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Hugo TT First Impressions

Hugo TT

One of our customers popped in to have a listen to a fully working example of the Hugo TT which was kindly lent to us (they are not getting it back!!!) by Chord Electronics prior to its release. He used a set of Sennheiser HD800s, Oppo PM1 and some Audeze LCD3 for critical listening... I was particularly interested to hear how it would perform with the LCD3 as the original Hugo did struggle to drive them, but excelled with the HD800's and PM1's.

My summary was far to simple... I must have one. Fatigued from plugging and unplugging the Hugo from my main system, the new TT is a blessing I have been waiting long for and it did not disappoint as a DAC, Headphone amplifier or pre-amp during all of my listening. Feel free to give us a call on 01707 320 788 if you wish to arrange a demonstration for the new Hugo TT and we are currently taking back orders for the first wave... which we should be receiving towards the end of April.

Without further delay here are Igor's thoughts:

The new TT has received numerous upgrades across the board over its portable brother, among them newly added RCA and fully balanced XLR outputs, a snazzy display for input and sample rate details, asynchronous galvanic isolated type B SD and HD USB inputs and, for those of you inclined on incorporating the Hugo TT into your component stack, an actual proper remote control. The inbuilt battery has had its lifespan extended from 14 to 22 hours on a single charge and the capacitors used within are of a significantly higher grade.

Out of the box, the TT feels reassuringly heavy and build quality really is second to none. Every knurled and machined edge of this little wonder adds to the lovingly crafted whole. Of course you'd expect to see this when parting with three large but its good to see that Chord have that aspect of the design and experience covered. The volume control "ball" also changes colour as you increase the gain - a nice touch and a pleasant attempt to inject a little bit of magic into the user experience. What is perhaps the only flaw in this fine device is the input readout on the front. Because of it being slanted 45 degrees upwards you probably won't be able to see it when sitting on your sofa, but this is a minor nitpick.

The original Hugo struggled a bit when it came to top of the line flagship headphones with high impedance ratings and this was a slight stumbling block in an otherwise superb device. With the upgraded electronics of the Hugo TT the only fair thing to do would be to run it through its paces with audiophile favourites like the planar magnetic Audeze LCD-3s, the dynamic Sennheiser HD-800s and the Oppo PM-1s. In our test the Hugo TT was fed by a Chord Company USB cable with 16 and 24 bit lossless tracks streaming from a Macbook Air via the Audirvana Plus app. 

**Radiohead - National Anthem**

Audeze LCD-3s - The first thing that strikes you is the sheer meatiness of the sound on offer. Colin Greenwood's throbbing bassline is thick and physical, setting the pace for the rest of the track. What the LCD-3s get right from the beginning is an ability to take each instrument, render its timbre faithfully and keep up with the pace of the track in question. Whichever part of the performance I focus on, whether it is Mr Yorke's voice, the theremin melodies in the background, or the bassline in the foreground, the imaging of each is pristine. Brass doesn't fare as well, ending up sounding smeared and non-specific. Another clear minus is the soundstage - everything is just kind of thrown together and I don't get the precise positioning of instruments in a 3D stage as I would expect to. I get no sense of the soundstage being anything but flat - there is height to it, but virtually no depth.

The HD-800s have more of a relaxed sound signature and will definitely provide superior comfort with prolonged listening. One thing that stands out straight away is a slight strident sibilance (and other alliterative words as well!) on cymbals and percussion. Soundstage is starting to develop a bit of depth, but is still not particularly cavernous. Brass fares better and it is easier to imagine the trumpets and tubas on the track as part of the cohesive whole. One thing the HD-800s do superbly is the rendering of voices - Thom Yorke could be singing within arm's length of you - the imaging is that good. 

Oppo's PM-1s are also planar magnetic and you can hear that in the solid feel of Colin Greenwood's bass again. Time and again you can hear how the planar magnetic approach makes for a superb approximation of an instrument's timbre - dynamic designs simply don't come this close. That's not to say they are worse per se - they aren't, but they do have their own strengths and USPs. The PM-1s do a good job of keeping things balanced overall, save for a slight strident harshness when the track gets busy. The Oppos also sprinkle little peripheral flourishes into the track at times - something I didn't pick up on when listening with the other two models.

**Perpetuum Mobile - Penguin Cafe Orchestra**

This track was specially chosen for its warm cello introduction - when heard through a good component chain you should experience something almost akin to a warm wave of cello bass washing over you. 

Oppo PM-1s - The texture of the incoming cellos on the Oppos is spot on. Sadly the body of the bass is more thin than I would have expected and this takes something away from the way this wonderful track should be experienced. Aside from this misstep the Oppos do a very pleasant job with the piano and cello motif and no parts come across as edgy, strident or fatiguing. 

Sennheiser HD-800s - The opening piano notes of the track are lovingly rendered, almost achingly so. The soaring cello motif has increased bass body, the cello has a slightly gritty but very realistic texture. I'd have liked a smidgen more analogue feel and solidity in an ideal world, but ultimately the Sennheisers are so easy to listen to that I can't really complain. There's a shadow of sibilance creeping through on certain parts of the track and that does sometimes come close to affecting the listening experience but never quite reaches discomfort. There's a narrow but well defined "in ear" soundstage as well and it's nice to hear each instrument separately and not in a messy smear.

