Chord Electronics Qutest D/A processor Page 2

However, Ms. Podger's violin sounded a bit reedier than I was used to, as did Giuliano Carmignola's instrument in his performance of Bach's Violin Concerto in E with Concerto Kîln (16/44.1 ALAC file, from Archiv 0289 479 2695 5), which sounded too thin. And when I played the Queen Live at Wembley '86 CD (Hollywood Records HR-61104-2)—triggered by publicity for the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, which was being heavily promoted when I was preparing this review—Freddie Mercury's voice in "Bohemian Rhapsody" was, through the Chord's Incisive Neutral filter and for want of a better word, incisive. I changed to the Incisive Neutral HF roll-off filter, then the Warm filter, and finally the Warm HF roll-off filter. The differences between these filters were subtle—"warm" and "HF roll-off" seemed exaggerated labeling—but the Warm HF roll-off filter was a touch more effective in rendering this admittedly aggressive-sounding recording acceptable.

Roger Taylor's drums on "We Will Rock You" from Live at Wembley '86, however, lost some of the essential sense of drive they'd had with the Incisive Neutral filter, and I settled on the Warm filter for my everyday listening. This filter brought out the best on the Mike Garson Trio's live Wild Out West, Volume One album (16/44.1 ALAC files ripped from CD, BluePort). Listening to the trio's imaginative arrangement of Miles Davis's "Nardis," I was transported back to 2006, to Piper's Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada. This filter also worked well with historic recordings. I have been working my way through The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 1 (1917–1927) (Third Man Records) and after "Nardis" finished, Roon served up "Mr. Crump Don't Like It" by the Beale Street Sheiks (24/44.1, 320kbps MP3 file, transcribed from what was probably an acoustically recorded 78.) Yes, the surface noise on this recording is as loud as the two-stepping acoustic guitar and you can hear both the noise and guitar duck when the voice enters, but with the Qutest and its Warm filter this 90-year-old track sounded more compelling than I was expecting.

Having enjoyed living with the Qutest for some weeks, it was time to see how it matched up against some other good-sounding DACs.

Comparing
I used the Chord with its Warm filter for all the following tests. The first comparisons I performed were with PS Audio's PerfectWave DirectStream, which costs $6899 when fitted with the network bridge card. I had bought the PS Audio to be my long-term reference DAC. Roon's ability to stream the same music to more than one DAC—the PS Audio via the network, the Chord via USB—was a boon here. Listening to the Queen CD with levels matched at 1kHz, the PS Audio smoothed over the aggressive edges of Freddie Mercury's vocals without obscuring any of the detail. Guitarist Brian May's power chords at the start of "We Will Rock You" were better differentiated from the drums with the DirectStream DAC and the kick drum and bass guitar spoke with somewhat greater authority, as did Darek Oles' double bass on Wild Out West, Volume One. The leading edges of the bass's notes were a tad better defined with the Chord, however.

Overall, a win on points to the PS Audio, but of course, it ought to sound better than the Chord, given that it costs more than three times as much. I therefore reached for our review sample of the original Mytek Brooklyn, which Jim Austin reviewed in November 2016. The Brooklyn cost $100 more than the Qutest (footnote 4) but includes a phono preamp, volume control, and headphone output, as well as offering MQA decoding. For the comparisons I set the Brooklyn's reconstruction filter to MPh (Minimum Phase), which I felt dealt most gracefully with the overcooked Queen album. Even so, the Mytek's balance was slightly more forward than the Chord's, which meant it sounded a little louder despite the levels being matched.

1218chordqt.2.jpg

Other than that, the two processors sounded very similar, though if I have to swear to it, the Brooklyn's low frequencies were a little leaner. The sound on Vladimir Ashkenazy's performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 2, with Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra (16/44.1 ALAC file ripped from CD, London 414 475-2) was typically mid-1980s Decca—vivid in the highs, powerful in the lows—but perhaps slightly warmer overall on the Chord. Peculiarly, I could reduce this difference between the two processors by inverting the Brooklyn's polarity, even though my measurements had indicated that both the Chord and the Mytek preserve absolute phase. The piano now sounded equally forceful, though with the Angela Hewitt Mozart concerto, there was a touch more air around the piano with the Chord.

