(Updated, 9/3/09). The British firm Chord Electronics is perhaps best known for its expensive and exotic high-end audio components (preamps, power amps, DACs, disc players and the like), which not only sound great but feature exquisite and eye-catching industrial designs. Interestingly, a recurrent design motif is the use of porthole-like viewing windows (typically illuminated) that let users look inside their Chord components to enjoy the clean, precise circuit board layouts and high-quality parts within.
What I didn’t see coming was the product that’s the subject of this blog (and that will soon become the subject of a Playback review); namely, a new “baby” Chord component appropriately named the Chordette Gem.
The Gem is a beautifully made and cleverly conceived product that combines the functions of a wireless Bluetooth (A2DP-compatible) dock with those of a 24-bit/96kHZ-capable USB DAC. According to Chord, “The Chordette Gem is the first in a new range of lower cost products designed to integrate within any existing HiFi system.” What you have to appreciate, though, is that Chord comes from the premium-priced end of the high-end audio food chain, so that for Chord “lower cost” is a relative term. Thus, the Gem is priced at a reasonable but certainly not dirt cheap $799. However, when you look closely at how the Gem is built, and when you take in the whimsical beauty of its (you guessed it) top-mounted, illuminated component-viewing porthole, the price doesn’t seem out of line. My thought: if the famous jewelry maker Tiffany ever decides to offer audio components, I imagine they might look something like the Chordette Gem. The Gem’s price also makes a lot of sense in light of Chord’s claim that, “using the GEM as a USB DAC has proved to yield truly incredible results allowing a MAC computer running iTunes to compete with CD players in the $2,000 price category!” Of course, it’s one thing to make such a claim, but another to back it up with the sonic goods, so to speak.
Sumiko, the US distributor for the Chordette Gem, advised me that the Gem requires a good two weeks of continuous burn-in before, in their words, “it starts to sound amazing,” and according I have my review sample of the Gem baking away in my home reference system as this is written. But even in its not yet fully burned-in state, the Gem already sounds promising—smoother and less prone to treble edginess than some USB DACs I’ve heard. I’ll report back on how it’s doing in a couple of weeks’ time, if only to let you know what post burn-in sonic changes I can discern, if any.
Of course, a very big part of the appeal of the Gem involves its dual-purpose roles as both a USB DAC and a wireless Bluetooth dock. Via the latter function set, the Gem can be used with any A2DP Bluetooth-enabled media player (for example, an iPod Touch or iPhone running OS 3.0), allowing users to access stored music files effortlessly and wirelessly (the Gem’s pairing process is very simple to use). A Sumiko spokesman commented that when used in Bluetooth mode the Gem "simply takes the digital stream directly from the device and sends it on to the DAC," adding that this process "is the cornerstone of Chord's Bluetooth implementation."
The Chordette brochure makes it clear, however, that while the Gem’s Bluetooth audio connections sound very good, its all-digital USB DAC connections sound even better—something I’ve already confirmed in my preliminary listening experiments. Even so, the sound of an iPod (or in my case an iPhone) connected via Bluetooth to the Gem is surprisingly good—better than that of other wireless docks I’ve tried.
But sound quality is only part of the equation; the Gem offers worthwhile ergonomic benefits, too. Where some competing wireless docks require users to place their iPods or iPhones in carrier devices of some kind, the Gem instead lets you hold your iPod/iPhone in your hand, which seems a much more natural way to proceed. Better still, Chord says the Gem allows wireless connections at range up to 30 meters—a capability I’ve not yet tested, but that I plan to verify before writing my final Playback review.