Chord Electronics QUTEST DAC Review
Like a Kid at Christmas – we all know the feeling
Leading up to the release of the Chord Qutest DAC I was feeling very excited, I had a feeling it was going to be knock out product. To be honest it was more of an educated guess from the specification rather than a feeling, I was still pumped to get one in for review. On paper this was potentially the perfect DAC for me, it had all that I wanted, and nothing that didn’t. I am very keen on having just a stand alone high performance DAC.
I received the call from Nintronics that the first batch of UK Qutest had arrived with them, pretty much an hour later I had one in my hands. Huge thanks to Nintronics for giving me access to one to review from their very limited initial stock, there is still a long wait for them, demand is still extremely high – no surprise there.
Initial Buyers Impression
Its often said first impressions count, normally with hifi components we remove our new prized possession from a plain white or brown cardboard box and that’s it, we get a manual and if were lucky some white gloves not to finger print our new treasure. In the instance of the Qutest Chord have actually thought about their retail packaging and made a fine job of it.
Its a 2 layer box design with a shelf that pulls out from the bottom containing our power supply, USB cable etc and in the top section we have the Dac. The overall quality of the packaging, the unique design starts the buyer off in a very positive place.
Started with an Anker
One of the features that excited me the most about the Qutest wasn’t the latest FPGA chipset from the Hugo 2, it wasn’t the incredible price, it wasn’t the opportunity to upgrade it with a Blu MkII Scaler (despite how cool that is) it was the fact it needs an external 5V power supply. I have had a lot of experience with different battery and linear 5V power supplies thanks to years of building dedicated computers as high end music sources. I went straight for the most obvious power supply you can think of, the portable phone charger. Anker products are available via Amazon and appear to be robust and very well made. I have owned several of them for years, never looked after them or treated them with any care like I do all my system components and yet they have worked faultlessly. This provided the Qutest with a power supply that was off the grid, away from mains noise and anything that might hinder its perfomance.
It was a very solid start for the Qutest, a nice and clean sound as I would expect from a Chord FPGA DAC, but with nice smoothness and richness to the sound.
Never settle, there is always more to be had
I am a serious audiophile tweaker and I always want to maximise the sound quality from every product that’s in my system. As a reviewer I cant help but have the same mindset, I want to test and try things out to hear the best a product is capable of sounding for my own interest.
By adding some isolation products underneath the Qutest and on top of it, then powering the Qutest from a very high quality linear power supply in the JCAT 200 watt I was astonished by the sound quality from the Qutest. So much so I went out on a limb and said its sounding more like Chords DAVE Dac remembering back to my limited time with it.
To explain that big statement better, setup like this I was getting a far grander scale of sound, bigger and more powerful bass with a more well defined sound stage and space. Things were really starting to cook with the Qutest and it was at this point I decided to keep it as my new “Reference” review DAC.
The decision to keep the Qutest and use it as my Reference Review DAC was a very easy one. The sound quality was good enough that I would be happy listening to it for hour after hour, day after day and week after week, a factor that cannot be over estimated. The sonic performance after I added the JCAT Linear Power Supply and Isolators set a new review performance criteria bar for me at an extremely high level for any other DAC to follow. There will clearly be better DACS out there which is very exciting, however there is a big BUT attached to that statement - how much will it cost to better the Qutest and JCAT Linear Power Supply pairing? That is a million dollar question because the price for performance value proposition of the Qutest DAC is so high that it sets a new expectation bar for this review criteria as well.
What Mode do you fancy today?
Chord introduced an element of sound tailoring into their DAC's and it was developed further with the Hugo 2 and continued with the Qutest. The Qutest has 4 different modes starting with the Incisive mode which has an ultra linear frequency response and as you cycle through the other 3 modes using the colour changing Filter button it gradually rolls off the top end and essentially makes the sound presentation warmer and warmer still, you get the picture. This should be considered a nice feature as it removes the situation or worry of potentially a too hard, harsh or clinical sound.
In our review system its the Incisive mode that clearly wins out, once I had became accustomed to the clarity and definition within the overall sound stage its a presentation I could not be without. I created a video where I demonstrate the differences between the filter modes and see what you think is best, for me its very clearly the incisive mode. In the incisive mode I am struck by the way instruments stand out, they have bite and character to them which elevates the listening experience to one step closer to the real thing. I am able to look deep into the layering of the music, there is outstanding sound stage clarity but most importantly this does not come at a price. There is no harshness, or hardness, the sound does not lose its musicality, its as seductive to listen to as it is technically good.
