Chord Qutest Impressions

The Chord Qutest is one of the rare stand-alone DACs from The Chord Company and is positioned as their "budget" digital to analog converted. Coincidentally, its their only "true" DAC, as all their other ones include headphone amplification (i.e. Mojo, Hugo, Hugo TT, and DAVE). The Qutest is the latest generation of Chord's Chordette line and a direct replacement of the 2Qute, and comes with a fresh stylistic make over, and comes in at a retail cost of $1895, though lately, this price has dropped to $1695.

Gone is the minature DAVE/DAC 64 and so on look, and in is a more boxy look like the Hugo series. The Qutest takes the box look a bit further though, with sharper corners and an all-black look, sans the colored marbles and classic Chord peep-hole.

These LED-colored marbles are used as indicators and buttons to select DAC filters and inputs. When turning the unit on, pressing them together will change output voltage levels from 1, 2 or 3V choices. The peep hole also changes colors to indicate the sample rate of the current track.

The Qutest has 4 input choices: USB, optical toslink, and two individual BNC connectors, which can be converted to SPDIF Coaxial with a cheap adapter. If you have a Chord MScaler, then the magic 5th input option is available when connecting the MScaler to both BNC's at the same time. The USB option will provide input up to 768Khz/32 bit depth with ASIO drivers for Windows (no drivers required for Apple and Linux).

The Qutest does support DSD up to DSD 512 natively, however, during the conversion process, this DAC will convert DSD back down to PCM. Now, speaking of which, the true benefits of the Qutest and other Rob Watts designed Chord DACs are the FPGA custom designed DAC implementations. 

Technical Jargon

In this case, the Qutest uses customized Sinc-like filter that utilizes 49,152 taps to reconstruct the sound. A typical chip DAC found in most converters uses something more like 128 taps. The idea here is to resample the data much more than a traditional DAC chip would, and give a more precise signal. In addition to this, this output has a significantly lower noise floor as well, a theory which Watts believes provides audible depth and imaging. 

According to Rob Watts, the Chord Qutest will take in your music signal from your source and then upconvert it to 16FS (705.6 or 768kHz) using the 49k tap WTA1 filter, and then proceed to upscale it some more to 256FS (11.2-12.4MHz), and then filtered again at 2048FS, and finally, it performs a final phase array noise shaper at 104MHz and converts it to an analog signal.

In most traditional DACs, many will only upscale to 4FS, 8FS or sometimes 16FS, and leave it there. The Chord DACs go beyond by quite some margin. Some think this is completely unnecessary, and some, like Rob Watts, thinks it is an essential part of reproducing depth and transients response, hence the name of the WTA filter: Watts Transients Aligned.

Before I get into my sound impressions though, I do want to point out that like the addition of the MScaler connected to the dual BNC connectors, which is a fancy and expensive upscaling device, someone can send a 16FS signal (705.6 or 768kHz) signal directly to the Qutest via USB and bypass the first WTA1 filter where most of the filtering and processing legwork occurs (skipping completely the 50k taps). This really only makes sense if you have a device like the MScaler which processes through 1 million taps, or something like HQPlayer which has various filters and noise shapers that can process through tens of thousands up to 16 million taps depending on the choice. Whether there's an audible difference here is going to depend on you though, but I will go through my sound impressions next.

Sound Comparison Gear

When I first got the Qutest, I had been using primarily the Schiit Bifrost 2, a R2R chip-based DAC with customized Schiit filter and noise shaper, along with the ESS Sabre 9018K2M DAC within the Audiolab 6000A Play. I also have used the Topping D30 Pro along side this Qutest more recently, which also features a traditional delta-sigma chip made by Cirrus Logic.

In most of my listening impressions, I've used headphones paired with the Audiolab 6000A, Schiit Jotunheim 2, or the Bakoon AMP-13R. These headphones were primarily the Hifiman Susvara and the Sennheiser HD600. 

I also did a little bit of comparison with bypassing the WTA1 filter with HQPlayer via Roon, and using Signalyst's various filter selections, though sticking primarily with Sinc-L or Sinc-Mx with their 15th order noise shaper.

Sound Impressions

On my first listen of the Qutest, which was a couple months ago now, the biggest difference from what I had previously listened to and with this Chord DAC was the immediate sense of deeper depth and a slightly improved and incisive resolution and attack. Perhaps it is fitting that the main filter is called Incisive then.

I have heard some call Chord DACs cold and lean, though I did not get this sense at all. The Schiit Bifrost 2 and its multi-bit implementation does have a bit more bloom and warmer low-end but I also felt it had a slightly roll-off treble and lacked the sense of air and depth that the Qutest provides. Like most Schiit gear I've heard, its very mid-forward, and lacks the a great amount of depth and layering, when compared to the Qutest.

