Chord Electronics Hugo TT Headphone Amp/DAC Review
Last March, I had the privilege of spending some quality time with the founder of Chord Electronics' John Franks, and Rob Watts, the engineer who designs the DAC’s for Chord. Both were in Australia to visit Chord's Australian distributor Radiance Audio Visual, as well as to meet a couple of the local dealers and their clients. The pair were traveling with a pre-release Hugo TT with them, the subject of this review. They were explaining the technology used within the Hugo TT (and in fact all of their new models of DAC’s that share a common design) to very eager listeners, myself included. The details of technology and the interview can be found here.
The TT in the Hugo TT stands for 'Table Top' and retails for $6,200. It's described in the Instruction Manual as a “Desktop Headphone amplifier with Advanced DAC”. Compared to the portable Hugo ($2,800), it is a larger desktop-orientated device with greater connectivity, performance and features.
StereoNET reviewed the Chord Hugo last year. We loved it, and it has gone on to be a huge success for the company, earning a great reputation. It would seem reasonable then to compare it with the desktop Hugo TT to see what is available for the extra expense. The Hugo TT has been eagerly anticipated by fans of Chord since its announcement, myself included.
Chord has a very unique industrial style that it applies to their range and the Hugo TT continues in the theme. Size wise, the Hugo TT is an almost square at 235mm x 220mm. It's made from a solid piece of milled aircraft grade aluminium, with deep grooves for the front panel where the on/off switch, input select and crossfeed buttons are situated. The 3 headphone sockets are also on the front panel. The top left corner has an alphanumeric readout for the input and crossfeed setting that you have selected.
At the top of the TT is a 35mm round observation port or window, with a top down view of the circuit board. There is a slight magnifying effect from the glass porthole which enables you to see the coloured LEDs on the board that indicate functions like the charging indicator, battery life and sample frequency. It’s not labelled, so keep your manual handy in order to decode it. Behind the porthole is a rotating ball for the volume control. It changes color to let you know the volume setting you have selected.
In the centre of the left hand side is a semi circle or half moon of black acrylic where the Bluetooth antenna is located. It’s a lot neater than using an external antenna. The Hugo TT feels very solid and well made and feels a lot heavier than one would expect. It is available in both silver and satin black finishes. My sample was satin black and it looks very attractive in my opinion.
At the rear is a power input, XLR Balanced and RCA Unbalanced outputs to plug into your home stereo system, as well as BNC coax, Toslink and 2 x USB inputs. For headphones, there is provision for a 3.5 mm jack, as well as 2 x 6.35 mm jacks. They will operate concurrently. There is also a remote control that comes with the unit that will operate the volume, mute and input selection. 14 other buttons on the remote have no function on the TT.
The Hugo TT is capable of supporting up to 32-bit/384kHz audio via coax and USB, and 24-bit/192kHz over optical, plus DSD64 on all inputs and DSD128 via coax or USB (all via DoP). There is a SD USB input which allows playback of media up to 16-bit/48kHz, entirely suitable for connection to smartphones and tablet devices, whilst being driverless for Windows. Otherwise the HD USB handles the highest sample rates and features full galvanic isolation with inputs up to 384kHz.
Technology and specification wise, the Hugo TT features many improvements over the more mobile Hugo. With most owners likely to use the Hugo TT at home, it has been designed to run continuously from the supplied battery charger. The battery capacity has been doubled and 10,000,000uF (microfarads) of supercapacitor energy storage has been added. The supercapacitor is essentially the same technology used by Formula 1 teams, where they are used to provide extra back-up to the cars batteries by sharing the load and charge demands. They serve a similar purpose in the Hugo TT, extending the battery life as well as improving dynamics and demanding transients in recorded music. The Hugo TT has also received a better quality reference power supply circuitry.
Another great and very useful feature is A2DP Bluetooth capability. It uses a custom-made module with the increasingly popular aptX codec, to feed the digital signal directly into the DAC circuitry. I love the convenience of being able to stream without cables, directly from your mobile or device anywhere within 20 m or so of the TT and still obtain good, quality sound.
Chord have built in three crossfeed settings that are meant to enhance the listening experience for headphones. It accomplishes the enhancement through advanced filtering and delay introduced to the signal, to give you the spatial effect of a larger soundstage, as though you were listening to large speakers or live music. The selected mode is displayed on the readout and via coloured lights visible through the porthole.
