Chord Ultima Pre 3 and Ultima 6 Power Amplifier REVIEW
This is a review written by Terry Ellis April 2023.
For my video review please see my YouTube channel link here
I wonder how many of you own now, or have owned in the past, a HiFi system where the predominant number of components are all from the same manufacturer and, if so, I wonder whether you felt that there was a more obvious sonic benefit gained from an improved system synergy?
I have been reviewing the Chord Electronics Ultima Pre 3 preamplifier with the Chord Electronics Ultima 6 stereo power amplifier. Both are at the entry level to Chord Electronics Ultima Pre and power amplifiers, with the exception of the Etude power amplifier, that I reviewed a couple of years ago. However, whilst the Etude is the most affordable way into Chord’s Ultima amplifier ownership it is a small form factor amplifier delivering 150 watts a channel into 4 ohms. The Ultima 6 being full sized can deliver 180 watts a channel into 8 ohms so clearly the small form factor limits the performance and Etude therefore becomes more suited to certain speakers and situations. The extra power of he Ultima 6 was really going to be tested in this review also.
I think we should start with the visuals. I know there will be some audiophiles who won’t like the Chord range because it is not traditional enough for them. You could call them quite flashy in their design, but I prefer the word striking. What impressed me most is the exemplary build quality of the solid aluminium chassis, even exploring the units with a fine tooth comb I could not find a single blemish or flaw. There is a lot of aluminium being used here and a lot of aluminium sculpting and shapes the solid aluminium chassis build quality is exemplary, and there is a lot of aluminium on display.
There are some nice design touches that I really like. One is the illuminated blue LEDs on the inside that help you to see through the beautifully sculptured top plates to some of the internals. The top plates are high-end Luxman or similar quality, just lovely. Another nice touch with the Ultima 6 power amplifier is what I am going to call the Iron-Man Arc Reactor like chest piece on the front. When you dim the lights the LED illuminates the surrounding cut out and it glows beautifully. It’s a lovely touch and this extra detail makes a difference.
Another nice touch is that the LEDs used are dimmable with a hidden switch that you would never know is there. If you take a credit card, or similar and poke it through a small slot on the front panel, you can adjust the brightness for the amplifier. I love the way Chord have done this. You can adjust the brightness on the Pre 3 as well by using the remote control, which is much more convenient but maybe a little less special.
Turning the units around, I like the quality of the connections used. There are not a lot of them but, for me, just the right amount.
One thing to point out here with the Pre 3 is that the USB socket on the rear is not for connecting any source components. It’s just a power output maybe for supplying a Chord Qutest or Hugo 2 Dac, but you could power anything that is 5v up to 3 amps. Beyond that the Pre 3 is just a preamplifier and the Ultima 6 is just an amplifier. There is no DAC, no headphone amplifier and no streamer.
There are a couple of quirky things to mention here. With the Pre 3 I like the look, symmetry and feel of the control knob, with the left control for volume and input I like the change in LED colour indicating the input being used. The the right control is for adjusting balance and with a long press engaging the AV bypass mode. Maybe I am being a little pedantic but there isn’t any obvious centre for the balance, no tactile notch as you hit the centre, which would help with my audiophile OCD. Also, with the Ultima 6, Chord have used a C19 style power input which is not commonly used, and so if you have money invested in high end power cables you might need to get one re-terminated or buy a new one with a C19 connector. Of courser you don’t have to as a power cable is included but if your used to using high power cables you might still want to continue to use them so this is something to think about.
The Ultima 6 power amplifier is a Class A/B design, it uses 16 proprietary mosfets to deliver 180 watts per channel into 8 ohms and it runs quite warm. On the inside is Chord’s own design of SMPS power supply and the amplifier uses Chord’s owner John Franks dual-feed-forward Ultima topology. I won’t pretend that I understand this amplifier design to be able to explain it to you. The Pre 3 also uses a custom Chord SMPS power supply, a Blue Velvet ALPS potentiometer, some advanced screening and more. The Ultima 6 costs £7,500 and the Pre 3 £6,000 and so this pre/power combination totals £13,500. A serious amount of HiFi money. Do they justify the price in terms of sound quality?
I have had several high-end amplifier setups in for review recently and none of them have had the same impact on me as this Chord duo. However it wasn’t like that straight away.
I started my listening testing using the Chord pairing with my current reference speakers, the Mission 770 and their sound was not what I expected. The Missions sounded big and bold, warm and rich, very pleasing. I was expecting more of an analytical sound than this that but is not meant as a criticism it was a pleasant surprise. But I had time to listen for about half a day because some new speakers arrived that I had always planned to combine the review with, those speakers were the Bowers & Wilkins 804 D4. Listening to the same system through the Bowers things were very different.
There were a lot of good things happening individually, but the sound felt disjointed, especially at louder volumes; lower volumes sounded better. I played around with speaker placement and toe in and that wasn’t the answer, then I remembered one of my DACs, Chord Hugo TT 2 “special powers” its different sound filter modes. Engaging filter mode 4 (warm HF roll off) was like flipping a switch, and it just brought the whole sound into balance. I could then get on enjoying the system across a very wide range of music.
The first big positive for me was the scale of the sound with its perception of extended dynamic range. This is a hard one to try and explain but I am referring to treble details that extend up to almost ceiling height at times, with a good solid bass foundation combined with obvious depth to the bass. Of course, this is in large part a Bowers speaker thing but, as I found out later, it is also a system thing. I will admit this took a little getting used but trust me, you don’t want it to go away once it’s there.
