HiFi: The Chord MScaler with Chord Qutest DAC Review. End Game for your Digital Music?
By Steve Huff
Well, I still own a Chord Qutest and just put it back into my system after listening with just the Bluesound Node 2i internal DAC for the last few weeks. I wanted to truly see what the difference would be after using the superb under $550 all in one streamer and DAC vs using the blue sound as a streamer only, fed into the Chord Qutest DAC. How big of a difference would I hear compared to the Node 2i alone? What would those differences bring? What about if I added in the highly raved about Chord M Scaler? I will tell you all about these tests, in this post right here. Read on if you have an interest in how these pieces changed the sound in my system.
But up front I would like to say that these pieces are in no way “needed” to enjoy music, and they are costly. They are more for the ever obsessed audio enthusiast who is looking for a way to get more out of their system. Like me : )
I am certain some of you out there reading this are wondering the same thing, as I certainly was. I had that curiosity itch, and I needed to scratch it. Just how much improvement would a high quality external DAC bring to a music system using a Node 2i as the digital source, and then how about adding the highly raved Mscaler? The Chord Qutest DAC is an $1800 DAC and it serves only one purpose. That purpose is to decode the digital signal and convert it to Analog. The Chord DAC is much different from most of the DAC’s on the market. It does not use an off the shelf chip as most others do. Rather, it uses an FPGA (which can be fully programmed and customized) and is fully custom in the way it does what it does, much like another DAC fave of mine, the PS Audio Directstream (though I slightly prefer the Qutest, and it’s much cheaper).
I will speak of the differences below between the Node 2i and Qutest and then speak about what happened when I added Chord’s $4900 M Scaler. This device has gotten rave after rave review with some saying it is the best improvement one can make to their system. I had doubts, but I bought one to see for myself after debating on wether I should for almost two years. A hefty price tag indeed for the Mscaler but if it did what many says it does maybe it would be my end game for all Digital encoding in my system. If not, it would be sold. I would see the minimal $$ loss as a rental and to feed my crazy curiosity of this piece.
First things first.
The sound of my system without the Chord DAC, just using the Node 2i, is very musical. It’s not the best sound I have had in my home but what I am listening to now is more of a modest 2 channel system than what I have had in previous years. It’s a bit harsh when compared to a great DAC but it’s musical and enjoyable nonetheless.
My system today that I am listening to in my dedicated room is as follows:
Speakers: Klipsch Heresy IV – I will die with these speakers, even if I buy bigger or different or better ones. These will stay with me, they are that good when driven correctly. While I have had speakers that cost crazy money in my house over the years, and technically much better speakers, I have never enjoyed a pair of speakers more than these Klipsch Heresy IV’s. They have been with me since launch (after owning the III) and I just adore them (but it is not so easy to get them to perform their magic). Others speakers have came and went, but I always go back to these Heresy’s. Speakers like the B&W 705 S2’s, The Dynaudio S40, the QLN’s, KEF LS50, Focal Sopra No1, Sonus Faber Guarneri (all versions) and many other high end offerings have graced my listening room yet the ones I kept for long term have been these underdogs that most audiophiles brush off as average. Make no mistake! When set up right and with the right power and front end equipment powering and feeding them, the Heresy IV are fantastic. Sure they can be slightly colored but the version IV’s have come a long way in reducing that horn character to where it almost non existent. These speakers sing with the best of them, and are much more dynamic than any of the speakers I listed previously, and that makes music so exciting to listen to. At $3000 retail these strike a fantastic balance between price and performance. When I added the Chord equipment into the mix with these speakers, I could not believe what happened to the character of them, as they really transformed dramatically. I will talk about that a bit later.
Amplifier: As of this writing I am now using the Willsenton R8 tube amp I reviewed not so long ago. I swapped the stock KT88’s for Mullard EL34’s and it truly opened up the sound in a very nice way with the Heresy IV’s. (UPDATE: My reference amp for the Klispch is now the PASS LABS INT-25. See my REVIEW HERE) I have used this every day, for a few hours a day, and it has never given one issue, one click, one pop or any kind of problem. It’s dead silent, has more power than I could ever need for my speakers and is built to a standard normally seen in $3000 to $4000 USA tube amps (Think Cary SLI80, Ayon Audio, even ARC Vsi 75…I tested them all and the R8 IMHO bests each of them for sound and equals most in build). At $1299 this is the best bang for the buck I have encountered in the tube high end audio realm.
