Confessions of a DSD-Aholic, by Ted Brady
One aspect of being able to have review/demo units on one’s system for review (thank you Chris) is that there comes a time when you need to send them back. And although I’ve demo’d dozens of DACs over the years I’ve never really experienced the angst that a return could bring on. Until now…
I really miss the Chord QuteHD. There I said it; I was once a strong man of principle, and now reduced to a weak yearner of days gone by. In reality, I borrowed the Chord for WAY too long a period (as some of you who know me understand that this review is like 4 months late ☺) and I thank the NA distributor, Jay and Katherine Rein of Bluebird Music, for their patience…which ultimately I tested for too long of a period. I don’t blame them at all. ☺ But I do miss that thing.
OK, so why did I have the Chord for so long, and what is it about the thing that I miss? Well, this story ultimately began when I first discovered the DSD format back in September of 2011. [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]I bought the Mytek, what I consider the first consumer DSD DAC any of us were able to get our hands on. For $1600 or so it opened me up to a whole new treasure trove of hirez music, and seemed to present that music in a new almost-light-and-airy natural way…especially piano. Something was different, and the tonality, attack and decay of the struck piano keys took on a realism I’d never really heard before. This was especially true of native DSD recordings like Pentatone’s Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle by Mari Kodama. I owned the SACDs but none of the 9 or 10 SACD/universal players (some modded and tubed) I had evolved through could present this presence and the feeling of instrument-in-the-room like a DSD-capable Mytek DAC.
Fast forward to me hunting for even better (and way more expensive) DSD playback solutions. I settled on the wonderful Meitner MA-1 as my new reference (with the still relevant high value Mytek running my home office system). By this time I had hundreds of DSD albums in my file-based collection and was almost exclusively listening to the DSF file format. I was hooked. The Meitner took Mari Kodama and placed her and her Steinway in my music room almost scarily, where I would need to make sure I was wearing black tie outfits to listen to these glorious Beethoven sonatas, for fear of embarrassing her in my sweat pants. (OK, sorry, just kidding, of course…I look great in my sweat pants!).
Over the next two years I became enthralled with everything DSD, and eventually converted my entire SACD collection to this wonderful format, while also helping lead the way for DSD download websites like Cookie Marenco’s BlueCoast Records to become more popular here on Computer Audiophile as well as other forums interested in hirez music. My Meitner continued to play back everything I threw at it, DSD-wise, at a level that other new DSD-capable DACs couldn’t quite match. It should, though; it lists for $7k and contains unique 1 bit engineering that is a huge advantage when playing back 1 bit music.
Enter the Chord QuteHD DSD-capable DAC in early summer 2013. It was almost laughable in its small-ness, and came at the DAC world with so many left-field approaches that I assumed it was going to be not-for-me. My first concern was its silly led lighting; looked like a Star Trek design that was an indication that Chord needed wow-factor to overcome poor performance. (Note: I really miss that led-light, and now wish every DAC had it).
Second, the Chord comes out of left field (pun intended) with Field Programmable Gate Arrays on its chip design, a sort of DIY for the digital engineers to roll their own signal processing and digital filters. Why? Others weren’t using this design, certainly not in a DA priced at under $2k. I was hesitant to embrace a DSD-capable DAC that didn’t use a one-bit architecture or popular multibit SDM chips to play back DSD. (Note: Whatever the heck Chord has done with their FPGA design at $1799 it has put me on a mission to hear other implementations). (Second Note: By the way, just two weeks ago UK’s Paul Rigby wrote a nice review of this DAC on Audiobeat, and the article includes a lot of good technical background from Chord’s own Rob Watts; I invite anyone interested in the tech reasons behind picking FPGAs and other internal parts to read that review).
Also, the Chord came with a 12V laptop-style SMPS power supply that plugged into the back of the unit. It looked like any standard wall-wart style ps, and I was once again reminded that this little DAC cost well under $2k. (Note: I now LOVE this kind of design and hope more DAC manufacturers embrace the idea that we consumers can do power supply upgrades very easily).
So I began my evaluation of the Chord QuteHD DAC with less than exciting assumptions. My plan, as a huge DSD-aholic, was to test the Chord in all sample rates, but to spend most of my time on my new favorite thing, DSD files. I gave most of June to breaking the DAC in, as reports on this DAC were no different from most digital music equipment I had come across…that is, that although minimalist in design, the digital-to-analog signal path (as well as the power supply) needed plenty of time to settle in and perform its best. Secondly, I had other DACs in-house and wanted to get their sound signatures out of my system (literally and figuratively) before I went on to the Qute little thing.
