The Chord Dave DAC. A 2021 Review.

The Chord Dave DAC. A 2021 Review.

By Steve Huff

This review will house my thoughts and sound review of the Chord Dave used as a DAC only within a two channel speaker system.  This is a DAC that was released in 2015 but is still in the upper top tier of DAC’s available in 2021. Enjoy.


Dream DAC?

It was not that long ago (just over two months ago) when I proclaimed the Denafrips Pontus II DAC the best I have heard in my system. In my main system it beat out the $1300 RME ADI2 DAC FS, the $1900 Chord Qutest and the $4500 Lampizator Amber 3. At $1700 USD I feel the Pontus is one of those rare items that offer more than expected at the price point it comes in at.

I feel the Pontus II DAC is very nice musical DAC that far exceeds it price point in what it brings to the table. What is musical? Well, I feel a musical system is one that brings forth an emotional response from the listener. It is only when we can feel the soul, the depth, the magic of that recording that I feel something is musical.

BUT…

There is always something else up the ladder in the HiFi world that may bring improvement within our systems as well as bring even more magic. The question then becomes..”How much do I want to spend to bring these improvements” and “What I am unhappy with when it comes to the sound of my system”?

I have tried out quite a few DAC’s and yes indeed, DAC’s do make differences within our system. In some cases, huge changes.

The Chord Qutest is one of my favorites and with the Chord M Scaler it was superbly good. The Lampizator Amber 3 gave me a wonderful experience to behold with its full bodied tube injected sweetness and natural sound.

The Denafrips Pontus II brought even more goodness with a natural yet detailed and organic performance, bringing the artists to my room in a natural but detailed non invasive relaxed way.

The Chord Dave with Stand (Stand Not Included). With stand retail is around $15k these days. Add an M Scaler and you are at $20k for the entire kit. Ouch. But then again, look at this presentation…

The Chord DAVE is Next Level. 

The DAVE was designed by Rob Watts…a man who has a true genius talent for designing some pretty amazing DAC’s. The Dave, just like the other Chord DAC’s, use a FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) which basically means this DAC is custom made and unlike many of the DAC’s made today.

Dave doesn’t use off the shelf chips like most lower to middle end DAC’s but it is customized in a sense, to bring forth the sound that the designer (Mr. Watts) crafted. The same goes for the Chord Qutest and Hugo TT2. This does not offer a NOS mode (non oversampling mode) and does stream DSD as well as PCM files.

Chord Dac’s have long been known for their build quality, their high prices and for their quirky yet futuristic spaceship accessory type of designs. They also get rave after rave for their sound quality, of course.

The Dave in the System…

The House Sound

Usually the Chord DAC house sound is one of detail, texture, dynamics, realism and excitement. The Dave keeps with this familiar sound but also adds a mind altering 3 dimensionality, body to every note and my oh my such a sheer amount of musicality. I will warn you now…even for being a 6 year old DAC as of December 2021  this is one addicting beautiful box and is without question the best I have heard in my system, easily surpassing the Denafrips Pontus II.

Not really even close but this is as one would expect for a $1700 vs $12,595.00 DAC.

I am glad that the DAVE sounded better as this is by far the most expensive DAC I have ever tested, tried, or reviewed. It comes in at 6 times the cost of the Pontus II. It’s also 6 times the cost of the brands own Qutest DAC.

I even tested a DCS Bartok for a week to compare to the DAVE. You know, the $18,500 all in one DAC, Headphone Amp and Streamer.

I will let the cat out of the bag now…I preferred he DAVE on its own when I compared it to the Bartok as a DAC only, within my speaker system. Still, the DCS is quite an amazing HiFi piece and really bests the DAVE on paper for what it brings to the table. I just couldn’t imagine forking out $20k for a DAC. It’s a personal blockage for me ; )

I will talk about why the Dave was better within my system. Thanks to good guy Bill M. for loaning me his Bartok for a week. There was no way I was able to buy one to compare  ; )

I also received a Denafrips Terminator II for review as I was evaluating the DAVE. The Terminator II is a big leap from the Pontus II and comes in at around $4500 USD. I will add some sound impressions below of the Terminator II vs the DAVE. A full review of the Terminator II will be coming soon.

For now, let’s get to the DAVE Review.

The really old Chord DAC 64…what started my curiosity with Chord gear back in 2002. Was $3k back in the day, new!

It all Started back in 2002 for me

I remember back in 2002  reading a review in a magazine on the Chord DAC 64. I wanted that DAC so badly but the price at the time, which I believe was just at around $3000, was out of reach for me for a DAC. I was barely able to spend $3k on speakers back then so stretching that much cash for a DAC was crazy.

I admired the unique styling, the porthole that allowed us to see inside and view the cool light show. I could only imagine the sound of it back then. But wow, $3k for the top of the line Chord DAC back in 2002. How times have changed!

I have always been pulled or attracted to the various DAC’s made by Chord even since being enamored with that old “64”.

I truly enjoyed my lengthy time with the Qutest.