Spartan 6 FPGA
“When you're on a good thing, stick to it”, or so they say. The Hugo TT retains the same high-performance Spartan 6 FPGA that made the original Hugo a stand out product last year. This FPGA or Field Programmable Gate Array Chip allows its creators to tailor the digital to analogue conversion process exactly as desired, rather than use an “off the shelf” DAC chip. The Spartan 6 contains 16 DSP cores, which allows it to be probably 100 times more complex than the digital logic in a normal DAC. It also allows for a 26,368 tap WTA filter. Taps are the indicator of how complex the FIR filter is, so it’s epic. As both Hugo units run the same chip, they both have the same specification and measured performance.
Like any DAC, the Hugo TT was straight forward to setup. With a choice of XLR or RCA output connections spaced nicely apart and a good range of inputs, it was not hard to find one to your liking. The coax input used a BNC connector, something that caused me to reach for my BNC to RCA adaptor to attach to the end of a Chord Digital Signature Tuned Array cable. It’s true that BNC is a true 75 ohm connector and that RCA is not, but this limits your choice of high end coax cables available to use, or requires a less than transparent sounding adaptor. In any case the HD USB port is always available. I used the Cardas Clear USB Buss and the Wireworld Starlight 7 STB USB Cables. It is also recommended that you leave the small power adaptor plugged in to the AC power permanently, but initially for a minimum of 5 hours to ensure the battery is completely charged. Once that happens, it will trickle charge itself on an ‘as needed’ basis. My connection to the amp was via TARA Labs The 2 balanced and Chord Indigo Tuned Array RCA interconnects. Both very neutral and revealing cables.
Something that did cause me some concern was the large amount of gain coming out of the Hugo TT. I connected the DAC to the very transparent Audia Flight FL3 integrated amplifier and found massive distortion when the volume control of the TT was set to anywhere near maximum. I believe that the output level of the TT is so high that it was overloading the input of the line level input. When connected directly to a power amplifier this is not a concern as it would be turned down. But, I found the volume control counter-intuitive, with volume up to the left and volume down to the right, the opposite of a normal rotary dial. So caution has to be exercised, along with some training for the operator. The same is true for all outputs, including headphones. Along with that, there is a programmable feature whereby the line level output can be set to maximum. I believe that it could be a dangerous feature in some circumstances, specifically when connected directly to a high power amplifier, but thankfully the volume control is still active, so it can reduced if necessary. The volume control ball glows a range of colors from dark red for minimum volume, to white for maximum volume. I’m sure that with practice it becomes second nature, but I have to admit I was never really totally comfortable with using it. Also it’s located at the top of the unit which may be hard to reach when sitting within a component rack. Give me a conventional rotary dial on the front panel any day, as mistakes will never happen.
After plugging the Hugo TT into the system and allowing the battery to charge for an hour, I listened with great eagerness. Initially it sounded rather compressed and disjointed, but after a couple hours of playing it started to open up nicely and sound much better. This unit just needed time, like most new components. In fairness, all my critical listening was done after the TT had had over 300 hours of playing time.
The TT has been designed primarily as a desktop headphone amplifier. The fact that it's of high quality and more expensive (compared to the Hugo), table top form, has both balanced and unbalanced outputs, indicates to me that it will be used connected to an existing stereo system. Rightly or wrongly, I approached the review using the TT connected to various amplifiers in a number of quality sound systems, and secondly as a headphone device. I found that the listening impressions were virtually identical however the device was used.
With the first track that I listened to, there was an immediate feeling of ease and effortlessness that was enticing. This impression stayed and I really enjoyed the relaxed manner in which the music flowed from the TT. That’s not to say that it was missing excitement. This DAC can really boogie when asked, but it also wasn’t forced, it simply sounded natural and totally engaging. The fact that the background noise was very quiet certainly helped. The next point that impressed me was the lovely tones and color of instruments and voices. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the AURALiC VEGA as a long term reference and by comparison the Hugo TT made the VEGA sound hard, brittle and with a limited color palette. The TT is far more colourful with rich natural tones and was able to convey the harmonics and overtones far more naturally. Piano was an instrument that the VEGA was having some difficulty with, whereas the TT really nails the very complex reverb tails that are full of harmonics that tell you that it’s a real piano that’s been well recorded. Listening to the opening 50 seconds of “Autumn Rain” by Ahmad Jamal on the “Blue Moon” album, the piano’s keys are hit quite forcefully with unusual chords, that can sound hard, harsh and unmusical with some DAC’s. The VEGA made me want to turn it down or to skip the track . The Hugo TT made sense of it and even when played back at some volume, it was just fine and makes a bold statement for the opening of the album, just as the artist intended it to be.