It was a close-run thing with the Chord and Mytek processors. Next up was iFi Audio's Pro iDSD D/A processor ($2499), which Herb Reichert reviews elsewhere in this issue. The Pro iDSD is similar to the Mytek Brooklyn in that it has a volume control and headphone output, and will decode MQA data. It also has three different output modes, and a bewildering number of choices of reconstruction filter—to keep things manageable, I stuck with HR's preferred Bit Perfect non-oversampling mode and the Tube+ output.

Playing the Mike Garson Trio's "Nardis," with the Roon Nucleus+ server feeding both DACs data via USB and with levels matched using pink noise, the left-hand register of the piano was warmer-sounding on the iDSD. Yet the Qutest had somewhat better low-frequency definition, my Fender bass guitar on the channel ID tracks on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2) having a better balance between the leading edges of the notes I played and the body of the tone. This was also apparent on Van Morrison and Roger Waters' "Comfortably Numb" (24/44.1, 320kbps AAC file, from Van Morrison at the Movies—Soundtrack Hits, EMI), though the Chord did better at untangling the dense mix, this probably not helped by the AAC encoding. (I have no idea how a lossy version of this song ended up in my library—probably an iTunes purchase when I didn't want to buy the entire CD.)

Turning to a hi-rez file, Beck's "Heart Is a Drum" (24/96 ALAC file from Morning Phase, Capitol/HDtracks 3764975), the iFi offered a palpable midrange, but over-warm lows; the Chord's bass was tighter and deeper, but Beck's voice sounded less rounded. To ensure that I wasn't unduly influenced by Herb's review, or just hearing what I expected from the iDSD's tubes, I paused playback on Roon for both DACs and switched rapidly between the inputs on the Ayre EX-8 integrated amplifier until I had lost track of what was selected. I then started the file playing again and tried to identify which DAC was playing. Warm lows, palpable mids? Must be the iFi Pro iDSD. And it was. Repeated the procedure: tight, deep bass guitar, somewhat drier rendition of Beck's voice—it was indeed the Chord Qutest.

Frankly, however, I could live with either of these DACs. With messy, congested mixes like the Van Morrison "Comfortably Numb," I would take the Chord with its Incisive Neutral filter; with sparse arrangements dominated by a vocal, like David Ackles' classic "The Road to Cairo" from David Ackles (16/44.1 ALAC file, ripped from CD, Elektra), I would go for the iFi in its direct (Bit-Perfect) mode and the Tube+ output. Horses for courses.

Concluding
You can read in this issue's "As We See It" that there is a dichotomy between D/A processors that sound superb because they're faithful to the digital data they decode, and those that sound superb because they tell lies. Chord's Qutest is firmly in the former camp, especially with its Incisive Neutral filter, and for that, designer Rob Watts is to be commended.

As I wrote of Chord's Hugo TT D/A headphone amplifier in November 2015, the Qutest is an "extraordinarily well-engineered component." However, the important distinction is that while the Hugo TT costs $4795, the Qutest costs only $1895. Yes, it lacks a volume control, remote handset, Bluetooth capability, balanced outputs, MQA decoding, and a headphone jack—but it offers close to the state of the measured digital art ca 2019, and it sounds simply superb. It may not quite reach the sonic heights offered either by Chord's DAVE or by PS Audio's DirectStream DAC, but at less than one-sixth the price of the former and less than one-third the price of the latter, it can be strongly recommended.



Footnote 4: The original Brooklyn DAC has been replaced by the Brooklyn DAC+, which costs $2195—see Jim Austin's April 2018 Follow-Up—which I have not yet auditioned.
COMPANY INFO
Chord Electronics Ltd.
US distributor: Bluebird Music Ltd.
275 Woodward Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14217
(416) 638-8207
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
grussgott's picture

would be great to hear your thoughts compared to the Yggy and RME ADI-2

MZKM's picture

Hi John,

Something I’ve noticed for a while now, but in your wideband spectrum of white noise measurement, Fig. 3 & Fig. 4 in this case, it states -4dBFS, but doesn’t the graph show it at -40dBFS?