My first impressions were not anything to write home (CA) about. DSD file playback seemed a little polite, thin and at times almost too airy, with a slight artificial top end that seemed additive instead of the real byproduct of the recording. The upper treble was not bright, mind you, just artificial sounding, as if it was added post-production. It took one Thursday to change that…the day I realized that this DAC was powered by a 12V external power source; and that I owned a magnificent 12V external power source (Hynes SR3-12) that I legally stole for $190 from an unassuming web seller a year or two earlier. When I simply unplugged and replaced the Chord SMPS with the Hynes a transformation took place (well, after about 48 hours of the Hynes settling in…guess you can’t call that a transformation..more like a quickened evolution). Now those DSF files began to take on a much heftier weight, with the proper air that was deserving of the recording, not any more, not any less.
It was after a very nice day at the golf course (small Laurie Anderson reference) in midsummer that my self-realization began (Hi my name is Ted, and I’m a DSD-aholic). I was listening to the QuteHD as I normally do, and threw on the 2012 remastered rip of Norah Jones’ Feels Like Home, a guilty pleasure favorite of mine back in its redbook days (although most reviewers seem to dislike it for its apparent sameness to Come Away With Me). As Sunrise began (not literally, I listen mostly at night) something was not right. The music had a tonality and organic wetness, especially the percussive blocks and country-flavored guitar work that I hadn’t heard before on this recording. ?? Did the DSD performance improve THAT much that it might have even surpassed my mighty Meitner? Did the Hynes addition make THAT much of difference to allow a now-$2300-investment ($1800 list Chord plus $500 list Hynes) to stand toe to toe with a true one-bit design worth 3X? Nope! Turns out I had accidentally chosen the HDtracks 24/192 PCM version (Greg Calibi remaster), a choice I never really liked before on the Meitner. And how did I realize this so easily? There was a warm dark blue glow from the Chord led light, signifying 24/192. (Note: from that day forward I positioned the Chord on my top shelf of the front rack, with its led light projecting onto my 110” acoustically inert video screen behind it. Why it’s acoustically inert is another story, but suffice it to say that a Jeff Hedback-designed 400 pound floating wall makes my screen, attached to it, NOT an issue in my stereo soundstage ☺ ). Anyway, I digress (duh!). The PCM NJ remaster was as good as I’ve ever heard it. I quickly changed to the DSD version (Kevin Gray remastered) and was startled to hear a much lesser musical versions, with that damn “politeness” coming back to haunt it. It wasn’t bad, but it was no way the incredible musical richness, the much more colorful presentation, the clear winner that the PCM version had become. Hmmmm. This was a wild discovery to me, someone who ate and slept DSD playback for these past 20 months. How could the PCM version kick the DSD version so badly, when the opposite occurred on my Meitner, and when these differences never showed themselves before? And now I began to wonder: which did I think was more musical, the DSD rip on the Meitner or the PCM one on the Chord? Although not the same remaster, I used this example to completely change the way I evaluated this little phaser thing. Maybe it was from the future after all? Certainly, at night, with the lights down almost to zero, those eerie LED effects swirled on my Stewart video screen, it now started to seem as though many of the off-the-wall (pun again intended) design choices were not so silly, and possibly the future of DAC design alternatives.
I began to explore its PCM prowess more and more. Hell, like any good DSD-aholic, I had a boatload of DSD, but yet a hundred-fold boatloads of PCM. No contest when it came to absolute numbers, nor familiar recordings. And by the way, for those of you who have read along this far and concluded that I’m simply an idiot, let me tell you that I evaluated many DACS in both PCM and DSD. This Chord sound was something special indeed, and I’m not really sure why it took me so long to discover its potential prowess, but it began quickly shocking many who came over to hear it in its “wheelhouse”.
Then the game changed for the final time (and added another month to my eval!!)….a number of folks on CA were testing the theory that regardless of a DACs USB interface the sound was markedly better when listening via the SPDIF or AES inputs (via USB converters). Jitter measurements often prove this out. Whether this was due to USB being a marketing add-on within the product life cycle of a given DAC manufacturer, or whether the USB interface (asynch or not) just add too many hurdles to overcome in certain DAC designs…dunno really. But curiosity (and a couple well documented UK QuteHD reviews claiming much lower jitter on the SPDIF) got the best of me and I finally gave it a try. The final justification was the interesting fact that the Chord QuteHD DAC could accept DoP (DSD over PCM protocol) via the SPDIF input, a feature not available on all DoP-capable DACS, and a feature Chord had not marketed at all (leading some CA posters to believe the capability didn’t exist).
