Chord Electronics Qutest DAC Review
Don’t worry, Chord isn’t getting Qute with us
What is the Chord Qutest?The Chord Electronics Qutest is the entry level home DAC in the company’s line up. The insertion of the word ‘home’ into that product description is not to bump up the word count but instead reflects the company’s explosive growth in the field of portable DACs with products like the original Hugo, the Mojo and Hugo 2 being fairly emphatic demonstrations of the company’s proficiency in the field.
The catch is that using these products entirely in a domestic setting is not without some challenges. The Hugo was at times baffling to use and some design decisions meant it wasn’t always the simplest thing to get going with conventional partnering equipment. The Mojo and Hugo 2 have proceeded to improve on this and the Hugo 2 in particular is very flexible piece of equipment indeed. Unfortunately, the price has crept up to £1,800 at the same time.
Elsewhere in the Chord range though, another DAC had been quietly amassing a formidable reputation. The Qute HD was originally part of the Chordette range of products but became the sole survivor when the others were discontinued. While it didn’t have the go anywhere flexibility of the Hugo or Mojo, it did use the same unique decoding hardware. Now, it has been replaced and the Qutest promises to be a home orientated DAC that offers much of the magic of the portable DACs at a lower price. Is this the decoding bargain of the year?
Specification and DesignUnlike the preceding Qute HD, the Qutest is not part of a wider range of components. The Chord Electronics of 2018 is still a ferociously ambitious company - you don’t release an entirely new type of amplifier unless you’re feeling pretty confident - but it has tempered this with a policy of concentrating on areas where they are technically excellent rather than making absolutely everything. As such, the Qutest is (currently at least), the only one of its type.
And that type is a mains powered Digital to analogue converter with four digital inputs. As well as the all important USB connection, the Chord offers two coaxial digital inputs and a single optical connection. There are some changes to how these inputs are made available on the Qutest in comparison to the Hugo 2 that do potentially offer some performance benefits. The first is that the USB connection is on a full size ‘B’ socket rather than the Micro A type. This is an altogether more reassuring connection to use than the mini socket and Chord says that it also allows for far more effective isolation to be employed that befits the Qutest being a home DAC.
The coaxial connections make use of a Chord trademark in the form of a BNC type connection. This might be seen as an annoyance - the vast majority of coaxial cables have moved over to RCA if nothing else - but there are some practical benefits. The first is that compared to the 3.5mm connection that Chord now uses for the SP/Dif input on the Mojo and Hugo2, BNC options are positively bountiful. The second is that the locking BNC connector does exhibit better measured performance at high sample rates. If you are going to get the most out of the Chord, it might be worth switching to a native BNC cable.
There is a mini USB connection on the back of the Qutest though but its purpose is rather encouraging. Chord has switched over to USB power for their ‘home’ DACs as well as the portable ones and this means that the Qutest can be powered by all means of USB power supplies and even directly off some partnering devices.
Internally, the ‘killer app’ of the Qutest is the decoding hardware. Unlike the vast majority of rivals who wander off in the direction of ESS and choose a Sabre derivative to suit their budget and aspirations, the Chord makes use of a bespoke solution in the form of a Xilinx Artix 7 FPGA as used in the Hugo 2 (and explained in rather greater detail there). As decoding power goes, this is still the equivalent of taking a wrecking ball to a game of conkers and the Qutest promises measurements that were simply impossible a few years ago at any price, let alone a semi affordable one.
As the Qutest foregoes a headphone socket, the volume control is also removed but one trace of it remains. It is possible for the owner to set the output level of the Qutest via fixed increments taking it either above or below the ‘Red book’ suggested level of 2.0v. At first this might sound wholly pointless but it makes more sense than it might at first appear. If you are using the Qutest with an amplifier that uses technology (and I use the word in the loosest sense), a lower input voltage can really help while if you have limited gain, boosting the voltage will allow for a little more headroom. Given it can be switched out, even if it genuinely offends you, it should have no impact on use.
Another area that has made the transition is the use of adjustable filters to tailor the sound of the DAC. This might seem odd on an otherwise ferociously accurate device but there is a logic to it. The four settings cover the varying notional ideals (ie four ‘correct’ approaches) of the current state of the digital art and allow for a degree of fine tuning to be made in the context of your system and your preferences.
The Qutest manages to follow the determined path that Chord Electronics has been walking over the last few years to make their products a little less weird. In some ways, I hope this is as normal as they ever get because the Qutest walks a neat line between being a logical and fairly easy to use device and still manage to feel like something completely different to the norm. Chord has done some worthy (and worthwhile) things like name the controls and the like and the rear panel connections have annotations too which is welcome. There is still some pleasing weirdness like the ‘porthole’ in the top panel and the use of colours to denote inputs and sample rates. What is interesting is that while I find this reliance on colours frustrating when used across the functionality of the Hugo2, the simplified functionality of the Qutest makes it work rather better. It’s much simpler to get a handle on and I know what it is doing at a glance.
