Qutest DAC Review
Company & Product Overview
John Frank, the founder of Chord Electronics, got his start in the aviation industry as an engineer before he turned his attention to designing Chord’s first products. With this background, it’s easy to see why long-term reliability and build quality are at the top of his list of priorities. If you have an aircraft part failure, the outcome is a whole lot worse than having your stereo system not play a song.
Frank’s first series of power amps were made with the attention to detail you’d expect to see in an aircraft engine, but not something commonly found in audio equipment. Soon after they appeared on the scene in the UK, word got out that these amps were state of the art contenders which led the BBC to give them a try. Their sound amazed the BBC recording engineers and it wasn’t long before most of the BBC studios used Chord amps. Today, you’ll find Chord power amps in close to 50 world-renowned studios and performance centers, including the Royal Opera House, Abbey Road, Sony Music, and Skywalker Sound, just to name a few.
Chord Electronics makes a wide range of high-performance audio products, from portable audio components to six-figure power amps. In just about every category, Chord has an ultra state-of-the-art model which allows them to go no-holds-barred on its design. Like many very successful UK audio companies, this philosophy allows them to trickle down great tech from their best high-end products to the rest of the product line.
We have Chord’s best DAC, the DAVE on display in our Raleigh showroom and we must say it is simply amazing. It is considered by many to be the world’s best headphone amp and DAC combo. Chord recently updated their popular Hugo portable DAC/headphone amp to the Hugo 2. The Hugo 2 has a battery on board so you can carry it around. Of course, this adds an extra expense to the Hugo 2, and many Chord fans after hearing the amazing Hugo 2 wanted something for the home that was just as good but at a lower cost without the portability factor.
Chord listened to their fans and introduced the subject of today’s review, the Chord Qutest. The Qutest is basically a Hugo 2 in a chassis meant to stay put, which leads to a roughly 30% cost savings over the Hugo 2.
Design & Build Quality
As we mentioned earlier, Chord is fanatical about their build quality standards. They control the entire process, with all major components manufactured in their UK factory. Like all Chord pieces, the Qutest looks and feels like a precision machine.
If you’ve ever seen any of their products, you probably know that Chord enjoys creating unique designs for their gear. None of their pieces look like a normal audio component, and the Qutest is no exception. It’s pretty small -- around 6 ½” wide, almost 2” tall, and about 3” deep. The components come housed in a black, solid machined aluminum chassis, providing great rigidity and isolation. You’ll find the same large glass circle centered on the top that we find on most Chord DACs, to indicate sample rate. The two smaller buttons on the front allow you to change the inputs and filters. More on these in a bit.
The rear panel has the inputs and outputs. Digital Inputs include USB, two BNC inputs, and one Toslink. On the end, you’ll also find a mini USB connection for the external power supply. The outputs are RCAs. Our one small gripe that we also have with the Hugo 2 is that these are recessed into the chassis and some high-end analog audio cables with large RCA ends may not fit. We would have preferred them mounted to the outside of the chassis and spread a little further apart.
Overall, the Qutest is just like every other Chord product we have seen: built with pride, top-notch build quality, and giving off that initial sense that this piece of gear is something special!
Features & Technology
One of the most popular features of the Chord Hugo 2 was their frequency-shaping filters. Fans raved about the ability to tweak the sound, adding flexibility and control for the user. So it’s not surprising that they brought the same feature to the Qutest. If you have ever listened to a harsh recording from one of your favorite bands, you’ll really appreciate this feature.
There’s a small button on the left that allows you to access the filters. The button changes colors for each filter, making it easy to know which one you’re on at any given time. White is for the “Incisive neutral” filter. Everything is just passing straight through, uncolored.
Next is green, which Chord calls Incisive Neutral with HF roll off. This is best used on PCM recordings that are done at a higher bit rate. The filter kicks in above 20 kHz to remove distortion that is sometimes present in the higher frequencies. Many of these frequencies are technically your range of hearing, but can still ultimately interfere with the overall sound. The orange light kicks in the “warm” filter which adds some warmth to the process. Finally, the last one is warmth with HF roll-off. These filters are fun to play with to customize the sound, and sometimes they can make a real difference.
Since the Qutest is a home-based component, Chord included a neat feature to match its output to your system. When you first turn the Qutest on, if you press down both the input and filter buttons at the same time, you can change the output levels from 1 volt, to 2 volt, to 3 volt. The 2 volt output will work best with most home audio systems, but we like having the option to move up or down as desired.
