Gustav Lindqvist - Moon Audio Reviewer
Gustav Lindqvist - Moon Audio Reviewer
"Chord Hugo can handle whatever music you throw at it, and it will be a good match for any type of headphone."
I travel for work. I have a big house. I can’t be in only one room to enjoy music, I’m upstairs, downstairs, in the office, doing laundry (HATED IT, but not any more…), in my old lounge chair in the TV-room. I felt that I couldn’t just live with a DAP. It would never have everything I wanted. I needed something to be used with multiple portable sources but also my CD/SACD player. I guess you can see where this is going…
But before we deep dive into the review, let me repeat my "basic path to achieve sonic bliss”. I mentioned it in my last review of the Black Dragon for the Sennheiser HD800. It’s been developed as a framework to lean on when auditioning equipment. I find it useful to have some rules to follow. Remember that these work for me, they may not work for you. Now that’s only the basic path. If all boxes are checked it gets easier for me to answer the big question: is this better than what I already have?
1. Portability. But still the greatest sound quality possible. This is very important to me. I need to be able to move around the house and spend time listening in different rooms, sofas, chairs. And I need to bring my system to the office. The only stationary equipment I have is a CD/SACD-player and I use it during office-hours for days spent working at home.
2. Versatility. I don’t want to be feel that I can’t try new equipment because they can’t be connected to each other. (Chord Hugo is perfect for my needs. It has multiple inputs that will not stand in the way of using multiple sources. The lack of balanced inputs is a flaw, but will not stand in the way of auditioning new equipment.)
3. Transparency. To come as close to the original recording as possible is a true goal of mine. To keep that in mind helps me differentiate between what type of equipment I like and don’t like.
4. Mastering. I'll always try to get the best existing version of every album I'm buying. Some albums are just very badly recorded/mixed/mastered. It’s good to know, and I try to accept it. For me buying new headphones for certain types of music will only get you half way. Also, I like the treasure hunt. This checkbox is always checked since I now feel I have a broad collection of music from all genres.
5. Trust your ears, not the price tag. That means a lot of work, and a lot of hours spent on critical listening. The improvements are never for free and it’s getting more expensive for each step, but I try not to care too much about the price tag, but to whether I can live without the improvement or not.
6. Accept the passion. I've got a huge passion for music and HIFI equipment. That means always chasing improvements. I've embraced and accepted that fact. Knowing and accepting this has helped me tremendously. I’m not ashamed one bit, and I don’t hide it. My wife calls me crazy, OCD, addict and a whole bunch of other words. I always smile, kiss her on the forehead and say: “I know, I agree but I love it”.
Ok, you’ve taken the time to read through the craziness above, thank you. Now where were we? Right, I was looking for a device that would be the center around which I could build a sonic heaven. Now, the more good you hear about a product, the harder it will get to trust your ears. But remember, you have one mouth and two ears. To listen, and really listen, is the key to finding the equipment I like. I’ve added 5 more rules for me to follow, which you read about above.
Of course this will be all about the Chord Hugo, but you knew that. I read so many great reviews and followed the thread at Head-Fi and I couldn’t imagine a world where such an expensive portable DAC-AMP combo could sound bad. But I’ve been down that road before so I made sure I got it with a 30-day free return. One short listen wouldn’t be enough and the one thing I did was make sure I had a long list of music. And when I say a long list, I mean a LONG list. I went through around 50 albums all in all before I felt safe to say that this is probably one of the best portable DAC/AMPs in the world.
I’m not going to speak about all the technical mumbo-jumbo. Sure, I like reading specs but I much more enjoy reading Michael Cuscunas notes for Milt Jacksons only session for Blue Note as a leader. So, you can just click this link: http://chordelectronics.co.uk/products-info.asp?id=92 and indulge in inputs/outputs or whatever you want to know from a technical perspecive. Chord Hugo has inputs enough to check the second rule of "basic path to achieve sonic bliss”. It lacks an analogue input, but there is not many sources on the market that I’m interested in that will leave you with that option only, so I’m good.
Portability? Well, I’d say that Chord Hugo will check the box for the portability that I am looking for, namely to move around to different places in the house. It’ll allow me to set up an audiophile listening station wherever I want to. I love it! Battery time is more than enough to cover. I rarely sit for more than 3 hours anyway.
What about transparency? It takes quite a lot of listening to get a true answer in my opinion. Some equipment will completely alter the way you look at transparency. Chord Hugo is such a device. I needed a big variety of albums, and I needed to go back and forth with other devices to find the answer. For me, Chord Hugo is truly transparent. I don’t agree with the fact that it sounds like a tube amp or close to vinyl; breath-of-life type of sound. To me it’s truly transparent – end of story. Check.
Mastering; not an issue. Check. Chord Hugo sounds fantastic with all kinds of music.
Trust your ears not the price tag. What about the sound?? Oh my. Chord Hugo can handle whatever music you throw at it, and it will be a good match for any type of headphone. It drives Sennheiser HD800 perfectly so I can’t see the need for any other amp. Furthermore I feel that adding an external amp will alter the sound of Hugo and I don’t want that. I want it to sound exactly like it does. Chord Hugo has a bold and transparent soundstage. It’s meaty with meaty music, it’s crispy with crispy music. See what I mean? Transparency! This is how Chord Hugo sound, together with HD800 with MY EARS: “As the artist wanted it to sound”. I mean mastering engineers, mixing engineers and producers will to their thing, but this is the feeling I get from Hugo. It makes me happy to know that I’m very close to the original recording session.
Accept the passion. Chord Hugo made me stop for a while. I almost became a bit sad. What to look for now? But it’s all coming back after a while of course. Sources, cables, headphones…
Well on the DAC/AMP side I’m happy for now. There’s nothing on the market that can check the boxes like the Hugo – in any price range. If there is, please let me know.
– Gustav Lindqvist