An afternoon with the Chord Dave
I waited until my local store, Audio Sanctuary/Unilet in London, had the Focal Elear on display before I properly approached the Chord Dave. I had heard it before with a pair of headphones that I don’t particularly enjoy, the Audeze LCD-4 at Chord’s booth at the London Can Jam in August 2016 – and didn’t glean much from the experience. I wanted to pair it with a headphone that I was very much used to, and one that didn’t require a lot to drive it as I wanted to use the headphone-out jack on the Dave itself instead of pairing it with an amplifier that would colour the sound in any way.
Sometimes when you approach a sizable upgrade in your audio chain armed with your own headphones, you don’t want to hear improvements – unless you have the money handy and are looking for a reason with an itchy trigger finger. I don’t have the money handy at all, and was not even considering the Dave so I tried to approach the experience with as open a mind as I could.
Now by no means is my daily driver bad, it is the delta-sigma Schiit Gungnir and I’ve enjoyed it immensely since April 2016. However, I notice that its treble can be a bit harsh at times in its efforts to push air out to the listener – certainly not leading to a more natural presentation. This is a reason why some say that the multibit Gungnir, also known as the Gumby, is a significant upgrade in terms of presenting detail in a more refined and natural manner. I have not heard a Gumby personally yet, but my experience with the Dave may have finally convinced me to upgrade by giving me a slight nudge in a direction I want to go in.
I listened to the Dave for over two hours, as it was a slow day at the store and the few people who did walk in were more interested in the speakers than the selection of headphones. My source of audio was lossless CD quality files on one of the computers, but I also went to my own site to listen to some music I had produced myself. I actually went to the latter rather quickly in my overall listening session because I wanted to hear how it made recordings that I have worked on and mixed myself sound.
A lot of instruments that I had at a lower volume in mixes, stuff that was generally buried in songs with quite a bit of layering going on, was more audible than I had ever heard before – or even intended for that matter. The soundstage had opened up further too, as if I had panned an instrument a certain degree to a side – it would find itself slightly moved further to that same side. Say, for example, I had a guitar riff that was panned 15% to the left with another layer of the same riff playing at a full 100% pan to the left. Well, that 15% now sounded like it was at 25% while the second layer sounded even more separated – both tracks ringing out clearer in the mix than I had heard before.
As I moved to professionally recorded music that I was very knowledgeable of, I knew that I would not understand what the Dave is doing if I go for somewhat stereotypical orchestral or jazz recordings. I had to listen to something noisy and heavily layered to discover some texture that may exist but that I had not heard before – or overlooked it as it was not prominent in the mix. I jumped to the 1990s albums of Nine Inch Nails, one of my favourite bands, for this very reason. While I did spend a good amount of time with the Downward Spiral album, it was 1999’s The Fragile that really convinced me of the Dave’s strengths. Take, for example, a song like “The Day the World Went Away,” that utilises a heavily distorted guitar with the bass taken out – leading to a scooped and harsh sound (as if from a transistor radio). This certain guitar track is just one of many, as the song is a wall-of-sound (or rather noise) with quieter instruments playing at the same time. To put it briefly, I had never heard the guitar track be so controlled before – as it had always overwhelmed near everything else in the song. Suddenly, and without losing its energy, it was sitting squarely where it should as everything else in the mix was ringing out clearly – instruments and vocals both soft and loud. The shattering glass sample on “The Fragile,” the layered guitar and piano outro on “We’re In This Together” and Trent Reznor’s heavily processed yelp/scream in “Complication” near the end are some such examples. Hell, I didn’t know the Elear could have this level of detail retrieval either.
My initial reaction to hearing a song that I had known for so long be presented to me in such a manner was to think “well maybe the Dave’s trick is to smooth out the harsh frequencies and embody the quieter ones – leading to a sense of compression or compromised audio quality to achieve a more easy-going listening experience.” The problem is that it was not that, as I further discovered as I dove into more aggressive but intricately recorded and pieced-together tracks by the same band. The aggression and harsh nature of the recordings did not feel diminished or compromised – it was just that the more buried tracks were being revitalised and brought forward to the listener. This aspect of the Dave, coupled with the Elear (which has a tendency to aggressively present music to the listener in a manner that sounds like speakers strapped to your head) made the two hours breeze past.
What the Dave, ultimately, did is lift a veil that I slightly wish it hadn’t – but one that I’m not too beat up about personally. It’s an interesting piece of technology, but not one in my price-range or consideration. Price-to-performance ratio? Forget about it. I greatly appreciate it for what it does, and it is the first product that I have heard by Chord that I can say that about (after hearing the Mojo, Hugo and Hugo TT).
As I compare the same tracks I listened to earlier today on my home setup, I can clearly hear the differences - stark in some cases but extremely subtle in others. What my afternoon with the Dave did, however, was convince me to shell out for the Gumby upgrade. A good reason for this was the more natural presentation of the Dave that lacked the “hardness” in the treble region that my DS Gungnir possesses but the Gumby apparently addresses. It’s a funny thought, but listening to the Dave made me decide on something I had considered for months as I had always been curious about the Gumby – a product by a company that is not Chord.