I also had a chance to recently hear the modern day Chord TT2 and M Scaler Combo and I thought it was mighty impressive. A big sound with plenty of details, body and texture. It was tempting but at $11k retail not a very frugal decision. Besides, it wasn’t the best I have ever heard my system sound so did not feel it was worth the outlay.

Seven Dac’s Compared 

I also knew I had to hear a DAVE, which is the flagship DAC from Chord and has been since 2015. If you haven’t yet noticed, I am looking for a Final DAC for my main reference system. While the Pontus II was the best I have heard recently, I really knew I had to test some of the big guns to truly know how big that little $1700 Pontus II was punching.

A DAVE can be had used for around $7500-8k or even new/open box with full warranty for $9k (when you find them). This is a DAC that was released in 2015 so by todays standards it is considered “old”. The current retail price is $12,595.00 which is a few grand more than it cost when it launched.

The DAVE is still considered a truly Flagship DAC, among the best you can buy today in 2021.

I do not see audio gear made in the last 20 years as new or old. It either sounds fantastic or it doesn’t. The sound of this DAC will not change in 10 years. It will remain the same. With the countless praises sung by this DAC for it’s DAC alone there have also been a few major props for its headphone amp (as long as you do not try to power super power hungry cans).

The Dave also performs asa digital pre-amp if you so desire. I did try and hook it up direct to the Pass Labs XA60.8 amplifiers to compare to the Pass Labs XP-10 pre-amp I have on hand. (I much preferred the Pass Labs XP-12 Pre-Amp in the chain).

The big, bold and handsome DCS Bartok. A cool $18,500 these days with Headphone Amp

BTW, this Dave DAC has everything the new DCS Bartok has minus the streamer. It comes in at $6k less than the Bartok.

Before I get to the meat of the review on the sound quality and what it did in my system compared to the others I will say that my reference system has been a work in progress for 10 months now. I am almost done. All I need is to decide on my final DAC to complete this system.

 

My main review system is comprised of the following as of 12/2021:

  1. Fleetwood Deville Loudspeakers – These are my end game speakers. I adore them. Lifetime Speakers. You can read my passionate review HERE.
  2. Pass Labs XA60.8 Amplifiers – These are within my system now and I love the Class A sound they put out.They just have something about them that is truly special for these ears. I can not imagine better for my ears. You can see my review HERE.
  3. Cardas Clear Reflection Cable Loom – From speaker to interconnect and even power I am running a full loom of Cardas Clear Reflection cables and these are the cables I settled on after hearing offerings from Nordost, Audioquest and others. You can see my Review HERE.
  4. Lumin U1 Mini Streamer – This is all the streamer I will ever need. I compared it to the U1 and the differences in sound were so minor I felt thrilled to have the Mini. This is a sweet upgrade from a Bluesound Node (but the Lumin does not have a DAC).
  5. Audioquest Niagara 1200 – This is my power solution and it works amazing within the system. I do not need the 3000 that costs $2k more as the 1200 truly does what I need it to do. You can read my review HERE.
  6. Pass Labs XP-12 Pre-Amp – Pass Labs just sent me the XP-12 to test vs the older XP-10. The 12 is a gorgeous pre-amp. Smooth, silky, refined and dead silent. It breathes life into the music with an effortless ease and yes it is a leap up from the XP-10.
  7. Dr. Feickert Volare Turntable, Koetsu Black Cartridge, Pass Labs XP-17 Pre Amp. (currently out of the system but will be going back in soon)
  8. THE DAC HAS YET TO BE PICKED!

I have this setup in a 13X18 dedicated room that has been tuned to the system. You will notice I did not list a DAC just yet as I have not chosen on for a permanent spot within the system.

This system, as you see it listed above leans ever so slightly to the warm side with the Pontus II DAC in the system. It delivers a large soundstage in width, depth and height. It doesn’t have amazing dynamics or snap with the Pontus II but it delvers magic with vocals, jazz, metal and rock.

If I could wish for one thing (and I am) it would be to have more kicking dynamics and excitement.

I thought it was the pre-amp holding back my system from achieving these things but when I swapped the Pass Labs XP-10 for a different flavor (Conrad Johnson) it became too warm and more relaxed. When I swapped for the XP-12 it offered more refinement, a backer background and a larger soundstage but kept the same similar sound. When I tried a Schiit Freya + the sound lost refinement and I noticed a tad of grit in the highs and a thinner presentation.

I then swapped out my Cardas cables (which also are ever so slightly warm) for my Nordost Blue Heaven and lost (slight) some scale, smoothness, depth and fullness.

None of these changes made the sound better or more exciting, rather, worse.

I brought in other speakers… Klipsch, Dynaudio and some now vintage Merlin bookshelf’s. The sound still lacked some kick…air…excitement yet it sounded just beautiful regardless. The sound is truly approaching “End Game” but I knew it could be better.

A Dave with M Scaler. Futuristic looking for sure! 

