Chord Electronics DAVE

Hardware Review

Chord Electronics DAVE
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
DAC preamplifier headphone amplifier
Simon Price

Using an acronym for a serious piece of hi-fi might be a fun play on words but it risks understating the product. Chord have used similar quirky names for other DAC products; the previous 2Qute and latest Qutest, for example. However, there is nothing understated about the DAVE when one looks further. The name stands for Digital to Analogue Veritas in Extremis, which makes you wonder how long they took working it out. It features a Spartan 6 field programmable gate array (FPGA) converter with 1,000 times the processing power of chip based DACs, and Chord say it’s loaded with over a million lines of code. It is also a balanced digital preamp and headphone amplifier.

The meaty casing is machined from aircraft grade aluminium and is very heavy for its size, this is intended to keep vibration at bay because among other elements, crystal quartz clocks are surprisingly sensitive to vibration. The porthole display distinguishes it from other converters and works well with the generous number of exposed hex bolts. With a name like DAVE and the big glass round screen I couldn't help thinking of HAL the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thankfully this DAVE does what it’s told and doesn’t appear to have life threatening priorities. Clearly then, the intention is to not only make a premium sounding component but something that has been crafted to look distinctive too. It certainly stands out from crowd.

 

 

It’s not short of digital inputs; four coaxial over BNC, two Toslink/optical, one balanced AES/XLR, and a fast USB B 2.0. DSD can only be sent to the USB input. There are both single ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs plus a quarter inch headphone output on the front. You can use two of the digital inputs in 'dual data mode' for separate left and right channels, something that Chord’s BLU Mk.2 CD transport can provide. You only need to install drivers for Windows based PCs when using the USB input, I didn't have to do so, however the manual is easy to follow in this regard.

The instructions make it clear that when you turn the unit on there is a twenty second delay while the display shows 'Mute' and the DAVE gets its ducks in a row. During this time the million lines of code are being loaded into the FPGA and safety checks of the circuit are conducted. It isn't possible for this to be accelerated or avoided unless you leave it powered up at all times and it’s runs a little warm for that, you can switch it on and off with the remote however, which makes life a little easier. 

You can choose whether to use the DAVE in digital preamp mode connected to your power amplifier(s), or in DAC mode with the outputs fixed at maximum volume, by pushing the left and right cursor buttons simultaneously. The central volume knob can also be pushed down to mute the output. In an attempt to stop users blowing up their speakers the display shows volume as -3db when output is full and says 'DAC Mode' in the lower half of the display. Plugging in headphones will take the DAVE out of DAC mode into digital pre mode until the headphones are removed again, so the volume control can be used. There are various crossfeed options for headphones and these have subtle effects on sound quality by blending the left and right channels together to varying degrees. The display has four colour options and in three of these, depending on the sample rate and volume level, the colour of the relevant sample rate/input box and volume box will change. The colour also goes grey for any DSD signals found. 

 

 

There are only three other options in the settings, which make it quite a simple DAC to use; a high frequency filter which can be set on or off, positive or negative phase modes and a DSD+ or PCM+ mode. The DSD+ mode is unsurprisingly configured to make the most of DSD music files, and again relevant code is loaded into the DAC. You do have to manually set the appropriate mode to get the best out of DSD or PCM files like FLAC or WAV, rather than it being automatically selected, which would be better. However regardless of mode you can still play DSD files natively in PCM+ mode, but the DAC isn't optimized for them.

The DAVE will support PCM sample frequencies up to 768KHz depending on input type. But as is common, the USB input is the only one that accepts the highest possible sample rate and DSD capability, as mentioned. It’s a galvanically isolated USB to quieten matters too. Thoughts of HAL came back when the display started to blank just when I moved; no sinister artificial intelligence here, it’s just that the DAVE ‘writes’ volume and menu settings to the internal memory and the display blanks for a second periodically when this happens. The remote is functional and basic and provides the same functions as the input buttons and volume dial, but I would prefer to have a nicer remote with soft touch buttons, rather than the click press type.

Naturalness personified
I first tried the Chord in DAC mode with a Cyrus DAC XP Signature preamp and partnering PSX-R power supply, with Cyrus Mono X200 signature power amps and PMC twenty5.23speakers. I used various streaming sources including an Auralic Aries LE over USB with an S-BoosterBOTW linear power supply, Cyrus Stream X Signature streamer over coaxial and an Innuos Zenith Mk.II server, also over USB. The DAVE will probably be partnered with pricier speakers but the PMCs are of more than sufficient quality and revealing nature, to get a good idea what it can do. 

Playing Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happinesswith the Aries LE connected to a basic Western Digital NAS, the DAVE has an openness and transparency that takes you very deep into the music. It’s delicate and very evenly balanced in a tonal sense, with almost no loss of detail. While the Cyrus DACs in my preamp create detail with a much more forward and relatively bright spacious presentation, the DAVE takes natural detail to another level; detail that is balanced and with good bass extension and depth, and dynamics too. But this is perhaps hardly surprising as it’s in a totally different quality and price bracket. Naturalness is one of the other blindingly obvious characteristics, this is perhaps not surprising as this ultimately is what the best DACs should accomplish; to deliver the music as if there were no conversion taking place.

