For the audio obsessed, the Chord Hugo headphone amp is the one to get.
In the hierarchy of the best audio gear you can take with you, the Hugo is at the top of the list.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
This little, beautifully crafted headphone amplifier with "Hugo" embossed on the top surface, knocked me for a loop. The amp is made by Chord Electronics, a high-end brand known for audio-component equivalents of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. I'm not joking about that.
The Hugo leaves other high-resolution portable digital converters/headphone amps in the dust: it decodes up to 384 kHz/24 bit PCM and DSD128 files with Chord's FPGA digital decoders. That's really interesting -- rather than use the type of off-the-shelf digital filters you find in every other portable converter/headphone amp, Chord makes its own. Connectivity runs to five digital inputs, including Apt-X Bluetooth; there's optical and coaxial digital inputs, plus two USB inputs: one for legacy USB devices, and an ultra-high-definition USB port for files up to 384kHz. There are also stereo RCA analog outputs, so you can easily hook Hugo up to a home stereo system. The amp can play up to three pairs of headphones simultaneously over its two 3.5mm and one 6.3mm jacks.
Instead of the usual volume up/down buttons or knob, with Hugo you scroll a back-lit nub to adjust playback volume. The precision machined, aircraft-grade aluminum chassis looks and feels great. NiCad re-chargeable batteries provide 12 hours of playing time, and you can also play Hugo with its AC power wall wart. Hugo is a wee bit bigger than most portable amps, but at 3.75 x .75 x 5.2 inches (100 x 20 x 132mm) it's still manageable. The Hugo is made in England.
One problem: Hugo's recessed 3.5mm jacks are incompatible with "L" shaped headphone plugs, so you can't insert the plugs far enough to make the connection.
This year, the buzz surrounding high-resolution audio has been all over the Interwebs, but in fact true high-resolution sound is extremely rare, Talk is cheap, so while I checked out some high-res music over the Hugo, I spent the bulk of my listening time with CDs and Apple Lossless (ALAC) files.
The Hugo's sound is sophisticated and complex, but it never feels like it's working very hard. I have no idea how it does it, but the Hugo makes most recordings sound better than I thought they were, and the quiet section seem quieter.
Intrigued, I threw a bunch of my best headphones at the Hugo just to see what it could do. My 15-year old Sony MDR-SA5000s are always transparent, but the Hugo unleashed a more potent low-end than I've ever heard before from these headphones. Aphex Twin's "Syro" album is loaded with dense textures and rhythms, and the sound's newfound gravitas gave me a new appreciation for the MDR-SA5000s -- it's incredible.
Beyerdynamic's flagship headphone, the T-1, was no less revelatory. Again, bass definition and control were unprecedented. The Hugo took me inside the sound of the Kronos String Quartet's "Pieces of Africa" album, the perspective of the music seemed significantly more realistic than I've heard it before. Audiophile recordings presented a bigger soundstage that projected further outside the confines of my skull.
Even with Hugo's astonishing clarity and detail, there wasn't a trace of harshness or grit with standard-resolution files. Returning to my everyday reference Centrance HiFi-M8 digital converter/headphone amp was a bit of letdown; the sound grew congested and murky. With Kraftwerk's "Tour de France" album, the sound felt smaller and constrained, while Hugo liberated it. Don't get me wrong -- the HiFi-M8 is still great, but the more-than-three-times-as-expensive Hugo is miles ahead. It's the best there is.
Hugo demonstrates just how far the state of the art of portable audio has come. Packing it up to return to Chord's US distributor, I was truly sorry to see it go. As with other high-end amps, Hugo only makes sense if you already own at least one set of very high-end headphones.
Advancing the state of the art never comes cheap, the Chord Hugo's US price is s $2,495, in the UK it's £1,400, and it runs AU$2,495 in Australia.