So in some ways, yes it can be a little lean, but I really would call this neutral and accurate, though also natural and engaging. It does depend on what you're coming from and where your preferences lie. For example, when I compared this DAC to the Topping D30 Pro or the Audiolab DAC, it does sound more filled-in and less analytical.

One of the things that I was a little afraid of is how the treble would behave. I've heard mixed opinions on this front on this DAC. Luckily, I find this treble response nearly perfect for my ears. It is well extended using the Incisive filter, and it does not come off bright or sharp or have any sense of fatigue. It is sweet and just right to me.

I do want to note here that I originally used the Qutest with a basic Samsung QC 3.0 charger and USB cable with some decent results. I then tried the switching power supply wall-wart that came with the Qutest and actually felt that the upper registers came in a little hot and sharp. I eventually found myself with a generic-brand 5V Linear Power Supply made for Raspberry Pi, and have been pretty happy with the stability of the Qutest and a smoother overall sound.

I found the Chord DAC matches my current listening habits very well. I listen to a great deal of jazz, acoustic folk, bluegrass, and singer-songwriter rock music. Most of these songs have a lot of intricate string and/or piano work, and instrument separation, layering, and depth are very key. I would say even more so than a grand large soundstage which to me, is very important in orchestral classical music. While the Qutest still has a good sized width in its stage, it isn't the biggest. DAVE, from memory, has a larger and deeper soundstage overall. Qutest, however, was grander than my most recent DACs.

Last year, I tried out the Chord Hugo 2 TT, or TT2, and found it also had a very sweet sound with deep intricate details. While I can't compare them side-by-side, from my notes and re-reading my review and my audiotory memory, I think the Qutest is more incisive and less warm-bodied. The TT2's feature that I really recall that stood out was how much meat was in the low-end but without any loss of resolution. It sounded warm and engaging, but didn't totally gloss over the minutia either. The Qutest has what I'd say similar level of quality, but with less of the smoothness to it. The Hugo 2 TT has a 3X price tag and 2X+ number of taps.

Pairings and Stuff

I originally had paired the Qutest with my Audiolab 6000A integrated amp and used it primarily with the Hifiman HE6SE V2 and Hifiman Susvara, as well as a set of IK Micro Monitor speakers. The Qutest was set to 2V output and I thought it did an admirable job with this setup. I could tell that it was immediately an upgrade over the Schiit Bifrost 2 in the level of depth and imaging, and extracting out exacting details. 

When I upgraded my amp to the Bakoon AMP-13R, and paired it with just the Hifiman Susvara, I found this combination to be golden. The more intricate and neutral-sounding Qutest matches really well with the warmer-bodied 13R, and the 13R's improved resolution and sweeter treble really shows off the Qutest's capabilities more so than my previous Audiolab, Jotunheim 2, and A30 Pro.

I also have spent a great deal of time fooling around with HQ Player, and its various software filters and dumping them into the Qutest at 768 kHz. With a slower CPU like the Celeron J4125, I had typically no issues with sending upsampled data to the Qutest, but any random occuring spike in CPU usage led to what I'm guessing is latency lag to the Qutest, which resulted in a lot of white noise out of the right channel. A quick internet search found that others have experienced this issue as well.

Once I upgraded my Roon Core and HQ Player server to a current Intel i5 10th generation processor setup, I was experiencing zero white noise issues and no disturbances with running at the max PCM bitrate and depth. Using the Sinc-L filter and the 15th order noise shaper, I was able to get just a little more body and depth out of the Qutest. While I never tried the MScaler with Qutest before, this makes me want to get one some day and find out how it compares.

General Wrap-Up

While many will scoff at the price tag of $1895 or even the newer $1695 that is currently what every store in the USA have it listed at, I do find the Qutest to bring some extra sound improvements over traditional delta-sigma DACs which may come in at significantly lower costs and with more features. The Qutest does not have balanced outputs and has no remote, and has limited buttons, but it is extremely well-built, feels solid as a rock, and takes up a small amount of space on your desk or shelf.

I personally think its an improvement over my existing DACs, but it just leads me down the path of source curiosity. In the future, I am going to have to write an article on snake oil memes and whether they actually made a difference or not, as I am finding myself collecting more "snake oil" items lately. The Qutest's feature is its extremely long tap filter and incredibly low noise floor, both of which many say is over-engineered. My take based on listening to this is that whether it is the number of taps or the noise floor modulation or what, I found the Qutest to have a great sound signature and brings out little minute details and improves depth and imaging over other DACs I've tried at lower prices.