"We Could have had it all, rolling in the deep,
You had my heart inside of your hands,
but you played it, you played it, you played it, you played it to the beat."
I just finished watching Adele perform her new song Rolling in the Deep recorded live at NPR studios. Her performance wasn't particularly passionate but it evoked emotion in me that I did not expect. Adele was singing twelve inches from my face on an iPad screen while her powerful vocals emanated from my main audio system eight feet into the darkness beyond the screen. Minutes earlier I downloaded this performance and tapped play on my iPad wirelessly sending the audio to my main system while watching the video locally in my lap. The spontaneity of stumbling on a good video online, downloading it in a matter of minutes, and enjoying the sights and high quality sounds of the performance instantly is priceless. I guarantee the emotion I felt after watching this performance would have been gone before it started had I looked for my iPad camera kit with USB connector, a long USB cable, and a compatible 16 bit USB DAC to connect to my audio system. I would have been able to watch and listen to the same performance while wired but I would never have felt the emotion brought on by effortless playback in the moment.
Low Resolution Beatles or High Resolution Bangles?
It's an audiophile axiom that the quality of a recording is inversely proportional to the quality of the music. Yet many owners of fine audio equipment rotate through a fifteen CD collection of Patricia Barber, Diana Krall, and demonstration discs. Similarly, and somewhat masochistically, it's often thought the level of complication, equipment tweaking, and pain one goes through to reproduce music at home is directly proportional to the sound quality realized. Nowhere in the audiophile lexicon or guide book is there a fun meter, an enjoyment evaluator or anything that relates to why many of us got into this hobby. In fact a product that receives reviews suggesting it's enjoyable, pleasant, or engaging may be doomed in the closed mind of an audiophile seeking measurements that "unerringly" equate to sonic perfection. This perfection may have little to do with a listener's enjoyment. Many audiophiles were sucked into this wonderful hobby by an addiction to the enjoyment and emotion brought out by reproducing extraordinary musical performances in their homes. There's no doubt that reproducing these performances at higher levels of sound quality can increase both a listener's enjoyment and level of emotion. However, it's nearly impossible to enjoy one's music spontaneously, on even the best audio system in the world, if using the system is a major inconvenience. It's also preposterous to think someone raised on low quality audio will upgrade from iPod headphones to a complicated multi-component system without first testing the middle ground waters. Somewhere on the continuum from lowest end to highest end audio lies the Chordette Gem Bluetooth DAC. The Gem's position on this continuum is not static. Listeners just discovering that there's better quality than Apple's free iPod earphones may rate the Gem as the best component they've ever heard. At the same time card carrying knuckle dragging audiophiles may rate the Gem as a device not worthy of the 18 square inches of rack space it occupies. If I haven't made my point clear enough I'll express it in layman's terms. The Chordette Gem is not for everyone especially audiophiles seeking the ultimate in sound quality at any cost or inconvenience. If you would rather listen to The Beatles on an AM radio than listen to The Bangles recorded live to two-track at 24/192 the Chordette Gem may be for you. If you're interested in music and listening to your music how you want, not how some technology forces you to listen, the Chordette Gem may be for you. If you're interested in rebelling against an old-school, traditionalist, stuck-up, pinky raising, exclusionary, elitist, Audiophile Standards Supporter the Chordette Gem may be for you. As used car salesmen say, there's an ass for every seat.
My Name is Chris and I ...
… admit to purchasing Ke$ha, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus music from the iTunes Store at 256kbps in lossy AAC format. When a person's music loving boulder starts rolling early in life it's difficult to stop. However it's much simpler to steer that stone down the path of least resistance. In other words, people who love music are going to obtain their music whenever and however they want. At times this means clicking the buy button within iTunes for those seeking the quickest musical fix. Continuing down the path of least resistance means playing this newly purchased music right now without a second thought about how to get the music from here to there. I know this is hard to imagine for some die hard audiophiles, but it's completely OK to purchase lossy encoded files and stream them using a lossy codec via Bluetooth. There's a time and place for everything and I'm willing to bet the musical fun-meter can go to eleven just as easy with lossy or lossless audio files. Computer Audiophiles seeking to push the fun-meter should consider the Chord Electronics' Chordette Gem Bluetooth DAC if they're in accord with the following favorable features and illustrations.
