My Video Review:
Immediately after finishing my Denafrips Terminator Plus review, I was 100% sure that Terminator Plus (TPlus from now on) was going to be my forever and ever end-game DAC. I shot an email to Vinshine Audio that supplied a review sample and I kindly asked for a discount as I wanted to buy the unit that was sitting on my table. A day before making the big step, a good friend of mine wanted to take a long listen to what later became my end-game headphone amplifier – the Trafomatic Primavera. He had a single requirement, trying the Primavera with his newly acquired Chord DAVE DAC. Sure thing! I said back to him and let him know that music would be pouring better with a glass of wine in a bigger company and we had quite an audiophile meeting that evening. Everyone got to hear the Dave together with the Primavera…except me.
I begged him leave it that night, as on the next day I will be returning it back. That night later became a white night as I started a long comparison in between the TPlus and DAVE. Before telling you about my final conclusions, I will just remind you that Chord Electronics isn’t something new around here. In fact, the very first reviews I wrote at our sister website were done by having a Chord DAC 64 as our front end. Ten years ago, we moved to a Chord QBD76 HDSD that could be spotted in plenty of pictures, here’s one I made in 2012.
That’s the father of the unit that I will be testing today and DAC 64 was its grandfather. Later on, I reviewed all their digital to analog converters, starting with the smallest Mojo and finishing with the biggest units. I completely reshaped my stereo setup last month and that’s only the beginning, getting rid of everything and settling on a Chord Ultima 3 Preamp and Ultima 5 power amp for their immaculate performance and natural tonality. For no particular reason, I didn’t have a chance to try their DAVE. This isn’t fresh new D/A converter and more like an Oldie but Goldie type of unit and who knows…maybe a DAVE 2 is around the corner, but still, I believe it has a lot of life in it left.
Although I really liked the TPlus, if you checked a few articles around here, then you know that I cherish resolution, speed and impact above anything else – that’s my Holy Trinity of the audiophile world. If a DAC is slow, muddy and unresolving, then it will purged with fire around here. After carefully volume matching them with a dB meter and after a few hours of comparisons, the first word that came into my mind was…decimation. What was great became ultimate, what was punchy became a heavyweight boxing champion and what was detailed and clean, became lucid and real sounding. One sounded like music was recorded and then played back, while the other sounded like everything was playing in real time. TPlus was slightly sugar coating my music, while Dave was disappearing from the chain. One felt like a fast computer, while the other felt as a quantum computer, solving harder tasks at much higher speeds. Subjectivity played a big role as I couldn’t bypass my Holy Trinity and, in the end, I never bought the TPlus, instead I went with a brand-new Chord Dave from my local dealer.
Although it became my morning tea drinking buddy for a few months now, DAVE name wasn’t picked as an imaginary friend of mine or of Rob Watts, standing for Digital to Analog Veritas in Extremis, a moniker that reflects its true capabilities; a device so advanced with so little compromises, that it’s truthfully in the Extreme. This is the most expensive DAC that I tested around here, going for $14.000 in the USA, £10.000 in the UK and for €12.800 in Europe. Before going deep into the rabbit hole, I just want to remind you that this isn’t a review sample, this article wasn’t commissioned or sponsored by anybody, reflecting only my humble and honest opinion.
Design & Build Quality
I’m not the biggest fan of its look. There! I’ve said it. At the same time, I understand the heritage left behind its predecessors as DAC64 and QBD76 HDSD and I respect that. Obviously, Chord Electronics needed to use a similar design language, the same rounded edges and smoothed out corners of the Choral line. A circle window into its inner workings was replaced with a display that shows all the important stuff. It looks unusual at first, but when something looked common from the house of Chord Electronics? This is mostly nitpicking from my part, as the unit itself is build to the highest quality standards I saw on D/A converters. See that thin line on top its headphone jack? That’s how thick its metal plates are! Not only the upper part, but the entirety of its body is made from absurdly thick aluminum plates. In fact, most of its weight comes from there, machined and polished at the highest standards. Chord QBD76 HDSD survived a crash test versus a Russian T-55 tank (yes, really!) and since Dave has absolutely the same case thickness, I don’t think you’ll ever see a stronger case anytime soon.
Apart from its rounded case, I slightly dislike the number of screws all around it. Five screws per side seems a little overkill, eight screws around its display – definitely overkill and eight rubber feet instead of four is a little too much for my taste, but it’s very Chord Electronics, if you know what I mean. Again, this is just nitpicking from my part, as the unit itself screams a high quality craftsmanship from any point of view.
