Four years ago, Chord Electronics announced a new portable DAC going under the quirky name of Hugo. This market sector was – and still is – bristling with such products – with everyone from Cambridge Audio to Oppo doing the things – so it didn’t instantly show up on the radar of many audiophiles. But Chord has produced some superb domestic hi-fi designs in the past, so perhaps it should have done…
Lest we forget, practically every new digital-to-analogue converter that comes out is effectively an amalgam of bought-in parts, put into a box by the manufacturer. Just as small British sportscar brands tend to buy in engines from one company, suspension from another, brakes from another, and so on, most DAC producers use a lot of other people’s technology – with the ‘added value’ being how well they implement it. Chord however does not do this. Rather, it is one of a select few (dCS being the other, most notable British example) that makes its own silicon. The DAC chip inside all Chord DACs is bespoke and designed by the company’s digital whizz, Rob Watts.
The interesting thing about the Hugo was that, although ‘just a portable’, it sported the latest-generation Chord digital-to-analogue converter and digital filter. Newer even than the company’s full-size, domestic hi-fi designs at the time, it was an extremely advanced design. Many people were pleasantly surprised by how the Hugo sounded via headphones, but yours truly was most beguiled by how well it compared to ‘proper’ full-size designs when feeding a hi-fi system at home. When set to give a fixed line output and run off its internal battery, the Hugo could be made to perform brilliantly as a conventional DAC.
Of course, its switches are fiddly, the socketry not as convincing as it should be, and the unit has to be regularly recharged – but when you get past this, the Hugo proved a sublime performer. These days I come across a lot of very good products that make a pleasing sound, but this is exceptional. Like the early DPA Enlightenment DAC of the nineties to the ground-breaking Chord DAC64 ten years ago, the Rob Watts-designed Hugo proved brilliant in the time domain. Its Watts Transient Aligned digital filter uses clever mathematics, implemented on a huge Xilinx Field Programmable Gate Array to give a far higher tap-length than that seen in stock DAC chips – 26,000 compared to the 150 in standard DACs – says Rob Watts. This makes it sound different to every ‘off the shelf’ DAC chip from the likes of ESS, Wolfson and Texas Instruments.
The new £995 2Qute replaces Chord’s Qute EX, bringing the Hugo’s insides into a more solid, non-portable case. It supports up to 32-bit/384kHz audio via coaxial and USB digital inputs, and 24-bit/192kHz over optical. It plays PCM and DSD (with DSD64 via all inputs and DSD128 via coaxial or USB, all via DoP). The Class 2 USB input has been galvanically isolated (which wasn’t possible on the portable Hugo), and the switch to toggle between inputs is slightly easier to use. Chord Electronics says that the circuitboard has been completely redesigned from the Hugo, to take advantage its new casework, and the lack of a need to provide the mobile features such as volume control, Bluetooth and batteries.
Like its predecessors, and indeed all of the Chordette series, the 2Qute comes in a beautiful, small brushed aluminium case measuring just 160x70x40mm and weighing less that half a kilo. As well as being innovatively styled, it’s actually extremely strong – indeed one intrepid German hi-fi journalist decided to drive a tank over it (type ‘Chord DAC tank’ into YouTube’s search box to view)! The downside is that it’s not as instantly intuitive to use as rivals such as Musical Fidelity’s MX-DAC or Audiolab’s M DAC which have simple displays and/or LEDs telling you precisely what’s going on. With the Chord, you need to read the instruction manual at least once to properly understand the meaning of the various coloured lights that emanate from the lens. Some might think this is a little gimmicky, but the system works well and is fun. Chord fans will also love fact that it looks like an original DAC64 that has shrunk in the wash!
In a nutshell, this is one of the best sounding DACs at or anywhere near its price – and will instantly give all other DAC makers under around £3,000 something to worry about. It is very similar to the Hugo, offering a near-identical sound, one that’s fractionally better in some ways and not quite as brilliant in others. Like its portable progenitor, essentially the 2Qute is highly musical, with a great sense of timing and dynamics. Yet it doesn’t achieve this by sounding tonally forward or aggressive; actually this dinky DAC is quite the opposite. Just like the DAC64 a decade ago, this is both warm and smooth yet highly lithe and bouncy – a seemingly ideal combination.