There are some compelling reasons for music aficionados to use a Chordette Gem at the office. The most obvious reason is the "Look mom no wires" approach. Many companies severely restrict the use of wires, especially on the floor, for aesthetic and safety reasons. This begs the question, "Why not use a $100 Apple AirPlay wireless device?" The answer relates to how common 802.11 wireless networks function. The Apple AirPort Express requires either its own wireless network or an established wireless network it can join. There are problems with both network connection methods in an office environment. If the AirPort Express creates its own wireless network any computer or mobile device that connects to this network will likely have a difficult time connecting to another network including the Internet at the same time. A user with an unlocked business computer must be connected to the main company network to conduct business. In the vast majority of cases the computer can only connect to one network without causing serious problems for the user. It's either the AirPort network and wireless music or the company network and making a living. Another issue with AirPort networks in the office is the inability to access such a network due to company computer restrictions. Many users can't even access the network controls on their PCs to join a different network such as an AirPort network. This also raises the issue of an AirPort Express trying to join an existing business network. Unless one's office environment is a technological wild west there's no chance an IT department is going to allow an AirPort to join the network for a somewhat valid reason let alone for music streaming. There are a couple workarounds to this office issue. The first is to use an AirPort Express or similar AirPlay enabled device, connect to the device with an iPhone even though this will stop the phone from receiving any data while connected to the solitary AirPort. The second and simpler option is to use the Chordette Gem Bluetooth DAC. Connecting to a Bluetooth audio device is as simple as it gets and doesn't involve the commonly used 802.11 networks. Thus users don't need to know anything about 802.11 wireless networks or have access to these networks. Most users would rather leave the IT department alone anyway (for fear the IT dept. will discover where the users have been Internet browsing while at work - only kidding). During the review period I was able to connect to the Gem by simply enabling Bluetooth on my iPhone or iPad and selecting Chordette 2060. After my iPhone/iPad was paired with the Gem audio automatically flowed through the air without user intervention. What's more is that users who want to send audio to the Gem via Bluetooth from an unlocked business computer with Bluetooth capability can simultaneously connect to their company network and the Gem Bluetooth audio device. A Bluetooth audio connection is not viewed by the computer as a viable data network. This leaves the existing business network to function as if nothing else was happening. In my home office I used the built-in Bluetooth capability of my MacBook Pro running OS X 10.6.7. This hardware / software combination fully supports the APT-X codec enabling enhanced audio quality when compared to non-APT-X devices. Apple is very tight-lipped about its support for APT-X. Finding exactly what Apple hardware and software support APT-X is a challenge. I was able to confirm through blind listening tests that my iPod, iPad, and iPhone 4 do not support APT-X natively. Apple is said to be working on an iOS update that will enable support for APT-X. The current version as of this writing is 4.3.2 and it does not support APT-X.
One more reason the Chordette Gem is good for the office. More than 50 million worldwide Blackberry users who can't use Apple's AirPlay will be able to enjoy Bluetooth audio with the Gem.
