Sometimes, manufacturers DO listen. After Chord Electronics' DAC 64 proved to be such an immediate hit, they sat back, figured out just why everyone fell in love with it, and took stock of the situation. Sure, it sounded wonderful. Yes, it had neat features like balanced and single-ended operation and its three-setting, user-adjustable RAM buffering. But that wasn't it.
Chord soon identified the aspect of the DAC64 that elicited choruses of 'oohs' and 'aahs': the enclosure in which it was housed. A solid block of heavy metal measuring 335x60x170mm (WHD), a lozenge with a circular window looking in on the component-filled PCB, it screamed 'quality', both through its fit and finish, and the signature glimpse at the innards - no lights kept under bushels here. No lights indeed: the DAC64 lights up a too-cool blue.
When someone suggested to Chord's John Franks that he MUST follow the DAC64 with 'the rest of the system', Franks responded with both the obvious - a pre-amp and a power amp - and the not so obvious. Considering the high-tech/digital age nature of Chord, not a few were surprised to learn that DAC, pre-amp and power amp would be joined from the outset by a phono stage. And, to ice this particularly tasty cake, Franks even arrived at the 2002 London show with a tailor-made rack, which held the four components at angles so you could gaze lovingly on their internal structures. Franks is smart: not only did he house each in the same enclosure, he provided every one of the ensuing trio with blue-lit windows of their own.
Let's start with the Prima pre-amp, a device so downright sexy, so delightful and so 'tactile' to use that it should be sold alongside Dupont lighters and Montegrappa fountain pens. Because it comes with a chunky, machined-from-solid learning remote, with blue-lit touch screen and no-brainer operation, the Prima can be minimalist without tormenting the user. As the remote operates up to 10 devices with 42 commands per device, the Prima itself need bear but two knobs and two buttons, the former fitted to the front surface and the latter inset in two finger grooves on the top. The left button toggles through the inputs, while the right selects tape; the left knob sets level, the right balance. All you see across the back are an on/off toggle, a pair each of XLRs for balanced input and output, a pair of phonos for tape out, and four pairs for single-ended line-in.
You'll recognise the Symphonic phono stage because it has not one window but two; once you learn the settings, you can tell at a glance what they are because of internal lighting. The Symphonic provides both single-ended and balanced inputs and outputs, and the unit is fully configurable for impedance from 25 ohm to 47k ohm, and gain of 0-60dB, with a selectable rumble filter (which also adds IEC roll-off to the RIAA equalisation). But it's here that Franks committed an omission which suggests that the man doesn't get out much.
At a time when Grado can seemingly do no wrong, when cultists are rediscovering Deccas (or Londons, if you prefer), and when even some of the most flagrant offenders of yore are now admitting that some of those Shure V15s were pretty damned fine, Chord's phono stage is moving-coil-only. Alas, it appears that Franks reads the wrong magazines: I know at least one analogue guru who swears by certain moving magnets. And I haven't been without an up-and-running Decca in nearly 20 years.
Completing the system is the Mezzo stereo power amplifier, rated at 30W/ch or 60W when bridged to mono. There's switchable 180 degree phase on each channel, the choice of balanced or single-ended operation, WBT's best multi-way binding posts, and far more grunt than anything this small - either in terms of output or sheer physical presence - should be able to deliver. All of which put me in a quandary: do I treat the Choral as a 'lifestyle' system [see sidebar], given its obvious appeal to those who have no truck with traditional gear, or do I treat it as seriously as one would, say, an amp the size of a microwave oven?
Given the price, the company's reputation and the standards of this magazine, I decided the only course of action was to view this as one would any high-end, purist equipment. And believe me: it's difficult ignoring the indisputable appeal of the blue lights, the made-to-measure rack and that remote. But I did try to wear two hats, using it in two distinctly different contexts. In keeping with 'lifestyle', as in 'Executive's Office System', I wired the stack etween the Audio Analogue Maestro CD player used as a transport, and a pair of LS3/5As. The latter were chosen because I suspect that most complete Choral stacks will find themselves sandwiched between mini-monitors. Think Krell LAT-1s or the new Vienna Acoustics series for those who want to maintain the all-metal mien, or - and I'd LOVE to see how this looks - the Sonus Faber Cremona Auditors in the new graphite finish.
To test its mettle as the five-figure system it is, I also used the Choral with the SME 10 turntable, SME Series V arm and Transfiguration Temper m-c cartridge, driving Wilson WATT Puppy System 7. In both set-ups, I used balanced throughout, though it soon became apparent that some users will be disgruntled when they have to choose between balanced connection for the DAC or balanced connection for the phono stage; given the system's predilection for balanced mode, you'd have thought that the Prima would have two sets of XLR'd inputs rather than one. Naturally, there was a lot of swapping back and forth because of this: balanced certainly is the preferred mode, but I still needed to try both DAC and phono section in both set-ups.
Cable junkies will love Choral, because the system is incredibly sensitive to changes, and it shows up the differences to a truly vivid degree. (I can see Chord dealers exploiting this as proof of the worth of quality cables to doubting customers.) Interestingly, the most expensive wasn't favoured. While the Hi-Diamond, Transparent Wave and Kimber XLRs were used at various times and positions, I used DiMarzios exclusively for the single-ended interconnects and speaker cables. There was just something so right about it, the slightly softer DiMarzios rendering the cool Choral sound a tad less aggressive. But don't for a moment think that Choral is the valve addict's idea of hell.
