DAC, Preamplifier, and Headphone Amplifier
Chord’s DAVE DAC takes its design cues from HAL the computer in ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey’, and similarly with its glass window, so it seems does the new Chord Electronics Hugo TT2. Much like HAL, I’m putting myself to the fullest possible use in writing this review. This is all I think any conscious entity can ever hope to do. I’m sitting down calmly and do I need to be told to take a stress pill? – Cutting to the chase I’m thinking things over for what I should write.
Whoever Hugo is or was, I’ve no idea. However TT is short for Table Top. Being extremely careful in pronouncing T..T, the TT2 is the new iteration of the original Chord Hugo TT. The model emanated because ‘Chordites’ were using their portable Hugo DACs with their main HiFi. It’s great that manufacturers are always at the behest of loyal customers in this regard.
The Chord Qutest DAC has the same DAC architecture and filters as the Chord Hugo 2. The Hugo TT2 is intended to bridge the gap between the range topping DAVE and budget Qutest rack mounted offerings. The TT2 can be stacked with the £3500 Chord Hugo M Scaler Upscaler and the £2900 100w TTOBY stereo power amplifier, in a kind of triple ‘Big Mac’ configuration.
Its price within the range is reflective of not only being a DAC, and a pretty advanced one at that, but also a balanced pre amplifier with digital volume control. It also is a headphone amplifier with two 1/4 inch headphone jack and one 3.5mm jack. A balanced configuration is of course one where the noise induced in the circuit and interconnects, between pre and power amps, is cancelled out.
Chord don’t believe in using off the shelf DAC chips of the ESS or Burr Brown flavours for instance. Their DACs incorporate a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chip filter which can be programmed with code. Apparently the greater the number of logic gates or taps the filter has, the greater the flexibility to make the DAC sound as required. Everybody loves higher numbers in HiFi and tap counts are definitely not hot air to performance. In the case of the Qutest and Hugo 2 which share the same FPGA, there are 49,152 taps. The Hugo TT2 takes proceedings up a considerable notch to 98,304 taps. Not on a par with the DAVE’s 164,000 taps though! The additional tap count from the original TT’s 26,368 is clearly to be welcomed.
I would admit to not fully having the inclination to understand how tap lengths have a bearing on sound quality. I imagine technicians sitting around wearing white lab coats, for our benefit, for that purpose. Well OK, maybe that’s taking it a bit far, but you catch my drift. There is more to being an audiophile than being accustomed to understand every technicality – gauging the quality of faithfully reproduced music for instance. This makes us all, every bit the expert, in what is a non exclusive pursuit.
In difference to the old TT, Chord say the Hugo TT2 eschews the lithium polymer battery supply for six super-capacitors, to send on its electrical juice. The supplied switching power supply must therefore be connected all the time. From afar the toy like case does look like it might be made from cheap plastic. Up close it’s actually very nice indeed – a luxuriously milled aluminium affair. This no doubt accounts a lot of the cost, but aside from looks, the aluminium case has a very useful purpose in being a shield for internal high frequency noise.
In addition, using dual data mode with twin BNC digital inputs, the Hugo TT2 handles up to 768khz PCM files, double that of the original TT. In effect each cable transports up to 384khz. This is a technology Chord have employed on the DAVE, Qutest, and Hugo 2 too, where Chord’s BLU mark 2 CD transport and the Hugo M Scaler can send dual data to these compatible DACs. If you don’t feed the Hugo TT2 these devices, you still have available the use of the two BNC digital inputs for up to 384khz PCM audio from separate digital sources. You can also exploit two optical/toslink digital inputs which are limited to 192khz/24bit by this standard.
Why might you ask do I need to have sample rates of 768khz when CD and hi-res formats at 44.1khz and 192khz is all I need and any upscaling can’t improve the original file? A VHS video can’t be made better by transferring it to HD, right? Well this question does not actually have a valid premise since much of the quality gains in using the Hugo M Scaler with compatible Chord DACs is derived due to use of the 1million tap length filter of the BLU mark 2 and Hugo M Scaler and the effect this filter has on ‘transients’ in music. I elaborate on this in my separate M Scaler review.
