Chord Electronics Ultima Pre + Power Review
Introduction – It seems that Chord Electronics are better known today for their innovative Rob Watts designed DAC’s than their other products, but they have been making amplifiers since 1989, initially to the professional market and then for domestic users. They are also known for their superlative build quality and their somewhat quirky Marmite approach to aesthetic design. I happen to like their unique style although their Ultima Preamp might be stretching it a little too far, but there is a lot to be said for being different. External design solutions apart what also divides many audiophiles when musing over Chord Electronics products is their reputation for delivering a more ‘energetic’ sound than many of their competitors and some might dismiss their products for this reason alone and usually based on hearsay, but those that do are missing out big time.
The Ultima products are part of Chord’s ‘Full Size’ Range that comprise the Ultima 2 Monobloc power amps (750w), Ultima Pre 2 Preamp and Ultima 3 Monobloc power amps (480w) reviewed here, Ultima 5 Stereo power amp (300w) and the Ultima 6 stereo power amp (180w). Above this sits the Reference Range comprising the Ultima Pre and Ultima Monobloc power amps (780w) that retail at £30,000 a piece (£90k for all three Reference products).
The Ultima Pre 2 reviewed here costs £12,500 and the Ultima 3 Monoblocs are £11,000 each making this three-box amplifier set a £34,500 investment, a serious outlay is therefore required to join the Chord Electronics club at this level. Both the Pre and Power Amps are available with gloss black acrylic sides or the more commonly seen aluminium Integra legs and the aluminium cases come in silver or black finish. The review samples came in silver with the gloss black acrylic side cheeks and are a little more compact than those supplied with the Integra legs. Should you wish to go instead for the Ultima 2 Power monoblocs to match the Ultima Pre 2 then a further outlay of almost £15,000 is required but this is still a saving of £40k over the Reference amps.
The Chord DAVE DAC costs £8,499 without the support stand which comes in at £1,450 per tier as illustrated in the accompanying pictures and again it’s available in silver or black finish and the Integra legs also come in Chrome.
Besides amplifiers and DACs Chord Electronics also make upscalers and phono stages and in the past have made some fabulous CD players but I believe these may have been discontinued.
Technology – The Ultima Pre 2 is an all-analogue line preamp without DAC or Phono Stage, but it does have two 6.35mm headphone outputs on the front facia. The Pre 2 has eight line inputs, 4 on XLR, 2 on RCA and a pair of in/out tape loops also on RCA. It has three 12v trigger outputs to fire up other devices such as the power amps reviewed here. On the front panel of the Pre 2 is one of the largest volume control knobs I’ve come across and next to it a smaller
balance knob that should have a centre detent for ease of use but doesn’t. A series of 5 small buttons are labelled VU for volume unit adjustment (see later), A for Bus A, B for Bus B, Set and Power on/off. The Bus A and Bus B buttons are in effect what we would in the past have called Tape in/out loop selectors. The Pre 2 comes with a large and very well made remote control unit but if like me you are only using their amps 85% of the buttons on the remote control are of no use other than getting in the way and I can’t help thinking that Chord should offer a smaller unit for use solely with their amps with simple but large volume and mute buttons only. The Pre 2 measures 480w x 355d x 173h with the Integra legs or 420w x 355d x 135h with the acrylic side cheeks. It weighs in at a hefty 18Kg.
The Ultima 3 Power Amps are the smaller of the two Ultima monoblocs in the Full Size range both in terms of cabinet size and power output but they do better match the Pre 2 in terms of physical size. They are not bridged mono amps and are in fact powerful single-ended Class AB amplifiers with sliding bias and rated at 480W into 8ohms and almost double this into a 4ohm load. So, whilst they use a high frequency switch mode power supply omitting the need for bulky and heavy transformers, they are not Class D amplifiers as some might think.
Each monobloc amp has two XLR inputs and two RCA inputs to cover inverting and non-inverting input and Chord recommend using the inverting inputs when connected to other Chord products, so this is how I used them. Each amp has a large central illuminated ball of the type used on other Chord Electronics equipment (but much bigger) catering for power on/off. They have two pairs of speaker outputs, but these are for bi-wiring only, not bi-amping.
The speaker terminals used are clearly expensive parts and I’ve seen very similar ones used by other manufacturers many times. They are of the shrouded type, probably to meet EU safety regulations but this means they really don’t perform at their best with speaker leads terminated with spade connectors. Spades have to be inserted from the top rather than the bottom and they are then set at around a 45-degree angle. I found they just don’t tighten enough to firmly grip spades and because they are set at an angle any slight movement tends to loosen the connection and push the terminals towards each other, potentially leading to a short if the spades are not shrouded. There are better alternatives available, and I would have liked to see something more appropriate used at the price. The use of banana plugs would not be an issue and would be my preferred solution for use with these amps. They measure 480w x 360d x 180h with Integra legs and 420w x 360d x 150h with acrylic side cheeks and come in at 22.4Kg each, probably less without the Integra legs. The power amps use the 16amp input sockets not the much more common 13-amp kettle type connector so you may need to change your existing mains leads or have them re-terminated if you prefer not to use the ones that come in the box.
