I've been threatening to do a bit of a write-up of my recent hi-fi journey for a while now, so here goes.
The Wonderful Wam
Firstly, just to say that my current musical bliss (more on that shortly) is very much thanks to the Wam and in particular, the incredible generosity of @TheFlash
The journey began a few months back when I joined the Wam and started researching if there were any local wammers interested in hooking up and listening to great music, on great kit, drinking coffee and chatting all things hi-fi and beyond. It turns out the Melton Mowbray area is a veritable hotbed of hifi enthusiasm. Who would have thought.
Skip a few weeks and there I was, sat at home with a beautiful set of ATC SCM40A's (on ridiculously kind loan from TheFlash) and a Chord DAVE (from the equally generous Fourlegs) and my whole hifi journey was turned upside down.
The ATC SCM40A's
At the time I had been (kind of) happy with my Spendor A7's in my living room system for just over 3 years. I had dabbled in a couple of DACs (Chord 2Qute, Chord Qutest, Arcam rDAC, MHDT Pagoda and my current choice, a Denafrips Pontus II). I had also made a couple of amp changes in the form of a Nord NC500 and more recently, trying out some Pass Labs Class A.
No doubt the Spendors are great speakers for the money, but when you consider that you get amps plus speakers with the ATCs, they really do start to look like a bargain. They are really rather special sounding speakers.
A smooth yet detailed presentation with the kind of ease and control one gets when a separate amp is being used for each driver. A significant step up from the Spendors in every area, especially that sumptuous domed mid-driver delivering voices etc with a really stunning naturalness and vibrancy...wow.
Enter the Chord DAVE
It may sound a bit gushy and over the top, but I am not joking when I say that the Chord DAVE has quite literally turned upside down all of my preconceptions about what I thought high-end hifi was capable of.
For a few years now I had been in the game of looking for 'mid-fi' products, believing strongly that the law of diminishing returns sets in hard beyond about £2k or so, with £2k being pretty well my biggest individual outlay on a single unit at that point.
I suppose I always knew that online reviews, advice from others in forums, speaking to dealers and indeed relying on someone else's opinion in any sort of way, could only really deliver a limited worthwhile perspective of what you might experience when listening to something yourself. But given how much has been written about it, nothing really prepared me for DAVE.
Detail - yes. Clarity - yes. Transparency - yes. But just not in the way that I had really understood what those words mean in practice.
If I had to describe the sound from the Chord DAVE in one word, I would simply say 'real'.
I have always believed in the age old mantra that your hifi should take you as close to the original recording as possible. In many ways I had been creeping a little closer to this point for a few years with the various upgrades I had made, but the jump from what I was using when compared to my system with DAVE inserted was really quite profound.
Natural, smooth, relaxing, laid back and ...wait a minute, aren't these all of those words that people use to describe valves, SET amps, Class A, NOS/R2R etc. What on earth is going on here!!?? This isn't what I expected from a chip-based DAC.
But that is precisely how I hear the Chord DAVE (or I should say, how I don't
hear the Chord DAVE). Utterly natural and realistic beyond anything I've ever experienced.
A Spanner in the Works
Before all of this, I was primarily on the look out for a potential speaker upgrade to my Spendor A7's.
But now I have a real quandary. I've heard what this level of kit is capable of and there's no going back.
So it's straight out to get some ATCs and a Chord DAVE right?
Well, apart from the fact I would for all intents and purposes end my marriage by doing so, the asnwer was a resounding 'No'. 'No' I hear you say? So you're planning to save up right? Well, no to that too.
But not because this wasn't fabulous kit worth saving up for I was hearing (and they most certainly were that) but because what borrowing this system did more than anything else, was teach me that however much money I might want to throw at my living room system, the one factor that spoils everything will always remain...the room!
