The Chordette Gem’s USB DAC offers very good though not quite class-leading levels of resolution and detail, although those two particular performance areas are really not where the Gem’s greatest strengths lie. Instead, the Gem’s greatest strengths involve the natural warmth of its overall tonal balance, the richness and saturation of its tonal colors, the striking size and three-dimensionality of its soundstages, and its smoothness when navigating complicated material rich in upper midrange/treble transients and details (an area of significant weakness for some \USB DACs). Let me expand on these points a bit.
Many DACs seem focused on retrieving as much information from records as possible, even at the expense of subjecting the listener to occasional brittle-sounding rough edges along the way, but the Gem has a somewhat different agenda. Pursuing a different (and arguably better) musical path, the Gem builds its sound upon a foundation that emphasizes getting the fundamental tonalities of human and instrumental voices right, and then builds from there. Instead of presenting instruments as a disparate collection of textures, timbres, and transient sounds, the Gem renders the sounds of instrument in a more natural, organic and holistic way; wooden instruments sound as if they are made of wood, brass instruments as if made of brass, and so on. As a consequence, when you listen through the Gem you rarely find yourself focusing in on individual elements of sounds, but rather paying attention to the whole. Tonal colors are satisfyingly rich and vivid, yet unexaggerated.
Smoothness is one of the hallmarks of the Gem’s sound, too, and a welcome one. By contrast, I suspect some competing DACs have made a sonic “deal with the devil” of sorts, where they strive to reproduce increasingly subtle (or sometimes spectacular) details, but at the price of dragging in elements of edginess, glare or roughness that disrupt the flow of musical communication. The Gem, more so than any other USB DAC I’ve yet heard, solves the problem of upper midrange/treble edginess and stridency—if not perfectly then at least to a degree that keeps problems from regularly intruding on the sweep and flow of the music. This represents real progress (especially in the world of USB DACs) and is greatly to Chord’s credit.
Finally, the Gem sounds markedly more three-dimensional than many competing USB DACs I’ve heard—a quality that I suspect is related, at least in part, to its smoothness. The difference, on some digital files, is not a subtle one. I can recall one evening of casual A/B comparisons between USB DACs where, when switching to the Gem, the net effect was that perceived soundstage width and depth increased by a good 30 percent (or maybe more)—a really significant difference (sort of like the difference between watching a video recording of a theatrical play vs. actually attending the play in person).
The only caveats I would mention are that the Gem is not the last word in resolution or in capturing textural and transient details, nor does it do as good a job as some of its competitors at rendering the high frequency air surrounding instruments. Even so, I think many listeners would readily accept those sonic tradeoffs in exchange for the many other sonic benefits the Gem provides.