Chord Electronics Hugo2 Review (Part 4)
A Desktop DAC Mini Marvel
There is nothing double-blind or independently-verified about the comparison below. This is not a shoot-out but rather my considered opinions being as objective as I can.
My first comparison was with the AudioQuest Dragonfly Red. Direct to amplifier the DFR sounded great and is a phenomenal implementation of the Sabre architecture. Say what you will about this el-cheapo, mass-market device, I’d rate the DFR as being about 70% of the H2 for sheer enjoyment. Although the DFR approaches the H2’s musicality, the H2 just dominates it with more and better details and convinces you of a much wider and deeper soundstage. H2 accurately portrays singers, instruments and layers of performers whereas the DFR was muted in comparison. The H2 just sounded more effortless and real. I don’t think I experienced listening fatigue with the DFR but the H2 certainly provided more pleasure and many more ‘suspension of disbelief’ moments.
Next came the Antelope Pure-2. This is a professional grade Burr-Brown R2R DAC with the claim of accurate clocking by heating its clock crystal in a tiny on-board oven. The result was a very good sounding presentation with excellent details and timbre. However, on a busy choral or an orchestral flourish the Pure-2 was not as convincing as the H2 which just stood the music up as the real thing. The Pure-2 is a noble attempt to push the limits of classical audio engineering however I just did not want to listen to it after hearing the H2. Rob Watts has expounded on the challenges of R2R designs – that they have terrible noise-floor modulation and are very prone to jitter. These are words on paper but you can hear for yourself how Rob Watts design prowess allows the diminutive H2 to do more with less. Way more.
PSAudio’s DirectStream Jr is an excellent desktop DAC – made more so with regular (and free) updates to their core FPGA - most recently a ‘Huron’ release – where Ted Smith (DSJ designer) has found, like Rob Watts, that he gets better transparency by removing any and all forms of signal correlated noise and jitter. The DSJ is very close to the H2 and after nearly two hours of back and forth listening it was basically a tie. The DSJ matched the H2 from the lows to the highs and through the details. I’ll raise two comments: (i) the DSJ presented itself as being every-so-slightly harsher with voices and wind instruments and was not as smoothly delineating of layers - whereas H2 perhaps had less low bass. And (ii), my sensitive speakers made the low level digital noise inherent in Ted’s design quite obvious. This is a known and natural side-effect of DSD DACs and perhaps made worse by my ZOTL’s lack of input coupling capacitor. I tried the DSJ gain adjustment but could not get rid of the hiss, hum and swishy sound I heard with my ear to the driver – even at zero volume with no inputs. It took a pre-amp and playing with the combined volume/gain controls to reduce the noise to a manageable level. In contrast, the H2 was absolutely quiet.
The Copland DAC 215 is an well engineered Sabre 9018 implementation with a tube-based headphone amplifier. This is a very nice DAC and the tubes added some nice euphonics to the presentation. The Sabre32 architecture in the 215 is likely as good as it can be made to sound and I’d say that it matched the H2’s FPGA design for extracting detail and staging information. Where it falls down is in just not matching the musicality of the H2. The 215 certainly made a piano solo sound beautiful – however the H2 rendered a real piano. Its uncanny how the H2’s superior timing is able to find subtle nuances in the notes and draw you into the instrument and performer. I would love the 215 if I had not heard the H2.
The Chord Dave was launched in 2015 as a revelation. Rob Watts pioneering work on WTA and noise shaping demonstrated that our ear/brain is capable of incredible discernment. All his knowledge was implemented in the expensive DAVE and I hoped H2, although a significant cost reduced version, had all the best bits. I did not have a DAVE for A/B listening tests but in my recent demo I played the same material through the same source and USB chain. The result? The H2 has many of the same traits but comes up frustratingly short of being in the same league. DAVE is so much smoother, richer and presents a much more expansive soundstage. And perhaps I should add the word ‘addictive’. Occasionally, on certain passages of music, I felt that the H2 might have matched what I heard on the DAVE …but overall, sorry, no, the H2 isn’t a DAVE. In defense of H2, I will say that the DAVE system I heard was probably twenty times the dollar value.