Mention Chord Electronics and there’s a strong probability that one of its class-leading digital-to-analogue convertors will come into mind. And rightly so; the company has produced a long string of truly outstanding digital products over the last couple of decades and has a bursting trophy cabinet to prove it.
So successful has Chord been with DACs that it’s easy to overlook the fact that it started off as an amplification brand and has always made some excellent products in this field. Now, you can count the new Chord Ultima 5 stereo power amplifier among them.
Normally, we like to review complete pre/power combinations, but in this case we’re making an exception. Surprisingly, Chord doesn’t make a price-comparable preamplifier to go with the Ultima 5. Instead, most buyers use the terrific Chord DAVE DAC as a digital control hub, which offers volume and input-changing abilities.
That makes perfect sense if you have an all-digital set-up, and saves the considerable cost of a dedicated analogue preamp. Doing things this way also reduces the box count and simplifies the signal path. Of course, such an arrangement only works if the DAVE performs its preamp duties well. We have already reviewed the DAVE and it certainly does that, so here we’re concentrating on the new Ultima 5 power amplifier.
Few companies can match Chord when it comes to making a bold visual statement – the scoops, the glitzy LED lighting under the top panel, and the extrovert styling make the Ultima 5 stand out in a generally conservative part of the market.
Type Stereo power amplifier
Inputs Balanced XLR, single-ended RCA
Output power 300W RMS per channel (8ohms)
Dimensions (hwd) 18 x 48 x 36cm (with legs)
That bold appearance is supported by truly excellent build quality, just as this elevated price point demands. The Ultima 5’s front panel is an immaculately crafted 28mm thick slab of aircraft-grade aluminium and every part of this amplifier, from those trademark cylindrical legs to the rear panel that doubles as a heatsink, oozes quality.
Take a look inside and you’ll find that the Ultima 5 differs from most rivals. This is mostly down to the use of Chord’s unusual high-frequency power supply arrangement. This does away with conventional bulky mains transformers and large power supply reservoir capacitors and replaces them with something the company considers more efficient, responsive and load tolerant. It’s a compact solution that is central to the brand’s DNA and has been used in its amplifiers from the beginning.
But the big news in the new Ultima 5 is the use of a dual-feed-forward circuit topology, which is claimed to produce a faster, more dynamic sound with improved transparency over the already capable previous generation Chord designs. The Ultima 5 uses no less than 64 proprietary MOSFET output devices and the result is a claimed power of 300W per channel. We doubt whether anyone will need more, but if they do, there are always the 750W Ultima 2 and 480W Ultima 3 monos in the range.
When it comes to connectivity, power amplifiers tend to be simple things, and that proves the way here. There are stereo inputs in both single-ended RCA and balanced XLR forms, plus a set of chunky multi-way speaker binding posts.
A power amplifier at this level demands a top-quality system. Our main sources are Naim’s ND555/555 PS DR music streamer and a Technics SL-1000R/Kiseki Purple Heart MC record player feeding Nagra’s excellent Classic Phono (which, unsurprisingly, is a phono stage).
We also use our usual reference preamplifier, the Burmester 088/911 Mk3, alongside a Chord DAVE digital controller, and we complete the set-up with our trusty ATC SCM50 speakers. We also have Wilson Benesch’s Precision P2.0 floorstanders and ProAc’s K1 standmounters on hand to see how the Chord responds to alternative speakers.
In use, the Ultima 5 is a strikingly capable power amplifier. It's impressively transparent, taking on the character of whatever’s in the signal chain in front of it. If you’re looking for clarity, agility and detail resolution, it can rightly be considered class leading.
Most high-powered amplifiers tend to sound muscular all the time, irrespective of the music being played. So we’re pleasantly surprised that the Ultima 5 doesn’t do that. Given intimate music, such as Found Songs by Ólafur Arnalds, this Chord sounds suitably delicate and fleet-footed. There’s simply no hint of the huge power reserves on standby.
It delivers a tightly focused sound that brims with subtlety and texture. Some of Chord’s past efforts could sound a little clinical and cold, but this power amplifier avoids that charge, delivering the natural warmth and body of instruments convincingly.
Even so, the Ultima 5 could never be accused of sounding lush or rich. It’s a taut and highly analytical listen, able to take apart recordings without much effort. It’s not in this amplifier’s character to carry you away on a wave of exuberance (with suitable music, of course), but if you want to hear deep into the mix or track a low-level instrumental strand, this Chord is outstanding.
Switch to more bombastic music and the Ultima responds effortlessly. That huge claimed power output figure is easily believable when it pounds out Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It is rare to hear a power amplifier sound so composed and controlled when confronted by such demanding music played back at high volume levels. There’s never a hint of sonic stress. At most, that casework gets warm – though not unreasonably so – rather than anything obvious happening in the sound.
Listening to this symphony, we’re aware of how even-handed and neutral the Chord sounds. We’re also struck by how it sets up a huge, open stereo image and populates it with impressively layered and crisply focused sounds. Most importantly, it is capable of organising the mass of information it resolves into a cohesive and musical whole.
We listen to a broad range of music in our time with the Ultima 5 and it never fails to impress. Sure, there are rivals that will sound livelier when playing Kanye West’s Yeezus set by displaying more in the way of low-end punch and rhythmic drive. Others will even sound smoother and easier on the ears with less than perfect recordings. But, none we’ve heard can match the Chord’s cut-glass clarity or resolve low-level information with as much skill.
The Chord Ultima 5 is not an overtly characterful amplifier; it doesn’t try to sound ‘musical’. All it does is attempt to pass on the signal as cleanly as possible. And in that aim, it’s hugely successful.
- Sound 5
- Features 5
- Build 5
Read our guide to the best stereo amplifiers
Read our Chord DAVE review
Read our Burmester 088/911 Mk 3 review
Read our Nagra Classic AMP review