Streamer/DAC: I am using the simple but powerful Bluesound Node 2i for streaming and DAC purposes. The 2i has a built in streamer that allows you to stream Spotify, Tidal or Qobuz direct through the apps. Sets up in minutes via WiFi or hard wiring via ethernet. This is hands down the streamer I can recommend to all as it is even MQA capable with the internal DAC! I have had streamers that cost so much more but if I can be honest, they were really no better in sound than the Node 2i (if you add a nice external DAC to the Node 2i) and some were more complicated to use. You may be able to get 5% better performance when you buy a $2k and up streamer but believe me when I say the Bluesound Node 2i is more than enough for 99% of us who enjoy music. It’s that good and it is $550. You can indeed vastly improve on the 2i, as I will discuss below, just by adding a nice external DAC. It’s how I run my system and the Node 2i now. using the Node 2i as a streamer, and the Chord Qutest as the DAC (and then the M Scaler to upsample). It’s pretty special indeed when all is put together.
Speaker Cables/Interconnects: I now exclusively use Nordost Blue Heaven LS speaker cables, interconnects, digital and power cables. I found they are fantastic and while the start of the good stuff from Nordost, they do not cost a fortune and are 75-80% as good as some of their top end cables that cost crazy money (I have tried them all besides Odin). While not what I would call “cheap”, they do make a difference and it’s not small. When I swap out the blue heaven with $20 standard or generic cables the soundstage shrinks, the sound flattens and gets a bit more 2 dimensional and the high end gets a little harsh over time (fatigue). For me, cables are just as important as a component like an amp or DAC. I never skimp on cables but while I have had crazy priced cables and cheap generic ones, I feel the Blue Heaven LS line is a perfect compromise in cost vs quality. They are far from the “best” but they are probably as good as you can get for what they cost. You do get what you pay for with these. I also like the Red Dawn LS even more as they will bring even more air and dimensionality to the sound but I feel the Blue Heaven are just about right for my tastes and cable budget and the Red Dawn LS costs quite a bit more for a small improvement. BTW, Nordost cables also work very well with tube amps.
Now Added into the System: The Chord Qutest DAC and Chord MScaler.
So before I added the Qutest in my system it sounded very good. It had air, some slight holographic 3 dimensionality and good detail thanks to the R8 tube amp and the high efficiency of the Klipsch speakers. I knew it could be much better but I also knew this would not come in the form of an amp or streamer, but rather maybe a good DAC put into the mix would open it up more.
I pulled out the Chord DAC and it brought a pretty drastic instant change to the sound. What the Qutest DAC did was beef up the sound, make it more impactful and less loose, gave it more air and as for detail, it dug into the deepest layers of the music to bring out small details one normally doesn’t hear in the recordings. While it did this, it stayed organic and full and did not ever enter into the bright or harsh or glaring land that some DAC’s do but it did bring impact and focus. I was hearing new layers of music and a depth to the sound I did not get previously. The Bass tightened up, and lost the bit of flabbiness it had with the Node 2i direct. What I was hearing was that every sound, every instrument now had meat on the bones and instead of making the sound warm and bloated, it was the opposite. Instead of being bloated or muffled it became crisp and beefy and the dynamics exploded more than before. Transitions from soft to loud were dramatic, and the music scaled with authority and even at times some serious slam. The soundstage was good before but it grew slightly wider and deeper with the Qutest. I just love what it did to the sound, making it even more musical and much bigger. I listened for a few days and then removed the Qutest and now, all of the sudden, I could not listen to my system without it. It was clear what the DAC was doing, and it easily trounced the internal DAC of the Node 2i. This is a product you should not audition unless you are ready to buy because if you audition, you may be like me and have a hard time going back to your system without it. It will make its qualities known in a good system with a nice amp, speakers and cables.
