Review: Chord Electronics Hugo 2 – Ruler of sound

Chord Electronics Hugo²

Comparisons

I think most people are looking forward to learning how Hugo 2 compares to the original, and while I would love to tell you, I hate to say that you will be disappointed. Because I can not compare them, this part is left to Lieven, who has both units on hand and is burning to publish his review. I however can give you all a tiny bit of what you want. I am fortunate enough to be able to compare Hugo 2 to some other nice high end products such as the recently released Astell&Kern flagship player – the A&ultima SP1000 (what a weird name), but also to Hugo’s little sibling Mojo.

Chord Electronics – Mojo

Both Hugo and Mojo feature almost the same digital inputs, with Hugo also having wireless apt-X Bluetooth added, for those who need it. I never used it since I am just not a fan of it. Mojo as well as Hugo have two headphone outputs, but H² also features a set of RCA outputs, so it’s clear that it could be used as a desktop DAC as well.

Mojo also features a very resolving image yet Hugo 2 is undefeatable in this regard. Hugo has greater emotion and musicality in it. Hugo’s soundstage and imaging is better. Both are tonally not so far apart, but Hugo 2 wins on emotions, dynamics and especially on micro detailing. The rendering of Hugo is the best I have heard yet from a portable device. The higher tapped DAC in Hugo 2 to me is more neutral and musical. Mojo though comes at a much affordable price and way more pocketfriendly formfactor. Add a Poly to Mojo and you will also gain remote control via smartphone, apt-X Bluetooth and micro SD card input. On top of that you will also get a Roon Ready network streamer and UPnP enabled device! Word on the street has it that there is also a Poly for Hugo 2 planned. I for one am looking forward to that a lot!

Chord Electronics Hugo²

Astell&Kern – A&ultima SP1000

A lot of requests have also went to the battle of the new AK flagship and Hugo 2. While I don’t really see them as competing products, many people appear to be torn between them.

The AK has the advantage of having internal storage to source files from, and thus not needing a digital transport to play music. Hugo 2 has more digital inputs, since the SP1000 only features an USB C port to be used as DAC. On the other hand it is also useable as a media renderer when using AK Connect (enabling UpnP function of the device). Giving it the upper hand on network streaming, for those who care about that.

Again, both have two headphone outputs, while the Chord only sports unbalanced sockets the AK goes the extra mile and features a 2.5mm balanced output. Though we have learned from John Franks in his interview that with FPGA’s there is no need for them.

Sonically the AK is on front when it comes to dynamics. Both units have a very nicely balanced signature, with emphasized musicality and portions of warmth. Hugo for me clearly wins on resolution. While the AK definitely is no slouch in that area either, H² is without a doubt the king there. To me the SP1000 has a higher toe-tapping factor while the Hugo 2 still wows me more with instrumental placing, soundstaging and imaging.

Both units definitely are in the lead in their respective categories, but I couldn’t pick one over the other. I love the possibility to have high end sound when I am travelling with my AK, and I love the fact that I can also have it in a transportable DAC at my office. It all comes down to what you need.

ALO Audio – Continental Dual Mono

Again, a few people have requested to compare both units to each other. And again, I don’t necessarily see them as competing products. Yes, both are transportable DAC/Amps with outstanding sound, but one is a tube hybrid amplifier with DAC and the other is programmed gate array with desktop like digital inputs.
Hugo features dual coaxial, optical, micro USB and Bluetooth input, where CDM only gives you the option of micro USB and analogue input. Hugo is much more powerful with its driving capabilities and due to its nature a lot quieter than the valve tube Continental. Giving it the ability to not only drive demanding full sized headphones but also very sensitive in ear monitors without background noise. The left/right balance on lower volumes is also much better than with CDM, which needs to get to a certain volume before both channels are even. Sound wise Hugo is more resolving and neutral than CDM. ALO’s flagship DAC/amp though is fuller and lusher in the mid section. It has a softer approach to music than the Hugo and is more likely to be enjoyed in a relaxing way. Hugo though will definitely keep surprising you with all that is in your music. Staging and imaging is more precise with the British audio goodie. Both units let you change sound a little, Hugo by switching filters and CDM by tube rolling. The American amp though does that more drastically to my experience. Sound changes are more apparent when exchanging tubes.

A certain bit of audiophile overkill is always welcome, so I have used the great lush tube sound to add more body to Hugo’s sound and to make it a bit more relaxed and laid back. I connected Hugo 2 via 3.5mm out to my beloved and favourite amplifier. The result is incredible! You will lose some resolution but this is true full high end sound.