The unit itself is not that big and can be easily integrated into smaller setups. It becomes tiny when putting it near a TPlus or Rockna Wavedream and for me, that’s a huge plus, as I can handle it around without cracking my back. You can have it in matte-black or matte-silver. I tried both finishes and I find them scratch resistant, so you should pick the one that suits your needs. I went with a pure white Trafomatic Primavera, with a raw aluminum Chord Ultima 3 Pre and Ultima 5 Power and it was obvious that I will be going with a raw aluminum Dave. My past electronics were black painted and it was always a challenge having some great shots and video B-Rolls. From now on, I’ll be getting my gear in anything but black. Long story short, I cannot complain about its tank-proof case, as we are looking at a high-quality craftsmanship, while putting a huge attention towards the smallest details.
Controls & Connectivity
Dave’s unusual design language isn’t stopping there if I’m taking a closer look on its back. It doesn’t have one or two BNC inputs (mandatory for units like Hugo M Scaller or BLUE MKII), but four BNC inputs and additionally four BNC outputs – which Chord named DX outputs for future products. After ~seven years of its life cycle, DX outputs weren’t put to good use, but I’m still keeping my hopes up. Additionally, you’ll find two optical inputs, a USB type B and an AES input. I’m a little sad that there isn’t an I2S input via HDMI, as that’s my favorite digital input for a few reasons. When it comes to analog outputs, you’ll find a pair of RCA and XLR outputs and both can be fixed or variable depending on the settings.
There are four buttons on its top cover that will help navigate through its menu and a big volume knob that will adjust its voltage output, since Dave can work as a DAC & Preamp or DAC & headphone amp in case you need it.
Under DAVE’s Hood
DAVE’s DAC section is unlike anything I’ve seen up this point. It doesn’t use off-the shelf DAC chips or ladders of resistors, instead it relies on a Xilinx Spartan-6 FPGA (Field Programable Gate Array) that on paper has the processing power of 1000 conventional DAC chips. DAVE’s FPGA is loaded with over a million lines of code to confront complex timing issues. This is very much a software defined DAC, building upon the success of QBD76 HDSD and DAC 64 with an improved WTA filter to better reconstruct the timing of the transients – giving better pitch and timbre perception. DAVE has a 164.000-tap WTA filter and 166 DSP cores that spawned one of the most advanced noise-shapers. It’s noise-shaper generates a 20-element Pulse Array output that is the heart of its DAC section. After several months of continuous listening tests and design phases, the mastermind behind its development (Rob Watts) pushed soundstage and depth perception until those two would no longer improve.
FPGA’s capabilities enable a number of key sonic benefits, including significantly improved timing and according to them: “the best noise-shaper performance of any known DAC”. Its WTA filtering sits at 256 fundamental sample rates (FS) with further advanced filtering up to 2048 FS! According to Chord, no other DAC has ever FIR (finite impulse response) filtered at such a high rate.
DAVE can be used as a headphone amplifier as well, outputting up to 6V and 0.5A that should be enough for a dozen of headphones. I will be testing its headphone amp section in a dedicated chapter, driving all sorts of IEMs, portable and desktop headphones, so stay tuned for that.
If you want to know more about DAVE, about all and everything that makes it tick, then I strongly recommend checking DAVE’s Technology Presentation that can be downloaded from here. Rob explains down to the smallest details what’s so unique about it and what were his goals. You can find detailed measurements made by one of the world’s best audio analyzer (APx555) as THD and noise, dynamic range and jitter.
I’m spotting technicalities easier in an end-game headphone setup, bypassing room acoustics, meaning that its detail-retrieval / transparency, transient and frequency response will be tested on a Hifiman Susvara planar headphone. In a loudspeaker setup it was easier getting the feel of its soundstage size, depth and pin-point location of the notes (imaging) all around and that’s why it was used in two distinct setups.
- In a headphone setup, a Singxer SU-6 was used as a digital transport via BNC. Dave was then connected to a Trafomatic Primavera driving the most inefficient headphones out there, the legendary Hifiman Susvara. I also tried it the Audeze LCD-5/LCD-4, Kennerton Rognir (planar) and Erzetich Phobos V2021. First ones for sublime technicalities and detail-retrieval and later ones for outstanding bass and midrange presence.