The Hugo TT2 now offers DSD file support up to best DSD512 quality. If you use a Windows based PC you can send the Hugo TT2 native DSD via its USB type B input. This means you are hearing DSD in its original 1bit depth, high sample rate form. A driver download to your computer is only necessary if using a Windows PC. However if you don’t use Windows PCs the DSD is converted to conventional PCM high resolution as DSD over PCM (DoP). Because most downloadable DSD is only available at present in DSD64 and DSD128, handling DSD512 is somewhat overkill. Handy for future proofing perhaps.
Chord don’t support MQA, which in my experience is never a disadvantage to the consideration of choosing a DAC on performance. The quality of digital audio achievable is largely converter and not format dependent, certainly for lossless CD and hi-res quality music….The way the black and yellow hi-res logo seems to get people hook line and sinker is clearly a ploy of marketing.
The Chord’s USB connection is galvanically isolated which involves isolating the power rails of the USB input by use of a transformer. This allows for greater musicality by the lesser effect of the power signal.
There are two balanced XLR outputs or single ended RCA outputs for connection to power amplifiers and also two BNC digital outputs for future products. Sadly there are no analogue inputs for analogue sources which could rule out this DAC/Pre Amplifier.
I connected up the Hugo TT2 to my Cyrus Mono X200 Signature power amps using Chord Signature Tuned Array XLR cables. I used Atlas RCA’s for direct connection to my Cyrus DAC XP Signature pre amp with partnering Cyrus PSX-R power supply. The source is an Innuos Zenith mark 2 into the the Hugo TT2 over USB using a Chord company C-USB cable. Speakers are PMC twenty5 23’s and speaker cables are Chord company Epic Reference.
Using the front power button the unit first has to cycle through initialisation where the super capacitors are being charged. ‘CHG’ is shown in the display. Volume is changed by rolling the front opaque volume ball. It changes colour from red, being the lowest volume, through the colours of a rainbow, to white, being highest volume.
Hugo TT2 Volume ball operation
You need to ensure the Hugo TT2 is in the correct mode; DAC mode to feed an integrated or pre amplifier or in Amp (Pre-amp) mode if connecting it to power amplifier(s). I did find the Hugo TT2 temperamental at fixing in the correct mode but not of further issue once it’s set. Plugging in headphones mutes the output and puts the unit in headphone mode. As a safeguard to damaging speakers with it connected to your power amps but in the wrong DAC mode, the volume ball will only operate and change colour in Amp mode. Also DAC or AMP mode is displayed during the start up sequence.
You can set different cross feed filters for using headphones. Much like the Qutest there are four filters for normal use; incisive neutral, incisive neutral with HF roll off, warm, and warm with HF roll-off. You can also dim the coloured buttons by a double button press.
I set gain mode to ‘low’ through my tests. Using the XLR outputs the Hugo TT2 can output 20w and be used direct with speakers with suitable XLR adapters. It’s unlikely many audiophiles will be using it in this configuration due to the low power output, but interesting nonetheless.
As with all Chord products, sample rate is indicated by ‘HAL’ in the form of a coloured LED within the electronics. It takes getting used to until you remember all of the corresponding colours.
The remote is cheap looking but basic and is adequate but a nicer metal version to match the Hugo TT2 would be better.
It’s possible to pair phones to the Hugo TT2 via its aptX Bluetooth aerial which occupies the left side main window. The default password for doing so is 0000, not mentioned in the online manual.
Let’s get ‘HAL’ talking
How many times do you read a review and have no idea what the main sound quality traits a component brings because the descriptions are the same and too many generalisations are used. I’m sorry but this tells us nothing about the main sound qualities of a component. For the next review they write the same!!??? Aaarrrgghhh!
Concentrating on the main sound characteristics of a component, to avoid being too general, is the order of the day. So what do we get with with the Hugo TT2…..