Driveability

As noted before, I have primarily used Hugo 2 with in ear monitors, such as my custom Kaiser Encore and K10, AAW’s W900 or Katana. I have also used it with the Massdrop x Noble IEM which was sent to me by Noble many weeks ago. Hugo 2 of course has absolutely no problem driving those, and apart from Katana all of them are deadsilent when connected, the extended volume control also lets you enjoy your iems on low volumes.

Katana sounds very fast and energetic with the Chord. It has tons of micro details and a great deep bass response. What I love about Katana is that it is so incredibly accurate and precise with the best imaging I have heard. Even a tiny step above the Encore in my opinion. Katana also has a more reference tuned soundsignature, I’d call it analytical if it weren’t so damn musical and retaining such great warmth. A custom Katana is coming over as I type, the universal has been with me for a while, so look out for a comperative review of Katana to other flagship CIEMs and IEMs soon!

Encore’s bass is as good as ever, with great authority, texture and layering. Mids are wonderfully natural with good body and weight. Treble is airy, extended and smooth, well pronounced and in no way harsh or hot. Encore is a monitor that will get you to start moving on your chair, tapping your toes to the rhythm.

As mentioned I also used my K240 Sextett with Hugo 2, and I admit, it took a while to get used to the pairing, but after that I could enjoy my AKG like I didn’t for a long time. Immersive bass, great detail and musicality. The vintage AKG is a great match with the Hugo 2, that I can tell you without a doubt. It has an unbelievable balance and neutrality to its tone, with insane details and wonderful body and low end extension. It can absolutely become an addictive pairing.

I have been using Hugo 2 also at home as my main DAC with my Linux PC setup. It has even replaced my Cayin iDAC6 because of the high capabilities of micro detail reproduction and the great imaging that goes with it. I have connected the RCA outs to my tube integrated amplifier, and together they form a detailed and lush sound. My humble bookshelf speakers have never sounded that convincing to me.

Conclusion

The original Hugo was regarded a landmark in portable audio, and I think it’s offspring will follow the footsteps. You get real desktop class sound quality in a transportable package. It sounds really good with all ears and headphones I have used it with, and I am very much looking forward to trying out many more in the future.

If you are in the game for a high end DAC that appears to also be used on the go with your smartphone or DAP, the Hugo 2 is definitely worth serious consideration.

For the retail price of 2195$ Hugo² sure doesn’t come cheap, and deciding if it’s worth that much is completely up to you. I advice to listen to it on an extended run to come to a decision, but be warned, you might end up with a brand new Hugo.

The Hugo quickly won me over and has become my main DAC/amp at the office and my desktop DAC at home – it simply is that good. A recommended buy? How the hell could it not?!

4.2/5 - (32 votes)

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A daytime code monkey with a passion for audio and his kids, Linus tends to look at gear with a technical approach, trying to understand why certain things sound the way they do. When there is no music around, Linus goes the extra mile and annoys the hell out of his colleagues with low level beatboxing.

12 Comments

  • Reply August 8, 2017

    Domovoi

    I’m actually surprised the AK SP1000 could even keep up with the Hugo2 even w iems in balanced mode. I certainly expect the Hugo 2 to pull ahead to TOTL cans such as the Utopia, LCD-3, etc…

    • Reply August 8, 2017

      Linus

      Hi Domvoi,
      thanks for your comment.
      I didn’t say SP1000 can’t keep up with Hugo2, they are both top of the line performers and have incredible sound. The AK is more about dynamics while the Chord is about resolution. You can’t go wrong with either.

      • Reply August 9, 2017

        Domovoi

        Indeed, I also didnt say that SP1000 couldnt keep up w the Hugo 2 🙂

        I’m just surprised that it can and that it has greater dynamics. I would be interested if the SP1000 would still lead in dynamics with larger cans such as the Ether Flow, LCD 2/3, etc.

        • Reply August 9, 2017

          Linus

          😀 slight miscommunication then…

          I can’t speak for bigger cans unfortunately, but maybe Lieven will cover it in one of his reviews. Time will tell.

  • Reply December 23, 2017

    Larry

    Hi Linus,

    I’m getting ready to sell my beloved high-end stereo and move to a portable or transportable system (the downside of living in a condo). My home system has tube-based Cary gear so I’m seriously considering the Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse / Sennheisser 800s. But you just threw a wrench in the works after reading your stellar review of the Chord Hugo 2. I understand it’s a bit of “apples and oranges”, given that one is tube and the other SS. And I’m guessing there are pros and cons to each. But I would really appreciate it if you could you give me some idea of how they compare sound-wise, particularly in musicality and emotional engagement. And again, I really like the 800s so I don’t know if one is a better synergy than the other. thank you

