History, development, and technology
As an aviator and audio reviewer, it never ceases to amaze me how many luminaries in hi-fi have an aviation background. SME’s CEO, Stuart McNeilis, spent decades as a senior aeronautical engineer at British Aerospace; and for many years, SME has supplied components for the Martin-Baker ejector seats used by air forces worldwide. John Franks, founder and chief design engineer at Chord Electronics, previously worked on aircraft electronics for Marconi Avionics. John’s specialty was ultra-high-frequency power supplies, and he used his expertise in this area to develop the concept of dynamic coupling: linking an amplifier’s power supply rails together in a specialized high-frequency transformer. The strong magnetic flux in this arrangement prevents the short-term distortions associated with high currents feeding back into the ground loop of an amplifier. The result is a fast and agile amplifier with a transparent sound. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised to find so many aerospace engineers in audio, given that aviation demands the very highest standards—such skills transfer very well into designing and building high-end audio equipment.
Chord Electronics was founded in 1989 and quickly established a reputation in the commercial arena, building amplifiers for the BBC, Abbey Road Studios, and eventually for George Lucas’s Skywalker Sound. Keen to bring its designs to the domestic market, Chord launched its first domestic amplifier range shortly afterwards. In subsequent years, models like the SPM 1200C power amplifier came to be regarded as classics. More recently, the company has added streamers, DACs, phono preamplifiers, and digital upscalers to its product range. Chord’s DACs are regarded as some of the very best available at any price. This is a company with a very deep seam of analog and digital engineering expertise.
Chord’s legendary Dave DAC (top)
Retailing for $8495 (all prices in USD), the Ultima Pre 3 is the first rung on the ladder in Chord Electronics’ new preamplifier range. The next model up is the Ultima Pre 2 ($19,450), which adds a few more inputs, a headphone output, and an LED display to denote the selected source. The Pre 3 has five sets of line-level inputs: three unbalanced (RCA) and two balanced (XLR), and one set each of unbalanced and balanced outputs. An XLR A/V bypass is provided for use with compatible A/V processors and receivers.
The first thing you notice when you unpack this component is the unusual and striking design. The aerospace-grade aluminum casework with its gloriously machined contours and side-mounted grab rails makes for stunning looks. I love the way Chord has married form and function to create something that is so visually distinctive. The Ultima Pre 3 is available in Jett Black or Argent Silver finishes. A set of side-mounted Integra legs that allow component stacking are supplied as standard, but the Pre 3 can also be ordered with optional side blocks. In the latter configuration, the Pre 3 cannot be stacked.
Chord Ultima Pre 3 front view
Weighing 28 pounds and measuring 19″W × 14″D × 5.1″H (including Integra legs), the Ultima Pre 3 is a big preamplifier. The footprint is so large that I had to put it into my Ash Designs Cosmic rack from the side as it wouldn’t fit between the verticals on the front of the equipment support!
The top of the casework has a series of sculpted mesh cutouts to improve ventilation. When the preamp is switched on, internal electronics are illuminated by an eerie and magnificently cool teal-green glow. It instantly put me in mind of the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was mildly alarming.
I think I’m being assimilated. . . . The interior lighting is superb
In the center of the front panel is a large, round, illuminated power button that glows red when off, green during the two-second boot sequence, and teal when ready for replay. If your equipment racks are directly in front of you, you may find the glowing orb a little too bright, especially if you’ve dimmed the lights to watch a movie. Fortunately, both the internal and power-button lighting are dimmable via the supplied remote control. My equipment racks aren’t in my line of sight so I decided to stick with the full Borg effect. Resistance is futile. . . . The functional plastic remote control (which will soon be upgraded to a metal remote) also provides source selection, volume, balance, and power on/off functions.
