The first thing one might notice in regard to Chord's Symphonic Moving Coil (MC) phono preamplifier is its eye-catching appearance. At least that's the first thing that I noticed, even though by now I should be accustomed to this: I've never seen a Chord component that uses a rectangular 17" wide cabinet. The form of the Symphonic phono preamp seems to follow its function, as the two round windows on the top of its enclosure allows the user to view the illuminated LEDs on its interior that inform the user of the settings they've chosen from the almost infinite number of gain and impedance options located on external pushbuttons on the cabinet's rear panel. Not only that, but Chord obviously didn't find it necessary to use a large cabinet when one wasn't necessary. Otherwise, the design of this Moving Coil (MC) phono preamplifier quite good looking, in a high-tech sort of way, and there's nothing wrong with that.
The Symphonic is Chord's flagship MC phono preamp, which offers more features than their now discontinued entry-level Dual phono preamp, and I assume has better sound quality. The Symphonic's relatively small cabinet measures only about a foot wide, two and a half inches high, and about five and a half inches deep, and so it made me wonder how they managed to fit a decent power supply inside of its cabinet. Not only that, but this phono preamp doesn't even use a wall-wart in lieu of an onboard power supply. But history has proven me wrong in the past, as this is not the first time that I've witnessed good engineering practices making a large power supply unnecessary.
Chord claims that they use their "latest high-frequency power supply technology" in the interior of this phono preamp, and spoiler alert, based on its performance there is no reason not to believe them. The Symphonic also has a rumble filter which removes low-frequency noise that can crop up with some turntables. Even though some audiophiles might think it likely that the Symphonic will be used by those using a very decent analog front-end, where rumble from one of these turntables is unlikely. Regardless, I could be wrong about this, too, as I was about needed a large power supply, and so I trust that this filter will be more than appreciated by at least some users and feel that it is a good thing that Chord claims that this filter is specifically designed to match the strengths of the Symphonic phono preamp. The Symphonic is also fitted with both balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs on its rear panel, and it can take advantage of these balanced ins and outs because it is constructed with fully balanced circuitry.
During the audition period the Symphonic did not make itself know by misbehaving it any way – there were no extraneous noises, no hums, buzzes, or anything else that would draw an attention, other than its extremely transparent, and musical sound quality. Oh, yes, its illuminated windows were noticeable because they lit up the area around the equipment rack when my listening room's lights were dimmed. But that's about it.
The Chord Symphonic's superior sound quality was more than simply "noticeable" from the first record I spun on my system. I'm not sure why I chose The Beatles (aka The White Album) as one of the first records I listened to with the Symphonic in my system. Perhaps it was because of the 50th anniversary releases that are currently being offered. Although, it is most likely because there hasn't been a time when I haven't been listening to this record on a regular basis, this time spinning my "EAS" series stereo Japanese copy. As far as I'm concerned (and many others agree), this is the best substitute for those who don't own a mint condition original UK pressing. Not only does it has less surface noise than even a mint original, it looks better, too, with its thick obi covering about a third of the front cover. Regardless of its heritage, it's the music that counts, and in this case the sound of the music that is most important.
I'd rather not fill this portion of the review with clichés, such as, "I heard things I've never heard before", etc., but while listening I had no doubt that the Symphonic was able to transfer every portion of the signal that passed through it onto the linestage sonically uninjured. This two-channel recording, as with most stereo Beatles recordings, is a bit strange in that it was one of the few rock records that was still hard-panning most of the instruments and voices to the left and right speakers. Although, by this 1968 release producer George Martin and his team were at least starting to mix the lead vocals so they were centered between the two speakers. At least some of the time. And so, when they were located between the two speakers with the Chord phono preamp in the system these vocals were solidly located in space.
More importantly, at least to me, the instruments and voices on this record didn't sound like the real thing, they were the real thing, at least that's how my brain interpreted them. It was as if I could accurately guess the settings on George Harrison's Vox amplifier, or if there was a percussion device such as a tambourine or conga (or more likely bongos) on the track, these instruments were able to rouse a suspension of belief so that they often startled me. And this was happening with a record that I've been listening to since I was a child! After listening to a couple of sides of this double album, I couldn't help but feel that I'd have to eat crow and admit that yes, I could hear things on this record that I never noticed before, such as more clearly hearing the many verbal side comments made by band members (usually John) through the vocal microphones during certain passages. I also have to admit this might not have been the best album to use as a musical example since it its recording style is quite unique, and not one that has many things in common with other records, except that it spends lots of time on my turntable and so I'm very familiar with its sound. That goes for the recently reissued mono version, too. Still, it showed to me that the Chord Symphonic is an outstanding phono preamp.
