Chord Electronics DAVE Review
Chord Electronics DAVE DAC headphone amplifier preamplifier review

The Chord Electronics DAVE is an icon of the modern HiFi Industry, since its launch in early 2016 its been a symbol for Rob Watts design philosophy and been “the one” to own or beat in many audiophiles eyes.

Several years on Chord Electronics have developed more advanced and trickled down technologies from the DAVE which could have a direct impact on buyers decisions, do I spend all my budget on the DAVE or on a product combination. This is a question soon to be at the forefront of many audiophile minds with the upcoming release of the Hugo M Scaler another Chord Electronics product set to change the HiFi landscape of digital playback. With this huge product release looming it is actually the perfect time for me to become very well acquainted with the DAVE so that when the question is asked “do I buy the Dave or a Hugo TT 2 / Qutest and Hugo M Scaler instead?” I can give the right answer.

There is a comprehensive and very interesting Chord Electronics DAVE Video Review playlist on our You Tube Channel

I want to thank Nintronics the excellent HiFi and AV Dealership for loaning us the DAVE for this review

The look of love

By now most audiophiles would have seen the DAVE up close at a dealers or at least photos of one on any and every media publication around the world. As with all Chord Electronics products its certainly a unique design distinguished by the big LCD display and very premium feel front controls. On the rear there is a plethora of connections both incoming and outgoing to allow for connection to and from just about any product you can think of. The visual design of the DAVE has the potential to split opinion until you install it in the Choral Ensemble Stand which tilts the Dave forward at just the right angle. From here the creative vision becomes clear – a stunning stack of high end audio electronics with a small foot print but big performance. There are some customisation options with different finishes available black, silver and chrome to match a silver or black finish DAVE.

The build quality of both the DAVE and Choral Ensemble stand is exemplary, perfectly milled aluminium constructions. They have a very premium and quality feel, with every user interaction reaffirming this. The controls on the front of the DAVE may look simple but in use they are just about perfect and feel made to last a life time.

I find myself wanting to complain about the remote control, its a very basic design and initially appears a bit cheap and un-special for a product of this calibre. In use it does its job perfectly and actually justifies itself. Is there a need for anything more lavish, definitely not however lavish remote controls are always nice, ask Devialet owners.

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What makes DAVE so “Special”

The DAVE is well specified from a DAC perspective supporting playback of native files up to DSD 512. Its a stand alone pre amplifier and a headphone amplifier capable of driving 800ohm headphones. This specification has become very common place in the modern hifi market and is attainable at a much lower price point so its not the appeal of the DAVE.

What makes the DAVE “special” is what makes all Chord Dacs unique, the Rob Watts digital code, design and filter craftsmanship. DAVE when released was the most advanced chipset Chord had incorporated into a DAC design and still is at the time of writing this review. The DAVE is a 20 element pulse-array Dac in an FPGA with 164,000 tap length filters.

What do these numbers actually mean, in very simple terms the higher the number the better and its in context that things become important, especially in late 2018. Looking specifically at tap length filters Rob Watts has always claimed a million tap lengths are required for 16 bit 44.1khz audio to be reproduced properly, with correct transient response. The Chord Blu MKII was the first product where Rob Watts could realise this vision with the upcoming Hugo M Scaler being only the second. These are extremely important products but they are not stand alone DAC’s.

Within the Chord DAC range the Hugo TT 2 is a 10 bit pulse-array DAC in an FPGA with 98,304 tap length filters. The Qutest and Hugo 2 both are a 10 bit pulse-array DAC with 49,152 tap length filters. From the numbers alone it will appear the DAVE has over 3x and 50% advantage for transient clarity over the other Dacs in the Chord range. This is very significant but also raises the question – what happens when a Hugo M Scaler is added and we achieve over a million tap length filters with the Qutest and Hugo TT 2? Do we then get better sound quality than from the DAVE?

I think this has got to be one of the most interesting Dac technology performance questions I can recall. I asked Rob Watts this exact same question when I met him at the CanJam Headphones show in July this year. He explained that adding a Hugo M Scaler to a Qutest or Hugo TT 2 would raise the performance of those Dacs from a transient clarity, musicality and musical quality perspective, but he also confirmed there is more to a Dac design and the DAVE still has its advantages in these other areas. Rob also confirmed for best performance you will want the DAVE and the M Scaler.

This is something I cannot wait to test personally and I will be bringing you all the information as soon as I am able.

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The DAVE Learning Curve was a steep one

As with any new hifi component being added to a system there is the owner learning curve that starts with familiarisation and then the work begins fine tuning to get the best sound. The DAVE has been the most interesting hifi component I have reviewed in this regard.

Using Dave as a DAC and a Pre-amplifier was a revelation to me, its not something I had tried before or even considered as a serious audio performance solution. I will be looking to test this further but certainly my current thoughts are there is no need for an additional pre-amplifier with the Chord DAVE. The sonic presentation is clean, controlled and dynamic with outstanding clarity and resolution.

