Chord Electronics Symphonic MC Phono Stage (£2,995)

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Chord Electronics Symphonic MC Phono Stage (£2,995)​

Review by Mr Underhill


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Introduction​

Is spending significantly more on a phono stage a good use of your moolah? I confess that before receiving the Moving Coil (MC) Chord Electronics Symphonic Phono Stage I was rehearsing how I might open this review. I was concerned that adjectives such as slight and tad might start to litter the descriptive passages, in the event I needn’t have concerned myself. If your system is of the right quality then slotting in the Chord Electronics Symphonic will reward you with an aural uplift over cheaper phono stages that is enjoyably obvious.

The Chord Electronics Symphonic comes in black or silver and is a part of the Chord Choral range, including the DAVE DAC, and shares the visual design cues. I like the styling and build quality of all the Chord Electronics products I have laid my hands upon, including the Symphonic with its two top mounted portals. This fully balanced phono stage is conveniently sized in part due to the use of Chord Electronics’, ‘... high-performance ...latest high-frequency power supply technology’, by which I read switch mode power supply (SMPS). This can have negative connotations for some, I found no issues here. The low noise floor is demonstrated in the sound quality and this will be due to the excellent engineering.

The Chord Symphonic specifications can be found HERE.


Test Tracks: The Good, The Bad and the Bright​

Including:

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I chose three of my standard problem LPs:
  • John Denver, Rhymes & Reasons
    I was brought up with JD and love a lot of his music, but many of the albums are very bright.

  • Genesis, Abacab
    I find nothing redeeming about this record. Bright, lacks instrumental weight & I can’t say I like the music particularly.

  • Hollies Greatest
    Great music. Early days of stereo with ‘interesting’ use of left and right channels. Can tend to brightness.

Settings​

Chord Electronics are interesting in their interface designs, their Hugo range choice of coloured polycarbonate tear-drops is visually arresting whilst demanding a copy of the manual to decode. Here the human interface is provided by unlabelled small buttons that require a narrow pointer to select, or in my case a chop stick, and so the manual is required. However, that is not the end of the complexity.

The Chord Electronics Symphonic arrives well wrapped and double boxed. Within is the phono stage, an electric cable and the quick start manual. You will find this quick start card wonderfully brief on the selection of the impedance and completely mute on the purpose of the 15pF button, this lack of verbosity, and sought for information, is repeated in the main manual. The Chord Huei allows you to select a 2.2 micro Farad load of which Chord states in its manual, ‘Selecting an impedance with a 2.2uF load when using a Moving Coil (MC) cartridge dampens the ringing of lower-impedance cartridges, reducing distortion’. 15 pico Farad seems minuscule but I assumed it would work in a similar way. In the event the selection of impedance and load was a HIGHLY heuristic process. This is not in itself a bad thing, in that trying the various settings will ensure you get the best from the Chord Electronics Symphonic. However, understanding that the selection of impedance buttons is in parallel and what that means when selecting more than one setting would be kind.

My Troika cartridge requires a 560 ohm loading, which was not available at one button selection. I decided to start at the ridiculous and experiment from there. 4.7K ohm was set and immediately rejected. 220 ohms was much better, but still not working well. I wondered whether selecting 220, 100 and 33 ohms would give me a loading of 353 ohms? It DOES NOT. The impedance switches are in parallel and so this would give a loading of 22 ohms, but it was surprisingly listenable although bass light.

After contacting Chord Electronics’ Support I selected Simon & Garfunkle’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ and used this to tune the Chord Electronics Symphonic. I find with many of the Duos recordings that the sibilants can veer towards the hot, but they are also full of marvellous musicianship and their key mark vocal harmonisations can be easily lost. I started again with 4.7K ohms and sequentially added 220, 100 and 33 ohms. This gave me a weighty and warm sound with the overly hot Ss present and incorrect. I disengaged the 33 ohm, which reduced the warmth and bass weight a touch, but also added to the mid-field resolution. I then added the 15pF loading which controlled the sibilants.

The Chord Electronics Symphonic has a wide range of available gains. As I use an Icon 4 passive pre-amp this was a boon. I did find that the selected gain did subtly effect the sound quality. In my case I ran with 74 dBv. Upping the gain from there reduced the quality a tad, damn that word has intruded! One undocumented setting is to NOT select any specific gain, all the buttons out, this gives a gain of 90db.

Throughout my time with this phono stage I experimented with the impedances I applied to a greater or lessor effect. Depending on the LP there were subtle benefits, but no easy way to switch and so for the majority of this review the settings were:

Impedance = 4.7Kohm + 220ohm + 100ohm + 15pF; and
Gain = 74dBv.

