REVIEW: CHORD ELECTRONICS QUTEST DAC - SMALL AND MIGHTY?
The UK's Chord Electronics is a brand that needs little introduction these days. Over the past couple of months, the company's Qutest component has been providing my system with digital to analogue conversion duties.
Digital to Analogue Converter
Digital audio technology is continually evolving. Each step brings more features and improvements in the quality of signal handling and processing. For instance, have to look at the specifications of the latest digital to analogue converters (DACs) fitted into even mid-range integrated amplifiers these days compared with those just a year-or-two ago.
The Qutest is one of Chord Electronics' latest DACs and is not only Qute, errrr... cute by name. Firstly, it weighs in at 770 grams and, secondly, measures just 41 x 160 x 72 mm. The appropriately-named Qutest replaces the award-winning 2Qute. As someone who has been enjoying the Chord Mojo/Poly combo, I have been wanting to get my hands on the Qutest for review since hearing it at its Bristol Show debut.
Based on the British digital audio company's award-winning proprietary FPGA technology by Robert Watts, developed for the Hugo 2 DAC, the Qutest has a great start by sharing that same class-leading DNA.
FPGA, or Field-Programmable Gate Array, is an integrated circuit that can be programmed after manufacture and can exceed the computational power of digital signal processors (DSPs). The FPGA employed in Qutest, according to Chord, has up to 500 times more processing power than conventional DAC chips.
Additionally, there's the galvanic isolation (a method of eliminating stray currents, such as differences in ground potential or currents induced by AC power) across the USB, optical and coaxial digital inputs. The USB input supports sample rates up to 32-bit 768kHz while the coaxial inputs (two via BNC) support sample rates up to 32-bit 386kHz. However, when used in its dual mode in conjunction with Chord's Blu Mk.2 CD Player, that frequency escalates to 768kHz. The optical input is capable of up to 24-bit/192 kHz and DSD support is up to DSD512. Additionally, there are proprietary user-selectable frequency shaping filters (Incisive neutral, Incisive neutral HF roll-off, Warm, Warm HF roll-off) and input selection controls via Chord's trademark translucent polycarbonate spheres that change colour to indicate your selection.
I do like the peephole that gives you a glimpse of the device's internal PCB. The porthole's backlight shines different colours to indicate the sample rate of the incoming signal.
Housing all of that tech is a compact, vibration resistant case that is precision machined from a solid aluminium billet. It certainly looks the Qutest of them all to me thus far.
At this point, I think I should also mention the attention to detail Chord has shown in the packaging of the Qutest. The presentation box is like a small jewellery case. The top flips open to reveal the solidly-made device. Beneath this level is a drawer containing the power cable along with a variety of adapters for different countries' AC power outlets. Also here you'll find the warranty and instructions.
Even though the Qutest looks and feels like a premium product, the £1,195 DAC has had to drop a couple of things that its bigger siblings carry. The first thing I noticed is that the Qutest lacks balanced outputs (found on the Hugo TT 2). Admittedly, there isn't much space in this diminutive DAC, but I think we'd all agree it would be a great option. The other feature that I'd file in the 'nice to have' list would be wireless (as enjoyed by the Hugo 2). I don't use Bluetooth very often (I have the small Musical Fidelity V90 Blu for such emergencies), but I do know that many younger folk than I would love the option to enjoy Chord's skills that way.
It took about a week for the Qutest to shake off its out-of-the-box midrange harshness, but it is worth the wait. During that time I had the Chord DAC plugged into my NAS Roon Server while controlling playback from my Roon-enabled laptop. The DAC and NAS were connected using a Chord Company C-USB cable. The Qutest was then joined to my Musical Fidelity M6si using Chord C-Line RCA's.
Starting off my session with Transmission/Michaelion by Ibeyi and Meshell Ndegeocello. The track has plenty of space as well as rhythmic dynamics. Instantly, the Qutest's clarity and precision pull me in, and I find myself leaning forwards.
The soundstage is concise and exquisitely detailed when playing the Tidal Master of Beethoven's String Quartet No.12 in E-Flat Major, Op. 127 - 1. Maestoso-Allegro performed by the Danish String Quartet.
Oh my! R.E.M's The One I Love from their 2001 MTV Unplugged session sends shivers up my spine as soon as Stipe starts. There is spaciousness but also intimacy. The piano and acoustic guitar have defined leading edges, but the warmth of the vocals still carries texture and emotion.
Changing tack with Mudhoney's current release Digital Garbage the ominous bass opening riff of Night and Fog slinks through the darkness. The build-up is almost Bad Seeds-esque. The rhythm section has me bobbing my head, the Qutest presenting tight timing. The DAC is tested as the track unfolds and builds to a crescendo.
Pattern Recognition by Sonic Youth again shows that the Qutest can lock down and place instruments and vocals in a cohesive presentation. The percussion cuts nicely through the distorted guitar. However, it is the vocals that appear in the middle of my darkened room that is almost unnervingly real.
Goat's Run To Your Mama is a favourite of mine ever since seeing their live performance. Bonkers and hypnotic, the track is undoubtedly a rhythmic test for the Qutest. It is at this point that I realise that this is the most natural I have heard my digital library since having to return a DAC that costs a further £1.5k on top of the asking price of the Qutest.
The Chord Electronics Qutest proves that good things do, indeed, come in small packages. All of a sudden, the £1200 asking price seems very reasonable. I love the industrial design of the Qutest, and the filters proved usable rather just a neat gimmick. I tended to stick with the Incisive Neutral but occasionally went warmer especially for earlier ripped acoustic tracks.
The Chord Qutest DAC floored the one in my Musical Fidelity amp, as well as my little Arcam. Those weren't big surprises, to be honest, given the age of my amp (tech moves fast) and the price point of the Arcam. However, my Oppo UDP-205 was also shaken. One of the reasons for me upgrading to the 205 was its DAC section. There were some tracks when streamed that the Qutest showed the 205 a clean pair of heels. However, the 205 managed to pull things back in other cases.
The overwhelming takeaway from my time with the Qutest is that it has a wonderfully organic presentation and musical ability that would be hard to beat at this price.
The Qutest not only proves Rob Watts’ prowess once again but Chord's ability to make something so small sound so good.
The Chord Electronics Qutest DAC is available now for £1,195.
For more information, head on over to Chord Electronics.
StereoNET UK's Editor and Bass playing gadget junkie. He's captained the good ship GadgetyNews for over a decade, making low jargon high tech a very handy thing. His passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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