Chord Electronics of England is a high-end audio manufacture known for its somewhat quirky product design and high performance. Over the last couple of years, Chord has made quite a splash in high-end circles with its Digital-to-Analog-Converters (DAC for short). Starting with the iconic (and very expensive) “Dave” model DAC/Preamp in 2015, Chord released a number of DACs using the unique FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) based multi-bit DAC designs of Rob Watts. Watts' designs use the FPGA to incorporate a “practical” approximation of the theoretical “ideal infinite interpolation filter” in a DAC as described by Nyquist and others. Most DACs have filters with about a hundred coefficients or “taps” which give most digital filters decent sound. Watts feels that most DACs have far too few taps to give good transient performance. According to Watts, transient performance in a digital reconstruction of an audio signal is probably the most important part of that reconstruction because human hearing depends on our perception of transient information to accurately hear such musical cues as pitch, timber, and image specificity as well as the overall accuracy of the soundstage. The Dave DAC/Preamp has 164,000 taps which is more than ten times the number of taps in any previous Chord DAC.
After the Dave Chord produced the Hugo and the Hugo 2, which are DAC/headphone amplifier combos using Rob Watts’ unique multi-bit decoding but with fewer taps. There is also the Hugo TT which is supposedly the tabletop version of the Hugo 2, without the battery powered headphone amp but with twice the number of taps as the Hugo 2. The Hugo 2 has 49,152 taps and the Hugo TT has 93,304!
More recently, Chord has introduced the “Qutest” which is supposed to be the non-portable version of the Hugo 2, but sans that unit’s headphone amplifier and Bluetooth support. The Qutest also replaces Chord's earlier effort at a less expensive multi-bit, multi-tap converter, the “2Qute” at US$1495. While the Hugo 2 sells in the US for $2,695 the Qutest is much more affordable at US$1,895.
While the Hugo 2 is an aluminum rectangle of 10cm (3.94”) wide, by 13.1cm (5.16”) deep and 2.3cm (0.9”) high and weighs 450g (16 oz), the Qutest is 16cm (6.3”) wide by 8.8cm (3.46) deep by 4.5cm (1.77) high and weighs 770g (27 oz. Yes the smaller Qutest is heavier than the Hugo 2). Both units are available in either silver aluminum finish or black aluminum finish.
Anyone who has ever seen a Chord component (or even a picture of one) knows that their design is somewhat quirky to say the least and definitely outside of what would be considered the normal audiophile equipment look. While this is certainly true, one look at either the Hugo II or the Questest will certainly attest to the build quality of these components. The Qutest, which is our interest today is shaped like a slightly smaller version of a standard paving brick. The corners are all hard, right angles and the case seems to be machined out of a solid billet of aluminum. On the top of the unit there is a central, oval shaped window of glass that seems to be a magnifying glass lens of around 2 inches in diameter. When powered-up the interior of the box, through the window, lights up with the sampling rate indicator displaying the sampling rate through the light changing color from red, through blue and purple to indicating DSD. One can see the printed circuit board with the word “Chord” stenciled on the board in white, followed by the words “Designed by Robb Watts”. In the upper right-hand corner of the outside case is a chromed plaque riveted to a recess in the casework with the Chord Logo embossed in black.
The front lip of the case has two scalloped-out recesses each holding what look like clear marbles set into each. The front of the case identifies these as push-button controls, labeled, left to right as “Filter” and “Input” respectively.
Turning to the back of the unit we see a number of I/O connections starting with the type “B” USB jack (up to 32-bit/768KHz PCM and 512 DSD) located on the extreme left. Next to the USB input are a pair of gold plated BNC receptacles labeled BNC IN, 1 and 2 (24-bit/384KHz dual-data mode capable to 768 KHz). These are primarily intended to connect the Chord's optional and not cheap digital Hugo M up-scaler (although one suspects that they can be used as coaxial SPDIF inputs as well) and as an interface to the M scaler is beyond the scope of this review (for more information about the Hugo M scaler, see @austinpop's review of the HugoTT 2/M scaler posted here on Februrary 21, 2019 entitled: “My Quest for a New DAC, Part 5”). Dead center to the back panel is a single Toslink optical digital input (SPDIF 24-bit/192KHz and DSD 64) and to the right of that, we find the obligatory analogue outputs consisting of two gold-plated RCA jacks marked Right and Left. To finish off the back panel is the 5volt USB power input jack of the Micro-B type. That constitutes the entire I/O and control facilities of the unit.
Using The Qutest
After connecting the digital input to the Qutest via either USB, coaxial or optical (Toslink) SPDIF, one selects that input by stepping through the available selections by color: USB – Clear, Coax 1 – Yellow, Coax2 – Red, Optical (Toslink) – Green. All functions and sample rates are indicated on the Qutest by colored LEDs. Next, one can step through the available filters: Incisive neutral – clear, Incisive neutral with High-Frequency Roll-off – Green, Warm – Orange, Warm with High-Frequency Roll-off – Red.
One can set the variable line level output by holding down both the Filter and the Input button for the first 16 seconds on power-up. After 16 seconds release both bottons and press them again repeatedly to set one of the three desired fixed audio output levels. 1 volt RMS is Red, 2 volt RMS is Green, and 3 volt RMS is Blue. Most audiophile equipment is designed around a line-level input of about 2 volts. My suggestion is to start there, and adjust up or down as needed to best equal the input level of one’s other analog inputs to one’s amplifier. This will avoid drastic changes in volume when switching from input to input on one’s stereo amplifier.