ENTER THE DAVE

Because my speakers, amps, preamp and cables lean ever so slightly to the warm side I discovered I needed a DAC (or component) with more power and energy. Maybe A DAC with more sparkle and space.

I found an open box deal on a full warranty Silver Chord DAVE. While it was discounted by an authorized dealer, and a full factory warranty was given, it was still a rather expensive shock to my credit card. But hey, I just had my 52nd birthday AND Christmas is almost here ; ) Besides, I had 15 days to audition or try out this piece in my system. I could return it for a full refund if not happy (A MUST for something of this cost).

When the DAVE arrived I moved out the Pontus II and installed the futuristic looking piece. I already read the online manual in anticipation of the arrival so I quickly set it up for my preferences…

PCM PLUS (I do not listen to DSD)

DAC MODE (I did try as a preamp in to the XA60.8s but it was too much of a good thing, a tad bright direct to amps)

USB input with an Audioquest Diamond USB cable.

Filter ON (As per Rob Watts, keep it on without an M Scaler and off with one)

Stock Power Cord 

I decided to listen to the Dave as a DAC ALONE without the much raved about M Scaler. I wanted to get a feel of the DAVE on its own to see if the now $12,595 retail price was crazy or actually justified. I wanted to see just how much improvement or change it brought to my system simply by swapping one DAC for another.

Spoiler: The difference was not only there, it was insanely drastic. Shocking. Night and Day. A bigger difference than changing a pre-amp or even amplifier. 

Now I consider the Pontus II a high quality DAC that blows away most DAC’s that I have heard up to $4000. It’s fantastic and offers up a non offensive presentation of soundstage, vocal depth, details and even some warmth (that I did not realize until the Dave was controlling the tunes).

Listening to the DAVE with the same tracks (level matched) it took me a few days to truly appreciate what was happening. Even though I heard an immediate change to the sound signature of my system it took time to fully understand and appreciate what was happening.

As I let it settle in I left it powered up 24/7 and after a few days I went in for some serious sit down listening time.

It was 12:25 AM and I left that first listening session at 4:36 AM.

The first two hours was all DAVE. For the third hour I placed the Pontus II back in.

That is when it hit me. The DAVE truly exceeded the Pontus in several areas. The Pontus was still immensely desirable but was pushing out a totally different presentation for me.

Since my system leans warm it needed an injection of power, life and energy. I am pleased to say that the DAVE did just that. It actually made my Fleetwood Deville’s sound like an all new speaker, albeit with the same tonal character. They were alive, dynamic and full of oomph. No longer were they laid back and giving me that big warm hug that they delivered with the Pontus II.

The speakers kept the same gorgeous big and sweet sound character but just opened up dramatically. The transparency and details were shocking as I did not know they had it in them. I now have to update my Fleetwood Deville review as these are now even better than I raved on about. The way the instruments were just jetting out with such detail was exhilarating. The music also had body and each instrument had their own place in the stage.

Delicacy, space, reverb, details, dynamics, 3 dimensions, ultra realistic, goosebumps, live.

These were words I wrote in my notes while listening to the DAVE. There was also some absolute world class imaging taking place with the Dave.

With the Pontus II back in, the sound flattened a bit, became slightly warmer and more laid back. I lost the big dynamic impact and top end sweetness that the DAVE was bringing. This goes to show how important synergy is as the Dave was clearly having better synergy with my warm leaning system. The Pontus, when compared side by side was softer, darker and while it presented amazing details the all out separation of the instruments along with the clarity was not as exciting as the DAVE.

With the Pontus II in my notes read differently when comparing. Warmer, Flatter, Instruments not as Detailed, More relaxed, Bigger vocal, laid back.

Keep in mind the Pontus II was the best dac I have ever heard in my system. Until the Dave. Now it is the second best yet it has a completely different character vs the DAVE. 

The Pontus II is a great value at US $1700. But there is no dealer network, you have to buy from Singapore and there are no refunds or trials. The Pontus II is made in China and that is not a bad thing as it saves us some cash. There are some tremendous HiFi products being made in China today. The Pontus allows audio lovers to get a much better DAC than we are paying for. If the Pontus was made in the USA it would cost $5k.

The Chord DAVE is a Flagship DAC from a well known UK company who has been in business a long time. They have a reputation of quality. While much more expensive than the China made DAC’s the Chord Dave has a US Dealer network and they are made in the UK with a legit 5 year warranty. It’s also a pre-amp and headphone amp. So you are getting three in one.

Both DAC’s are made to a high standard. The Pontus II has a build quality that is usually seen in $3500-$5k pieces. It’s superb and I have had no issues at all with it.

In my system it was no contest though.

As good as the Pontus II is, the Dave excelled in details, body, impact, dynamics, 3 dimensionality, soundstage, imaging and clarity and it was not even close. The Pontus delivers a more relaxing and wide open sound, with chestier vocals and a slightly darker and flatter presentation (VS the Dave). Some may prefer this as the Pontus II is extremely musical. It could be end game for many and I expect it will be for some.