- In a loudspeaker setup, it worked as a DAC only unit, followed by a Chord Ultima 3 Pre and Chord Ultima 5 Power amp, driving a pair on KEF Reference 3 standfloor loudspeakers. Everything was wired with balanced cables for a lower channel cross-talk and distortion.
Okay folks, my ears are begging for some well-deserved music, so let’s hit some ear-drums!
I. Preliminary Sound Impressions
Describing the sound of the DAVE is no easy task, as it doesn’t remind about anything I’ve heard thus far. FPGA-based DACs or software defined DACs as I like to call them are the newest generation of converters that spawned just a few decades ago. These can be customized down to the smallest details sound wise, as every line of code tells it exactly when and what it should precisely do. With chip-based converters or R-2R ladder DACs to a smaller degree, you cannot bypass their limitations and you can’t customize them as deeply. An ESS-Sabre based DAC will always sound like one no matter what and an R-2R ladder DAC would always sound by a hair thicker, slower and more organic regardless of the brand or price. An FPGA DAC will never reveal its identity, unless you put your ears to good use. There is still a major difference between a dCS Lina, Audiobyte HydraVox and Chord Dave, even if all of them are FPGA-based DACs. With units like these you are listening to an idea that was chiseled for more than a decade in most case, you are experiencing the sound their makers wanted to achieve regardless of the cost or development time.
When DAVE replaced the TPlus and all other DACs that were hovering around me, it felt like I was living a lie for so many years. Generally speaking, the biggest sounding DACs that I experienced at my place were R-2R ladder DACs. I find them spacious, layered and holographic sounding and from them all, TPlus was sitting on an aluminum throne, sounding wider, taller and deeper compared to any other unit I tried before. However, my eyes and jaw opened a little wider, as even more air was passing around each and every note when Dave started playing. The soundstage itself didn’t increase per se and I wasn’t looking at a bigger picture, but everything felt more focused, having a lot more air in between the notes. Never I believed that TPlus can be beaten at its own game, but after switching back to it, my tunes lost their magic and shine, sounding almost congested with modern tracks…I couldn’t believe my ears. My second thought was that (A Lot) more information was marching forward towards me. What I believed was extremely detailed, paled in comparison with the DAVE. What was interesting is that DAVE wasn’t making that extra detail aggressive or clinical sounding. Music sounded just right, crisp and so defined from get go. Some of the most detailed DACs that I’ve experienced so far as Matrix Element X or Gustard X26 PRO didn’t only found an arch-enemy in terms of detail retrieval, but their true leader, outclassing the very best delta-sigma DACs at their own game.
Everything that has to do with transient response was another surprise that Dave revealed immediately. My closest friends know my insatiable desire for an ultimate speed, impact and control of the drivers. I don’t like when musical notes are interfering with each other, creating an ugly mess of uncontrollable sounds and I don’t like when my digital front end can’t accelerate or decelerate its pace. Entry level R-2R converters are probably the slowest sounding of the bunch, followed by chip-based converters. With Dave, there’s a strong feeling that everything is executed in perfect synchronization and timing, like I’m experiencing the world’s most technical drummer that never misses an octave or a beat.
It feels like conquering a mountain peak while listening to Dave, there’s a feeling of accomplishment, getting higher doses of dopamine once it starts playing. You need to hear to believe it how it handles double drums, fast solos and quick shifts in dynamics. Nothing will slip past its gaze as I don’t remember experiencing such a fast reaction time, like it knows exactly what it will be playing. Obviously, I’m describing a highly energetic, lightning fast and impactful sounding unit. No matter if I’m staying with headphones on my head (via a Trafomatic Primavera) or with loudspeakers in front of me (via a Chord Ultima 3 Pre and Ultima 5 Power amp), there is no chance I wouldn’t move my head or tap my feet to the rhythm of the music. I see it as a runner that nobody could catch in terms of transients. All these things were so obviously even after a few minutes of play and the difference was so big, that the next day I ordered a unit and I never looked back. Its chameleon like, mood-lifting performance and energy gains were…unmeasurable for me and I’m still scratching my head why I didn’t try it before, knowing my past experience with Chord Electronics gear.