John Atkinson's picture
MZKM wrote:
Something I’ve noticed for a while now, but in your wideband spectrum of white noise measurement, Fig. 3 & Fig. 4 in this case, it states -4dBFS, but doesn’t the graph show it at -40dBFS?

In analyses like these, the individual levels of each FFT bin or spectral component are not the same as the signal level. That is equal to the RMS sum of the FFT bins. Each spectral component of the noise signal lies around -40dBFS but together they add up to -4dBFS.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May I suggest reviewing the new Benchmark HPA4 headphone amp/pre-amp? ......... Specs say 256 step volume control and, the head-amp specs also look excellent ......... You could compare it with the passive volume control, you are currently using :-) ...........

John Atkinson's picture
Bogolu Haranath wrote:
May I suggest reviewing the new Benchmark HPA4 headphone amp/pre-amp?

Great suggestion, I'll get on it.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Great ........ Looking forward for the review :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May I also suggest reviewing Auralic Polaris? :-) ...........

Integrated amp for the 21st century :-) ............

Kurt@Andersen's picture

Dear John

I could be very cool to have historial "competition review" between the hitorical outstanding BB PCM 1704** dac (derived from PCM63/1702 dating all way back to mid 80 ties) and how this brilliant Burr Brown R2R technology have found its way into modern FPGA implementations in Denafrips Terminator and Soekris 1541 who both are cutting edge implementaions of this fundamental Signed Magnitude R2R ladder, with clever reclocking and femto level clock oscillators to eliminate jitter, etc etc.

Thanks Kurt

tonykaz's picture

When one sounds a tad better is it because of the Interconnects?, the difference in Interconnects?, the associated equipment's interface preferences, the physical location of magnetic fields or what???

I've done this same test yielding day to day performance flips. Am I Neurotic? Are all of us Neurotic? My Esoteric Audio Store Ownership experience provided convincing evidence that Audiophiles are a combination of Neurotic & Psychotic behaviors. ( which is probably why families/wives eventually condemn us to the dam Basement ).

Dave Wasserman ( Stereo Exchange ) just did an Audiophiliac Video about his Decades as a Used Equipment Specialist. He reveals the underlying foundation of our audiophile Hobby. It's a Must-See!

Dam it, that Chord Stuff is nice, probably nicer than the PS Audio stuff but PS is one of our few local outfits. We gotta nod to Paul McGowan, don't we?, I sure do! And... we gotta nod to Schiit despite their shitty name, phew, when are they gonna changeover to Stoddard & Moffat? ( isn't S&M naughty enough for them and their youngish, tatted-up customer base?)

We're just around the corner from everything being Class D, no look'n back but there will STILL be the White-Nuckle Grip on Analog from a tiny group tenaciously holding/collecting/hoarding and loving their Fossil Fuel Based, Ozone killing music Format and their Class A Hot Box Electronics, god love em. Harley-Davidson just announced their new Line of Electric Motorcycles ( not made in USA )

Chord is gorgeous stuff, especially if a person lives somewhere in the British Empire, has there ever been a more beautiful Hi-Fi ? It just seems like a person can't go wrong choosing Chord.

Tony in Michigan

Bogolu Haranath's picture

JA can't seem to cut the 'Chord' :-) ............

May be JA could review the new Chord Hugo2 and Hugo TT2 ........ and review the new Meze Empyrean 'phones with the Chords and compare them with his Audeze LCD-X headphones? :-) ............

foxhall's picture

I'm listening to the Angela Hewitt CD right now. Hyperion recordings are often remarkable as you have written numerous times.

tonykaz's picture

I experienced her playing JSBach, she seemed to play effortlessly and seemed to make the playing sound like two Pianos, Phew!

