I’m always brimming with enthusiasm and excitement when a new Chord Electronics product is introduced particularly with their class leading reputation of designing DAC products. Of most recent we’ve had a spate of new DACs from Chord including the Hugo 2, Hugo TT2 and Qutest. These all adopt a simple angular box design with trademark toy like LED coloured operating buttons. A product as luxuriously made as the Hugo M Scaler, which like other Chord products is a weighty milled aircraft grade aluminium affair built for functional operation, is truly a big boys toy.
Improving performance of your DAC or preferably for reasons of compatibility, those Chord DACs mentioned, as well as the range topping Chord DAVE, is the reason for trialling this upscaler. It takes on the same upscaling performance and technology in Chord’s Blu Mark 2 digital CD transport.
The Hugo M Scaler has a Rob Watts designed FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) chip filter with one million ‘taps’. It’s not necessary to understand the full technicalities in depth unless you really want to do your own head in, other than to say that the filter chip is programmable which allows Chord to programme requisite code, so it can perform as desired. The taps relate to the number of logic gates and the greater their number the better the flexibility to programme the unit apparently. As a benchmark there are 1 million, hence ‘M’ Scaler. A tricky technical endeavour and somewhat long desired indulgence of the designer on all accounts. It’s important to note that there is more to the Hugo M Scaler than just its upscaling prowess, with much of its philosophy staked on its FPGA filter design and technical 1 million tap capability. These clever guts are housed within a further aluminium case internally, no doubt for reasons of electrical isolation. You can imagine a praising Jeremy Clarkson saying it has “the most advanced digital filter…………in the world”.
The Hugo M Scaler has the same footprint as the Hugo TT2 and TTOBY power amp, so can be stacked neatly. In difference to other Chord DAC products, rather than the central top glass window being an opening to see into the electronics with internal sample rate colour coded LED, a la Space Odyssey ‘HAL’ computer style, there is no such functional need here. The original digital signal is being sent through the digital filter to varying upscaled degrees through use of front coloured buttons. A stamped plaque on the other side of window simply reads ‘Robert Watts’ M Scaler – made in England by Chord Electronics Ltd’
You can connect up various digital sources by way of 2 coaxial BNC inputs, 2 optical/toslink inputs, and a galvanically isolated USB. Galvanic isolation is where the power rail is electrically separated from the data signal rail in a combined signal, by way of a transformer. The effect being to reduce Radio Frequency Interference noise (RFI) in the data signal. You can use the single BNC coaxial digital output or optical/toslink output to the digital input of your DAC. If you are using the Chord DAVE, Hugo TT2, Hugo 2 or Qutest, preferably you should use the dual BNC output terminals into dual BNC inputs of these DACs, to achieve up to maximum 768kHz sample rate in 24bit PCM. In effect each cable is carrying up to half this maximum rate, and not being a left or right consideration. Native DSD is unfortunately not supported but upsampled to PCM and MQA is not supported.
To get you started you do get basic ‘cooking’ BNC coaxial cables in the box. If you don’t have conventional BNC cables you might use BNC adapters on your standard digital coaxial RCA cables.
The unit comes with a switch mode power supply much like that supplied with chord DACs. Whether you pimp your unit with a linear PSU is your choice and no doubt opinions will be divided on offering any benefits. I did so with my Qutest buying an MCRU linear PSU, which made the sound slightly more relaxed, but this is not something Chord recommend for reasons, they say, of the adequacy of the boxed power supply. In my opinion a lot will depend on the overall balance of the system.
Operation is simple in using the front LED lit coloured buttons – you simply select the digital input and then output sample rate; either unmodified pass through (red), low, medium or high upscaling corresponding to green, blue and white and relating to these sample rate frequency bands. This allows for good comparison of the Hugo M Scalers performance against digital pass through from your source. The button denoted ‘DX OP’ is lit in the similarly appropriate coloured incoming sample rate. Pressing this button doesn’t do anything nor does the last two button denoted ‘DX up’ and ‘DX down‘ unless pushed together for dimming all LED’s. The right three buttons have no selecting function, purportedly being for some future use.
I had no need to use video mode not using the Hugo M Scaler with video. The manual states the enormous processing abilities can introduce lag and to sync the video with audio it’s necessary to use this mode. Doing so does restrict the ability to use all one million taps, limiting performance slightly.
The remote control does include all the functionality of the front buttons however Chord ought to provide a more luxurious unit. The small cheap plastic looking remote is the same type as that supplied with the DAVE and you wonder why they don’t commission a matching aluminium machined type like of Bryston remote fame, at little extra cost.
In sound tests I used my PMC twenty5 23 speakers, Cyrus DAC XP Signature pre amp with PSX-R power supply, Cyrus Mono X200 Signature mono power amps, Innuos Zenith Mark 2 source into the Hugo M Scaler via USB, then onto a Chord Qutest DAC with MCRU linear PSU, and a Cyrus cd-t transport via optical into the M scaler and coaxial/BNC out into the Cyrus pre. I used Chord and Atlas cables to connect up my system and with the box supplied dual BNC cables.
Initially I was doubtful as to any decent improvement in sound quality warranting its price, switching back and forth between pass through and full upscale. Its abilities were not hugely apparent and usually when I assess HiFi components, not wishing to come across as having ‘golden ears’, I straight away latch onto any positive changes. In this review it took time, much like listening to a grower album.
Taking red book ripped CD content from the Innuos, the soundstage becomes uncannily deeper and more forward of the speakers position. Over the rainbow by Eva Cassidy on the Nightbird album, with the vocal and accompanying guitar, illustrates this.