The Chord M Scaler is a device I hesitated moving on for for a while now as I did not believe it could be worth the $4800 cost for what it does. It basically is an upscaling device that upscales your music to one of three levels you choose via the remote, and yes this can be done via software if you want to go through the hassle…though it is not quite the same, and yes I have tried it. The Mscaler is a hardware device and offers one million taps vs the 50,000 of the Qutest alone. If you are wondering what Taps are, it is sort of complex and odd but what this device does is basically restructure your music. It rebuilds it and fills in any missing info. Sort of strange right? With 1 million taps, this is how many times it checks your signal and improves upon it. I am not an expert on this, but the more taps = better performance. Going from 50k taps to 1 million makes an easily heard audible change to the music. Here is the description from the Chord website:
“The Hugo M Scaler is a highly advanced standalone upscaler capable of redefining sound quality from digital audio. It uses Rob Watts’ (our Digital Design Consultant’s) unique filter technology, the most advanced in the world, to upscale standard 44.1kHz digital audio up to 705.6kHz (16x CD’s 44.1kHz native resolution), ready to be passed to a suitable DAC; Hugo M Scaler extends its upscaling performance to 768kHz (from 96kHz input data) for our dual-BNC-input DACs: Qutest, Hugo 2, Hugo TT 2 and DAVE.
The Hugo M Scaler brings the unrivalled advantages of our ground-breaking FPGA-based WTA (Watts Transient Alignment) filtering technology to digitally connected audio devices, dramatically improving sound quality. Although optimised for use with selected Chord Electronics DACs (for the maximum 768kHz upscaling/decoding benefit), the Hugo M Scaler can be used with other DACs with suitable inputs, subject to their decoding capability.
When partnered with either of Chord Electronics’ 768kHz-capable dual-BNC-input DACs, the Hugo M Scaler sets an astonishing technical benchmark for digital audio performance at it price point, redefining sound quality from digital audio.”
I love that it has a remote where I could switch it on and off to see the effect it has on the music instantly. Fully expecting to return it after a trial, I placed it into my system. The digital out from my Node 2i goes to the MScaler and then two BNC digital cables go to the Qutest. The analog RCA outs of the Qutest then go to the Amp input. The MScaler comes with the cables needed though I swapped mine out for Blue Heaven LS digital cables. So after this device was placed in I sat back to listen for a few minutes. Yes, cables DO MAKE A DIFFERENCE! What the blue heaven digital cables did was remove any hint of glare and make the sound smoother and bigger. The included cables are of average quality and being with it a sort of a loose connection. You can leave them as is but you will get a small upgrade when you change them out. Even these at Amazon are wonderful and a great upgrade to stock for under $100 a pair, and you will need a pair.
So with the Qutest and Mscaler installed I listened..and listened. Four hours later Debby came in to check on me and I could not believe that time passed! I was enjoying the much so much I couldn’t turn it off.
So was the M Scaler improving the sound in my room? YES, it was indeed. The difference between passthrough (not using it) and the highest quality setting (white sphere, 1 million taps) was not jaw dropping initially but the more I listened the more I heard what I was missing. When I clicked passthrough the sound shrunk a bit yet again. There was some flattening of the stage. It’s crazy as the Qutest made a big improvement to the sound but adding the Mscaler made another jump and for me it as well, quite a bit more refinement, smoothness and all out magic. Here is what happened…
With the M Scaler on and set to the highest setting (white sphere) the music was more free flowing, details were popping out into space like never before with these Heresy IV’s and imaging was so beautiful while being so full, rich, smooth and organic I could not pull away. Gone was ALL hints that I was listening to digital music. Vocals were placed just right in the stage, and sounded so sweet and more realistic than before, eery real. The end trails of notes seemed to float off into space and into a decay that sounded so real, so beautiful (I LOVE THIS). Even more details were being heard and without any brightness or harshness, in fact, quite the opposite. This sounded like pure grain free harsh free magic. This is, without question, the most beautiful I have ever heard digital sound. I can not describe in words how my system sounds now and I know it could be even better with more refined speakers. Yes, I love my H4’s but I do trade off some sweetness for dynamics with them.
Without question the Chord pieces have elevated my system to a new level, and it makes me wonder what in the heck that M Scaler is really doing because whatever it is, it does indeed do what it claims to do and the rave reviews are indeed warranted. I can join in with others who have raved about this piece but also it is not something I recommend running out and buying without careful consideration as it will be system dependent.
While I can jump up in performance a bit again by swapping the Chord Qutest for a Hugo 2 TT or go nuts with a DAVE I do not feel spending another $5k or $10k would bring me another $5k or $10k in sound. To be honest I could live with just the Qutest alone but the M Scaler is a nice addition if you want to squeeze more performance from your system. Again, it is for the obsessive audiophiles over the casual listener. You will need a “sweet spot” setup to enjoy this Mscaler.
