What's DAC All About? Chord Electronics Qutest DAC

With the rise of digital devices as source components, the DAC or (Digital to Analogue Converter) has moved from being a rather niche audiophile item to being an important component of a good sounding Hi-Fi system.

The original outboard converters such as the Arcam Black Box and Musical Fidelity Digilog were not particularly versatile devices, but then they didn't really need to be. Back then (in the late Eighties), the input to such devices was mainly provided by CD transports (or CD players) with the occasional requirement to decode the output from a DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorder so the sampling rates that they could handle were limited to 44.1/48 kHz, and if you were lucky you got a phase invert switch – and that was pretty much it.

As digital technology moved onward and upward, some manufacturers started putting digital conversion circuitry in their amplifiers (thus providing digital inputs alongside the analogue ones) but this approach is generally not optimal as it means it is not usually possible to upgrade your DAC electronics separately from the main amplifier – some amps have DAC boards that can be swapped out but the practice of putting digital circuitry alongside relatively high powered analogue components can be problematic. For the best and most consistent results, moving the digital circuits out to a separate unit is a good thing - even though it does mean that an additional interconnect is required (and digital interconnects can make an audible difference).

Chord Electronics Qutest

Chord Electronics Qutest

So now in 2019 we have a plethora of DAC units available at various prices from a few pounds to a few tens of thousands of pounds and one of the companies which have forged a fantastic reputation in this area is Chord Electronics. This British company (based in Kent) has been gradually getting more and more recognition for its innovative devices, and one of the most lauded products in their fine catalogue is the Hugo 2 portable headphone amplifier which has quickly become a standard recommendation for headphone addicts. It also sounds superb in a static implementation, but as the feature set is largely focussed on portable use, it isn't the perfect unit for use at home. Enter the Chord Qutest.

Qutest - Rear View showing inputs and outputs

Qutest - Rear View showing inputs and outputs

I will refrain from regurgitating the raw specs here; suffice to say that the digital conversion goodness of the Hugo 2 is fully recreated here but some of the features more applicable to portable use such as battery power and adjustable cross-feed processing are removed. This means that the unit has all the essential features and nothing unnecessary.

Qutest - Top View

Qutest - Top View

Physically the Qutest is an unassuming black box (in a rather nice machined aluminium) with a couple of gaily coloured plastic balls inset (the colours change with function but you'll soon get to learn the sequence). Power is provided by a 5v USB power supply and the main feature of note is a switchable filter which you can use to adjust the sound and is entirely dependent upon your own personal taste – there's no right or wrong. One other very useful facility is the ability to set the line output level to 1, 2 or 3 Volts which is a major boon for system matching. Multiple switchable inputs are provided (on optical, BNC or USB connections) and finally the Qutest is compatible with the Chord Electronics M Scaler which can utilise the dual BNC connection to allow sampling rates of up to 768 kHz at 32 bit depth if upsampling is your thing.

Qutest in Full Colour

Qutest in Full Colour

So that's the boring stuff – how does it sound? If I were to sum up the sound of this little box in one word, that word would be 'precision'. It is masterful at placing musical events in context with everything else which makes it superb rhythmically – if you love music which relies heavily on subtle interplays of timing and rubato then this box will delight you. It's no slouch tonally either – the beauty and emotion of Miles' playing on 'My Funny Valentine' is there in full effect – and the tightness and rhythmic acuity of the DAC means you can fully appreciate the mind-boggling brilliance of Ron Carter and Tony Williams in the rhythm section too. The acoustic of Philharmonic Hall is very nicely rendered making for a really engaging experience.

Qutest - connected to power

Qutest - connected to power

In short, whether you need an upgrade for an ageing transport unit, or a state of the art switching device for multiple digital sources which will play all your Hi Res files (including DSD), consider the Chord Electronics Qutest. It can even be set up as a Roon Labs endpoint – but that's a subject for a future blog.

Come along and have a listen and we’ll take you step by step how to set it up and integrate it within your own Hi-Fi system,

Chord Electronics Hi-Fi products are available from the following branches of Audio T: Brentwood, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Enfield, Manchester, Online, Oxford, Portsmouth, Preston, Reading, Southampton, Swansea, Swindon

Chromey Visits The Darkside With Chord Electronics New DAC. Says, "I'm no longer the Qutest anymore".