I had been very curious about the value-driven Chinese manufacturer, Matrix, who had a nice inexpensive SABRE-based X-SABRE DAC out for a few months, and while waiting for a possible demo I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of knowing Arthur Power, US distributor, who sent me their X-SPDIF (USB to SPDIF interface) XMOS-based $250 black box. I had tried it on a couple DACs and was impressed enough with the lateral move (i.e. no real loss) when used with expensive DACs…but nothing to write about really. I expected the same here.
Clearly I am now an idiot, for I have had this black box sitting near the Chord for a few months, but they never got together for even a late night snack, let alone a serious sharing of electrons over a three day weekend. The requisite 48 hour settling in took place, then I sat down for what I assumed was going to be another lateral move. However, when music started it became clear (pun intended again) that the reduced jitter revealed itself in the most locked-down solid soundstage I had ever experienced in my music room. The most familiar (read: demo tracks heard literally thousands of times) music took on a slight but obvious increase in realism and they-are-here spatial cues that had me as excited about music as I’ve been in a long time. Here sat a $250 black box, talking to a $1799 DAC, powered by a $200 linear power supply…sounding like it could take on $30,000 DACs that I’ve only read about. Oh, and DoP via SPDIF is very real. ☺
My curiosity could not be stopped. I had a dear friend/dealer who has Berkeley in his line, and was very open to let me listen to the other end of the USB-SPDIF spectrum, the vaunted Berkeley Alpha USB, priced about 6x the Matrix (although still not ridiculous in the scheme of things, especially given my reasonable math above). As many of you know, this USB interface changed the way many manufacturers look at USB implementations. It’s devil is in the minute details of isolation, parts synergy and even materials manufacturing. It is truly a game changer for this sub-sub-genre, and I was wondering if now the weak link would be my under-$2k Chord DAC. I mean, it was clearly built to a price point, and likely these improvements would come to an end. Well, sorta! Although the Berkeley did not perform 500% better than the Matrix, it was another obvious no-brainer that the Chord was meant to be used via SPDIF. The realism, timbres, harmonic decays and any other “they-are-here” aspects that allow us to be transported by music..those aspects were kicked up another notch by the Berkeley-Chord 3 day fling. However, the price tag was becoming a serious issue, with add-ons taking up 70% of the total cost.
Suffice it to say that although the Berkeley clearly showed its stuff, I was more than pleased to find out the Matrix X-SPDIF $250 box was 90%+ of the experience, and much more in line with a reasonable upgrade path for buyers of a $1799 DAC. It’s great to know that should one find another grand or two in the cushions, Berkeley is a real musical option (but so is buying the wife a nice gift and then spending the rest on hundreds of hours of great music, knowing the home is once again at peace. ☺ ).
Back to how this thing really sounds in the Brady music room. My comments are all based on a Matrix-Chord-Hynes setup, using an inexpensive out of date Stereovox HDV RCA-to-BNC digital cable. All the comments are relevant to USB direct input, too… just think “slightly veiled and slightly less accurate color, but still the best PCM you may have heard, until the Matrix experiment”.
The QuetHD’s little led is quite a nice feature, frankly, especially for someone like me who moves equipment around and dabbles too often in computer audio upgrades and changes. It is very useful to have immediate visual verification that the sample rate is correct, and that the handshake with the server/player has indeed taken place. 24 bit hirez playback produces a beautiful green, light blue or dark blue background, depending on sample rate. Most of us have a majority of our music recorded and ripped at 16/44.1k, aka redbook. The Chord QuteHD produces a warm red glow, both literally and figuratively. And for DSD, all the lights come on in a rainbow of colors; ironic in that the DSD performance is not nearly as colorful as that of its PCM side. Not plebeian at all, but the Chord PCM bar has been raised to something that only the Meitner can realize in DSD (in my DAC experiences). Horses for courses! What the hell do you want for $1799! ☺
My demo listening rotation often consists of the same 30 or so albums, split nicely across all sample rates. And although my listening is usually done later at night in a room well isolated from the living and the sleeping, I often wonder if my wife thinks my music library has shrunk to an iPod size. Oh no, Gillian Welch again?? Well, with the QuteHD this phenomenon took quite a turn. I began with the usual 30, but found myself later playing the Alphabet game…. Tonight I begin with “A” and find three random albums beginning with that letter. Each night a new letter, each night a new re-discovery of musical gems lost in the terabytes. THIS is what this hobby is all about.
