Chord Electronics operates out of an old pumphouse in the picturesque Kent village of East Farleigh, on the banks of the River Medway – about two miles upstream of Maidstone.
It's a beautiful place to work, and on a sunny June day the company invited us down to view its much expanded range of Chordette electronics. The firm's car park had been turned into an impromptu outdoor eating area, and after lunch we were ushered inside by chief executive John Franks, who founded Chord in 1989.
Franks may appear unassuming on the surface, but he's passionate about what he does and loves to think outside the box. I remember going to the launch of the original Chordette Gem DAC, designed to improve the sound of music streamed via Bluetooth from mobile devices, and thought then he might be on to something.
Chordette Gem: available in many colours
Chord has broken the mould when it comes to industrial design, creating jewel-like products that, large or small, are exquisitely built. Who says hi-fi has to look boring?
Following the success of the Gem, Franks and his team decided to expand the Chordette range. Eventually there will be nine products in the line-up, including Bluetooth DACs, a stereo amp, preamp, headphone amp, phono amp and a micro PC.
The idea is that all the components can be connected to each other, so you can build an entire Chordette system if you want.
Chordette Mogul micro PC and wireless keyboard £2195
The most ambitious part of the project is the Mogul, a miniature multimedia PC packed into an enclosure only slightly bigger than that of the original Gem. The technical spec is impressive, with Windows 7, a 320GB hard drive, support for HD audio and video, six USB ports and wired or wireless connectivity.
You can hook it up to a pair of active speakers for listening to music, connect a TV or projector for watching TV or movies off the web, stream media from your home network or just use it as a normal PC.
And if you want to improve the sound quality of streamed or downloaded music even further, you can connect the Mogul to the Chordette Scamp stereo amp via USB, taking advantage of the latter's better DAC and protection circuit.
Chordette Scamp stereo amplifier £799
It's the modular nature of the Chordette range that shows how much thought has gone into its design. Want a small, stylish stereo amp for a single source component? No problem, there's the 40W per channel Scamp. Want to upgrade? Then you can add the Chordette Prime preamp. Got a turntable in your system? Just add the Dual moving coil phono amp. And if you fancy a bit of headphone listening, there's the Toucan headphone amp with twin headphone sockets.
Chordette Toucan headphone amp £799
The Dual has an onboard analogue-to-digital converter with USB output to enable any vinyl recording to be archived to a PC or Mac so you can keep a digital copy. And an optical TOSlink output provides a digital monitor to play back any recorded material stored on a computer via an external DAC, so overcoming any sound limitations of the onboard soundcard.
Chord has also addressed one of our criticisms of the original Gem DAC, which limits itself to USB and Bluetooth connectivity. The new Chordette Peach (£799) gets optical and coaxial digital inputs too, making it much more flexible. As on the Gem, the USB port allows direct streaming of audio from a PC or laptop.
Left to right: Chordette Peach, Dual and Toucan
But it's headphone listening that will be our first priority. At the end of our day's visit, we got one of the first Toucan headphone amps to roll off the production line, so look out for a review in the magazine soon.
The full Chordette rack system, from £495 (+£180/additional level)
Chordette Mogul with iPad controller
The full Chordette range