Since my system is being built as a reference (for review purposes down the road) I know that the DAVE would be an amazing addition to the system. With that said, $9k is a lot of Scratch. I could buy a Holo May (another Chinese DAC that is getting raves) top of the line and have a few grand left over. Maybe the Denafrips Terminator II at $4500 USD. I could go for a DCS Bartok and have the streamer built in but spend $6k more. I could spring for many DAC’s that offer more life and dynamics (vs the Pontus), and I am sure, even spend less.

The Chord TT2 DAC and Headphone Amp. This guy comes in at just under $6k these days. 

Here’s the thing.

With the DAVE making music in my system, it is performing 100% as it should. Nothing is held back. I do not wish for more or less of anything. It sounds “finished” and well, it should. I have invested 10 months and a pretty penny into this system with the ideas to build “my final main system”. Yea, I know… “final system” lol.

After hearing what the DAVE alone is doing in my system I have lost the interest in personally auditioning any other DAC for this system. I have a Pontus II, Terminator II, Bartok and DAVE here. I am a blessed and lucky man to have such options to listen to.

Speaking of the Bartok. It is incredible. It’s a true high end DAC. It’s a streamer. It’s Pre-Amp. It’s a headphone amp. It’s almost as good as it gets for those of you with cash to burn.

When in my system I knew it would be almost a $20k proposition (retail cost and tax), and while I can’t imagine doing that…it was possible. I could buy one if it was something incredibly life changing.

Thanks to a friend I was able to enjoy a week long audition with the Bartok. I compared it to the Dave for SOUND quality only within my main system as a DAC only. The Bartok had detail like the Dave, and was a tad more open in soundstage with a teeny bit more meat on the bones. Other than that it could not deliver the music the way the Dave, on its own, was.

Bartok was a hair drier. It was also meatier, which my system did not need. The Dave just provided more inner beauty and I preferred the PRAT and all out transparency of the silver box from space.

I did prefer the Bartok sound with my Dynaudio’s but that goes to the whole Synergy thing.

So synergy is key. As always. It is not about expense, it is about synergy. For example, the Pontus II does much better with my Klipsch speakers (all of them) than the Dave does with the same speakers. Yes, with my Heresy IV or LaScala, I preferred the Denafrips. It’s because the Klipsch speakers can be a bit hot in the top end (with some gear) and the Pontus II tames it a bit. 

When listening to the DAVE in my reference system I am simply mesmerized by what I am hearing. I did add an M Scaler and while it added some “magic” in the areas of soundstage, smoothness and inner small details I truly think I enjoyed the DAVE more when it was a solo act. Strange? Not really, many prefer the DAVE alone within their speaker systems. Alone it is beyond the best I have heard.

So yes, on its own, the DAVE is an incredible WORLD CLASS DAC. Remember that the job of “influencers” these days is to sell you on something. The Dave alone is quite special and truly does not need the M Scaler to bring next level sound within a 2 channel speaker system. 

It’s not lean but fast. It’s not bright but alive. It’s not hard or harsh. It’s not thin but has body to every note and sound. In my system it strikes a perfect balance of light to dark. It can bring forth amazing treble performance as well as some of the most controlled deep bass I have heard to date. The dynamic range is also rather stunning as this DAC can go from mild to wild in an instant. Dynamics are simply incredible.

Just as the Fleetwood Deville speakers brought me something that was so elevated compared to what I had before them,  the Chord DAVE is doing the same thing. This DAC made a much bigger improvement within my system than changing pre-amps, amps or cables. 

The Sound of the Dave within my System

The DAVE is airy and specializes in presenting your music in a clear, detailed 3 dimensional way with top shelf imaging. I have never heard a presentation so real, so eerie and spooky at times. It’s also extremely musical and non fatiguing within my system, but the Synergy works here so YMMV.

Due to the incredible transparency and clarity of the DAVE DAC I feel it would not be a good fit in a system that leans bright or was overly energetic in the top end. I am not even sure a dead neutral system would benefit from the DAVE unless your tastes are immense transparency above all else. It is an energetic DAC and there is nothing about it that says “Lazy”, “Soft” or “Warm”. Instead it just delivers music in the most real way I have heard.

It’s really tough to explain it in words.

For systems that may need an injection of adrenaline in their system, the DAVE is perfect and can bring a larger change than eve a pre-amp or amp. 

The Dave does much more than detail though. It’s not just a box that provides a transparent sound. It’s a complete sound. From top to bottom. The midrange/vocals, while not as chesty as the Pontus II or the Amber 3, brings a textured, clear and very lifelike presentation. It’s a very “alive” feeling. The vocals may sound more true to life than the competition as some DACS’s bloat out the midrange for effect. The DAVE doesn’t exaggerate any aspect of the music.

The Moonshine Effect

One night I was listening with Debby, late night, medium volume. We had just had a shot of “moonshine” for a special occasion and as I sat and listened I became overwhelmed with what I was hearing. In a good way. It was incredible. For a moment I felt as if I was inside the music, and when this happens it’s pretty incredible. That emotion comes out and felt each note, each strum, each beat.

