Chord is an interesting audio company that is based in the U.K. I say interesting because it seems to be a distinctly British company that has resolutely followed its own path with a particular design aesthetic and very loyal fans. To be frank, it was an acquired taste for me. It’s the audio version of a pint of Guinness to an American — strange at first but quite delicious with experience. The styling of Chord is a bit space age industrial, but the construction is bulletproof. Circuit design is different but innovative. Of course, the most important thing is that it sounds good and it is backed by a solid company.
I’ve just put a toe in the water by experimenting with their digital gear, but I have a confession. I’m a beer budget Chord DAC fan with champagne dreams. Since Brooks Berdan sent me a Chord Hugo to try out for a week, I’ve been a huge fan of Chord’s sound mostly because it doesn’t sound digital in the way we are used to hearing. Chord’s digital designer Robert Watts has things “sorted out” as they say across the pond. I’ve started out a bit small with the brand having bought a while back the entry level $599 Chord Mojo from our local Sight & Sound Gallery in midtown Atlanta. This little black box has created portable magic for this road warrior. However, it sounds so good with my go-to travel cans, the Audeze Sines, that I want to try more of the Chord magic. Honestly, I’ve thought about selling my car and buying the flagship Chord Dave but my wife has overruled me on the idea. Clearly she has never heard the Dave.
Well, I had never heard the Dave either… until this year’s Rocky Mountain. A significant $13K is the price of admission, but a lengthy listening session at CanJam suggests the device is worth every penny.
But let’s set some context first for what makes the digital sound of a Chord DAC unique and excellent. All the Chord DACs us FPGA technology is basically a sea of gates that one can program to create any digital device. Chord’s designer Robert Watts has programmed these gates in a way to lower typical distortions and create smoother, dare I say?, more analog sound. And it allows for better processing power. Even the lowly but fine sounding mojo has 500X more processing power than typical DAC chip sets. But I think the magic bullet for Chord has been Watts’ focus on the number of taps in the digital filters. The more taps you have, the less time domain distortion. Watts is convinced that getting transients correct is critical to a more musical sound. The Dave has a whopping 164,000 taps. The Hugo TT (for “table top”) has 26,368 taps. Watts also feels it is important to upsample to 2,048 times (16X more than what is common) which he says helps eliminate RF distortion and improve jitter, or in other words lower time distortions.
The really cool thing about all this FPGA technology is once you figure it out (it took Watts literally decades!), you can make it available in an affordable product like the Chord Mojo due to the upfront software development work that can be ported to an affordable Xilinx FPGA. The Hugo is a step up but I think based on my listening the Hugo TT, essentially a desktop version of the Hugo, is the sweet spot of the line. It is meant for home use and adds super capacitors to extend the battery life and improve sound quality. In my listening, the Hugo has incredible resolution and detail and that carries over to the Hugo TT but you also gain musicality. The TT sells for $4,300.
But what about Dave? It had even more detail and musicality. It’s a true reference DAC. I aspire to own one, one day. In the meantime, that Hugo TT is looking pretty tasty.