If a person has to live in England and only listens to the near infinite range of Hyperion Recordings they should own a CHORD Music System, it would make rainy days Heavenly. ( even on a 50 foot Narrowboat )

Tony in Michigan

spacehound's picture

Thank you for the review. It's good to see comparisons.
Though Shannon's 1948 work is not a "thesis", it is a theorem, thus as proven as Pythagoras' triangles, and so is not susceptible to dispute or MQA's "rejection".

However:
Having owned several DACs from £100 to £18,000 since I started 'computer' audio in 2010 I have come to a simple conclusion.
I now will NOT purchase any DAC that uses an 'off the shelf' DAC chip such as the various Sabre, Wolfson, etc chips. Not only are such chips purposefully designed to be cheap enough to be used in portable digital radios, TVs, music centres, car audio, etc, they mean the DAC designer is merely implementing other peoples's ideas as best they can, sometime charging thousands of dollars for a box that depends on a five dollar heart.

And the Chords, DCS, and PS Audio ones sound so much better. Also the superiority of even the £400 Chord Mojo over the 'standard chip' sort is instantly obvious on first hearing, though its ergonomics are not best suited to a 'home' system and its battery longevity is suspect.

Were I starting today, from my experience with the Mojo, the Qutest would be my 'go to' DAC regardless of price, even if unheard before purchase.

Mentt's picture

Be aware that Chord DAC sound is not for everybody. Had original Chord Hugo for couple months and sold it. Had Chord qutest for 6 weeks and sold it. To my taste sound was to much sterile and without emotions. Now I am happy with ciunas ISO DAC

spacehound's picture

They can sound a little 'sterile'. But I believe you are hearing Chord's 'accuracy to the source' (which of course is some kind of recording) rather than introduced harmonics and other distortions. And accuracy, not "I personally like it" is what high fidelity means. We don't pay thousands for 'nice'. Though I would like a Kondo Ongaku amp :)

Mentt's picture

For sure it is not about accuracy as Chord DACs have own particular signature = Chord DACs are not neutral

spacehound's picture

That they are as 'neutral' as anyone gets.
However, as we can never know how the recording studio intended any given piece of music to sound, and even they are limited by their equipment, it remains a 'belief' as does yours :)

I'm not qualified to judge their 'pulse array' DAC process but their subsequent 'many taps' (in this case 48,000 rather than a typical 128) filter process makes a lot of sense.

Mentt's picture

You are judging DAC performance based on number of “taps”? Really? Have you even heard the Chord DAC in question?

spacehound's picture

Here's an analogy:
You want to record the length and shape of the UK's coastline.
With only 128 pins to stick in you will get a very inaccurate result. With 48,000 pins you will do it far more accurately.

As I said I am not sufficiently mathematically qualified to judge their 'pulse array' DAC part.

Ears are useless to judge the 'goodness' of this stuff as we have no reference, not being present in the studios when the recordings were made. Ears only tell us whether we like it or not, which has zero to do with high fidelity.
So all we can do is go for a measured flat frequency response of DAC, amp, and speakers and hope. Don't forget the 'time domain' is merely the inverse of the frequency response so a measurement of either one is sufficient.

No I haven't heard the Qutest but I do own a Mojo, a Dave, and a DCS Rossini. They all sound much the same and I assume the Qutest will fall between the Mojo and the Dave. I started with an 'el cheapo' Cambridge Audio Dacmagic. It sounds much livelier than the other three thus initially more involving, but after a while just sounds a mess.

Mentt's picture

Don’t see point of your argument . Either you like the DAC sound signature or you don’t. It is insane to buy DAC for thousands of dollars only because reviewers like it or that it supposedly to be neutral or whatever

spacehound's picture

Just saying where I am coming from. Others can of course come from a different place, it's their money and their enjoyment.

Also don't ever believe that logic is an important 'driver' of human behaviour :)

As for reviewers, in any field, not just hi-fi, they can be a helpful guide as to what is worth following up, though one's actual purchases are your own decision.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense ..... not between right and wrong" ....... Carl Jung :-) .........

w1000i's picture

If the rest of the system is not neutral, the DAC neutrals will not fix that but exposes that.
The best way to jedge DACs is with headphones. You can sawp headphones and they are single drivers with more transparency and less mechanically complicated and without room issues.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I agree 100% :-) ............

tonykaz's picture

isn't it impossible to agree 100% ?