II. Transient Response
A few days ago, Infected Mushroom released their latest IM25 album (Qobuz / Tidal) that celebrates 25 years of thinking outside the box, as these guys were always pushing the boundaries of digital audio in so many ways. When testing the speed and decay of an amplifier, headphone or loudspeaker, I will always engage a Mushrooms album that will push my gear towards its limits. Check some beats of these guys, if you are into electro-tunes, then you won’t be disappointed. Expect electro-rock vibes, face-melting speed and an impact into the eardrums that defies laws of physics. IM25 isn’t only an amazing EDM/fusion album, but a true showcase of their expertise as veteran sound engineers. Ever since seeing them using planar headphones and a pair of Sennheiser HD800S while mastering their own content, I already knew that I’m going to like their work. Only a few seconds passed and my ears were already fluttering like butterfly wings in the air. While Black Velvet isn’t a super-fast paced track, it definitely pushes the boundaries when it comes to sub-bass delivery. Trafomatic Primavera picked up the signal and provided what I believe was the strongest bass kick that I ever experienced via headphones. I couldn’t refrain from smiling while being constantly bombarded with an artillery of bass notes coming from every possible angle. The bass was hitting so precise and it felt so airy at the same time, playing on so many levels, that it felt like I switched from stereo to Dolby Atmos recordings. if you love hearing a layered type bass, then Dave is so far the Numero Uno DAC for me. A Cookie From Space felt so energetic and alive, Dave picked up the pace in nanoseconds, that a few DACs sitting near it felt underwhelming, lightweight and slow, to a point of becoming boring sounding.
Moving to a much slower and lusher sounding power ballad like The Loneliest by Måneskin (Qobuz / Tidal), you can immediately feel that Dave changes gears, going with a more peaceful tempo, putting a much bigger accent on the midrange purity and on the emotional side of music listening. From a nerve-wracking unit, it transformed into a gentleman and from a super technical unit, it transformed into a much friendlier and mellower sounding unit that will challenge some of the best R-2R ladder DAC when it comes to engagement factor, liquidity and naturalness. While I no longer have the Audiobyte HydraVox by my side, I clearly remember how sweet and natural it sounded, pouring music into my eardrums like milk and honey. While Dave isn’t as liquid and buttery smooth sounding, it is definitely very real and natural sounding. You won’t find its treble itchy or bright, midrange will never run dry and bass notes would never lose their nerve. With Dave, expect an unlimited well of explosive dynamics and that’s how I felt it with every musical genre.
III. Detail Retrieval
If you checked a good deal of chip-based delta-sigma converters by now, then you already know that these units are very good at retrieving a lot of information from the original lossless files. Usually, such units have very strong and outlined leading edges. You can feel how crisp and defined each musical note is sounding, at the cost of a lighter weight performance. R-2R ladder DACs on the other hand, will highlight the innards and the texture of each musical note, getting a much heavier and fuller-bodied performance, at the cost of less impressive leading edge and contour of the notes.
Chord Dave on the other hand was combining both traits, as it was rich sounding, full-bodied, but also very defined, preserving sharp leading edges. It got the best of both worlds and that’s why it renders information a little bit different. It feels like how live & unamplified music is supposed to sound and this is how it performs at the helm of both my setups. Detail retrieval or transparency are redundant with a unit like this, as it will playback every single bit of information with utmost accuracy and in a very life-like manner. It doesn’t sound like digital, it sounds like music played back in real time, by real musicians sitting in front of you, playing just for you. When it comes to resolution and dynamic range, Dave single handedly outperformed all R-2R ladder DACs and chip-based Delta-Sigma DACs that I had the pleasure of testing. I don’t care what people measured with their audio analyzers, I can still hear more nuances and additional notes playing behind my tracks and I cannot deny those strong feelings. A guitar player or a “roadie” tunes the pitch of the guitar with his own ears and not with measuring equipment and while I’m not a guitar player, it was obvious that more information was marching forward versus other DACs I tested before. Dave plays everything so vivid and easy at the same time, that unwillingly tiny sounds will be popping all around your tunes. I like that it doesn’t force me to look and hear tiny details be them good or bad (mastering errors) as chip-based converters are usually doing, it wasn’t aggressively pushing them into my eardrums, but letting me choose if I want to hear them or not.
I was speechless that there’s still more information hidden somewhere in there compared to other DACs that I’m using daily, but that’s understandable, knowing that Dave is a lot more expensive. It’s unbelievable that even after decades of music listening via proper equipment, there are still units that will make you exclaim, Wow!
