• Chord Chordette Qute EX DAC - Update

    (Computer Audiophile Contributor Ted Brady completes his thorough review of the Chord Qute HD / EX with this final update. I don't think there is anyone in the industry with more insight and time spent with this DAC than Ted. His original review of the HD and two updates can be read HERE. Below is Ted's wrap up with incredibly high praise for the EX. - Editor)

    I have owned the Chord Qute EX (aka EX) now for a couple months (arrived Feb 10) and wanted to wrap up my feelings about this DAC; i.e what is different about it from the HD I reviewed above, and what additional information or impressions I have of the Qute DACs since last writing about them.

    But first I must mention what is different about my setup since demoing the HD. As an obsessive audiophile (and reviewer) I keep trying to improve things for the long-term, and that journey can often have some bumps where, in the process of replacing pieces, the sonics take a temporary hit until the system is adjusted for, or break in of the new pieces are completed. (This does not include those purchases that just didn’t work out or took my system backwards…those bumps truly exist but are not worth writing about unless it’s valuable lesson.)

    So as the HD was leaving my system late last year, and before I bought the EX 6 weeks later, I committed to doing some improvements to my music server (source) end. This project will have its own article/review, but suffice it to say that the changes in presentation were almost daily. The variables involved (internal SATA cable wiring, changing out the PCie USB card, demoing USB cables, optimizing the Windows 2012 OS via Audio Optimizer) were, in hindsight, too numerous to expect a smooth transition.

    During this process the EX shows up and I begin the arduous task of 24/7 break-in (boy, life is tough, huh?). Like the HD, I plug in my Hynes SR3-12 as its external power supply. Unlike the HD, which was not mine nor was a brand new unit when I demo’d it, the EX began life as an average DAC with somewhat congested soundstaging and a slightly bloated lf. My Meitner was my go-to…and go-to it I did. I moved the EX to a secondary system for awhile, to let the apparent gremlins have their way for another 200+ hours. A few days in I did the addendum above where I mentioned that the first big change in the EX is the Windows driver, allowing for 24/384k and DSD128 via USB. And early on the USB seems to have “caught up” to the sonics of the SPDIF. Hindsight tells me this might have had more to do with my aforementioned server upgrades, but more on that in a minute.
    After a good 10 days of 24/7 test signals (XLO burn-in track 9, etc) mixed with all sample rate recordings (a lengthy playlist put on repeat) I put the EX back in the main system and let it settle. Now we have something! The EX is one amazing DAC, with the PCM performance I remember from the HD, along with slightly better, more immediate (better leading edge) DSD performance. And although it also plays my DXD and DSD128 stuff I am less enthusiastic about that since I don’t find myself going to those sample rates on a daily basis. But they are there whenever I need them, and the EX plays them flawlessly.

    So….what about the SPDIF vs USB issues that seem to show so easily on the HD? Well, as in the HD review I first used my own $250 Matrix X-SPDIF (24/192 and DSD64 capable via DoP) and try and try as I might I don’t really hear anything about the SPDIF (RCA coax in from X-SPDIF BNC out) that makes me want to use it. Why….well cuz it doesn’t work. ?? I then realize something that may change my whole theory on this USB vs SPDIF Chord debate….the X-SPDIF needs 5V from my USB card. I have installed the new JCAT (from the makers of JPlay) USB card, which among its amazing capabilities is the flexibility to have one or both USB ports powered or unpowered (the card itself is powered via 3.3V internal PCIe). So I reconfigured the card to have the lower port powered by my same external Red Wine Acopian 5V that powered my PPA card (the one used in the HD review). Voila. The Matrix X-SPDIF sees the DAC and away we go. Except, again… try and try as I might I don’t really hear anything about the SPDIF (RCA coax in from X-SPDIF BNC out) that makes me want to use it. In fact, it sounds a hair less immediate and a hair less resolving. ?