But, then again, Agent Orrange followers seem to agree 100% with everything he says, lies and all. Hmm.

R you that famous Radiologist my Cardiologist talks about?

Tony in Michigan

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be, may be not :-) .........

spacehound's picture

...a lack of neutrality in other parts of the system is good.
A lack of neutrality is a fault and you can't fix it by introducing another fault somewhere else.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

So, how many wrong things we have to do to make it right? :-) ............

spacehound's picture

In fact after many years I have come to the point of almost giving up on 'specialist' hifi. As have most sane human beings, as demonstrated by there being less and less dedicated hifi shops.

I have reached a point where I am happy with what I have and unless something breaks and can't be repaired I don't visualise any more significant (= expensive) purchases.

I'm in the UK. Cambridge Audio does well, as does the unrelated Arcam (A R Cambridge). Naim also, at least the less expensive parts of their range. But to 99% of UK 'fairly well-off' households all the rest are very small, Chord included. Meridian sales are so small as to be invisible.

'High Street' names such as Sony, Yamaha, Denon, etc. have become so good with their AV receivers that very few people bother with anything else, except maybe Monitor Audio and B&W speakers, which are available in many UK high street stores. Such receivers used in 'direct' mode are fine for two channel stereo too.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Check out ATC self-powered loudspeakers .......... Several UK audiophile magazines have reviewed them very favorably ....... One of the 'other' audiophile magazines in USA has favorably reviewed them recently ......... ATC self-powered speaker models are somewhat expensive :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

You could also check the self-powered wi-fi capable KEF LS series models ......... also, the new self-powered Elac Navis is another contender ......... The KEF and Navis are not very expensive :-) ..........

If you want to get into 'smart speakers' (which obey your voice commands), you can check the Apple HomePod, Google Home Max and Amazon Echo models ....... The downside is, those (darn) 'smart speakers' will be listening to you all the time, unless you turn them off :-) ............

johnnythunder's picture

is how I characterize CHORD. Very fast. Very clean. Huge power reserves. Leading edge of transients emphasized. Deep bass. Probably great with Orbital played loud in a British flat during a party with glowsticks. Perfect to be played at Hi Fi shows using Clapton's live acoustic Layla. Not for me but I'm like Herb and prefer my audio equipment to have more "meat on the bones." I feel equipment like this is sometimes very exciting to listen to at first but long term has a high fatigue factor.

Sibelius's picture

I am quite sure this DAC sounds very well as all I have heard about Chord's DACs are good comments regarding their sound. Unfortunately, they insist on this industrial design line. To my eyes, they resemble toys, or game consoles.They are not Qute, even less Qutest. I cannot live with what are to my eyes ridiculous looks and therefore this happens to be their main drawback. Of course tastes are tastes and I assume there are thousands of satisfied consumers who approve their controversial design. Moreover, who are willing to pay for them.

spacehound's picture

Chord have an irritating tendency to let their physical design ideas get in the way of their functionality.
I have had a Mojo for about two years and if I want to know the sample rate I still, after all this time, have to look at the box it came in to equate the colour of the button with the sample rate. (44.1 is red and DSD is white though there is no way of telling whether it's DSD64, DSD128, etc. I have to check the box to determine all the others.)
It's even worse with the Qutest, they do the same with the filters too.
I suppose they are trying to be 'clever'. FAIL.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

So, colorblind audiophiles can't use it :-) ...........

Sibelius's picture

Neither functional, then. Also, I really do not get the magnifying glass concept. I would understand a loupe in order to see a machine moving inside, such as in an automatic watch. But I do not think a microchip is interesting enough as to need to see it inside my DAC.

johnnythunder's picture

Skittles.

johnnythunder's picture

I agree. I think their equipment is some of the most ostentatious, misguided, over-complicated industrial design in audio today. To each their own obviously, but the only thing it looks better next to is a Rega Isis style of god know what its supposed to look like style of design. Let me know if I'm leaving something uglier out.

jorgen's picture

tested by John would be very interesting!

