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Chord DAVE Review (DAC & HP Amp)

Rate this DAC & HP Amp

  • 1. Poor (headless panther)

    Votes: 256 60.8%
  • 2. Not terrible (postman panther)

    Votes: 107 25.4%
  • 3. Fine (happy panther

    Votes: 40 9.5%
  • 4. Great (golfing panther)

    Votes: 18 4.3%

  • Total voters
    421

amirm

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This is a review, detailed measurements and listening tests of CHORD DAVE combination DAC and headphone amplifier. It is on kind loan from a member and costs US $14,000.
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac review high-end.jpg

Having been frustrated with the user interface of lower end Chord products with their color Morse codes, I was really looking forward to using the DAVE with its color LCD. The display certainly helps a lot in being able to use the product. Alas, poor attention to usability still abounds. Navigating the settings using four buttons seems anything but logical. I had to keep pushing buttons to get to what I wanted. The manual is no help as it doesn't show the sequence of buttons to get to any settings. The center control can be pushed but that just mutes things. Changing some modes like DAC or Pre mode requires simultaneous press of two buttons which was a hassle as well.

The display is slanted back and I had to tilt the unit forward to take the above picture from nearly up top. Otherwise, everything but the top two squares wash out due to low contrast. Forget about putting this in a stereo cabinet and using it remotely. You won't be able to see anything.

The volume control is another nod to looks than function. The metal knob is slippery and a bit shallow for good control. It does have acceleration which is good.

I found the bug in the time out mechanism for the display. In the midst of changing the volume control, the display would go black for a second and then come back.

Strangely from this company is lack of any anti-aliasing on the text causing pixels to not be seen in the fonts chosen! The result is a rather grainy look (better in person than the shot above though).

On the positive front, the unit is quite heavy and substantial. And I like the look of the circular display and the look of the UI.

Overall I give it B- when it comes to look and design of the interface.

Edit: here is the back panel picture:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac review back panel XLR high-end.jpg


Note: usually I don't take price into consideration when reviewing audio products. However, when we get to the extremes of price range, I do start to look at that. This is one those reviews especially since the designer talks extensively about attention to the smallest detail in measured performance. So be ready for me to analyze its performance in the same manner.

CHORD DAVE Measurements
I started with XLR output and putting the DAC in its "DAC mode" which fixes the output at an odd 6+ volts for balanced:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac review USB.png


I was very surprised to see channel 2 noise floor dancing up and down significantly with SINAD going for the ride as well. Its distortion is also substantially higher than the other channel. To show you the variation, here is the SINAD over time:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced toslink dac SINAD Recorder noise modulation.png


As you see it sinks as much as 6 dB! The unit advertises galvanic isolation on USB but still, I thought noise over that bus may be a problem so I switched to Toslink (levels adjusted to 4 volts):
Chord DAVE stereo balanced toslink dac review.png

As you see, variations persisted. This is just unacceptable. Here is the USB mode again with output adjusted to 4 volts:

Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac mode measurements USB.png


Using this last display, SINAD is "excellent" by our normal standards but simply not competitive when compared to countless other DACs at all prices that beat DAVE:
Best balanced stereo dac review.png


Notice how SINAD lands right next to Chord Mojo 2!

RCA output is actually a bit better as far as SINAD/distortion but it also has noise modulation:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac measurement Toslink RCA.png


To be sure there was nothing broken with my setup, I used the same cable and setup to test the Topping D70s that is on my bench and it performed superbly with none of the noise issues that DAVE has. Its SINAD variation was limited to decimal place, not whole numbers.

There is extra output voltage available if you need it:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac THD vs Level Measurement.png


Note however that clipping behavior is quite nasty. It generates a sole square wave with some ripple so do not go above +3 dB on the volume scale.

The higher noise floor impacted a number of other measurements starting with IMD distortion test vs level:

Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac measurement Toslink IMD.png


Its noise floor is landing on couple year old combo DAC and amp which costs only $250. Distortion is however lower as we can see reflected in multi-tone:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac measurement Multitone.png


But then what is going on with those sidebands at lower frequencies???

Linearity looks good at high level but it is polluted by some amount of noise which we never see in more performant DACs:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac measurement Linearity.png


Dynamic range as you can imagine is simply is not completive:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac Dynamic Range Toslink Measurement.png


Here is a comparison to another custom high-end DAC, the Mola Mola Tambaqui
index.php


We are not even speaking the same language here!

Claim to fame of this product is its steep reconstruction filter and on that, company delivers:

Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac Filter Toslink Measurement.png


There is an undocumented "HF Filter" which company recommends leaving on except when using their M-scaler. Here is its effect:

Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac Frequency Response Toslink Measurement.png


Odd that they would build you a sharp filter but then say you need to turn this other filter on and lose some of your upper end extension.

Distortion+noise relative to frequency is not bad but "not bad" is not a term you want to use with a very expensive DAC whose marketing story is precision of its implementation:

Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac measurement THD vs Frequency.png


Chord DAVE Headphone Amplifier Measurements
Let's start with the noise performance:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac measurement 50 mv.png


That is disappointing:
most quiet headphone amplifier.png

So be careful in using sensitive IEMs as you may hear hiss and nosie.