I initially fed the Hugo TT2 an Innuos Zenith over USB, keeping the Hugo TT2 in DAC mode partnered with my Cyrus pre amp and it’s PSX-R and using the Chord provided power supply. Straight away you notice a rich smooth presentation with great depth and spaciousness in the soundstage and musical soundscapes. Tonally it’s still in middle neutral ground, but the other noticeable area is the depth and realism of bass. I played Suo Gan from the Empire of the Sun soundtrack and none so is this more evident on hearing the organ, and much more evident than using the Qutest. You feel more of the sensation of being in a church or cathedral where this track was recorded. The same qualities are true of Max Richter’s Elena and Lila on the My Beautiful friend album with low synthesiser chords.
Listening a bit more I find the midrange is cleaner than I’m used too. Another stand out trait. It’s projected and You Must Love Me from Evita shows off Madonna’s airy vocal. The same is true of the boy soprano in Suo Gan, helping to convey this hauntingly beautiful melody.
In DAC mode the Hugo TT2 is pleasantly refined. If anyone had preconceptions that a Chord DAC is tuned towards lean treble, which I’ve seen banded about without caution on HiFi forums, this is certainly not the case here. This view is possibly typical of audiophiles confusing precise audio with tonal balance. The balance of this DAC is perfect to a neutral ideal, with the incisiveness and non smearing qualities so typical of Chord converters. It’s perfectly ‘true sounding hi-fi’ in this sense.
It doesn’t have the all out detail retrieval of the Chord DAVE, such that the separation of instruments and layering is as obvious and the way they are brought to the fore. However the Hugo TT2 is not far off the DAVE’s coat tails. However like the DAVE, it’s still presenting the music in a balanced and dynamic fashion and more so than the Qutest particularly considering how realistic bass is. About as balanced as Philippe Petit in the film ‘Man on wire’ in fact. Dynamics in music like Etape1 from Kraftwerk’s Tour De France album is extremely good, but so is all music, so no particular revelation here.
Overall the Hugo TT2 is, in absolute terms, very even sounding across the frequency range. Compared to the DAVE too which has more midrange prowess, where the DAVE exploits detail more. Considering I have the Qutest at about 70-80% of the DAVE’s performance, the Hugo TT2 is self assuredly nearer 90%. At half the price this is great value for money, factoring in the law of diminishing returns as you spend more. It’s comforting to know its performance is where it should be in relative Chord terms with prices involved, as you might expect.
So is the Hugo TT2 worth buying on its prowess as a DAC at £3995 assuming its pre amp, headphone amp and Bluetooth functionality aren’t needed? The answer – Absolutely! The Hugo TT2 is of sufficient quality to stand out as amongst the best in DAC echelons.
Going from filter setting 1 to 4 results in a good marked effect on bass response. I preferred filter setting one (incisive) as it gives the balance I like. You do notice though that progressing through the filters has less effect on the upper registers compared with the Qutest.
I’ve already reviewed the Hugo M Scaler with the Qutest and it reassuringly hikes up performance, notably in soundstage. The effect is a good improvement, but how would the Hugo TT2 fare with the Hugo M Scaler and considering it’s in the same TT range is it perhaps a more suited match? Is the M Scaler a better value proposition in this context?
Using Wave Storm ‘F’ BNC cables from Wave Hi Fidelity with Furutech connectors, I hooked up the Hugo M Scaler and the Hugo TT2 and connect my Innuos Zenith to the Hugo M Scaler’s USB input instead. CD rips are now being conveyed at 16x resolution (705khz). One word….. Wowsers! I play Chariots of fire by Vangelis and the sparkly cymbals metaphorically spank you in the face. Resolution is improved markedly above the Hugo TT2 alone, where it seems to come with soundstage improvement, and more so than using the Hugo M Scaler with the Qutest. (Incidentally the Hugo TT2 alone eschews the Qutest / Hugo M Scaler combination on all out detail and bass depth and response / realism, and making it a better option for similar money). The sound is more incisive now, soundstage is both widened and deepened quite considerably. With the Qutest I found the Hugo M Scaler’s effect is mainly a deepening of the soundstage but not a widening too.