There is a sense of rawness to the music, something I learned to appreciate with more time spent listening to this type of sonic presentation. By raw I mean a very uncoloured, clean representation of the incoming signal for all its merits and weaknesses. I think this is where some audiophiles may prefer to add a pre-amplifier to give a sonic presentation more to their taste, suiting their speakers and room conditions. In my very neutral acoustically treated room, the cleanest possible sound was my preference.

Sensitive as a Babies Bottom

Anyone who has watched any of my video review series will know two things about me as an audiophile, I always push for better sound and I never accept what I get as being the best it can be. In other words I am a serious tweaker and will always try to improve the performance from a piece of kit on review by using the best power cables, signal cables and isolation products I can. Isolation is a very powerful thing, its easy to do wrong and make the sound worse, but when done right it can really elevate the overall performance of the system.

The DAVE being sat in its very lovely Choral Ensemble stand meant I couldn’t use the Plinth-Design Cera-Disc isolation feet that are my go to kit isolators. Luckily they had just sent me a prototype product for testing the Cera-Disc 12 which is a larger and more comprehensive product designed for placing on the top of hifi components. I found the DAVE to be very sensitive to vibration and adding the Cera-Disc 12 helped the sonic imaging to become more solid and free of the speakers but also remove a slight bit of edginess to the leading edges of notes. During the testing of this I noticed it was very easy to overdo things and soften the transient response which is then robbing the DAVE of some of its presentation strengths, so my advice is to buy the right product for the job and keep at it if the results you look for are not there initially.

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The Importance of the incoming signal

As part of the review I wanted to make sure I was hearing the DAVE perform at its best before making any final judgements on its performance. I made a plan to go back to the start and look at every setup decision I made in my computer source including how I setup up Dirac Live. This seemed a logical step because up until this point with every other setup I have wanted to push and improve the clarity and resolution of the system. With DAVE the starting point for clarity and resolution is so much further forward that there was a good chance what I had done previously was negatively affecting how things sounded now. Call it good audiophile intuition but it worked, I adjusted some settings in the audio pc music server and set a new target curve within Dirac Live to more closely mirror the KEF Reference speakers natural treble roll off. These are small changes really in isolation but when the overall picture is concerned they make a big difference. Later I added more clean power to key areas of the audio pc music server to get another improvement in the systems sound quality.

At this stage I was also testing different incoming signal options to the DAVE, would it be better to keep it simple and feed it via USB, or stick to my normal process of using a studio grade clock, the Mutec MC3+ USB. It didnt take long to hear my usual approach resulted in better sound, the Mutec MC3+ USB again showing its quality as a clock for USB signals. This
really brought to my attention the importance of the quality of the signal coming into the DAVE.

The raw nature of the DAVE’s sonic performance when used as a DAC and Pre-amplifier really hinges on the quality of the incoming signal, that was made very clear to me in this test coupled with how important the correct sound balance is from the speakers in the room. If the treble is out of balance with the mid range and bass the DAVE could come over hard and analytical, stereotypical “hifi” sounding. However when balanced correctly and attentions to details are paid the resulting sound quality presentation is incredible.

Sound Quality – New Levels of Performance – “Incredible”

Once I had things setup just right that is when the magic started to happen, that is when all the wonderful praise the DAVE has received by press and owners all over the world started to make sense. That’s when comments from Chord Electronics “this is how all DAC’s should sound” start to make a lot of sense. My reference review system was now sounding incredible in just about every way possible within the constraints of its overall quality. Every attention to detail paid to every area seemed to all click into place with the DAVE’s resolving power at the centre allowing the overall system quality to flourish. What a rewarding and engaging listening experience.

The speed, timing and transient clarity of the DAVE are exceptional, it presents musical layers, including very complex musical pieces broken clearly and cleanly across a wide and open sound stage. This level of clarity is totally engaging and the crispness of the leading edges of notes makes for a snappy and lively presentation that grabs and holds your attention. There is certainly no chance of falling asleep listening like this, the music communicates its message and emotion to the listener with real vigour. The DAVE has a surgical precision in how the music is layered and timed, its damn near perfect in this regard. There is no smearing of layers, there are no details lost there is outright precision to the musical performance most critically without losing the musicality. See the song demonstration video below for a fantastic example of this

​The best bass I have heard from the KEF Reference Speakers

I firmly believe that bass quantity and quality are as essential to overall hifi system performance as contrast is to picture quality. The bass lays the foundation that all the other sound is built on and is the key to a systems overall balance.

The bass from DAVE is exceptional, its given me the best bass I have had from the KEF Reference 3 speakers. The surgical precision to the sound extends to the lowest frequencies where bass notes start and stop with a clarity that is astounding. The power, drive and guts to the bass presentation is just about perfect, modern style music using big bass samples need this to drive the music along, such as in the song demonstration video below. The DAVE is not a one trick pony play a jazz piece or an acoustic bass recording and prepare to be amazed by the insight into the bass players string plucking precision.

