Chordette Gem High Definition Bluetooth Decoder/USB DAC (Playback 24)

Equipment+
Categories:
Digital-to-analog converters
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Products:
Chord Electronics Chordette Gem,
Sumiko Chordette GEM
Chordette Gem High Definition Bluetooth Decoder/USB DAC (Playback 24)

Chord Electronics Limited from Great Britain is a decidedly high-end oriented audio manufacturer whose product have earned a reputation for delivering technical and sonic excellence at what can seem, to me at any rate, like daunting, cost-no-object prices. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that Chord had decided to spin off a delightful new sub-brand called Chordette whose products would provide much of the technical innovation and excellence for which the bigger Chord components are known, but at comparatively affordable prices. In the US, Chord will handle distribution for the Chordette line separately from the top-tier Chord products, working under the auspices of Sumiko.

Our review subject is the very first Chordette product to reach our shores: the aptly named Gem ($799), which Chord describes as a “High Definition Bluetooth Decoder and USB DAC.” True to its name, the Gem comes housed in an exquisitely finished, brushed metal enclosure that could easily pass for a high-tech jewelry box. In keeping with a signature design motif also used in the bigger Chord components, the Gem’s top plate sports a lens-covered viewing porthole that allows users to admire internal circuit boards and components, which are bathed in the soft orange glow of lights mounted within.

Apart from its undeniable beauty and apparent build quality, the real draw of the Gem involves its dual-role capabilities, which are very much in keeping with 21st-century tastes in music delivery methods. On one hand, the Gem’s built-in 24-bit/96kHz DAC can happily decode inbound streaming digital audio files delivered from your computer via USB connections. But, at the flip of a rear-mounted toggle switch, the Gem can effortlessly switch gears to pair with any A2DP-compatible Bluetooth-enabled media player (such as an iPod Touch or iPhone running OS 3.0 or higher) or PC. A Sumiko spokesman emphasized thatwhen used in Bluetooth mode the Gem "simply takes the digital stream directly from the device and sends it on to the DAC," adding that this process "is the cornerstone of Chord's Bluetooth implementation."

According to a Chord press releases that came out when the Gem was initially announced, “using the GEM as a USB DAC has proved to yield truly incredible results allowing a MAC computer running iTunes to compete with CD players in the $2,000 price category!” That’s a strong claim, to be sure, but one that we’ll enjoy putting to the test.

OVERVIEW

Consider this Bluetooth Decoder/USB DAC if: a PC, Bluetooth-enabled cell phone or digital music player as your audio source components of choice and have wanted to find out how good they could sound if connected to a hi-fi or home theater system via a true high-end interface. The Gem really allows PCs and Bluetooth sources to strut their stuff. Most importantly, look closely at the Gem if you prize a decoder/DAC that emphasizes a smooth and intensely three-dimensional sound (which is especially significant benefits in light of the fact that many competing USB DACs are hampered by faint traces of upper midrange/treble edginess). Finally, consider the Gem for its foolproof simplicity, ease of use, and all around convenience.

Look further if: you require a DAC that provides S/PDIF, Toslink, or AES/EBU inputs; the Gem is a Bluetooth/USB-only device. Also consider alternatives if your listening tastes lead you to prize very high levels of transparency and detail over smoothness and three dimensionality (some competing USB DACs can surpass the Gem in terms of transparency and detail, but not in terms of tonal richness, smoothness or three-dimensionality).

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced DACs)

  • Design & Features: 9
  • Tonal Balance: 9
  • Timbral Purity: 8
  • Detail & Resolution: 8
  • Imaging/Soundstaging: 10
  • Dynamics: 8
  • Value: 8

FEATURES

  • Truly gem-like fit, finish, and apparent build quality, with a circuitry viewing porthole that adds a just-right touch of whimsy and eye-candy appeal (plus, it makes a terrific night-light).
  • Rear-panel toggle switch selects USB or Bluetooth input mode and also acts as a reset switch.
  • Provides one USB digital audio input, an A2DP-compatible Bluetooth interface, and one pair of line-level analog audio outputs.
  • Incorporates a high-quality 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC and traditional Chord-grade analog audio circuitry.
  • Comes with a 12V DC wall-wart-type power supply.

SONIC CHARACTER

USB DAC

The Chordette Gem’s USB DAC offers very good though not quite class-leading levels of resolution and detail, although those two particular performance areas are really not where the Gem’s greatest strengths lie. Instead, the Gem’s greatest strengths involve the natural warmth of its overall tonal balance, the richness and saturation of its tonal colors, the striking size and three-dimensionality of its soundstages, and its smoothness when navigating complicated material rich in upper midrange/treble transients and details (an area of significant weakness for some \USB DACs). Let me expand on these points a bit.