    So I waited for the Audiobyte Hydra-X Plus, a new upgrade from their Hydra-X..a vaunted USB/SPDIF converter from the mind of Nicolae Jitariu and the folks from Audiobyte in Romania. This converter is powered and has several nice features including I2S (remains unused for me) and is one of few external SPDIF converters that can go to eleven, er, 24/384k (and therefore also supports DSD128 via DoP). This is a very nice converter for under $1k, has the support of several folks here on CA, and is built well, etc. However, I still don’t hear the improvements that would make me want to deal with the extra cabling etc. That is, until I decide to plug the EX USB back in to the powered port 9rather than the now preferred unpowered port) of the JCAT card. NOW the USB is relegated to second class citizen and the SPDIF converters show a slight improvement (X-SPDIF) to clear improvement (Hydra-X Plus). But when I switch back to the unpowered port (each port can have filtering on and off, via jumpers, too, by the way) it becomes obvious that this signal path (USB unpowered) is the way to go for the Chord Qute EX to shine its best.

    My conclusion (early and with few variables I realize) is that we are hearing the Chord’s isochronous USB receiver’s susceptibility to RF. And Rob Watts, Chord’s own designer of the DAC, agrees with me. He can’t find any logic in why SPDIF would be that much better expect for the slightly better isolation from RF (and thinks if that’s the case try toslink, even more galvanic isolation). He dismisses any jitter talk, as he claims his jitter reduction in the FPGA design is equal across all inputs. But he does admit that maybe the USB chip is susceptible. However, I’m not sure why powered USB ports would harm this DAC if the damn thing doesn’t use 5V anyway. That continues to be a head scratcher.

    So, to date the EX is my go-to reference DAC, using either the TotalDAC D1 USB cable or the JCAT USB cable (both state of the art, but different presentations…article due soon). In either case the port of choice is the JCAT USB card’s unpowered unfiltered port. The blackness from which music emanates is really quite amazing, and I find this almost-imperceptible noise floor to be the foundation from which better timbres, better timing and better spatial cues are now more evident. Oh, and the biggest benefit, to me, is the ease and lack of fatigue when listening.

    Now comes the most frustrating part. Is it worth it? Is it worth buying the EX when one realizes that over 2X this incredible Chord FPGA horsepower is available in a newer but portable design called the Hugo? Is the lack of creature comforts (like my having to use the preset-but-not-bypassed 2V RMS line out for my preamp when the actual output is more like 5V, or having to fiddle with micro switches and tight RCA connections and mini-USB adapters) worth going to a platform where the growing sentiment is that Rob Watts has stuffed a $20k DAC into a portable case? I am about to find out next month. I hate this hobby. ☺






    Ted Brady

    CA Profile









    Comments 104 Comments
    1. rossb's Avatar
      rossb -
      Ted, nice review. From your comments I take it that the EX sounds identical to the HD for redbook - which confirms what Chord have said. How does the QuteEX compare to the Meitner?

      I will be interested to hear your views on the Hugo. I own both the Hugo and HD and I think I know what your conclusion will be ...
    1. sdolezalek's Avatar
      sdolezalek -
      Quote Originally Posted by rossb View Post
      I will be interested to hear your views on the Hugo.
      +1

      From what I have read in the reviews the Hugo is quite the product and its FPGA-based design sounds like an interesting overall direction for DAC's. I must admit that I'm a bit frightened to pay $2,300 for something the size of a smartphone that could make life on airplanes a whole new level of musical joy, but also a new level of heartbreak when I accidentally leave it behind (like my first two pairs of noise cancelling headphones).

      If the Hugo is as good as reported, it also begs the question of how long before there is a slightly larger version for the desktop that provides more cabling choices (the RCA plugs seem hard to fit with high quality cables) but otherwise retains the battery powered and high sound qualities of the Hugo.

      All of this also presupposes that when put side by side, listeners will prefer the Hugo over the Chordette. Reminds me of a similar dilemma introduced by the iFi Nano DSD...
    1. koyie's Avatar
      koyie -
      Quote Originally Posted by sdolezalek View Post
      +1

      If the Hugo is as good as reported, it also begs the question of how long before there is a slightly larger version for the desktop that provides more cabling choices (the RCA plugs seem hard to fit with high quality cables) but otherwise retains the battery powered and high sound qualities of the Hugo.

