In this review, I’m going to take the unusual step of starting with the negatives first: Dear Chord Electronics, you called it DAVE? Really? Is there some kind of kid’s TV thing going on here – “Today children, Timmy the transport and Dave the DAC meet up with Andy the amplifier to allow Lenny the loudspeaker to make some noise.” OK, so there’s a backronym involved (‘Digital to Analogue Veritas in Extremis’), which goes some way toward providing mitigating circumstances. Even so… DAVE the DAC: That’s up there with Postman Pat and Captain Snort from Pippin Fort.
But really, that’s it. That’s about the only bad thing I get to say about the Chord DAVE DAC. Everything else is, quite simply, some kind of magnificent. In a way, it’s so good that the review effectively channels the late science-fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke, because the DAVE lives up to his maxim that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Calling the DAVE a DAC is doing it a disservice, as it is more of a decoding computer in the truest sense. The relevant digital decoding and filtering algorithm is stored in memory until the choice of PCM or DSD datastream is chosen, at which point the DAVE virtually reboots itself with the right DAC options for the music preloaded into its large FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array). Contrast this with the rest of the digital audio replay world and you are met with good devices that share the same silicon for PCM and DSD replay, or the better models that run entirely separate digital pathways for the two. The Chord way is uncontentiously the best for sound quality terms, as there is no digital transcoding, and no quiescent digital processing subsystems on the same processor board. OK, so those who like to switch instantaneously from PCM to DSD and back again may baulk at several seconds of downtime while one DAC is expunged and replaced by another in the FPGA, but their impatience costs them dearly in the aural stakes.
This ability to store and deploy the right DAC for the task not only sets the DAVE apart from its rivals, it sets it apart from digital’s history. This wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago, because the large LX75 variant of the Xilinx Spartan 6 FPGA used in the DAVE didn’t exist, and nothing that went before had the capacity to cope with such a sizeable amount of code being written and overwritten. Put simply in Chord-language, the latest FPGA has around 10x the capacity of the previous QBD76 flagship from the company.
If this were DAVE’s sole ‘plus’, it would already set it above the competition, but the rewritable DAC is merely one part of the DAVE’s portfolio of ground-breaking tech. There’s also Rob Watts’ innovative WTA interpolation filter, which uses 166 separate DSP cores and an unprecedented 164,000 taps. The flexibility of the architecture extends to the operation of the DAC. If you want to configure the DAVE to prioritise PCM over DSD or vice versa, engage different styles of filter, specify which inputs to use and in which order of priority, adjust phase, use the DAVE as a digital hub or simply a DAC, or use one of Chord’s innovative Crossfeed DSP settings to drive headphones, all are possible and addressable using the menu system in the central ‘eye’ of the DAVE. You can also determine output level, adjust the display for complex or ‘granny’ modes, menu colour scheme… the full enchilada. What’s more, far from giving the DAVE a clunky, overblown interface, four buttons and a central knob control the whole device and, with a series of multi-colour LEDs to denote the nature of the digital input received. The only minor niggle here is because of that flexibility of set-up, these five hard buttons are not marked; this is understandable because one button will do myriad different things depending on whether you are in set-up or play mode, but those who insist every button be labelled don’t get their hands held.