Many DACs seem focused on retrieving as much information from records as possible, even at the expense of subjecting the listener to occasional brittle-sounding rough edges along the way, but the Gem has a somewhat different agenda. Pursuing a different (and arguably better) musical path, the Gem builds its sound upon a foundation that emphasizes getting the fundamental tonalities of human and instrumental voices right, and then builds from there. Instead of presenting instruments as a disparate collection of textures, timbres, and transient sounds, the Gem renders the sounds of instrument in a more natural, organic and holistic way; wooden instruments sound as if they are made of wood, brass instruments as if made of brass, and so on. As a consequence, when you listen through the Gem you rarely find yourself focusing in on individual elements of sounds, but rather paying attention to the whole. Tonal colors are satisfyingly rich and vivid, yet unexaggerated.

Smoothness is one of the hallmarks of the Gem’s sound, too, and a welcome one. By contrast, I suspect some competing DACs have made a sonic “deal with the devil” of sorts, where they strive to reproduce increasingly subtle (or sometimes spectacular) details, but at the price of dragging in elements of edginess, glare or roughness that disrupt the flow of musical communication. The Gem, more so than any other USB DAC I’ve yet heard, solves the problem of upper midrange/treble edginess and stridency—if not perfectly then at least to a degree that keeps problems from regularly intruding on the sweep and flow of the music. This represents real progress (especially in the world of USB DACs) and is greatly to Chord’s credit.

Finally, the Gem sounds markedly more three-dimensional than many competing USB DACs I’ve heard—a quality that I suspect is related, at least in part, to its smoothness. The difference, on some digital files, is not a subtle one. I can recall one evening of casual A/B comparisons between USB DACs where, when switching to the Gem, the net effect was that perceived soundstage width and depth increased by a good 30 percent (or maybe more)—a really significant difference (sort of like the difference between watching a video recording of a theatrical play vs. actually attending the play in person).

The only caveats I would mention are that the Gem is not the last word in resolution or in capturing textural and transient details, nor does it do as good a job as some of its competitors at rendering the high frequency air surrounding instruments. Even so, I think many listeners would readily accept those sonic tradeoffs in exchange for the many other sonic benefits the Gem provides. 

I also should mention one minor glitch I encountered on a very infrequent basis: namely, occasional low level “pops” heard when switching from one music track to another when streaming digital audio content from my PC to the Gem. The “pops” didn’t seem to be related to specific song tracks, album files, or USB cables, but in any event the problem occurs rarely and does not appear to do any harm.  

 

Bluetooth Decoder:

Common wisdom might suggest that a Bluetooth interface, no matter how good, would inevitably fall short of the performance of a hard-wired connection to a DAC (the presumption being that something is apt to get lost in translation through the wireless interfaces). But in fact the Gem’s Bluetooth decoder comes close in many respects to matching to the sound of wired connections to its onboard DAC. Fundamental voicing remains largely unchanged, so that the primary difference I noticed with the Bluetooth decoder in play was a slight rollback in the acuity of upper midrange and treble details, plus a minor softening of transient attacks at the leading edges of notes. When you compare same musical tracks captured at identical resolution levels through the USB DAC and then through the Bluetooth decoder, the latter sounds slightly more softly focused and “polite,” but otherwise quite similar. For this reason, I would say the Gem offers the best Bluetooth implementation I’ve yet heard—one whose captivating three-dimensionality and smooth presentation are easy to listen to for long periods of time.

In my experience, pairing between my test Bluetooth player (a 3G iPhone) and the Gem was incredibly simple and reliable, though I have heard reports of some users needing to do bit of tinkering and troubleshooting to establish pairing between their Bluetooth devices and the Gem. One other point to bear in mind, based both on my own experience and comments from forum participants on the AVguide.com Web site, is that the sound quality of the Gem’s Bluetooth decoder is dependent to a degree on the Bluetooth software/firmware used in your player. For example, Apple sent along one of its periodic firmware updates for my iPhone as I was working on this review and after installing the update I noticed an immediate, albeit subtle, improvement in sound quality when playing the iPhone through the Gem. This leads me to think that the sound from the Gem’s Bluetooth decoder may get even better as Bluetooth firmware for playback devices improves over time.

