    • Reply December 31, 2017

      mehrdad

      Hello, could you tell the sound differences between hugo2 and IFI-Audio Pro iCan? and
      In your opinion which one has better choice . thank you.

    • Reply January 27, 2018

      Muataz

      You have to listen to with out external amp, because the external amp will change the sound.
      I had the same issue with my Mojo & Black dragonfly and iFi iCan SE, with sound from iCan SE the difference between Mojo & dragonfly is small, but when compare them with out amp the difference is day & night.

      There is no amp in the world no matter what is the cost will beat chord the built it amp section in pure sound quality

  • Reply August 17, 2017

    Danni Veng

    Lieven, did you use the dt1990pro or the dt1770pro, as you described it as closed headphone which is the latter.

  • Reply August 18, 2017

    Diego

    Hello, could you tell the differences between hugo2 and V850?
    Thank you
    Best regards

  • Reply September 26, 2017

    Bart

    Hi Lieven, how does it compare to the Hugo TT with the Utopias?

    • Reply September 28, 2017

      Lieven

      I don’t have the TT, sorry

  • Reply November 8, 2017

    David lucena

    Greeting Lieven. Thank you for the great review. I was interested in your opinion between Sony nw-WM1Z vs hugo2.
    I know they serve different purposes, buy in the end of the day, the sound quality is the only thing that matters. I had a very short experience in both, and thought Sony had better dac, and hugo was close but chord better amplification was confounding my judgment.
    Hope to see your valuable opinion.

    • Reply November 9, 2017

      Lieven

      Hi David,

      I would say the opposite, the H2 has the best dac. The other advantage the H2 has is that it can power full sized headphones better than the 1Z can. With the 1Z the balanced output is the best, and with the Sony it’s the amp section that makes it special sound wise.
      I however for full sized headphones would always recommend the H2 unless they’re really easy to drive

  • Reply November 9, 2017

    David lucena

    THANks!

  • Reply December 15, 2017

    Tihon

    Greetings!

    Thank you for the review. Can you share any thoughts on Violectric V850 vs. Chord Hugo 2 comparison? I`m looking for a high level DAC for my Violectric V200 and Fostex TH-900. V850 should be the obvious choice, but Hugo 2 has it`s strong points like HF roll-off filters and crossfed. Unfortunately in my country there are no chances to listen to any of this DACs before ordering. I assume non of these two would be disappointing, but should have different approach to music. What do you think about their dynamics and treble softness?

    Thank you.
    Best regards!

    • Reply December 16, 2017

      Lieven

      The V850 has the softest treble. The Chord Dacs are very detailed and analytical, the V850 is softer. The Violectric DAC also doens’t do DSD and doesn’t have the options the Chord has. The V850 is my desktop DAC but I have to admit using the Hugo 2 more lately as Desktop DAC.

      • Reply December 17, 2017

        Tihon

        Oh, that was really nice to hear, thank you! I used to think Chord would have softer treble with all those filter options. Can you say if any of those would sound more “punchy”? I don`t know appropriate english word. I mean any difference in attack or speed (the very first loud moment of any sound) between two DACs. I think it`s more amplifier responsibility (how fast it could go from low to high level), but never had a chance to hear if a good DAC could make any difference in this.

  • Reply January 11, 2018

    Juan

    How does this pairs with the HD800S

    • Reply January 11, 2018

      Linus

      Hi Juan,
      Lieven doesn’t own the 800S, so I took the liberty to answer.

      In one word: Incredible 🙂

  • Reply March 10, 2018

    William

    Isn’t the headphone amplifier section underpowered and weak though? I guess I will need to try it at a headphone bar with different HP.

    • Reply March 12, 2018

      Lieven

      No I wouldn’t say it’s weak, but it of course isn’t a full desktop unit

  • Reply July 20, 2018

    NITISH

    Hi Lieven
    Awesome review!

    Can you share the impressions of the pairing between Hugo 2 & Violectric hpa v281 vs Hugo 2 alone ?

    Is there a issue of double amplification or degradation of SQ of Hugo 2 output when connected to an external headphone amp like the v281 ?

    Thanks

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