While most high-end audio firms are small artisan-minded affairs that were founded by guys whose passions border on or exceed the obsessive, most of the design and production facilities I’ve visited appear to be anything but a spark to the creative process. To get a feel for what I mean, picture your typical suburban industrial park, with rows of nondescript buildings housing everything from skateboard manufacturing companies to shoe distribution warehouses to those thinking up the latest, uh, toys…hmm, perhaps I’m being a bit too hastily dismissive here.
The atmosphere is quite a bit more interesting over at England’s Chord Electronics, which occupies a lovely Victorian-era watermill in rural Kent. Inside the brick, timber, and slate “Pumphouse,” which took six months to revamp in 1997 before Chord could move in, founder John Franks and his team are building some of the world’s most coveted electronics.
While the Pumphouse reflects Franks’ interest in architecture, Chord actually began in one of high-end audio’s classic manufacturing facilities—a garage. It was here that Franks, an aerospace engineer whose specialty was designing light, powerful, and highly reliable power supplies for British fighter jets, began tinkering in 1982 at a similarly conceived power supply he hoped to apply to audio amplification. The resulting high-frequency switch-mode power supply (SMPS), which took nearly a decade to bring to market, operates in the 80kHz range—as opposed to the 50-60Hz range of conventional power supplies—simultaneously draws from both the positive and negative rails as the music demands it, and is responsible for the fleet yet powerful dynamic response Chord has become known for. (This is not the same as a switching or “Class D” amplifier, in which the output devices are switched on and off via pulse-width or sigma-delta modulation.)
The problem in the early days, when Franks would make amps for himself, friends, and friends of friends, was that these then new aerospace industry devices were prohibitively expensive for a commercial product.
Putting his dream on hold, Franks for the next eight years worked as a director for a Hong Kong-based power-supply manufacturer that happened to build devices for use in Apple products. As you can imagine, we’re talking millions and millions of power supplies. Franks is not shy to admit that this gig paid handsomely, but he ultimately desired a less hectic life.
As typically happens in the tech world, what was once prohibitively expensive eventually becomes not so, and by the late-80s the cost of these power devices had dropped to a point where Franks decided it was time to revisit his passion. By 1990, he was able to finalize a more “affordable” design, the SPM 1200. (I placed “affordable” in quotation marks because Chord’s products have never been exactly cheap. They currently range from an $5995 Bluetooth DAC (the QBD76) to the $75,000 per pair SPM 14000 monoblock amplifiers.)
Luckily for Franks and his fledgling company, the development of that amplifier happened to coincide with word from friends at Spendor that the BBC was looking for something to replace its old Quad 405 models, which were not consistently controlling the bass frequencies of Spendor’s LS5/8 monitors. Chord submitted an amplifier for review and so impressed the BBC engineers that, in an unusually brief qualification period, the unit was okayed for broadcast use within a mere three weeks.
With that BBC feather in its cap, Chord amplifiers went on to find homes at, to name but a few, Abbey Road, Sony, and Skywalker studios. Franks also likes to point out how this early exposure to the world of pro audio forced him to engineer and build all his gear to very exacting standards.
Of course, Chord has made quite the splash in consumer audio as well, first with its amplification and more recently with digital playback devices.
In an effort to bring its designs to a wider audience, the company recently released its most affordable stereo amps to date: the 130Wpc SPM 650 ($4995), and the 200Wpc SPM 1050 ($6995) I’m writing about here.
To illustrate the impact Chord’s compact power supplies—now in their fifth generation—have had on the size of the company’s amplifiers, the SPM 1050 is only 16.5" wide by 5.25" high and 14" deep, and weighs in at a svelte 33 pounds. Analogies abound, but let’s say that comparing the 1050 to 200-watt models from most American manufacturers is like comparing a classic American muscle car to a Mini Cooper S. Each has its virtues, but it’s hard to argue that the Mini is not the zippier, easier-to-maneuver vehicle. Another theoretical advantage of smaller power supplies is lower noise. As power supplies and transformers get larger, they typically introduce more noise into the signal. Chord feels that its smaller, more nimble supplies have a lower noise floor, allowing more texture and harmonic complexity to be expressed.