Minimalist front-panel controls on the Ultima Pre 3
The front panel’s controls comprise a large Alps RK27 Blue Velvet volume control on the left and a matching rotary balance control on the right. Unusually, source selection is accomplished by pushing the volume knob repeatedly to cycle through inputs. As you do this, the backlighting on the volume control changes color to denote which input is in use. I found this method of input selection a little over-engineered. In my view, a simple set of pushbuttons or a rotary-dial input selector would have been simpler and more elegant. There were times when I found myself pushing the volume knob repeatedly to find out which color denoted RCA input 5, which I was using for my turntable. The system would be more user-friendly if there was a discrete LED display denoting the programmed source—phono, streamer, etc.—as is the case on preamps higher up in the Chord range. To activate the A/V bypass mode, simply push in the rotary balance control, which responds with a reassuring click.
The rear panel of the Ultima Pre 3 is a model of simplicity and clarity
The rear panel is beautifully laid out, with two pairs of stereo XLR inputs and three pairs of gold-plated RCA inputs, all of superb quality. In the center of the back panel is a standard IEC mains input for the supplied power cable, and a master power switch. Moving to the right, there’s a 5V 3A USB output for powering a component like a small DAC—or even for charging your phone—plus a set of 12V trigger inputs and outputs for automation purposes. The preamplifier supplies both balanced and unbalanced signals: via beautifully built XLR sockets into a balanced power amplifier like Chord’s Ultima 5 or 6, or via RCA jacks into a conventional power amplifier such as my Naim NAP 250.
Like other members of the new Ultima range, the Ultima Pre 3 is no rehash of an existing design, but rather a ground-up, blank-sheet development. Careful attention has been paid to shielding the analog signal paths from digital control circuits. The multilayered circuit boards are separated by screening layers, and there is comprehensive input buffering and RF screening. The end result is a very low noise floor, which became very apparent during my listening tests.
What’s lacking? A phono stage would be nice, but most people spending almost ten grand on a preamplifier will probably favor a separate phono preamp for vinyl playback. However, I do wish Chord had fitted a headphone socket. I have a standalone headphone amplifier, but many listeners don’t, and it’s nice to be able to extend your listening into the witching hour when you own a system of this caliber.
I had two power amplifiers to choose from for this review. The first was my own Naim NAP 250 amplifier, which is rated at 75Wpc into 8 ohms. This is an amplifier widely regarded as a design icon; the Porsche 911 of power amps. It uses a sizable 450VA toroidal transformer and custom output transistors to deliver tremendously fast and dynamic sound. The original design dates back to 1975 and the earliest days of Naim, although my unit is from the Olive series produced in the late 1990s. It’s crucially important to service a Naim amp regularly, and to replace its capacitors every ten years. Mine was serviced at the Naim factory around four years ago, so is in prime form. The big advantage of using the NAP 250 was that I have been living with it for 20 years and know its sound better than any other power amplifier. The second amplifier was a review sample of the Chord Ultima 6 power amplifier ($9925), which is a natural partner for the Ultima Pre 3.
The Naim has a single XLR input, so I needed a special cable to connect to the twin RCA phono outputs of the Chord preamplifier. I turned, as I often do, to my favored cable supplier, the Chord Company. The British cable guys shipped a 1m Chord SignatureX ARAY interconnect ($1500) to link the Chord to the Naim. It’s worth noting that Chord Electronics and the Chord Company are entirely unrelated.
When running the Ultima pre-power combination, Chord Electronics recommends the use of a balanced XLR connection. For this purpose, the Chord Company provided its seriously high-end Sarum T Super ARAY cables, which cost a cool $6800 for the set—this is SoundStage! Ultra after all! For connecting sources to the Ultima Pre 3, the Chord Company sent me its latest Chord EpicX ARAY cables (2m, $1100), which were so new when I received them that they were still subject to press embargo.
Chord Company’s EpicX ARAY RCA interconnects interfacing to the Ultima Pre 3
Chord Company’s ARAY designation refers to the unique geometry of the conductors. Further technical exposition will have to wait until I have reported on a planned factory visit in the autumn, or reviewed the interconnects formally on this site.