Chord Electronics have done it again, developing and extracting atomically accurate detail from a respectably priced digital to analogue converter (DAC).

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Utilising the brand new Hugo 2 chip, stripping out the headphone amplifier and battery but leaving the lush sweet sounds we expect from Chord Electronics that will challenge any DAC north of £1000. (But not you Chromey, the Qutest is your friend, read on little guy and we'll explain why).

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Chord Electronics have also added a dedicated audio filter and input switch on the front, more akin to the Mojo and Hugo 2, the previous 2Qute had a switch on the rear panel to change your inputs. The dedicated audio filter is for those who like to tweak the audio a little bit. 

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Ahhh, you see Chromey, we new you would "opt in" in the end. 

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New look, new you! Chord have changed their styling, opting for their signature 'coloured marbles' for the controls, much akin to the Hugo 2 and Mojo, and a much more angular, muscular look. (Yes Chromey, a bit like you).

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Chord Qutest and Chromey-12.jpg

For our listening test, we took a modest system similarly priced to the Qutest just to see if we could add a little Chord magic dust to it. We implemented a Qutest into a Rega Brio, Dynaudio Emit 10 and a Bluesound NODE 2

Connecting the Node 2 via Coaxial out into the Qutest and then RCA analogue into our Rega Brio. Playing a mixture of Hi-Res, MQA and 16bit CD with completely mesmerising results.

Dropping the Qutest into our system immediately opened up the soundstage, detail, bass and just made the music "life like" in comparison to hearing it before the Qutest was introduced, we simply couldn't go back to the Brio and Bluesound without the Qutest

You can hook it up to such an array of systems. It sounds amazing with a Rega Brio amp with a pair of Dynaudio Emit's and even better with a Naim Nait XS2 or Rega Elicit-R amplifier paired with Neat Motive SX1's, basically the Qutest is never lost in a system. Moreover, it stands there with it's chest out demanding your attention. 

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Come in and have a listen at Audio T Manchester. Chromey has seen the light...will you?

Chord Electronics Hi-Fi products are available from the following branches of Audio T:

Even in The Qutest Moment - Chord Electronics Qutest DAC

The Chord Electronics Qutest is the latest in an exceptional run of class leading DAC’s that are fast becoming the industry standard that all other DACs are measured against.

This is where it starts.

This is where it starts.

The Chord Electronics Qutest, having evolved from its predecessor the 2Qute itself having not long won the 2017 What Hi-Fi? best DAC £500 - £1000, is already turning heads having being a star of  The Big US Technology Consumer Show CES 2018.

The Qutest is designed as a stand alone DAC to be used in home audio and desktop hi-fi systems and once again has that unmistakable John Franks design about it.

Stunning finish and build quality as ever from  Chord Electronics

Stunning finish and build quality as ever from Chord Electronics

It’s fair to say Chord Electronics stand out from the competition in looks alone. Precision milled from a solid aluminium billet the Qutest is no different, whilst it retains the circular porthole where you can peep into the workings of the circuit board and confirm through a range of colours the sample rate you are using, the actual functionality of the DAC has been improved enormously by the addition of colour changing fascia control spheres as used in the latest award winning incarnation of the Hugo 2 . These allow input and filter changing at the push of a button. No more tiny pin head buttons that my fingers always seemed to struggle with.

Lights showing filter, input and sample rate at a glance.

Lights showing filter, input and sample rate at a glance.

On the rear inputs include:

1 X Galvinically isolated USB-B input 32-bit/768kHz and DSD512 capable.

1 X Optical TOSlink 24-bit/192kHz capable

2 X BNC coaxial input 24-bit/348kHz capable

Outputs are:
1 X Pair of stereo RCA sockets that can be set to output at switchable voltages of  1,2 and 3V RMS to match other sources plugged into your system.

Power is via a Micro USB power supply that is permanently plugged in as unlike the Hugo 2 and Mojo portables has no battery on board. 

