Hugo! Sounds like a man in red chords and yellow socks to me, perhaps with a brightly coloured sweater over his shoulders and a pair of Wayfairers on his head. But hey, deck shoes and Tattinger are not what Chord Electronics’ Hugo is all about. No, this Hugo has more of a bling feel to it. It’s more Cheshire than home counties. Certainly the brightly coloured lights and brash styling are not really my cup of organic Darjeeling, but the way it performs in some areas has proved to be so, however only after a very shaky start.
Let me get a few things off my chest before I tell you what I do like about this little slice of Alderley Edge. The Hugo is many things: A headphone amp. A DAC and even a small digital pre-amp. All of these things are true. It also worked as a paper-weight on a warm but windy day. The only claim Chord makes for this device that I take issue with is the prefix “portable”. It’s portable in as much as even a small child can carry it. It’s portable in that it would fit in a woman’s hand bag, or my laptop bag. But it’s not portable in a “slip it in my trouser pocket” kind of way. It’s the size of two fag packets (remember them?) side-by-side, and as deep. And made of metal. So it’s hefty too. It comes with some pretty naff elastic bands which can be used to attach ones iPod or similar, I suppose Chord assume people will want to have this on the train with them.. I can’t see it myself. When traveling I want convenience, and I will make sacrifices for that convenience. Your mustard may vary of course, perhaps it’s important to you to have the finest sound quality on the 06:42 to Victoria, I’m just happy to get a seat.
So, I don’t like it then? Well hold your horses slick.. This little box has won me over, in one application more than any other it is absolutely superb. If like me you spend many hours sitting at home or in the office working at a lap-top or computer, listening to tunes as you go, then the Hugo really could brighten up your day. As I type I have JRiver feeding the Hugo with FLAC files full of lovely music (Lambchop, Damaged), and it sounds bloody superb through my Bowers and Wilkins P7’s. Really good indeed. I had it in the office last week, and this week has been tough, Spotify and 6Music really don’t sound any good through my built in sound card. I’d never really noticed, or cared much, it was background tunes while I worked, but with the Hugo in place it became oh so much more. I could immerse myself in the music and connect to it in a way I normally only get from my main HiFi system, so much so I found it hard to get any work done, I kept zoning out.. so Hugo had to come home. Playing a FLAC brings even better results, this laptop,the Hugo and my P7’s are a genuine alternative to my HiFi, especially of an evening when the neighbours and my family don’t want to hear Kurt Wagner’s dulcet tones.
This keeps happening..
Which is frustrating as I took an almost instant dislike to it when I opened the box. I like not liking things. Writing about how crap something is, is far more fun. I could compare it to an in-growing toenail if it was annoying, or Mussolini if it was truly hateful. But it’s annoyances are mild. Like.. oh.. that annoying thing your wife does, that you can’t really mention because you know you do things just as annoying.. Oh dear, I can’t win.
Anyway, those grievances: For a start, none of the inputs and outputs are labelled. There are buttons (horrid little recessed plastic nipples) with no markings. And there’s a glass window with some lights inside, but none of them are marked either. So to set this up or change any of the many settings one must constantly refer to the manual. Which is a bloody stupid idea, especially as it’s possible (admittedly with some effort) to mis-configure it and damn near deafen yourself. No, the Hugo isn’t the answer to all your prayers.. hang on.. PJ Harvey’s Good Fortune just kicked in.. love this track.. dammit, Hugo keeps winning me over.
It didn’t win me over when used as a DAC in my main Hi-fi though. There’s an edgy hardness to the sound that I don’t get when using it as a headphone amp. It’s as if they are trying to give too much detail and pace, I found the sound somewhat tiring and was not inclined to do a lot of listening or comparison making, I just didn’t like it enough. My findings on this were totally at odds to a good 60% of forum members here that have heard it. Having changed speakers (half way through writing this review I went from Meadowlarks to Living Voice OBX-R2) I decided to whack it into service again.. But no, it is a bit harsh, there’s a sibilance too that jars somewhat. Fantastic detail, great dynamism.. but it’s all a bit OTT for my tastes.
Back to the Cans, this laptop has something called “Beats audio” in it. As an audiophile I am going to pretend I’ve never heard of Beats and simply tell you the Chord Hugo hoses all over the built in sound-card from a significant height, let’s say about 50,000 feet. Higher than Dr Dre’s (whoever he is) private jet can fly that’s for sure. The sound quality is very even handed, it’s got warmth in the mid-range which is rare in headphone systems, while delivering all the gnarly grain on Led Zep’s Gallow’s Pole. I just listened to Dire Straights Brother’s in arms in it’s entirety and my Wife was none the wiser. She couldn’t sneer at me and make little barbed comments about “Dad rock”, no one came in and asked me to turn it down, and all the while I was gifted every note, every nuance of Knopfler’s guitar playing, every snap of the kick drum in a wonderfully rounded and High Fidelity delivery. I can sit here all evening listening and really not feel I’m missing anything from not having the Hi-Fi on. I get a different sound, it’s a different experience, but no less fun or engaging for it.
Hugo does a great job with these new high-res formats too. I’m listening to Da Falla Brujo-Danza Rituel del fuego – Katona Twins on a DSD sampler I downloaded recently, and this is a cut above again. In fact that does it a dis-service, it’s more than a cut above, this is a level of performance I didn’t think possible from a laptop and some cans. Sadly the lack of good music on these formats means listening was somewhat limited. I truly hope there is a demand for this format which will see libraries swelling soon!
So yes, Chord Hugo, you might just fall in love with bloody thing despite yourself. Me? I’m thinking of ways to justify buying one so I can listen to tunes while I work at home without disturbing the rest of the house. The danger of course is that I may become a stranger in my own home, a highly visible recluse. they’ll call me the blob and my eyes will pixelate.. C’est la vie, the music sounds good, so what the heck?
Chord sent a whole blurb on all the clever tech under the hood. I feel I’ve droned on enough right now, having read the blurb I am surprised I didn’t get on with it quite as well when deployed as a DAC in my system. Anyway, I’ve included the blurb on the forum post here..Enjoy!
Oh and it’s £1300.00, which is a lot for a sound card for my lap-top… yet I still quite fancy one.
Forum discussion and blurb here