The Hugo TT was smooth through the frequency range but it did have a subtle lift at the top end and the same at the lower end, below around 100Hz. It’s as if you added a notch or two to the treble and the bass controls of the older style integrated amplifiers that had tone controls. It’s a classic smiley face curve. It’s difficult to imagine that it wasn’t deliberately voiced this way. This was more or less noticeable depending on the track and musical genre chosen and the overall tonality of your system. I tried the Hugo TT in four totally different sound systems and the result was consistent.
There is good speed delivered throughout the frequency range, nice and even, with the bottom end in particular having a powerful wallop and with a heavy punch when called for. The slam in some tracks is also very impressive. The drums in “Fantastic Light” from Jonny Warman's “Walking into Mirrors” album was such an example, with a huge kick and snare drum generated with speed and impact, guaranteed to get a rise from others in the house when played with generous volume.
Probably the most impressive quality of the Hugo TT was the manner in which it delivers very accurate timing of what is being played. I’m not talking here about 'PRAT' or Pace, Rhythm and Timing, which is also beyond reproach and outstanding, but the manner that fast paced music with all the myriad of things happening almost simultaneously is accurately portrayed. It has the ability to make sense of seemingly confusing passages of music and to separate everything, laying it out for you to hear and comprehend it. Take “Musique Non Stop” recorded live by Kraftwerk from the “Minimum Maximum” album, for example. This track has a lot of fast percussive rhythms with synthesised cymbals, right and left pans, as well as subtle inflections and tonal changes. The TT just breaks down everything happening, clearly defining and laying out the music along with all the reverb, live audience sounds, everything. So much detail and so clearly portrayed, without any hint of etchiness or glare.
The manner that the TT makes sense of the seeming confusion is better than any other DAC that I have heard up to now. Try the massed voices from “Carmina Burana: O Fortuna” by Carl Orff, or perhaps the full orchestra from “Carman: Overture” by Georges Bizet, your favourite version and see how the complex is made simple. Less listening effort is required due to the fact that you hear it more clearly and it is timed more naturally. To prove the point, I played some 320kbps MP3 files and was amazed with how the Hugo TT decoded all the information with such accurate timing and with more detail and 3D information than any MP3 ever had a right to sound. I’m sure that the unique but complex FPGA design and execution is responsible for this outstanding quality.
As the TT supports both the standard A2DP Bluetooth audio and the good sounding aptX codec, I thought that I would give it a try. aptX technology must be incorporated in both the transmitter and receiver to derive the sonic benefits of aptX audio coding, fortunately my mobile has this as a standard feature. I wasn’t expecting very much, but boy was I pleasantly surprised. It’s close to CD quality but without the same size of soundstage or treble and bass quality, but very listenable. I wandered all around the house and could not make it drop out, even once. Awesome.
Over a period of a few weeks,I tried the Hugo TT alongside nine other quality DACs in total. There’s nothing like being thorough and although it’s time consuming work, it’s also educational. No two items ever sound exactly the same, with every manufacturer seemingly focusing and nailing certain aspects of the audio experience, while being not as strong in other areas. There is no such thing as a perfect product. The ones somewhat closer to perfection tend to cost a whole lot more. All of the comparison DACs were less expensive, except for the Lampizator, (which is a level 4 machine with capacitor upgrade and DSD engine fitted). I’m sure the question on most people’s mind is: how does it compare with its smaller brother, the Chord Hugo? I setup and played the following 2 tracks before doing the swap, using the same cables: “All My Trials” by Peter, Paul & Mary an excellent LP rip onto CD, and “Sharpening A Knife” by Carl Cleves & Parissa Bouas.
There is certainly a family or signature sound common to the Chord DACs. The Peter, Paul and Mary track in particular showed a lot more dynamic and harmonic contrast between the pair. Interestingly the Hugo has the flatter frequency response, with a little less treble energy, although it is not entirely flat in the top end. It is very similar through the midrange but has a more naturally balanced bottom end and is without the slam and impact of the TT. The Hugo isn't as detailed as the TT, with less harmonic richness and color on the vocal harmonies and lacks the absolute timing precision. The guitar was thinner and doesn't seem to have the same engagement levels of the TT. Overall the Hugo is good but the TT is quite a bit better and is the more polished performer. There is certainly a sonic upgrade from the Hugo to the Hugo TT.
