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Chord Electronics Hugo TT2
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  In addition to being a unique DAC, Hugo TT2 is also a pre-amplifier and headphone amplifier they say. Hmmm... Yes, it is, but it does not have analogue inputs, so cannot accept external analogue sources. The ‘pre-amplifier’ bit relates to the fact that very high gain is available, enough to drive a power amplifier direct or act as a power amplifier in its own right. Two gain settings (Hi and Lo), a big illuminated spherical volume control (centre) and both phono-socket (unbalanced) and XLR-socket (balanced) analogue outputs being fitted to make it all happen. 

   These days headphones rule and Hugo TT2 is designed to cope, with no less than two full size 1/4in (6.35mm) jacks, plus a 3.5mm mini jack, so no adaptors are needed. Those on-board power amps let Hugo TT2 drive headphones down to 16 Ohms or lower, with massive voltage swing so even the most difficult of headphones offer no challenge. An unusual addition is three selectable levels of Crossfeed between channels to give a more loudspeaker-like presentation. The only omission is the lack of a balanced output. Plugging headphones in disables amplifier mode (i.e. the analogue outputs). 

 

 

At left, twin BNC output sockets (for future products). Next along, two large XLR socket outputs flanked by phono-socket outputs. Then come twin BNC digital inputs that together form a DBNC input. At right are TOSLINK optical inputs and a USB B computer connection.

 

There are arrays of digital inputs. A fully isolated USB input allows Hugo TT2 to be used as a computer’s headphone DAC or to send audio from the computer to the hi-fi. The TT2 accepts native DSD (PC only) up to x8 (DSD 512). At present double-rate x2 DSD (DSD128) is about the limit for music files, because of their size. If you run a PC a DSD driver must be downloaded from Chord Electronics to run native or DoP; if you run a Mac the paid-for Audirvana Plus app. sends via DoP that works to DSD128 only in Hugo TT2.

   In addition to the USB input there are two electrical S/PDIF digital inputs via BNC sockets, not the usual phono sockets. They can be used independently, as usual, to accept a digital stream from outside sources, or together as a special DBNC (Dual BNC) input to accept the DBNC output of M Scaler. There are two optical inputs for which Chord Electronics now supply matching cables to ensure they reach 192kHz sample rate. There are no AES/EBU balanced digital inputs. And there are two digital outputs for future use with Chord Electronics products. 

   Another input is Bluetooth with aptX compression, for streaming from mobile phones or any other device such as iPads and portable players that now mostly come with Bluetooth. A small, light (plastic) and simple remote control unit is provided with all functions, including volume control, input selection and filter selection. 

   There are four filters, an incisive neutral filter (Filter 1) that offers ‘absolute reference’ they say, and the same with high frequency roll-off (Filter 2) to ‘remove noise’ from hi-res files of 88.1kHz sample rate or higher. Then there’s a filter with ‘warmer tone’ (Filter 3) and again the same with high frequency roll-off (Filter 4). Differences between these filters were not great and sonic differences small. They work with DSD also to reduce high frequency noise (2 and 4), a problem inherent to DSD.

   Like all Chord Electronics products Hugo TT2 is of exceptional build and finish. The case is machined from solid alloy, making it wonderfully strong and with superb contours and detailing. The company light up the whole device in their usual style: the spherical volume control at centre changes colour to show gain, the colour palette moving from red (low) up to green (sensible) and then into blues to purples and eventually white (max). Internally,  the LEDs change colour on the circuit board to indicate sample rate (or DSD) and this is visible through the top window. Case dimensions are 235mm wide, 223mm deep and 46mm high. with a weight of 2.53kgs. 

 

 

A small and light remote with volume, filters and inputs.

 

Power is supplied by a Chinese external switch-mode power supply block that delivers 15V at a high 4A through a cable 2340cm (11ft) long in total. Chord Electronics exclusively use switch-mode supplies and are happy with them, even though they are shunned by many others. To compensate for any possible limitations in supply transient behaviour ’super capacitors’ are fitted to store charge within the unit. 

   And finally to the power amplifier potential of Hugo TT2. Hugo TT2 produces 20 Watts from its XLR outputs. However, it doesn’t have the heat sinking or devices to produce such power on a continuous basis. It works fine and goes loud, but very loud will overheat (there are protection circuits). Small loudspeakers are insensitive so expect lower volume – but they will work well enough on a desk where speakers are close to your ears. 

 

SOUND QUALITY

I used Martin Logan ESL-X hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers driven by a Creek Evolution 100A amplifier via its direct XLR inputs (no volume control) through Chord Company Epic XLR cables. Loudspeaker cables were Chord Company (not Chord Electronics; they are different and unrelated companies) Signature UL cables. The unit was run in Amp mode, mostly Filter 1 and with volume set at light blue where full dynamic range is available.

Digital was delivered from an Oppo BDP-205D Universal player acting as a CD transport, coupled optically to the Hugo with the cable supplied that was a tighter fit into the TOSLINK socket than our cables. A MacBook Pro running Audirvana Plus provided hi-res and DSD replay, again connected by the supplied USB cable. 

   I started off with high dynamic range (uncompressed) rock from CD and with Nils Lofgren singing 'Keith Don’t Go' got quite a shock. It was obvious straight away that this DAC has the company’s trademark sound – but supercharged. In basic character think crystal clear and vividly insightful, with no hint of warmth. There was an airy spaciousness to the sound, made more apparent by a very broad soundstage where the audience yelped and shouted from hard left to hard right in lively fashion, yet they were clear of the vocals with well-identified distance. This sense of dimensional resolution with hard images on a wide yet firm canvas remained throughout my listening. Lofgren’s rapid finger-picking was super clear, with better timing between fine details from the strings than I have ever heard, giving a sense of intense insight. It was breathtaking – and not just because of the qualities mentioned but because of a sense of great dynamic contrast too. An astonishing level of revelation was obvious from this track alone, as well as ability to lay out the acoustic being picked up by Lofgren’s mic. 

   

 



 

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