Charles E Flynn's picture

“Chord Electronics FPGA DAC Technology Explained” (Video: 5 min. 27 sec.) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCYUujl1zTM&t=11s .

hollowman's picture

I was just looking thru two early-90s Stereophile issues (Dec. 1992; Mar. 1993) ... not a single analog/phono review or article (tho' I did see an Acoustic Sounds ad with LPs and equip.). Some tube gear. And MANY multibit DACs or CDPs -- reviews, articles, ads, classifieds.
I have a late-1980s aftermarket-modified Philips CDP, with the classic TDA1541A and SAA7220 (4x DF) chipset. It is better sounding than all more-modern DACs in my collection (that feature delta-sigma).
Indeed, those early-90s Stereophiles were full of glowing reviews of Arcams and MSBs and Naims ... all using that classic Philips platform.

I have some non-oversampling (multibit) gear, too. And it has that whatchamacallit sound charc. that appeals to some. Not me. BUT, I'll take well-done NOS over poorly-done DS any day.

My suggestion for JA and other Stereophile reviewers is to go into their attic or basement storage ... and dig out legacy gear. And use THEM as a basis of comparisons against Chord, Border Patrol, Benchmark, etc.

Oh ... JA ... please webify that 1995 Fabio article. He had VERY high-end $$$ system based on a Krell CDP. No phono, no tubes.

spacehound's picture

….the poor ergonomics of some Chord DACs don't matter in actual use, which is listening, not testing.
Take the Qutest filters. Most people will find the one they like best and stick to it. Let's say you find that you like the 'green' one best. Having selected it once, the next time you switch it on it will also be green as it remembers the last setting. Even if you want to try different filters all the time it is not the filter specification that matters, it is whether you like the result or not. And it's just as easy to remember "this sounds most to my liking on the blue filter" as it is to remember the "quick rolloff HF filter".

And as for sample rates, you play what you have, some of which will be 44.1, some 96, or whatever. The only time you actually need to know it is in the initial setup or your player, such as JRiver or Tidal MQA/non-MQA, for example. It's the player and/or the recording that sets the sample rate, not the DAC. Once setup to play the recordings at their 'native' rate (or, for example, if you prefer some upsampling rate) you don't need to know what the rate actually is anymore. You are listening to "Beethoven's Ninth", not "44.1" or "MQA".

tonykaz's picture

What's poor ?

Seems a luxury arrangement to have Color, lights, mystical Spheres and exotic metal packaging.

Would customers pay Premium Prices for something dreadful?

Chord's uniqueness is a Statement, isn't it?

Kinda like an Audiophile tattoo proclaiming something Architectural and Social Level about it's Owner.

It's almost like Chihuly Art Glass Objects.

I have to approve & admire the daring Owners.

Tony in Michigan

johnnythunder's picture

feeling is better than apathy or purely style-less products like Bryston. I actually don't mind the look of the little DACs - quirky as they are. I've been tempted by some of the good reviews but those reviews come from people (usually British) who like the overall Chord "house sound" of clarity and detail. A warm fleshy sound gets me every time and sounds like live music from a great seat in the middle of the orchestra or a back in the balcony where the sound is blended and sometimes diffuse in a good way. Chord, ATC stuff sounds like my head is in the speaker.

hollowman's picture

I've never owned, touched much less heard a Chord product. Nevertheless, I like the overall "Apple-like" product design.
For example, with the form factor of DAVE (and similar DACs going back to 2001), Chord managed to squeeze in all components (incl. a switching PS) into a nice, compact unit. It's not a big, heavy thing like many high-end DACs.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Chord designs kinda look like the space ship in the Spielberg film 'Close encounters of the third kind' :-) .........

krahbeknudsen's picture

Dear JA,

Thank you for another great review. As the PS Audio DS is very much a moving target due to regular firmware updates it would be helpful if Stereophile would always specify which FW version was used when comparing this DAC in reviews.

Thanks!

Ali's picture

Love it or hate this Qutest, just use it with external USB battery power bank; more detail...getting it closer to dCS.

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