Audeze LCD-3s - Those opening piano notes are now definitely brighter. They also lack the pleasant softness of the Sennheisers. But when the cello swell comes in the LCD3s are probably the best in being able to render how the piano and multiple cellos are layering together in real time - both can be heard at the same moment whilst simultaneously being distinct from one another, the other cans in our test providing a close mix of the elements. The soundstage is not as nicely defined as the HD-800s but the instrument separation is definitely ahead by a hair's breadth. In some ways it is very close to call between these top end flagships.

**Kingstown - Kode 9 & The Spaceape**

How about some truly bowel rumbling sub-bass courtesy of one of the UK scenes finest dubstep acts ? Lamentably The Spaceape is no longer with us but the great music that he made with Kode 9 will thankfully remain forever. 

Audeze LCD-3s - With the track underway the you can hear the headphones struggling and almost (but not quite) succeeding to realistically draw the truly gargantuan levels of sub bass required to do this track justice. Spaceape's allusive, gnomic baritone vocals don't really have a place of their own to stand and their post-apocalyptic portent loses some of its power as a result of being somewhat lost in the mix.

Oppo PM-1s - As the track opens the punch of the drum machine is nice and crisp. The plunge of the sub bass is also markedly better than the Audeze cans. Spaceape's vocal is nicely separated and has gained more of the gravitas it should have had from the outset. Where the Oppos don't do so well is on rendering the synth motifs, with each flourish not really having adequate definition. Swings and roundabouts as they say.

Sennheiser HD-800s - That lovingly defined soundstage is back. Nothing jostles for position and everything is nicely unified into a cohesive whole. The aforementioned beat is there, but it is not as meaty and physical as either of the other two cans. The sub bass drone is pleasant but, just like the other models on test, it simply doesn't have the heft to render it perfectly. In fact if there's one thing this track has shown me in regards to the Sennheiser is that the overall sound signature is, whilst mostly balanced, slightly more forward than either the Audezes or the Oppos. 

**Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia) - Sunn 0)))**

We've pushed our cans to the brink with extreme sub bass. Now let's really knock them on their backs with the very best in ambient doom metal. This inspired opus from Sunn 0)))'s "Monoliths & Dimensions" album has it all - soaring synths, a bone crushing riff motif, Attila Csihar's guttural growl. It is maximalist in every sense of the word. If the Hugo TT and our headphone models can render the physicality of this performance well we will know we are onto a winner.

Audeze LCD3s - As we have already established the Audezes are a clear winner on texture. You can practically feel the friction of the grain on each note that you listen to. With this track it is no different. Riffs are dirty, waves of delay are enveloping and the vocals have all of their requisite harshness. Soundstage though is nowhere near as epic as it should be for a track of this magnitude - if there had to be one thing I would fix then this would be it.

Oppo PM-1s - From the first moment of the track I can hear comparatively more clarity. The difference is slight but it is there. The grain and body of instruments is equally present - I put this down to the Oppos being of planar magnetic design, much like the Audezes. I can't say that the synth chorus sounds as pleasant but at this point the quality of all three models have me thinking - is it more of a high fidelity achievement to render the inherent evil and epic nature of this track and the "dirt" of the distortion or to present it in the most listenable way ? We're really wandering into the realms of full on philosophy here. The vocals are there, buried in the mix and neither stand out nor get sufficiently lost so as to lose their portent.

Sennheiser HD-800s - Once again the Sennheisers have a clearly forward presentation. On this track I can also hear more variations in dynamic range than on the other models - the cavernous peaks and troughs of the track are reproduced with aplomb. The soundstage is back and draws a cohesive outline of where Sunn 0))) would like their instruments to be heard. The grit of the riff is diminished, and recessed somewhat in line with the other elements of the track. It will make for a more relaxing listening experience but will probably not satisfy those purists who feel that losing some edginess is a bad thing.

And the Hugo TT itself ? Well, in all of the above tests it performed admirably. For each extreme music genre thrown at it the TT images them with consistent musicality and detail. Reliability wise it doesn't skip a beat and its assured sound exhibits no excesses that make it deficient in any part of the sound spectrum. 

There's plenty of clarity and the timing on complex tracks is assuredly fast. It is a very solid base from which to power your flagship headphone selection if that is how you do most of your critical listening. If I had a criticism of the TT it would be its soundstage rendering ability - I didn't hear one that was wider than my head with any of the flagships - perhaps being used to a wide dispersal of soundstage has spoilt me rotten. Apart from this minor downside the timbre and musicality of the Hugo TT are there in spades. Purchase-wise it is most definitely an assured recommendation. In the coming weeks we will be performing more critical listening of the Hugo TT as it continues to burn in and might even compare it to the original Hugo to see how they match up in terms of their sound signature.

How about our three flagships ? Well, if pushed I personally would opt for the Sennheisers as they are the least fatiguing in the long term and I rather like their imaging of voices, pianos and their slightly forward leaning presentation. They are also the most comfortable to wear over a long period of time. But then again until today I had always done my critical listening with Sennheiser HD600s so it may be the case that I just like the house sound. Certainly, the Audeze LCD-3s render timbre like nothing else on earth. The Oppo PM-1s meanwhile are fantastic at micro detail and at populating the track you are listening to with lots of subtle insights into the music. But, if pushed, I would still prefer the Sennheisers. As with all things, I would say critical listening with your own component chain is always advised.

Nintronics Ltd, Unit 7, Martinfield Business Centre, Welwyn Garden City, AL7 1HG
Tel: 01707 320788 Email: sales@nintronics.co.uk

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