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    Chord Electronics Qutest DAC Review

    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. 

     

    Qutest-Isometric-Right-1-900x675.jpg

     

     

    First Look

     

    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. 

     

    Qutest-Connectivity-1-900x675.jpg

     

     

    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. 

     

     

    Conclusion

     

    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.

     

     

     

    Product Information:

     

     



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    Perhaps establishing contact with Chord would provide both a suggestion for battery source and a direct from source technical explanation of how the two devices differ. 

     

    Like the inventive spirit pulling a car battery charger into the mix.  😄  

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    Typical situation of it being "all about the power supplies" - so much harder to clearly define what's going on, but your ears have no trouble noticing the difference, :).

     

    The power supply is as much a part of the component as are the supposedly key bits, the actual digital to analogue circuitry, or chip - it's a nice mental simplification to separate out the various parts, compartmentalise what's there - but of little use for appreciating that interactions that are vital for getting best sound should be taken more seriously.

     

    A DIY amplifier I did was 90% about the power supply, in terms of design and materials used - which meant that it did the job, properly ^_^.

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    Nice review.  I've read other reviews indicating that this dac is very sensitive to the power supply used.  I considered this dac, though ultimately went with the Mytek Brooklyn Bridge, but I never actually compared them sonically.

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    Agree with other comments, not sure the battery you tried was the best choice... try it with an LPS1.2, Paul Hynes SR4, or something along those lines.

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    Qutest is an awful name. They should have stuck with their original nomenclature and called it Quincy, or Frank or George. I'm a man. I don't want anything cute in my audio rack. 😝

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    I'm still kind of mystified by this review. I feel like I have to bring over my Chord Hugo 2 to my friend's place to test it against his Chord Qutest some day. Because in the mean time... my understanding is that Hugo 2 and Qutest only have two differences:

    1) The power supply (which according to Rob Watts the designer is not just the battery vs SMPS but includes all the DC filtering and regulation after the battery/SMPS) 

    2) Second-order analog noise shaper (which was designed to prevent high frequency distortion when driving low impedance headphones with Hugo 2, which Qutest should not need)

    I guess it is possible that Qutest's power supply is not as good as Hugo 2 leading to the audible difference but then the offline battery should have improved the performance, especially when Rob Watts the designer has said that he is not convinced that Qutest needs a better SMPS/LPS/battery supply and he also does not think that Qutest needs a second order noise shaper. I, however, suspect that Hugo 2 can provide more power than Qutest by the nature of its power supply design though.

    The only logical explanation I can come up with is that either the preamplifier is demanding more power from Qutest compared to Hugo 2 or the preamplifier has a lower impedance than expected for most DACs. But I'll have to arrange a test myself to check this out. It's possible that Hugo 2 is simply a better DAC than Qutest.

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    Interesting review, thanks, but being  “picky” I take issue with some of the contextual points made:

     

    “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”

     

    Is this a fair and objective comparison?  In the UK at least the Hugo 2 is actually £500 cheaper  than the Yggy and the Hugo2 looks to be around same price as Yggy in US.

     

    Also Rob Watts’s FGPA DACs for Chord didn’t start with the Dave in 2015 but the DAC64 in the late nineties;   the Hugo also preceded Dave and, unless I’ve misunderstood the point being made,  the Hugo TT /TT2 does  include a headphone amp.

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    On purely sonic terms, Darko ranked the Qutest higher than the Hugo 2. 

     

    https://darko.audio/2018/11/a-short-film-about-the-chord-qutest/

     

    We all hear things differently and there is no right or wrong for subjective impressions, but reading the OP's review, it seems he views the Qutest as being clearly (significantly?) inferior to the Hugo 2, which is interesting.

     

    I am also a bit unclear from the review as to what headphone amp was being used for the A/B testing?

     

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    I've had the Qutest (stock power supply) for about 4 months and I love it. I will add that I have used it two ways. Initially via USB from a SoTM SMS200 network streamer. But, now I have the network streamer going into a Schiit Eitr USB>S/PDIF converter. To me the Qutest sounds obviously better fed with S/PDIF than it did via USB.

     

    The device's designer said that he prefers the Qutest sound using TOSLINK, which I have not tried.

     

    I don't think there is much room for improvement with the Qutest as it sounds and measures quite good. But I have seen that SBooster advertises one of their models as specifically for the Qutest.

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    14 minutes ago, creativepart said:

    But, now I have the network streamer going into a Schiit Eitr USB>S/PDIF converter. To me the Qutest sounds obviously better fed with S/PDIF than it did via USB.

     

     

    How are you getting the coaxial RCA outputs of the Eitr to the BNC inputs of the Qutest?  Are you using an adapter?

     

    I just installed my Qutest (stock power supply) and it is sounding great with usb in, coming from an IsoRegen (powered by an Uptone LPS-1).  I was planning to sell my Eitr.

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    Power supply is the culprit in my experience. I have the chord hugo 2 and currently use its internal battery. Even when connected to an ifi imicro usb 3's power output which in turn is fed by a botw 9v linear power supply, the sound does not reach the level of relaxed ness as with the hugo 2 just on it's own juice.

    Also the lower freqs seem to be missing something when plugged into the wall.  

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    On 8/26/2019 at 12:21 PM, barrows said:

    Your emergency backup battery supply is probably not anything like the supply for the Hugo 2.  It is very likely that this supply uses very noisy switching regulators to provide the 5 VDC output on its USB port.  It is likely that the output of this supply is both relatively high in impedance and noise.

