Chord Qutest DAC review

I had to wonder out loud to myself (I just had a baby girl with my partner last week, so I’m talking out loud to myself a fair amount these days because of sleep deprivation) about the coincidence of the musical/mental association I had after plugging in the $1,895 USD Chord Electronics Qutest DAC and its candy-colored ju-ju bean filter and input buttons glowed sweetly at me as it powered up.

You see, I instantly had the 1957 song “Lollipop” start playing in my head – funny thing is that cut is performed by a cappella darlings The Chord ettes… coincidence or audiophile gestalt? You tell me.

I proceeded to hook up the small bejewelled black box to an Aurender N10 music server and let the music flow through its delicate circuitry for a few weeks as I took stock of it’s various file handling and filter-option abilities.

Let’s first take a look at what the Qutest is bringing to the table from a feature and specification standpoint.

It replaces the 2Qute in Chord’s lineup of the Hugo range of DACs, features a heavy machined-aluminum chassis, a cool lit-from-within glass “viewing portal” into the Qutest’s innards, a custom Xilinx Artix 7 (XC7A15T) FPGA DAC programmed by Rob Watts (with an 10 element pulse-array design and Tap-length of 49,152 – more on this later), 4x selectable noise-shaping filters, user-selectable voltage output (press both ‘Filter’ and ‘Input’ ju-ju buttons at startup for either 3v, 2v and 1v) an optical input (ju-ju input button glows green, handles 192kHz), a galvanically-isolated USB-B input (glows white, handles 768kHz), BNC/Coax inputs (glows yellow, handles 2x384kHz or glows red for 768kHz when paired), a pair of stereo outputs fed by a class-A output stage and an external 5v/2a switching micro USB power supply.

The Qutest is capable of handling 32-bit/768kHz PCM files and Native DSD 512 (8x) files. Frequency response is listed as 20Hz – 20kHz at +/- 0.2dB, THD <0.0001 per cent/1kHz at 3v RMS and 300 Ohms, 138dB of channel separation, measures 41mm/160mm/72mm and weighs in at 770g, which means it stays put even with heavier, aftermarket RCA and USB cables.

It’s a chunky, glowing, little powerhouse of a unit that I often find myself staring at while in use because of its visual appeal – thumbs up to John Franks of Chord for its industrial design.

Now, if you’re like me you would have squirrel away that little “more on this later” bit because there’s a lot of questions around digital designer Watts’ healthy obsession with “Tap-length” and its implementation across-the-board in Chord’s in-house DAC development. What is a “Tap-length” and why should we care what it is? To answer that I went straight to Watts (via email), who resides in the UK and set about bending his ear in a good-natured manner.

Chord Electronics
The Pumphouse, Farleigh Ln, East Farleigh, Maidstone ME16 9NB, UK
+44 1622 721444

Topher's picture

Congratulations on your newborn! Have an imaginary cigar on me.

Rafe Arnott's picture
Very kind Topher – will do :)
geoffreyvanhouwaert's picture

Hello Rafe,

Lovely review as usual. Could you maybe say something about how close it gets to other dacs in house?

And i read a better power supply adds another 25 percent performance on the qutest if not more. Did you get a chance to test this?

Thank you

Rafe Arnott's picture
Hi Geoff,

I've added in the proper conclusion to the review as for some reason it published without the final edit going live – the joys of Internet technology! I didn't try the unit with a different power supply – only the factory-provided one. An aftermarket one of higher specs would most likely improve things, as I've found that to usually be the case, also with AC cables – except for Shindo gear which always sounds best with their factory cables!

Thanks for asking as I might not have noticed the glitch for a couple days – busy with baby.

geoffreyvanhouwaert's picture

congratulations from me as well!

best regards

ednaz's picture

First, congrats on the new arrival! I can assure you from personal experience, there will be a day when you get a normal full night's sleep again.

Your review, and a couple others I've seen, seem to place the sound of this DAC in the direction of the sound of ladder DACs. That impression is based on how its sound is described in comparison to more traditional commercial DAC chip units. Less analytical but detailed, making music sound more live, in whatever words were used. You've heard a pretty wide range. Is this a fair conclusion?

Rafe Arnott's picture
The overall sound of a DAC depends on much more than whether it's an R2R, Multibit or Delta-Sigma implementation. It is also predicated on the circuit path, whether an FPGA is present for processing overhead, power supplies, EM/RFI shielding, chassis construction, etc. There's much more to a DAC than just the current/voltage conversion. The Qutest sounds alive in its reproduction. ie; less digital, less metallic, less glare, less of everything that kills digital sound reproduction. It's a great DAC at this price point and as I mentioned, the ability to choose your filtering options really allows for fine tuning the sound to taste.