All three Ultima amps have extensive internal teal coloured illumination visible through large openings on the top plates that can be dimmed but not turned off on the power amps but not on the preamp. The on/off balls on the power amps change colour when on or in standby and strangely have different colours when connected to the Preamp with the 12v triggers and this is how I used them. Connected in this way and not in dimmed mode they glow purple when on and bright red when in standby but again change colour if in dimmed mode and when I say bright red, I mean the two red balls are so bright when the amps are in standby
that they could stop passing night traffic or confuse low flying aircraft. The power amps warm up very quickly and do run hot enough to need good all-round ventilation.
The amps are of the high gain type and this means that whilst the volume control on the Pre 2 can be set anywhere from 0 to 98 its effective range I found to be 0 to 40 or even less with some albums before becoming far too loud for most listening sessions. Setting the knob between 10 or 11 o’clock on the dial is about as far as you would want to go without invoking neighbourly issues. I just don’t see how it could be used in most domestic circumstances between 50 and 98 or higher than 11 o’clock. I did discover from the manual that there are in fact 6 user adjustable settings for trimming gain on each input and initially thought this must be the reason for the volume issues. The settings vary from x0.5 to x3.0 but I discovered it was already set to the lowest x0.5 gain, and I can’t imagine in what possible situation x3.0 would seem like a good idea.
The DAVE can be used purely as a DAC or can be run in preamp mode with onboard volume control or in Headphone mode. I only used it in DAC mode feeding its analogue output via XLR into the Ultra Pre 2. The DAVE has digital inputs on USB, XLR, BNC and 2 x TosLink and has outputs on RCA and XLR. It can be set to upsample incoming data and supports PCM files from 44.1 to 768kHz and 32bit via USB, up to 96kHz Optical and 384kHz via Coax. It supports DSD up to 512 but not it seems in native format reverting to DoP, it also doesn’t support MQA, and I have read this is because Rob Watts does not agree with the way MQA goes about its business, so I assume it’s unlikely to be a feature of future Chord DACs. It does do Roon and was found immediately by Roon. It measures just 334w x 71h x 154d without the stand and weighs 7kg.
System Components – The Chord Pre and Power amps were reviewed as a complete amplification set and I didn’t listen to them as separate components (see post review note below). The preamp was fed from my Innuos Statement streamer server via the DAVE DAC and by balanced XLR’s into the Ultima 2 Preamp. Speakers were my usual Marten Mingus Quintet with cables mostly from Jorma Design. I connect the preamp to the monoblocs with Chord Company Sarum T balanced XLR interconnects. CDs were also used during the review with the Sony transport connected to the DAVE via QED Glass Optical cable.
Performance – This 4 Pack set of components from Chord Electronics will win over many audiophiles with their superlative build quality, looks, audiophile sound and pride of ownership. I listened to many albums and tracks starting with ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’ by Sade which opens with some great acoustic and percussion work well before she starts to sing and the Chord’s produced it with gusto and grip but also with subtly and texture. There is a lot going on in the mix for this track and the Ultima’s delivered everything in a cohesive and detailed way that innovative modern amplifiers and DACs seem best able to manage at this level.
‘Game of Pretend’ by Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie needs warmth and attention to detail to fully articulate the full sense of emotion and passion they generate together and the Chord’s met this challenge head on. I found the DAVE didn’t differentiate much between sources with streaming and CD getting ever closer together and it was hard to spot the difference, if any, when listening to ‘This Is Us’ by Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris who
have shown many times how well they can perform in harmony together. Out of the 4 components on review here it’s the DAVE that seems more capable of finding the emotion in the music played whilst the amps deliver the dynamic energy to deliver the emotion into your room.
Allan Taylor has produced some very well recorded albums, mostly on Stockfish Records and listening via files saved to the Innuos Statements Hard Drive to ‘The Beat Hotel’ (44.1kHz/16bit) the Chord Ultima’s were able to extract all the dynamic punch that his deep and melodic voice can muster. Moving back in time to 1977 I listened to ‘Standin’ In The Rain’ by ELO (192kHz/24bit) and this somewhat overly bright track was delivered just as it should be, bright and loud but full of content, clearly a product of its time though.
Goldfrapp popped round on her White Horse (not literally of course) and the steady beat that maintains this track was, as expected delivered with punch, rhythm, and a sense of palpable bass content. The Ultima’s took it in their stride, after which my Marten’s asked for a little rest. So, I played the 12” version of ‘The Invisible Man’ from Queen, just because I could, and you really have to hear how the Chord Ultima’s stood up to the challenge, wringing the necks of my Martens and trying hard to get me to keep winding up the volume to ‘I think the group just moved in’ levels. Wow!