3 Months later what do I think now - Not one negative thought
I did something a little unusual with the Qutest, I didn't create a full video review for it as I do every other product, in fact I am writing this review before making a video review (first time ever). I was singing the Qutest praises so highly throughout every video and there is a whole playlist of them you can watch, maybe I didn't feel the need to, everyone already knew how great I think it is.
Anyone can read a spec sheet and see what formats it supports and what comes included in the box, however its what the product is capable of that is really important to report about in a review. Its actually taken me over 3 months to find that out but before I get into it I want to say on record there has not been a single moment where I have thought anything negative about the Qutest. Its impressed me since day one and now its amazing me in ways I was not expecting and has me questioning where actually is the performance ceiling for the Qutest, it seems boundless.
A Star among more expensive stars
Over the months I have had the Qutest here I have added some fantastic products to the system which have really elevated the systems performance. The IsoAcoustics GAIA II speaker isolators under our KEF Reference 3 Speakers was a major step forward.
At the time of writing this we have some serious reference quality equipment in the system with the Luxman C700U and M700U pre and power combination, the Tellurium Q Black Diamond Speaker Cables and Ultra Black Balanced Interconnects. After we added the Tellurium Q Silver Diamond SPDIF BNC Digital cable to link from our new and improved Music Server to the Qutest for another big improvement in sound quality. If that wasn't enough we added some extremely impressive Furutech NCF Booster and Signal Boosters to the system as a pre review little look and listen.
The Qutest among products of this calibre and price is more than holding its own and the fact the sound quality is still improving as we add these products is a clear indicator the Qutest is far from the weakest link. Its a star among far more expensive stars.
Closing thoughts - more to come I feel
Make no bones about it the Qutest is a seriously impressive HiFi DAC, its well built, its nicely finished, its small and easy to accommodate and its upgrade-able (we can add the Blu Mk 2 Scaler). It doesn't have balanced analogue outputs but it does have Galvanic Isolation on its USB input. It supports about all the files you will ever want to play with the exception of MQA.
I think the Qutest is a no brainer purchase for anyone without a better DAC, its a simple as that. If your one of the lucky few who own a better DAC then it might not be for you, emphasis on the might. For the rest this is a DAC you should be getting a demonstration of. Its a fantastic way into Chord FPGA technology and could end up being the last DAC you ever buy due to its outstanding sonic performance.
When you get a demonstration pay attention to what power supply is being used, if you have a good quality portable phone battery charger such as an Anker take it and use it, even if just to try it.
When you factor in all you get, all the performance you get from the Qutest and there is the option to add a good Linear Power Supply into the equation making sure its good quality and the correct voltage. Factoring in the price, its still less than what a Chord Hugo 2 costs.
The Qutest is incredible in every way and especially in outright performance for money, how often do you see that in HiFi? To think it can still get a lot better yet by bolting on a MK2 Blu Scaler - wow the thought of it.
Bass is a very interesting one
My initial reaction to the 603 bass output was of there not being enough of it, the speakers were delivering a leaner presentation than I am accustomed to and like. The speakers were brand new and I had given them some time to get going before doing the review. I tried 2 amplifiers the first being the Unison Research Unico 150 that has huge amounts of power, ruling out amplifier power as the cause. There is a stereotype among audiophiles being Bowers & Wilkins speakers require huge amplification to sound good. I discovered this is not the case with the 603 as 56 watts at 8 ohms from the Leema Acoustics Elements Integrated Amplifier, the second amplifier I used with the speakers drove them lovely.
Over time and the more I listened to the 603 I came to appreciate the bass quality from the speakers and realised the Bowers & Wilkins engineers have chosen quality over quantity with their bass output. The bass similar to the mid range is tight, focused and clean with good and smooth extension, leaving space for a subwoofer to reinforce their bottom end. A subwoofer is not essential with them but could be employed to great effect to add more foundation to the overall presentation, it would need to be a fast one.
The leaner but more articulate bass allows for a more precise transient on drums with no excess or boom being added. I think the intention here goes a little further accounting for the likely placement of the 603 speakers in users homes. There is a good chance the speakers will be used in small to moderate sized rooms, with the listener and speakers being placed near or on the boundary increasing the bass output from the speakers and room modal problems. In this instance a leaner but tighter bass will work better for 99% of users and 99% of music. There is enough bass to balance the sound from the slightly forward mid range and sharpness of treble which creates an overall nicely balanced presentation that's exciting to listen to, never boring
The song demonstration video below of Christine and the Queens Goya Soda shows how the bass from the 603 is very tight and extends fantastically smooth until the speakers roll off.
A Special Performer Award is Pursuit Perfect Systems highest accolade and is in recognition of exceptional product performance regardless of price