 

 

Neither is it overly analytical, it just presents the music as it should be heard, neither adding or subtracting. This isn't to say that the nuances you hear are more obvious because you perhaps didn't hear them before, just that it’s a more natural rendition of how the music should truly sound. The potential of digital audio isn't apparent until you try a DAC of this calibre, it’s so good that it’s easy to run out of superlatives.

With the Aries LE/WD NAS it was slightly toned down in the midrange but with the Innuos Zenith Mk.II this all changed, bringing an increase in richness and a more rounded but still detailed sound. The DAVE is very fast and extremely dynamic when playing electronic music, Kraftwerk's 3Dalbum is sublime, but all types of music is delivered with realism, naturalness and musicality.

Some systems have an ability to encapsulate you in a wide soundstage and airy treble at the cost of midrange prowess and the projection of music as it should naturally sound. This is perhaps to make up for the limitations of the midrange, but the DAVE makes it very obvious that this is one of its strengths, there is an immediacy as if the music is just concentrated to do all it should. The Chord has the ability therefore to take lesser DACs not only to the proverbial cleaners, but through the washing machine, into the tumble drier and onto the ironing board.  

The DAVE is also highly accomplished as a digital preamp, it would be easy to think that a device of this relatively compact size as a preamp and DAC, could fall short in comparison to separates boxes. It certainly doesn’t, it has good richness, soundstaging and imaging capabilities, but it’s clear that its main talent lies as a DAC. 

With DSD material using both the DSD+ mode and PCM+ mode and playing Dire Straits (Brothers in Arms DSD64) in DSD+ mode, the soundstage increased, the music had more depth, and tonally the sound was richer and slightly more defined compared to PCM+ mode. Regardless of views on MQA and its benefits or otherwise, the FPGA converter doesn’t facilitate this technology, but when a DAC sounds this good such matters are of no great concern. 

 

 

I found that the DAVE sounded slightly better with the positive phase setting on and a little more obvious with the high frequency filter on as well. The sound seemed to flow better with better clarity in the latter case.  Finally, I must admit to never using headphones as much as loudspeakers, but the Chord did seem very good with my Grado SR225 headphones. (Editor’s note, I tried it with Audio-Technica ADTH5000 headphones which are a difficult load and got pretty stunning results).

Reference and some
Judging by the tremendous sound quality on offer the FPGA technology of Chord DACs really works. Having listened to some of the latest ESS Sabre DAC chipsets, admittedly in cheaper converters, this DAC is clearly in another league.

A big part of the price of this product is probably due to the machined casing. We asked Chord's marketing manager Edd Harris if a similar Chord DAC could be made with a cheaper case, perhaps bridging the gap in the performance between the Qutest and the DAVE, and maybe without a preamp or headphone amp. Edd advised me the milled construction is a moniker of the quality of Chord products which customers expect and the current case is also a very important shield for the high frequency switch mode power supply inside. So on both scores this is not an area where compromises can be made. The DAVE would sound very different if built into a compromised case and how inert a case is can have big effects on sound quality. In addition because the DAVE uses a digital volume control which is undertaken in the FPGA, Chord say components are limited in the analogue output stages for direct signal path purposes and to exploit best sound quality and low distortion, so there is little scope to construct a similarly performing DAC without a preamp which could warrant a reasonably lower price.    

A new power amp called the ‘Choral Etude’ has recently been announced by Chord with a similar case design so that it can be a potential partner for the DAVE and priced at £3,900. It will be very interesting indeed to ascertain how this power amp works with the DAVE. So, in summary, should the DAVE partner your hi-fi? Absolutely, it is incredibly talented and seriously recommended as a DAC/preamp, and it’s good value to boot.

Specifications: 

Type: Digital to analogue converter, preamplifier and headphone amplifier

Digital inputs : 4x SPDIF BNC Coax (44.1KHz-384KHz), AES XLR (44.1KHz-96 KHz), 2x Toslink/optical (44KHz-192KHz), USB B 2.0 (44KHz-768KHz PCM and DSD)

Analogue outputs : balanced XLR, unbalanced RCA, 1/4inch TRS headphone

Sample frequencies : 44.1Khz - 768 Khz, DSD64, 128, 256, 512 native DSD + DoP 

Frequency response : 20Hz to 20KHz flat within +/-0.1dB (HF filter off)

Total harmonic distortion and noise : 127.5dB (AWT)

Channel separation : > 125dB @ 1 KHz

Weight: 7kg

Dimensions HxWxD: 71 x 333.5 x 153mm

Colour: Black or Silver

Price: 
£8,499
Choral stand (optional) £1,450
Manufacturer Details: 

Chord Electronics 

T 01622 721444

www.chordelectronics.co.uk