(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. ☺