If we were to rate audiophile firms on the basis of the strength of their brand identities, Chord would be near the top of the list. The letter Q has figured prominently in the nomenclature of many of their creations; this notion is either clever or quaint, depending on your mood. The company’s latest, the Qutest, which replaces the 2Qute and, priced right at $1895, is the middle child of Chord’s DAC lineup. It also arguably offers Chord’s best value, as it includes almost all of the digital “special sauce” found in the maker’s Hugo and Dave models, but in a much smaller, more pocketbook-friendly package.
DAC Types and Technical Details
DACs come in several basic types. First, there are “chip DACs” that use a modern digital chip made by AKM or Burr-Brown as the heart of their designs. Second are “ladder DACs” which use a resistor array to decode a digital signal. These are usually expensive due to the high number of critically-matched parts needed to make the design successful. MSB and dCS are two manufacturers who make ladder-based DACs. The third kind of DAC is an NOS (short for “non-over-sampling” but this could also stand for “new old stock”) DAC. These use older DAC chips with “simpler” internal designs and filters that some audiophiles prefer due to their relative simplicity. Finally, we have FPGA DACs, which use a field-programmable gate array chip as their heart. The FPGA can be thought of as a blank slate that can be programmed to perform any function. PS Audio’s DSD and DSD Jr. and all Chord DACs use this last methodology.
Compared with other DAC designs an FPGA-based DAC has several unique characteristics, the most important being the amount of custom programming and proprietary algorithms that can be applied to a design. Over-sampling, digital filters, and the way the DAC works on a very basic level all can be dictated by the firmware in the FPGA. Also, an FPGA DAC can be updated incrementally, or have its operating system completely changed by a firmware update.
But just because a DAC is of one type or another does not mean that it will be inherently better or worse than another kind of DAC design. Implementation still remains the critical element in a DAC’s success or failure. I’ve seen inexpensive ladder DACs that performed worse than NOS DACs. I’ve also heard two DACs that use the same, standard “off-the-shelf” DAC chip sound quite different from each other because they had different analog circuitry in their analog sections. Even NOS DACs, which almost universally measure poorly when compared to oversampling DACs, have adherents among audiophiles who yearn for an “analog-like” DAC presentation.
In short, audiophiles have many choices in both design and execution when it comes to DACs. And while Chord’s approach is not unique, it is among the roads less traveled. And Chord’s path requires far more programming and digital design savvy than one that merely inserts a digital chip into a standard layout. Also, because its designs are proprietary, Chord doesn’t hand out circuit diagrams to anyone who asks—hence the reason it’s called “secret sauce.” Actually, Chord has a very particular name for its secret sauce: Chord Electronics custom-coded Xilinx Artix 7 (XC7A15T) FPGA.
The Qutest supports PCM files from 44.1kHz/16-bit all the way up to 768kHz/32-bit as well as natively supporting DSD to DSD512. With a standard SPDIF signal via one of its two BNC connections the Qutest maxes out at 384/32, but the Qutest has provisions for a “dual data mode” connection that offers up to 768/32 resolution. Even Qutest’s TosLink optical input will accept up to 192/24 although most devices’ TosLink outputs are limited to a 96/24 maximum.
Design, Ergonomics, and Setup
If you like your components big and beefy, you’ll be disappointed by the Qutest’s diminutive dimensions—1 1/12″ (41mm) tall by 6 1/4″ (160mm) wide by 2 7/8″ deep. It does weigh almost 1.7 pounds (770 grams) due in part to its machined-aluminum casing that gives it some heft—like a very smart brick. The front panel has two translucent polycarbonate buttons while the top has a larger spherical transparent glass window; different colors are used as display indicators. The rear panel accommodates one USB-B, one 5.2V micro-USB power input, two BNC coaxial, and one TosLink optical input in addition to one pair of RCA single-ended outputs.
The Qutest is a basic DAC. By that I mean there are no variable output adjustments or volume controls. It does have three output levels of 1, 2, and 3 volts that can be set upon startup. While 2 volts is the de facto standard for full output from a line-level device, having the other voltage options vastly increases the chances that the Qutest will allow whatever preamp or line-level volume control you mate it with will operate within its optimal range. I used the 1-volt setting with a Channel Islands Audio PC4 MKII passive volume control so that I could turn the Channel Island’s volume control knob up to slightly above 2/3 full to reach satisfying levels during desktop listening.
Nowadays, it’s important to know what input sources a DAC does and does not support. The Qutest supports USB—driverless with a Mac/Unix system, driver-required for Windows—but the Qutest does not have an input for Ethernet or WiFi and is not a UPnP-discoverable device. If you want to use the Qutest DAC for streaming sources, it will need an additional network-aware component in front of it to pass the digital signal to one of Qutest’s inputs.
The Qutest’s control surfaces share a Chord family trait of using colored buttons whose hues can change depending on the digital filter settings, inputs, and bit resolution. Like most semi-complex systems, the Qutest’s color system is simple once you get it. I spent the first several weeks with the trifold Qutest user manual nearby for reference. The range of colors needed to cover the entire sample frequency spectrum was impressive. As an ex-photographer, I have a highly developed sense of color and an ability to differentiate among variances in hue, but the differences between the colors indicating 384kHz and 706kHz glowing from the Qutest’s circular module were too subtle to be able to tell, consistently, which sample frequency was being employed.
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)