Digital eh, ones and zeros, it’s that simple right, or it’s broken.
That’s a favourite call to arms of the weird “cult of objectivists”, an odd bunch of internetists that seem to believe in the statistical purity of measurements and to hell with subjectivity or emotional judgements. Fair enough, whatever tickles your bell at the end of the day.
Personally I’m happy for folk to believe whatever they like, unless they’re wrong and feel the need to preach to others (well, at me in particular) be it about religion, cookery or hifi, then quite frankly, they can take a long waltz off a multi-storey carpark and whistle as they do it.
Do all DAC’s sound the same? No, no they don’t. Why don’t they, well that’s quite simple but also absurdly complicated.
Essentially you’re taking a digital signal and converting it to analogue, and there’s countless different approaches to this. Now, the first (Digital) part of the digital to analogue conversion can be done in a multitude of different ways, you’re in the realms of digital processing, and this is also subject to what kind of digital signal that you’re feeding it, if its compressed and uncompressed, what sample rate or bit depth, etc, and so it goes on. More about this in another article I’m writing about digital sources but you get the idea.
Then you have the Analogue part of the whole affair, its accepted that amplifiers can all have a distinct effect on music reproduction, pretty much every DAC will have an amplification stage, simply by the very fact that its converting to analogue and has to present the sound at line level, a form that can then be amplified by a pre or power stage which will have its own character.
So if you still believe that “any well engineered DAC’s should sound exactly the same” then you ARE wrong, it is quite frankly, a bullshit.
There isn’t an adhered to industry standard that dictates that every DAC should conform to a specific output method and thank Christmas there isn’t because otherwise there would be no such thing as choice and we all have different preferences towards different things.
Some people love coriander and some people are physically revolted by it, good! Difference is a good thing, it leads to variety and that is very much the spice of life.
I’ll be linking to some articles from the fascinating Audio Science Review forum at the bottom of this, to my knowledge, Amir is one of the very few folk out there that is actually committed to taking a deep dive into the scientific measurement of audio equipment, even if his good intentions or conclusions can occasionally lead to online fires of opinion or the peculiar whirr of hard line objectivists who place greater stead in data than emotive consumption.
Like I say, vive la difference. Great work though Amir, I’m a fan of your efforts.
First off I must thank my long suffering partner “The Italian” for her help with this, I couldn’t have done the blind testing without her support, db adjustments and diligent note taking. I’m very aware of what a tedious exercise that this all was. I wish I could say that this would be the last time but we both know its not and as we’re both swapping power cables as I type this, I must thank you! what a star!
Right then, here we go…
What was I looking for?
- DAC with multiple inputs. (USB, Optical & Coax)
- Capability of up to 768k DSD512 (for longevity)
- High standard of manufacture
- Ease of use
- Wide, deep and detailed presentation
- A pleasure to live with
- Around the £1000 price point
So who were the candidates?
From Kent, England – Chord Electronics “Cutest” Price IRO £1200
From Wuhan, China – Aune “S8 Reference DAC” Price IRO £800
I felt that these two “Variants” were both within the right ballpark in relation to my requirements and I was easily able to secure home demonstration units for my comparisons.
Thanks very much to Eden Audio for the Aune and Acoustic Streams for the Chord, both units were very much appreciated.
As with everything so far this would be coming out of my own pocket, no discounts, no favours, just like any other consumer.
Again its worth me restating, I don’t give a toss about who makes what when I’m looking at buying things, if I’ve owned or used something then obviously I’ll be swayed by personal experiences but in the case of both these products I have nothing disparaging to say about my experiences with either, in fact in both cases I’ve had nothing but positive experiences and would recommend either manufacturer or retailer should you be considering any of their products. They’ve both been excellent.
** Equipment **
This comparison test went on for about a month, my testing system comprises of the following kit:
Streaming services: Qobuz Studio, Apple Music Lossless, Tidal HiFi, Amazon Music HD
Locally hosted HiRes files: .WAV downloaded from Bandcamp
Computer: Macbook Pro 2016 (Big Sur & Monterey)
Physical Media: CD using a Pioneer PD-9700 used as transport only (analogue components off)
(DAC goes here)
E.A.R. Yoshino 859
ProAc Response 1SC (on Target filled stands, isolated on 20mm thick rubber tiles)
2x Rel Quake
TelluriumQ Black II (speaker cables & interconnects)
UGreen USB cable
Speakers are 4ft apart, 6ft from my listening position and 1.5ft from back wall.
** Packaging **
As you might have noticed in my previous reviews, I don’t care for packaging, I consider it only functional and if I’m not going to be using it regularly then I don’t really need it. The Chord packing was very nice but ultimately I felt the same way that Ultravox feel about Vienna. The Aune packaging would have been easier to recycle I think?
I understand that marketing departments are something that won’t be going away, that the customer experience is key and that it’s “the art of applied bullshit” but as they used to say “good wine needs no bush”, you can look that up if you don’t know what it means.
** Connections **
Connectivity is easy enough, the Chord wins some points on a BNC connector as ultimately its a better connector than RCA but the Aune has an embarrassment of more modern options on its arse end, so they’re about equal on that front unless you need more than the Chord can offer, then the Aune pips it.
** Filters **
They both have a multitude of filters, on the Cutest their effects were minor, on the Aune they were more pronounced but rather than getting bogged down in those I opted to use only the default filters for the purpose of this comparison.