I played many, many records with the Chord phono during its audition period, some with better sound quality than the others. But one that has sound quality better than most is the Classic Records re-issue of the RCA Living Stereo release of Prokofiev's Seventh Symphony. I wasn't in the mood to sit through the entire symphony, so I played the piece that takes up most of side 2, Overture Russe. It's amazing that they were able to record a symphony orchestra with this type of fidelity nearly 60 years ago. This was a beginning of a new era in high fidelity, and so they did their best to take commercial advantage of these new stereo recordings. But now we can take advantage of their efforts, which are clearly audible in this performance by Jean Martinon leading the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. The Chord Symphonic phono preamp was able to show its stuff during this rather bombastic selection, and it was also a sonic showpiece for the rest of my system.
Obviously, if the signal from my phono cartridge couldn't be amplified with the proper fidelity, the quality of the audio chain after it wouldn't have much to work with. By this time in the audition period it didn't surprise me that the signal from the Etsuro Urushi Red Cobalt phono cartridge was amplified with not only the proper fidelity, but the Chord Symphonic phono preamp injected a musicality and beauty that was unmatched by any preamplifier I've ever heard in my system that was anywhere near this phono preamp's price. When I state that the Symphonic has a musical sound, I hope I'm not misunderstood, that some think that I'm inferring that it adds euphoria to the sound. This phono preamp sounds great because in the right hands a musical instrument can sound beautiful. And someone with a fine, well-trained voice can sound beautiful. In regard to this Living Stereo reissue LP, the instruments and groups of instruments did sound beautiful, and they also sounded powerful, emotional, and played and conducted with all the passion that comes with the talent and experience the performers on this stage possessed.
Also audible was the talents of the production and engineering team assigned to save this audience-less performance to tape. While enjoying this piece, the soundstage that the Chord Symphonic was able to pass onto the rest of my system enveloped me with a drawn to scale replica of the stage at Maison de la Mutualite in Paris, France. Coming through my speakers was an honest to goodness orchestra in miniature, with the instruments and groups of instruments separated in space, thanks in large part to the large Sound Lab electrostatic full-range speakers that could place each sound and groups of sounds in space separated from each other by a proper distance. There was also a dynamic distance placed between each of the instruments and groups of instruments, as the reproduction of a large orchestra on stage couldn't help but layer some instruments atop each other.
When two or more instruments or groups of instruments were arranged in this manner, the Symphonic was able to separate them using the great depth of its soundstage, so it wasn't only a spectacular soundstage spread from left to right, but also from front to back. On this record again was this suspension of disbelief that occurred, where certain instruments, especially the percussion from the sides and back of the stage, would sound so lifelike when they entered that I would reflexively turn my head to hear them. This sensation would only last for a split second, but it was quite thrilling – it often reminded me that I was experiencing a sort of magic – that something recorded 60 years ago sounded as if it was happening today.
Of course, the Chord Symphonic isn't the best high-end phono stage I've ever had in my system. But it is certainly going to be tough to find one that is better than this Chord MC phono preamp anywhere near its price, given that the best phono preamp that I've ever heard in my system cost nearly five times as much as this one. Yet, there are so many traits that this phono preamp shares with the "best" its scary. Its greatest strength is its level of transparency, but it also possesses the talent of somehow realizing what is passing through it is music, and that it passes on this knowledge to the next component in my system. There is also the not so small matter of making instruments sound like "the real thing". This last trait is of course a matter of interpretation, mostly because even with the most expensive high-end audio systems our quest for the holy grail continues in the area of not being able to tell the difference between a recording and reality.
The Chord Symphonic cannot perform this supernatural feat. But it does have the ability to transfer more of the Gestalt of the music that makes audiophiles so attracted to this hobby in the first place. Whether I'd recommend it over my somewhat similarly priced reference Pass Laboratories XP-15 (or its recent replacement, the XP-17) is more a matter of personal taste than which one is "better". One isn't better than the other, they are different from each other. And since this is not a "shoot-out" between the two, but rather a review of the Chord Symphonic is a good thing, because there isn't nearly enough space on Enjoy The Music's server for me to discuss the difference between the two. But I digress.
What I heard when spinning records while the Chord Electronics Symphonic MC phono preamp was in my system was music, with nothing added, nothing subtracted, and was as if I was hearing a direct connection to the potential of my analog set-up. This is because this phono preamplifier is obviously made by those who put a value not on any sonic exhibitionism, but only on the music. At the same time Chord Electronics also has on staff some very creative designers, because while the Symphonic is performing its job of expertly transferring the small signal from the phono cartridge to the linestage, it looks extremely good while doing it. To all those who use MC cartridges in their analog set ups, I highly recommend this phono preamp.
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