Does the Chord DAVE Improve with a Headphone Amplifier?



The only headphone amplifiers I had for this experiment was the Airist Audio Heron 5 and the Moon Neo 430HA. Needless to say, these amps are in different classes but I figured it would be interesting to see how the sound changes when the DAVE line outs to an amp.

Simaudio Moon Neo 430HAD

This amplifier is a superb piece of equipment. It’s a truly a reviewer’s dream (Words of the Godfather Tyll from Innerfidelity). I also felt the internal DAC sounded pretty good and better than Chord Hugo (portable) when lined out with RCA. I love this amp.

Now as far as power, the amp built into the DAVE is sufficient to power the Abyss to ear-splitting levels. I don’t really go past the -10 dB mark. It gets pretty painful. That answers the question “Is the DAVE amp section sufficient to power current thirsty headphones?”

So what are the sonic differences between direct-from-DAC or having an amp in-between? Two things:

  • Softness
  • Transparency

The softness actually helped me tame that harshness I mentioned previously (which I didn’t get with the Lumin or Berkeley Reference). It actually doesn’t sound bad and smooths out the rhythm a bit. I do notice a thin veil to the overall sound. With direct-to-DAC, there’s literally nothing between your ears and the microphone. Without a direct comparison, you wouldn’t notice this as the 430HAD is so transparent. Speaks volumes on the Moon amp IMO. In any case, direct-to-DAC improves clarity, layering, dynamics, and transparency. Imaging and soundstage sounded similar to my ears.

I have to say, the differences aren’t huge, but it’s there. For high-resolution recordings, the direct-to-DAC was superior…by a fair margin. For studio and synthesized recordings, it’s not as apparent and I could be happy with either.

Airist Audio Heron 5

I heard this amplifier at CanJam and asked Will if he could send me one for evaluation. I’ll conduct a formal review at another time.

With the DAVE feeding the Heron 5, the sound was much softer and a bit veiled. Dynamics weren’t anywhere close to the 430HAD but given the price difference, that may be fitting. The sound was really, really smooth…which wasn’t quite my taste but I could imagine others who may prefer it. As opposed to the Moon comparison, in this scenario, the differences where night & day. The Heron 5 colored the sound but the presence of depth and detail is still there. This allows DAVE owners to really tailor the sound to their own liking without losing the many benefits of the DAVE.

Wells Audio Headtrip Reference

I heard this amp at SoCal Canjam 2016 and I thought it was absolutely spectacular. I probably spent a good half hour listening to it at the show. I preferred it to the Headamp GS-X.

I’m in the middle of arranging a demo of the reference with Jeff Wells (Great guy and one of my favorites in the industry). He does amps right. This page will be updated when that happens.


So far, we know a high-quality digital power cable is essential for the DAVE. Now for the grand finale…is the DAVE truly immune to source? This was by far the most interesting part of project.