The timber / texture of vocal cords and musical instruments is something that very few DACs are rendering the right way. With Dave, everything becomes vivid and colorful, as if seeing the music in colors. You can feel the texture of all instruments, like one is made from soft wood, another uses a harder wood type, there’s a soft brush stick, that’s a thick drum stick and that’s a copper alloy cymbal. There’s more zing and life in each and every one and you’ll definitely feel that after a few minutes of play.
When Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock (Qobuz / Tidal) started playing, a tune recorded and mixed in 1962 by Blue Note Records, I immediately cranked that volume higher as the dynamic range felt through the roof with this one. When I was risings dynamics, I was shining a light on tiny details that were previously muted or less defined. The drums and percussion work played so incredibly deep, defined and clean at the same time. I know this track pretty well and on less impressive converters I hear the drums playing much softer with no leading edge / contour, but this time around these sounded like Blue Note recorded and mixed everything in 21th century. There was more energy oozing from this track and from a pale color palette, Watermelon Man became saturated, to a point of becoming alive and visceral sounding. There wasn’t a sound or artifact that could slip unnoticed on Dave’s shift.
IV. Soundstage & Imaging
Look, I’ll be honest with you. I understand how chip-based or ladder DACs are working down to the smallest details. If you follow the signal path, everything becomes obvious and straightforward. Every step is equally important and that’s why you don’t want bottle-necking the front end of your stereo setup. When it comes to FPGA DACs, I can only partially understand them…and the same can be said about all Chord Electronics converters. I can’t explain you why it sounds so spacious, separating every note in its own bubble of air. I don’t see a massive output stage, I don’t see big transformers, I don’t see a big capacitance and yet…everything is so airy and so perfectly arranged.
DAVE was silently shushing into my ears: “Forget everything you know DACMan, as you’ll experience something that you didn’t before” and that was a fact. Instead of pushing and pulling my listening chair back and forth depending on music and genre, it was somehow leaving a generous 360-degree picture all around me. There’s always a gargantuan void space a sitting in between the notes and while, you can’t see or hear it, you can feel that there is a larger physical space in between each note and a super short pause that lets you check up your music with a different eye. When closing my eyes, I’m easier wandering around my tracks, zooming in on whatever sound I choose to. Dave is superbly layered; you can feel a trail that every note is leaving behind that binds everything, making our brains dance and jump around. No matter how small or big, every voice will be heard loud and clear, it will be judged and admired. Even in the most crowded passages… Dave was never losing its balance and control and it never felt out of breath.
I can’t think of a better track when testing depth and sound-staging capabilities of a DAC. So What by Miles Davis (Qobuz / Tidal) had the percussion work moved to my far right, sax and piano moved to my far left, leaving a massive black hole in the middle waiting for a few musicians making their stage dive. A secondary saxophone player appears almost behind my back, playing from such a weird angle, giving an impression that every single musician surrounded my listening spot in a perfect circle. This track feels almost disjointed via loudspeakers and super cool via headphones, where Dave’s crossfeed feature helped me bring a few sounds in front of me. The extreme stereo effect is very apparent on this track and Dave had no issues in stretching wide that stage in all possible directions. I didn’t get only a very wide presentation, but also the deepest and most holographic performance I experienced to this day. A few musicians describe Kind of Blue as “modal jazz” and I agree with them. There are two characteristic features that set this style apart. The first is the use of scales that are independent from the standard major and minor ones. Second characteristic is even more noticeable, and that’s the way the music is grounded on long passages of unchanging harmony. So What has a few sections playing in single harmony and many other sections playing in a different harmony…a half-step higher that creates an illusion of multiple sound inception points, especially via loudspeakers. This tune sounds great on most DACs, but via Dave it became holographic in the purest form.
V. Noise Floor
This is a pointless chapter, as all the newest generation of DACs aren’t rising the noise floor to dangerous levels anymore. DAVE is unsurprisingly dead silent via its headphone jack, RCA or XLR outputs on its back, exactly how a unit of this caliber should perform.
