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2014 Midwest Audiofest Tent Sale & Vintage Audio Swap
Chord Electronics Chordette Dual Phono Stage Review
Chord Electronics’ Chordette products are a range of audio separates that the manufacturer would no doubt prefer are bought and used as a family, rather than as individual components.
They share the same novel boutique form-factor – every one of them from DAC to power amp is housed in machined-from-solid-aluminium oblong boxes, each of which can comfortably be held in the palm of one hand.
Chordette Dual – palm sized RIAA amplifier
Chord will even sell you a made-for-purpose modular equipment rack that holds your choice of Chordette separates at a rakish angle – presumably all the better for viewing and admiring them.
I was loaned a single component, a Chordette Dual, the moving coil RIAA amplifier of the range. At around £900, it’s far from a bargain basement product and is pitched into a field of many rivals including PS Audio’s enigmatically-named and now discontinued GCPH, and Leema’s Elements (now, I believe re-named Essentials) which, by contrast, retails at around half the cost of the Dual. I have heard both these contenders here in my system so mention them for the sake of contrast.
The Chordette is powered by a wall-wart and once plugged in emits a rather fetching blue/pink glow from the small diameter round window on its top surface. The window serves no purpose other than to give the light show somewhere to escape from, and allow users a restricted view of surface mounted devices on the board inside the aluminium box. I resisted the temptation to unscrew the lid of the Dual and peak inside.
Chord says the Dual is designed for teaming with MC pick ups only. A line of tiny front-panel buttons enables it to be configured to match the impedance and gain requirements of most modern cartridges, including the Audio Note IO II that I use. So far, so standard. Of mild interest is a further button on the front panel that enables a built-in Rausch filter to be switched in to tame rumble. At least one reviewer has misunderstood the utility of this – how many turntables rumble these days? But of course, the filter is not provided by Chord in the expectation of poorly maintained turntables, but the knowledge that quite a few record pressings rumble intrusively when played loud. To that extent, the filter might be thought of as a useful facility.
However, it is the rear panel that reveals the Dual’s ace-in-the-hole: a USB outlet that enables the on-board analogue to digital converter – sampling 16-bit 44.1 or 48 KHz – to send vinyl output to disc. A TOSLINK connector allows the recording stream to be monitored.
The Dual came to me via James Palmer of this parish who had already taken a listen himself. I plugged it in and left it powered for 24 hours, pink/blue light and all, and then sat down to think about what I was hearing.
The Dual impresses from the off, giving a forward, apparently detailed presentation with a powerful bottom end. It has instant hi-fi-like appeal, yet on further and more extended consideration feels disappointingly granular in comparison to the Leema and to a lesser extent the PS Audio. It’s not coarse….just not as refined. It rendered busy orchestral music well enough, with a separation between the elements of the orchestra that those whose enjoyment depends to a large degree on sound-staging will find impressive. A similar treatment was meted out by the Dual to everything else I played from solo vocals through choral and opera to jazz and rock. But after one five hour listening session with the Dual I concluded that despite its sometimes 3D presentation, there’s something missing. In comparison to other phono stages I’ve owned and heard, it is slightly bleached and stripped down; comparatively lacking in organism and microdynamics.
“Ah, but,” haters of valves will chuckle, “what you’re noticing in the Dual is a lack of colouration compared to the valve phono stage.”
Well, much as I do find most solid state audio less sonically pleasing than well-done valve equipment, the Leema and the PS Audio boxes – both of them determinedly solid state – got me closer to the gut, breath and swing of all types of music than the Dual. Were they also coloured? I don’t think so. They simply have a better ability to convey the subtle detail of what’s in the groove.
The ADC is where the Dual claws back points. I am such a Luddite when it comes to digital of all sorts, to the point that friends take huge delight in deriding me for my refusal to embrace hard drives, Spotify and the rest of the noughts and ones paraphernalia. But the Chord Dual intrigued me, luring me in the privacy of my own home into experimenting.
Rear panel of Chordette Dual with USB and TOSLINK connectors for ADC, plus phono in and out and earth.
Whisper it, but I ‘downloaded’ (is that the correct term? – hah! – only kidding!) a copy of Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/) to a MacBook Pro, and plugged the notebook into the Chord Dual via USB cable. It worked rather well. Audacity is one of those apps that my computer literate acquaintances tell me is mature enough to be quite well sorted and that’s what I found. It is pretty intuitive, and fed by the Dual it generated reasonable results that didn’t overturn my scepticism, but did lead me to rip some vinyl to CDs for use in the car.
The ADC is a neat add-on, so am I taking a gratuitously cheap shot by criticising the Dual for not bowling me over as a phono stage? Is the Dual and its fellow Chordette components aimed at the buyer who wants to graduate from, say, a Sony mini system, but doesn’t want to sacrifice acres of sitting room real-estate to a full-size audio set-up? They’ll probably like the aesthetics and the light show, and if the Dual is representative of the performance achieved by the rest of the Chordette family, then they will undoubtedly feel, and rightly so, that they’ve achieved a major leap in audio quality.
As a stand-alone purchase – that is, without any of its fellow Chordette family members to keep it company – I think the Dual might appeal strongly to those whose passion is rock or electronica, but less so to those who listen to acoustic and other music types where nuance and subtlety matter more. If the ability to rip vinyl to archive is important, then the convenience of the Dual’s in-built ADC may well counterbalance the relative sonic performance of the equalisation and amplification. Of course, that’s an opinion formed after hearing the Dual in my system only.
Either way the Chordette Dual is deserving of being on the audition list of anyone searching for a circa £1k phono stage.
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