Chord Chordette Gem D/A processor Page 2

As I listened to portions of Aaron Copland's Symphony 3, ripped from the CD collection Leonard Bernstein: A Total Embrace—The Conductor (New York Philharmonic, 1966; Sony Classical/Legacy S3K 90578), the Chordette Gem distinguished itself as a musically competent DAC, albeit with less sonic refinement than the best. Clarity and detail resolution were just acceptable, although melodies were unraveled with very good musical flow and momentum. The big orchestral bass drum had fine weight, and the whole band came across with a good sense of scale. On the minus side, when listening to the same music through other DACs—even the very inexpensive HRT Music Streamer II ($150)—instruments had more color and presence than they did through the Chordette Gem: Harp strings "purred" more, and horns and other instruments were more solidly present.

Bernstein and the NYP's 1971 recording of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, from the same collection, proved even more revealing of the Gem. Although the track is a poor choice for judging a product's tonal signature—the original recording sounds a mess, with a hollow, shrill quality in the violins—other DACs on hand made the strings sound a little warmer and more listenable; the Gem was grainier. Additionally, massed strings never broke free of the speakers through the Chord; the spatial "swell" that I hear through other DACs never happened with the Gem.

Electric music, such as the boxed set of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary (Sony/Legacy 88697 702742), fared better. On the title track, ripped from the first CD of the set, the Chordette Gem did a superior job of preserving the insistence and the nuances in the various rhythmic figures. Likewise, the pitches of individual notes carried by the electric bass—even the new pattern that's introduced a little less than three minutes in, after the long, rubato opening—were clear and well defined. But compared with the USB competition, the Chord insisted on imposing a bit of grit on the sounds of cymbals.

Initial Bluetooth Listening
Switching the source from iMac to iPod—after compensating for the Gem's lower output in Bluetooth mode—made for a less appealing sound. There was still more grain than I like, in addition to which the music itself was now flat and undramatic. Louise Rogers' voice on "Skylark," from her Black Coffee (ripped from the CD layer, Chesky SACD345), was less present and altogether less nuanced through the Gem's Bluetooth mode than when streamed from my computer through literally any USB DAC. Hilary Hahn's stunning recording, with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony, of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending (ripped from CD, Deutsche Grammophon 00289 474 873-2), also sounded flat when streamed wirelessly from the Gem, with grain audible between and behind the notes, where only dark nothing should have been. The same files on the same Apple player sounded better when streamed through the digital iPod dock of the Peachtree iDecco. (The sounds of MP3 files, for their part, were quite similar between the Gem's USB and Bluetooth modes; blindfolded, I don't think I could accurately tell which was which.)

In the Chordette Gem's Bluetooth mode, the iPod often emitted a subtle but annoying switch-on noise, both at the beginning of listening sessions and, occasionally, when I switched between tracks. This being new territory and all, I can't say whether that's simply endemic to the wireless streaming of files from a portable player.

APT-X listening
During the review period, Chord's US distributor, Jay Rein of Bluebird Music, got in touch to remind me that the Chordette Gem is designed to work with the similarly new APT-X audio codec compression-transmission algorithm, which itself works within the Bluetooth interface specification known as Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP). Most recent iPods and iPhones are A2DP-compatible, but they're not APT-X–capable right out of the box: That requires an accessory device, configured to fill the output jack of a given SRC and known as a dongle. Right: You need a dongle on your SRC if you want your SNK to play AIFFs and WAVs through your BASS. (I made up that last one; it stands for big-ass stereo system.)

In actual fact, you needn't spend additional money on computer-audio accessories in order to simply hear AIFFs and WAVs through the Chordette Gem. But only by adding an APT-X dongle to your iPod or iPhone can you get the best sound quality through a Bluetooth connection.

The proof, of course, was in the listening: Jay Rein loaned me a BT-D5 dongle from Creative Music (available online for about $40), which takes the digital data from the iPod and transmits it via APT-X and Bluetooth. This dongle did indeed improve the sound when I streamed AIFF files to the Gem from my iPod. Dynamic contrasts gained the most, and there was also better detail resolution with Apt-X than without, although the highest trebles remained grainy.

That said, using the Creative BT-D5 dongle was slightly less straightforward than that product's instructions had led me to expect. Used as directed, the combination of iPod Touch and BT-D5 would not, at first, stream music to the Gem at all: I had to shut down the iPod, reset the dongle (by depressing its switch before plugging it in and keeping it depressed for eight seconds afterward), then power up the iPod before I could hear anything. That wasn't half as bad as the surprise of hearing said music shut down entirely when my iPod went into power-saver mode after five minutes. (Without the BT-D5, that makes the screen go blank, but the music continues to play.) Disabling the power-saver mode extended my listening sessions to only seven minutes, with the BT-D5 in place. To paraphrase a certain double-chinned, dress-wearing critic of yore: We are not impressed.

Conclusions
I admire John Franks and Chord: The power-supply technology used in their power amplifiers is among the most original and advanced in all of perfectionist audio (pity that a decidedly affordable product such as the Chordette Gem couldn't manifest more of it), and I consider their DAC 64 to be as musically superior as it is cost-effective as it is beautiful. But despite my enthusiasm for both the concept of a wireless high-end iPod dock and for the Gem's stunning appearance and high build quality, I was disappointed by its sound.

For the hobbyist who has yet to invest in any computer-audio product, and who is interested in getting up and running with both a computer and an iPod (or iPhone) as a file source, the Chordette Gem could be seen as a cost-effective choice. Its USB performance, though exceeded by some competitors, is acceptably good; and while its Bluetooth performance was poor, it was listenable—and for all I know, that's as good as we can expect from wireless streaming from a portable player at this time. But for the audio perfectionist to whom computer music files are familiar ground, better-sounding choices are available, some of them for considerably less money.

COMPANY INFO
Chord Electronics, Ltd.
US distributor: Bluebird Music Ltd.
Niagara Falls, NY 14305
(416) 638-8207
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