The second big positive was the speed and dynamics of this duo. Speed is often associated with timing, which is goes hand in hand with clarity, and this pairing has exceptionally good timing, even when music is densely packed together which is a common characteristic of modern music. I kind of expected this from a Chord setup, but what stood out was the dynamic shifts – how quickly and how smoothly the music shifts from subtle to big, or from big to bigger and to bigger still, while remaining totally composed. This is seriously impressive, and it is done in a way that feels natural and I found myself taking it for granted. You shouldn’t take it for granted because not all amplifier setups do it this well.
The next stand out thing for me was the full soundscape the Chord duo together with the Bowers created. At times there were sound coming from beyond the speakers which is always impressive but simultaneously with sound coming out into the room, a properly 3D sound stage, all with great scale and clarity. I really like this aspect of the system performance
Moving on to the bass, we all know that the Bowers 800 range of speakers are notoriously more difficult to drive and generally need power. I also found them finicky with their placement in my room but, once I found the right spot, the Ultima 6 was able to drive them very well for bass, keeping it tight, controlled and really punchy, even at the ASBO loud levels I listen at. Also, when the music asked for it, the Ultima could drive the Bowers with enough oomph to put the bass pressure on me, with that lovely warm bass feeling. Not quite to a very good subwoofer level, but very satisfying still. I like a lot bass and this was as good as I have had from speakers in this room. Incredible bass quality really considering I was not using any DSP or bass management, especially for how the bass moved around the sound stage and danced in front of me at times. No bloat at all and that’s from just the “entry level” 180 watts Ultima 6, incredible amplifier drive capability really however I wonder if more power still could have produced even better results.
With some music, there was a wonderful sense of scale to instruments that lifts the realism of the listening experience, especially when it was combined with the previously mentioned dynamics, speed, and clarity. Piano sounded great as did drums and brass instruments too.
I experienced a very lively, energetic, big-scale dynamic sound with good tone, lively, but clear and clean treble, and a clear clean vocal, and an excellent overall 3D sound stage, densely packed with information, but still open and spacious, extending nicely in all directions, especially upwards. Overall I was very impressed – but what about any negatives?
I struggled here to think of anything of real note that’s outside of the intended sonic character. The Chord pairing is not an overly warm and cuddly or soft and sultry sounding setup, and so vocals don’t have an overly warm organic character they can have on some other systems. I think the goal is for clean, honest and laid bare rather than overly pleasing. I think the only other thing I can mention here is that it could be possible with some speakers for the Chord pairing to comes across as too forward in the upper regions because of their energetic slightly forward very honest sound, I was experiencing this at first with the Bowers as an example . I don’t know if this is a fair criticism, but its very much speaker and room dependent but I feel its something to be mindful of and a point of note.
Reviewing as Separates
So that is looking at the Ultima’s as a pairing but I wanted to test how they sound individually. I started by swapping out the Pre 3 for the Bespoke Audio Passive Preamplifier that I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. I know the Bespoke Audio Pre has no sound of its own and therefore was ideal to use for a comparison test. Straight away I could hear that there was a more rounded sound to the musical presentation, and it was a little more graceful and smooth, which I liked. There were subtle details more easily audible in the treble, which was nice to hear. However, the sound had lost some of ultra tight focus, definitely some of the high frequency height scale and energy that I had been really enjoying, and also bass lost some solidity and impact. My take away from this is that the Pre 3, for the money, is an excellent preamplifier which seems to extract more clarity out of the Ultima 6 Power Amplifier and push the dynamics and dynamic extremes of the sound exceptionally well, with just a little loss of treble resolution. There is a little more treble bite instead and these differences you probably wouldn’t even notice without an A/B comparison. But I do think the Bespoke preamplifier would be more forgiving of the music where treble is mixed a little too hot where as the Pre 3 it could be a little too much of a good thing, but we must not forget the Bespoke passive preamplifier costs three times as much.
I next tested the Ultima 6 Power Amplifier in isolation by comparing it to what I have been calling the expensive amplifier’s nemesis, the NAD M23, which I had previously thought was a nigh on perfect amplifier. Interestingly, with a very demanding load like the Bowers 803 D4, these speakers really separate the amplifier men from the boys and the NAD sounded choked by comparison. It seemed not nearly powerful enough to bring out the scale, dynamics and energy of music like I had experienced with the Chord Ultima 6. I would say the sound was a little warmer from the NAD, especially in the vocals but this was a minor difference and not enough to compensate for the loss of all the best parts I was enjoying, the musical dynamism, it was really very subdued by comparison even though all the main sonic components were still there. But just ti clarify the NAD M23 didn’t sound bad, it sounded good, just not at the same level as the Ultima 6, but the Chord costs twice as much as the NAD, but this cost difference easily seemed justified with a speaker like the Bowers.
It was the comparative listening testing with other really very good components that showed to me just how accomplished this Chord Ultima Pre and power setup is. It is stunningly good, I don’t know what else to say other than that. I know these were not exhaustive comparative tests, but it seemed to me that the Chord pre really complements the Chord power and combined with an all-Chord digital front end seemed to all sonically synergise better and bring out more performance than the sum of its parts alone.
This is why I postulated at the beginning of this review about there is something in having all a lot of system components from the one manufacturer. I do feel the all Chord sound wont be for every audiophile because it is not HiFi trying to make music sound romantic or overly pleasing. It is about making music sound lively, dynamic and expressive through its energetic honesty, and that does mean music is quite an active listen – more than pipe and slippers sit back relaxed listen Well, it was through the Bowers. It was the dynamics that struck me about this system. I don’t just mean the big stuff; I mean the small stuff, the dynamism of all the small things that makes every bit of the music pop off of the background and sound engaging and three dimensional, impressive stuff
I am pretty smitten with this system. Yes, it’s expensive, but boy its uplifitngly good.
A Special Performer Award is Pursuit Perfect Systems highest accolade and is in recognition of exceptional product performance regardless of price
For the full specification of the Chord Electronics Ultima please see their website linked here