      DSD...
      In the Chord Hugo thread on head-fi, designer Rob Watts said that his current project is the successor to the QBD76, their flagship desktop DAC, but that it may be some time before it is released. It will have even more taps than the Hugo. I would guess that it would be a lot more expensive than the Hugo.
    1. Bob Stern's Avatar
      Bob Stern -
      I’m not sure why powered USB ports would harm this DAC if the damn thing doesn’t use 5V anyway.
      If the DC power bus on the USB port is noisy, then a USB cable connected to a powered port would capacitively couple the noise to the signal lines in the cable unless the signal lines were shielded from the power lines within the cable. I wonder if USB cables with such shielding exist? It seems egregious that audio companies selling expensive USB cables would ignore this issue.

      An alternative solution would be to connect between the computer USB port and the USB cable a USB adapter that breaks the power connection. A few years ago when Firewire DACs were more popular, several people tried breaking the power connection using 6-wire to 4-wire Firewire adapters. I wonder whether a similar thing exists for USB.
    1. Melvin's Avatar
      Melvin -
      Thanks for the update Ted. I'm still on the fence about upgrading my QuteHD so I very much appreciate your impressions.

      My conclusion (early and with few variables I realize) is that we are hearing the Chord’s isynchronous USB receiver’s susceptibility to RF. And Rob Watts, Chord’s own designer of the DAC, agrees with me. He can’t find any logic in why SPDIF would be that much better expect for the slightly better isolation from RF (and thinks if that’s the case try toslink, even more galvanic isolation). He dismisses any jitter talk, as he claims his jitter reduction in the FPGA design is equal across all inputs. But he does admit that maybe the USB chip is susceptible.
      Perhaps this is the reason (RF), when recently adding the iFi iUSBPower in front of my DAC, the playing field was leveled. Of interest to me as well is Mr. Watts mention of toslink. I tried this back when I first got the QuteHD because my SOtM converter (with companion battery supply) passes 24/192 over toslink. I thought it sounded fantastic, maybe even better than coax. However, every audiophile knows this is impossible
    1. coax's Avatar
      coax -
      I do not have any audible noise to the sound floor, when using the Pure Power/ Audiophilleo with the HD. Further, having A/B auditioned with Pardo LPS, only one out of 19 in our group heard anything "remarkable". I do certainly agree the USB port, powered or not, is a noise suspect, so avoid use. Missing here is Watt's disposition re Chord's inclination to improve the tap and shaping software for the base HD. I've been told, there's no PCM enhancement with the Hugo and that it has been physically modified to accept "real life" sized ICs. Be sure you get the latest version should you care to double down your investment simply to go mobile. We'll be auditioning one in our group early in June
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Yes, the Hugo sounds like quite a DAC. Rob has taken the FPGA architecture even further, due to the better horsepower of the newer FPGA chips and the better knowledge of programming in them that he and his team gains with every project. And now he is working on the QBD replacement, as was mentioned. And I agree that the biggest issue with committing to the Hugo as a main rig DAC is its connectors and switches (no memory, reset each power up, etc) and for those using it as a portable...well, the investment is substantial. I also have left major $$ behind on airplanes, but nothing that would come close to say, a head-fi combo of an AK420 and Hugo ($close to $5k list!!). Anyway, I will review it mainly as a main rig DAC.

      The new shipments of the Huigo, starting with the third US shipment, for example. (already at dealers) includes the RCA enhancements to the case (i.e bigger 13mm holes).

      I have no inclination whatsoever that the Qute HD or EX will see any upgrades to its architecture. But then, for under $2k, they are killer DACs as they stand now.

      And I disagree that the Qute USB should be avoided, Coax. However, it should be only used with the best USB card and cable, capable of going without 5V.
    1. rooob's Avatar
      rooob -
      Any reason why the dac does utilise an async usb input?
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Quote Originally Posted by rooob View Post
      Any reason why the dac does utilise an async usb input?
      The Chord DACs use asynchronous USB, like so many these days. I mentioned Rob calls them isochronous (i typo'd isynchronous and can't fix it somehow) because....in his words

      "Hi, the full term is isochronous asynchronous USB. This means the DAC has the control of timing, the computer is a slave to the DAC's timing. This is the same as the common term asynchronous as the computer's clock is asynchronous to the DAC clock. I like to use the full term isochronous as this fully defines the operation, as from the FPGA POV it is receiving synchronous data!

