Chord Dave Review (Updated)

Chord DAVE and Final D8000

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 perfectly 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.

Chord DAVE Pulse Array DAC
Chord DAVE Pulse Array DAC

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 initial difference one notices after one gets over the form factor is that the DAVE has, alongside the usual USB and optical inputs, no less than 4 BNC S/PDIF sockets. No RCA jacks here, but proper 75 Ohm connectors. While the S/PDIF inputs act conventionally if used individually, in pairs they can be used from a Blu 2 or MScaler for per-channel 384 kHz input (768 kHz total).

As the MScaler I have on loan came with 50 Ohm BNC cables, instead of the correct 75 Ohm type, and as they were also too long for my rack, I substituted them with shorter, 30cm 75 Ohm cables that are readily available on Amazon. The added advantage was that these cables have tighter locking connectors than the stock cables.

Listening For the First Time

The first time I listened, 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, I wouldn’t bother buying a separate headphone amp of any kind, unless I intended to drive headphones that were too demanding, such as the Susvarad or LCD-4, and then only if I felt there were shortcomings.

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 they reproduced, the more of the actual music seemed to be present, 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 of the DAVE to resolve sounds down to -350dB (in the digital domain) 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. Or, more accurately, if we go to a live performance, we can truly feel what the artists are expressing, something missed during regular playback.

To a degree, I felt some of this was happening with Schiit Audio’s Yggdrasil, as well as Chord’s only Hugo 2, and more so TT2, 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.

The Second Round

My second round with the DAVE having occurred after I’d already spent time time with a TT2 and MScaler was considerably less dramatic. What it did give me the opportunity to experience was the improvement of the sound with the MScaler providing its million-tap upgrade.

In addition, the Audeze LCD-R set had arrived, and I had a range of high-end headphones, including the Meze Empyrean, Focal Utopia, HiFiMan Susvara and Final D8000 and D8000 Pro on hand.

At Audeze’s suggest I had plugged the LCD-R carefully into the Master 10, hoping that it wouldn’t trip the protection circuit (which engages if anything below 2 Ohms is attached). The LCD-R is unfortunately too sensitive for a speaker amp, but the DAVE came to the rescue with its digital volume control. This uses aggressive, high-order noise shaping rather than the sound-degrading truncation often seen in digital volume controls and Rob Watts claims that it is audibly lossless.

This setup took Don Giovanni (Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Yannik Nézet-Séguin) to another level above that experienced using the Final D8000 Pro directly out of the DAVE’s headphone amplifier, with a step up in bass impact. While the headphone amp in the DAVE is very competent, the times I had tried it with the Focal Utopias, I hadn’t been satisfied.

Wondering about what effects different components might have, I switched power cables from the DIY one I had made using Van Den Hul cable to one from a small boutique manufacture (to not be named as the owner had a reputation for spending his time writing essays to customers on his phone about his life problems instead of making the products he’d been paid for). This tweak seemed to improve my perception of the sound in ways I can’t put a finger on, so I shall not attempt to do so.

What the headphone amp really needed was the drive of the one in Chord’s Hugo TT2. Even if it does require an adaptor for the XLR outputs, the TT2 could comfortably drive difficult loads, such as HiFiMan’s Susvaras or the Audeze LCD-R with ease. 

What made the biggest difference, however, was the MScaler. Unlike up-sampling with HQPlayer, where one must stop the music, change settings and restart, sometimes waiting for a minute or two, the MScaler permits instant switching via the OP SR button. The DAVE in turn responds instantly to the switch from single to dual BNC input and back. This allowed immediate comparisons mid-track without interruption.

I had expected the MScaler to bring sharper relief to the music, but just as my perception of what “better” was in a DAC had been shattered 5 years ago, so again was I surprised that the MScaler makes the music smoother. By that, I don’t mind that clarity was lost, as it was increased. But what was increased was not just the subtleties of Julia Fisher’s bow strokes as she played Sarasate on her violin, but it was possible on live recordings to make out more of the sound of what was between the instruments.

As the DAVE by itself had introduced me to all that had been missing in the “black” of the sound from typical DACs, this was taken to another level, as I could hear how the notes of one instrument bloomed outwards and were affected by the other instruments and objects in the space.

What was most apparent to me though, is that I realised now that I was able to hear the music. The playback had transcended digital reproduction and become something real again. The music had become an experience, not the equipment.

The Chord TT2, in comparison, has much of the same character, but when listening, even before I had the DAVE in again, I kept feeling like it was almost there but not quite as if the last little bit of what I seek in the music isn’t there.

Disable the MScaler mid-track and everything becomes, in a word, more pixelated. The soundstage seems to decrease and that even transition between instruments and the space around them gains an unnatural edge.

Other DACs very audibly, even otherwise pleasant ones such as Luxman’s DA-06, which otherwise have a very nice timbre and grand sense of presence, seem less refined than before.

Just for fun, I switched back to the Schiit Audio Bifrost 2, a DAC I like a lot, and it sounded like I’d had wool put over my ears. Though, the Yggdrasil was not put to shame, it sounded as good as it always had, but just with less resolution.

In the end...

The problem with the Chord DAVE and MScaler set-up is two-fold. The price for starters. But the person who kindly loaned it to me put it succinctly in that you end up taking it for granted. It shifts the normal experience of music playback into something so just “there” that everything else seems not right at all. If only the headphone amplifier had the drive of the TT2.

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