Chord Electronics Hugo TT D/A headphone amplifier Page 2

Then JA asked if I'd like some more DACs to compare. First to arrive was the Auralic Vega, then Ayre Acoustics' QB-9DSD. A few weeks later, Philip O'Hanlon, of distributor On a Higher Note, asked if I'd like to hang out with the Luxman DA-06, which Art Dudley reviewed in the July 2014 issue. Add to that growing stack my trusty Benchmark DAC2 HGC, and I was searching for a way out of the DAC maze.

Relief came in the form of Tony Holt, cofounder of the Central Coast Audio Club. We quickly devised a plan for comparing several DACs with a custom Pipeline set—as in the surf tune "Pipeline," recorded first by the Chantays, then by the Lively Ones, followed by Stevie Ray Vaughan, then Joe Weed, and finally coming ashore with Bill Frisell's awesome, recently recorded version on Guitar in the Space Age! (PCM file, OKeh). The last two are 24-bit/88.2kHz recordings that are sound-demo-worthy fantastic. (Because the Ayre QB-9DSD is USB only, it was left on the sidelines for this one: We were using the Sooloos, which has only an S/PDIF output.)

First job was to calibrate the remaining four DACs for output level, which were all over the place, and could have easily led to skewed results. That done, we settled in to play all versions of "Pipeline" through each DAC, followed by some head-to-head comparisons using only the Chantays and Frisell tracks. Good thing we love this song.

The Benchmark DAC2 HGC ($1995) was quickly sifted out for what I heard as a slight papery sound, and Tony heard as a lighter feel than the other DACs. Comparing the Benchmark head to head with the Chord, we agreed that the Hugo TT sounded more dimensional and dynamic, with an ease that the Benchmark lacked. Score one for the Chord.

The Luxman DA-06 ($4990) offered a contrast of a completely different sort: To Tony it sounded more soothing and perhaps a bit smoother than the Chord, while I felt it lacked the Hugo's detail and bite. The Luxman rounded the tones of guitar and bass, and the ride cymbal, so crucial in "Pipeline," hung back a nanotad. A tougher call, but the Chord squeaked by.

Next up was the Auralic Vega ($3499), raved about by both John Atkinson and, over at, Michael Lavorgna. The Vega was clearly a different beast: Detail and dynamics were back, but perhaps a skosh too much? Tony said that the Chord's sound was better balanced overall, the bass and guitar sounding more natural and present in their spatial locations. I heard an ever-so-slight hardness in the Vega compared to the Hugo TT. And here was where I began to appreciate the Chord's obvious strengths: detail, definition, and depth, with no distracting artifacts.

A few days after Tony left, I brought the MacBook into the living room so I could hook up both the Ayre and Chord via USB. The Ayre Acoustics QB-9DSD ($3250) was an early winner DAC for me a couple years ago, and I was eager to hear it against the Chord. I cued up the 24/96 version of "Almost Like the Blues," from Leonard Cohen's Popular Problems (Columbia), for which his voice was recorded using one of Frank Sinatra's old Neumann U47 tube mikes and a Neve-clone preamp. I could swear that all 80 years of Cohen's well-worn life poured from the speakers like thick, smoky molasses. This is the voice of all the gods speaking at once—if you have this recording, you know what I mean. It sounded glorious with both DACs, no matter how loud I played it. The only difference was that the Ayre seemed a smidge more analytical; the Chord added a bit more body. Nice.

The Ayre costs $1545 less than the Chord, but also lacks just about everything else the Hugo TT includes, except a USB input. However, they share that detailed, you-are-there, yet wholesome sound that makes me want to play tune after tune. But that's me being dramatic—what I'm trying to describe was a subtle difference from the other DACs that I suspect most folks would hardly notice. But once I'd locked in on it, it was intoxicating. Crazy, I know.

From then on, for a month and change, the Chord Hugo TT anchored all of my main-system listening, to a variety of music from a variety of sources. I pulled out all my usual demos and even Cracker's newest, Berkeley to Bakersfield (429 Records/Savoy FTN16026)—the song "California Country Boy" was a particular challenge. This is about as aggressive as any master from the loudness wars—the waveform looks almost like a rectangle (how do they even do that with country music?)—but still, I found it enjoyable through the Chord, which dug as much detail as could be dug out of that sonic block while minimizing the assault on the ears.

Road Trip with the Box
One of my favorite events is when the Central Coast Audio Club meets at Mike Crowe's beautifully restored mid-century home. There he curates an ever-revolving audio museum in which—in line with his very specific taste in design—many of the components were made near the middle part of the 20th century. This time, I brought along the Hugo TT; I wanted to pop it into whatever rig he'd set up and listen to what happened.

I asked Mike to give the Chord an informal listen with his JBL L65 Jubal speakers powered by his McIntosh Laboratory 225 amp (with 7591 tubes). He hit Play on the Ramsey Lewis Trio's Down to Earth (Mercury) and declared the sound "very open and powerful" compared to the DAC in his more-recent-vintage NAD C 525BEE CD player. Everyone in the room loved the Chord, and I'd have to agree that, even through the unique-sounding JBLs, the Chord's character was easy to distinguish from that of his faithful NAD. Not crazy at all.