MUSICAL EXAMPLE

To appreciate the remarkable naturalness and three-dimensionality the Gem provides, I played some 16-bit/44.1kHz tracks from Steve Strauss’ Just Like Love [Stockfisch, SACD]—an album thathas become something of a bellwether disk (on in this case, set of digital audio files) for me. Produced by the masterful Günther Pauler of Pauler Acoustics, this recording is rich in revealing instrumental and vocal details and is capable, when really high-quality source components are in play, of producing exceptionally wide, deep soundstages that seem to envelope the listener. As I played the track “Old Crow” through the Gem, several qualities stood out at once.

First, Strauss’ evocative baritone voice, which displays earthy textures with a just touch of grit at times, sounded spot on—full of nuance and warmth, yet never overtly rough-edged or harsh (which is how some competing USB DACs tend to render the sound of Strauss’ voice). Next, the sound of the late Chris Jones’ guitar was simply gorgeous, with appropriate body and warmth accented with smooth, sparkling high frequency details and filigrees that seemed almost to hover, floating in mid-air for a split second before decaying into silence. In contrast, some DACs give Jones’ guitar an almost hyper-detailed sound with jarring, jangly overtones that sound edgy and overblown. Finally, I was struck by both the roundness and tautness of the sound of Hans-Jörg Maucksch’s fretless bass—an instrument whose sound isn’t easy to get right. What the Gem did, in particular, was to reveal the deep bass body of individual fretless bass notes, while also showing how the instrument’s higher overtones have a tautly suspended and gently modulated quality (what I like to call the fretless bass’s characteristic “mwaaaah” sound) that reminded me, in some respects, of the sound of a tenor voice singing with vibrato. As I mentioned earlier, the Gem really does take a natural, organic, and holistic approach to music reproduction, giving listeners a sense for the whole rather than “deconstructing” sounds as some components do.

But what proved to be one of my favorite aspects of the Gem was its 3D imaging, which was very much in evidence on Just Like Love. One evening I was listening to the album through a competing USB DAC while also using my laptop to work on a project for AVguide. When it came time to take a brief break, I decided to switch to the Gem before resuming work on the project. Frankly, I hadn’t been planning to turn the evening into a full-on listening session, but as the music started to play through the Gem its sound became so much more three-dimensional than it had been that I had to stop and take notice. Previously, the sound had been clean and clear, but the soundstage width extended only the left and right edges of my speakers while depth was only moderately good. But with the Gem in play the soundstage suddenly broke free of the speakers almost completely—extending far to the left and right sides of my listening room, with depth that extended well behind the rear wall of my room, and not just in the center of the stage but in the rear corners, too. In short, the improvement with the Gem in play was plain as day and surprisingly large in magnitude.

 

COMPETITIVE ANALYSIS

I compared the Gem with the USB DAC sections of two combo integrated amp/USB DACs recently reviewed in Playback: namely, the Bel Canto S300iUSB and the Peachtree Audio Nova.

I found the Gem offered less resolution and detail than either the Bel Canto or the Peachtree, with the Peachtree offering the highest resolution levels of the three. However, the Gem sounded noticeably smoother and more three-dimensional than the Bel Canto, though Peachtree provided stiffer competition (in part because it, too, does a pretty good job of managing upper midrange and treble edginess and roughness).

Of the three, the Gem is the only DAC to provide an A2DP-compliant Bluetooth interface, though the Peachtree offered offsetting benefits in that it provided two S/PDIF and two Toslink inputs in addition to its single USB input.

BOTTOM LINE:

At the beginning of this article I dubbed the Chordette Gem a “21st Century DAC,” because that’s precisely what it is. In an era where more and more listeners are embracing PCs and Bluetooth devices as their audio source components of choice, the Gem stands as an open invitation for those listeners to take their rightful places at the high-end audio table. While the Gem won’t necessarily suit the listening tastes of all computer audiophiles, its strengths are numerous and they serve the music well.

SPECS & PRICING

Chordette Gem High Definition Bluetooth Decoder/USB DAC

Inputs: one A2DP-compatible Bluetooth interface, one digital audio (USB Type B)
DAC Upsampling: 24-bit/96kHZ
Dynamic range: 112 dB
Outputs: one pair, stereo analog (RCA)
Dimensions (H x W x D): 2.76” x 6.3” x 1.57”
Weight: .88 lbs.
Warranty: On year, parts and labor
Price: $799

Chord Electronics Limited
www.chordelectronics.co.uk

US Distributor
Sumiko Audio
(510) 843-4500
www.sumikoaudio.net

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