Chord Dave Review (Updated)
When I was a child in the ’80s, one of my neighbour’s kids, a gloriously goofy-looking guy of the era, was always out on his driveway fixing his motorbikes, then later, his car, a vintage Ford V8. Amongst the memories of grease, gears and the like was his response to questions of how to fix any problem. “Use a bigger hammer” he’d say, jokingly, something anyone of that era who did their own mechanics can appreciate the humour of.
That expression stuck in my head since then, and came to mind once again listening with the Chord DAVE. With the many different, and seemingly conflicting approaches to digital music reproduction, the one problem that manufactures come up against is the Nyquist theorem itself, which, while perfectly logical, requires the impossible to completely implement. To perfectly reconstruct an analog signal, according to Rob Watts, one needs an infinite tap-length filter. While that would require a warping of the laws of physics to create, what Rob has managed to do is use brute force computing power to implement as many taps as he can get into a single FPGA (in the case of the Hugo) and dual FPGAs (in the DAVE) to do this for him. Use a bigger hammer, as my friend used to say. Yet we’re 30 years on and the hammer in question is a chip with what used to be house-sized super computing power back then.
This computing power is used to bypass the limitations of ordinary digital to analog conversion: The DAC chip itself, which is a piece of silicon that Rob Watts says has serious noise problems that DAC manufacturers spend a lot of engineering resources attempting to overcome. Instead of attempting to overcome those problems, Rob gets to work on overcoming the very central issue to digital-to-analog conversion itself: Getting as close to an accurate reproduction of the original analog waveform as possible.
The DAVE is only 33 cm wide by 14 cm deep, and like other Chord DACs, generates a fair bit of heat for its size, the manual requiring 5cm of clearance on all sides, except the bottom. As well as the usual plethora of inputs and RCA and XLR outputs, a headphone socket adorns the front. Plug in your headphones and the pre-amp/DAC output is shut off. The DAVE remembers what volume you had both pre- and headphone amps set at, so plugging and unplugging will leave you where you left off before.
The rather basic-looking user interface is controlled via four metal button balls, the central knob being the volume control when turned, and mute when pressed.
The BNC digital inputs and special digital outputs can be used with other Chord transports and amps, something which I wasn’t able to test and is, regardless, beyond the scope of this review.
One issue I came across with the DAVE was that my active monitors would buzz when the headphones were plugged into the DAVE, which shuts off the pre-amp function. That required me to to shut off my speakers when I was using headphones.
Within a minute of plugging my HD800s into the DAVE and beginning to listen I knew immediately I wanted one. I also knew that any language I’d used to describe DACs before was useless. Normal questions about the sound, such as those relating to tone, texture, detail and distortion, do not exist, as what I felt I was experiencing was something else entirely from what I’d experienced before.
I recall an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson test drives a Lotus track car that is almost, if not quite F1 race-car fast. He wasn’t driving it fast enough to get enough downforce to go through corners properly. The problem, he described, is that he had driven cars with that much power before, and ones that could accelerate that fast before, and handle that well, but not a car that was capable of all those things at once.
I feel a similar way about the DAVE. I have heard DACs before that impressed me as being as detailed, DACs that sounded as natural and “organic” in presentation, DACs that seemed to disappear and just let the music through, and carefully constructed systems that had incredible depth and dynamics, but never any single component that could deliver all of that at once. The best analogy I can come up with to describe what I’m feeling is that it is as if the music has been injected into my blood. Take the liquid beauty of the sound from an excellent vinyl rig, the instant delivery of the best SET amp, and the detail from the best digital and combine them, but without the compromises of any of those components.
Further listening and attempting to discern what I was experiencing has lead me to believe that the DAVE’s electronics have a transient response on a level at which it can reproduce the underlying harmonics of instruments that are too subtle to make out as distinct aspects of the sound. It is more than simply that there is more texture being reproduced, even more than the feeling of perceiving the feelings of the player when they were playing the note, but underlying substance of the texture of those notes. Every time a guitar note was plucked, or a note hit on a piano a strange sensation came over me making it almost hard to breath, let alone type this description. Cymbals, for example, were … transcendental, reproduction exceeding what I had previously considered excellent in other DACs.
I decided to give the DSD version of Whites Off Earth Now by the Cowboy Junkies a go using both PCM+ mode (which decimates DSD first) as well as in DSD+ mode (which doesn’t decimate first). The differences were subtle, but I felt that the DSD+ mode brought out the DAVE’s magic more. The Gotan Project, on the other hand, seemed softer-sounding when I played the DSD version back. It is hard to know how much that is a result of the mastering and how much of the format.
Friday Night in San Francisco is my usual go-to to test speed and overall performance. It is arguably more a test of amplification than anything. However I wasn’t concerned by this stage of performance, but more so trepidation in listening to this highly intense album through a device that was already giving me a huge degree of sensory overload.
One of my complaints about the Hugo was that the headphone out wasn’t able to deliver the dynamics I felt the music deserved, so it was only appropriate that I compared the headphone output of the DAVE with the Studio Six. With a complement of tubes that aim towards as uncoloured as possible – GE and Mullard essentially, it was a tough call, but the Studio Six had a tiny edge in dynamics of presentation, but if I was to have bought a DAVE, a separate headphone amp may not be necessary, unless I intended to drive headphones that were too demanding, such as the HE-6 or LCD-4, and then only if I felt there were shortcomings.
Sadly the one pair of headphones that I felt were let down by the DAVE was the Focal Utopias. I had tried the combination a couple of times at meets, one of those in a quiet room, and had thought that it was the Utopias that were at fault. However now I’ve had the Hugo 2 here and compared the performance of its headphone out versus my go-to amp, the ALO Audio Studio Six, I feel that it is the headphone amp of the DAVE that, at least with those headphones, does not do them justice.
What I had previously thought was air and blackness between notes on other DACs I can’t help wondering if it was detail not being reproduced. In the past, when I’d audition better and better DACs, they seemed to be getting better at bringing out the black between notes — the less noise, from the electronics, that the reproduced, the more of the actual music seemed to be reproduced, or so it seems, each subtlety delineated yet more. What I believe was going on is that it was only ending up revealing the limitations of the silicon used in the DACs themselves and that blackness hid essential information. While you might have a more “black” background, in that “black” was the ultra-subtleties of the music that was missing due to the limits of the converter. With the ability to resolve sounds down to -350dB (at least in the digital realm), I believe that all that was missing in the “black” has suddenly been made present, and that is what was causing the sensation of being overwhelmed with detail.
It is as if all the dark matter of the universe suddenly lit up, or our vision suddenly extended to included infra-red and ultra-violet. If either happened, we’d suddenly be overwhelmed with visual information.
To a degree, I felt some of this was happening with Schiit Audio’s Yggdrasil, as if the electricity in the air as the musicians were playing was coming through. With the DAVE it was this, but so much more. Instead of more black, it is more music.
While I am happy to admit that I don’t have a large amount of experience with high-end gear and that my perspective might have been different if I had, and, not to mention, I cannot try the DAVE on a decent speaker rig, I still feel that there is something magically capable about it. Around a decade ago a handful of people bought what turned out to be poorly-made tube headphone amps for $14000, and that before the source was considered and the Sony MDR-R10s were the only truly high-end headphones. If the DAVE seems expensive relative to what else is available, it is certainly exponentially better than what was available 10 years ago for that amount of money, and no other components are needed to use it with a computer and headphones.