Listening 1: Chord Electronics Ultima Pre 3 into Naim Audio NAP 250
I was very keen to find out how the Ultima Pre 3 sounded with my Naim NAP 250 power amp. I’m very familiar with the sound of my Naim pre-power combo, so I began with this setup to get a feel for the sonic signature of the Chord.
The first thing I realized is that the output level of the Pre 3 is significantly lower than that of my NAC 82. As a result, I had to turn up the volume significantly on the Chord to achieve the same in-room levels. I regard “session levels” as dynamic peaks of 85dB or more. The NAC 82 delivered these levels with the volume dial of the NAP 250 power amp at 11 a.m., whereas I had to turn the volume to around 3 p.m. with the Pre 3. That was a surprising difference in my view, so I asked the company about it. Chord Electronics explained that the Pre 3’s volume pot is logarithmic, which better matches how humans perceive loudness. At 85dB sensitivity (1W/1m), my ATC SCM40 loudspeakers are relatively insensitive. But I think speaker sensitivity, room size, anticipated listening levels, and the partnering power amplifier are all worth considering when evaluating the purchase of the Chord Ultima Pre 3.
My first review sample had a very low output; to the point where maxing out the volume setting resulted in output that was only slightly above hotel-lobby level, using either the NAP 250 or the Chord Ultima 6 power amplifier. Suspecting a fault, I reached out to Chord Electronics and a replacement Pre 3 was supplied. The new unit had a much higher output than the original sample, but still less than that of my own Naim preamplifier.
With regard to the faulty first unit, it’s worth noting that these things sometimes happen. Review units have an extraordinarily hard life. Unlike customer units, they are continually being shipped between shows, dealers, and reviewers’ homes. I must commend Chord Electronics for the speedy and efficient way they responded to my problem. Within minutes of my email, the director of sales and the firm’s PR department phoned me to diagnose and resolve the issue. The replacement preamplifier arrived the very next day by express courier.
I opened proceedings with a superb track by Del Amitri, which may be my favorite band of all time. “In the Meantime”—from disc 2 of the remastered two-CD set of the band’s magnificent fourth album, Twisted (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, UMC)—is a superbly cynical exposition on the staleness of a long-term relationship. The song begins with Justin Currie’s lovelorn voice backed by Hammond organ, almost in the style of a hymn. With the Chord preamp, I was struck by the additional warmth of the presentation compared to my all-Naim rig. Currie’s voice was very clean, but a touch less incisive than with the NAC 82, while the organ sounded richer and more fulsome. There was no shortage of detail, though, and I expect there are some who will prefer the marginally smoother presentation of the Pre 3.
Del Amitri’s magnificent Twisted album
The Chord preamp / Naim power combination had an extremely taut way of presenting bass notes, like those from the drums and bass guitar. The dynamics were explosive, which is so important when attempting to reproduce the power and drama of live instruments with any hi-fi setup. As the song builds momentum, Iain Harvie plays some gorgeously judged guitar riffs that are an exercise in less-is-more. His jabs and bends on electric guitar came through with startling attack and emotional feel. I’ve heard Chord amplification many times before; while I adored the looks of the gear, to me there always seemed to be something emotionally missing from the presentation of the music. This was not so with the Ultima Pre 3. Chord Electronics has built a preamplifier that is both accurate and emotive.
I was enjoying the Dels so much I decided to play “Here and Now” from the same album. The opening guitar strums came through with delicious speed and transparency, but there was something else happening. As the track grew busier, there was less of what I call “digital hash” than I had heard with my Naim rig. This is a complex and busy mix, but everything stayed cleaner and more separated than I expected—the accompanying piano in particular was a real delight. I’ve said before that one of the marks of a superb system is the ability to follow any instrument in the mix with ease. In my view, that separation differentiates a great system from a merely good one; and the Ultima Pre 3 (along with the esoteric Chord Company ARAY cables) was certainly delivering separation in spades. This was a seriously good amplifier combination, and it occurred to me as I listened that the two very different design approaches of Naim Audio and Chord Electronics were combining seamlessly.