      Qute was also isochronous asynchronous, the data was received locked to the DAC clock, but it used a different USB device.

      Regards Rob"
    1. rooob's Avatar
      rooob -
      Ahh I see thanks for clearing that up.
    1. Audio_ELF's Avatar
      Audio_ELF -
      Ted... Does the Hugo use a driverless (under MacOSX) USB implementation?

      Eloise
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Quote Originally Posted by Audio_ELF View Post
      Ted... Does the Hugo use a driverless (under MacOSX) USB implementation?

      Eloise
      Eloise, yes the Hugo is driverless with the MAC (USB).
    1. elcorso's Avatar
      elcorso -
      The wisest way on a Mac...!

      Mavericks last drivers aren't working OK on Qute HD.

      Roch
    1. coax's Avatar
      coax -
      Quote Originally Posted by elcorso View Post
      The wisest way on a Mac...!

      Mavericks last drivers aren't working OK on Qute HD.

      Roch
      May I ask, how so ?
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Yeah, Roch I certainly would like to get that feedback to Chord. What doesn't work with Mavericks?

      I assume you installed ChordMavericks2014.pkg.dmg found here (scroll to downloads list):
      http://chordelectronics.co.uk/products-info.asp?id=78
    1. sebassie's Avatar
      sebassie -
      Quote Originally Posted by ted_b View Post
      Yeah, Roch I certainly would like to get that feedback to Chord. What doesn't work with Mavericks?

      I assume you installed ChordMavericks2014.pkg.dmg found here (scroll to downloads list):
      Products: Chordette QuteHD (DSD) DAC
      I also still encounter a problem with the latest driver. There was some improvement over the previous driver. Problem is that using Audirvana the sound stops sometimes while audirvana keeps running and the leds on the EX stay on. Only remedy so far is stopping Audirvana and start over again. Matt (Chord) knows the problem. When using JRiver there are no problems with the latest driver, with the previous driver JRiver was a mess.
    1. elcorso's Avatar
      elcorso -
      Quote Originally Posted by ted_b View Post
      Yeah, Roch I certainly would like to get that feedback to Chord. What doesn't work with Mavericks?

      I assume you installed ChordMavericks2014.pkg.dmg found here (scroll to downloads list):
      Products: Chordette QuteHD (DSD) DAC
      Hi Ted,

      Yes, I have the last drivers.

      On A+ (my only player) and on DSD. It stop playing after teetering.

      On PCM the SQ improved a LOT...!

      Roch
    1. Elberoth's Avatar
      Elberoth -
      Quote Originally Posted by Melvin View Post
      Of interest to me as well is Mr. Watts mention of toslink. I tried this back when I first got the QuteHD because my SOtM converter (with companion battery supply) passes 24/192 over toslink. I thought it sounded fantastic, maybe even better than coax. However, every audiophile knows this is impossible
      It is possible on DACs that reclock the signal (making the jitter introduced by TosLink interface irrelevant) or DACs with state-of-the-art PLL design (good jitter rejection).

      The best SQ I got from my MSB DAC IV Diamond Plus (now sold) was when the DAC was fed via TosLink from the Soulution 590 USB/SPDIF converter. MSB DAC IV reclocks all data.
    1. Blake's Avatar
      Blake -
      Nice job on the review Ted. Somewhat off topic- you mentioned you are using the TotalDac D1 usb cable/filter. I have been using this cable for some time now and it is my favorite usb cable. You don't see the TotalDac D1 too often out in the wild. Glad to see another user that enjoys it.

      Blake
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Yes, love both it and the new JCAT reference cable. I will write an article about these boutique brands when I get the muses back (my brain hurts....I have a piece of brain lodged in my head).