HiFi Review: Chord Qutest DAC Review.
By Steve Huff
Ahhhhh! DAC’s. I remember a few years back reading on forums and the opinion of some out there who believed DAC’s make no difference to the sound of your audio system. I think today most realize that is not the case, as it is not.
A DAC is just as important as any front end piece in a HiFi system. Just as important as your streamer, your turntable, your phono stage, etc. I have three DAC’s here as I write this that range from $200 to $6900 and all three sound quite different. Now if you have a $500 system a high end DAC is not going to make an improvement. Once you get to a higher end system, true HiFi, and you have amps that cost thousands, speakers that cost thousands (and even good quality cables) then yes, a high quality DAC can make a HUGE difference to the sound of your system. HUGE! To me, I have heard such differences that I consider it just as much of an upgrade as my amps, or even speakers.
I wanted to share my experience with all of my fellow HiFi nuts as I feel I would have loved to have read this before I bought a DAC, so hopefully it can help you choose what is right for you, if you are indeed looking for or thinking of a DAC upgrade.
Keep in mind, my thoughts are based on listening with my system, my room and my ears. I run my system in a 12X13 space that is well damped. Speakers are measured and set up for this space and a sweet spot.
I have always been curious about CHORD DACs but never have I tried one, until recently. I always admired their beauty and design as well as all of the positive glow about them online. I always read reviews about Chord products but always had the assumption they were uber detailed in their presentation (they are) which made me automatically think “thin and bright” and I hate “thin and bright” in audio. This is why I never bought a Chord dac, out of fear that it would be thin and uber detailed!
The reference DAC and headphone amp rom Chord, “The Dave”. I hope to audition this one in the near future.
Even so, I did buy a Qutest DAC to compare against my two other dacs and I am so glad I did as it showed me I was 100% wrong in my assumption about Chord! The Qutest DAC has been in my system for a bit now and I have to say, the sound it pumps out is SO different, and I mean NIGHT AND DAY different sound over the $199 DACMAGIC. In comparison to the PS Audio $6900 DirectStream I own (with bridge) the differences are there but they are more of a sideways move. I will explain. Keep in mind the Qutest comes in at $1899 so it is much lower in cost than the PS Audio, and much smaller in physical size (which is nice). While it is cheaper by thousands, I do not feel it is an inferior dac to the PS Audio…at all.
WHAT?!?! Yes, in my system this is very true. In fact, when it comes to sound I prefer some aspects of the Chord over the PS Audio and one aspect of the PS Audio over the Chord. As for the DACMAGIC I will kick it out right now as it is vastly inferior to either of these pieces when it comes to sound quality. The DacMagic at $199 is great for mid-fi but when put into a nicer HiFi system it falls flat with a warm and dullish kind of sound lacking in dynamics and well, all out balls. While the $199 DacMagic 100 has great separation of instruments and an OK soundstage width (not much depth) it just had very little life when compared to these other two heavy hitters. That is to be expected as look at the prices ($199 vs $1695 vs $6000+). So away it goes.
What is interesting is that I have had a PS Audio Direct Stream in my system for over a year now. Started with the JR model and spent the bucks to get a Senior. It’s been my favorite front end piece of all time, beating any CD player I have ever owned with ease as well as any DAC I have had through my system. It has a grace and ease about it that lets the music flow and what beautiful music it makes. Big, bold, wide, deep, amazing imaging and while it can be a tad bright with some music, it is just the most naturally resolving dac I have ever owned. Music sounds right with it 98% of the time. With that said, the PS Audio can sound thin at times, which is what helps with its huge soundscape in my room. I never noticed this “thinness” until I hear this chord.
Until now, I have not heard ANY DAC in my system even get near the PS Audio. I have not heard a ton of DAC’s but have had my fair share through here.
