Chord Electronics Chordette QuteHD (DSD) DAC
Device Type: Digital to Analog Converter
Input: Coax S/PDIF (BNC), Toslink, USB Audio Class 2.0
Output: RCA (single-ended)
Dimensions (W x H x D): 160 x 70 x 40mm
Availability: through authorized dealers
U.S. Distributor's Wesite: bluebirdmusic.com
FPGA All the Way
If you know only one thing about Chord Electronics, I'd suggest knowing they do things their own way and that way typically diverges from the main stream. This approach can be seen in any of their products industrial design from amplifiers to preamplifiers to digital to analog converters as they all share a lozenge-shaped outline and a round window for seeing into and emitting light from within. Once inside, you'll aso see that things are far from common. But what matters most, in hi-fi land, is how all of this adds up. Does it serve the music being the relevant question at hand. And not to give too much away up front, the answer with the Chord Chordette QuteHD (DSD) DAC is a resounding Oh yea.
If you open up the QuteHD (DSD) DAC or peep through the peephole window in search of a DAC chip, you won't find one. Instead, Chord employs a Xilinx Virtex field-programmable gate array (FPGA) to handle the digital to analog conversion process. But that's not all this FPGA does. Taking the technology from its big brother the Chord QBD76HD, the FPGA handles source selection, buffering the incoming data into RAM, re-clocking using a digital PLL (phase-lock loop) for the S/PDIF inputs, WTA interpolation filtering (Watts Transient Aligned, as in Chord Electronics’ Robert Watts) that employs 10,240 taps and a 64bit DSP processing core. Next is a 7th order noise shaper that hands off a 2048x oversampled signal to the fifth-generation delta-sigma Pulse Array DAC that converts the digital signal to analog.
Here's what Chord has to say about the WTA Filter:
It [the WTA Filter] solves the question as to why higher sampling rates sound better. It is well known that 96 kHz (DVD Audio) recordings sound better than 44.1 kHz (CD) recordings. Most people believe that this is due to the presence of ultrasonic information being audible even though the best human hearing is limited to 20kHz. What is not well known is that 768 kHz recordings sound better than 384 kHz and that the sound quality limit for sampling lies in the MHz region.So higher sample rates used to process digital data into analog signals do not necessarily benefit frequency response, rather we're talking about improved performance in the time domain. Better transient response. Interesting. You can read more about Chord's digital technology on their website.
768 kHz recordings cannot sound better because of information above 200 kHz being important - simply because musical instruments, microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers do not work at these frequencies nor can we hear them. So if it is not the extra bandwidth that is important, why do higher sampling rates sound better?
The answer is not being able to hear inaudible supersonic information, but the ability to hear the timing of transients more clearly. It has long been known that the human ear and brain can detect differences in the phase of sound between the ears to the order of microseconds. This timing difference between the ears is used for localising high frequency sound. Since transients can be detected down to microseconds, the recording system needs to be able to resolve timing of one microsecond. A sampling rate of 1 MHz is needed to achieve this!
The Chordette QuteHD USB input is asynchorous and capable of handling up to 24-bit/192kHz data as well as DSD using the DoP protocol. The BNC Coax S/PDIF input is capable of handling up to 32-bit/384kHz data, and the Toslink input can handle up to 24/192. I used the USB input for its DSD-capabilities and since I do not have any 32-bit/384 music files, I did not get to push the coax inputs envelope. Inputs are automatically selected based on the hierarchy of USB > Coax > Toslink. So if you have Toslink and USB connected and you're playing music through both (why would you do that!) the USB input would take precedence and play.
I find the design of the Chord line refreshing in its difference and nicely solid in person with its all-aluminum body that comes in black or silver. That round peep hole window works both ways—you can peer in and the Qute HD lights up different colors from within depending on the sample rate of the music being played. Red for redbook (ha!), orange for 48kHz, yellow for 88.2, green for 96, blue for 176.4, dark blue for 192, and purple for DSD (actually all LEDs are lit for DSD which looks like lavender).