Next up was the Benchmark DAC2L. It was immediately apparent by contrast with the TT, that it had a very flat, neutral frequency response. That made the Peter, Paul & Mary track easier to follow in the harmonies, with less boom from the guitar and with a more natural treble. The soundstage was wider and had more front to back depth, with the three voices seemingly better spread across the stage. It wasn't quite as adept as the TT in the timing aspect, lacking its precision and with micro detail glossed over at times. The Carl and Parissa track has more natural treble energy in the recording, so it felt a little bit too bright when listened to through the TT.
Swapping to the Lampizator, it has very similar tonal balance to the Benchmark but its strength is tonal color and organic harmony in the midrange. It is a tubed DAC and it gives a very polished performance. It had speed, warmth, naturalness and openness and didn’t seem to have any significant drawbacks. Again, it didn’t have the same timing accuracy of the TT, nor all of its micro detail. The Lampizator may not suit everyone’s musical tastes, but it is a worthy competitor.
I did a similar comparison with the Hugo TT and the Benchmark DAC2L, this time using the headphone outputs on the front panel. It’s great to have three headphone outputs available and they can be played simultaneously, so swapping between different headphones is a breeze. I used the OPPO PM1 and PM2 cans. Listening to the fast Dirty Loops track “Hit Me”, I noticed more synthesiser emphasis in the track with the DAC2 than with the TT and more kick drum punch with the TT. I’m not sure which is correct, but the tonal balance is part of the DNA of the product. Overall I preferred the tighter sound of the Benchmark, but that is personal taste. Changing to Jimmy Hendrix “Machine Gun” performed live, I noticed more guitar and less drums in the mix listening to the Hugo TT. It had a little too much treble energy for my taste, but overall I did prefer it. The TT’s accuracy of timing also was translated into the headphone domain, but was seemingly less noticeable in the selected tracks. That is only two examples, but I think it is safe to say that via the headphones, the overall sound was very similar to the line level outputs for connection to the big rig, so my previous listening impressions will also be valid. And just like the line level outputs, there was more than enough output level (volume) to overdrive practically any headphones. It seems to have the ability to get louder than other headphone DAC’s that I have tried previously.
Whist I’m writing the conclusion to this article I have playing in the background Beethoven “Cello Sonata No.1 in F Major, Op.5 No.1 (Mov 1)”, a stunningly beautiful piece of music when played back through the Hugo TT. It comes across with real finesse and allows the piano and cello to sound entirely believable. All the musical elements are there and that’s what conveys emotions across to the listener. It’s what makes for an enjoyable and uplifting experience. At the end of the day, isn’t that why we enjoy music and persist with this hobby?
Having recently heard that the new Chord Electronics Dave has been announced and promises to be a reference grade DAC when it is released in October, I can hardly wait to hear it, as I know that it will also be very special.
Granted, the price, styling or tonal balance of the TT may not suit everyone. For those that it does, you will be rewarded with a very solidly engineered performer, fully capable of transporting the listener to a higher plane of musical existence. If you dig the Chord sound and have already heard a Hugo, you owe it yourself to hear the new Hugo TT. It is definitely a forward step. Alternatively for the more price conscious buyers, the 2Qute for $2,200 would seem to be exceptional value, as it’s essentially a Hugo in a Chordette chassis, with the same FPGA DAC technology used in both the Hugo and Hugo TT.
Either way, John and Rob from Chord Electronics have really succeeded in getting the technology to work oh so well. They are to be congratulated for creating a product that that can make digital sources sound so absolutely ravishing with a well assembled system and to pair with your favourite headphones. Well done! Do yourself a favour and have a listen to the Hugo TT.
- Sonic upgrade over the Hugo. Incredibly accurate timing, detail retrieval, color and finesse with harmonics, excellent performance with low bit rates. Bluetooth range. Balanced outputs.
- More expensive than the Hugo. Tonal balance. High output. Ergonomics.
Chord Electronics is distributed in Australia by Radiance Audio Visual.
For more information visit Chord Electronics.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.