From how I remember the DAVE sounding in my system at home, the Hugo TT2 nearly reaches the same level of performance. The DAVE is a touch more analytical, and I don’t use the word analytical in a negative sense. The DAVE still beats this paired combination as a detail excavator. With the nice qualities inherent of the Hugo TT2 and sound-staging of the paired Hugo M Scaler, if anything the combination is as good as the DAVE so far as reaching an idealised reference sound quality standard. Clearly similar money is involved so this is perhaps unsurprising, but this pairing is clearly better than the DAVE alone on sound-staging capabilities. The TT2 with and without the Hugo M Scaler is a little bit more rounded with bass too. It’s affirmative that the Hugo M Scaler is designed to be used with the Hugo TT2 and yes, the Hugo M scaler is a much better value for money proposition in this context than use with the Qutest. On changing between ‘pass through’ CD ripped resolution to 16x resolution through the Hugo M Scaler, you go from a relative flattening of the music at CD quality, to a much wider more detailed sound at 705khz. Very pleasing indeed and boy you don’t want to go back to pass through!
Way back when, I listened to the original and now obsolete Hugo TT with my PMC’s and power amps. The combination was one of piercing and searing openness and transparency. If I’m honest, sound quality was grating after a while, whilst admittedly I was not listening at home and a meaningful test wasn’t possible. I was interested if these reservations could be different here in using the Hugo TT2 in Pre amp (‘AMP’) mode. I can report that there is no concern. You still get the same sound signature albeit, I found, loosing a touch of the tonal richness and refinement and soundstage of using a capable analogue pre amp. Its main talent clearly lies in the DAC domain I feel. This is not to say it’s not accomplished as a pre amp, for it very demonstrably is, it’s just not its equal forte. Self evidently the extent to which it will work as a pre amp is very much going to depend on your current amplification but it’s worth trying in both DAC mode and AMP mode before buying to work out how you are going to use it.
Taking the Hugo M Scaler out of the mix in using the Hugo TT2 in (pre) AMP mode does similarly flatten the soundstage. However this is not as marked as when taking the Hugo M Scaler out of the mix in using the Hugo TT2 in DAC mode with my pre, I found.
It’s perhaps unlikely you will be regularly using its Bluetooth capability if you are using it in a serious system. However on the odd occasions friends want to Bluetooth their phones to it, a useful feature. Playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto no 4 in D Major – Allegro Aperto, through a FiiO X1ii portable music player, it’s surprising how dynamic and clear the music is. Clearly not as incisive as playing local music from a great source like the Zenith. However pretty decent considering aptX Bluetooth is a lossy compressed technology and the Hugo TT2 makes much of the format.
I didn’t try the Hugo TT2 with a Windows PC to provide unconverted DSD content. However my very decent version of Brothers In Arms By Dire Straits in DSD64 sounds epic particularly the track Why Worry. The clarity of the jangling guitars and sound-staging is impressive. Similarly CD ripped content and hi-res music is equally impressive. I’d reiterate though that you are buying this DAC on the basis of what it does with all lossless music and its sonic capabilities, not trying to split hairs between formats and resolutions. It’s very much equally impressive with all lossless music.
With my Grado SR225 headphones, the sound characteristics of the Hugo TT2 are mirrored through its headphone amp. I’m sure better headphones would really show of the Hugo TT2!
Conclusion – Chord Electronics Hugo TT2
This Chord is a very hard act to follow, and at the moment it has to be amongst one of the best digital converters at this price, particularly partnered with the Hugo M Scaler. I preferred it in DAC mode but individual systems will obviously differ. In conclusion, extremely recommended.
- FPGA : Xilinx Artix 7 FPGA
- Filter tap length : 98,304
- Headphone : 2 x 1/4 inch, 1 x 3.5mm headphone jacks (up to 800 ohms)
- Digital Inputs : 1x USB Type-B, 2x Coax BNC, 2x Optical & Bluetooth
- Digital Outputs : 2x DX BNC (expansion outputs – future products)
- PCM support : 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz, 358.8kHz, 384kHz, 705.6 and 768kHz
- DSD support : DoP DSD 64 to DSD 512 – native via Windows
- Analogue Outputs : Stereo XLR, Stereo RCA
- Weight : 2.53kg
- Dimensions: 235mm x 223mm x 46mm
- £3995 / $5795 (black or silver)
Chord Electronics Ltd
Maidstone, Kent ME16 9NB
Tel : (01622) 721444