    • Reply December 23, 2017

      Linus

      Hi Larry,

      thanks for your comment.
      I can’t really say for the Woo, as I have never had the pleasure to listen to it, it is on my bucket list still.
      I do however have the HD800s and the ALO Audio Continental Dual Mono, which also is a tube hybrid dac amplifier. The Hugo2 has wonderful synergy with the Sennheiser, it’s detailed, wide, emotional and engaging. The Chord has a very organic and life-like presentation with loads of emotions. The CDM has lusher mids but is nowhere near the clarity and resolution the Hugo2 offers. I sometimes hook my CDM up to my Hugo2, but then also very often find myself not needing this combination as the Hugo is stellar on its own and I feel the CDM takes away some of its magic.
      To sum up: CDM has a fuller midrange which also benefits from great emotions, but the Hugo is miles ahead in terms of resolution, sound stage, layering, separation and also has sensational emotions and very pleasing highs (cdm’s are a bit softer and don’t sparkle as much due to the hybrid nature).
      I feel the Sennheiser has better synergy with the Hugo than with the ALO.

      Hope that helps!
      Have some great holidays and an awesome new year. Hope you find the right system for you. I am sure you wouldn’t be disappointed with the Hugo2.

      • Reply December 24, 2017

        Larry

        Damn Linus, that’s quite a feat — for a SS amp to sound both detailed AND emotionally engaging. Tube gear has always sounded more musical and emotionally engaging to me. darTZeel electronics comes close but it still sounds more like a facsimile of music instead of music. So I would love to hear your impressions of the Hugo 2 vs. the Eclipse after you have a chance to audition both. The Battle Of The Titans — tubes vs. SS. 🙂

        The one odd thing I noticed about the Hugo 2 is their leather case doesn’t have a loop to carry it on your belt or a detachable shoulder strap. Makes sense to include them since it’s a portable DAC/amp. I sent them the suggestion so hopefully they’ll respond.

        I also plan on buying High Fidelity Cables (USB and headphone cables) if they come out with them next year, a HFC Trinity Go Headphone Module, and a Bybee QSE. I don’t know if you’re familiar with these products. I’ve heard what the QSE does in two high-end stereo systems. They’re magical — all the instruments and voices become more 3-dimensional and natural sounding. Even the emotions become 3-dimensional. Both friends have them on all their components. They also own MC-0.5 power conditioners. Even though they already own high-end power conditioners, the effect is cumulative. I haven’t heard what the Trinity does yet but I have heard HFC’s CT-1E and Ultimate interconnects. And if they’re any indication of what the Trinity Go sounds like, it’s a game changer. The CT-1E was jaw-dropping. I don’t think very many people have heard that level of musicality and emotional engagement. The Ultimates are in a whole different ballpark that I can’t even put into words. And that’s only their mid-end cable! So I’m really looking forward to them coming out with a USB and headphone cable. I think it would be quite interesting if you were to do a review of the Trinity Go.

        • Reply December 28, 2017

          Linus

          Hi Larry,
          sorry for the lack of response… holidays and stuff, you know 😉

          In this case I was referring to the specific pairing with the HD800s, but I also feel that the Hugo2 sports great emotions and musicality. Of course they will enhance when paired with a good tube amplifier. But I can’t speak for any other than my CDM. This one doesn’t match the HD800s well, imo. The H2-CDM chain has proven to be very pleasing with other gear though (K240 Sextett and IEMs).

          Yeah, I was also hoping to see that with the H2 case, but I have to say, the Chord official case is extremely well built and looks gorgeous, I have one here. The strap-on feature from the 1st gen Hugo’s case would’ve been great though. I’ve seen that Dignis also has a very impressive case for Hugo2, but I am not sure if you can hook it up to your belt either….

          Sorry, I’m not familiar with those but they indeed sound interesting

          • Reply January 3, 2018

            Larry

            I followed up with a call to High Fidelity Cables after noticing the Trinity Go has only 1/8” cable inputs, which made no sense to me. I was told it’s a niche product, specifically for the Chinese and Japanese market that wants a taste of magnetic conduction on their portables — mystery solved.

            I strongly suggest trying two Bybee QSEs strapped to your Hugo2. I’ve only heard them on high-end home audio components, where they did their magic. But I’m guessing the Hugo2 is resolving enough to where the Bybees will significantly improve the sound! Worth a try, especially if you can get them directly from Bybee for review. They seem to take 3 – 5 days to fully affect components. The only thing I don’t like about them is that there’s no battery compartment for battery replacement. Bybee told me that after 8 years, the battery dies but the units still retain around 80% effectiveness.

  • Reply September 12, 2018

    Michael Feehily

    Have you tried Hugo 2 with the audioquest nighthawk carbon?
    Love my nighthawk & been thinking of the Hugo 2 but I know the audioquest are very amp dependent

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