Changing tempo again I played ‘Call Me’ by Imelda May from her On Life, Love, Flesh, Blood album and all the passion she puts into this song came through with warmth and finesse. Piano is always difficult to produce from an audio system in the home but so is guitar, so I played ‘A Day In The Life’ performed by Jeff Beck. Very different from The Beatles original but the Chord’s didn’t shirk their duty and delivered all the impact of this live recording with fast uncoloured room filling energy.
I did of course try all the well known (well known to me) tracks with high bass content and all of them were delivered with exceptional vigour with scale and depth easy to follow and admire. I don’t really do classical or jazz so I’m sorry if that’s your thing, but I did play some music by Craig Armstrong and the track ‘Lontano’ from his It’s Nearly Tomorrow album starts with a real punch that you can feel as much as hear and the orchestra were all playing their part. I also listened to ‘Moxica and the Horse’ by Vangelis & the English Chamber Choir and was mightily impressed by the way he conceived and assembled this track, sounding a lot like something from Dead Can Dance, subtle and full of impact.
Finally, for more of that “in the room’ experience I played ‘Signs of Life’ by Pink Floyd, the intro track on A Momentary Lapse of Reason and I could easily have been on the rowing boat. This led me on to play the entire Meddle album and it was delightfully warm yet dynamic and an enthralling listen full of the kind of effects that so belong to The Floyd. I could go on like this all day listening to track and album after album, but I must end somewhere. I really liked this 4 Pack from Chord Electronics and unless you are into SET valve amps producing less watts than I have toes I think you will too.
Conclusion – Notwithstanding my frustrations with the volume control and the spade connectors these four components from Chord Electronics are very much amongst the finest audio components I have had the pleasure of using at home. The DAVE DAC has an enviable
reputation to uphold, and it does so mightily well and although there are many alternatives at this price point and significantly above it should definitely be on your shortlist for audition.
There is no hiding the fact that these amplifiers offer high gain and a fast pace, but they can also do easy, laid back and relaxed if that’s what you are in the mood for. Their ability to cover all listening moods is one of their strong points. The specified 480w output is easy to believe and is perhaps a conservative measure by Chord. They drove my Marten speakers like nothing before them holding them within a vice like grip and delivering dynamic swings, wide soundstage, and detail where I had not heard such detail before. They are expensive and the looks and energetic dynamics might not be to everyone’s taste, but I loved them and I’m seriously considering how I might be able to make these amps a permanent part of my home system.
Do they live up to their reputation for life on the brighter side? I would say they do but only when the music demands it, they are not overly bright or brittle except on poorly recorded material but that applies to most audio equipment that sets out not to colour the presentation. They don’t do warm and cuddly just for the sake of it although they can when it’s required and they certainly don’t sugar coat the music, but you wouldn’t expect them to. Many other manufacturers have that bent covered. What they can do is present a musical event in your home from virtually any source that will leave you wanting more and surely that’s what we are all looking for, the very best sound we can in our listening room. I’m not looking forward to taking them back to the showroom. I will miss the sound, the light show, the entertainment, the fun and the enjoyment they brought me, but I won’t miss that volume control.
Post Review Note:
Ultima Pre 2 - Out of interest I did try the Ultima Pre 2 feeding my Michi M8 Monoblocs and it presented a slightly brighter sound than I am used to but not as dynamic or energetic as it was with the matching Ultima 3 monoblocs. Interestingly the volume control seemed a little better behaved with a slightly wider range, but not by much, still anything over 11 o’clock was deafening. My impression here is that the Chord monoblocs are a better solo buy than the Ultima Pre 2 when not using them together, but they clearly work better as a trio and that’s how I would recommend them to be used. The Ultima 3 monoblocs are twice the price of my Michi M8’s and the Ultima Pre 2 is four times the price of the Michi P5 so I guess they should sound better.
DAVE - I also tried the DAVE inserted into my home system feeding the Michi P5 preamp in place of my usual Matrix Audio X-Sabre Pro (MQA) DAC, the DAVE being 4.5 times the price of the Matrix DAC. Surprisingly there are several DACs at the DAVE price point and all have their own take on how best to convert digital data to analogue with Chord taking a unique approach by developing their own software rather than relying on ESS, AKM or Burr Brown chip solutions (there are others). This was a much better sound now using the DAVE with the Michi P5 and M8 trio, there is component amp synergy at work here. The DAVE gave all round improvement over the Matrix DAC in terms of scale, detail, soundstage, and content, but it wasn’t night and day and Chord Electronics make less costly DACs for those that can’t stretch to a DAVE. But if you can stretch to the DAVE and even better if you can add the Hugo M-
scaler then heaven awaits, unless of course MQA is also your thing. There is no doubt however that the 4 Chord components reviewed here work best together.
I hope you are enjoyed my reviews written mostly during the last lockdown. Our showrooms are open again now so please contact us at Team Nintronics to listen to this and other equipment in our three dedicated listening rooms.
Thanks for listening.
Bob at Team Nintronics