Chord Electronics is one of this country’s premium audio brands, known for its high-end domestic and professional audio amplifiers. But that didn’t stop it releasing its first digital-to-analogue convertor 12 years ago, to much critical acclaim. Take a look at the Musical Fidelity V-Link 192 review too. See all audio accessories reviews.
The secret recipe to Chord’s DAC64 – an iconoclastic ingot of aluminium the size and weight of a house brick – was a customised 64-bit digital architecture based on the pioneering work of 1990s brand DPA. Take a look at our Audirvana Plus 1.4 review too.
In fact, it was the digital draughtsmanship of DPA’s Rob Watts standing behind Chord’s DAC; the relationship continues in subsequent Chord digital products like the current QBD76 iteration of Chord Electronic’s original slab-like DAC, as well as the little QuteHD fella here. Musical Fidelity V-Link 192 review
Shrinking silicon processes have allowed some of that revered sound quality to trickle down to something altogether smaller – and importantly more affordable than the £5000 retail price of big brother.
The Chord QuteHD joins the brand’s Chordette series as a nearly pocketable D-A convertor, and available at a more accessible price of £990.
It’s a simple product from the outside point of view, with three digital inputs and one pair of RCA phono outputs. And that’s it – there are no switches or buttons, displays or read-outs. To select between these inputs you may need to pull cables. By default the QuteHD will lock first to the USB input if present, then one of two S/PDIF options: first Toslink optical, then BNC coaxial.
We couldn’t test this, but the unit should also work reliably with digital audio up to 192kHz over the optical connection, where most links cannot sync beyond 96kHz.
Construction quality is first-class. Describing it as bomb-proof construction doesn’t do it justice; Chord DACs are actually tank-proof. See video proof here.
There is also no power switch. To switch off, you’ll again need to pull a cable out, the 12V DC lead from the supplied wall-wart adaptor.
But there is a clever, chromatic and rather innovative way to see to what manner of digital signal the DAC is currently locked. As with nearly all Chord Electronics hardware since the DAC64, a clear porthole on top lets you peer upon the sexy cityscape of electronics inside. Multiple coloured LEDs inside have been a hallmark of Chord kit since its first DAC, but this is the first time we’ve seen the principle executed so beautifully in a stepped rainbow theme.
With stock 44.1kHz, the stuff that CDs are made of, the glass aperture glows a deep red. Feed the Chord anything with 48kHz sample frequency and you’ll stop seeing red, finding orange there instead.
Double CD’s baserate to 88.2kHz and we mellow with yellow. Green is the colour for 96kHz, the top spec for audio from video DVD.
Light blue denotes 176.4kHz and a darker shade you might call indigo spells out 192kHz, the Chord QuteHD’s highest sample frequency capability.
Well actually, not quite. For the QuteHD joins a currently small club of D-A convertors that speaks DSD. Direct Stream Digital was Sony/Philips’ planned replacement for CD’s 16-bit/44.1kHz. It faded to near extinction after the DVD-A vs SACD format wars – the battle for the public’s new audio format, which saw MP3 as victor...
But DSD is back, thanks to (expensive) digital downloads of the studio-master format, as well as hi-res music liberated from SACDs now that the DRM encryption’s been cracked.
We can look straight passed the fiddly switches, or lack thereof, once the Chord is plugged in and doing its business. With CD-sourced album rips played from a Mac mini into its asychronous USB input, the QuteHD plays like a maestro.
If we had to pick fault, it didn’t quite have the wispy transparency to treble detail we’re used to from a reference dCS Delius DAC, and soundstaging was a little less cinematic in width. But drive and dynamism are unbeatable, with incredible delineation of every instrument. CD sounded far, far less seedy, and a whole lot more like high-resolution recordings.
We would have been happy with that, but the ChordHD’s secret weapon is the way it unravels DSD, into an organic, inviting believable sound that will have vinyl lovers spinning on their platters.
You’ll need the right software to play DSD’s .dff and .dsf and .iso (Scarlet Book spec) files. On Windows there’s the Foobar200 and JRiver players, while Audirvana Plus and Pure Music among others serve the Mac.