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Chordette Gem Bluetooth DAC. A Review With Pictures.

post #1 of 15
Thread Starter 
I paid a visit to my audio dealer today (yes I phrase it to make him sound like a peddler of illicit substances because, well, he is!) to talk about DACs, computer-as-source options and other such mysterious things!. I seek him out for a fix every so often and these fixes are becoming more frequent!

I have never really been a fan of the Choral series form Chord Electronics? Previously, every time I have been in this dealers grotto I have not paid them much mind but I'm on a new trip and they make an astonishingly well reviewed DAC, the QBD76. Of all the offerings in the store it is this that is grabbing my attention! It really is a beautifully crafted, intriguing design that conveys a total sense of quality, both externally and internally. You can see the circuits and DAC chip magnified through a lens in the top, illuminated and slightly distorted like some beautiful. opium-like oculus. Hypnotized as I am by its sparkling beauty, the dealers quote of the price must have registered in my mind because I am snapped back to the pragmatic budgeting of everyday life in an instant, this DAC is £3000! Dismay obviously registered on my face because I am led deliriously away from the hard stuff to the diminutive, entry level, Chordette Gem Bluetooth DAC, Chord Electronics cheapest product to date! I feel like I have been given some kind of taster when I leave the shop with one of these gems on loan for a week! RRP £399.

With no real expectations and a little intrigue I unpack the Gem! It is a tiny version of the QBD76, same sense of craftsmanship and solidity, same shape and same hallucinogenic window into the tron-like interior circuitry, I like it, its heavy and it glows! This is not the 76, not even close; the literature says it is an entry level product developed to integrate bluetooth devices into your pre-existing HIFI chain. The A2DP bluetooth technology was developed with both Nokia and Sony Ericsson to provide high quality output from your computer or phone? (I am paraphrasing form the small amount of literature included with the unit). On a prettier note it comes in a variety of colours, I chose black simply because all my other components are black, If I were to buy it I would probably get red for a bit of a change. There is nothing on the exterior of this unit that suggests cost cutting of any kind, It even comes with a spare aerial.



Connecting it to my macbook via the bluetooth is a doddle, easy as adding a mouse. Setting the audio output is equally fool-proof!





The hardware I used Macbook/AIFF - Chordette - Red Dawn/Linn Silver - T1 - O2.




First up - The Sophtware Slump - Grandaddy Track one, He's Simple He's Dumb He's The Pilot. Hmmm? Something is not right here! There is a grainy reverb like distortion to the top end detail! Where is the choral that appears at 4:00 minutes that I love? The sub bass at 4:47 and the harmonies in the peripheral far right stereo image at 5:30 (I know this track well, I love it!) it is all at the centre of my head. I hate this thing immediately, it is strident, thin and distorted, I am not expecting miracles but this is terrible, it is not right? I try a few more track from the same album, then DSOM, Vespertine, and Deja-Vu and other well worn favorites I know by heart. The same thing on all the tracks I listened to, a grainy reverb-like distortion in the treble and an underrepresented bass! There really has to be something wrong with the bluetooth, either it is a terrible way to transfer audio data or my unit is faulty? I am going with the latter because Chord use the same technology on there £3000 QBD76. So immediately the key feature and the most appealing thing about this DAC either is faulty or it sounds terrible! A poor first impression to say the least! Not to be deterred I connect the DAC via the USB and try again. Better but still very, very poor; insubstantial bass, strident midrange and piercing, sibilant treble. The sound actually reminds me very much of ibuds, it really is that bad? I am bemused I have to walk away and leave it to burn in for a few hours, after-all it is straight out the box! Initial impressions = beautifully packaged trash!

With my hatred of the Chordette Gem still fresh in my in my mind I reluctantly return to it after about three hours, I don't really want to listen to any more of my favorite music through it so I pick a generic house mix from the Renaissance series, but what is this? I am aware, immediately, of an astonishing change, there is bass, the grain has all but gone, things are opening up. (I am not exaggerating this when I say night and day!) I cannot believed this is the same unit the sound was coming from the same dac?

Straight out of the box this DAC is appalling, it reminds me of all the things I have grown to hate of bad digital audio, the grainy lack or realism to the presentation, the sibilance and cloudy imaging of low sample rates. Now, after eight or so hours it is a different thing entirely! I remember reading a post on this forum that said, "It is often the things you, at first, like the least that you grow to love the most." Maybe this is one of those things? More to follow...

