By Lam Seng Fatt
I had a shock when I found out that the sound system that was playing classical music was driven by a battery-powered DAC/headphone amp. What? A small Walkman-sized brick meant for headphones was driving the 89dB sensitivity Swan M3 standmount speakers? No preamp, no poweramp, nothing. I checked the speaker cables to confirm they were plugged into the analogue outputs of the CHORD HUGO.
I have heard of preamps driving speakers before, but it was the first time that I heard a pair of speakers being driven by a headphone amp.
And that is only one of the surprises that the CHORD HUGO has in store for the audiophile.
The CHORD HUGO was launched at Centre Circle by owner of Chord Electronics Ltd John Franks yesterday.
John confidently announced that it is the best 32-bit DAC in the world. And it is reference quality. Period.
He said it was not possible to design a component like HUGO till technology had advanced enough in the past two years to enable breakthroughs in what can be achieved, and he is so confident of the quality of the product that he thinks it will be the market leader for the next five years and he could not think of what else could be done to upgrade it.
The HUGO is essentially a DAC/headphone amp with a lithium-ion battery that can last 10-12 hours on a full charge. It is meant for the young who are always on the go and you can listen to high-quality music wherever you go (you go, Hugo, get it, get it?).
Frank said he wanted HUGO to last long enough for someone to board a plane and listen to songs while flying and still have juice left when the plane lands. The size of the battery then determined the size of HUGO.
The digital conversion part of HUGO is designed by Robert Watts while the power supply and output sections are designed by Frank.
Robert eschews the usage of commercial and common DAC chips and prefers to use Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) with Xilinx chips. The FPGA and WTA (Watts’ Transient Aligned) filter are the key technologies behind CHORD”s DACs.
The latest Xilinx chip runs on less than 0.7 volts and Frank said 20 years ago, a product like the HUGO would have needed a power supply the size of a coffee table. Today, it’s just a wall plug and a lithium-ion battery much like a smartphone battery.
The attraction of the HUGO is that it accepts DSD 128 and PCM 384 via DoP through the USB input. It also has Toslink and coax inputs that accept up to 192 and 384 respectively. And it has three headphone jacks and HUGO can drive three headphones at the same time, including hard-to-drive 600 Ohm ones.
During the launch, several HUGOs were available for testing with numerous headphones including the Sennheiser 800 and the Beyer Dynamics T1. Music files were streamed either via USB from laptops or bluetoothed from a tablet.
Frank also showed that the Apple smartphone could stream hi-res files with a free app to the HUGO.
Unfortunatey Frank left for Thailand with the HUGOs and his own headphones for a launch event there. But Malaysians need not wait that long because the first shipment of HUGOs will be arriving at Centre Circle soon. The HUGO is priced at RM7,600 list.