As for the Chord, I really wanted to test out their top end DAVE to compare it to the PS Audio but it’s too rich for my blood at this time in my life. $8000 for a world class GORGEOUS DAC…EEK. I know from experience that spending that kind of money will only bring tiny improvements, and maybe none at all as the sound will be more “different” than “better”… So I settled for the $1900 Qutest so I could get a flavor of the “Chord Sound” vs the “PS Audio Sound”. I assumed it would be just that, “testing the flavor of sound”.
Both of these DAC’s use custom chips that are programmed by the designers. These are not off the shelf DAC chips as used by almost every other manufacterer. So these are very custom, and tuned by the designers for the best sound they can dig out of these specific devices. For example, PS Audio has been upgrading their Direct Stream for years now with constant updates to the sound quality. Just download a file to an SD card, slip it in the device and update! It’s like getting an all new updated DAC every time they do this. Amazing, and this future support is partly what you are paying for with this PS Audio DAC. It’s a beautiful thing and makes this an end game DAC for many.
The Chord is similar in the fact that it uses a custom chip though I do not believe updates come or will come for it. Even so, the small Chord fits in anywhere as the size allows easy placement and when I inserted it into the system after having the $200 DacMagic in I was immediately struck by a much bigger sound, a much “meatier” sound and much more low level detail coming through the speakers. It’s like my system took a shot of adrenaline. I set the Chord to 2MV output which seemed like the best balance in my system. It can be set to 1, 2, or 3 but 3 sounded almost too much, and added a slight hardness to the sound. Set on 1, it was way too mellow.
The Chord Qutest can handle it all from 44.1 to DSD. This is a true high end DAC though will not do MQA.
Let the Listening Begin
It was 1AM, house was quiet and I was in the sweet spot where I now had the Chord inserted into the system. This system at this time is comprised of an Octave V40 SE tube amp (Dedicated Audio has a store demo now at a sweet deal)), Dynaudio Special 40 Speakers (my fave bookshelves as of 2019 up to $10k) and some mid tier Audioquest cables that cost me a total of $500 for speaker and IC’s. I had the chord hooked up to a HiFi hot rod modded Sonos connect using a basic Audioquest cinnamon optical cable. I chose optical as it gave me the most air and spaciousness though when I did put in a Nordost Heimdall Digital Coax (RCA to BNC) the sound lost a smidge of air and gained some richness and body. Both sounded incredible. As for the Dac itself…
I could not believe what I was hearing, as the Chord Qutest was giving me a sound I never heard before.
Yes, it was VERY detailed. As in, and I know this is cliche, “I HEARD things in songs that I know well, and have listened to nearly 100 times, that I never heard before”. It was like a revelation. This dac was digging out details, somehow, that even the top tier PS Audio missed. While it was doing this it was leaning WARM, RICH, BOLD, BIG and vocal reproduction was HAUNTING and beat out the PS Audio here. There was a realness and natural tone to the voice, wether that was male or female that I never heard before. While the left and right speakers were bringing forward the instruments, separating them with ease, the voices were dead center and oh so rich but not too big nor too laid back. They were perfect. By comparison the PS Audio vocals sound a tad flatter and more distant. The Chord was present and more real.
As I listened to Perfume Genius’s “Otherside” I was transported to another world and I enjoyed the small details that were not there with the other dacs. I feel the other dacs obscured these details a bit. The bass was amazingly rich and deep, and while this dac leans warm in my system, the details are crisp and separated like some sort of magic was used to create this type of sound. I said to myself “If this is the Chord sound, I am hooked for life”.
