CES 2014: Headphone, Earphones, and Related Electronics – Part 1

Earphones and in-ear monitors

Chord Electronics

One of the most impressive new products of any kind see at CES 2014 was the stunning new Hugo portable 384/DSD DAC/headphone amplifier ($2,395) from the British firm Chord Electronics. The Hugo supports PCM files up to 384/32-bit resolutions as well as DSD64 and DSD128, whilst also providing an uncommonly quiet and powerful headphone amplifier—one that could, in a pinch, actually be used to drive small desktop speakers.

A Chord company spokesman explained that, at present, the Hugo is the single most sophisticated DAC product being offered by Chord, regardless of price, which is saying a mouthful. But perhaps more importantly, our findings thus far have been that the Hugo easily delivers the sonic goods to back up that claim; even when pushing top-tier (and not necessarily easy-to-drive) Abyss AB-1266 planar magnetic headphone, the Hugo sounds flat out fantastic. It is also very versatile, providing USB, Bluetooth, coaxial S/PDIF, and optical inputs, whilst providing single-ended analogue outputs (via RCA jacks), and both mini-jack and 1/4” TRS headphone outputs.

Finally, the Hugo represents a technical tour de force in that, in lieu of any sort of traditional off-the-shelf DAC chip, it instead uses a massive, 0.7V Xilinx FPGA (field programmable gate array) device that has been repurposed as a high resolution DAC that makes possible a far more sophisticated digital filtering schema than a tradition DAC chip could support. Thanks to the unusually low voltages needed to drive the Xilinx device, most of the Hugo’s available battery power can be devoted to its amplifier. The only think “missing” is balanced outputs, but according to Chord’s John Franks the Hugo is so inherently quiet and powerful that it more or less obviates the need for balanced outputs in the first place. Our recommendation: Go hear one of these things, soon. 

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