I had to change seats and let Debby enjoy the sweet spot for a song or two. She was mesmerized.

The separation of instruments is jaw dropping with the DAVE. The macro details pop out with body and texture. The space is created perfectly. Each note, vocal and sound has body to it with separation. The music never sounds all mashed/mushed together.

Percussion? Forget about it. The DAVE nails it with power, attack, body, snap and smoothness all at the same time.

Yes, even with this snap, dynamic drive and detail the DAVE is a smooth operator with the Fleetwood Deville’s. It does not cross over into the bleached, thin or harsh area, ever. At all. It’s refined as all get out with all the detail you can handle, layered with a 3D soundstage right before your ears.

Speaking of Smooth Operators I cued up some classic Sade. Streaming through ROON using Qobuz I was presented with velvety vocals, smooth sounds and a drive and beat that I could feel within my body. Again, LIVE…or ALIVE is what I kept thinking. Listening to “No Ordinary Love” on her Live album from 2011 the electric guitar was incredible in its clarity, separation and the way it just shot out of the speakers.

This DAC excels with standard res files as well. My Spotify streams sound just about as good as the Tidal and Qobuz high res streams.

It is this DAC that totally transformed my system and balanced it out perfectly. With the Lumin U1 Mini feeding it via USB it was rocking. I do not store music on drives, I stream. I am subscribed to Qobuz, Tidal, Spotify and Roon. There are countless music options at my fingertips. I did try the optical input on the DAVE as well as some prefer the sound this way. While I could see it improving the space and 3D aspect in a different system, for this system the USB input sounded best. It offered up body, depth and the best 3D I have heard in ANY system during my lifetime.

So is the Dave worth $12,595 in 2022?

Within my thinking brain I still do not think ANY DAC is worth this kind of cash, but that is just my opinion. We live in strange times indeed. I’m an old timer. I remember when quality HiFi pieces, and I mean HIGH END, were a fraction of what things in this hobby cost today. It bothers me to see such prices to get to this high of a level.

This DAVE Dac is over $10k more expensive than the Pontus II and almost $1ok more than Chord’s old DAC 64 Flagship DAC from 2002. Inflation? Greed? A little of both?

Yes, diminishing returns is real. I do not see $10k worth of improvements here but that is how HiFi works. You pay more and more for incremental improvements. The DAVE was a large improvement over the other DACS but it was also not a small price jump from the Pontus or Qutest. It’s quite a few levels up ; )

I am also not wealthy. If I were wealthy I would think the Dave is rather inexpensive for what it does or is doing now in my system. I would think it was a steal if I had a few million in the bank.

So it all depends on the value you put on money or how much of it you have. My heart says the DAVE is worth what it costs. My brain says “C’Mon, you guys can lower the prices here“.

DAVE MODES

The Dave Dac has three modes. 

Digital Pre-Amp Mode is for when you want to use the Dave as your pre-amp for speakers. You can hook the Dave directly to a power amp. When you do this you will get the maximum amount of transparency as the pre-amp feature really delivers the detail. You control the volume with the Dave itself (or the remote). I tested this into the Pass Labs XA60.8’s which run in pure Class A. The sound became sharper, brighter and almost too transparent for my tastes. Going back to the Pass Labs XP-12 Pre-Amp added some body, thickness, air, soundstage depth/width and a much nicer tonality. It was airier as well.

DAC Mode is what you would use if you are using a pre-amp in a two channel music system with speakers. It sets a fixed volume and you can go with RCA or XLR into your pre-amp. I use XLR though some say the RCA outs may sound a tad better. Which sounds best will depend on your system/gain/power. (After testing both, XLR sounded best for my system).

Headphone Mode activates automatically when you plug in headphones. When you remove them it will go back to the mode you were using before. With headphones you will be listening to the amp inside of the Dave as it is a full blown high quality head amp.

The Dave is luxurious in build and attention to detail. This is not my image but you can see a Dave here in Silver connected to the Chord M Scaler which many feel bring the Dave to even new levels. 

Fan for Life

As I said earlier, I have grown fond of some brands in HiFi due to my experience with them. Pass Labs? I am now a fan for life. I have not heard or had “better” amplification, just different. Luxman…so so sweet and second to none build quality. Chord..quality through and through, again and again. Fleetwood Sound… bespoke, unique, different and gorgeous with a human touch to the sound.

I have heard and listened to so many HiFi brands. These are the few that struck a real deep “Chord” within me when it comes to my audio system. A few others left a sour taste in my mouth, even a big name brand or two.

This is going to hurt my credit card badly. Between this and the Fleetwood’s I am in debt for the first time in many years. Music is a huge part of my life. It’s now my only hobby that I spend money on. Debby and I are like hermits who live in the woods ; ) We do not go out to eat often, nor do we buy fancy clothes, jewelry or accessories. We live simply and this allows us to enjoy this kind of audio system for those nights when we want to just settle in and let the music take us away for a while.