Wondering what the reference DAVE DAC must sound like, I pushed that out of my head as this Qutest was sounding amazingly expressive, ethereal and while it did not have the largest soundstage (though this changed dramatically when I inserted some high end SWISSCABLES speaker and RCA’s…best cables I Have ever heard in my 34 years of HiFi, review soon). it was more focused and had a real “I am here with the artist” vibe, and it was sort if intimate. I was blown away, song after song. Even with badly recorded music the chord added weight and richness to the music and let it flow like it was meant to flow. Compared to the DirectStream running Snowmass, the Chord felt more right to me. It sounded JUST RIGHT. Wether that comes down to a great match with my amp, speakers or cables I do not know but SYNERGY was at an all time high here. The PS Audio is not as kind to poorly recorded music but does excel with audiophile recordings with a larger soundstage than the chord. But…with the chord the sound is also holographic which confused me as usually a warmer sound signature takes that away but not with the Chord.
The only area PS Audio beat the chord in MY system was with soundstage depth/width and it was slightly even more holographic (though after upgraded cables this was now a draw). But sometimes it (PS Audio) leaned to the “hard” side with some songs that were poorly recorded. Some may prefer this “truth” but me, I prefer “music” to sound great and the chord hooked me right away. Considering the $4k price difference I was left scratching my head in amazement at what this Chord was doing.
I listened for a few more days and my love of the Chord Qutest grew more. So much so in fact that it has now replaced my PS Audio in my main system and made me really truly want to test the DAVE. If the DAVE is even 20% better it would blow my mind. Even so, this Qutest is $6000 less, so a huge bang for the buck and makes me feel nuts for even thinking about the DAVE. It’s a bit obsessive but more of a curiosity really. Chord, if you are out there reading this CONTACT ME if you would like me to test out The Dave ; )
I am so glad I finally bought a Chord DAC. The hype is real, and this $1895 (Now $1695) Qutest is the most satisfying sound I have had in my system yet from a DAC under $6k. It does away with the thin sound, the congested sound, the bright sound, the overachieving sound, the dullness, the low bass sound and the flat sound that we get from most built in dacs or cheap $100-$200 dacs. What it delivers is pure musical enjoyment and is never ever harsh, strident, bright, or flat. It has tremendous bass quality, gorgeous treble quality and that amazing detail it drudges up from the depths of the music that I never knew existed, all while remaining full, big, bold and wide. Crazy.
To those who have a $5-$10k system or up, this is a dac you must try out. I know some who prefer this Chord Qutest to six figure dacs and now I know why. The PS Audio is much more expensive but also worth it if you have the bucks as it brings much more to the table with constant upgrades, larger size, a touch display, remote, a preamp and a quality warranty and company behind it and even a built in streamer if you add the Bridge. The Chord Qutest is small, but it’s all metal build and lights are a thing of beauty as well. It also has a few filters to tailor the sound to your system if need be. I kept mine on WHITE which is pretty much a direct mode giving you all of the detail and music from your files. You can roll off the HF if you like or warm it up by using the red filter. These are VERY slight changes and do not alter the signature of the sound but can help in some brighter systems.
This is my new reference DAC for me, for my system, and for my room. HIGHLY recommended.
This System as I reviewed the DAC:
- Octave V40 SE – Bought from Dedicated Audio, this is an amazing amp. Build, style, and ease of use blew me away. Some say these do not sound tube like but mine sure does (With KT77’s over KT88’s) and I love it. I rolled in some NOS tubes though (from Upscale Audio), so that helps. The fact that I was able to acquire this as a demo amp for $2800 blew my mind as this sounds like a much more expensive and muscular amp. It powers my Dynaudios with authority and ease and can play them LOUDER than I can stand while remanding composed. Yes, 40 watts and it drives them better than a 120WPC amp I had here recently (though not as good or sweet as the Luxman 590 AXII). Amazing amp that can power almost any speaker.
- Audioquest GO-4 speaker cable (newest version with DBS) and Mackenzie IC’s.
- Dynaudio Special 40’s – From Dedicated Audio. These are my fave bookshelf speakers of all time under $10k (though who knows what may come along in the future). Amazing speakers that will reward you when paired with quality components. Speakers? I do not need any better in my room than what these give me. Ever. So good I bought them twice.