In addition to the 2000-watt high-frequency power supply, which feeds off a ceramic core transformer (as does that of the Linn Klimax), the SPM 1050 uses another fundamental Chord technology called “dynamic coupling,” which, according to U.S. importer Jay Rein of Bluebird Music, is essentially an electrical coupling of the positive and negative power rails. The idea is that, as a sine wave goes up and down, demanding more power from the amp, dynamic coupling keeps the power supplies in a constant state of balance by allowing instantaneous large-scale power demands to be fed simultaneously from both power rails.
Franks is also a fan of MOSFET output devices, which seem to have as many detractors as admirers. The sound from these is often considered cool and somewhat sterile, at worst brittle, but Chord’s MOSFETs are custom-built to its own design spec by an aerospace parts manufacturer, and no one would accuse a Chord design of sounding brittle.
Listening to one of the latest 45rpm pressings in Music Matters Blue Note reissue series illustrated many of the SPM 1050’s virtues, and showed why Chord has won such a following in the professional community. Trumpeter Donald Byrd’s The Cat Walk is a melodically inventive, blues-based workout; its tunes are at once relaxed and tautly driven, and Byrd was a master of using dynamics to shape and accent his music. The SPM 1050 tracked those shifts with a deceptive ease that beautifully shaded those dynamic ebbs, flows, and crashing waves. The amp’s tonal balance seems near ideal, neither overly warm nor lacking in warmth when, say, Pepper Adams’ full-throated baritone states a theme or plays one in unison with Byrd’s sweetly toned yet sharp-edged trumpet. And when Philly Joe Jones lets rip with a drum break, the whiplash speed of sticks against skins bears a thrilling resemblance to the sound a hammered kit delivers live (minus a bit of head-busting power).
Turning to another reissue series, this time Esoteric Audio’s 200-gram vinyl/hybrid SACD releases of classic Decca titles, I pulled out the famous Ansermet reading of Manuel de Falla’s The Three Cornered Hat (reviewed in the previous issue). Again I heard the speed, transparency, and other virtues noted above, as well as a marvelous recreation of the depth, ambience, and instrumental textures this recording is known for. But the thing I kept thinking about the SPM 1050’s overall sense of delivery was simply that this amp seems to have it all together. By that I mean not just control and grip over the speakers, effortless dynamic pop, and an easy, powerful swagger, but also a thoroughly knit coherence across the band. Nothing ever sounds out of place, exaggerated, or forced; like our current president, the amp always seems cool under fire.
This doesn’t mean the SPM 1050 is somehow “polite” or not fun to listen to. It most certainly can thrill and rock with the best of them, but while doing so it never breaks a sweat—and this with heavy-hitters such as Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Nine Inch Nails.
While I do not consider the Chord sound to represent the “cool” school of solid-state design, those who love the warmer, juicier, somewhat more lushly textured presentations of tube amps, and even some transistor designs, are not going to get that here. Instead, let’s call the SPM 1050 the thinking man’s amplifier.
As my lengthy listening sessions traversed vintage Sinatra, Wilco, Berio, Berg, and Nina Simone, to name a few, my appreciation for the SPM 1050 only grew. Here is an amplifier that, over months of listening to all kinds of music, never made me long for another, or think, “Yeah, fine, but what about…?” In other words, my attention was always directed toward the music—not spectacular hi-fi tricks.
And in my book, that’s just as it should be.
SPECS & PRICING
Chord SPM 1050 Stereo Power Amp
Power output: 200Wpc into 8 ohms; 350Wpc into 4 ohms
Number and type of inputs: One pair balanced (XLR); one pair single-ended (RCA)
Dimensions: 16.5" x 5.25" x 14"
Weight: 33 lbs.
Toronto, Ontario M4R 2B2
TW-Acustic Raven One turntable; Tri-Planar Ultimate VII arm; Transfiguration Orpheus moving-coil cartridge; Artemis Labs PL-1 phonostage and LA-1 linestage; Naim Audio SuperLine Reference phonostage; Sim Audio Moon CD-1 CD player; Kharma MP150 monoblock amplifiers and Mini Exquisite loudspeakers, Tara Labs Zero interconnects, Omega speaker cables, The One power cords; Audience Adept Response Power Conditioner; Finite Elemente Spider equipment rack