However, there was an immediate change via DAVE that wasn’t as obvious on my previously owned DACs. Music was always emanating from a dark void, there’s an absolute blackness from which music starts emanating. The background noise is non-existent. Many times I felt it grey, sometimes a lot darker, but this time around, it’s just you and your music collection, without anything in between. Via headphones that might not sound as impressive, but via speakers it’s like the sounds aren’t coming from speaker driver anymore. The sounds are born somewhere behind them, maybe front their left or right or maybe from a much bigger sphere surrounding your speakers. With high dynamic range tracks a few sounds were murmuring in the background, appearing uninvited somewhere around the room. Take Minnesota Orchestra Showcase by Reference Recordings (Qobuz / Tidal) as a very good example. The gap between the lowest and highest intensity sound was much bigger and you should so prepare in advance a thick carpet on the floor, as you might jump from your seat due to an unsuspected trombone or big drum blasting off like a bomb near you. If you value such things and classical music is on your audiophile diet, then again…Dave seems like an undisputed Anglo-Saxon champion.
VI. DAVE’s Headphone Amplifier section
I will mention how Dave performs in a stereo setup at a later date, as a secondary review for Chord’s Ultima 3 Pre and Ultima 5 Power amp using Dave as the front end will be coming soon from yours truly. However, I will mention in advance that a dedicated preamp does wonders if you’re using power amplifiers as I do.
Usually, all-in-one devices are doing one thing very well and all other features not so much, having them mainly for convenience. I was expecting miracles from my former Matrix Audio Element X ($3400) and I hoped it would decently drive a few headphones, since it had a balanced 4-pin XLR and a regular 6.35mm headphone jack. Sadly, two op-amps can’t do miracles, as it was barely moving desktop headphones, sounding flat and 2D with all my headphones. There are exceptions from this rule once you are going higher price wise and units like Burson Audio Conductor 3X GT had a much better headphone amplifier section, driving heavy loads as low-sensitivity planars without too much trouble.
DAVE is a DAC first and everything else second, so I lowered my hopes, starting with much simpler loads as desktop dynamic headphones. Unlocking its headphone amplifier section is as easy as it sounds, just connect your headphones and it will automatically switch to headphone mode and lower its volume in the process. My co-designed Apos Caspian were already way too loud at -25 dB and the same could be said about Kennerton Vali and Erzetich Mania. I moved to heavier loads as planars and at around -15 dB it was already loud with a pair of Erzetich Phobos V2021, Kennerton Rognir and Meze Elite. This was a pleasant surprise, as enough headroom was still remaining on tap…but more importantly, I was not getting that dry and thin sound of the Element X. I’m not sure if Dave uses op-amps or discrete components (transistors) at its headphone amp section, but its lively presentation moved instantly in between my left and right ear. It was fast and quite impactful, the low-end was rumbling and it performed above my expectations. With harder to drive cans as Audeze LCD-4, less headroom was remaining and these didn’t sound as mean and effortless as I know them to be. You should forget about harder loads as Hifiman Susvara or Abyss AB-1266, as Dave wouldn’t drive them.
High-impedance dynamic headphones like Sennheiser HD800S worked decently, but far from what I would call outstanding. Sometimes I was arriving at -5dB volume wise, leaving little to no room for higher dynamic swings. Regardless of the load, I never felt it intimate or small sounding, it wasn’t limiting the low-end or the upper-treble in any way and it will easily replace a mid-level headphone amplifier as a temporary solution. For the best results, I recommend a top-class headphone amplifier of the same caliber. From the solid-state mafia…Enleum AMP-23R still plays in a league of its own and if you need a no-compromise amplifier that will place goose bumps on an hourly basis, then my highest recommendation goes to the Trafomatic Primavera with either Gold pin or NOS tubes.
If somebody will ever invent a gold standard on how bass notes should sound as a whole, then Chord’s Dave would be the unit to which all others should be compared with. It’s almost pointless mentioning its bass detail, layering or natural decay. I honestly think it excels at everything that has to do with bass. I never found it overdone or all over the place and it was never thin or lightweight sounding either. I always liked the cleanliness and fast decay of regular chip-based converters. I also liked the weighty, textured and natural decay of the R-2R DACs and it seems that Chord’s Dave combined those traits, providing all the speed and impact in the chest you can crave for, while leaving it weighty and expanded. Whenever I’m listening to a relaxed blues or angry rock tune, I’m surprised by how precise each and every note is being delivered with utmost accuracy, without stopping the brute force of a wild drum solo. Usually, you are getting a speedy presentation or a punchy one, but you can have it all with a unit like Dave. Once fast and impactful tunes are coming to play, there’s an unstoppable force and energy coming forward. I don’t remember being so physically and emotionally involved with my tunes before.
