First Audition: Chord Electronics Ultima Pre 3
Jay Garrett gets an early listen to this swish new high end preamplifier…
Ultima Pre 3
Chord Electronics has recently announced its all-new preamplifier, the Ultima Pre 3. This is something of a homecoming for the company, as it started out as an amplifier manufacturer and only later moved on to making its superb DACs. The new product joins the Ultima 2 and 3 power amplifiers unveiled at Munich’s High End Show in 2019, and the Ultima 5 and 6 which launched at Bristol’s Sound & Vision 2020, alongside the Ultima Pre 2.
At £12,500, the Ultima Pre 2 sits more comfortably price-wise with either the Ultima 2 (£18,500) or Ultima 3 (£11,000) power amplifiers, which left the £9,500 Ultima 5 or £6,500 Ultima 6 without a price-matched buddy – until now, that is. At £6,000, the Ultima Pre 3 neatly plugs that gap in the range for those looking for a pre/power combo. Naturally, you could use the DAVE DAC as a digital hub as it has volume control but, good as it is, for those of us who require analogue inputs, this could be just the thing.
This new preamp is less a button-fest than its larger stablemate. Instead, you get a volume dial that, when pressed, cycles through the inputs. On the other side, you get a balance dial that puts the amp in AV bypass mode when pushed. The latter seems a risky move as a heavy-handed user could suddenly see their lovely speakers assaulted by unfettered output. The Ultima Pre 3 has two stereo balanced XLR inputs and three stereo unbalanced RCA ins. I like the uncluttered appearance that’s still unmistakably Chord Electronics; the controls feel nicely weighted, and there’s a strong whiff of quality about the whole product.
The Ultima Pre 3 is an all-new John Franks design which includes top-notch tech such as NGR op-amps, a Blue Velvet ALPS potentiometer, etc., rather than just being a scaled-down version of those that went before it.
I auditioned it at the excellent Reference Audio in Witham, where it was being fed digital goodness from Roon and an Innuos Zenith via DAVE and an MScaler. A pair of Ultima 3 power amps handled output duties, handing off to a wonderfully white pair of KEF Reference 3 Meta. Support duties went to Solidsteel's admirable S2 rack and amp stands.
The new Ultima Pre 3 sounds highly transparent and focused, but where some of Chord's previous amplification could be accused of being a little analytical, this appeared more organic sounding. There’s still heaps of detail resolution, but it isn't thrown at the listener.
For instance, Shiny Moon from The Teskey Brothers was delivered most pleasingly. This slab of blues-rock via Melbourne came through clearly and with enough character. Guitars sounded realistic, with the grit created by the slide wonderfully imparted to the listener. The bass came through nicely rounded, and the harmonised male vocals had a natural definition. That intimacy was retained as Yes Anastasia by Tori Amos started up. Simply Tori and her Bösendorfer piano, the music sounded delicate while allowing the piano enough heft to make the lower register believable.
This track can lull the listener into an almost hypnotic trance, especially as the strings start to swirl around Tori's voice and piano work, and then there's a practically cinematic orchestral burst. Here the demo rig proved its worth in dealing with dynamics, while retaining the texture of strings and piano, letting the listener effortlessly follow the individual instruments. For me, the Chord amps preserved the acoustic instruments' richness without adding artificial warmth. There was also an impressive sense of scale. Additionally, I would not describe this as sounding clinical.
The bassline in A Perfect Circle's The Package can often wrong-foot systems that promise huge low-end presence, but there were no such issues here. When the energetic stabs were delivered, they were done with laser precision, highlighting that this Chord set-up is no slouch in the timing department. Jellyfish's Bellybutton album is great if you want to unpick low-level instrument details when using the right gear. Again, the Ultima Pre 3 did a fine job, be it in picking out the sniff in That is Why or revelling in the multi-part harmonies of The King is Half Undressed.
Indeed, pretty much everything I threw at this had an even-handedness that some might not expect from the brand. Whether it's dealing with the depth of large and complex orchestral pieces, or intimate ballads such as The Beatles' Norweigan Wood – where it let the sitar and acoustic guitar resonate without getting in the way of the vocals or tambourine – the Ultima 3 pre and power delivered the musical goods.
Upon first listen, Chord Electronics' Ultima Pre 3 has much going for it, and should raise a few eyebrows in the section of the market it has just entered. Keep your eyes peeled for an in-depth review of this talented bit of kit on StereoNET soon!
Thanks to the Reference Audio team for the tour and for keeping me caffeinated.
StereoNET UK’s Editor, bass player, and resident rock star! Jay’s passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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