Chord Choral Blu CD transport & Choral DAC64 digital audio converter Page 2

"We'll get to the buffer, but first I need to expand upon that 64-bit DAC environment," Franks said. "A 16-bit input multiplied by a 16-bit coefficient gives you a 32-bit output. By using a 64-bit filter and architecture we avoid having to throw away information by truncating the output—something that becomes important if a digital volume control is used.

"Now we get to that buffer. Because we use all-digital data extraction, we can employ a RAM buffer to sequentially accept all the data, re-time it, and then output it. It gives us a jitter-free local clock, without requiring us to send a clock signal back to the source device. All of this takes place in Xilinx Virtex FPGAs, which offer 200,000 gates per device."

I must have looked puzzled. Franks had delivered all of this before my second cup of coffee of the day.

"That means we can change the entire design simply by updating the EPROM. It's state-of-the-art now, but if it ever isn't, we have the technology to fix it."

Franks is British. He couldn't have been teasing me by quoting the opening to The Six Million Dollar Man.

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
Setting up the Choral Blu-DAC64 combo isn't exactly rocket science, but you do have to take care of a few housekeeping matters—once, and then they're done with. The 2HIGH rack comes in three pieces, which are secured to one another with six bolts. The slots that the Blu and DAC64 slide into are lined with felt; the fit is snug, but there's no metal-to-metal contact.

Because I wanted to use the 176.4kHz link from the transport, I set the Blu's three-position clock switch to the proper setting (down) and connected the transport to the DAC64 with two van den Hul-supplied BNC-terminated S/PDIF cables. I set the DAC64 to receive data from its S/PDIF inputs and set the buffer to maximum (4–5 seconds). I did try the minimum setting (2–3 seconds) and Off buffering settings, but felt the small improvement in solidity and three-dimensionality offered by the maximum buffer was worthwhile—so I went for it.

A note about the jet-black finish: It's gorgeous, but forget about reading the text engraved on all those tiny buttons. Fortunately, everything is recapitulated on the Blu's hefty remote, but even after weeks of use, I found it impossible to remember which button controlled what, other than Play, Stop, Forward, and Back.

I also never cottoned to the "disc interface," at least when it came to removing discs from the well. Putting discs on the spindle was pretty straightforward, but removing them required pressing down on the upmost part of the disc, which tilted it, allowing you to get a finger under its forward lip. It felt awkward, even if it wasn't—and it punctured any fantasy about being pampered by the luxurious Chord kit. In other words, it felt like work.

I wasn't wild about the disc-removal process with the Oppo DV-970 I reviewed in May either, but at $159 I expected an ergonomic glitch or two. Strangely enough, I'm less forgiving at $15k.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2) got a major workout on the Choral system. John Atkinson was mastering it when I first received the Chord combo, and he sent several generations of that my way, as well as the final-production CD as the review period drew to a close. Attention Screen's use of dynamics and tonal shading made it excellent audition material, but two elements kept me coming back for more: the phenomenal sense of space the Chord extracted from the discs, and the rock-solid physicality of the sounds of the instruments.

"Blizzard Limbs" is perhaps the track most filled with silence on Live at Merkin Hall—there's lots of "white space" between the notes—and the song illustrated one of the Chord's best qualities. Musical tones don't have a physical component, of course, but tones don't exist by themselves, except on recordings. In the real world, tones aren't just notes; they're shaped by the vibrational qualities of the instruments that produce them and the spaces in which they're produced. You're not hearing that guitar string, or that snare-drum head, or that piano; what you're hearing are those things amplified by the drum body, or amplifier cabinet, or sounding board as well as the hall they were played in. So while the vibrations themselves don't have a body, they're so influenced by the physical elements that produced and contained them that they do have the presence of something solid.

The Chords got this better than just about any other "Red Book" player I've heard. "Blizzard Limbs" begins with drummer Mark Flynn's rock-solid beat, joined by Don Fiorino's crunchy guitar chords, and finally joined by Chris Jones's Martian fretless bass guitar—all weaving in and out of the Merkin acoustic like threads passing over and under one another in a loom. Bob Reina's piano begins by adding just a little emphasis to phrase endings, before working its way through the warp and weft.

It wasn't reconstruction, however, it was re-creation. It was sonically convincing, not just in timbre and texture, but in its presence.

Oh yeah—and it flat-out rocked.

The title track of Ojos Negros, by Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner (CD, ECM 1991), like Live at Merkin Hall, carves long swathes of melody out of silence, but here the dynamic range is less extreme. The notes are not so starkly drawn against the acoustic, but remain very close to its baseline. Many CD players seem to have more trouble delineating such minute dynamic shadings, but not the Blu-DAC64 combo. While clearly delivering the timbral similarities of Saluzzi's bandoneán and Lechner's cello, it did an even better job of celebrating their differences. Because the two musicians delight in mimicking one another's tone and completing each other's phrases, this was especially welcome.

Welcome? No, vital was more like it. And the Chord combo's ability to deliver that life essence made a huge difference between my liking the music and my surrendering completely to its passion.

Chord Electronics Ltd.
US distributor: Bluebird Music Limited
620 Wilson Avenue
Toronto, Ontario M3K 1Z3, Canada
(416) 638-8207