I won't go into too much detail here about what problems I am faced with in that room, but it primarily revolves around a big long room with little to no practical options for alternative speaker placement or use of room treatments. Room correction/DSP I hear some of you cry? Well, not that either. Because I'd already been using Dirac Live for a while until this point and thanks to how revealing the system was that I was now using, it also turns out that, what I had thought was the answer to all my room-related problems, was not the panacea I had previously thought (see following discussion for a bit more insight if you're interested: https://www.hifiwigwam.com/forum/threads/dirac-and-upsampling.109471/
So, feeling a bit flabbergasted at how £20k+ worth of kit in my living room still kind of disappointed because of boomy bass issues, a great piece of advice then popped-up from TheFlash: "maybe you need to stop focussing on the few tracks where you get the bass issues and design a system based on 80% or 90% of your listening".
When he said it, I've no doubt he was suggesting I stopped fussing over the bass issues, stuck with my love of jazz, acoustic, folk etc (which I listen to most of the time) and bite the bullet. But I didn't bite the bullet in quite the way possibly intended, because I actually took that mindset over to my second system, where it dawned on me that I had already been really enjoying that system for 80-90% of my listening recently anyway, since purchasing a Pass Labs Aleph 5 (clone) and some lovely little LS3 speakers (a Wilmslow Audio take on the classic design).
System 2 (or is it 1?)
The ATCs went back, but I still had a few more days with DAVE. So I tried DAVE for a bit with my old set up including the Spendor A7's. Unfortunately, they just weren't doing DAVE justice when compared to the ATCs. But then I thought...those little LS3's with the Pass amp are really revealing in my second system. Plus, there are no such bass issues in that small room with those little speakers in a nearfield position, so maybe it might be worth just giving them a quick try with DAVE.
Wow. Now I'm getting a huge whack of the enjoyment I was getting from DAVE plus the SCM40A's. All that smoothness, that naturalness, that realism, that down right musical enjoyment. But with no bass issues (ok, maybe no bass!) and I don't even need to buy new speakers. Result.
And then it was time for DAVE to go back too.
And that was it. My hifi life literally can't continue without DAVE in my world.
A DAVE costs how much?
Until this point, I'm not sure I'd ever really looked at gear at this price point and thought seriously about it. Way out of my price league.
But then it dawned on me that what I'd been doing for a few years was simply being too impatient. I could never wait for a big upgrade, because when I saw a decent chunk of cash build up in the account, I went for an upgrade, or something a little different to try out. And I'd done a fair amount of sideways box swapping for a while.
And then I went back and thought about that disappointing living room and how nothing was really going to fully satisfy me in there because of the room issues and now all I could see was a stack of boxes staring me in the face, that no longer looked like a hifi system, it just looked like a pile of potential cash to put down on a DAVE.
A Preamp Interlude
But before we get to the money shot, a little thought on preamps.
I've talked about this a little bit as part of other threads, but I feel it is important to highlight at this point that my strength of feeling that hearing the Chord DAVE at its truest potential, has to be when it is used as a preamp, without anything fettering the signal between DAVE and power amp. I undertook a few back-to-back tests using my very versatile LDR passive plus valve buffer preamp during my time with DAVE and it didn't take me very long at all to realise just how much a preamp 'adds', or perhaps I should say 'takes away'.
It may well be that there are more transparent or enjoyable preamps out there than the one I was using. No doubt there is. But an LDR is a very well regarded design for transparency and although it does a very fine job, it was immediately clear to me that it was adding or taking away 'something'. The difference wasn't subtle either. It just completely took away from the DAVE magic.
So to cut a long story short (o.k, so I'm not doing that at all), I have now pretty much traded away my whole living room system, plus a decent wad of cash on top, and I'm now pleased to say I am the proud owner of a Chord DAVE. And I am in hifi heaven.
Helped along by my lovely Pass amp and those tasty little WA-LS3's, but for anyone considering an upgrade anywhere near the price of a Chord DAVE, you owe it to yourself to try one out in your system. It is a truly phenomenal piece of kit. Not cheap by any stretch, but justified largely by it being a preamp and a headphone amp too. And you absolutely need to drop your preamp if you want to get the best out of it.
When I went to pick it up from the dealer, just to make sure I was doing the right thing, I did a back-to-back demo against the Chord TT2. Not even close to my ears. The TT2 was excellent, no doubt, but there is a magic with the Chord DAVE that is really hard to put into words. You just have to hear one.
Now what to do about that living room...