I listen every day or night. I de-stress with music. I have it set up for a sweet spot experience. It’s magical, it’s soul warming and it touches my heart at times. I much prefer listening to music over watching TV. It’s almost spiritual for me.

So there, I just justified my purchase. I feel better. Ha. 

I almost sent the Dave back for a refund just due to the cost factor (and one warranty registration niggle I had for buying an open box item) but I have to say that once you hear a DAC like the DAVE, going back to what you had before it is hard. This is a true reference level DAC for high end systems bu of course you must partner it with gear that is also in its league. My system needed a DAC that was in line with the other components for it to open up and be its best.

You will need a transparent and resolving system for a DAC like this but when you do have this and add the DAVE it may just add that final touch and satisfy that upgrade itch for a long long time. This is one crazy passion/hobby.

Not much different than paying $15k for a Leica M body and “cheap” lens though ; ) That new Leica M11 is set to be launched in a couple of weeks. I would much rather buy a Dave DAC than spend $15k on a new Leica and lens as that Leica will take the same old images the M10 did (It’s not the camera that makes the image).

Quick Comparison to the Terminator II by Denafrips

As I was wrapping up this review the Denafrips Terminator II (which is their 2nd best DAC offering) arrived for review. It sits just under the Terminator +. This DAC is two levels up from the Pontus II and comes in at $4,600 USD. With such bang for the buck I kind of had a feeling that the Terminator would truly challenge the DAVE.

It does.

Keep in mind the Terminator II is a DAC only. No pre-amp mode, no head amp, no remote. It’s an R2R ladder DAC and offers up a different sound than that of the DAVE and keeps the same house sound as I heard in the Pontus II. I was just hearing a much more refined, sweeter, quieter, and serious DAC in the Terminator II.

I will have a full review of the Terminator II soon but for now I will say I could be happy with it as my reference. It doesn’t dig as deep as the DAVE for those inner details nor is it as energetic or dynamic. What the Terminator does do though is offer up a huge wall of sound that is more organic, sweeter and crazy good musical. More soon on this one.

A full stack of Chord Digital. 

THE STRENGTH OF DAVE just by ITSELF.

  • Still a best in class DAC six year after its release. Plays with the big boys.
  • The design is as unique as it gets wether you love or hate it.
  • The build is as good as it gets for a DAC.
  • Five Year Warranty included.
  • Best Details I have heard and with Body and Air – Incredible.
  • 3 Dimensionality is as good as it gets in a DAC. The weakness will be the rest of your system.
  • Headphone Amp built in.
  • Digital Pre-Amp built in.
  • XLR or RCA
  • Can possibly improve further by adding the $5k M Scaler. (depends on system synergy)
  • Imaging is world class.
  • Soundstage is world class.
  • Tonality and timing are superb and also World Class.
  • Bass is so controlled, deep and explosive when called upon.
  • Acoustic instruments are magical with the Dave.
  • Percussion is powerful and impactful. Has life.
  • The most “real” I have heard music sound in my 35 years.

WHAT YOU MAY NOT LIKE

  • In some (brighter) systems it may sound slightly lean so be careful!
  • The design is odd, and not everyone will like it.
  • The price of the dedicated stand is absurd. (I found one open box for 60% off retail)
  • Not the best for hard to drive headphones.
  • The $12,595 Retail Price.
  • There may be a Dave 2 in a year or two (at what cost? I guess close to $20k)

This is one case where a piece of gear that measures superbly performs superbly. This is not always the case. Sometimes a piece of gear that measures perfectly can sound off. It can sound harsh or non involving. The problem is there is no measuring tool on earth one can buy to measure what something will sound like within a system and room. Nothing. Only our ears. This is why I find measurements silly in HiFi. No one can measure what gear will sound like in your room, with your partnering equipment. That is impossible. Trust your ears my friends. 

A Statement Piece 

The Dave is one of those pieces that are made to make a statement, and it is indeed a “statement piece”. The fact that it hasn’t been replaced yet is unheard of (probably due to the pandemic and parts shortages) but I will argue that it doesn’t need to be replaced yet. It will sound just as it does now in ten years. I love how Chord has not released a new DAVE every year or two but I do not love how the price of the DAVE has seriously climbed over the years.

As I sit and ask myself “what else could be improved upon with my system, for my tastes”. There is nothing I can think of, at all, with the Dave within the system. It’s got scale. It has dynamics. It still has body and warmth. It has the most musical detail I have ever heard in my lifetime. It’s silent as silent can get. It can bring emotions out from me (and Debby) during listening. There is nothing here that needs any changes nor am I desiring any other flavors of sound. This is incredible and audio at a level I have never experienced before. I attribute a lot of the success of this DAC in my system to my Fleetwood Deville’s though. They seem to be a great match.