It would have been a boon if I could have set up a few profiles for easy selection.

The Chord Electronics Symphonic has two additional buttons, one for selecting between balanced and single-ended and the other for engaging a rumble filter.

Main System​

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I used the Headquarter Audio Record Stabilser (QRS) throughout this review. I find its effect to be consistently positive helping to resolve detail throughout the frequency range.

In my Chord Electronics Huei review I described its sound quality as:

‘….. [the] Chord [Huei] was not so rich in the mid-range, but it resolved more information allowing you to hear further into the recordings. The Chord Huei extended further into the frequency extremes

The Chord Electronics Symphonic costs three times the price and I was interested to hear what that money bought you.

I started an evening’s listening session with Jethro Tull’s, ‘Bursting Out’, a live double album. Before I had slotted in the Chord Electronics Symphonic I had been listening to the album through the Chord Electronics Huei. Changing to the Chord Electronics Symphonic I was immediately struck by the superb quality of cymbals, they now rang beautifully. When a high hat was struck the tone hung in the air even as the music continued. What also caught my attention was the sound staging. Through the Huei Ian Anderson stood before the band in his own electrically powered acoustic. Through the Chord Electronics Symphonic Anderson was standing in amongst his fellow musicians. The verisimilitude of a rock band at the height of its powers in a live performance was excellent.

Tom Jones’s LP, ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ (Mono), was next up. Immediately apparent was the lower noise floor, more detail was being resolved. I do not mean that I was hearing instruments that had previously evaded me, although that was apparent on some recordings, but that textural information was delivered in such a way that instruments sounded more real, that micro-dynamics stood out so that when a musician plucked, hit or otherwise emphasised a note or phrase it could surprise you. Further, you could fully appreciate how the percussion, bass or other instrumentalist was increasing or reducing the tempo, double timing or effecting the music.

I moved on to Elaine Paige’s LP, ‘Stages’. Ms Paige has a wonderful voice but this is a K-Tel special and the quality is compromised. But the Chord Electronics Symphonic did a great job of presenting the album in its best light. You could hear the singer’s technique, although some of the accompaniment was sadly squashed dynamically. I therefore followed on with Elaine’s, ‘Love Hurts’. A much better recording and mastering. Headroom was available in buckets and enjoyably portrayed. That is not to say that the mastering effects were not readily apparent, they were, but the Chord Electronics Symphonic presented the album’s strengths whilst not hiding the added reeeeeeevvvvvverrrrrrbbbbb.

Next onto the platter was some Bowie, K-Tel’s ‘The Best of Bowie’. This is a surprisingly good album, not a compressed horror show; and, boy was it a feast for the ears. There is much of Bowie’s music that I love, but I frequently find it not well rendered digitally. Here I just played the whole album. I then followed this with one of my less well liked Bowie albums, but one that contains a particular favourite track of mine, ‘Heroes’. The eponymous track is number three on side one, I normally have to endure the first two tracks, well, not so much via the Chord Electronics Symphonic. Its ability to resolve the fine detail and performance reduced the ‘wait’ factor, I actually was finding aspects to enjoy.

As I mentioned above, the Chord Electronics Symphonic was excellent at rendering a recording’s sound field. The Chord Electronics Huei did well with music in a natural acoustic. Where the Chord Electronics Symphonic left the Huei cold was in manufactured acoustics, where a mastering engineer had created a sound field from the multi-track recordings at his disposal. This was not just rock and pop music. I played the movie soundtrack from ‘Fiddler on a Roof’ with Topol. I bought this two years ago and so have not heard it through a first rate phono stage. Up until now I have enjoyed the individual performances but the whole has been less than the sum of its parts, it has not truly jelled. I had been thinking that it was a poorly mastered recording, NOT through the Chord Electronics Symphonic. I moved onto Phantom of the Opera. Again the sound field rendering was excellent. As with the Huei the lower bass was powerfully presented.

This made me pull out my pressing of the soundtrack of ‘Dr Zhivago’. Through the cheaper phono stages the orchestra was disconnected. I would say the Naim ‘k’ cards made a better fist of the imaging, but listening to the record was an emotionally academic process, the music wasn’t connecting. Via the Chord Electronics Symphonic it made sense. The underlying bass drums and timpanies were powerfully supporting the melodic and harmonic themes. Music.

One instrument that is difficult to render is the piano. To test the Chord Electronics Symphonic I wheeled out Bill Evans and Kocsis Zoltan. NO issues with rendering either of these excellent performers in their respective genres.