Probably the only area that wouldn’t outperform world-class R-2R converters is the midrange region. This is the only region where I felt it less expressive and less emotionally involved, but at the same time it was miles ahead to any chip-based delta-sigma converter. Units like Matrix Element X or Gustard X26 PRO wouldn’t stand a chance versus Dave, although anything from Rockna and upper-class Musician and Denafrips units, would definitely put more meat on the bone. To my ears, Dave still sounded as real music without any kind of DSP applied to its performance. Vocal performance was so real, especially when an end-game tube amp was following. Adding a Trafomatic Primavera and then a Hifiman Susvara, I’ve got what I would describe as aural sex. I don’t want to change anything from this formula; I just want to relive those moments every single day. I have this setup for a few months now and I believe I re-listened my entire music collection and I was still getting goosebumps at least a few times a day. This combo can make you sad, happy, or on top of the mountain in mere seconds, something that will take another unit at least a few minutes or hours to reproduce. I’m still thinking about what album or artist should I exemplify, as regardless of musical genre, everything played in perfect harmony. The tonal balance felt outstanding, it never leaned to the bright or dark side, always trying to elevate the truth above anything else. With a few words, I find it über-detailed in the midrange, but also meaty, textured and relaxed if needed.
I was listening to Journey into 1358 by Eloy (Qobuz / Tidal), recorded in 1975 and I remained petrified by how impressive the percussion work sounded via Dave. For hundreds of times this tune didn’t sound as clean and defined, especially in the treble. Those cymbals sounded so fresh and so alive, as if someone recorded and mastered them the other day. The synths added so much flow and smoothness, filling the gaps in between with phenomenal grooves. A somewhat relaxed track that should never make me move, sent my head and right foot into a perfectly synced go come movement.
I always liked the dynamic range of Surfer Rosa by Pixies (Qobuz / Tidal). If you need a rock album that wants to highlight how clean and impactful the drums can sound, then I don’t know a better one. At the 20 second mark on the 8th track…there’s a powerful slam in the chest that needs to be felt to be believed. The needle on Primavera’s VU-meter went nuts! Visually warning me about a neck massaging session that will commence shortly. The real showstopper was Baba Yaga, Op.56 by Minnesota Orchestra (Qobuz / Tidal) that added so much air and space, playing jokes with my imagination, especially via headphones. There’s no way a sound stage, depth and note placement like this is possible via headphones, while preserving the full energy behind every sound. Usually, a few notes would be overshadowing the others, but that wasn’t the case on Dave’s watch, sounding grandiose and alive without lacking spark. I closed my eyes and the walls of the listening room started slowly disappearing, getting a bigger than life performance via loudspeakers. Sometimes Dave is making me feel like a dust particle in the universe and frankly, I loved that.
I know that some of you are waiting for a long comparison in between it and a few top-grade DACs that I have tested around here. Unfortunately, there is nothing to compare, as the rabbit hole goes (much) deeper to what I hoped and knowing that it can still be improved upon with units like Hugo M Scaller, makes it play in a league of its own.
I can chitchat indefinitely on how real it sounded in a stereo and headphone setup, on how technical and natural it sounded at all times, on how it preserved the energy, the slam, speed and decay and on how easily it was expanding or crushing the stage depending on the music played. So far, this is the most chameleon-like DAC I have tried and I can’t wait to know what future holds, as Dave isn’t exactly a new DAC with 7 years already clocking under its belt.
Overall, Chord’s Dave seems like the most complete sounding DAC I have experienced so far and for this and many other reasons, I decided purchasing a silver unit and use it as my new reference DAC for years to come. If I would be the man behind Chord Electronics, I would probably re-imagine the Choral line, bridging the gap with the Ultima line when it comes to aesthetics. I bought a Choral Ensemble Stand as well, so I could use it with the Ultima 3 Pre and Ultima 5 stack and maybe going with a similar width with the Ultima line, incorporating by default those solid metal feet would be a better idea. I also wish Chord Electronics would develop a proper wireless streamer & music server that would seamlessly connect with Dave and/or Hugo M Scaller for an ultimate Chord Electronics stack…that would be something to behold.
