Chord Electronics DAC64 D/A processor Page 3
Given the pace of development in digital technology referred to earlier, making value judgments of the quality of a digital processor in isolation is impossible (provided it doesn't drive you out of the room). I therefore set up comparisons with some of the components that have passed through my listening room in recent months. In each case but one, the transport used was the Mark Levinson No.31.5, connected with identical AudioQuest CinemaQuest SVD-4 S/PDIF datalinks (footnote 1), and levels were matched at 1kHz to within 0.1dB using the Levinson No.380S preamplifier's level-offset function.
One operational glitch became apparent during these comparisons. The DAC64 muted if the digital source was disconnected or switched off, but wouldn't unmute when the source was reconnected. I had to unplug the AC cable and let it sit unpowered for a few seconds, after which the mute would lift when the unit was powered up again.
First up was the Wadia 861 CD player ($7950), reviewed by Brian Damkroger in April. Yes, this does have its own internal transport, but as I couldn't get its digital output functional, I instead fed one of its digital inputs from the Levinson. When I listened to the excellent recording of Elgar's In the South overture with the Bournemouth Symphony conducted by George Hurst (Naxos 8.553564, Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" for June 1998), the Wadia, set to its Digimaster filter, made the violins sound a little "reedy" via the Chord, and the British DAC's low frequencies were very slightly more woolly. The admittedly rather underdamped kick drum on the Jerome Harris Quintet's recording of Ellington's "The Mooche" (Rendezvous, Stereophile STPH013-2) came over as less well-defined. Overall, however, the two units were similarly lush, though the Wadia was slightly more laid-back.
Next up was Musical Fidelity's limited-edition Nu-Vista 3D player ($4995), which so enthralled Mikey Fremer last October. For this set of A/B tests, I used the tubed Nu-Vista as the transport, again driving the Chord via the AudioQuest S/PDIF datalink and with levels matched at 1kHz.
This time, differentiating the two components was not quite as difficult as it had been with the Wadia. The Musical Fidelity player was slightly brighter, but was better both at presenting individual sound sources "of a piece" and at throwing a deep but well-defined soundstage. In the first appearance of the fanfare figure that appears throughout Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 3, there is a sudden hush after each pedaled chord where the decay of the sound helps define the recording space for the listener. While this was still apparent through the Chord DAC, the reverberant decay seemed better connected with the image of the piano via the tubed CD player.
This difference was also apparent with multimiked recordings. Though there had been some studio leakage of Jerome Harris' bass guitar in his solo introduction to "Hand By Hand" on Rendezvous, almost all the ambience you hear surrounding his Taylor instrument was provided by a Lexicon PCM-90 reverberator. The Musical Fidelity both preserved the amount of reverb I had decided on and used it to place the bass guitar behind the plane of the speakers. Via the Chord, even with its RAM buffer engaged, the bass sounded a little drier and was more upfront in the balance as a result.
Footnote 1: This relatively affordable silver-conductored datalink has become my reference S/PDIF cable. One caveat: The instructions on the box regarding use for digital audio say "Please follow the directional arrows on the plugs." I could find no directional arrows on the plugs, which seem to be identical at both ends of each cable (two black dots, three inscribed circular bands, yellow CinemaQuest band). I therefore arranged for the cable to be run with the lettering of the legend on the cable jacket, which runs from left to right, to run from source to receiver. This is what AudioQuest recommends.