That’s pretty much it for setup and operation. The Qutest will automatically switch between sample rates and PCM/DSD modes based on the inputs. Now all that is needed is to sit back and listen.
Listening to the Qutest
Back in February of this year, an audiophile buddy of mine bought a Chord Hugo 2 DAC/Headphone amplifier. He brought it by and left it with me for about a week. I was flabbergasted, gobsmacked, and delighted by what I heard. I have a live recording that I made many years ago of a very good symphony orchestra playing Ravel’s complete “Daphne et Chloe” ballet complete with large chorus. I always thought that the recording sounded very good, very natural. But through the Hugo 2 and the HiFiMan Jade 2 electrostatic headphones, I heard things in that recording (16-bit, 48 KHz) that I wasn’t even aware were present in the recording. Now, I had listened to this recording through the Jade 2 ‘phones before, and while they were undeniably a great pair of transducers, they didn’t really unveil anything in that recording with which I was not familiar. The Hugo 2 changed all that. Of course, I couldn’t keep the Hugo, it didn’t belong to me so it went back to its owner at the end of the week. I'd read that the Qutest was the same DAC sans the headphone amplifier and the battery power, so I arranged to borrow one from Chord for a review.
Fast forward to July. I received the Chord Qutest from Bluebird Audio and started to “burn it in”. After letting it “cook” for about a week, I cued up the “Daphne” and sat down to enjoy, once more, the magic that I had experienced in February with the Hugo 2. No Joy! While the Qutest is indeed a very good DAC for its approximately $1900, the magic of the Hugo 2 was missing. Now, my normal “reference” DAC is a Schiit Yggdrasil v.2 and it sounds generally better than most DACs in it’s price range, but the Hugo 2 is more expensive and with its almost 50,000 filter coefficients (taps), it should have vastly better performance than the Yggy. That being the case, I wasn’t too surprised that my buddy’s Hugo 2 bested my Yggy. Since the Hugo 2 and the Qutest shared the same DAC circuitry, I expected nothing less than the same jaw dropping sound that the Hugo 2 produced.
To say I was disappointed was an understatement. I again prevailed upon my friend to borrow his Hugo 2 and compared the two directly. With the Hugo, the magic was back, when I switched to the Qutest – not so much. The Qutest reminded me so much of the Yggdrasil, that in a double-blind-test, I’d be hard put to tell the difference. Now, That’s not bad at all. A ladder DAC (R2R) that sounds as good as a multi-bit Yggdrasil and yet costs about $500 less is a bargain in anyone’s language, but I was determined to find out why two different iterations of the same circuit should sound so different.
I started out looking at the differences. The Hugo 2 is a battery-powered device with a built-in headphone amplifier. The Qutest, on the other hand, is powered directly from it’s own 5 Volt USB wall-wart and has no headphone amp. Now I wasn’t using the headphone amp (although, through the headphone amp powering a pair of HiFiMan Edition X v.2 phones, the “magic” of the Hugo 2 was still much in evidence. I decided that the headphone amp was not the problem, and indeed was irrelevant. That left the power supply as a possibility. Even though the Hugo 2 was powered by a battery, that battery was charged with with, again, a 2 amp USB charger.
I own one of those emergency car battery eliminators that can be used to start a car in case of a battery failure. You know the type, About the size of a construction brick, consists of a large enough Lithium Ion battery to start a car or pickup truck several times using the included jumper cable set. One charges the battery with the AC in one’s home or garage, and carries it in the car for emergencies. Mine has an added feature of a 5 Volt USB port, meant to recharge cell phones when one is away from home or other sources of USB recharging power. Brainstorm! Why not replace the Qutest’s USB wall-wart power supply with the emergency battery eliminator!
I connected the Qutest to said auxiliary battery supply figuring that, now the Qutest is being powered exactly like the Hugo 2. So if it’s in some way the pure DC from a battery that’s accounting for the difference in sound performance I was experiencing, this should level the playing field. Again, I noticed no difference between the Qutest on battery power and the Qutest on mains-derived 5 V USB power. There has to be some other reason why these two supposedly identical D-to-A circuits sounded so different. All other things being equal the difference would almost have to be in each unit’s analog output stage. I have no way of knowing how the two line-level output stages differ, but clearly they do. The web-site spec sheets are no help as the Qutest shows the specs for the line-level output and the Hugo 2 spec sheet shows the specs for the headphone driver amp – which when listening through the line-level outputs has no relevance to to the Qutest output.
The Chord Qutest is a very high-quality, well made Digital to Analog Converter. It is small, inconspicuous and presents performance on par with much more expensive R2R (ladder) DACs. From what I can deduce, the audible performance is almost identical to that of a Yggdrasil with the improved filter and at US$1895 it’s $500 cheaper than the US$2399 Schiit Yggdrasil.
But If you want the performance of a Hugo 2 then you will have to buy a Hugo 2 (or, better yet, a Hugo 2 TT). In spite of the similarities with regard to the actual Digital-to-Analog Conversion, while the two units are certainly similar, the Hugo 2 gleans more detail from high-quality material than does the Qutest. Having said that, I still believe that if you are in the market for a quality DAC under Two thousand dollars, you’d be hard pressed to find a better sounding one, and believe me, I’ve auditioned most of them.