For the past twenty five years I have been using EAR Yoshino phono stages, first via an 864 pre-amp and then an 868 pre-amp. For reasons I won’t delve into here I decided to sell my beloved EAR amps and with them a great phono solution. As I have been mainly concentrating on my digital front end I was content to run with other cheaper phono solutions pro-temp. Listening to the Chord Electronics Symphonic bought back what I have been missing; that is not to say that the sound of the Chord Electronics was the same as the EAR phono stages.

When I played the problem LPs I found that John Denver’s ‘Rhymes & Reasons’ delivered music with no brightness.

Genesis, Acadab was another surprise, with the QRS engaged and through the Chord Electronics Symphonic I thought that I may have been overly harsh. The title track was actually sounding good, even with some silly, and unfortunately well resolved, background sound effects. Mike Rutherford’s little background flourishes, Collins’s percussion and Tony Banks’s synth were engaging. From then on it was downhill, it failed to enthuse me; but, at least the sound wasn’t repellent. It was now a matter of me simply not liking the music rather than also objecting to the recording.

Hollies ‘Greatest Hits’ was no improvement over what I had heard through the Chord Electronics Huei. Still a tad bright, so I turned the volume down. Nothing to be done about the early and strange stereo mixing. The question that occurred to me was whether this was an issue in my system rather than one to place solely at the feet (sic) of the Chord Electronics Symphonic; I drove over to a friend to test this theory and place the Symphonic up against some stages at about its price point.

The system that I slotted the Chord Electronics Symphonic into consisted of:
  • Voyd Reference 0.5 Turntable, SME V arm, Audionote IO II cartridge, Audio Note step-up transformer;
  • Thrax or Luxman integrateds; and
  • Avalon PM1 speakers.
The quality of the Symphonic showed that it was absolutely batting in the same quality as its peers, this is a quality product. It has its own sound signature that separates it from the competition. The Chord Electronics Symphonic has a wide flat frequency spectrum. There is no upper bass tilt or ‘analogue warmth’. Unlike the Chord Electronics Huei the vocalists are fully formed, there is no feeling that they are in any way lacking in vocal richness. Playing the Hollies through this alternative system showed that the issues I heard where due to the synergy of my home system, they were not repeated here, and as with my home system the other ‘problem’ albums had no issues either; and please note that the step up transformer meant that the cartridge presented as a moving magnet (MM) cartridge to the Chord Electronics Symphonic. Despite Chord Electronics marketing the Symphonic as a ‘MC Phono Stage’ it has a 47k impedance setting and it works very well with the MM setting.

In the settings section I mentioned that the Chord Electronics Symphonic does not have an option to save alternative setting profiles, in the context of my system this would be useful as I could then adjust the sound signature in subtle ways to cope with different eras of LP. For instance, if sixties music formed a predominant part of my audio diet I could change the impedance settings to warm the presentation. There will always need to be a compromise with a single set of settings selected as a wide range of labels and studios have had their own ideas on what is best, not to mention recording techniques that have changed over the decades, including the changes and competition over the years with respect to RIAA curves.


Conclusion​

What do get for three thousand pounds? Musical insight.

This is an excellent phono stage that fully justifies the price difference between it and the Chord Electronics Huei. The lack of detailed and complete documentation was frustrating. The location of the buttons, and the inability to select them with a human finger, makes the heuristic exercise of finding the ideal settings frustrating; having Heui buttons on the front would have been preferable.

I found the Chord Electronics Symphonic to be superb at presenting the details of any recording in a precise and at times enthralling sound stage. This worked brilliantly with many recordings, a small sample being: Steely Dan, Aja; Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love; and, Michael Jackson, Thriller. These are good recordings with excellent underpinning bass, I had never heard them better rendered in my listening room. My Naim SBLs are frequently accused of being poor at imaging, well through this system I have not heard better sound staging at home.

This brings us to an old saw, Source First. This was coined in the Flat Earth days of the late seventies when Linn was pushing its LP12 and still is not without relevance today. However, there comes a point in any system when the bottle neck in audio quality is not the source. I could easily spend three thousand pounds on my aged LP12: Karousel; Lingo 4; Tangerine et al. Would that investment have given me better bang for buck than the Chord Electronics Symphonic? I think not. This phono stage opened a window that gave me immediate pleasure and would enable me to get the maximum benefit from any later alterations in the upstream turntable and PSU.

To answer my initial question, ‘Is spending significantly more on a phono stage a good use of your moolah?’, my answer is a resounding YES. I will be very sad to say goodbye to the Chord Electronics Symphonic.
 

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