I love high-end audio gear, but I have to admit it doesn't always look as good as it sounds. Too much of high-end design is tired and bland, but no audiophile would say that about Chord Electronics, witness its Dave Ultimate Reference DAC! This made-in-the-UK digital converter boasts proprietary digital processing that utilizes Spartan 6 Field Programmable Gate Arrays that Chord claims have one thousand times the processing power of mass-produced chip DACs. The strategy seems to be working, Dave produces stunning clarity with everything from plain vanilla CDs to high-res files.
Dave's big and colorful display and cursor control buttons dominate the top panel, and there's a 6.3mm headphone jack on the front. The volume control has a deliciously smooth luxury feel. That's all good, but most folks will likely use the cheap, black plastic remote control, which definitely clashes with Dave's otherwise impeccable build quality.
The rear panel's connectivity suite runs to four coaxial (BNC not RCA jacks), one AES/EBU, two TosLink optical, and one USB digital inputs; analog preamp outputs include stereo RCA and XLR. Digital resolution extends to ultra high rate 768kHz/32-bit PCM and DSD 512 (8X). Sadly, Dave has no analog inputs so anyone wishing to use Dave as a preamp with a turntable will be out of luck. Alternatively you could use Dave purely as a digital converter, with a separate preamplifier and hook up a turntable to that. Dave also lacks the ability to process Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) files.
Dave's solid aluminum chassis is downright petite by high-end standards, measuring a trim 13.1 x 2.8 x 6 inches (333x71x154mm).
The perfect Chord
I mostly used Dave as a preamp/DAC with a Pass Labs XA25 power amplifier and TAD ME-1 speakers and three words best summarize the sound: Effortless high-resolution. Yes, there was lots of detail, but the real magic was in the subtle shading and nuance of the sound.
Jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell's "'Round Midnight" CD worked its magic on me. This recording from 1972 has a very analog feel, with a tremendous soundstage that extended a few feet beyond the edges of the ME1 speakers. Dave put the music first, this Burrell album has a late night feel, it just flows, with nimble rhythmic undercurrents.
A week into the review I put Dave aside and returned to my dCS Puccini CD player, but the sound didn't quite match Dave's agility. Dave connects the musical dots better than the Puccini.
Switching back to Dave there's the jump factor, Dave seemed more rhythmically alive than the Puccini with jazz guitar player Charlie Hunter and drummer Bobby Previte's groove heavy "Come In Red Dog, This Is Tango Leader" album, there was more bounce in their music. I felt the rhythms more, the Puccini was more laid back. Still, the Puccini's sweeter balance was easier to listen to with harsh recordings, of which I have many.
With saxophonist Peter Epstein's hard hitting "Staring at the Sun" CD the musicians held court in my listening room. It's one of the very best sounding jazz recordings I own, Epstein's tenor sax was fully present and Jim Black's drums pushed me back in my seat! Chris Dahlgren's acoustic bass had just the right sense of scale and woody tone. Dave made the music sound live.
I squeezed in some listening time with Dave perched on my desktop, where I employed its USB input, and took advantage of Dave's headphone amp while watching the Cream's "Royal Albert Hall 2005" concert Blu-ray with the Audeze LCD MX4 headphones (review to come). It was close to a virtual reality experience, the sound surrounded my head, the concert environment and the band's power, especially Ginger Baker's drums, were exhilarating. I don't think any other band of their era had the same effect on me.
With Hifiman's flagship planar magnetic headphone,, I heard all that's great about Dave's sound: Jaw dropping transparency, big as the outdoors stereo imaging, and pristine highs. Still, the Susvara is a power hog, and Dave didn't quite have enough juice to push the Susvara to very loud levels. At saner volume Dave and Susvara made beautiful music together.
And now the moment you've all been waiting for: the price. The Dave Ultimate Reference DAC retails for $11,288 (£7,995), the matching machined from a solid block of aircraft grade aluminum Ensemble Stand runs $1,895 (£1,835).