Chord Hugo - Fooling the Ears Good fortune was smiling on me last week; I got to borrow the Chord Hugo for testing. The price might be seen by some as an extravagance and completely unnecessary, however those people will not have heard the Hugo. There's a whole world of detail in our music collections which we're just not aware of thanks to inferior (and cheaper) sound reproduction, so we are unable to fully enjoy the collections we've been building up for years. How extravagant is that? At first glances the Hugo is reminiscent of something a character might have in a sci-fi film; possibly a matter replicator or artificial gravity generator of some kind. The lack of labelled buttons had me casting off my blokey heritage straight away and searching for the instructions - I didn't want to inadvertently attract the attention of enemy star cruisers. At second glance, it looks like a chicken and mushroom slice. Usually for me, objects turn into food just like in the cartoons when a character is hungry. But now having tried the Hugo, sandwiches, pasties and chocolate bars are taking on the form of this technological marvel while I blink at them from my high-resolution reverie. For all its apparent mystery, the operation of the Hugo is as simple as it gets. One button controls input selection, another controls crossfeed. Then there's the volume control which is recessed into the case to avoid accidental movement; it's nice and stiff for the same reason. That just leaves the on/off switch. Slightly harder to recall is the colour scheme by which the input type is displayed, but after a few hours this was quite intuitive. The rest of the Hugo comprises many inputs and outputs of differing types, to ensure the best compatability with other equipment. Optical/Toslink in, Bluetooth in, RCA coaxial in and 2 x USB inputs (SD and HD). Outputs include 2 x 3.5mm stereo sockets, one 6.3mm socket and stereo RCA out. These are controlled by the volume wheel by default, but the Hugo can be set up to send a line-level signal through these for sending on to a full size Hi-Fi for example. Be aware though that this affects all other outputs so IEMs should be removed from the unit! At first I naturally wanted to test one of the more new-fangled of the Hugo's functions, the bluetooth connectivity. My android phone is cheap, and so generally not catered for among equipment manufacturers. If I wanted to listen to music from it, I'd only have the headphone socket to use. However, after pairing the handset and the Hugo I was listening to music from my phone on headphones of my choice - and fantastic it was too. However it would be unfair to give a critique of the sound over bluetooth since it probably comes down to the limitations of my handset, much better to have it connected to a PC via USB. Before this, I was intent on hearing what it could do with my Fiio X3 - I love the idea of being portable and putting the kettle on without interruption, also I wanted to see how the Hugo would look as part of a (semi) portable rig. I used some of the thin rubber straps supplied in the box for lashing down the X3, and found the grooves at either end of the Hugo were to keep these in place - nice design. The result was a little like seeing a young space shuttle sitting on the back of a 747, but it's a combo which certainly got me on the edge of space with a SPDIF cable, wow! Now for a closer listen. I had the Beyerdynamic T1 for this purpose; high quality and relatively neutral although the T1 can become a little too bright for me sometimes, such as when the Fiio E12 is used as an amp. The T1 just gets nudged into the wrong frequency response for my taste/ears. Luckily the Hugo does not have this effect on the T1; frequency response appeared to be unchanged in the upper region. First up was Calibro 35's 'Prologue' on the album 'Traditori Di Tutti' - I love this band; the music is really well produced and is based on Italian movie soundtracks, what could be better? Immediately I was hit by the detail in the presentation; but not like your regular detail which merely makes something clearer. It's like aural 3D. The soundstage was an impressive width and depth, and went all around my head like a halo - albeit a noisy one. Instruments jostled for my attention from every angle. Incredible. All this extra detail did not make the presentation any harsher however, the frequency response was still nice and smooth to my ears. good thing too, as they were a little confused. Now and again they would prick up as if they'd heard the phrase 'free food'; they would be momentarily fooled by the realism of the presentation. This was a studio recording too! Next up I selected a classical piece to assess more subtle effects, and also to check if I'm old enough to like it yet. My mistake, as of course I liked it from the Hugo - it would make the sound of fingernails on a blackboard seem more like an interesting experience than an annoying noise. Not that the classical piece was at all bad - the 'Finale' of Beethoven's 'Creatures of Prometheus' by George Petrou and Armonia Atenea. Like the previous impression, reverb was the most noticeable thing. Now that all instruments were in the same room at the same time, the reverb decayed around the space and resonated like I've never heard before. My ears were doing somersaults; they were firmly convinced that this was a real space, and the hushed coughs and rustling programmes of the audience made it more so. The separation and imaging was so accurate I could close my eyes and imagine where the players were sitting; however this level of realism has its own pitfalls as I was distracted by the sound of a duck during certain transitions between notes - obviously an unwanted noise created by somebody's instrument but a little distracting. That's the only drawback of the Hugo, so much is going on you have to be disciplined in what you pay attention to! I heartily recommend the Hugo, not by words alone but by actions too; namely checking down the back of the sofa and praying for some kind of windfall. Such is the build and quality of this thing, I can realistically expect over 10 years of high enjoyability - so not really expensive in the long run.