Chord Electronics Qutest DAC

Funny Name, Serious Tech

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters
Chord Electronics Qutest
Chord Electronics Qutest DAC

I attached the Qutest to a computer via USB and tried it with a multitude of playback apps, including iTunes, Amarra 4, Audirvana+, Pure Music, Tidal, Qobuz, and Roon, and noticed no issues or incompatibilities except that sometimes with some apps some DSD files were converted to PCM by the app, regardless of which DSD transfer mode was chosen in their settings. Only very rarely did I manage to get the yellow DSD mode light to shine on the Qutest. If you are a DSD devotee I recommend trying the Qutest with your own preferred playback app to ensure that it is receiving a native DSD signal. And while the Qutest, like other Chord DACs, does not support MQA, the first MQA unfold step can be done successfully by a number of playback apps and then sent to the Qutest.

The Qutest spent most of its time tethered to my near-field desktop rig, which uses the latest-generation MacPro “titanium trashcan” desktop computer for its front end. The Qutest includes options for four different filters. First there’s the “incisive neutral” filter that according to Chord “has an ultra linear frequency response…includes a 16FS to 256FS WTA2 filter.” Qutest’s second filter is “warm” which according to Chord, “is designed to introduce a little warmth to recordings…with a 16FS WTA1 filter only.” The third filter set, “incisive neutral HF roll-off,” is similar to the first one except that it includes a high-frequency filter past 20kHz. The last filter in Qutest’s stable is “warm HR roll-off,” which is similar to the second option but with the addition of a high-frequency filter above 20kHz.

With the Qutest located under my desk at knee height I could not see the colored filter lights from this listening position, which made it easy to do blind listening to the four filters. On most commercial recordings and on streamed music I was hard pressed to tell much difference between the settings. After several sessions I settled on the incisive neutral option, because I’ve always strived to be that myself—when I played back my own live concert and performance recordings, I noticed a bit more air and slightly clearer depth cues with incisive neutral in use, so that was what I used for most of my critical listening.

Does the Qutest have a “house sound” or pervasive overall character? Prior to the Qutest I had the Mytek Brooklyn and Liberty DACs in my near-field system. I noticed almost immediately that the Qutest consistently had a slightly fatter bottom end (I even had to turn my Velodyne DD+10 subwoofer’s output level setting down 2dB). The difference was certainly not night-and-day, but it was noticeable. Regarding image placement and soundstaging, when using the Qutest’s incisive neutral filter I did not notice any difference from the Mytek Brooklyn, but when I switched to the filters with high-frequency roll-off I noticed that my own recordings were ever so slightly more closed-in in their soundstage and sense of upper-frequency air through the Qutest’s warm and high-frequency roll-off filter settings.

I’ve noticed a trend among some newer review sites to try to divide the frequency spectrum into sections and then describe each one in turn. That approach could prove daunting with the Qutest because this DAC delivers a “whole cloth” musical experience that integrates the entire frequency spectrum in a holistic, organic way that just sounds right—neither too soft nor too hard, and detailed without being harsh, relaxed without being flaccid. While I would not go so far as to call the Qutest “analog-like” since that is not necessarily always a positive attribute, I would say the Qutest recreates digital music with a non-digital character that emphasizes its musicality but not at the expense of detail or dynamics.

As mentioned, the Qutest is a basic DAC, so unless all your music has identical volume-level peaks and valleys, you will need some way to adjust the output volume, which means there will be some sort of preamp, be it passive or active, between the Qutest DAC and your power amplifier or powered loudspeakers. And this will affect the Qutest’s overall performance. Not only will the preamplifier have some effect on the final sound, but also the two additional runs of line-level cable—between the DAC and the preamplifier, and the preamplifier and the power amp or powered loudspeakers—will also exert their own influence on the final output. While I would never propose that a basic DAC is a bad value, it does demand additional components to complete a system that need to be factored into the final cost. And in the case of the Qutest, if you wish to hear its full sonic potential, those additional pieces need to be equal in quality to the Qutest.

I’ve been reading about and hearing about Chord digital products for a number of years, but the Qutest was my first hands-on experience with a Chord DAC. I know that Chord’s flagship products have become many audiophiles’ reference standards. And while I did not compare the Qutest with its higher-priced brethren, I did hear that it possesses a certain “rightness” to its sound that I could live with happily for a long time. The Qutest is both neutral and incisive—just like my favorite of its filters says it will be.

If you have a basic but flagship-level DAC that is more than ten years old, and you have been thinking about modernizing I would strongly recommend trying the Qutest before you replace your DAC with something with an additional zero at the end of its price tag. The Qutest qualifies as a solid piece of engineering at a reasonable price that delivers digital music with power and finesse. What’s not to like?

Specs & Pricing

Inputs: USB, BNC, TosLink
Formats supported: PCM, 44.1kHz/16-bit up to 768kHz/32-bit. DSD, DSD64 (Single) to DSD512 (Octa-DSD)
Output: Unbalanced, fixed with three selectable levels of 1,2, and 3 volts.
Dimensions: 6 1/4" x 1 1/12" x 2 7/8" (160mm x 41mm x 72mm)
Weight: 1.7 lbs. (770g)
Price: $1895

Bluebird Music (N.A. Distributor)
Buffalo, NY
(416) 638-8207

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