First Listen: Chord Electronics Hugo portable high res DAC/headphone amp

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Digital-to-analog converters,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
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Chord Electronics Hugo
First Listen: Chord Electronics Hugo portable high res DAC/headphone amp

A Hi-Fi+ review project I’m working on at the moment involves the Chord Electronics Hugo portable high res DAC/headphone amp, which is priced at $2,395 in the US or £1,200 in the UK. In practice this makes the Hugo, along with Astell & Kern’s upcoming $2,400 AK240 high-resolution digital music player, one of the world’s two most expensive portable high-end audio components. As you can probably imagine, this fact alone means the Hugo raises a lot of eyebrows before it is ever turned on. Indeed, upon learning the proposed price of the Hugo, some have questioned whether a  $2,395 portable product really makes sense, but quite frankly, once the Hugo is set up and running those questions fall away, typically to be replaced with enthusiastic approbation from listeners.

To give you some idea of what the Hugo is all about, let me transport you to the Hugo release party at CES 2014, where Chord’s engaging technology honcho John Franks greeted the assembled audio journos by holding up a Hugo and telling the assembled throng, “At present the Hugo represents the most technically sophisticated and quite possibly the best-sounding high resolution DAC that our firm makes.” Gulp. That, as they say, is saying a mouthful.

At first, I wondered how Frank’s, well, frank announcement would play amongst members of the Chord sales team, but as it turns out Mr. Franks meant precisely what he had said. Following in the same general footsteps pioneered by earlier generation Chord DACs such as the DAC 64, the Hugo does not use an off-the-shelf DAC chip of any kind, but rather takes the unorthodox approach of repurposing a massive Xilinx FPGA (field programmable gate array) device for use as a high resolution DAC.

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