Since many of us work to live instead of live to work we like to enjoy music with our friends outside of the office. No, not in the hallway outside the office. In our homes. The Chordette Gem can be great for parties or small get togethers where the guests would rather not hover over the host's shoulder while he selects songs via iTunes or J River Media Center. The ability to hold a WiFi-less 160GB iPod Classic with an APT-X Bluetooth dongle and select songs from the couch, the kitchen, or even the water closet is pretty neat. Even better is the collection of music on each party guest's mobile device. My friends an I like to surprise each other by rotating who has control over the music during parties. It's always fun to hear a little Milli Vanilli, followed by Pearl Jam, followed by some obscure song not heard since the days of high school dances. Using the Chordette Gem via Bluetooth each guest can have a crack at playing DJ with their own device. Readers should know the Chordette Gem accepts a single Bluetooth connection at a time and does not immediately disconnect from a device when the music stops. This connection limit could cause a delay when switching between mobile devices. The manual method of resetting a Bluetooth connection is flipping the rear switch up and down on the Chordette. I discovered one cure for this issue when using my iPad, iPhone 4, and iPod Classic in succession. To obtain the best audio quality I used the Creative BT-D5 ($40) Bluetooth dongle. Once I paired this tiny dongle with the Chordette Gem I could plug it into any of my devices and instantly have a solid Bluetooth connection. Using such a dongle at a party would allow users to quickly toss it around the room to another person allowing them to beam their favorite tunes in a matter of seconds.
Computer audiophiles who appreciate solid build quality and well designed products likely have friends of the same ilk. Their party going guests will enjoy the Chordette Gem as it's built like a tank, substantial in weight, and has an aura of quality. This is not meant in a show-off kind of way. Rather as something of quality friends like to introduce to each other.
A Bluetooth audio device like the Chordette Gem can save the day when the resident house techie is not available. How many people have secured their wireless network at home? My guess is if you're reading Computer Audiophile the chances are pretty good there's WPA2 encryption, a hidden SSID or network name, and possibly MAC address filtration in use at home. All of this security is great. As long as the house geek is available. What happens when the kids are home alone with friends and they want to play music from their iPhones? Using an AirPlay device would require a call to the house geek to acquire all the pertinent wireless network information. That is if the kids should be in possession of this information. Once the kids have the encryption password, the SSID, and possibly gone into the router to add several MAC addresses to the filtration table they are off and running with wireless audio. On the other hand using a Chordette Gem via Bluetooth every kid in the neighborhood could connect without a call to the home network support line. No private password or network name required.
My Name is Chris and I Also ...
… admit to using a Pyramix workstation with Mykerinos audio card that requires jumping through three rings of fire to listen to several albums at different sample rates. I like the extreme high end as much as anyone. Some day I hope to have enough money for a system required to reproduce audio at the highest level. I developed a CD Ripping Strategy and Methodology that all but the most dedicated Computer Audiophiles will think is way too over the top. I have no television in my dedicated listening room as that would only distract me from the theater of the mind that is music. I could go on and on with examples of audiophile that many readers would relate to, but the point should be made by now. In addition to liking bubble gum pop downloads I like listening to high resolution music on complicated sometimes inconvenient audio systems even more. Computer audiophiles who would rather stick a pencil in their neck than listen to less than stellar audio and whose fun-meter isn't budged unless the conductor can be heard turning the pages of a score may not be the best customer for a Chordette Gem Bluetooth DAC. The not-so-bright side of the Chordette Gem involves using an anti-audiophile audio path, a lossy codec, slim sample rate support, and a wireless technology whose ship has sailed for some people.
The Chordette is definitely not the audio purist's gem. Using basic Bluetooth's Sub-Band codec (SBC) the Chrodette Gem's sound quality is just OK. Fortunately Chord implemented the APT-X codec in the Chordette. This increases the sound quality substantially. However, when using a Sennheiser BTD 300i ($90) or Creative BT-D5* ($40) APT-X Bluetooth dongle with an iPod/Pad/Phone the audio path is one that will make many audiophiles cringe. A song starts as digital information stored on an iPod. No issues so far. This digital information is converted to analog by the iPod's internet DAC. No issues but this could be better. Now the crazy but necessary stuff begins. This analog stream is converted back to digital before it's sent to the Bluetooth receiver in the Chordette DAC. The Chordette DAC then does a final Digital to Analog conversion before sending the audio to the preamp. Digital to analog to digital to analog is not the audiophile's path of choice. In the future this "extra" digital to analog conversion will not be necessary as more devices support a pure digital Bluetooth stream. Even though Chord wisely uses the APT-X Bluetooth codec this codec is still lossy. APT-X Bluetooth encodes the digital data at 352kbps even if Apple Lossless or uncompressed AIFF files are playing. This lossy codec is likely unsatisfactory for most audiophiles, including myself, when listening through high end components and seeking the best audio quality achievable. The Chordette Gem is limited to 44.1 kHz via its Bluetooth interface. Audio Midi on Mac OS X reports 44.1 and 48 kHz as available sample rates but I was unable to send 48 kHz audio natively or even select 48 kHz in Audio Midi Setup. The Gem does support 32 through 48 kHz via its adaptive USB input.
