FPGA Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC)
If you were to look at the 2Qute from a distance it would be easy to believe that its quality is not up to much, given its somewhat simple and clean appearance. Also how can a quality DAC work well in a very small box, when lots of branded HiFi DACs occupy half or full width cases. In this review article I appraise the Chord 2Qute DAC in comparison to the newer Qutest DAC and unto itself.
The Chord breaks from tradition in this sense. However get up close and personal and any such worries about this not being a proper stand-alone DAC for use in two channel systems, are firmly laid to rest. The metal machined casing, which comes in silver or black, has been luxuriously milled from aluminium and the top plate fits very flush with the lower casing, secured by hex bolts. It looks like a device that a deep sea diver might need to venture into the ocean with, such is its fastidious machined look, which is to the 2Qute’s considerable strength, for rigidity and solidity in HiFi use. Being built to last is a breath of fresh air considering many consumer electronics products available today don’t live up to this mantra.
Look further and you notice the top glass disc is actually a window to look into it’s inner electronics. Much like thick glass spectacles can make someone appear to have very big eyeballs, the 2Qute similarly makes things look bigger on the other side of the glass. I can make out the words printed on the circuit board inside; “Chord 2Qute DAC – 4E Pulse Array, 26,368 Tap WTA Filter designed by Rob Watts”. Very interesting and unusual indeed. I too like the way that Chord use play on words names for their products – leaving you wondering what the next product might be called. Could we have the “Meet-Qute” or “Quteness” perhaps? Incidentally “Chordette” is milled into the top casing denoting the 2Qute’s origins from this line of products. The design of Chord products are often basic looking or visually busy on higher spec products, which is a matter of taste more than anything.
In referring to the Chord specification, the 2Qute is described as an entry level DAC for use in 2 channel hi-fi systems which is a development of the Qute EX DAC. It shares its chassis, and bringing the original Hugo’s FPGA Spartan 6 DAC technology, seen in the glass window of the 2Qute too, into an affordable stand-alone unit. The Hugo portable DAC and headphone amplifier was replaced by the Hugo 2 following its January 2017 launch at CES, with the 2Qute continuing in production for 2 channel based HiFi applications. Chord also say the 2Qute boasts astonishingly low distortion levels of 0.0003% too.
The 2Qute utilises a FPGA DAC which stands for Field Programmable Gate Array. Instead of using off the shelf DAC chips Chord believe in using programmable DACs. In layman’s terms FPGA is a ‘sea of gates or taps’ to which code is programmed, and the 2Qute has over 26,000 of them as mentioned.
It doesn’t have a headphone output like the Hugo, its a simple three input DAC. It has a BNC Coaxial input, a Toslink/Optical input and an asynchronous USB B 2.0 which has galvanic isolation, with a rear input switch to toggle between them. I thought this switch is a bit lacking ; a nice input button would have been nicer. Both coaxial and USB inputs offer support for up to 32bit/384kHz audio and the Toslink/Optical input up to 24bit/192KHz material. You’ll only need software drivers for sending content to the 2Qute’s USB input when using Windows PCs, with Apple and Android devices not needing drivers. A common state of affairs; however the instructions are clear on how to install the driver software on Windows PCs, which are downloadable from the Chord Electronics website. Galvanic isolation is a technique for separating circuits to eliminate stray currents and on USB it means the input is much quieter than a standard input.
The 2Qute supports up to double rate DSD128 over coaxial or USB with DSD64 supported on all inputs, all via DSD over PCM (DoP). As most commercially available DSD available to download online is in DSD64 and DSD128 variants, the 2Qute will be flexible to needs.
In connecting up to power there is a wall-wart device but the instructions are very clear that the unit has been designed to be used with the power permanently on using this AC power adapter supplied. The manual politely warns that using a non genuine power adapter may void the warranty. In turning on, an LED permanently shines through the glass screen according to the colour of the input selected – red for coaxial, green for optical and white for USB. This makes the 2Qute a focal point of your HiFi. Playing music at different sample rates makes the 2Qute’s other LED illuminate in a different colour, with the manual providing a key of what colours are related to which sample rates. DSD content has its own colour and because of the light of the coloured LED refracting onto the glass window, the window lights up very vividly particularly when viewed from a side angle. This again is a nice touch making the 2Qute take on an interestingly mysterious look during late night listening in a dimly lit room. People have remarked to me; “What is that?” Maybe it takes its design cues from HAL the computer, in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ which I’ve used as an analogy before.
There are single ended RCA phono outputs for connecting up to your amplifier or preamplifier and on the underside of the 2Qute are eight sorbothane sticky rubber feet which allow it to sit flat and well isolated in your rack. You can use a BNC adapter for coaxial digital cables to connect up the 2Qute over coaxial to the BNC plug. Assuming you aren’t familiar with this type of connection and own RCA coaxial digital cables. Alternatively buy a proprietary cable with BNC terminations.