    I would suggest trying a true audiophile quality linear power supply with the Qutest to achieve its best possible performance.  My brother owns the Qutest, and I designed a very good linear supply for him, and he finds the Qutest, with this linear supply performs at a much higher level than with its stock power supply.

    I took the power supply “brick” apart and there is no switching regulator for the 5v USB power. It seems to be a standard 5V IC regulator. Looking at the output with my 100 MHz Tektronix scope, It looks clean as a whistle. No noise. And the wall-wart is equally clean. 

     

    IOW, your concerns occurred to me as well.

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    1 hour ago, Luvdac said:

    Power supply is the culprit in my experience. I have the chord hugo 2 and currently use its internal battery. Even when connected to an ifi imicro usb 3's power output which in turn is fed by a botw 9v linear power supply, the sound does not reach the level of relaxed ness as with the hugo 2 just on it's own juice.

    Also the lower freqs seem to be missing something when plugged into the wall.  

     

    Interesting. Even when connected to the mains, on the Hugo 2, the device is still running on it’s internal battery, the mains connection is simply charging the battery.

     

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    13 hours ago, audiobomber said:

    Qutest is an awful name. They should have stuck with their original nomenclature and called it Quincy, or Frank or George. I'm a man. I don't want anything cute in my audio rack. 😝

     

    Could be construed as homophobia, but for what it’s worth, I concur. 

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    6 hours ago, rossb said:

    I've owned all the Chord DACs - DAVE, TT2, Hugo 2, and Qutest. I also had the Blu 2 with the DAVE and the M Scaler with the TT2 and Qutest. I've now sold them all because I have moved on to other things. 

     

    However, I agree with the conclusion in this review. I think the Hugo 2 sounds noticeably better than the Qutest. I actually think that the Hugo 2 is the best sounding of all the Chord DACs. DAVE sounds thin. TT2 sounds small and hard. Qutest has a slightly astringent sound. And the Blu 2/M Scaler is massively overrated. 

     

    The Qutest does benefit from a linear PSU and a power conditioner, and the optical input is the best sounding input. But the Hugo 2 still sounds better. 

     

    Hugo 2 the best dac from Chord. Now that's a bold statement!😀

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    11 hours ago, Sonis said:

     

    Could be construed as homophobia

    I don't see it, and certainly nothing like that intended. Audio is a male market. How would you like a Ford F150 Qutest pickup truck? Would that be a big seller?

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    13 hours ago, rossb said:

    I've owned all the Chord DACs - DAVE, TT2, Hugo 2, and Qutest. I also had the Blu 2 with the DAVE and the M Scaler with the TT2 and Qutest. I've now sold them all because I have moved on to other things. 

     

    However, I agree with the conclusion in this review. I think the Hugo 2 sounds noticeably better than the Qutest. I actually think that the Hugo 2 is the best sounding of all the Chord DACs. DAVE sounds thin. TT2 sounds small and hard. Qutest has a slightly astringent sound. And the Blu 2/M Scaler is massively overrated. 

     

    The Qutest does benefit from a linear PSU and a power conditioner, and the optical input is the best sounding input. But the Hugo 2 still sounds better. 

    May we know what is your new DAC?

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    21 hours ago, Blake said:

    How are you getting the coaxial RCA outputs of the Eitr to the BNC inputs of the Qutest?  Are you using an adapter?

     

    I just installed my Qutest (stock power supply) and it is sounding great with usb in, coming from an IsoRegen (powered by an Uptone LPS-1).  I was planning to sell my Eitr.

    Yes, a simple BNC/RCA adapter is all you need. I too planned to sell my Eitr I had used with another DAC and decided to give it a try. What have you got to lose? Run the USB from the IsoRegegn into your Eitr and then the S/PDIF from the Eitr into BNC #1.  Use an adapter ($3 item) or buy an RCA/BNC cable.

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    14 hours ago, rossb said:

    I've owned all the Chord DACs - DAVE, TT2, Hugo 2, and Qutest. I also had the Blu 2 with the DAVE and the M Scaler with the TT2 and Qutest. I've now sold them all because I have moved on to other things. 

     

    However, I agree with the conclusion in this review. I think the Hugo 2 sounds noticeably better than the Qutest. I actually think that the Hugo 2 is the best sounding of all the Chord DACs. DAVE sounds thin. TT2 sounds small and hard. Qutest has a slightly astringent sound. And the Blu 2/M Scaler is massively overrated. 

     

    The Qutest does benefit from a linear PSU and a power conditioner, and the optical input is the best sounding input. But the Hugo 2 still sounds better. 

    Amen to all of that, brother! The Hugo2 does sound significantly better than the Qutest. And I stand-by my conclusion that if you buy a Qutest on the strength of hearing a Hugo2, and think that the Qutest will sound as good (or even the same) as the Hugo2 because the DAC portions of the two devices are supposedly identical, you will be sorely disappointed!

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    4 hours ago, audiobomber said:

    I don't see it, and certainly nothing like that intended. Audio is a male market. How would you like a Ford F150 Qutest pickup truck? Would that be a big seller?

    Don’t take it so seriously. I merely meant that requiring the name of a device to be “butch”, as in more masculine could be construed as homophobic. I didn’t say that it actually was homophobic. What I meant by my comments is that it happens quite often that model names of consumer products is changed for gender purposes. After all, do you think that the Datsun 240Z would have sold as well in the USA had it been imported as a Datsun Fairlady? That’s what it was called in Japan, you know...

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