In order to utilize the DSD-capabilities of the QuteHD DAC, you have to load some drivers which Chord supplies on CD-ROM or via download from the Chord website. Once I loaded up the drivers on my MacBook Pro, it was a simple matter of setting up Pure Music and Chord provides a PDF setup guide with very easy to follow instructions.
The Sound of 10,240 Taps Clapping
Do we have to understand FPGAs, tap lengths, and Pulse Array DACs in order to appreciate the Chordette QuteHD (DSD) DAC? Of course not. We need to be able to appreciate our music through it which is not a wholly intellectual process which is why, in part, music is such an important part of our lives. Thankfully listening to the QuteHD DAC is simply a pleasure.
One of the first things that struck me about the QuteHD DAC was its way with bass which is, in a word, huge. Bass is full and very well controlled so much so it can be startling. As in wow, that's some great bass. Moving up to the midrange I find the QuteHD to be rich but not overly so leaning ever so slightly toward the leaner side but still providing a wonderful spectrum of tone colors. In other words, music's difference and drama are nicely conveyed. Upper registers are silky smooth yet crisp and resolute with nary a hint of hardness.
Another area of exceptional performance is the QuteHDs way with space. The sound field is large, solid and very precise even with complex music. And all of that focus on transient response sounds like it paid off so that with something like David Chesky's 24/192 New York Rags which is very-well recorded solo keyboard music, we are treated to every nuance no matter how subtle for that hearing into the recording sensation that can be overstated so I'll leave it at that. This kind of presentation also adds up to a very nice sense of scale combined with a natural ease. Things are not overblown or overwrought yet they are very finely detailed.
I've been thinking for some time that a given component can sound wet, dry, or somewhere in between. A wet presentation would be mid-range rich, whereas a dry presentation would be resolute and, well, dry sounding. The QuteHD DAC falls in between but leans toward the dry side. As compared to the Mytek DAC, the Chord offers up a bit less body in favor of pace and speed. It's worth noting that the DSD-capable Mytek also includes a preamp with digital and analog volume control, a number of user-selectable filters, and a headphone amp for $100 less than the cost of the Chord QuteHD DAC. That said, for someone looking for just a DAC that can handle DSD and PCM, the QuteHD's sound may very well float your sonic boat.
Speaking of DSD, the QuteHD DAC handles DSD music with aplomb and this is the third DAC that I've had in-house that is DSD-capable. The Mytek and Sonore/eXD DAC being the others and the differences I hear between PCM and DSD are pretty much consistent between these DACs. The Mytek's way with DSD, that sense of dynamic ease and an oh-so-natural presentation, is a bit more startling as compared to the Chord but DSD clearly has its own sound and that sound is to my ears the sound of music. Naturally.
Where the Chord is truly exceptional is with CD-quality music. Yes, good old old-fashioned 16/44.1. The QuteHD has a way of pulling out a full, dimensional sound from 16/44.1 music files that is quite astonishing. "Delicate" is a word that kept coming to mind while the Chord delivered some of the most convincingly natural sounding CD-quality sound I've yet heard. It nearly sounds as if Chord's algorithm has delved into the bits, cleaned them up (especially around the edges), and added a sense of space around them, before letting them loose into your room more fully formed.
This aspect of the QuteHD was something that did not jump or scream out, rather it impressed me more the more I listened. Some of my favorite CD rips were given a new sonic lease on life. And I have to wonder if the QuteHD's exceptional way with CD-quality music made playing back higher resolution files a bit less dramatic. And while this is a thorny thing to wrap ones head around, I'd say that's the case. In other words the Chordette QuteHD (DSD) DAC makes CD-quality music sound more like HD music (decidedly not the other way around). And that's really nice.
A Unique Voice
Chord Electronics Chordette QuteHD (DSD) DAC is another worthy contender for those looking for a DSD-ready DAC, but the QuteHD's way with PCM, specifically CD-quality material, is where it really shines, lifting 16/44.1 performance to near-HD heights. And that's a remarkable conversion.
Also on hand and in use during the Chordette QuteHD (DSD) DAC review: Mytek Stereo 192-DSD DAC, iFi iDAC, Cambridge Audio StreamMagic 6