CHORD ELECTRONICS QUTEST digital-to-analogue converter
+ Compact form factor; great build quality; detailed and delicate sound without being clinical; connectivity options; selectable output voltage.
– Coloured LED display isn’t intuitive; no MQA support.
THEY say the best things in life come in small packages, and such is the case with the Chord Qutest DAC. Chord Electronics needs no introduction, the British company has been making hi-fi equipment for nearly 30 years. Most of its products come in full-sized form factors, but the miniature Qutest fits in with the big siblings nicely.
The Qutest is a scaled-down version of the Hugo 2 with the same proprietary FPGA DAC architecture. Its wireless capability has been done away with, together with the batteries and the headphone amplifier stage. What’s left sits nicely in a hefty chunk of aircraft-grade aluminium billet milled to perfection, with two illuminated round buttons flanking the front, labelled Filter and Input.
The Qutest comes in any colour you want as long as it’s black. The unit looks and feels classy, and weighing at 770g, has quite a lot of gravity in it. On top, there’s a rounded polygonal glass window that bears a striking resemblance to a Patek Philippe Nautilus bezel. The window shows you what bit-rate is playing using RGB lights which I’m not a big fan of. Give me an LCD screen over colour codes any day.
Around the back, there are three digital inputs and one pair of RCA outputs. Qutest supports optical, double coaxial – which we will get to in a minute – and USB. Because there is no volume control, the unit cannot be used as a preamp like the Hugo or Hugo 2. What it can do, though, is cycle through its 1, 2 and 3V RMS outputs when both the Filter and Input buttons are pressed during start-up. This may appeal to purists who don’t want to adjust the volume from their DAC, but requires some matching with other equipment downstream.
Inside the Qutest lies a custom-coded Xilinx Artix 7 (XC7A15T) FPGA DAC chip with a tap length of 49,152 that handles all the digital-to-analogue conversion. To some, this is a very big deal because most conventional DAC technologies only allow up to 150 tap lengths while even the most sophisticated conventional DACs only offer about 250 taps.
The two coax inputs at the back support bit-rates of up to 32-bit/384kHz. As a step to be future-proof, the dual coax inputs can be used as a pair with Chord’s upscalers and CD players, doubling the bit-rate to 32/768. Optical input is up to 24/192 while USB supports everything all the way to native DSD64 to DSD512.
All this culminates in an impressive THD measuring as low as <0.0001% at 1kHz 3V RMS, channel separation of 138dB at 1kHz 300Ω, and with a frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz +/- 0.2dB. Of course, none of this matters if it doesn’t sound good…
What a thrilling experience it was, listening to the Qutest. On the Incisive Neutral and HF Roll Off filters, I squinted very hard and tried to detect any bumps or dips in the response but couldn’t make out any sound signature of its own. Side by side with the first-gen Hugo, the Qutest makes it sound almost brighter and thinner.
The Filter button lets you cycle between four filters – Incisive Neutral, Incisive Neutral HF roll-off, Warm, and Warm HF roll-off. I couldn’t detect much difference between the four though it felt like the Warm filters boosted the bass slightly while making the sound somewhat “polite” and “pleasant”.
It was moving, listening to Allan Taylor via the Qutest. Frenchtown exuded a dark noir image, his emotions raw, and you can almost taste the tobacco-soaked bedroom. There’s genuine frustration in his words, “They couldn’t wait that long”. Beat Hotel is a seven-minute song, but on the Qutest, it didn’t feel like that. The definition in guitar plucks was hypnotic, and as it droned on, I found myself having a hard time staying in the present. The little performer dug into the instruments without breaking a sweat, leaving me envious at the honesty of its presentation.
Sitting in my chair watching the soundstage unfold was a feast for the senses. Instruments were unconstrained and allowed to breathe while maintaining a believable imaging, which is no small feat. Time by Hans Zimmer from Inception sounded ethereal and dreamy. The build up, though expected, brought chills and chicken skin. Piano notes attack and decay realistically, and then lingered slightly towards the end.
Listening through Tidal, I was a little disappointed that Chord didn’t include native support for MQA tracks. My Favourite Faded Fantasy by Damien Rice is a very dynamic album with intense crescendos from both his voice and the instruments, yet some tracks in the same album weren’t mastered well, so I was looking forward to hear if the MQA sounded any better. Even with the MQA decoding done by the Tidal app, the Qutest makes for very dynamic play back.
THE LAST WORD
The Qutest manages to present itself as a very likeable competitor to other DACs out there. Don’t be fooled by the miniature size of it, as it has a big sound. Despite stripping down this DAC to the bare minimum, Chord is able to hone in on what matters when it comes to music reproduction.
As a pure DAC, the Chord Qutest lacks all the obvious features such as volume control, Bluetooth, and headphone output, compared with its portable counterpart, the Hugo 2, but that is the whole point of the Qutest. Sometimes, you don’t need all the bells and whistles to achieve an engaging spectacle right inside your own home.
Sources: Acer Aspire V5 573PG, Macbook Pro 2017, Tidal Master, Spotify Premium / DAC: Matrix Mini-i, Hugo Gen 1 / Amp: SuSy Dynahi, Lovely Cube Premium / Headphones: Sennheiser HD525, Final Audio Pandora Hope VI / Speakers: Elac Debut B5, Jamo Cornet 90 IV
Price: £1,195 / US$1,895
Malaysian price: RM6,600
Malaysian distributor: Centre Circle Audio (+603-7728 2686) / Find your distributor.