Plugging In to the Box
While I was listening to the Hugo TT, Tyll Hertsens, editor of our sister site, sent me pairs of Sennheiser HD800 and Audeze LCD-X headphones. I also have my regular Grado HP1 and new NAD Viso 'phones (both of which are great for recording in the studio) on hand, and used them all with my MacBook plugged into the Chord's HD USB input and running Roon as my music player.

About the Crossfeed modes: There are three settings for headphone listening, all intended to provide a more "out of the head" soundstage. I tried these with several of the above-listed headphones, and—call me old-fashioned—for most of my listening I defaulted to Off. Still, I can see how some might love Crossfeed: Images really did appear outside my head, and the sound was more like that of speakers in a room. It was fun with some music, but mostly it just wasn't for me.

But bottom line: The Chord Hugo TT sounded wonderful with headphones. Compared to the Chord, the Benchmark DAC2 HGC sounded lean, with a slight compression wrapped around the music. Dynamic range and impact were impressive with the Chord, and immediately brought to mind my other favorite DAC–headphone amp, Antelope Audio's Zodiac Platinum ($5500 as reviewed).

And with the Chord, it was LCD-Xs all the way, baby. The NADs and Grados did fine too, but the excessive sibilance and brightness with the Sennheiser HD800s made it hard to bear any but the very dullest recordings. The Audezes were a joy with everything I threw at them. Syd Barrett's meager solo catalog has been released a dozen different ways, but one of my favorites is the remastered 2015 CD of Opel (EMI/Harvest), which includes copious outtakes. There's always been a bright edge to this recording through most equipment, but with the Chord Hugo TT and Audeze LCD-Xs I felt I was in the room with Barrett. In particular, the studio outtake "Octopus" jumped out with an I-was-there natural presence that got my foot stomping and my blood pumping. Talk about your crazy English uncle!

Closing the Box
Astute readers will have noted a contradiction a few paragraphs ago, when I said that I perceived the difference that a great DAC like the Chord Hugo TT can make, then suggested that most people might not ever notice that difference. That's the dilemma with DAC reviews: The differences are there, but often are very subtle. How to properly describe what's going on? The answer, I believe, is in properly setting up expectations for what a good DAC can do compared to the run of the mill, and in recognizing that while differences among DACs may be subtle, they can be definitive for those who care.

Chord Electronics' Hugo TT is a great DAC. Its sound is detailed but not in your face, and I found it a complete pleasure to listen to. Though I didn't have them on hand for a face-to-face, I'd put the Hugo TT in the same class as MSB Technology's Analog DAC ($6995) or the Antelope Zodiac Platinum, both of which I've heard at length in the same system.

When I hear something I like, and then I'm disappointed to see it head out the door, I know what to do: The Hugo TT is one DAC I hope to get back for a little while after JA finishes taking those measurements. (Hint, hint.)

Chord Electronics Ltd.
US distributor: Bluebird Music Ltd.
275 Woodward Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14217
(416) 638-8207

edbudzil's picture

Correct me if I'm wrong, but neither your publication or your major competitor have reviewed the $2,500 Chord Hugo portable DAC. My (paranoid?) theory has been that this universally-praised component is so good, that it would have had your other portable DAC advertisers running scared. I, like many other Hugo owners, are using the device in our main system as a digital front end (in my case, connected by coax to a Rega Jupiter CD player), as well as with headphones/USB computer. While twice as expensive as my most costly purchase, the Hugo is not "twice as good", no, it's exactly what I've been looking for. The little guy squeezes the last ounce of music out of digital recordings- and, it's portable, and beats my analogue sources. Now, a day late and, for the likes of me, several $1000 short, Stereophile reviews the nearly twice as expensive Hugo TT. Chord has ("have", as the British say) just introduced the Mojo, Hugo's smaller sibling at $599. Dare you to be first to review it!

Venere 2's picture

If I read this review right, in the case of DACs, the old adage "Source first" seems to take a big hit...
It seems a DAC costing 4 times the price of another DAC, will offer noticeable, but subtle improvements. All of the DACs in this review seem close to one another (based on the reviewer's descriptions and comments).

Maybe if someone has a decent DAC, and wanted to spend a few thousand dollars to improve their system, speakers or amplification would yield better results? That is what I am getting from this review.

Jon Iverson's picture
I often struggle in reviews with how to put DAC differences in proper perspective.

Once you lock in on how a particular DAC sounds, it is easy to spot from then on (or at least a while). But I find most listeners, even a group of dedicated audiophiles, have a hard time locking in at first. But once they get it, they are pretty consistent under test.

Also, some systems make it easier to hear DAC differences than others, so would seem to reinforce your idea that speakers and amps can be a major, if not bigger, factor here.

One point though, more expensive is not always better.

bfmcosta's picture

I would be really important to say which digital filter was selected in the Auralic for the comparison, as it has 4 (for non-DSD material) that sound very differently, and the differences highlighted to the Chord Hugo TT may just reflect that...