When I first joined the Naim forum about four years ago after purchasing a DAC-V1, I was quite surprised find the product getting the most praise was made by Chord. For a good while it seemed as though if you were looking to address any issue with a system, and there wasn't already a Hugo in it, well, there's your problem. Not really true, but you know what I mean. I didn't doubt the talents of the Chord DACs, the frustration for me was they didn't make the product I wanted in every sense. Now though, there is the Qutest. No batteries, no headphone amp, heavy enough to stay put with hefty cables attached, an output well matched to my Naim amp (SN2), and apparently one of the most advanced and effective DAC designs in the world to boot. A big tick then, so I thought I'd get one to try.
When you put the Qutest on a shelf next to a DAC-V1, it really does look like a David vs Goliath situation, and its frankly pathetic looking phone-charger-esque power supply and mini USB chord does little to inspire confidence. Still, I had high hopes, but based on reviews, and even some comments here about the Hugo 2 on which it is based, led to fears that it would be highly detailed, but a bit too lean, thin, and ultimately uninvolving musical experience for me.
So....is the Qutest a giant slayer? Well....yeah, it kind of is, and its character is quite different to my expectations.
The hifi-speak section -
(Bear in mind this is the only chord DAC I've spent any meaningful time listening to, and the comparisons are against the DAC-V1, and within my system, I've not heard it in any other configuration.)
Amoung my first impressions were that the bass notes were deeper, but less bloated and much more agile compared to my normal experience. I wasn't overly surprised by that. The top-end was smoother and less aggressive, and the upper mids sounded less shouty. I wasn't surprised by that. I was surprised that the lower-mids, and upper-bass, were the things I was really hearing much more prominently with Qutest. All this combined means a weighty wholesome sound; I guess the linear frequency response is not just a spec sheet claim, and really worked in my system.
The dynamics of this little monster are probably the biggest strength. Whether a track builds gradually, or comes in suddenly, when everything kicks off, the Qutest makes the whole experience really exciting, building anticipation, and delivering real slam when the moment comes. It is really impressive. Even when a recording has little dynamic range to work with, it really does seem to extract every opportunity to deliver contrast, and it can make some of the most compressed recordings quite exciting. While the same talents are evident with the best recordings I know of, its ability to turn mainstream compressed pop and rock recordings into something more engaging is endearing. It delivers good ol' rock 'n' roll with relentless power and stability, and accoustic jazz with both subtlety and slam as required.
Then there is the detail on offer. Make no mistake, despite the punchy, full bodied, and slightly, by comparison at least, recessed highs, the resolution of the Qutest is beyond anything else I have heard by some margin. I would not describe it as 'airy' at all, but I guess these terms mean different things to other people, and influenced by system, but solid, insightful, and coherent would better words to sum up the performance for me.
I'd love to ramble on more about what the Qutest brings to individual tracks and albums, but I've only had the thing for a couple of days, and it is due to be going back to my dealer tomorrow. Therefore, my listening has been erratic to say the least. In fact, it's only tonight that I've been listening to whole albums and just enjoying it, having made the observations above in a limited time frame.
The Qutest is pretty damn good though, not 'night and day' vs the V1 in many ways, not 'jaw dropping', its too subtle for that, just supremely competent and enjoyable without showing off. Yes, I'll have one, thanks.