I get many new products at Custom Cable that I get excited about I must admit! Usually it’s like Christmas when a brand we support launches a new product. I have to run down to the warehouse to unbox our demonstration stock and start playing. However, I was lucky to have a play with a very special little product prior to receiving our demonstrator this time around.
It was quite an unsuspecting little unit, a glass window on the top with a jog wheel and a multitude of sockets lining either end. I was given the standard “this is better than anything we have ever done before” and took that with a pinch of salt. I generally prefer to make up my own mind about a product. I asked a few questions about the tiny aluminium coloured block I held in my hand and received a few answers…… “26,368 Taps, 5 inputs including bluetooth, 2 x 3.5mm outputs and a single ¼ inch, alongside a pair of RCA cinch outputs.” My first thoughts were that this packed a great amount of flexibility. The Toslink and Coaxial input allowed for 24/192 and 24/384 respectively and one of the micro USB inputs was available to receive native DSD128. Okay so they have thought of everything and it looks lovely…but….there are quite a few DACs/Headphone amplifiers available now that can easily cope with DSD and offer great sound. I plugged the unit in to the mains and turned it on. I was greeted by a showcase of different coloured lights and the jog dial glowed dark green. Classy! I was just about to plug a pair of headphones in to the recessed 3.5mm socket and was interrupted by being told to unplug it from the mains. I originally thought that this was a bit of a bizarre request as I was just about to start listening to music from my phone. I unplugged the unit from the mains and to my surprise all of the lights stayed on. This was the final feature that I was deprived of from the beginning. Finding out that it was battery powered was the icing on the cake feature set wise.
What I had in my hand was the Chord Electronics Hugo Portable DAC/Headphone Amplifier. Finding that it was called Hugo as “You-Go” anywhere with it was excellent. Okay so now I know it is battery powered, has more Taps on offer than the Chord QBD76 HDSD and takes audio from my phone or tablet I was even more eager to finally have a listen. I hoped and preyed that it would not disappoint as this had the potential to be a game changer in the industry. What could I use to test it? I guessed the best headphones to try first would be those that I own and know inside out.
I plugged the B&W P7 in and started to listen to Boz Scaggs – Miss Riddle, a track I know intimately from my phone using the Micro USB in. I opted for the high resolution input that apparently takes a tiny bit of power draw from the phone, the other Micro USB input takes no power draw at all. From the intro I was immediately drawn in the music. Never before had I been so dramatically enveloped in the track. The sax was intensely smooth sounding, the bass rich and symbols stood out with decay that I had never heard before. Boz’s voice was apart from all of the instruments with precision. It was as if his voice had been beautifully crafted into the track as the timing was absolutely perfect, the vocals weaved their way through the track effortlessly. I did have to stop for a second and think that this was from a phone. Pretty amazing! I soon came to the end of that track and just sat waiting for the next track to begin to see what that sounded like! The big drum from I Just Go hit me with substantial force and texture. I tried a few more tracks and different genres and was engrossed by them all one after the other after the other.
At this point I tried to think about the last time I was this involved in the music, the last time I got this feeling when listening and it was 2002 when I “borrowed” my Dads Chord DAC64 and connected it to my Marantz CD63MKII. Back then I kept saying that the DAC64 had a little bit of magic sprinkled under the little glass window as I just couldn’t understand how they had managed to get a sound so evocatively musical. But again….in 2014 I have that feeling back and it’s GREAT! Alas my brief time with the Chord Hugo had offered me enough of a taster before it was whisked away! Over the next few weeks, whilst awaiting our demonstration unit the presentation of the music just kept coming back to me when I was listening to other equipment. I started judging other equipment on the abilities of the Hugo…. “this doesn’t sound like the Hugo, neither does this, I prefer how the Hugo does that”. This was not a good place to be as now I was desperately impatient to hear it again and confirm how it sounded the first time I heard it.
Eventually we had our demonstration unit in the shop and yet again, like Christmas Day, I ran down to the warehouse to go and get it. This time I could have a decent listen and throw some DSD files at it alongside some more red-book and high resolution music from JRIVER. I continued to be amazed, the resolution of the Hugo was absolutely insane. Offering up DSD files to the Hugo provided spaciousness and an effortlessness that I had not heard before. The only way I can describe the Hugo is like an onion, in that you can continue to peel back layer after layer and still get more underneath. Yet again I was sitting through song after song of an album just to hear how each was being presented. I still could not fault the Hugo in any way. After spending a great amount of time with the Hugo I ended up going through a wide range of headphones;
Every headphone sounded smooth and lush with a beautifully accurate sound stage. Each increase in price bracket brought an increase in performance. The best sound to my ears was certainly the Hugo and LCD-3 combo. This partnership offered the best balance of detail, steering and openness. I also think that this pairing should also cost quite a bit more than it does. I think it would be hard to get a system performing as well as this for under £5000. I also love the comfort of the LCD-3’s too.
During these few weeks I loaded a few of the same albums to my Galaxy SIII and played back direct to the high resolution input on the Hugo. If honest I could hear some differences when using my phone instead of the computer but I would say that it wasn’t huge. Soundstage appeared a little more muddied and not quite as accurate. I guess this is solely down to the transport used.
As I have access to the Astell & Kern range of products I thought I would use our AK120 as a transport and see what happened. Using the optical input on the Chord and a 3.5mm toslink adapter for the AK120 I was able to feed the Hugo with 24/192 audio. Immediately I was impressed with the outcome! The Hugo had completely changed the sound from the AK120. Without the Hugo it made the the AK120 on its own sound very digital, playing by numbers rather than playing the music. Everything was presented where it should be and the magic dust was working its charms yet again.
The Hugo is absolutely stunning. Its functionality and sonic capability absolutely blew me away and this truly is a massive game changer for portable audio and in my opinion HiFi audio. This little box of magic tricks opens up a whole new level of music that I have not experienced before. I guess in a way I wouldn’t have known any better had I not heard the Hugo, but to me this makes music sound as it should – Fun and a joy to listen to. Many times when listening to headphones I am all too aware that I am being fed audio down a piece of copper, like the music is being delivered to me down a restrictive pipe with all the frequencies limited at their extremes. However, with the Hugo it is as if there is no restrictive pipe, the amount of taps used offers an insurmountable amount of headroom and everything being played is able to breathe freely.
I am now awaiting my demonstration Astell&Kern AK240 for comparison! This little Hugo will take an AWFUL lot of beating and although the AK is an all in one, pair the Hugo with an iPhone or Tablet and you will have yourself a pretty potent, meaty, portable HiFi.