The 2Qute sounds superb across all digital sources, at whatever resolution you care to feed it. Interestingly though, whereas some rival DACs do decently with 16/44 Red Book CD but appear to ‘come alive’ with hi-res, like its Hugo brother the subjective difference between standard and high resolution digital files is less with this. That’s not because it can’t play hi-res as well, but that it seems to play CD far better than one would expect. It has an almost magical ability to make standard silver discs sound animated, energetic and expressive – whereas many rivals are far more matter-of-fact sounding. Indeed, whatever lowly recording you feed the Chord, it appears able to strip out the detritus and present you with a pristine and polished sound that makes you want to keep listening.
I first cued up a Cyrus CD Xt Signature CD transport via the coaxial digital input with a classic sixties pop track from The Association. Along Comes Mary is a breezy, Mamas and Papas type of song that was well recorded in its day on a rudimentary four-track studio tape recorder, but sounds very average on CD through most modern digital converters. They might appear clean and detailed but there’s an underlying feeling of sterility and flatness. At a stroke, the 2Qute seems able to transcend this and turn in a performance that’s both emotionally intense, musically immersive and also really impressive in a hi-fi sense. You find yourself marvelling at just how good the recording was in its day, rather than lamenting the fact that it was recorded back around the time of Sgt. Pepper. It’s a rare DAC that can do this; the top Chords and dCS machines perform this trick without a moment’s thought, but few others.
Feed the 2Qute a more modern and indeed highly polished production – in the shape of Kraftwerk’s Techno Pop, from 1986’s Electric Cafe – and you’re left aghast, wondering precisely why anyone could possibly want more than standard CD. The power of this little digital converter takes the breath away; it certainly seems to have a punchier and more gutsy bass (one of the Hugo’s few weak points) than most and yet the beautiful articulation in the low frequencies is a joy. Tuneful, expressive and dynamic, it pile-drives the song along. Further up, the midband has a translucent quality, and bristles with detail. Like the Hugo it doesn’t have the world’s widest soundstage, but you can peer deep into it and almost walk around. Treble is superb, way better than you would expect from Compact Disc and indeed from a DAC of this price; it’s silky, natural and beautifully resolved – just like we hoped digital audio would sound in the eighties, but never did!
Moving to the USB input via a MacBook Pro running the latest Audirvana software and even via the supplied, cheap-and-cheerful Chinese-sourced 2m USB cable the 2Qute turned a 24/96 PCM file of Wings’ Band on the Run into an epic musical journey. It’s amazing to hear a song that once sounded so great on LP be brought to life again via hi-res digital. Although not an obvious ‘hi-fi’ test track, this recording just keeps on getting better, the more you improve your playback system. Paul McCartney’s voice was full bodied and rich in its tone, the guitars had real warmth and again the drum kit shimmered with harmonics off the snare and hi-hat cymbal. Again, what really impressed though was the timing; the music has a natural ebb and flow which makes many rivals designs seem frigid and overly processed. There’s a sense suddenly that the musicians aren’t nervous, rather they’re in the groove and brilliantly syncopated with one another. This DAC’s ability to capture tiny dynamic inflections – for example the way the hi-hat is hit in different parts of each musical phrase – is unrivalled at the price in my experience.
You can run the gamut of formats – CD or hi-res, PCM or DSD – and the result is the same. The 2Qute is unerringly musical yet has a lovely, subtly rich tonality to it that makes it a pleasure to listen to, hour after hour, day in, day out. It is a worthy alternative to the Hugo; I feel it doesn’t quite have the last one percent of so of its brother’s midband detail (via battery), but it certainly more than compensates with usefully more power down below. If you’re not interested in its sibling’s portability, then this is an absolutely essential recommendation. Hear one if you possibly can, and discover just how great budget DACs can now be.