The most impressive aspect of bass quality from the DAVE is the space it has, the bass has its own clean and clear space within the sound stage similar to how treble and vocals do. Its an integrated part of the music but its laid out before you with such clarity that its actually is its own musical entity. This is bass at its best and its wonderful to listen to.

Authentic sounding instruments

One of the most difficult things to assess for hifi performance is how real does it sound, how authentic do instruments sound. There are so many contributing factors to this its difficult to point the finger at any one in particular. The DAVE with its leading edge clarity and sound stage clarity work for presenting a stage of musicians in front of you. More impressive is the energy and drive of each aspect of the musical whole, there is a heightened sense of the musicians emotions being put into their performances and their interplay between each other. This added emotion and energy is noticeable across drums, guitar, brass and every aspect of the sonic presentation. The DAVE takes us one step closer to recreating the original performance.

Natural Vocal Quality

When I am assessing vocal quality I am listening for how authentic does the sound I am hearing represent a singer performing close quarters into a microphone. I want the hifi system to do this justice, I want to hear the intimacy of this special musical thing, a singer displaying their craft. Therefore I am looking for several important things a tight and focused vocal, with clean edge definition. The vocal has to be a solid entity, full sounding with the correct tone for each singer to be easily identified.

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Lets not forget the Headphone Amplifier

I used the Audioquest Nightowl Carbon headphones to review the headphone amplifier in the DAVE, I thought these could be a good combination and they happened to be pictured in some Chord PR material, see below.

Once things warm up the sound is very dynamic and powerful, its a very clean presentation allowing you to play much louder than you probably should so bear that in mind. The vocal feels very close and the overall presentation feels very immediate. I am very impressed with the resolution and clarity to certain aspects of the music, the vocals sound large and have real impact and presence. You feel close to the music and close to the performance. I enjoyed lots of fantastic subtleties and nuances that headphones listening always gives over speakers.

Overall I am not as in love with the headphone playback of the DAVE as I am for its use in a hifi system and that is due to the overall sound balance, I find it too forward. I think that is what gives the sound that immediacy which is very impressive but can be tiring. I found the overall presentation too lean, the bass has purpose and drive but it feels limited in extension and there is not enough foundation to support the overall energy in the higher regions. This has the effect of holding you at bay rather than letting you into the music. This could be because I was listening too loud and its also a personal preference situation.

I tried the different crossfeed modes to see if it would improve the overall sound stage. Maybe these modes work better on different styles of headphones as I didn’t find much benefit with mode 1 seemingly the best.

​Much Better Value than you may realise

The DAVE is actually very good value – there it is I said it. Someone calling a product that costs £8500 good value may seem slightly crazy but I can assure you I am far from being so (well maybe a little.) If you consider the DAVE as a standalone DAC for that money it may seem excessive in some audiophiles eyes, for others not so performance at this level costs money.

Its when you break it down and consider the whole package the perceived value of the DAVE changes. You are not just getting a great DAC and a headphone and pre amplifier thrown in to look good on the spec sheet. You are getting a seriously high performing pre amplifier, high performing headphone amplifier and arguably the worlds best DAC all in one very easy to live with package. Broken down each main element of the DAVE costs significantly less than buying individual products at this performance level, that’s without all the necessary quality cables needed to link them all together and the extra physical space they would take up.

Making full use of the DAVE is where audiophiles will get great value for money from their investment, there is no sacrifice in quality doing so and that is extremely impressive and important to stress.

Final Thoughts

My final thoughts are of needs and musts, I need to have the DAVE in my system and I must have the DAVE in my system. From a reviewing perspective its an ideal product because its a perfect starting point for reviewing all other products. There is a set level of quality that will allow other products to flourish or not as the case maybe making assessments easier and more obvious. I think more importantly the DAVE sets a benchmark for other similar products to be compared against.

This review has ended with me being in a very different place to where I started with many of my opinions, ideas and appreciation of a musical presentation being changed by the DAVE forever. I cannot remember the last product that has had as much influence on me as the DAVE. I was in complete admiration for the DAVE from the very start but it took a lot for it win me over the way it has. I did have to work hard, in fact the DAVE had me running in circles at one stage. All it really did was highlight to me things I needed to improve and then rewarded me for my all hard work.

Has spending time with the DAVE answered the magic question, do I buy one or a Hugo TT2 / Qutest and M Scaler instead? No, that question is still to be answered but if you are looking for help making the decision to buy a DAVE I hope this review will point you in the right direction to make the right decision. I don’t know how I can go back now, I am totally smitten.

Special Performer Award Website Background

A Special Performer Award is Pursuit Perfect Systems highest accolade and is in recognition of exceptional product performance regardless of price