The worst villain is usually the one whose motivations you can sympathize with and understand, someone redeemable that just went down the wrong path of pillaging the homes of innocent villagers. That’s basically how I feel about the Chord Hugo 2, a digital-to-analog converter and headphone amplifier that’s not much larger than a 3.5-inch portable hard drive. On paper, the Hugo 2 promises to be an unlikely combination of ultra high-end audiophile performance and easily transportable size. Its price hovers around the wallet-eviscerating mark of $2,500, but that’s not why I find this product villainous. The evil of the Hugo 2 is in how great it is at some things and how treacherously awful it is at others.
My passion for trying every new (and old) pair of headphones necessitates a consistent source device from which to test everything. Something powerful enough to adequately feed the most demanding headphones while still being mobile enough to travel in my backpack. Having tested and loved the Chord Mojo in 2016, I was delighted to hear about the Hugo 2 from the same specialist company last year. The Chord Hugo 2 is a bigger, beefier, and supposedly all-around better decoder and headphone amplifier than the Mojo, and it costs concordantly more. But, as I’ve written before, we shouldn’t assume that just because the same company makes two products the more expensive one will be superior.
In spite of my own advice, I went into testing the Hugo 2 full of hype and anticipation. Chord isn’t a company that buys electronics off the shelf, it does all the programming and coding itself, and its top-of-the-line Dave DAC costs five figures and is regarded by some as the best in the world. The Hugo 2 was also greeted by glowing early reviews that just fed my excitement. So, when I received my review unit in late October, I have to admit that I was already full of positive prejudice.
But confirming or debunking those expectations is why we do reviews, after all.
The Hugo’s impeccable pedigree is complemented by a characterful box that is instantly distinct from everything else on the market. It’s at once reserved, with its angular, extremely tough and rugged aluminum construction, and playful, thanks to its multicolored control scheme. Chord has made this style of bulbous buttons its brand signature, though they’re an absolute nightmare to figure out. You shouldn’t need to read the user manual just to figure out what each button does, but I absolutely had to.
One button is for power, its neighbor (X-PHD) is for adjusting the crossfeed between left and right channels, the one after that is for selecting the source plugged into the Hugo, and the final button alters the frequency response of the Hugo via filters, each of which has a color code you basically have to memorize. There’s no size or positional hierarchy to distinguish, for instance, the importance of the power button. The labels that exist are (a) on the opposite side of the headphone output and thus face away from you, and (b) insufficiently informative. There seems to be a built-in assumption with the Hugo 2 that its user will inevitably be an ultra-nerdy gadget obsessive that will already know everything about the product. This frustrates me because my definition of an audiophile is simply someone who wants to enjoy music at its best, not an electrical engineering anorak.
But the Hugo 2’s interface woes aren’t limited to just the buttons. What convolutes matters further is that the volume control is also a round, colored blob, however, it’s adjusted by rotating instead of pressing. Throw in the little cosmetic window to let you peek inside the Hugo 2 and you have three sets of similar-looking translucent domes: one is just a window, the other is controlled by rotation, and the rest are all buttons you press in. Intuitive design? Not a bit of it.
As far as inputs and outputs go, most people will be plugging in via the Micro USB port on the back and listening through either the 3.25mm or 6.35mm headphone jack on the front. You can listen to two pairs of headphones simultaneously if you want to share the Hugo experience with a friend. Chord also provides a Bluetooth AptX connection for convenience.
I had no problems hooking up the Hugo 2 to macOS, iOS, or Android devices, and it worked with Windows after installing the requisite driver. With its built-in battery, I was even able to use the Hugo as a (ridiculous) portable DAC while taking a walk in the park. Another Micro USB connection is used to recharge the Hugo 2, which kept going unplugged for between four and five hours in my typical loud-listening experience. (Chord claims an expected battery life of seven hours.)
I have a big problem with those Micro USB ports: they’re flimsy. Any strain on the cables plugged into them is transferred directly onto the jack itself, and accidental tugs have already loosened the one for the audio input on my review Hugo. This would be scarcely acceptable on a $250 gadget, never mind a $2,500 one. Given the implicit expectation that you wouldn’t be replacing a Hugo 2 for many years to come, USB-C would also have been the more forward-thinking, future-compatible choice, aside from the fact it offers a more robust port.