- A modded Sonos ULTIMA that I purchased from these guys HERE. Gone is the veiled sound of a stock Sonos, this makes for an amazing streamer that is simple and easy as pie to set up.
I bought my Chord Qutest from Amazon using Prime. Came in one day, and also with a 30 day return policy. If I did not like it, it could have easily went back but it is staying. No regrets here at all. The Chord Qutest is a beautiful piece of HiFi gear that will actually make a wonderful improvement to any system using a cheap $100-$200 dac. For me it was night and day between this and the DacMagic 100, and more of a sideways move from the $6800 PS Audio (I have it with bridge).
I did listen to some Tidal HiFi tracks through the Chord as well, but strangely enough I preferred Spotify as I normally do.
A true giant killer IMO. But man…I must hear the DAVE. ; )
UPDATE 10/19, weeks later…
I LOVE THIS DAC to DEATH! It’s still making gorgeous music and sounding better than ever.
UPDATE 11/19, a few more weeks later
So I auditioned a pair of SWISSCABLES speaker and RCA cables. I threw them into this system and replaced the lower tier Audioquest cables for this audition. My dealer told me I had to hear them, so I took them home thinking “meh, I am happy with my lower cost cables but will give them a listen”. When I put them in it was an INSTANT WOW moment.
After three days with them I declared them the best cables I have ever heard in my lifetime. For me, in my room, a nicer sound than cables like the Nordost Valhalla and Valhalla 2 which cost much more, 2-3X as much. Delicacy, Air, Spaciousness, Organic, Flowing, Transparent, Floaty, Ethereal…all words I wrote down while listening into the wee hours of the night with these cables in my system.
When I removed them to return them to the Arizona HiFi I was sad. The cheaper AQ cables now sounded smaller, flatter, more constricted. I put the SWISSCABLES back in and bam, there it was. The biggest night and day difference I have ever heard with cables. Night and Day. With the cables the sound expanded and it sounded like the source of the audio was the room itself rather than the two speakers in front of me. With the cheaper cables the sound just went flat, something I did NOT notice BEFORE trying the SWISSCABLES. Now that I have it’s something I can not “unhear”.
To those who claim cables make no difference, well, you are 100% incorrect as cables can and do make differences if your system is set up right and includes good enough equipment. In a dedicated room especially as when it is dialed in for a sweet spot, it’s so easy to hear these differences . It’s not something I have to struggle to hear, it’s night and day in this case. But going from a $120 RCA to a $1800 RCA interconnect should yield nice results. Going from a $400 speaker cable to a $3000 speaker cable should being something good to the table. The good news is, I prefer these to cables costing 3X as much so I see them as a deal.
I went back to my dealer, with cables in hand and said “I want them” and I ordered a set of speaker and RCA cables. It is my 50th birthday coming up in 3 weeks, which is when they should be delivered. So happy birthday to me!
Cables. While it is not true that the more you spend the better it gets, it is true that each cable is different. When you find the one that has the perfect synergy with your gear it can bring pure magical sound.
Even my better half Debby said “These make your other cables sound broken” and usually she doesn’t say much about my audio. She is not an audiophile but she heard a huge improvement to the sound with the SWISSCABLES.
So my reference system for all upcoming and future reviews will have these cables in the system. A few weeks to wait for them but I will be patient as they are hand made in Switzerland and I have no choice. I always say the more you spend doesn’t always mean you get better sound but sometimes you do. This is one of those cases.
As for the Chord Qutest, it is indeed my reference DAC for now and sometime in the future I will add the highly regarded Chord M Scaler to take it up a few levels. . Unless I win a lottery and can buy a DAVE DAC I am thrilled with this little DAC which does deliver reference sound when everything else is right (amp, speakers, cables, etc).
Finally, There will be many more HiFi reviews in 2020 from me including more videos as well. So stay tuned!
Below is a review of the Dynaudio Special 40 Speakers. Unlike any Dynaudio I have ever heard and I LOVE them to pieces.