Whereas the other mains powered Hugo TT and Dave double up as digital pre and headphone amplifiers the Qutest has concentrated on the one job of decoding your digital sources be they from a streamer, CD transport or indeed being used to improve your television’s audio performance. 

Using technology from the latest Award winning Hugo 2 DAC and losing the headphone output and recharging capability has allowed substantial cost saving giving a performance and build quality unmatched in this price area,  indeed if this is a permanently placed DAC in your system why pay for extras that are not required.  

The Ins And Outs of a Qutest.

The Ins And Outs of a Qutest.

So what are they putting in the water in Kent that makes Chord Electronics DACs continually win award after award? Well, it has to be something to do with the Rob Watts FPGA (field programmable gate array) custom chip set.

Unlike almost all the competition who buy off the shelf OEM Chips then apply in house technology to make them work in their DACs Chord use their own custom coded chips that somehow sound different to any other in the market place.

Whether you think Chord DACs are better than the competition is probably personal taste but they do sound different. The best way I think I can describe them is to me they don’t sound digital, forget how much treble or how much bass they may or may not have or whether they are forward or analytical all words when describing other DACs.

This DAC gives the impression of having an insight into the music without the digital hash that is often present with other DACs. We can use words like detail, clarity, coherence, dynamic range, timing as many customers and reviewers alike have when eulogising about Chord DACs but there is more to it than that.

We used our tried and tested dem track Duke’s Place from the Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington album The Great Summit a recommendation incidentally.

This track is testing in that Louis sings close to the mic and can exaggerate sibilance in a forward sounding system and the Double bass can appear overblown in an over exuberant bass heavy system, not with the Qutest though, even when playing with the filters which whilst can subtly change the tonal balance was never caught out.

I also tried it connected directly to the digital output of a Naim Uniti Core over many hours and no matter the type of music from the Latin Rock rhythm of Los Lobos, Colossal Head to the Chilled Out beats of Bent The Everstanding Blink and through Tori Amos Night Of the Hunters showing all the subtleties her vast vocal range, it just sounded right and not once drew attention to itself.

Packed in the Qutest of boxes 

Packed in the Qutest of boxes 

Chord Electronics products are available from the following stores


Visit Julian, Paul and John at Audio T Brighton store and hear it for yourself. 

Ahhhh....Oh...Woah! The Qutest Thing.

The new Chord Electronics Qutest DAC, marketed by Chord Electronics as a HUGO2 minus the headphone amp and battery, the dinky Qutest also manages to shed £600 from it's price tag. This has proven very popular indeed with us Audio T staffers.

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Such an animal was suggested when the original HUGO was released, so I'm claiming full credit here! This means we can now enthuse about the Chord Electronics HUGO2 headphone amplifier and DAC performance to those customers who think that £1800 is too hefty a price tag and had no intention to take a DAC out into the wild - so why should they pay for stuff they'll never use anyway?

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I'm happy to report that you don't have to. The Chord Electronics Qutest DAC is terrific.

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Used in between an Arcam rPlay streamer and an Arcam A39 integrated amplifier, with Dynaudio Special 40 speakers, the presentation is wildly improved. AC/DC's Malcolm Young's repetitive rhythm guitar riff on "Thunderstruck" is way more thrilling (I want to turn it up!), deadmau5's synth bass on the track "SeeYah" is faster, tighter and forms a 3D solid roller of sound across the stage. Any digital hardness entirely gone. Initially the presentation appears quieter, then one realises that it's the absence of amplified noise. Norah Jones' voice on "Cold, Cold, Heart" is soft, dusky and alluring. It's no longer a voice in space, it's etched in place and sounds as if it's issuing from a human face (if that isn't too weird). Jones' piano playing is shown to be remarkably gentle; you can feel her just touching the keys rather than striking them. Glorious.  The spacial information in the Scream Team Remix of Massive Attack's "Teardrop", rather than being out to the sides and above the speakers a bit, now envelopes you in sound. Music behind you from just the two speakers? Oh yes. I've only encountered that before in some very serious kit indeed.

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On demonstration right now at Audio T Swansea.

Chord Electronics Hi-Fi products are available from the following branches of Audio T: