Chord Electronics Limited from Great Britain is a decidedly high-end oriented audio manufacturer whose product have earned a reputation for delivering technical and sonic excellence at what can seem, to me at any rate, like daunting, cost-no-object prices. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that Chord had decided to spin off a delightful new sub-brand called Chordette whose products would provide much of the technical innovation and excellence for which the bigger Chord components are known, but at comparatively affordable prices. In the US, Chord will handle distribution for the Chordette line separately from the top-tier Chord products, working under the auspices of Sumiko.
Our review subject is the very first Chordette product to reach our shores: the aptly named Gem ($799), which Chord describes as a “High Definition Bluetooth Decoder and USB DAC.” True to its name, the Gem comes housed in an exquisitely finished, brushed metal enclosure that could easily pass for a high-tech jewelry box. In keeping with a signature design motif also used in the bigger Chord components, the Gem’s top plate sports a lens-covered viewing porthole that allows users to admire internal circuit boards and components, which are bathed in the soft orange glow of lights mounted within.
Apart from its undeniable beauty and apparent build quality, the real draw of the Gem involves its dual-role capabilities, which are very much in keeping with 21st-century tastes in music delivery methods. On one hand, the Gem’s built-in 24-bit/96kHz DAC can happily decode inbound streaming digital audio files delivered from your computer via USB connections. But, at the flip of a rear-mounted toggle switch, the Gem can effortlessly switch gears to pair with any A2DP-compatible Bluetooth-enabled media player (such as an iPod Touch or iPhone running OS 3.0 or higher) or PC. A Sumiko spokesman emphasized thatwhen 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."
According to a Chord press releases that came out when the Gem was initially announced, ““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!” That’s a strong claim, to be sure, but one that we’ll enjoy putting to the test.
Consider this Bluetooth Decoder/USB DAC if: a PC, Bluetooth-enabled cell phone or digital music player as your audio source components of choice and have wanted to find out how good they could sound if connected to a hi-fi or home theater system via a true high-end interface. The Gem really allows PCs and Bluetooth sources to strut their stuff. Most importantly, look closely at the Gem if you prize a decoder/DAC that emphasizes a smooth and intensely three-dimensional sound (which is especially significant benefits in light of the fact that many competing USB DACs are hampered by faint traces of upper midrange/treble edginess). Finally, consider the Gem for its foolproof simplicity, ease of use, and all around convenience.
Look further if: you require a DAC that provides S/PDIF, Toslink, or AES/EBU inputs; the Gem is a Bluetooth/USB-only device. Also consider alternatives if your listening tastes lead you to prize very high levels of transparency and detail over smoothness and three dimensionality (some competing USB DACs can surpass the Gem in terms of transparency and detail, but not in terms of tonal richness, smoothness or three-dimensionality).
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced DACs)