Apple's introduction of AirPlay wireless audio transmission is serious competition for Bluetooth audio components like the Chordette Gem. AirPlay devices like the AirPort Express ($99) and AppleTV ($99) are far less expensive than the Chordette Gem ($695). These devices do require an external DAC for decent sound quality, have their own wireless network requirements, and only work with Apple's iTunes or iOS devices. AirPlay also support pure digital bit perfect transmission. Many audiophiles consider bit transparency the minimum requirement for any audio device. The Chordette Gem was conceived and released a few years ago. At the time it was a groundbreaking device with no competition. Since then technological fruit has ripened to support Apples instead of Blueberries because more and more people like the taste of Apples (please insert iPod/Pad/Phone for Apples and Bluetooth for Blueberries). Apple AirPlay is a competitor to Bluetooth but readers should remember the two don't compete directly one-for-one. Some scenarios may necessitate one technology over the other because of a unique requirement like those mentioned in the previous paragraphs.
The Chord Electronics Chordette Gem Bluetooth DAC may be a diamond or lump of coal depending on the requirements and expectations of the listener. Chord certainly didn't set out to produce a successor to its much lauded reference line of products when it conceived of the Chordette Gem. To Chord's credit it produced possibly the best Bluetooth audio device available anywhere. Implementing the APT-X Bluetooth codec to separate the Bluetooth men from the Bluetooth boys was a great design decision. The improved sound quality when using APT-X compatible devices should be easily identifiable to even a novice listener. Under the right conditions the Chordette may be the only DAC worth considering. At the office, a friendly get together, or in any number of unwired uncontrolled circumstances the Gem is a gem. That said, the Gem should not be on everyone's list of top performing DACs to demo. Even with the recent price reduction to $695 the Chordette has some serious wired competition that may best its sound quality for equal or less money. Its adaptive, limited sample rate, USB implementation is fairly dated and its D to A to D to A audio path may be unacceptable to some people. The lack of lossless bit transparent transmission between a Bluetooth transmitter like an iPhone and the Chrodette Gem will be a show-stopper for a number of audiophiles. If there's one takeaway from this review may it be this: There's an ass for every seat, a time and place for everything, and a product to fill every consumer need. As always I recommend readers conduct their own listening tests to determine if the Chordette Gem is the right DAC for their ears or events.
* The Creative BT-D5 continually disconnected from the Chordette Gem after three to five minutes of unattended use with my iPod Classic 160GB, iPad, and iPhone 4. In Creative's first response to my inquiry it indicated a possible faulty BT-D5 dongle was the culprit. I'm waiting to hear back from Creative after sending them additional information about my Bluetooth usage. The Sennheiser BTD 300i Bluetooth dongle apparently does not suffer from this problem.
- Price - $695 (Sliver or Black)
- Product Page - Link
- Information Sheet - (PDF 1.2MB)
- APT-X Bluetooth Information - Link
Source: Apple iPad, Apple iPad, Apple iPad, Apple MacBook Pro
Software: iTunes, Mac OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.7, Mac iOS 4.3.2
Preamp: Benchmark DAC1 PRE, Peachtree Audio iNova
Amplifier: McIntosh MC275 amplifier
Loudspeakers: Verity Audio Fidelio loudspeakers
Cables: AudioQuest Diamond USB Cable, AudioQuest Redwood Loudspeaker Cable, Kimber Select KS1011 Analog Cables