The entry level Qutest stand alone DAC from Chord. I love this DAC but the Dave is on a whole different level. Even so, the Qutest keeps the same Chord house sound intact. The Qutest comes in at just under $2k new these days so much more reasonable. Bang for the Buck. Maybe 60% of the Dave sound is inside this box!

Bottom Line

If you do not want to spend the funds…do not listen to or audition a DAVE. Listen only when you are ready to purchase. As always, an audition is always highly recommended. This DAC just like all others rely on synergy within your system to sound its best. Each piece of your audio system makes a difference in the sound character. The preamp, the amp, the cables, the speakers, the streamer and the DAC. What sounds divine in my system may sound like garbage in yours. There is no one piece of gear that sounds right for everyone.

For me…

The Dave DAC made a bigger change than any other component in my system has. More so than a pre-amp, an amp, cables, or streamer. So yes, it is 100% fact that DAC’s make a difference. It’s not about cost, rather what matches within your system.

The Dave truly sounds as good as it costs and may also expose warts in the audio chain. It can only be as good as it can be if you have an equally good supporting cast. That means a quality pre-amp/amp or integrated. Quality cables. Quality source.

If I rated gear with stars, the DAVE would get a 9.5 out of 10. I would knock of .5 as I feel the big porthole is cool but the display is square and it kind of ruins the big round display. I feel the display should have also been round to match the glass or even back to the old display where we just saw inside the DAC itself. There are no markings by the knobs, which is cool and minimal, but could confuse some out of the gate. I have been told the head amp could be better with some harder to drive headphones though I do not have any to test this.

As for the Dave vs Bartok for me? If the Bartok was the same price as the Dave I would choose the DCS simply because it’s one box, has a streamer, and also does detail just about as good as Dave does. It has a gorgeous build and overall quality feel and while the Dave ultimately sounds better in my system, the Bartok is attractive for an all in one. At $18,500 new with Headphone Amp though…that’s not going to happen. I see the Dave as a better value within this ultra-fi realm of audio where value has a different meaning. Dave also is one piece. I can add whatever streamer I like to it and has less inside of it to become dated.

As for the Dave vs the Pontus II. Not really a fair fight but I thought that maybe the Pontus II would get close. It’s a crazy good DAC that would serve so many so well. It’s a steal for the $1700 that it costs. Even so, the DAVE surpassed it without issue, as it should. No surprises here.

Vs the Terminator II? I will have more to say in my upcoming review of the Terminator but this is a true high end DAC that will bring that high end refinement. It’s just so organic, natural and provides details with a big beautiful sound. Truth be told, if my 15 day return period did not run out on the DAVE I may have just stuck with the Terminator II to save a few grand. While not the same sound signature as the DAVE, it’s almost as equally enjoyable. Almost.

With the DAVE those diminishing returns kick in but overall the DAVE is doing things in my system that the Terminator is not doing. So the DAVE will be a better reference for me to compare others. The Terminator II is a DAC I could easily recommend, even above the DAVE due to what you get for the money.

The $$$$$

For what I paid for the Dave I do feel it is providing that worth back in the sound and quality of my system. I was able to get an open box discount and save $3600 over new. Even at $9k it’s a scary expensive item for me but I love music. I listen daily. I use my audio system more than my car, TV, phone, or just about anything else. Yea, it’s worth it.

The Dave DAC is without question the BEST DAC I HAVE HEARD as of 12/21/2021. It brought my system to levels I never heard before. Can it get better? Sure maybe that $100k MSB DAC can do it but I will never find out, nor do I want to as that is way way way above my pay grade and entering ridiculously absurd territory ; ) 

As much as I love this DAC, and yes I did keep it for my reference system, I would suggest waiting until mid January if you are eyeing this guy. Chord is announcing new products and who knows what that will bring. If and when a DAVE 2 is announced though I expect a big price jump so for me the “old” Dave is just perfect.

I can also suggest finding one of these units used. Sites such as Audiogon and TMRaudio.com are great for finding well taken care of used items. The Music Room is fantastic as they test each used item, photograph it and tell you all about the condition. They get in 10-30 new items a day. I bookmark their “fresh arrivals” page and see what’s new almost daily. They do get in some all out gems from time to time.

LISTENING NOTES

Cigarettes After Sex – “John Wayne” – Qobuz Stream – Roon. 

Listening to this track with the Dave was eye opening. The reason why is because this track sounds haunting, even in mid fi systems but with the DAVE in play it was jaw dropping good. The vocals are dead center while you hear the guitar strums on the sides with washed out reverb guitar sounds floating in front of the strums. It’s an ethereal vibe…and the Dave presents this track in such a delicate way. Every string is heard with clarity and body. The sounds have power and strength yet they are delicate. The vocals are eery good and the entire production just washes over me as I listen. The Dave brings the instruments into focus, allowing us to hear them better and with more presence. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

Black Midi – “John L” – Tidal Stream – Roon

This track is a trip. Loaded with all kinds of dynamics, instruments, change ups, and bass kick this track should be turned up loud. The Dave handled this so much better than other DAC’s I have tried. Never once did the sound get congested, confused, glaring or smeared. This is a track that was presented just as it needed to be presented…with the Dave. Slipping in the Pontus II brought the instruments more together and as one. The Bartok sounded a bit bigger than the Dave but lost out on all out transparency. The Terminator II was gorgeous but a shade darker than the DAVE. An amazing experience with the right system.

Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime – Tidal Stream

Another track where the Dave brings out more than I have heard prior. It also adds body and depth and a crazy 3 dimensional soundstage with this track. We have a bass beat, rocking drums, guitar and expansive vocals. It’s a musical treat. At times we hear spaceship type of sounds jet out from the speakers. I was startled as normally these sounds do not sound as impactful or loud. The Dave has a way of focusing on the parts of the music that just bring forth energy and a jolt of life. All without sounding sterile or harsh. Never does the Dave cross into this territory within my System. It’s as composed, refined and as good as it gets for these ears. The Bartok did great here as well but was a bit drier and had less energy impact. It was also a bit sweeter though. The Pontus II was much more subdued in comparison, more laid back and together.

Little Sinz – Introvert – Tidal Stream

The intro to this track with the Dave in place was incredible! So epic, so huge, so room filling. My entire space was filled with smooth rich sound. I am not typically a RAP fan but this song had some amazing production behind it. The instrumental has impact, scale and can showcase dynamics within your system. The Dave brings loud crescendos and that quick attack that hits you in the chest at times. Treble, bass and mids here with the Dave are just full, present, deep and WOW! The Bartok didn’t deliver this track in the same way as the Dave, nor did the Pontus II. All three sounded wonderful but one stood out to my ears..the Dave.

U2 – The Fly – Qobuz High Res Stream

On the new 30th Anniversary edition of U2’s Achtung Baby there are some wonderful sounds to be uncovered. Listening to The Fly I am hearing the song like I have never heard it before. It’s so 3 dimensional, and I can hear every nuance, detail, strum, effect and force being shot out of the speakers. Quite the experience, almost…almost…too much of a good thing. The Dave’s detail retrieval while staying musical is unmatched. This track has a lower volume output than others so I had to turn it up somewhat but when I did, wow.

Marissa Nadler – Apostle – Qobuz Stream

If you want to experience atmospheric beauty sit right down in your sweet spot and cue up some Marissa Nadler.

Listening to a track called “Apostle” from her “The Sister” Album is downright beautiful. The Dave manages to take everything here and present it as a thrilling goose bump inducing experience rather than just a song. There is emotion being conveyed here. Spatial cues and details that emerge from behind the speakers are just mind soothing. Marissa’s vocals are sweet, big, centered and it sounds like she has an acoustic guitar on her knee as she sits and sings. I can “see” the acoustic instrument below her voice. It’s astonishing.

With the Pontus II the details are more pushed together, a common theme. It’s not as 3D and the sound is darker and more muted. With the Bartok the sound is even larger than the Dave which is a shocker. An expansive haunting experience. Truth be told the Bartok did best here but it was just slight over the Dave. I feel the Bartok let free more of the emotions of the song. Even so, the Dave released the energy and intimacy.

6 Comments

  1. Steve, I am a novice in the music world trying to educate myself with all that is out there online. I would like to invest in a nice audio system with 2 way speakers & Digital Sourcing for my music. I must say, I find your easy-to-understand but wonderfully descriptive style of sharing your own audio experiences the BEST I have come across online… With both your videos & written articles. I am learning a lot! Your love for music is generous & infectious… A deeply appreciative reader!

  2. Great review. Its interesting following your hifi journey and checking out your music suggestions. To return the favour, check out Black Country, New Road’s new album “Ants from up there”. It might be right up your alley. Imo its a masterpiece.

  3. Hi Steve, I have been following your site for both camera and hifi reviews. You have a way with words that make the reviews an enjoyable and informative read with great subjective analogies!

    As you discovered with the DAVE improvements upstream in your audio chain yield great improvements overall as you now have great amps and speakers.

    I highly recommend you to test out a better music server like a Laufer Teknik Memory Player MP64 with jitter reduction technology at the music source. Although there are others such as SGM Taiko Extreme and Innuos Statement, the Laufer Teknik has a proprietary RAM technology that rearranges the bits of a song sequentially, just like a vinyl record. The result is a smoothness and continuity in sound similar to vinyl records that one almost never finds in digital based systems. I have not auditioned an SGM or Innuos but I have an MP64-16. It sounds so musical despite my modest DAC (Naim DAC-V1 soon to be upgraded to a Denafrips Venus 2), integrated amp (Naim Nait XS2) and classic JBL C51 Apollo speakers (I believe it’s the spiritual father of the Fleetwood Deville).

    Happy listening and keep those reviews coming!

    Best regards
    Gary

  4. Every time I go on your site, now, I get the subscribe button on the screen blocking the text. I have subscribed so many times even though I subscribed years ago to get your updates. Worth scrolling around the button to get to your content though.

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