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.
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