To test the system’s ability to deal with complex layering, deep bass, and speed of response, I chose a fantastic demo track: “Marakesh,” from Peace Orchestra’s self-titled album (16/44.1 FLAC, G-Stone Recordings / Tidal). This solo project by Viennese trip-hop and dub producer Peter Kruder is a hypnotic blend of rhythms and sampled sounds with subterranean bass. The Pre 3 revealed a lot of deeply buried sounds in the mix. Crucially, the Chord maintained a good grip on timing information so that the leading edges of percussive sounds were never blunted or smeared. Bass extension was extremely impressive too. My ATC SCM40s have in-room response down to 22Hz, and the Chord Pre 3 and Naim NAP 250 combination delivered deep bass notes with ease even at high levels, thanks to the Naim’s high-current drive capability and the Chord’s evenhandedness across the frequency spectrum.
Having explored rock and electronica, I was keen to see how the amplifiers dealt with modern country, and female vocals in particular. Recently I stumbled across a magnificent cover of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” by an all-girl band called Remember Monday (16/44.1 FLAC, Remember Monday / Tidal). It takes some chutzpah to cover a Queen song—how can anyone follow Freddie or add anything musically worthwhile to this Queen classic? When I heard Remember Monday’s version and saw the video on YouTube, I was convinced that they must be an American band, and mused grudgingly on how we never seem to get Americana artists of this caliber in the UK. Imagine my amazement when I discovered that they’re as British as red phone boxes and fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.
Delve a little deeper and you’ll find that the group has recorded a handful of excellent pop, rock, and country songs, but hasn’t released its first album yet. It’s worth checking out the YouTube video because this group seems to be having an absolute blast making music together. I don’t think I’ve seen a band so visibly happy since the Beatles played the Cavern in ’62. I might just have found the soundtrack to my summer!
The harmonies are magical, but when each of the three superb vocalists take the lead, the Chord did a magnificent job of highlighting their tonal differences. The electric guitar player in the video has the most deliciously dirty Les Paul tone I’ve heard since Clapton dimed a “Bluesbreaker.” That’s one fat guitar tone and it came thundering out of the ATCs, with every ounce of its fruity richness and power intact. The drummer hits the skins and cymbals with a sense of real joy and verve—boy, these women can rock! Heck, I even prefer it to the Queen original—they’re that good. The Chord preamplifier was communicating the energy and emotion of this music so well that I threw my reviewing notes across the room and found myself gyrating (I’m not sure my movements justify the term “dancing”) around the room with a huge smile on my face . . .
I don’t know about you, but for me, the appeal of high-end audio is being able to feel at least some of the directness and impact of live performance. With the Ultima Pre 3 fronting the system and those superb Chord Company cables doing their stuff, I got that visceral feeling on well-recorded material. I found myself noticing how emphatically the drummer hit the cymbals as the singers hollered “Get on your bikes and ride!”—the dynamics, transients, shimmer, and decay were off the scale! If these women aren’t headlining Wembley Stadium within 12 months, I will eat my Marshall stack.
There’s no denying that piano is one of the most difficult instruments to reproduce properly on a hi-fi system. While I was at university, I dated a talented pianist at the Birmingham Conservatoire. After seeing her play viola in a wonderful performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, she led me to a back room at the Conservatoire (I bet you’re all wondering where this is going), sat me beside her on the piano stool, and turned out the lights so that we were alone in the moonlight (now you’re really wondering). After declaring her feelings, she proceeded to serenade me with the most achingly beautiful piece of piano music I had ever heard. By the end, tears were running down my face. The memory of that night and how it felt to hear that piece played up close on a Steinway concert grand has stayed with me ever since.
