Covering CanJam this year was a real blast. Every vendor seemed to have super exciting product introductions and Chord Electronics was no different albeit it was a more cerebral one. I’ll explain. As Chord fans may already know, Chord’s secret weapon is a digital audio guru named Rob Watts who works for WTA. Rob was one of the earliest adopters of Field Programmable Gate Arrays or “FPGAs” for short. In the headphone world, Chord deployed this technology in the form of an incredible (groundbreaking really) portable DAC/Amp called the Hugo. This was a smash hit as it offered a smooth and refined sound from PCM digital that many had frankly not experienced before. It also had a really capable amp that could drive difficult headphones like the Audeze magnetic planars. Chord derived the FPGA technology in the Hugo from Rob Watts all-out efforts with their flagship $10K+ DAC, the DAVE. Chord even trickled down the technology into the Chord Mojo, a more compact version of the Hugo that I love and use on almost every plane trip. The big news I thought was the incredible success of the new Hugo 2 which is so popular, even us reviewers are struggling to get one as Chord strives to meet an avalanche of consumer demand. I had first heard the Hugo 2 with Audeze’s amazing LCDi4 ear buds at the LA show in the “elite room” and was blown away. It was clear the Hugo 2 was more refined in every way. Part of my excitement about RMAF was a chance to hear this portable powerhouse one more time.
What makes these Chord digital devices so special? In short, the FPGA allows the team led by Watts to develop more complex interpolation filters that do a much better job of getting that analog waveform recreated. An FPGA chip has 500X more processing power than an off-the-shelf chip found in most CD players and DACs. From a technical standpoint, the FPGA is fully programmable in software to allow custom digital filters that reduce errors in recreating the waveform and virtually eliminate noise floor modulation common in 99% of the DACs out there. Watts feels that CD playback is flawed as it has timing errors of 22 microseconds whereas the ear/brain can resolves 4 microseconds. In other words, very small timing errors have a big subjective impact on what we hear. To reach perfection, one needs an “infinite processing filter”.
Watts breakthrough has been to solve the problem by very long “filter taps” that ensure very fine transient recreation. In fact, research in the 1980s led Watts to believe that 1 million length taps were necessary for absolutely perfect 16 bit audio playback. In fact, Chord’s new “Blu-Scaler” CD transport now has that as its primary technical feature. As far as I know, no one else has offered this level of transient reproduction. From a sonic standpoint, this leads to better transients, proper timbre of instruments, wider dynamics, and just a more natural sound. Indeed, my first comment to a friend upon borrowing a Hugo for two weeks, was “this is the first time I have heard digital sound like analog.” Another advantage of the FPGA technology is that it provides a simpler signal path which helps refine the also critical analog output stage. It also minimized time-based distortion known as jitter to extremely low levels. The chart below shows the accuracy of waveform reproduction.
However, there was even bigger news to be had in the form of a “ghost” prototype that was not even displayed. Widely respected digital guru Rob Watts had crossed the pond and was authorized to discuss his next big product, DAVE’s companion device in the form of an analog to digital converter named DAVINA. This is exciting stuff as DAVE’s technology has vastly improved PCM playback but what if a recording engineer had the same technology to convert the analog waveforms of musicians with super-low distortion on the actual act of recording? Could we finally 30+ years later realize the true promise of humble 16 bit audio?
Let’s talk about how digital recordings work briefly. In Atlanta, my good friend Nick and I will bring in microphones and set them up on a mic tree about 7 feet in the air and six to eight feet back from an ensemble of acoustic musicians, typically classical or jazz. The mics are attached to mic cables and can then be routed into daisy-chained Sound Devices boxes to record digital audio at high sampling rates. We usually use 24/176. But good analog to digital converters (ADCs) are critical to capturing the best sound. We have found the ADCs in the Sound Devices and Korg boxes to be pretty good but outboard ADCs can be even better such as that made by Benchmark Media Systems. As good as these are, none have the low distortion technology of that found in the DAVE. With the DAVINA now in prototype form according to Rob Watts, we are close to a potential whole new level of recording capability.
Now think a minute about how hard Rob’s job can be. He must use technical knowledge to design and build DACs that correlate to better sound quality. Rob, a bit of digital pioneer I would argue, has already been recognized for innovative interpolation filters to approach the 16 bit ideal implementation allowing full capture of what we hear from 20hz to 20khz. With the DAVINA in place, Rob is literally now “in control” of everything that happens from the mic to the listener’s ear. The potential of learning the full effects of Rob’s filter improvements is tremendous. It is not a stretch to assume this will lead to further improvements in the state of recording technology but also future digital playback that gets closer to the live event.
So while I anxiously wait more time on the Hugo 2, it may just be Rob’s DAVINA that takes Chord to a higher ground. I give John Franks a lot of credit for hiring Rob as well as inviting him to provide digital design seminars at Rocky Mountain. I cannot wait to hear the first recordings done with a DAVINA analog to digital converter.