Chord Electronics Huei MM / MC
In the past I've had the pleasure of reviewing two other components made by Chord Electronics from East Farleigh, Kent UK. In December of 2014 I reviewed the first version of their Hugo, a battery powered digital to analog converter. During January 2019 I reviewed their Symphonic moving coil phono stage, which in this case is more than noteworthy because the Huei phono stage that is being reviewed here is a smaller version of their excellent Symphonic phono stage. Within my review of the Symphonic I not only called it "a killer MC phono preamplifier", it received my highest recommendation and insisted it earn a 2019 Blue Note Equipment Award.
Although the Symphonic can only boost the signal of Moving Coil (MC) phono cartridges, the Huei is compatible with both MC and Moving Magnet (MM) cartridges. Because the Huei phono stage's price is only about a third the asking price of the larger Symphonic ($1495 versus $4495), it is highly likely that that the user of the Huei will be using a MM cartridge. Not only that, the smaller Huei has an accessible, rather large lighted front-panel controls for both gain and loading. "Ease of use" is an understatement.
The solid aluminum casework of the Huei is rather small, yes,
but is also manufactured by Chord, which means that most likely this component
not only sounds good, but most will think it looks good, too. Chord uses for the
first time in a phono preamplifier an ultra-low-noise phono microprocessor
control of its main features, which includes a memory function. In addition to
it being a true balanced design with available XLR outputs (+6dB gain) and a
selectable rumble filter, the Huei has eight gain settings for both MM and MC
cartridges along with twelve impedance matching options for MC types.
Like many of Chord's other components, the Huei has a top-mounted viewing window in order for one to see its illuminated interior electronics. In its latest digital components Chord has been using lighted "polychromatic control spheres". Viewing these controls in a photo of the Huei is easier than describing them, but these spheres give one the ability to switch this phono stage's loading and gain settings on the fly. Chord's Huei has both unbalanced RCA and balance XLR outputs along with its pair of RCA inputs on its rear panel. This small component easily fit alongside another smaller component on my equipment rack. Its small size belies its large sounding performance, and instantly surprised me by this sonic performance.
I used the Huei in my second system, where I use a Pro-Ject X2 turntable with both MM and MC cartridges available to test the Huei. Included in the X2's package was the excellent moving magnet Sumiko Moonstone phono cartridge. But when I was reviewing the Italian Audio Analogue Maestro Anniversary integrated amplifier, I thought I needed a cartridge that might be more suited to this approximately $9,000 and beautiful looking and sounding component. And so, I was able to get an Ortofon MC Winfeld Ti phono cartridge. This phono cartridge might not be the first one that an owner of the X2 turntable would rush out to buy, as it costs nearly three times as much as the turntable. But as this is a review of a phono preamplifier, not the turntable, I think this magnificent Ortofon cartridge it is 100% appropriate in this review of the Chord Huei.
The rest of this high-caliber review system a Mark Levinson No 523 full-function preamplifier (which contains its own very fine onboard phono preamplifier), which I was able to connect to the Huei with either balanced XLR or unbalanced RCA cables. The Levinson preamp was connected to a choice of power amplifiers. Powered by tubes were the PrimaLuna DiaLogue 6 monoblocks, and if I chose to listen to solid-state, I still had in my system the Audio Analogue Maestro Anniversary integrated amplifier. If I chose the Audio Analogue, I would bypass the Mark Levinson, and connect the Chord Huei directly to one of the RCA inputs on its rear panel.
There were a few different speakers in the review system during the time of the Huei residence. The EgglestonWorks Isabel Signature is the speaker that is normally in this system, a relatively small two-way floor standing speaker. I initially was drawn to this brand of speaker because the engineer Bob Ludwig uses EgglestonWorks in his mastering lab, although a much, much larger model. Also used during the review period was the reference quality Kharma Elegance dB7 I reviewed that is in the October 2019 issue, Near the end of the review period I used the electrostatic/dynamic JansZen Valentina and Valentina Active speakers (review forthcoming).
Setting the loading parameters of the Huei phono stage was
super simple. I even had some fun trying out different loading setting than what
were recommended by Ortofon for the WinfeldTi. It is such a good cartridge it
was difficult to "ruin" its sound, but what came through the speakers when using
settings other than what was recommended was different, and usually one that I
wouldn't particularly have chosen, but not particularly bad. I must admit,
though, I found it very informational to be able to hear these changes "on the
fly", that is, as the music was playing.
After I had decided upon the final setting for this cartridge, I didn't need to access these setting again, but if I chose to let its front panel control remain lighted, this phono stage proudly showed off its "polychromatic control spheres". The Chord Huei did not make itself known unless it was playing music, because for the remainder of the review period it didn't make any abnormal sounds such as buzzes, click, or hums. All it did was play music.
Obviously, the Chord Huei is not as good a phono stage as the Symphonic or my reference Pass Labs unit. However (spoiler alert!), even though they are not at the same high levels, the Huei has many of the more desirable sonic attributes of the Symphonic. It was quite amazing to hear how close the Huei came to not only the memory of the Chord Symphonic, but the Pass Labs preamp that was also on hand.
As far as I'm concerned, if I played only those albums I listed above, I would get a very good handle on what the Chord Huei was capable of. Of course, I played many more albums, even some 7" 45 rpm singles on the Pro-Ject X2 / Ortofon MC Winfeld Ti combination during the Huei's review period! Playing these records not only confirmed Chord's advertising not only free of hyperbole, but more. This was because not only was I enjoying what I was playing, but I was taken aback by its ability to sonically keep pace with the rest of this system, which for the most part was more than likely a cut above the average system of a potential Huei customer.
