Chord SPM 650 power amplifier Page 2

Avoiding metal-to-metal contact with the amplifier in attaching TARA's Omega 2 speaker cables, with their large-diameter termination connectors, also proved extremely tricky. Though it was the barrel of the connector and not the conductor that came close to touching the amplifier chassis, I used strips of plastic as insulators rather than risk a short circuit. Admittedly, TARA's connectors are much larger than most, but the tight spacing on the Chord's rear panel will present problems for many other audiophile speaker cables.

Sir Speedy
Do you like fast, tight, effervescent sound? Cleanness bordering on the aftermath of a Purell wipe? Those the SPM 650 delivered without apology. From top to bottom of the audioband, the Chord reproduced music with a total absence of grit, edge, or grain. It was clean. It was fast.

The usual artifacts typically produced by solid-state amplifiers whose designers have aimed for such levels of speed, purity, and neutrality were simply MIA through the SPM 650. Its transient reproduction was as clean and open as I've heard from any amplifier, and faster than I've heard from most. In fact, the SPM 650 is among—if not the—fastest, tightest-sounding amplifiers I've yet heard, and its 170Wpc into 4 ohms effectively drove both my Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX 2 speakers and Hansen Audio's Prince V2s (in-house for a Follow-Up to Wes Phillips' review in the April 2008 issue). The Hansens were hooked up to my system when the Chord arrived, and I'd become familiar with the speakers as driven by both my Musical Fidelity kW monoblocks and Music Reference's tubed RM-200.

As well as playing familiar material, I listened to new LPs and CDs, including an advance CD-R from Yarlung Records that included a performance by Martin Chalifour, Principal Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of his transcription for violin of Poulenc's Flute Sonata, accompanied by pianist Joanne Pearce Martin. This superb recording, engineered and produced by Bob Attiyeh, was made at the Walt Disney Concert Hall using a matched pair of Neumann U-47 microphones with their original VF14M tubes. It offers uncanny clarity and timbral realism of both the violin—a 1716 Stradivari once owned by Nathan Milstein—and the piano.

Through the SPM 650, the attack of the violin and piano was lightning-fast and natural-sounding, and commendably free of artificial edge, etch, or grain. The images were well focused, laid bare in a cool light, and cleanly rendered in a space that stretched between and just behind the speakers. Beyond that, however, the violin lacked enough luster, body, and warmth to sound convincing. The piano sounded equally cool, and somewhat lacking in the instrument's naturally woody texture. While the upper keys sounded admirably clean, with a bell-like clarity, the lower keys seemed somewhat disconnected from the instrument. The sonorous sustain of both violin and piano seemed truncated, as if the Chord was more interested in moving on to the next musical gesture than following through and completing the task at hand. Other than giving a businesslike alert that it was present, neither instrument sang out; some body, no soul.

Although there was a suggestion of the hall acoustic behind the players, it was as if a scrim had been hung between them and the reverberation. This suggested a lack of transparency at the microdynamic level that prevented reverberations from playing out to the conclusion of their natural decay.

The performance was cool, clear, and clinical—sort of what you might hear in New York City's Avery Fisher Hall, though not as bright and hard. Having heard other recordings made by Bob Attiyeh, I didn't think I was hearing what he intended, nor did the sound resemble what I've read about the acoustic of Walt Disney Hall. The Hansen Prince V2, though hardly tipped-up on top, is still very revealing, especially in terms of carving out space. In my room, at least, it's somewhat shy in the midbass, but the sound I was getting from this recording was not what I'd expected.

I disconnected the SPM 650 and returned the big Musical Fidelity kWs to the system. Now as John Atkinson will tell you, the kW is no Mr. Warmth. But even without being first warmed up, it produced sufficient heat to present the Yarlung recording as I imagined it was meant to sound. The violin still had good attack—if perhaps not as effervescent-sounding as through the Chord—but now it also had the expected body, sheen, and warmth I expect to hear from that Stradivarius. Pearce Martin's piano also was rendered with greater harmonic complexity, especially in the lower registers: notes hung in air, seeming to linger longer and more fully express themselves before decaying into a darker, more easily discerned space. The delicate Disney acoustic—especially the almost ghostly suggestion of the space behind the prosceniumless stage—became far more apparent, as the reproduction of microdynamic subtleties markedly improved.

When I turned up the volume to hear farther into the picture, the clarity was replaced by glaze, as if that scrim blocking the Disney Hall acoustic had been moved from the back of the stage to the front. It didn't sound like clipping. I heard the same effect when the Wilson MAXX 2s went back into the system, though the MAXX 2 is a warmer, definitely somewhat slower, and less resolving speaker than the Prince V2, particularly in the midrange.

I returned the Chord to the system and let it cook for a while before listening to more recordings, some familiar, some new. One of the latter was a recent vinyl reissue of The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison (2 LPs, Monument/Columbia/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-304), remastered, according to Mobile Fidelity's Shawn Britton, using the original master tapes spliced together, with all EQ azimuth and other adjustments done on the fly as the leader tape went by the heads. The Chord's reproduction of this recording was nothing short of sensational. Again, the leading edges of attacks were superclean and free of edge, grit, and grain. The SPM 650 is not a bright-sounding amplifier, and on this LP, originally engineered by Bill Porter, it rose to the occasion, delivering incredible detail and resolution. The bongos on "Leah" had a suppleness I'd never before heard, the strummed guitar intro of "In Dreams" stood out in greater relief than I'd ever remembered hearing it—name your favorite Orbison tune, and through the Chord SPM 650 I heard some details for the first time. So will you, if you buy this set—but those details and speed came at the price of the short shrift given the followthrough.

I began to notice that I was cutting short my listening due to flagging interest and/or a peculiar kind of fatigue. Once the effect of the SPM 650's speed and clarity had worn off—which usually happened within 20 to 30 minutes—the amp's more clinical aspects came to the fore. The SPM 650 was exciting to listen to at first, but long-term listening to it produced, at best, indifference; at worst, distraction and a desire to stop listening.

The Chord SPM 650 is an impressive technological achievement. It produces a great deal of clean power from a compact, cool-running package that had no problem driving both the Wilson MAXX 2 and Hansen Prince V2 speakers, though it could sound slightly opaque when pushed hard. Its sound was cool, from top to bottom, with daringly fast transient performance, but never offended by sounding bright, hard, grainy, or etched on top. Its bottom-end performance was equally fast, controlled, and well extended.

Your first hearing of the SPM 650 is sure to produce an adrenaline rush, and you'll be hard-pressed to hear from it any sonic sins of commission. But I found that while that first listen produced genuine excitement, as I listened to the Chord's great clarity as it nimbly navigated the musical twists and turns, over time it became clear that this effervescent sound was to some extent shortchanging harmonic development, spatiality, and low-level dynamics.

At $4995 the Chord SPM 650 offers a powerful, compact, high-tech entry into high-performance audio at a reasonable price. Its musical performance was as tight, clean and compact as its physical presence, though it sacrifices a degree of harmonic development, instrumental texture, and "flow" that will leave some listeners yearning for greater warmth and musical involvement. Such listeners would likely prefer the $4200 Music Reference RM-200 hybrid tube amp. On the other hand if your system is in need of some tightening and control and if you like speed and "punch" and listen mostly to rock, then the Chord SPM 650 may be your ticket to "Party on, Garth!"

Chord Electronics Ltd.
US distributor: Bluebird Music
620 Wilson Avenue, Suite 360
Toronto, Ontario M3K 1Z3, Canada
(416) 638-8207