Chord Electronics has always been known for their innovations in top end DAC and amp design. With Qutest, they brought some of the same tech from the flagship DAVE down into a $2000 package, and now with the Anni, they’ve taken elements of their top of the line ULTIMA power amps and packed it into a desktop headphone amp for a fraction of the price. First of all, it’s quite small for a device that can power both headphones and near-field speakers. Second, it features new dual-feed-forward error correction tech designed to greatly reduce harmonic distortion at higher volumes. So with its small size and innovative design, can Anni compete with the big boys at a $1795 price point?
Build and Design
While the inclusion of a speaker amp in this small package is a bit surprising, the design itself won’t raise many eyebrows. Using the same black, aircraft grade aluminum chassis as the Qutest and Huei, Anni is a little black box with brightly colored buttons – hardly bold new territory for Chord – but the clear differentiator from Qutest is the presence of a volume knob and the vented design which provides some cooling for the amp.
Anni has three controls: the on/off button, the high/low gain button, and a volume knob. The volume knob does double duty, as pressing it in cycles between the two RCA inputs. The gain button is also only active for speaker use, so headphone users can set it to their preferred color – blue or purple – rather than worry about the function.
For outputs, you get 6.3mm and 3.5mm headphone outputs on the front, and banana plugs on the back for speakers. For inputs, it’s just two RCA connections. Anni is clearly designed with a desktop user in mind, using a small setup with headphones or smaller near-field speakers with a computer, and not a living room or larger setup with multiple devices needing many connections.
Note: This review is focused on the performance of Anni as a headphone amp, as we did not have appropriate speakers for testing at the time of the review.
While Chord’s DACs are often defined by their refined, crisp sound, detail, and definition, Anni adds in incredible depth and bass extension with spacious, powerful delivery. Plug this into a Qutest and you get the whole deal: an accurate, refined sound, with detail, separation, definition, and an incredible 3D image painted on the canvas of a massive soundstage.
Anni largely follows the “wire with gain” philosophy of amplification. That is to say, it provides clean, accurate amplification with little to no color or tone added or removed from the original signal. What Anni does is present that original signal spread across a large canvas with the sensation of a large space, and a clear image of the performance. It also provides full extension from the lowest bass to the highest treble without missing anything in between. Its power coupled with this bass extension means that without adding extra bass, Anni still provides loads of slam with most headphones.
In the mids, Anni provides a good sense of weight to instruments and vocals, which helps the listener visualize the performer in the 3D image. And the highs feel strong, yet subtly restrained from sibilance or sharpness. The soundstage itself is wide, though not very deep, spreading the instruments and voices across a large space quite nicely. While I didn’t have a chance to push Anni too hard, at higher volumes, you could catch some of the dual-feed-forward error correction at work, where there would be a hint of congestion for a moment, that would then balance itself back out, leaving any distortion as an almost imperceptible temporary artifact before things got cleaned up again.
While most of our testing with Anni involved Qutest, we also used a number of DAC/Preamp options from iFi and Burson, including the iFi Pro iDSD Signature and Composer 3X Performance. Each of those pairings confirmed the transparency as the character of each DAC was much more apparent than that of the amp. For headphones, we used the Focal Celestee, HIFIMAN Arya (Stealth Magnets), Audio-Technica ATH-AWAS, and Meze Empyrean for extended listening sessions. And there was excellent headroom with each, and strong slam that was particularly notable on the Empyrean and Celestee.
Mini-Review: Chord Qutest
As a standalone DAC, Chord Qutest does a lot without really doing very much at all. It’s a little black box with an appearance that belies its power. In terms of “features,” well, it has two buttons, RCA outputs, and a fairly robust selection of inputs, but not too much fancy stuff. Button #1 controls your input selection, while button #2 chooses between four filters: Incisive Neutral, Incisive Neutral HF roll-off, Warm, and Warm HF roll-off.
In terms of the sound itself, Qutest provides a crisp, clear, highly detailed output which can elevate your listening experience to the next level with a great pair of headphones. Qutest is also highly resolving which makes it a great DAC to pair with high-end planar magnetic headphones to fully explore what they’re capable of. With some combination of songs and headphones there was a bit of harshness in the upper mids or highs, but switching to one of the HF roll-off filters tamed any fatiguing tendencies I’ve encountered.
The filters themselves offer subtle changes that add some contour to the sound without changing the character of the DAC itself. Incisive Neutral is the default setting, and is exactly what it claims to be. Warm adds just a touch of emphasis in the mid-bass and lower mids, while adding a touch of smoothness to the upper registers. The Incisive Neutral filter with the HF roll-off subtly rolls down the upper frequencies, while using the HF roll-off with the Warm filter has a slightly stronger effect on already smoother highs.
Taken all together, with its simple design and strong performance, the Chord Qutest delivers big things in a compact package that fits perfectly on your desk or smaller setup. Coming in under $2000 means it’s also one of the best DACs out there for the price.
Comparison: Burson Soloist 3X Performance
From a product design perspective, the Chord Anni and Burson Soloist 3X Performance provide a strong contrast. Anni is a compact box with two buttons and a knob with a footprint that’s about 30% the size of the Soloist. Soloist is a big hunk of metal, ready to take over your desk with an LED screen and some extra features like balanced and unbalanced input and output.
While the designs are quite different the sounds are close cousins. Both amps lean towards a more neutral sound, with large soundstages and strong presentation of the 3D image. Soloist has more depth to the soundstage, but the imaging is less concrete. Instruments feel more airy on the Soloist, while Anni gives more weight and presence to the instruments. Differences in their output are also notable in the bass in treble as Soloist also has more texture and detail in the low end, while Anni feels deeper and – surprisingly – hits a little harder. In the treble, Soloist has more air and sparkle and Anni feels a little bit more smooth.
In terms of general usability, each has a mix of pros and cons. In terms of desktop footprint, Anni is much smaller and clearly engineered specifically for desktop use. While both run hot, Soloist runs closer to “keeps your tea warm while you work” levels of heat. Soloist does have more configuration options – like three stage gain selection for headphones – and input output selections, which means it has a stronger chance of fitting it with your existing configuration.
Overall, if you’re looking for a simple design with a small footprint, or the option to power sensitive speakers is a big deal for you, Anni is going to be your pick. If size isn’t an issue, and balanced output is a must have feature, then Soloist will be a stronger fit. Either way, you’ll get incredible sound and a powerful output to drive a wide range of high end headphones.
The Bottom Line
So, is Anni okay? Anni is more than okay. It’s a smooth, sleek design with a sound that’s shockingly big for a device this small. With the Qutest being one of the best DACs available in its price range, Anni is the perfect complement. Its sound, design, and capabilities, all make Anni a great hifi buy under $2000.