Chord SPM 14000 Ultimate monoblock power amplifier Page 2
When noise is minimized as thoroughly as it was through the Chord, dynamics also benefit in spades. The SPM 14000 reached deeply into the softest passages of Copland's Appalachian Spring, but its tremendous reserves of power let it coast through the dramatics of his Fanfare without obscuring the audibly rippling heads of the timpani and bass drums. New Order's "Crystal," from Get Ready (CD, Reprise 89621-2), roared out of the speakers, a churning and unstoppable wall of sound—but all of the little things surrounding and punctuating that roar were in careful and accurate balance with the main show.
For all their firepower, the Chords' ability to preserve a sense of intimacy with small-scaled music was equally impressive. Duke Ellington's Dance with Duke (LP, Columbia Special Products CSR 8098) was recorded in a good-sized nightclub and should sound that way, with a natural bloominess and an up-close quality. Through the Chords, it did—no fuss, no muss, no calling attention to anything other than Duke's orchestra. "Satin Doll" should be sassy and smoochy, and it was. Nor did the SPM 14000 have any trouble playing scale correctly, whether the claustrophobic studio sound of Van Der Graaf Generator's doom-laden Godbluff (Canadian LP, Famous Charisma 9211-1109) or the sweeping scale of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Zubin Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic; LP, London CS 6522).
The Chords' transparency was superlative. The inner woodwind voices of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake suite (LP, London CS 6218) were splendidly resolved within the context of the orchestra. Clarity reigned with all types of material. "Soon," the concluding section of Yes's "The Gates of Delirium," from Relayer (UK LP, Atlantic K 50096), is arranged primarily for acoustic and steel guitars and shifting layers of keyboards. Jon Anderson's powerful countertenor easily commanded center stage, and Patrick Moraz's lush, intricate backdrop of Mellotrons, Hammond organ, synthesizers, and electric piano had precise focus and deep-field resolution.
The Chords' resolution did not come at the expense of tonal sumptuousness. The Schoenberg is a lavishly opulent recording of lavishly opulent music. The SPM 14000s unraveled all of the piece's myriad internal conversations while letting me remain focused on the sweepingly romantic big picture. The Royce Hall acoustic was identifiably more dry than the Swan Lake venue, the creamy Amsterdam Concertgebouw, but this sonic difference was as it should be. The Chord shortchanged neither hall.
In terms of overall voicing, the Chord leaned almost, but not quite undetectably, in the direction of cool. Still, it was definitely a bit warmer than the Halcro dm58, most noticeably in the upper midrange and treble. This allowed images to be a bit more fleshed out. The mallet-struck drums at the beginning of "Radioactive Toy," from Porcupine Tree's Coma Divine (UK CD, Delirium DELEC CD 067), had a fetchingly realistic palpability, if not quite to the same degree as the Lamm M1.2 Reference, which is the champ in terms of image touchability.
Bass performance was on a par with anything I have heard from any amplifier whatsoever. The SPM 14000 permitted no sloppiness or overhang at all, offering only superbly controlled, tight, deep low bass and a rare combination of authority and expansiveness in the mid- and upper bass. It is one of the few amplifiers whose overall bass performance came very near to those of Plinius's SA-250 Mk.IV and SA-Reference amplifiers (footnote 3), which have long been my measuring sticks for unalloyed bass excellence.
There is little to say about the Chord's midrange, which was remarkable in its unremarkableness. Every recording I played through it was strikingly individualized as a unique experience. Voices sounded true and dead-bang accurate, including the transfers of the EP I was producing for my band. I know the singer's voice nearly as well as my own, and with the Chords, there was Tina, right in the room, just as she sounds 6' away from me at practice. Rightness was the Chord's most conspicuous midrange quality.
The Chord's top end seemed to extend to infinity, with no hint of grain or texture. The strings of the Schoenberg and the massed saxophones and brass of Dance with Duke—in fact, anything recorded in an unprocessed style—were free and easy, with a very natural sound. Perhaps that last little bit of shimmer was sometimes missing from massed strings, but there was never any hardness or strain.
When an amplifier brings together monoblock design, unblemished quietness, and massive power, natural and expansive soundstaging is sure to follow. The Chords did not disappoint. Lateral spread was always open and spacious, and depth was outstanding. The bass drum in Fanfare was deep in a scrupulously described stage, and the brass and percussion instruments in Firebird were beautifully separated and placed at just the right distance from the front of the soundfield.
This amplifier has raised for me one of the more interesting incongruities about the finest modern electronics. For years we audio types have sought amplification that was the proverbial straight wire with gain. In a very real way, the best electronics that I have recently heard come infuriatingly close to this ideal. The paradox is this: When a listener or reviewer tries to evaluate such components, there is often surprisingly little to say about them. The language of modern audio reviewing has been developed out of a framework that describes the failings or shortcomings of audio equipment. The big Chord, and a very few other amplification devices, do not accommodate themselves comfortably to this paradigm. There is so little intrinsic sonic character in such components that the reviewer is, to a degree, left grasping at straws. What sound they have is nearly undetectable when listening even with the finest speakers (footnote 4).
I find myself in the odd position of trying to review a component that has no meaningful limitations and in which I heard no audible faults. Yes, one can argue about taste, but when reaching these rarefied levels, it is taste, not purely observational judgments, that carry the day. I cannot tell you that a 1985 Château Latour is "better" than a 1985 Château Margaux. They are both unique examples of superb wines that embody what each winemaker felt to be the historic character of that château's wines. They are both unimpeachable, but they are not the same.
Is the Chord SPM 14000 "better" than the Lamm M1.2 Reference? Is either better than a VTL Siegfried or Audio Research's new 610T? I can't answer those questions, as they enter something closer to the realm of theology or metaphysics than to audio reviewing. If you're lucky enough to be able to consider purchasing any of these pieces of electronic art, you cannot make a bad choice. You can only make the choice that best suits your speakers, preferred music, and taste.
The Chord SPM 14000 Ultimate is the finest pure-solid-state amplifier I have auditioned, and one of the very finest amplifiers to be found, period. Its slightly greater timbral fullness lets it edge past the Halcro dm58, and its awe-inspiring power places it, if not in a class of one, then in a class with an almighty low enrollment. It was equally impressive whether blowing down the walls or with laid-back late-night jazz. It did not have that last degree of sensuality and palpability that seems the exclusive province of Lamm's M1.2 Reference, but the Chord should provide any speaker ever made with endless, effortless power at any listening level. It is an outstanding example of applied engineering and a great amp to listen to for analytical reviewing or pure relaxation and enjoyment.
At $75,000/pair, the SPM 14000 Ultimate is insanely expensive. It is, for all intents and purposes, a custom-built product. It is built not just to be bulletproof, which it unquestionably seems to be, but to provide the finest sound John Franks is capable of delivering. As is the case with an Aston Martin or a Savile Row suit, there are precious few economies of scale to be had in handcrafting bespoke products. If exclusivity, massive power, sterling sonics, and utterly bombproof construction are what you seek, you may find different, but you will not find better than the Chord SPM 14000 Ultimate.
Footnote 3: My review of the Plinius SA-Reference will appear shortly in Stereophile.
Footnote 4: Speakers are quite a different matter. The science and art that go into creating the illusion that a screen or a box full of drivers is creating the sound of an orchestra, jazz group, or rock band in one's room still inspire rhapsodies when a pair of speakers gets closer than most. What I have heard from Wilson Audio's recent speakers has left me wildly enthusiastic while scratching my head about how it's done. I have lived with their Sophias for six months and, as I write this, a pair of Wilson MAXX 2s is headed my way for a Follow-Up.