This is in essence a two-part review.
1. The new Chord Electronics Hugo portable DAC/Headphone amplifier (£1400)
2. Qobuz music streaming service.
Qobuz is a fairly new to the UK music streaming service from France offering uncompressed CD quality and also up to 24/192 for £19.99 pm (they also offer 320kbps for £9.99 but that’s the same as Spotify so I’ve not included it)
The burning questions are:
How good is the Qobuz service? and is it better than the competition and worth the premium asked?
Can it really replace the need for physical media and downloads? Can the inclusion of the Hugo really offer a true high-end music & HiFi experience?
So I took the Hugo home for an extended listen in a known system/room and put up to some extremely strong competition, ie my regular Rega Reference set-up in the form of the Isis CD player (£6175) into the Osiris amplifier (£6175), both known for their incredible resolution and musicality.
I used the Qobuz app via an iPhone 4S and an Arcam drDock (£199) linked via a Chord company Prodac digital interconnect (£85). All hooked up to the amp with Chord Company Sarum Tuned Aray interconnects. Isis via balanced and Hugo by RCA. A tough test if ever there was one!
After switching the Hugo to line level and making small adjustments to the output level to equal that of the Isis, I listened to a variety of music including LA Woman by the Doors to Amorica by The Black Crowes.
From the off, it was quite clear there was very little between them both in terms of sonics and timing, so much so that at times I had forgotten which I was listening too! I wasn’t expecting that, especially from a stream via my iPhone. As the phone is outputting SPDIF the same results should be gained from most other devises with a digital output I assume.
Of course the Rega Isis had the distinct advantage of the balanced output so I then compared the Hugo with the Rega both this time using RCAs.
This time the Hugo won hands down and as this is more relevant a comparison for most end users, all the more revelatory.
So to answer the above questions:
Qobuz really does offer CD and better quality. One no longer has to be penalised qualitatively for wishing to stream their music rather than play CDs or their rips.
Value? Well at £19.99 per month you have unlimited access to 18 million songs all in 16/44.1 over 12,000 albums of which are in 24/96-192. Including offline ie downloaded to the devise itself.
Can it match a true high-end set-up?
You bet! But you’ll need a DAC as extraordinary as the Hugo to achieve it. This diminutive box packs a massive punch regardless and has to considered a bargain, oh and it’s a top-notch portable headphone amplifier and by dint of battery power so totally portable.
Can this set-up really replace the need for physical media or downloads? Absolutely, yes.
However, if like me, you has hundreds or even thousands of CDs then you might question the value of a £20 per month premium, unless of course you or your partner would like to be clear of piles of discs. If however, your music collection is still rather modest but quality aspirations are high, then Qobuz + Hugo is a great combination for sure.
For the month of June 2014, Qobuz, the world’s first true CD quality streaming service, in conjunction with Audio-T, is offering a free, no obligation 2 week trial (no credit card details required unlike their regular trial) Just pop in for the unique access code.
Qobuz is compatible with PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Kindle, and Windows and fully integrated with Sonos, Bluesound, Popcorn Hour, XBMC and Sueezebox and new partner to come later this year.