In my view, an end-game DAC should be the bearer of truth and the truth isn’t always pleasant to hear, but I can always count on such a unit. This one wasn’t playing around and it wasn’t telling fresh jokes, being serious the whole bloody time. It was non-forgiving and I think that non-forgiving DACs are the best DACs as anything end-game is non-forgiving, be it a Greyhound dog or a twin-turbocharged Koenigsegg Jesko. I tweaked my whole rig around the Chord DAVE, as it’s the one that can go to eleven. I can tune its tonality a little bit, but there is no way I can change its out of room holographic lucidity. If a DAC can take me there, then it’s a force to be reckoned with, deserving your fullest attention.
With all that said, Chord Electronics DAVE isn’t for everybody and it’s not something that I can recommend left and right. I don’t recommend it as your first DAC, hell…I don’t recommend it as your fifth DAC. To fully understand what it has to offer, you’ll need to try at least a dozen of chip-based, R-2R ladder-based and at least an FPGA DAC to fully understand what makes it so different. A digital front end of such caliber will require an equally impressive preamp, power amp or headphone amp to fully unleash its talent, otherwise you will bottleneck its performance.
If you have years of experience under your belt and you are willing to experiment with what I believe is one of the nicest D/A converter out there, only then I can recommend to you the Chord Electronics DAVE. In the end, this was the best D/A converter I tried so far and it is my pleasure awarding it with our highest, Gold Award! Congratulations to the team and I’m looking forward to Watts next!
DAVE goes for $14.000 / £10.000 / €12.800 and it can be purchased from one of their dealers around the globe. In case you are getting one, please come back and leave a comment below. I’m curious to know how it performs in your headphone or loudspeaker setup. That’s all for now, Sandu’s signing out!
- Tank proof case, overkill in every possible way
- Attention towards the smallest details, impressive build quality
- Small and lightweight versus its competition
- Legendary DAC section that could be easily featured in a SF movie
- Feature packed to its teeth; I particularly like its crossfeed function via headphones
- So far, this is the most detailed and transparent sounding DAC I have tried
- So far, this is the most holographic, spacious and 3D sounding DAC I have tried
- So far, this is the fastest and punchiest sounding DAC I have tried
- Although highly technical, it was always organic and life-like sounding
- Incredibly dynamic, explosive at times with the right selection of electronics, headphones and/or speakers
- Offers a pitch-black background and a noiseless performance
- Covers the frequency response in full, without rolling off parts of the FR
- Great I/O, the only input that is missing it I2S via HDMI
- Can drive a great deal of headphones, including a few planars and high-impedance dynamic cans
- Could still be improved with an end-game DDC or with a Hugo M Scaller
- Plasticky remote control
- Lacks a I2S input to be used with wireless streamers / music servers
- Seven years later, DX outputs were still not used
- Its curvy look wasn’t to my liking
- DACs: Chord Electronics DAVE, Gustard R26 Discrete, Gold Note DS-10 Plus & PSU-10 EVO, SMSL SU-10
- DAPs: FiiO M17, M11 Plus ESS, Shanling M7, M6 Ultra, Hiby RS2
- Headphone Amps: Trafomatic Primavera, Trafomatic Head 2, Enleum AMP-23R, Ferrum OOR + Hypsos, Flux Lab Acoustics Volot, Burson Audio Soloist 3X GT, Topping A90 Discrete
- Preamps: Chord Electronics Ultima 3 Pre
- Integrated Amps: Enleum AMP-23R
- Power Amps: Chord Electronics Ultima 5, Burson Timekeeper 3X GT (x2)
- Loudspeakers: KEF Reference 3, Sound Of Eden Crescendo UNO
- IEMs: FiiO FH9, FH7S, FA9, Meze Rai Penta, LittleDot Cu KIS, Kinera Skuld, 7Hz Timeless & others
- Full-sized headphones: Hifiman Susvara, HE1000SE, Audeze LCD-5, LCD-4, Sennheiser HD800S, Erzetich Phobos V2021, Erzetich Mania, Kennerton Rognir planar, Vali, Apos Caspian, Sendy Peacock, Apollo, HarmonicDyne Poseidon & others
- Interconnects: QED Reference (x2), Topping TCX1 (x2)
- USB Cables: Supra USB Excalibur (x2), Chord C-USB, Matrix Hi-Fi USB
- HDMI Cables: Supra 8K HDMI 2.1 (x2)
- Speaker cables: Kimber PR8, Audioquest Type4
- Power Cables: Isotek EVO3 Premier (x3), iFi Audio SupaNova (x2)
- Balanced Isolation Power Conditioners: PLiXiR Elite BAC1500 (stereo setup), Elite BAC400 (headphone setup)