The Gillian Welch reference above? Her Harrow And The Harvest 2011 release (16/44.1k) is my album of 2013 (I’m a little late on most things, not just this review). I can’t get it off my rotation, and when played through the Chord I am now likely to NEVER get it off my rotation. What’s even weirder? The genre is almost country (I said “almost”, and I hate country), as it borders on alt-bluegrass-minimalist folk-progressive Americana. Quite the oxymorons, huh? I am clearly having trouble categorizing it, and when the Chord allow all its natural acoustic guitar/mandolin color and wetness to ooze forth, combined with Gillian and Dave’s wonderful but sparce harmonies, the music takes on a comfort and familiarity that belies its 10 original songs. These sound like songs I’ve heard since childhood. Amazing album, really. Find it and the almost twin “Time(The Revelator)” from 2003, and let them wash over you a few times before potentially ignoring them as typical hippie bluegrass.
Another wonderful redbook release is from a giant of the industry, yet the album is almost unknown. And it is simply the best recorded true rock album I know of. Through the Chord Keith Richards’ Main Offender sounds live, like your amps are his amps. The king of rhythm guitar never sounded so good, and the palpable buzz of the recording space comes through. Raw. Yes, his voice sucks, but so what..it’s raw like the simple chord progressions he has become acclaimed for. An offbeat Chord for offbeat chords? Makes sense. And yet the subtle colorations of the various guitars are easily recognized through this DAC, and makes the quite minimalist (there’s that word again) production work perfectly.
Dynamics and harmonic decays? Well recorded live music, with normal logical spatial cues, is the best indicator. Again, we look to simple redbook (getting a hint that the QuteHD does redbook well enough??). The Live a’ Fip multi-disc release by the French jazz/world pop Hadouk Trio (with like four other guest musicians performing…trio?) has gobs of dynamics and spatial cues, and some of them will surprise you in their 16 bit authority. Hirez ain’t got nothin’ on this release. And the music is wonderful; a beautiful combination of world music, tight jazz and some instrumental pop thrown in. A recommendation of highest order, especially when played with full organic aplomb by the Chord.
It’s probably obvious by now that the QuteHD excels in redbook, which is a good thing since most of us have 90%+ of our library (percentage of tracks, not storage) in good old 16 bit, even hirez junkies like me. But how does the DAC perform at 24 bit? Fine, thank you. One of my favorite examples of the benefits of 24 bit (regardless of sample rate) is Naim’s 24 bit download of bassist Charlie Haden’s duet with acoustic guitar master Antonio Forcione. The album is called Heartplay and its title is quite appropriate. The playful interaction between the two seems almost improvised, but perfectly timed to the very emotional music. The ultimate 2am-with-a-glass-of-red-wine album to close down a wonderful night of listening. The timbre of both beautiful acoustic instruments is captured like very few other recordings, and the subtle decays are what makes the interplay so engrossing. The Meitner is a fine PCM DAC, but for this recording it pales significantly compared to the much-less-$$ Chord QuteHD, a DAC that performs in PCM like no other in my recent memory. And I think it’s the natural decays in this recording that just cannot be captured in anything but an FPGA design. Horses for courses! Wow.
Barry Diament, legendary recording engineer, is a frequent contributor on this and other forums, and his private Soundkeeper label is a tribute to his native 24/192 PCM recording prowess (he uses the Metric Halo ULN-8 to record and master direct to 24/192). Although one of the 30 in my eval rotation, his Markus Schwartz “Equinox” recording is more than simply demo material. The jazz/world percussion ensemble never sounded so good than through the QuteHD’s signal path. And it’s the subtleties in the masterful ringing and chimes and world harmonies, and especially the use of acoustic space; these subtleties are only evident upon serious listening, but they are the difference between listening to music and becoming engrossed in the performance.
Another great engineer/recordist/entrepreneur is Todd Garfinkle of MA Recordings. I own much of Todd’s stuff, and have become friends with the man over these years. He has allowed me to collect some master copies of his recordings in various 24 sample rates, as well as DSD and DSD128 native masters. As good as the native DSD stuff is, the PCM native recordings are always the ones I choose when listening through the QuteHD (and yes, the DSD recordings are good, and are even better though the 1-bit Meitner, but I’m not sure his PCM projects via the Chord are any less amazing than the similar native DSD projects through the Meitner…tough call as the recordings are different of course. I will not comment on the same recordings converted, as that is not a fair fight either way). One track I love to demo is the 24/96 Nublado, from Sera Una Noche’s first self-titled album. I call this genre Tango-on-some-sort-of-tranquilizers (and that is not a putdown ☺ ). The micro-dynamics and unusual colors (created by acoustic instruments I’m not usually accustomed to) get me every time. I don’t like to put 10 minute tracks in an eval rotation, but this one is a special exception. No other DAC places me in this Argentinean church like the QuteHD.