On the King Crimson album, leader Robert Fripp chose one more bass player, Trey Gunn, in addition to Fripp's usual cohort Tony Levin. Of course, these two bass players were recorded on different tracks, but still, they were sometimes playing simultaneously! On more than a few occasions one of the bassists would be playing "regular" four-string electric bass, but the other would be playing a Chapman Stick. For those not familiar with this instrument, it has ten or twelve individually tuned strings. By strumming the strings, and also "slapping" the strings, a talented player can not only play bass lines on this instrument, but can concurrently play melody, chords, and sometimes unique "sounds". Plus, the lowest notes of a stick go deeper than a bass guitar, having a low string that reaches lower into the frequency range (32 Hz for a stick versus 41 Hz for a bass guitar).
Like all the records I played through the Chord Huei, the Crimson album was no problem for it. When the two bass players were playing different lines but at the same time at a similar volume, the Huei was able to sort this out without me noticing that it was even a big deal that it was. In fact, like on the other albums I initially selected, this small phono stage did not really come into the sonic picture very much. This is a compliment, by the way. The Huei simply did its job, and passed the signal from the record onto my preamplifier without making any errors of commission that I could notice. In fact, when switching back to my reference Pass Labs phono stage that cost four times as much as the Huei, yes, it sounded better. But when switching back to the Huei it took about four tracks to become accustomed to the sound again.
What I mostly mean by "accustomed" is that the Huei has a sound that was not that much different than my more expensive reference in many areas. What I heard, for example, with the King Crimson album was that it could not reach as low as my reference when there were two basses playing a complex passage. Yet the Chord Huei was able to unweave these complex passages without adding sounds of its own, or as some inexpensive phono stages might do, simply leave these bass sounds out completely. And this bass sound had a tight, pitch specific low-frequency response that made it easy to follow these complicated musical themes, and make each track on this album as enjoyable as ever.
The Huei's high frequencies were as uncolored as the bass, as
it was able reproduce any high frequency on a record without adding any
sibilance, or leaving out any parts of the frequency I'd become accustomed to on
these oft-played albums. On the Joy Division compilation Substance, I
could hear how producer Martin Hannett would to love to inject high frequency
sounds that are not made by the instruments by processing them. This would not
only add more high-frequency energy to the sound, but by adding reverb and other
digital type delays that would also contain high-frequency sounds, it would add
these sounds to the rather large soundstage that the Huei would project into the
front of the listening room.
This happened, such as on the song "Glass", when drummer
Stephen Morris has a sixteenth note high-hat beat running through the song. Not
only was this one of the songs where each drum of the kit was recorded
separately, but effects were added to the sounds to make them somewhat unnatural
sounding. This high hat has high-frequencies added by equalizing the sound. This
type of effect is a large part of what makes this song so unique, and one of my
favorite Joy Division songs on the album. The sound of that man-made high-hat
sounds as it should. And I should know, given that I've listened to this album
hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.
Although I tout the sound quality of the Huei's bass and
treble, these qualities judged on their own sound great. It is only when I
compare this phono stage to components costing much more, and then it doesn't
really suffer in any way. My reference has greater high frequency extension and
bass slam than the Huei. How much more? Not as much as one might expect. And
when taken the price of the Huei into account, again, it performs much better
than its price would indicate – and its size would indicate. This is a very,
very small phono stage! It is Chord Huei's midrange that is the star of the
show! It amazed me when I was listening to records that this phono stage, which
is practically a miniature component, can come as close to the midrange offered
by the much more expensive components I had on hand for comparison.
On the Legrand Jazz album, it was recorded during three different sessions in June of 1959. Since it was all recorded in the same studio by the same staff, there is a continuity that makes it so the listener might not ever realize that some of the musicians on this album weren't in the studio on the same day as each other. Besides this continuity, this re-issue is spot-on when comes to reproducing the instruments with a lifelike sound. The four tracks that have Miles Davis playing trumpet on them are my favorites, and to hear him nonchalantly playing some of these parts arranged by Mark Legrand is breathtaking.
The midrange reproduced by the Huei helped bring these lifelike sounding instruments into my listening room, creating an aura of sound in the front of the room. The Huei also created a very stable sounding soundstage, with each of the instruments locked into their place with appropriately scaled images. But, as far as I'm concerned, these qualities are akin to parlor tricks when compared to the lifelike reproductions of the instruments played by the musicians on this album, besides Miles Davis this album also features Herbie Mann, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, John Coltrane, Ben Webster, Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, and many others. Their realistically reproduced instruments, whether they be piano, drums, bass, or one of the various horns featured, is largely due to the Chord Huei's transparent midrange. Music sounding like music is the most important thing to me, and the Huei delivers in this area.
For this reason, the Chord Huei showed me that it was a phono preamplifier that could do more than just let me hear examples of individual sounds and instruments. It was able to make music sound like music. This might sound like an obtuse observation, but when it comes down to it, that's what makes the high-end the high-end — the ability for our audio systems to reproduce what was recorded as accurately as possible, at the same time sounding as real as possible.
When considering that the Huei cannot only perform so well, plus be so accessible when to setting it up for one's particular phono cartridge, it's obvious to me that the designers at Chord took their time to make sure that this component would be appropriate for an audiophile that might not be that psyched to futz with the controls on a component. Not only did I use the more expensive Ortofon phono low-output moving coil cartridge during this audition, I also used a much less expensive moving magnet Sumiko cartridge that was shipped with the Pro-Ject turntable. This higher-output cartridge demanded a much different loading arrangement than the Ortofon. It took only a few minutes (or less) to change the settings on the Huei to accommodate either cartridge I chose for that particular listening session.