The input button also changes color based on which input you choose. White is USB, yellow is BNC Coax 1, red is BNC Coax 2, and green is optical. The colors do not end there either, as Chord is all about giving you lots of info at a quick glance. In the center of the Qutest is a round glass display which we briefly mentioned earlier. This will change colors based on the sampling rate of the incoming signal, from 44.1 all the way up to DSD. There is a rainbow of 11 different colors which help you confirm you are getting the sample rate you expected.
To experience the ultra-high sample rates, we recommend using a computer and the USB input. However, both coax inputs are capable of handling 384kHz up to DSD128. Even the optical input will accept 192kHz up to DSD64.
As audio purists, we love the fact that you can see all of this information at a glance. For some, however, it can be a bit overwhelming. If you prefer a more tame display, you can dim the lights on the Qutest by pressing the filter and input buttons at the same time after the Qutest warms up.
If it ever loses power, rest assured that it will remember all of your settings once it regains power. Considering the variety of options you can tweak to customize the Qutest, this is a must-have feature, and we’re glad they included it.
The business of a unit like the Qutest is in its internal DAC (or digital-to-analog converter). The world of tech is mostly digital but our ears are still analog, so as you might imagine, DACs are used widely these days in audio components and even smartphones. The development and manufacturing of DACs has become big business. Many audio companies opt to buy an off-the-shelf DAC for their gear. Some even boast about the expensive chip they have in their box. Instead, Chord differentiates themselves by opting out of these off-the-shelf components. Instead, they design and manufacture their own DACs from the ground up in their UK facility.
Simplicity is the name of the game in audio design. The fewer parts in the signal path, the better. The holy grail of audio design is what they call a “straight wire with gain”. Chord has taken this challenge pretty seriously -- the output stage of the Qutest only has five total parts in the signal path!
The supporting circuitry behind this simplicity is what really makes the Qutest magical. When Chord developed their ultra high-performance DAC known as the DAVE (which sells for over $12,000) they came up with a processing technology called FPGA. This runs 500 times faster than competing products. It allowed them to reduce components and thus get closer to that ultimate “straight wire with gain”. Chord also uses a clocking system that is so accurate that jitter is almost non-existent.
If you’ve read many of our reviews, you know that we like to test gear using high-performance audio systems. They help us sniff out any flaws in the equipment we’re testing.
We tested the Qutest with a pair of Vandersteen 5’s driven by an Ayre Acoustics stack. The first thing we noticed was that the Qutest has that classic British sound. It sounds practically identical to the Hugo 2 and also reminds us of the Naim NDX, which sells for more than three times the price of the Qutest.
In the world of digital, getting the timing right is extremely important. Digital signal processing breaks things down into ones and zeros, and the true magic of a good DAC is not only re-assembling the pieces but doing so without destroying the timing of how the signal came in. Done right, the music just grabs you and entrances you, making you either want to get up and dance or rummage through your music to rediscover your favorite tracks. Needless to say, the Qutest nails the timing perfectly. You get a huge soundstage, deep full bass, and effortless top end.
We decided we’d push the British motif to the limit and pulled out some old Uriah Heep albums from the 70s. Some of those early tracks pretty much defined bright and harsh, but the music brought back a lot of memories. We loved the warm filter as it made this harsh recording much more pleasant.
You’ll never get fatigued listening to a Chord piece. Music just flows through it. You may not want to set this up too late, or you’ll wind up listening to your favorite tracks and album until the sun comes up.
All in all, it is easy to see why the Qutest is winning so many awards for the sound it produces. Another winner from Chord!
For the price, there isn’t really anything out there that can compete with the Chord Qutest. If you have a home based audio system and want to improve the digital side of things, the Qutest should be at the top of your list.
While we love the Qutest, it’s worth thinking about whether you’d benefit from having a built-in headphone amp or the ability to bring the unit with you when you travel. If these are important features, you may want to consider the Chord Hugo 2 for $700 more. If this isn’t important to you, however, and you’re looking for an incredible sub $2,000 DAC for your home audio system, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that compares to the Chord Qutest.
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Chord’s proprietary digital circuitry gives you a sound that is the best we have heard in its class. You’ll be amazed at how good your digital music collection will sound with the Qutest.
Super Cool Design
We love the way Chord thinks out of the box with their components. The Qutest doesn’t look like your typical piece of audio gear, with its brick-like shape and array of colored buttons and center glass display.
Shape Your Sound
We all have that album where we love the music but the harsh sound grates on our ears. With 4 sound shaping profiles on the Qutest, you can now fine tune your sound.