The Qutest also feels well made and comes across as a piece of premium equipment. The metalwork has been done to Chord’s usual high standards and it feels like it will last a long time. It is a slight shame that the only colour available is black but this is not the end of the world. While you can buy larger and more ornate pieces of equipment than the Qutest for the same price, very little feels more robust than the Chord does.
The Qutest walks a neat line between being a logical and fairly easy to use device and still manage to feel like something completely different to the norm
How was the Chord Qutest Tested?The Chord has been used connected via RCA cable to a Naim Uniti Star all in one player running into a pair of Spendor A1 standmount speakers. Both units were connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius mains conditioner. Source equipment was a Melco N1A NAS Drive and an LG B7 OLED television. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF files, DSD as well as broadcast TV and Netflix.
Sound QualityThose of you have rear other reviews of digital product from Chord Electronics over the last few years will know there is a degree of familiarity to what is going to come next. Let’s cut to the chase. You might subjectively prefer some rival products (and at a line level at least, I do) but there’s little real escape from the reality that the sound that Chord Electronics is now getting with their digital product is realistically a byword for unembellished accuracy.
What this means in reality is more entertaining than it might sound on the screen. Put simply, if you listen to something entertaining via the Chord, every aspect of what makes it enjoyable is conveyed without the slightest sense of embellishment or interference. Revisiting my early teens and enjoying a spirited rendition of Guns & Roses’ Pretty Tied Up, the Chord is a joyous partner. The huge ‘wall of sound’ style production and the sheer ridiculousness of it all is captured perfectly but so is the all out sense of drive and attack that makes this piece what it is. It has this natural ability to transport you back to the point that you first heard something (and then do a rather better job than the knackered Sony cassette ghetto blaster that I heard it on back in 1992).
Listen a little longer and the strengths start to make themselves more readily defined. Like all really good digital, the bass extension of the Chord is truly outstanding. The Spendor A1 is not a bass monster but it is able to respond impressively to differences in bass extension from source equipment and the Chord finds extra oomph in the bottom end that simply isn’t there with some other digital sources.
Perhaps the biggest area of performance improvement that the Chord demonstrates is the continuing evolution of how that enormously powerful decoding makes itself felt. In some older Chord products there was always the vague sense that there was a hefty degree of processing going on to create the sound you were hearing. The Qutest is a great deal more powerful again but this conversely now results in a performance where there are no cues that any such efforts are taking place. The lazy way to describe it would be ‘like vinyl’ which does both the Qutest and analogue a disservice. The Chord doesn’t sound like vinyl and vinyl doesn’t sound like the Chord. What the Qutest does sound like is the sound that - for better or worse - the engineer felt should leave the mixing desk.
This hints at the only real weakness of the Qutest as a product to live with. This is, for better or worse, a window into the music you play on it. If that music wasn’t recorded terribly well, there isn’t much for the Chord to be able to do other than to point this out. The presentation isn’t truly ‘warts and all’ and one of the filter settings in particular seems to do well at handling strident top end but if you’ve got a large supply of limited headroom material, the Qutest is going to let you know that this is the case. Of course, the flipside to this is that with a recording that any care has been paid to, the Qutest is simply outstanding. The live version of Rakim from Dead Can Dance’s Toward the Within - quite possibly one of the best recordings of the last forty years - sounds utterly mind blowing.
If you turn this ability to the business of handling broadcast TV, the results are good too. The Chord is able to make a stereo digital feed sound immersive and engrossing without losing focus on vocals and specific detail. Quite how many Qutests will find themselves being asked to do this is unclear - not many I suspect but the DAC itself is more than up to the task of getting the job done.
...with a recording that any care has been paid to, the Qutest is simply outstanding
- Truly outstanding sound quality
- Well made
- Good value for money
- Looks a matter of taste
- Needs BNC cables for coax
- No silver finish
Chord Electronics Qutest DAC ReviewThere is no sense beating around the bush with this one. If you need a DAC and you don’t need a volume control, headphone socket or streaming front end, for any budget up and including £2,000, you should buy the Qutest. It has enough connectivity and features to keep rivals honest and it then goes on to deliver a level of performance that is untouchable for the asking price. As the Qutest is more focussed than the Hugo2 there is less subjectivity to whether it delivers what you need that can crop up with the preamp and headphone sockets of its cousin. The Qutest is simply a perfectly transparent window on the music you choose to play on it and for that reason, it is an unquestionable Best Buy.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,195.00
Ease of Use9
Value for Money9
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