So I have lived with this DAC for four days now, I do not think it is has any more burning-in to do as it has been on and playing for all this time and after the second day I have noticed no dramatic changes? While my initial disappointment has faded, I have a developing sense that at 399 this unit is overpriced; the bluetooth connection sounds so bad I would never practically use it and this is one of its key selling points! There is digital glare on female voices and cymbals that resonates horribly at higher listening levels and the bass on most albums is undefined and somewhat overpowering. These negative points suggest the Cambridge Audio DAC at £200 or the V-Dac at £159 would be better investments? For me the real deal breaker, and the thing I am most aware of with successive listens, is the appallingly poor head-stage! The Chordette centers its entire presentation smack bang in the middle of my head, even tracks that have wonderful stereo imaging, Pink Floyd's Any Colour You Like for example, is centered squarely between my ears, with very little movement in either direction, even on the O2's!? Instrument separation is good even during complex passages but overall there is a lack of musicality that leaves you cold and somewhat unfulfilled. It is like a band on-stage that obviously does not want to be there, they play, but their is no dynamic or excitement, just a formal 'going through the motions!' Breaking the musical elements down further, or any more depth to this review would be pointless because the sum of all the parts is not up too much, it does not captivate and leave me wanting to listen to more, rather I would sooner listen to my DAP. Before its return on Tuesday I can't see me listening to it again.

In summary:-

BASS = 6 (Poorly defined and overpowering)
MIDS = 6 (An ever present grain)
TREBLE = 5 (Digital glare everywhere)
SOUNDSTAGE = 4 (Really poor!)
CONSTRUCTION = 9 (really well made)
CONNECTIVITY = 6 (Easy to connect, but why bother with the bluetooth, it sucks!)
VALUE = 4 (£399 are you kidding me!)

Final Revision (I will leave my previous comments un-edited.)

The Chordette has to be returned to the dealer tomorrow so I will add these final impressions.

I have had the unit burning in now for five days 24 hours a day and last night I had a watershed moment at around 120 hours? I had not listened to it for a day because, well, I didn't like it but I thought I would give it one more try before it had to be returned. To my astonishment (and I do mean double take!) All the faults I have listed above seemed to rectify themselves to a greater or lesser extent! The soundstage and imaging had opened up and the body of the sound was removed from the center of my head and given a proper sense of width, this in itself was a very liberating headphone experience, the imaging now clearly defined allowed me to relax further into the music! The muddy bass now had solidity and realism, it extended lower and was very engaging. The Grain in the midrange and treble had significantly lessened it was smoother with less sibilance. Overall it now sounded really musical, so good in fact that I spent the next few hours happily listening to some new CD's I had bought that day and ripped to ALAC (one of them is rapidly becoming a favorite on the strength of the Chordette's presentation of it).

I am sure that given this dramatic improvement, in stages, during burn in that if I had more time with the unit, say 500-600 hours that it would improve further and become a really good option at the price it is.

On the strength of this last day:-

Revised Summary

BASS = 8 (Deep and engaging)
MIDS = 7 (Still some grain but given more time I think it would shine!)
TREBLE = 7 (Smoothing out to become accurate and extended)
SOUNDSTAGE = 7 (Getting there again needs more time!)
CONSTRUCTION = 9 (Really well made)
CONNECTIVITY = 6 (Easy to connect, I am fairly sure my unit is faulty)
VALUE = 7.5 (I need more time!)

It needs time to burn in and develop, with my unit getting better daily I am convinced this would be a really good investment. the difference between 0-20 and 90-120 hours was startling. Definitely more to come. Will open it up and take some internal shots before I take it back...







post #2 of 15
This product seems very interesting... if it sounds good. Let's wait for the burn in and for you final valuation.
post #3 of 15
Couldt be interesting, but over what distance can it be used?

Could you also test that, mark_h?
post #4 of 15
Quote:
Originally Posted by paara View Post
Couldt be interesting, but over what distance can it be used?

Could you also test that, mark_h?
Low powered bluetooth devices can be pretty reliable up to about 10 meters. (depending on external interference etc.) Most LAN connections use a different communication technique so interference from that shouldn't be that bad.

I assume this is also true for the Chordette Gem Bluetooth DAC.
post #5 of 15
Thread Starter 
/\ The literature says 20m, I experimented and it is around this figure, slightly less but it is hard to be sure. Review finished.
post #6 of 15
Thanks for the review Mark_H. I would have considerd it if it could have been used as a wireless dac, so you saved me some mnoey then.
post #7 of 15
Thread Starter 
Final revisions, all changed!
post #8 of 15
Very nice report, thanks! To be honest I was a bit surprise no report on this so far. Very nice RCA connectors.

Same experience with my stello too, it took me 2 weeks! Before that it was totally unmusical dead sounding.

Really like the wifi idea, save cost and direct connection to PC. The question is whether using Wifi is better or worst than using USB? Am I correct in thinking there isn't Coxial/optical there?
post #9 of 15
Bluetooth A2DP, not WiFi. With the iPhone software 3.0 and iTouch 2.0 including A2DP, interest in this DAC is bound to grow.
post #10 of 15
Great review!
hmm, it seems that it's worth buying
post #11 of 15
I guess I misunderstood what this device does. It's not a transmitter and receiver pair, the antenna is just to facilitate bluetooth communication with an an A2DP device?

I ask because I've got a prototype TX/RX pair in hand that will push uncompressed 32-48 kHz 16-bit audio up to 300 feet in a smaller package, with excellent sound, low latency for surround applications, DTS/Dolby Digital (compressed only) stream support, and USB/optical/ analog inputs and optical/analog outputs. Basically, it's a wireless high quality DAC/ADC and USB soundcard.

Stu
post #12 of 15
I have one of these connected in one of my rigs. Great sound for the money.

Built like a tank and looks great as well!
post #13 of 15
Quote:
Originally Posted by maczrool View Post
I guess I misunderstood what this device does. It's not a transmitter and receiver pair, the antenna is just to facilitate bluetooth communication with an an A2DP device?

I ask because I've got a prototype TX/RX pair in hand that will push uncompressed 32-48 kHz 16-bit audio up to 300 feet in a smaller package, with excellent sound, low latency for surround applications, DTS/Dolby Digital (compressed only) stream support, and USB/optical/ analog inputs and optical/analog outputs. Basically, it's a wireless high quality DAC/ADC and USB soundcard.

Stu
does this device send the audio over bluetooth? i didn't think bluetooth had near that range. i thought it was on the magnitude of a couple of meters. but then i saw this:
Class Maximum Permitted Power mW (dBm) Range (approximate)
Class 1 100 mW (20 dBm) ~100 metres
Class 2 2.5 mW (4 dBm) ~22 metres
Class 3 1 mW (0 dBm) ~6 metres


and, btw, bluetooth 2.0 seems to be able to transfer at 3 Mb/s. plenty for lossless audio.

oh, and btw, what is up with picture three of the internal part? it looks like they intended on having a bigger capacitor for C45, but then decided to go with the smd. lol
post #14 of 15
Quote:
Originally Posted by etiolate View Post
does this device send the audio over bluetooth?
No. It's a proprietary 2.4 gHz protocol with QOS built in.

Quote:
Originally Posted by etiolate View Post
i didn't think bluetooth had near that range. i thought it was on the magnitude of a couple of meters. but then i saw this:
Class Maximum Permitted Power mW (dBm) Range (approximate)
Class 1 100 mW (20 dBm) ~100 metres
Class 2 2.5 mW (4 dBm) ~22 metres
Class 3 1 mW (0 dBm) ~6 metres
Ours is currently running at 25 dBm but can be lowered.

Quote:
Originally Posted by etiolate View Post
and, btw, bluetooth 2.0 seems to be able to transfer at 3 Mb/s. plenty for lossless audio.
But isn't A2DP a compressed format by design? I think that is what the Gem uses?

Quote:
Originally Posted by etiolate View Post
oh, and btw, what is up with picture three of the internal part? it looks like they intended on having a bigger capacitor for C45, but then decided to go with the smd. lol
Looks to me like they originally planned for (or inadvertently placed) an SMD electrolytic but opted for a ceramic instead possible for economy.
post #15 of 15
nice box, in year 2010 we need no wires
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