Naturally dynamic and balanced
Connecting up the 2Qute to various streaming sources at differing prices including a Bluesound Node2, Sonos Connect, Auralic Aries streamer, and an Innuos Zenith Mark 2, it’s immediately obvious how the 2Qute copes with the music with great natural insight in a dynamic way. Whereas some DACs can be about all out screaming detail or relatively bright treble to present their detail, the Chord is having none of this. It would prefer to create its detail its own way in a balanced fashion.
I had ripped a copy of the original 1973 version of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells CD in WAV format to a demo Zenith which came with lots of music already on its hard drive. Forgetting that I had ripped Tubular Bells, I wondered if the recording I was playing into the 2Qute was already on the Zenith as it sounded so different to what I’m used too. On checking it was clear the album was my CD I had ripped, which I am very familiar with. This error prone version of the original recording sounded so raw, with the dynamic elements of the guitars and instruments beginning to crescendo. It made this live performance ‘more live’ than I had heard it before and it sounded far from how many digital recordings sound. Also analogue in nature too, but relaxed at the same time. No hint of any sharpness or brightness in the treble. The 2Qute never strays too far tonally from a very balanced sound, unlike some DACs.
Comparing it to twin dual mono 32 bit upsampling DACs in a Cyrus DAC XP Signature pre amp, the 2Qute sounds more open too, with a tighter bass with more natural insight deep into the music. Whereas the Cyrus gets its detail from a slightly tonally lean presentation. The 2Qute possibly doesn’t have the same accurate imaging of the Cyrus’ dual mono infrastructure, but it makes up for this in this rawness and naturalness. It’s performing better in the sense of being a more analogue sounding DAC, against the more expensive £1600 Mytek Brooklyn preamp and DAC utilising ESS Sabre 9018 DAC chips, granted the Mytek is both a pre and DAC so will naturally cost more. The Mytek gets detail in a similar way to the Cyrus with transparent airy treble. Many DACs designed about ten years ago used to be very bright sounding in treble. It’s refreshing that where some DACs can still stray too far beyond what’s acceptable in this sense, and I’m not suggesting the Cyrus or Mytek are, good modern DACs are nowadays designed to be reigned in a touch. This is in an effort at balanced musicality as digital technology develops. The 2Qute very much fits into this balanced mould.
As if a tap of transparency has been turned on in the midrange, there is a layered musically coherent presentation with good levels of richness. If you have had no experience of Chord DACs, you could be forgiven for staying on the path of a slightly leaner presentation, singing the virtues of this sound signature without knowing what is alternatively possible. This Chord does make music so much more relaxing and less tiring to listen to. Once you experience this alternate way, any notions you might of had about what does or should sound right in a DAC or digital sound, can be thrown out of the window. That said, some leaner more forward DACs can supply a slightly nicer image but thats perhaps because there is a touch more treble on offer to space your speakers apart.
This is a terrific DAC that is very simple to use and has tremendous sound quality and would be recommended for many HiFi’s if you want to upgrade your existing DAC. If you think that simple looking but well made DACs in very small boxes can’t keep up with converters in much bigger HiFi cases, then you will miss out on what the 2Qute has to offer to your detriment. The 2Qute is so capable that it can fit into a range of different priced audiophile quality HiFi systems and is very much worth checking out. I’m even surprised it’s referred to as an entry level DAC by Chord, because this isn’t really typical entry level performance. It is particularly recommended where your speakers and amplification provide good resolving power but the DACs in your sources are old and in need of an upgrade.
A Chord DAC should be trialled or used in every HiFi system in my opinion. To my mind an exception otherwise could never be applied with a product as classy as Chord’s 2Qute.
Update as at May 2018
I tried the 2Qute on a system compromising Vienna Acoustics ‘The Kiss’ speakers, Bryston BP17 cubed preamp and 4B cubed Power amp and it slightly raised the performance of an Oppo 205 blu-ray transport / network transport, with the Oppo DAC more leaner and sharper in presentation.
Some stores are now selling the 2Qute at a discounted rate of £700 due to introduction of the Qutest new model DAC and the 2Qute becoming obsolete, which makes this DAC even more of a bargain.
- Input : Coax, optical and USB digital inputs with input switch.
- Output : 3v RMS 1kHz RCA Phono.
- Sample Rate : up to 32 bit/384kHz via coax and USB, and up to 24 bit/192kHz via optical
- USB specification : 32/384kHz galvanically isolated class compliant.
- Dynamic Range – 119dB A/Wt.
- THD : 0.0003% at 3v RMS 1kHz, 0.0002% at 2v RMS 1kHz.
- Crosstalk : 126dB 1kHz.
- Frequency Response : +/- 0.1dB 20-20kHz.
- Power Supply : 12V 0.5A
- Weight : 0.4Kg.
- Dimensions : 160x70x40mm (W x H x D).
£995 Original RRP
Chord Electronics Ltd
Tel (01622) 721444
Chord Electronics 2Qute DAC review