Chord Electronics DAVE DAC/headphone amp

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Digital-to-analog converters,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
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Chord Electronics DAVE

The easiest way of thinking of the DAVE interface is to use the display, which is always divided into three sections. The uppermost two display digital input and file type on the left and volume level or line output on the right. The lower section displays information regarding the mode in which the DAVE is working; preamplifier, DAC, or headphone amp/DAC. The thing to note, both in the front panel display and the array of LEDs that surround that central display, is just how powerful the processing power of the DAVE can be. It supports PCM files to 32bit, 768kHz, DXD, and up to DSD256 (we need to place the term ‘allegedly’ after this; not that we suspect Chord of being incapable of living up to its specifications, but because the only thing recorded at 32/768 PCM at the moment is the sound of unicorns). While these astonishingly large bit depths and sampling frequencies are – for the moment at least – academic, it does suggest the Chord DAVE’s abilities at processing the kind of files you can buy or stream are state of the art.

As ever with Chord products, the build quality is off the charts. The elegant aluminium or black anodised finish is rich and deep, the product looks like it was constructed to withstand the rigours of deep space, and the control surfaces have a positive feel. It’s also extremely well specified in terms of inputs and outputs; HDMI and FireWire (remember FireWire?) are missing, and this is not a streamer so don’t expect an Ethernet connection, but it sports a ¼” TRS headphone jack, four BNC-based coaxial digital inputs, USB, two toslink connectors and an AES/EBU balanced input. Then there are the quartet of ‘DX’ digital connections also using BNC connectors that fit into a ‘watch this space’ line of reasoning.

The DAVE fires up within 20 seconds (that’s how long it takes to load up the decoder of choice and then run checks and balances to confirm status, and general housekeeping), but sounds at its best when the player is warm to the touch. However, the performance difference between ‘stone cold start’ and ‘warm to the touch’ is minimal in comparison to other designs. Essentially, 20 seconds into turning the DAVE on for the first time, you are at about 90%-95% of what it can do, and the rest just piles in from there… fast!

But what can it do? Put simply, it does it all. This, perhaps more than any DAC, is digital done right. It has the same ‘wow!’ factor performance that sets the Mojo and Hugo apart from their respective competitors, but taken to a new level. If you are in the market for a DAC at this price and beyond (‘beyond’ extending up to about 10x the DAVE’s price) here’s how the demonstration goes: it is plugged in, you wait 20 seconds, listen for about 10 seconds more, and reach for the credit card. If you do this, have someone waiting with a camera or smartphone to record your facial expression during those 10 seconds, because you go from ‘WTF’ to ‘OMG’ and then ‘LOL’.

Everything – literally everything – you can throw at the DAVE musically is returned as best as you have ever heard it. OK, it doesn’t suffer musical fools gladly, and compressed recordings remain compressed, but even here the sheer amount of information the DAVE is extracting will make you reevaluate your music anew. Reviewers (unconsciously or otherwise) have a series of tick boxes they list when listening to a device: dynamics… tick, microdynamics… tick, vocal articulation… tick, detail… tick, and so on. Normally, these elements are rated on a scale and how they combine dictates both absolute performance and recommendation in terms of ‘fit’ into a system and the tastes of a listener. Good bass and fast transients might, for example, put a device into a ‘pacy, rhythmic’ system, where excellent imagery, good detail, and midband transparency would put it in a ‘traditional audiophile’ setting. The DAVE is that rare beast; a device that performs equally well in all these aspects of performance, and by ‘equally well’ we mean it does an outstanding, class-leading job in all parameters.

This makes reviewing the DAVE both easy and incredibly difficult. Easy because the review just defaults to a series of superlatives; boring to read, but easy to create. Difficult because trying to categorise any aspect of performance is merely pointing out the faults in other devices. While I’m fairly sure Chord would like that, when you are working with something as advanced as the DAVE it feels a little like schadenfreude. But the fact remains that the DAVE is the best DAC I can think of at this or any other price. Yes, I can see people listening to the DAVE and ultimately choosing another DAC because they prefer how its set of compromises fit into their tastes or their system, but I can’t see someone dismissing it out of hand.

I guess if I have to pick one area where the DAVE shines it is in its sense of dynamic scale and shading. Not because the DAC accents this, but because it shows so clean a set of heels to its rivals, this sheer energy coupled with outstanding subtlety makes the DAVE simply shine. Whether that’s a bangin’ bass line from a ZZ Top record or the full sturm und drang of the conclusion of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, or even the delicate interplay of musicians in a smokin’ jazz recording from the late 1950s, the DAVE sets its flag in the ground in amongst the best DACs money can buy. You might get ‘different’, you might even get ‘equal’, but I don’t think you can get ‘better’, whatever the price. That’s how good DAVE is.

The headphone amplifier is similarly excellent, and extremely powerful and quiet. It doesn’t struggle with even the most difficult headphones and is extremely quiet with sensitive models. Crossfeed is an interesting concept for headphone users. Or perhaps more accurately, Crossfeed is an excellent concept for traditional stereo users adopting the headphone revolution. As the name suggests, Crossfeed introduces a small amount of ‘blend’ information (left channel information included in the right channel, and vice versa) to replicate live sound in the room, studio, or concert hall. Crossfeed has three settings, and you could almost consider these are made for ‘in ear’, ‘closed back’ and ‘open back’ designs in descending order of intensity. Curiously, although normally such DSP settings are best used ‘off’, I found this did give more of a sense of music being outside the head rather than thoroughly lateralised and in-head. While I’ve learned to enjoy that lateralised sound, it’s actually very refreshing to hear a soundstage that appears to sound like it’s coming from outside my own cranium from time to time. This might not be as exotic as the Smyth Realiser, but the Crossfeed concept is more than just a gimmick.

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