It’s not as if you get an impression of more detail per se because sending the music straight to the Qutest on pass through. It’s still all there, but sound is just more realistic with the Hugo M Scaler in the mix. Timbre is better and bass response is slightly tighter and deeper. There is also a slightly wider soundstage, but still majoring in depth.
Much has been said by Rob Watts about musical transients in the design of the Hugo M Scaler and his associated knowledge of psycho acoustics. In layman’s terms, transients are the changes and decay with time of the frequencies of a sound source. They are important from a perceptual point of view to determine an instrument and how realistic it is with the brain very sensitive to transient timing errors. If you erode the quality of transients in music you make the music less realistic. As you listen more this ability to faithfully reproduce the transients of music is what becomes so apparent as a major strength of the Hugo M Scaler. You hear more of the edges to vocals, and because timbral information is richer, instruments are almost playing in situ. It also helps with speed too but in short and simple terms, sound quality is just more realistic.
Playing I wish I had duck feet from Orbital’s Snivilisation album I can hear the hypnotic drums so wide and far back of normal position. The speed and timing of them and their separated intonation is mind blowing. The last track on the album, Attached, is a great demonstrator of the treble capabilities of a hifi with heavy use of sampled synthesisers. In the past, this track has sometimes been grating with piercing and ringing treble, but using the M Scaler this is slightly dialled in and more representative of the source.
Trying The theme from Antarctica by Vangelis the openness in the soundscape is apparent and the coldness and desolation the music presents is really encapsulated well by the Hugo M Scaler. You hear the decaying echo of electronic percussive sounds in this track much like the decay in real instruments but with so much depth, air and openness – it is so satisfying! Again this is the Hugo M Scaler’s shining ability with transients. Playing Song for guy by Elton John, I’ve never heard a piano in my system as richly refined and realistic with timbre. Go back to pass through and the piano is flattened and on The theme from Antarctica there is less decay in elements of the music. The musical image is a more two dimensional less dynamic one. Taking the Hugo M Scaler out of the equation you’d never want go back to what was before. Trying more electronic music in the form of the track Spark from flint to clay on Ultramarine’s brilliant new Signals into space album, this is even more evident with the timing, bass response, and vocal all mixed into this great track.
Playing streamed Tidal CD quality music from the Innuos Zenith is no longer a markedly less involving experience, the upscaling doing its job to narrow the gap to the better performance of ripped content playing from the solid state drive.
The Hugo M Scaler is equally happy with classical, rock or jazz or anything else. Playing the Elvira Madigan by Mozart in upscaled 24/192 is sublime but I found that higher resolution recordings fully upscaled were a little bit smoother and not quite as pleasingly incisive as fully upscaled CD. Still extremely good but a little less ‘Chord sounding’ which is of no consequence, not least most peoples hard drive libraries are mostly chock full with ripped CD FLAC or WAV files anyway, the purpose for which the Hugo M Scaler really performs, and also that you can pass the music through if you want too.
Taking the Qutest out of the equation, I moved onto using the Hugo M Scaler with my £895 Cyrus CD t transport and the balanced dual mono 32bit DACs in my Cyrus DAC XP Signature pre amp, again making comparison to pass through content. The Cyrus cannot accept resolutions above 192khz so it will not accept the fullest upscale but on the blue 176.4khz upscaling setting, I again noticed widening and deepening of soundstage especially with vocals and more realistic transient attack too. It’s a smaller change than using the Qutest / Innuos combination though.
The Hugo M Scaler hikes up the performance of the Qutest by 30-40% in my estimation. I’d expect its performance to be better still using proprietary audiophile BNC cables and quite possibly a linear PSU.
The Chord sound has always been one of incisiveness and crisp clarity with no smear but a balanced sound too, which is improved upon by the Hugo M Scaler in the main areas of a wider and deeper soundstage, and transient realism. It’s going to give more of itself in use with a Hugo TT2 or DAVE compared to Qutest or Hugo2 and no doubt will be of better pound for pound value in these installations particularly at its £3500 price point. Notwithstanding this I found it significantly improved the £1200 Qutest’s performance. It works well with other branded DACs too. Other reviews have it steadfastly improving an £800 Audiolab M-DAC+ I notice. I’d highly recommend it.
UPDATE : Reviewing the Hugo TT2 after the Qutest and M Scaler combination, I must admit that I would sooner buy a Hugo TT2 alone than a Qutest and M Scaler, for less money. There is no doubt the Hugo TT2 just performs better as a purist audiophile DAC with bass realism and detail than the Qutest/M Scaler combination can muster. So if you are looking to upgrade a Qutest I would recommend looking at the TT2 first. If your budget allows both, ideally buy the Hugo M Scaler with a TT2 (or DAVE if you can go further still), and be prepared to be amazed!
- FPGA : Xilinx XC7A200T
- Filter tap length : 1,015,808 taps
- Digital Inputs : 2x BNC coaxial, 2x optical/toslink, 1x galvanically isolated USB Type-B compatible with DSD and PCM data (up to DSD 256); with DSD upsampled to PCM.
- Digital Outputs : 1x optical, 1x BNC S/PDIF coaxial, 1x galvanically isolated dual BNC (enables upscaling to the maximum resolution (768kHz from 96kHz data)
- Weight : 2.55kg
- Dimensions: 235 (W) x 40.5 (H) x 236mm (D)
- £3500 (black or silver)
Chord Electronics Ltd, The Pumphouse, Farleigh Ln, East Farleigh, Maidstone, Kent, United Kingdom, ME16 9NB
Tel : (01622) 721444