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A Countdown; What’s the best Chord Electronics Audiophile DAC for the money?

Based on sound quality, if we were to ask what is the best Chord Electronics DAC currently available for rack based systems, where is your money at? We are only after the best sounding DAC per pound or dollar of your hard earned – no headphone output or other bells and whistles. Just for speaker driven audio.

To get an answer we have to consider sound quality against value for money but if we are provided qualities surplus to requirements, a bonus. Here is where they rate for me;

4. Hugo 2

An added bonus here is portable headphone capability and using the Hugo 2 in a HiFi too. But since it’s based on the same FPGA as the Qutest using a Xilinx Artix 7 chip and having 49,152 taps, it’s in effect the same converter.

It sounds similar to the Qutest but it’s £600 (around $750) more expensive using the same FPGA and filters. And being more of your cash and not needing the headphone functionality, it necessarily is beaten into place by the Qutest DAC.

3. DAVE (Digital to Analogue in Extremis)

The DAVE is clearly the best sounding DAC here per se and a musical behemoth and detail excavator with its 160,000 taps. It delves into the details of music like no other Chord DAC and has extreme audiophile prowess. Detail in the midrange and with focus and layering to hear all the components of music, is unsurpassed. It has to be one the best audiophile converters at the moment, full stop! It’s quite analytical and not in a negative way as it just dredges up everything in the music and brings it forward. Bass response is so realistic too – it’s incredible. Its digital pre amp is terrific. We run out of superlatives…

But at its price it’s double that of the Hugo TT2 and the extra 10-20 percent of performance comes at £4500/$5700 and brings with it the law of diminishing returns as you spend more. So whilst it will be used in best premium systems to give value there, the other converters here are still capable of being used in very good systems themselves and represent better value for money. This makes it hard for the DAVE to beat their pound for pound performance.

2. Qutest

The Qutest is a thick sounding, full on, detail chucker of a DAC in a small box. A rocket booster for any good HiFi. It has great bass depth for the money, but which isn’t quite as accurate and extended as the Hugo TT2. Like all Chord DACs it’s incisive and balanced. You miss out on any extra surplus to requirement features as this is a skimmed down rack based DAC, as needed.

It’s more flexible than the Hugo TT2 to fit lots more HiFi systems and more people will have it, but it’s not quite the same as the Hugo TT2 on its all out proper audiophile abilities. A little less dynamic than the Hugo TT2 and bass is not as realistic, nor is the sound stage. But boy, look at this small box and you’d never know it could do all this sound for the money! More sound than any God given right at the price.

It’s about 70-80% of the DAVE’s performance. Add in an after market linear PSU for possible added sound quality gains too. Because it’s not quite a full on audiophile DAC against the Hugo TT2, particularly in its sound-staging and bass capabilities, it goes to position two.

And the winner is……….obviously………

1. Hugo TT2

The Hugo TT2 is a marvel at the price. Not only a pre amp and headphone amp, but with Bluetooth capability too. But its talent lies as a tremendous proper true audiophile DAC with a detailed, neutral, incisive sound. These are qualities Chord are known for. Soundstage is wide and its got a low accurate realistic bass with clean midrange, where it has it over the Qutest. It’s a bit more rounded on its corners with slightly spruced up tonal warmth, compared to the DAVE.

Its only downside is it’s perhaps not as capable as a pre amp as the DAVE, and there are no analogue inputs. Some may prefer the sound of a good analogue pre amp and not the slightly thinner less full bodied sound you often get with digital pre amps, of which sadly the TT2 is no exception. It has a bit less meat on the bones in this regard. But remember this is about only needing the best sounding DAC. The pre amp is surplus here, so it’s great we have it in case we do decide pairing it to power amp(s) later. Its 98,304 tap count allows greater resolution over the Qutest and Hugo 2. It’s about 90% there on the reference Chord DAVE.

As a DAC it’s every bit worth its price for use as a DAC alone, and it offers the best balance between the DAVE’s wallet ‘robability’ and the Qutest’s line starting bankability. You’ll need a very good audiophile system in which case the Qutest will definitely be the starting point, and no shame in that given how capable the pocket rocket Qutest is.

Even though you are paying for the pre and Bluetooth you might not need, its accomplishments as a DAC in its own right at its price, make it the best value Chord converter for what it does, so it wins top spot.

Now throw in a Hugo M Scaler…..

All these DACs work with the Hugo M Scaler (an adapter is needed to the Hugo 2) and in my opinion hike performance of the Qutest and Hugo TT2 DACs by 10-20% (I revised my opinion downwards after lots of testing). It’s not an improvement as marked as a jump between the Qutest and Hugo TT2, if you are considering it for the Qutest. I’ve yet to try the Hugo M Scaler on a DAVE, but an interesting test.

The Hugo TT2 with the Hugo M Scaler is up there as being comparable with the DAVE in my opinion. Certainly in an objective and idealised way of what would be hard to trump from pleasing audio, within Chord circles. Not quite as resolving but a wider sound stage which easily blasts the single box DAVE on this dispersive score.

With the Qutest, the Hugo M Scaler makes less sense on pound for pound value. It still improves the sound with trademark widening and realism with transients. It’s just the Hugo TT2 alone is easily a better bet than a Qutest / Hugo M Scaler combination for less money. My reasoning is that the Hugo TT2’s sound-staging, and capabilities with bass are more obvious. Also a more polished rounded true audiophile sound to the Qutest / M Scaler combination which I think would appeal more to audiophiles with balanced systems.

Happy listening!

Manufacturer details

Chord Electronics Ltd
Tel (01622) 721444
www.chordelectronics.co.uk

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Written by Simon Price

I'm an AUDIO-LOVER who likes sharing experiences of faithfully reproduced audio in a CREDIBLE way. I am primarily interested in products; their looks, functionality and features, and most importantly how they sound! My reviews are not overly technical and I don't use pretentious language, as I believe great audio is non exclusive and is to be enjoyed by all! It's all about the music!

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