These are products that are not cheap, and I feel they are only worth it if you already have high quality speakers, amplification and cables. I would not add a Chord Qutest to a $500 system or even a $2000 system as it would not be resolving enough to hear the differences. If you own a decent middle to high end system though, and use something like a Node 2i for your DAC then adding a high quality external cam make drastic changes to your sound quality and that’s just what it did for me. Pricey but for pure music lovers, it could be worth it. It was for me! If you own Heresy III or IV speakers and want to inject some more life into them, beef them up, bring out some magic then the Qutest may just help you in that quest. It did for me. Adding the scaler to teh mix brought smoothness, a larger floating type of soundstage and organic details that popped out from what seemed to be space itself.
LISTENING NOTES – Tidal HiFi/Masters – Using Roon
Jewel – His Pleasure is my Pain “Demo” from the 25th Anniversary edition of “Pieces of You“. I have never heard this song sound so lifelike and real. Jewel was not only in the center of my room singing, she was life size with her voice floating about 5 ft off of the ground and about one foot in front of the speakers. With the Node 2i DAC the sound shrinks, becomes brighter and flatter and the voice sits around 1 ft off of the ground. With the Chord setup, the guitar plucks are so clean yet so full of body at the same time, and each note is heard with power and depth. Again, the layers can be heard easily allowing me to hear very deep into the recording. The Brilliant thing is that this setup somehow accomplishes this without ever going into that strident or harsh territory. Rather, the opposite. The sound here is full, fluid, textured and detailed with air, depth and magic at every corner. Jewels voice is intimate, and I can hear the reverberation from the room she recorded the song in. It’s as if she is with me, and it just sounds beautiful when listening late night when the house is 100% quiet.
Michael Buble – Stardust. This is a very well recorded track and sounds musical on almost any system. Going from good and musical to magic is what the Chord accomplishes here along with the amp, speakers and cables. Michaels voice is huge, full and you can even hear the texture in his voice, as if you were next to him while he recorded the track. The background singers are nicely separated and to the left and right while Buble’s croon jets out dead center, again with that reverberation (Mscaler), about 2 ft in front of my speakers. Such a big, warm but crazy detailed presentation. Best I have heard this song.
Neil Young – Hitchiker from Le Noise. I love this entire album and feel it brings out the electricity of this intimate performance. The Chord DAC and Mscaler bring this to another level when it comes to richness, depth, details and size of the presentation. Again, warm, deep and with a heavy hitting bass that lies underneath the electric guitar that jets out with authority with body and scale. It’s a fully non fatiguing musical sound and I could listen for hours on end, and have. I love the sound of this entire album in a good system, and there is so much to hear within the depths of these recordings.
Fleetwood Mac – Go Insane (Live) – Wowzers! This song is crazy good on a good system and takes you direct to the performance. With the Node 2i DAC, the sound was slightly thin but still very good. It lacked depth and size but I could have lived with it. When I go back to the Chord setup….it is a WOW moment. Lindsey Buckinghams guitar work here is superb and we heart every pluck, every move of the finger and his clear and present voice has authority and passion. Sounds like I am at the show, front row. Simply amazing. I can literally feel like I am stepping onto the stage with the band. I turned it up LOUD using the R8 amp and I felt as if the band was in the room. No sign of stress or brittleness as the sound went up. Rather the bass extended, the body extended, the guitar notes sang and each one had decay that sounded so real. Blown away.
KISS – Calling Dr. Love from Alive II – I have heard this track on systems ranging from $10 to $50,000 ever since 1978 and while it is not a great recording, it is one of those from the 1970’s that can sound thin and boring on some systems. When I cued up the track on Tidal (Masters) I was pushed back in my seat as I heard a huge sound, with warmth and body. I heard guitars from my left and right and each instrument could be heard with printing clarity yet there was weight on those guitars and drums and well, everything. The most spacious, fluid and best presentation I have heard this track, ever. The Chord Qutest alone does a lot of magic here but the MScaler brings it up with a wider soundstage, more delicate separation of instruments and a sweeter top end. It’s almost as if activating the white filter on the M Scaler brings in a crazy kind of 300B tube sound. Holographic as all get out and yes, it even improved an old 70’s rock track that was not really recorded so well.