Despite Chord's screamingly cutting-edge stance, the Choral system does not err on the side of ultra-hygienic, ultra-detailed, overly-etched solid-state officiousness. It was to my great amusement that the phono section, for example, was far from quiet, though not noisy enough to detract from its main strengths. And those are exceptional speed, deliriously deep bass extension, and attack which caused minor clicks to fly past before you knew it. So impressed was I with the Symphonic that I spent 75 percent of the review period auditioning the Choral with vinyl.
It proved capable of preserving the liquid sounds of pedal steel on a fistful of alt.country records, maintained the impact on mono Blue Notes, and proved as open as the McIntosh C2200's (admittedly m-m) phono section with acoustic recordings. The air around Dylan's guitar on the Sundazed monos was so convincing that - complemented by the sparse nature of his first albums - it was hard to believe it wasn't stereo. What sold me, though, on the phono section were Alison Krauss' vocals on the Diverse Vinyl editions: clear and natural, with nary a trace of sibilance.
In contrast to the Symphonic, the pre-amp was deliciously quiet, as was the DAC. For those who haven't the conditioning to listen through minor vinyl weaknesses, like the odd bit of whoosh, the rest of the Choral package is a textbook study in modern politesse. In most basic terms, the system never misbehaved, never sounded stressed or ruffled. Remember: that amp is only rated at 30W/ch, yet it drove the Wilson systems like a thoroughbred with an extra nought to its power spec. Plenty of slam, plenty of weight - it delivers far more than it promises.
If any of the four components shines abov- sorry, but I just can't choose. The DAC64, which preceded the rest, is now a familiar and popular contender in the sub 2500 DAC arena, and deservedly so. It's musical, detailed and so coherent that you find it too good for most transports. The phono stage, though restricted to m-c cartridges, is flexible, practical, musical and, ironically, a bit vintage-sounding, so it will charm the vinyl brigade rather than antagonise it. The pre-amp? Deliriously colourless and neutral, a true 'control centre' in the circa 1957 Hi-Fi year Book usage of the word. But the power amp...aah! This is a spud you could learn to love, simply because it is - and there's no better term - so pugnacious. It all but dares you to find a speaker it can't drive. And, should you find one, well, just buy a second amp and mono the two.
Verdict time: the well-known DAC64 which started the ball rolling remains at 1960, the Prima costs 2750, the Mezzo sells for 2300 and the Symphonic lists at 1995. And you can't go without the rack, so you'll need another 995. That adds up to a hefty bill of 10,000 to the penny. You could, of course, do without the rack, and - if you don't use vinyl - the phono stage. Hell, you could just buy the pre/power pairing and halve the bill.
But we're looking at a complete package, and I, for one, love what I see and hear. No, make that ADORE. It is, for me, the defining riposte to the Bitch Wife From Hell. For the first time in ages, here's a system with which to hector BWFHs into submission, the price tag being the only aspect which might cause insurmountable objections. How do I know this? Because I've seen women swoon in front of Choral. And I don't mean civilian distaff audiophiles. I mean NORMAL women.
If there's even the slightest possibility that something other than the necessary funds is holding you back, it could only be the lack of a source component for the DAC64. So please note that there will be - DEFINITELY!!! - a matching transport to follow this year. Franks is close-lipped at the moment about its status - CD, SACD, DVD-A or universal - but I wouldn't be bothered if he stuck with plain vanilla CD because Choral is a two-channel delight. Then again, he could whip up an A/V processor, a DAB tuner, extra amplifiers and anything else needed to make Choral a multi-channel, all-singing, all-dancing affair. But even if Chord never issues another component in the range, the Choral has my vote as the best 'high-end/life-style' system I've used to date.
And you thought killer performance still meant big, ugly boxes.
Chord Electronics 01622 721444
SIDEBAR: LIFESTYLE OR HIGH END?
By design or default, we often apply the term 'lifestyle' to any products which exhibit certain ergonomic or aesthetic characteristics not found in traditional high-end components. It may refer to down-sizing; in the case of the Choral system, you could turn the filled rack on its back and it would be smaller than some of Chord's power amps on their own. We also use the term liberally for products accompanied by slick remote controls, but the proliferation of trick remotes even amongst psychotic purists renders that less of a determinant than it might.
Rather, I think of lifestyle as an attitude which embraces everything
from down-market crud of truly horrendous performance but chic styling,
to better-than-acceptable yet slightly oddball confections ranging from
Linn's Classik products to T+A's K6 to the smallest Red Rose system. If
I were asked to define 'lifestyle', I would say, simply, that a
lifestyle system serves the owner, where a high-end loony tunes system
is served BY the owner. Note that the Choral will do everything and more
than any respectable hair-shirt audiophile system will do. If you
didn't know the system was compact and gorgeous, you'd probably guess
that the sounds were coming from something the size of a fridge, with
the aesthetic appeal of a cement mixer. And yet Choral never reeks of
the masochism of single-ended triodes, never issues the discomfiting
heat or bulk of valve or Class-A solid state behemoths. If Choral
represents Lifestyle Circa 2003, then I'd say it's time to come out of
the closet. And about time, too.