Chord Electronics Hugo review

How times have changed. The Chord Electronics Hugo is not simply a high-performance digital audio convertor that outclasses much of what's gone before it in the last 30 years. It is also small enough to slip into your pocket, and so economical in its power requirements it can be powered from its internal battery for hours at a time.

The minimal power draw alone is almost incredible. Fifteen years ago when this reviewer tested a digital convertor from the same designer – a unit with a similar digital architecture but possessing a small fraction of the processing power of the Hugo – it demanded an external power supply that ran so hot you could almost see the heat haze rising.

Chord Electronics Hugo

At the Hugo's £1,400 price, this modestly sized metal box may be outside the budgetary comfort zone of many casual listeners. But when you realise its technological innovation, its wide feature set, and most importantly its potential for better-than-studio sound quality, it makes more sense. Especially to audiophiles and golden-eared road warriors used to spending even more on such solutions. Yet great sound alone is not always everything in an age where ease of use has become equally paramount. So what is the Hugo and what can it do?

Chord Electronics Hugo: What is it? Play raw digital audio through headphones

The Hugo is a DAC and headphone amplifier. It takes raw digital audio data from a variety of sources – wider than any other we've tried in fact – and converts the digital signal into analogue, ready to be played into headphones or into any stereo hi-fi system.

It's built into a sandblast satin-finished white metal case measuring 131 x 97 mm, and at 23 mm thick and weighing only 342 g, it's easily pocketed for portable sound on the move too.

For this you'll need an audio source of course, and the obvious candidate today is a smartphone. It's now possible to plug an iPhone or Android into such a DAC, and play better-than-CD resolution audio by bypassing the phone's limited audio stages.

For the iPhone you just need Apple's Lightning to USB Camera Adapter (MD821ZM/A), or its 30-pin counterpart for pre-iPhone 5 handsets. For Android you need a USB on-the-go (OTG) cable, with one already supplied in the Hugo's packing box.

These adaptors and cables ensure that only data is being connected between devices, with no attempt to draw DC power over the USB bus from the phone.

To play hi-res audio you'll also need a suitable music-playing app. We tried AmpliFlac and found it nearly unusable, but Onkyo's HF Player for iOS worked much better. After tweaking the app's settings, it can be set to output a native DSD datastream using the DoP protocol to pass .dsf and .dff files, enabling an uncanny playback of SACD-quality audio on the hoof.

(For Onkyo's app, bewarned that while a free download it costs £6.99 to unlock hi-res audio playback; and Onkyo's licence agreement explains that the company will try to monitor your use of the app, harvest your data and send it back to the company.)

Chord Electronics Hugo

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