OK, so what does DSD sound like through the DSD-capable QuteHD. It sounds great, but not as great as the Meitner. It sounds a bit polite, comparatively, with 10% less palpability and with slightly more tension (DSD on the Meitner is completely effortless). But compared to other PCM DACs that claim DSD capability the Chord is a good-to-very-good DSD performer. It’s simply that the native PCM bar is SOO high here. DSD playback is second, period. Oh, and I have the luxury of knowing I can go 1-bit anytime I want. So, sue me. But regardless, the Chord QuteHD DAC plays everything, and in some cases plays it better than DACs costing 4X or more.
The Chord QuetHD is my product of 2013
It is the easiest recommendation I can make. The Chord QuetHD is my product of 2013 (even though it was released much earlier; like I said, I’m slow), and the Matrix-Chord-Hynes combo (combined street price under $2k) is the upgrade path of the century. Throw in another $1k or so (discounted) and you have the upgrade path of all time. Ok, hyperbole over…but you get the idea.
Happy New year everyone. I’m starting the new year by wondering how damn good the updated Chord Qute HD-EX will be. Early reports are that it’s added 24/384k and DSD128 playback capability is not only a feature addition, but a sonic upgrade as well!! Some are saying the DSD performance has been significantly improved (which supports my claims of the QuteHD). And both of these DACs are in Chord’s value line, the Chordette. They are now introducing a smaller (really?) portable DAC for their reference line, called the Hugo. I will see it at CES. Maybe I can convince Jay and Katherine that I won’t keep this DAC for 6 months…. ☺ (c’mon Ted, just buy the damn thing). By the way, all this simply means two things: Chord knows their stuff, and used QuteHD’s from OCD audiophiles will be popping up! ☺
As promised I have obtained a Chord Qute EX (aka QEX) DAC. I will use this addendum space as a sort of diary to document a few things I discover along the way.
First, the DAC is identical (except I got a black one this time) to the HD externally. Second, I never had to go through a break-in process with the HD as it was sent to me as a well-worn demo unit (which is good ). Third, I will try and separate the break-in roller coaster (and it usually is a r/c with some aspects of the sound getting better then worse) with what I feel are endemic to the base QEX performance, regardless of new vs broken in. (Note; for those of you who don't believe in break-in, sorry, you can skip through to several weeks from now).
As you know this DAC has a new set of drivers (Windows and OSX, both ML and Mavericks) that support its new 24/352.8k, 24/384k and DSD128 playback (USB and digital ins; digital ins require the rare 384k-capable USB-SPDIF converter to hear the new sample rates). I posted elsewhere that I had issues with the Windows driver but that seems to be behind me now.
The first big reaction to this DAC, new and cold, is that the USB input sounds slightly better than the coax input, which is conversely the case in the HD. Might be a break-in function...dunno yet. But I suspect that the HD's USB was truly a bug (jitter specs were too high) and the Chord folks caught it. It would not be something they would advertise, of course.
Also, DSD64 performance is slightly better (not yet Meitner, but better) and inches closer to PCM performance than the HD gap.
Chord has announced a new Mac Mavericks driver for use with both the Qute series DACS (HD and EX) Thanks to coolhand for the heads up.
As far as updates to my listening, the EX has considerable hours on it now and is producing lush wonderful music in both PCM and DSD. I am convinced the DSD side is better than the HD's was, with a bit more life and pop (which was needed). PCM has gotten more rich in timbre and continues to be detailed in a way that is both revealing yet still musical (I like toi say that we don't listen to music through a microscope). If the Hugo is that much better than this, well....I don't know..must be mind boggling
The Hydra-X+ 384k/DSD128 capable USB/SPDIF converter is on its way for Friday (I have Fedex tracking). Stay tuned. Thanks.
04/21/2014 Update can be found here -> http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/576-chord-chordette-qute-ex-dac-update/
- Product - Chord Electronics Ltd Chordette QuteHD DAC
- Price - $1,795
- Product Page - Link
- Where To Buy - Link