After weeks of practice, I became accustomed to the Hugo 2’s arcane controls. With great care, I avoided breaking the Micro USB ports. I tolerated the Hugo’s worst and I tried my best, but eventually, the Hugo 2 fell down on the one aspect it was supposed to be an uncontestable winner with: sound. This is the bit where I depart from the audiophile consensus and my pre-review expectations about the Hugo 2. I flat out hate the sound of the Hugo 2.
But it’s complicated. It took me a long time to understand my antipathy for the Hugo 2.
The sound is, in fact, technically brilliant. There’s a subtle, indescribable tightness to the timing of music from the Hugo 2 that I haven’t experienced with any other DAC that costs less than a luxury car. The Hugo’s dynamics are fantastic, isolating moments of silence in a recording beautifully, giving them more room to breathe between notes. Sources of sound are also neatly and accurately reproduced, with the Hugo rendering a realistic and generously wide soundstage. Distortion is absent even at high volumes, and yes, I can go super loud with power-hungry headphones like the Final D8000. If all I ever did was test this DAC in small analytical samples, it would be hard to fault.
For all its technical greatness, however, the Hugo 2 simply doesn’t sound musical. Vocals are that one degree too cool, the treble is that little touch too sharp and punchy, and the balance is simply off. There’s no humanity to the music that comes from the Hugo 2, and that becomes apparent over a longer listening session with good headphones. I write after weeks of accumulated experience with everything from the cheap in-ear 1More Triple Drivers to the epic Focal Utopia, Final D8000, Klipsch HP-3, and Audeze MX4, among others.
Like a perfectly sharp chef’s knife, the Hugo 2 leaves me awed by its precision but also bruised by its merciless sharpness. On Banks’ “Mother Earth,” for example, every pluck of a guitar string is crystal clear and identifiable, but the singer’s vocals lack their natural huskiness, and high notes seem to jump out from the backing track. I just can’t relax while listening to the uptight and regimented sound of the Hugo 2. Switching to the Woo Audio WA7 tube amplifier feels like a warm hug from an old friend by comparison, and the Schiit Jotunheim and DragonFly Red DAC/amps each produce a more listenable and enjoyable output than the Hugo. Call my tastes plebeian if you must, but I can only relay what I’ve experienced: the Hugo 2’s technical superiority doesn’t translate to better music.
Initially, I was unwilling to accept that it was the Hugo 2’s fault, so I spent many weeks trying to train myself to like it. But over that period of time, I lost much of my enthusiasm for testing headphones, and I was left with the impression that the new Audio-Technica X5000, Audeze LCD-2 Classic, and Final D8000 each had an unpleasant treble edge. It wasn’t them, it was the Hugo 2.
The Hugo 2 is weird in that, if you pair it with headphones with a weak treble response — such as the Bowers & Wilkins P9, which are laughably bass-heavy — you might just strike on a good combination. The problem for Chord is that anyone spending so much money on a DAC will be looking to get true audiophile headphones to pair with it — and the higher up you go in price with headphones, the more prominent high frequencies become. Conscious that not all of us would love its default setting, Chord provides filters that trim back the highs, bump up the bass, or do both, but once I switched to any of those options, I lost the transparency and clarity of the original setting. In which case, what’s the point of acquiring a Hugo 2 over something much smaller, easier to use, and cheaper like Chord’s own Mojo?
I don’t like or enjoy the Chord Hugo 2 because of all the bad traits of audiophilia that it manifests. Neither its controls nor sound feel like they were designed for humans. It’s like Chord’s engineers forgot what a headphone amplifier and DAC is supposed to be, namely a tool for pumping sweet tunes into people’s craniums. So they built a soulless perfectionist’s idea of an audio reproduction machine, neglecting to hear it for themselves. The Hugo 2 is technically impressive, and its crystalline sound gives glimpses into detail that other DACs can’t match, but in the end, it’s just too cold and inhuman. With enthusiast products like this, precision means nothing without pleasure.
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