The piece in question was the second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. I don’t think I have ever heard a piece of music that more movingly conveys the delicate beauty of young love. I’ve hunted high and low for years to find a definitive recording, but nothing comes close to sitting at the Steinway with my 19-year-old beloved that night. The closest I have managed to find is probably the performance by Russian pianist Anna Tsybuleva, which sadly is available only on YouTube. The best commercial release I have found is by pianist Dmitri Alexeev, with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk (16/44.1 FLAC, Classics for Pleasure / Tidal). If anyone knows of a more definitive recording, drop me a line!
Using the Chord preamp into my Naim NAP 250, the subtle dynamics of this piece were beautifully rendered. Alexeev’s masterful technique, whether he was playing pianissimo or fortissimo, was clearly revealed. Overall, the orchestra’s width and scale were well represented within a sizable recording space. If there was a flaw, it was that the crystalline clarity of the Steinway’s upper register didn’t even begin to approach the sound of such a magnificent piano live in the room. I wondered how the all-Chord combination would fare with this recording.
Listening 2: Chord Ultima Pre 3 into Chord Ultima 6
There’s no denying that there’s a strong visual and design synergy between the two Chord components—they made a far more visually attractive pairing than the Chord/Naim combination. Although the Chords can be stacked, I’m a great believer in keeping delicate preamplifiers and low-level signals away from large power amplifiers, and the 180Wpc Ultima 6 is a large power amplifier. That’s one of the reasons I am a big fan of 2m interconnects—to keep the gear apart! In addition, it makes it far easier to remove components from your rack to dust the shelves, as there’s enough slack in the cables to permit each component to be pulled out.
So how did these Chord components sound together? Returning to “In the Meantime” and “Here and Now” by Del Amitri, the result was a cleaner and more grown-up presentation. Currie’s voice sounded wonderfully sonorous, and yet clear and distinct. The acoustic guitars seemed to have real body and weight, and timbre was simply better revealed on instruments like guitar or piano. I was still working the volume control pretty hard to get to session levels, so the low output of the Ultima Pre 3 was a factor with both of the power amplifiers I paired it with, whether using a balanced or unbalanced connection.
It’s worth noting that I initially ran this system with lower-cost interconnects from the Chord Company, QED cables to link the two amplifiers, and modest but decent interconnects for sources. My first impression was that it was a good combination, but I wasn’t falling in love. Bringing the Chord ARAY interconnects into the picture significantly improved the dynamics, energy, and impact of the sound, and made me realize how good this Chord setup was. If you really want to get the best out of these Chord components, you should budget for the top-flight interconnects they deserve. Personally, I would be aiming for something at the EpicX ARAY level at least.
Chord Company’s X ARAY cables added tremendous life to the sound
On Remember Monday’s rendition of “Fat Bottomed Girls,” each of the three lead vocalists have quite distinct tonalities, and these differences were extremely well defined on the all-Chord setup. In addition, subtleties like the reverb added to the lead vocal became more obvious. The dirty Les Paul tone was impressively thunderous and the insistent bass drum underpinned the song beautifully. There was a sense of wholesomeness to the sound of instruments when played by the all-Chord system, and an impressive ability to separate musical strands with ease. I would argue that my Naim power amplifier punched the drums and cymbals out a little faster and more dynamically, but it wasn’t as clean-sounding overall.
Hanne Boel’s cover of J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight,” from her 2014 album Outtakes (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Music Denmark / Tidal), sounded superb via the Chord combo, with great rhythmic drive and superbly fat-sounding bass guitar. Her backing band on this cut appears to be staffed by top-flight musicians and their precision and groove came through clearly. The Hammond organ sounded so lifelike, wailing away in the background, that I almost found myself looking for a Leslie speaker in the room. Drums and percussion remained wonderfully tight and well-timed throughout. On this track, the Chord setup equaled the lofty heights of pace and rhythm set by my Naim rig, which excels in this respect.