There is decent amount of power to drive headphones but I like to see more:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac measurement THD 300.png

Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac measurement THD 32.png


Notice the variations in one channel especially which likely is due to the noise modulation we saw in the DAC measurements.

Our sweep of load impedances doesn't show any issues:
Chord DAVE stereo balanced dac measurement power vs load.png


CHORD DAVE Listening Tests
I started my testing with my Dan Clark Stealth headphone which is the same one the DAC designer prefers. At low to medium volumes, the sound was excellent and I could not detect any impairments. Crank up the volume though and the sound proceeds to get shrill and congested. This is a difficult to drive headphone but again, for the kind of money you are paying, I don't expect compromises.

Switching to Sennheiser HD650 did not improve the situation much as predicted from measurements (not enough power for the class). Again at low to medium levels there was nothing to complain about. Crank it up though and shrillness and high frequency accentuation became way too much. Using DAVE DAC to drive the Topping A90 Discrete remedied that problem.

Overall, I could detect no magic or special qualities attributed to the filtering of the DAC. At low to medium levels it sounded like other DAC/Amps I have tested.

Conclusions
I always considered Chord products excellent but over designed. I now have to change that. The DAVE DAC does not perform anywhere near where it should. It is bested easily by DACs at $150. Its headphone amplifier is good but no match for higher powered units. It is a pretty DAC but usability is left behind. In my listening tests, I could detect no attribute that made it sound special. No, this is not a controlled test but neither are the reports to the contrary! Regardless, company's claim to fame is exacting implementation with concepts such as -300 dB and noise modulation mattering. So what is up then with my measurements?

I know someone may say my measurements are wrong. Well, where is the company measurements? Designer owns and uses same Audio Precision APx555 that I have. If it is all about precision of signal processing and implementation, where are their measurements? Their specs by the way are paltry and all use a-weighting filtering. Why filter the measurements? Why not let us see the true measurements if -300 dB matters in them?

I get that some of us, myself included, can afford and want high-end audio products. But for heaven's sake, get something that performs like its marketing. The aforementioned Mola Mola Tambaqui runs circles around Chord DAVE and gives you streaming functionality as well!

Company marketing line says: "DAVE stands for ‘Digital to Analogue Veritas in Extremis’, a moniker that best reflects the product's capability; a device so advanced and with so few compromises, that it is absolutely truthful in the extreme — a standard that all other DACs on the market simply cannot hope to match."

I see no extreme truth here. And a lot of compromises. Many other DACs not only match it, but exceed its performance provably.

Mind you, the impairments are there objectivity. Other than lack of amplification power, I doubt any of these issues are audible. Then again if you believe this, then you have not gotten what you paid for!

Anyway, a disappointing show from the company that hypes its technical expertise in every way possible. I suggest going back to the design and cleaning it up.

Needless to say, I can't recommend CHORD DAVE. Company needs to do better. A lot better.

P.S. All the panther are busy in the vegetable garden pulling weeds. Hence the reason you don't see them in the review picture.

Edit: Video review posted as well:


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As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

Any donations are much appreciated using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
 
Last edited:

AudioJester

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What effect does reconstruction filter have? I mean is it audibly noticeable?

There is a lot of myth/hype about this dac!
Would be great to see MSB measured at some point.
 

Matias

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Very disappointing... I expected a lot better.
 

bennetng

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Strangely from this company is lack of any anti-aliasing on the text causing pixels to not be seen in the fonts chosen!
Not enough filter taps for the text display. Connect to M Scaler and see if the fonts look better or not.
The use of serif typeface simply expose the weakness due to lack of taps.
 

DavidEdwinAston

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As a contented Qutest user, I would have hoped for "improved", performance from the Dave. It is my name after all!
However, thank you, Amir. We can enjoy music in our homes, for very reasonable expenditure thanks to your testing.
 

voodooless

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Funny how Rob Watts drones on and on about noise modulation, and then we see his product performing like this.. now one might not exactly call this noise modulation, but it definitely something to avoid, especially given the price tag.
 

lc6

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Since the Topping D70s SINAD is ~120 dB and it costs ~$650, then given that "money is power" (as opposed to amplitude), I would expect the Chord DAVE SINAD to be at least 120 + 10*log($14,000 / $650) = 133.3 dB. But then we have to apply the law of diminishing returns. Does anyone have formula for that? :D
 

AdamG247

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Disappointing result.

@AdamG247 , got your extra set of asbestos underwear? This is going to be fun...
Oh Joy, a Weekend Review dumpster fire! :facepalm: A very bad week for Chord Fans. 14 grand? Wow, that’s going to make a lot of butt hurt customers…
 
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Kevbaz

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Blimey my RME ADI 2 DAC looks to have better performance at a fraction of the cost :)
 
OP
amirm

amirm

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I can see the problem with this unit. Some silly sausage plugged a white power cable into a black device.
:) I actually used my Audioquest cable for testing. The white cable is on my photo stand because it is easier to photoshop out.
 
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