** Sources **
I switched between all the different streaming services also using Roon and Audirvana, because these services do have a place, The Aune isn’t considered “Roon ready” by Roon as a “known” component where as the Chord is, however the only difference I noted was that the “known” setting just gave a different icon. Seems like more marketing bush to me.
One point of note is both of these DAC’s showed up some easily recognisable differences in some of the streaming services, most apparent was a slight roll off in the hi/low range with both Tidal & Amazon, now perhaps this is due to MQA? Personally I’m currently under the impression that MQA is a bullshit.
The CD transport sounded better than the streaming and on a par with the high res files
** Listening **
Right now all that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what they’re both like to listen to.
The Aune IS superb, it has a very wide presentation of the soundstage, detail is superb, everything is there. One of the areas that the S8 really excels in is the depth of the stereo and the central imaging, the aural space it plays in is really very good. Every sound is clearly isolated and easy to pick out and focus on.
If anything it’s not too kind to shitty recordings but that’s another thing that I’ll address more in-depth in a different article relating to Producers, Mastering, etc.
The Chord IS also superb, but oh so different. It’s not a subtle difference either, its as if it wakes up from between your speakers, strides purposely towards you, and grabs you by the metaphorical bollocks. I’m not kidding, the soundstage is forwards, profoundly engaging and somewhat V shaped. It makes for a very exciting listen, of everything. Although its not as wide and deep as the Aune S8.
I’ll admit that I was somewhat amazed, no I was smitten, so much so that I emailed Chord to ask if the presence/attack was dialled up to give this result? kindly Rob Watts took the time to reply with the following explanation:
“No attacks are not dialled up, but it sounds like it compared to other DACs! It’s due to transients being much more accurately reconstructed, so you can perceive the starting of notes much more readily – hence it sounds sharper and much more like real music.”
I have no reason to not believe him, he does know what he’s talking about and has spent years crafting the things. I am also thankful that he took the time to reply to my rambling nonsense, Cheers Rob.
** Comparison **
How would I compare them, given that was the whole point of this exercise?
Well… lets try a film analogy shall we?
If the Aune S8 was the image of beautifully made modern train, travelling through a beautiful scene, gleaming, precise and lush. Viewed in UHD wide screen format from the middle seat of an empty cinema, glorious, imagine an elegant masterpiece of efficient modern engineering and cinematography.
Then the Chord Cutest would have you sitting in the front row of a 4:3 UHD 3D cinema, and you’re watching one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s finest, polished, locomotives barrelling towards you as you cower beneath the unavoidable image, upon its arrival the engine scoops you up by your popcorn, like a old mailbag, and thunders along the tracks with you swinging around joyously in mid air.
How the fuck do you choose between that? This was the biggest problem that I could identify.
The price was irrelevant as both were within budget and so that factor was discounted long ago. And there was no way I was going to let that affect the long term enjoyment of my HiFi.
How do you choose? They’re both incredible, but they’re both so very very different.
Sometimes these things are not straightforward or easy. And this was a pair of those things. On looks alone the Chord won, I’d seen a lot of people say that the coloured marbles and need for the info card was not to their tastes, but it’s not rocket science and I quite liked that. In fact I preferred it to the Aune.
Also the small form factor of the Cutest was nicer in my opinion, the Aune looks great when stacked Pagoda like with other Aune components but that wasn’t something I was planning on doing. So I was certainly swinging in the direction of the Chord.
I figured after the week and a half of blind A/B testing, the results of which “the Italian” was not going to share with me until the end of the testing, we’d try living with them for a week each.
** Conclusion **
A funny thing happened, I noticed something and it was the volume control on my amp.
Perhaps it’s my age? Perhaps middle age is mellowing me? Damn, I always used to say that convertibles cars and wealth was wasted on the elderly, Actually I still believe that.
With the Aune S8 I would often be reaching for the volume, to turn it up. But with the Chord when ever I reached for the volume control it was more to turn it down than up.
I didn’t understand that, because I was enjoying the Cutest so much. But it was happening with such regularity that I noticed myself doing it after about five days. “The Italian” was way ahead of me one this and had been taking notes! That made me kinda sad.
Then it came to looking over the results of the blind testing, 60/40 in the Aune S8’s favour!
Now that was the real shocker to me. “But I prefer the Cutest!” I protested, except the results didn’t lie, they were there in black and white. All those volume adjustments, my actions were betraying what I thought I wanted and what I actually preferred.
Sometimes the life and soul of the party seems like the kind of thing that you’d like to be around, it’s addictive and giddying. But turns out it’s not really what I’d want to be living with day in day out.
Now the Aune is no slouch, it’s sniper precise, I’d certainly say that its uncoloured and transparent. I’ve been living with it for sometime now and I love a bit more it every time I play any song.
Do I miss the Chord?
Kinda, but I also know that it wouldn’t have worked in the long term, perhaps we were just too different? Perhaps I’m all out of youthful exuberance and now prefer a nice sit down rather than a topless car chase?
Fuck, I’ve got old. Oh well, at least my ears still work. I think?
Purchased: Aune S8 Reference DAC –
“A homemaker with sniper like precision that will point out your shit but then treat you to a perfect evening”
Returned: Chord Cutest
“The life and soul of the party that will take you on a high octane road trip with every meeting, every time, hang on to your socks”
Eden Audio: https://edenaudio.uk/
Acoustic Streams: https://www.acousticstreams.com/
Chord Electronics: https://chordelectronics.co.uk
And of course thanks again to “The Italian” who is my “life and soul” 🙂