On the Shostakovich piano concerto, the all-Chord combination delivered a beautifully rich piano tone that conveyed the power and gravitas of the magnificent concert grand. Again, the pianist’s technique of playing with light and shade was amply revealed. The whole performance was very moving, due to the system’s ability to resolve fine details. There was still a lack of sparkle on the highest notes compared to sitting on a piano stool at the keyboard of a Steinway, but that would be the case with any preamp / power amp pair; most likely, it’s due to limitations of the recording. Ornamental trills were superbly delineated, and the Chord setup ranged the accompanying orchestra across a large soundstage with impressive acuity.
In terms of stereo width and depth, the Chord system was the equal of my usual Naim rig, because the biggest factor here is loudspeaker design and positioning. If you want stage depth in any system, the best thing you can do is to pull those loudspeakers away from the front wall.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Ultima Pre 3, no matter which power amplifier it was paired with. This bodes well for the Chord being a very neutral partner to a wide range of power amplifiers. I got a palpable sense that this preamplifier is a very neutral-sounding purveyor of music; indeed, it’s one of the most neutral preamplifiers I have ever heard. I found it surprisingly fast, transparent, and detailed, but never at the expense of emotional impact or the harmonics and timbre of instruments. The Ultima Pre 3 certainly sounded cleaner than my resident NAC 82 when the mix got busy, and this sense of tonal purity was enhanced in the full Chord pairing.
In combination with my Naim power amplifier, the Ultima Pre 3 delivered a thoroughly engaging performance, with stunning dynamics and bags of excitement and pace. When partnered with the Chord Ultima 6 power amplifier, I heard an additional refinement and maturity to the sound. The only downside was that the Chord power amp didn’t quite have the explosive dynamics of the Naim.
Quite honestly, I feel this is by far the best amplifier series Chord Electronics has ever made. The latest ground-up redevelopment has propelled these components to the very top of their price class. I adore the looks, especially in black, although I do have some reservations about the large power indicator that dominates the front panel.
The aluminum casework and machining is of superb quality and looks deeply impressive in any system without being overtly ostentatious. This looks like serious kit that means business—because it is. The Ultima Pre 3 is highly resolving, possesses excellent timing, and conveys the dynamics and timbre of instruments superbly. These are the first Chord amplifiers I have heard that touch my soul when listening to music, in the way that my resident Naim amplifiers do. Would I defect after 35 years as a Naim user? Well, let’s just say I’m very curious to hear the new Naim 200/300 series, samples of which I’m expecting to receive for review shortly. My only reservation is that the Ultima Pre 3 does seem to have rather low output. With my relatively inefficient speakers in my 33′ long listening room, there wasn’t very much in reserve when I wanted to achieve party levels. For people with similarly power-hungry speakers in large rooms, the more powerful Ultima 5 power amplifier is another option . . .
. . . Jonathan Gorse
- Turntable: Michell GyroDec turntable, SME Series IV tonearm, Audio-Technica AT-OC9ML/II cartridge.
- Phono preamplifiers: Trichord Research Dino Mk 3 phono stage with Never Connected Dino+ power supply, PS Audio Stellar phono stage.
- Preamplifier: Naim Audio NAC 82.
- Power amplifiers: Naim NAP 250.
- Digital sources: Naim CDI CD player, Naim NDX streamer.
- Power supply: Naim HiCap (used with Naim components).
- Loudspeakers: ATC SCM40.
- Cabling: Chord Company Sarum T loudspeaker cables, Naim NAC A5 loudspeaker cables, Naim interconnects on all Naim amplification, Chord Sarum T Super ARAY XLR-XLR, Chord SignatureX Tuned ARAY DIN-RCA, Chord SignatureX 2×RCA-XLR, Chord EpicX ARAY 2×RCA-2×RCA. Chord Company Chameleon interconnects for phono stages, QED interconnects for secondary sources.
Chord Electronics Ultima Pre 3 preamplifier
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
Chord Electronics Ltd.
Maidstone, Kent ME16 9NB
Phone: +44 1622 721444
The Sound Organisation
1009 Oakmead Drive
Arlington, Texas 76011
Phone: (972) 234 0182