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Audiophile jewellery for the home’ is how Chord Electronics’ founder and CEO John Franks describes the company’s ‘Brilliant’ finish option available for its less costly – but still reassuringly expensive – Choral Series components. It’s an apt description sure enough, pretty much all of the brand’s products exhibiting a quality of fit and finish that is nothing short of immaculate. Nevertheless to describe them as somewhat ‘macho’ would be a considerable understatement. As our own Ken Kessler said in his description of Chord’s original RED Reference player [HFN Jan ’08], ‘… it oozes Chord-ness – that over-engineered, Terminator-meets-Rolex look’. Er, quite – though I’d add a sprinkling of Robocop for good measure.
   This brand new MkII variant is substantially the same brutish looking animal on the outside, weighing a hefty 14kg and sporting the same array of outputs alongside a couple of digital inputs for connecting external sources. Our test sample however sported wooden side cheeks of highly lacquered walnut, a new finish option that Chord calls Invicta that’s destined for high-end preamp models in its portfolio in the near future too.
   Given the player’s cost-is-little-object status it’s a tad disappointing to see that it still ships with an off-the-shelf plastic system remote handset – but at least it’s a learning type with macro functionality for total system control. Under the player’s heavyweight casework lies the same Philips CD-Pro2 mechanism as employed in the ‘Mk1’ but with improved 176.4kHz upsampling and buffering, the latter storing and clocking-out the digital audio from memory. This technology, plus digital filtering and DAC software [see box-out] runs on a single but hugely powerful FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array).
   The technical issue described in our review of the first RED Reference has been resolved in the MkII by fixing the upsampling of CD replay to 176.4kHz regardless of how many times you press the upsampling button on the fascia. Meanwhile, 44.1 and 88.2kHz sampling options are still available for external digital sources, although as these might be DVD or DAT sources 48k, 96k and 192kHz options would obviate ‘awkward’ re-sampling.

READY TO RACK
More practical in daily use than what are arguably considerably more ostentatious designs such as the Oracle CD 2500 (Canadian) and Metronome Technologie Kalista (French), the disc mechanism sits at 45º – so here’s a top-loader that you can slot into a rack if desired, although to do so means you won’t be glowing with quite as much pride since you’ll be unable to ogle at the illuminated internal electronics through the magnifying window that’s built into the top plate. But while there’s less of a ritual involved in playing a disc than with most top-loaders thanks to the hinged door (which in this MkII Reference now has a small window, enabling you to spot at a glance whether or not there’s a disc sitting in the mechanism), the door is not motorised and removing a disc is a little fiddly until you learn the knack. Chord actually supplies a CD-Lift widget with the player to aid the process [see www.panik-design.co.uk and click on the ‘home accessories’ link].
   The RED Reference MkII does have a few operational oddities. For example, skipping to the previous track actually takes you to the beginning of the previous track rather than restarting the track you’re currently playing, which is how most disc players behave. And I noticed that when playing the last track of a CD a press of the skip forward button brings up the message ‘Err’ (for error) in the display, after which the track stops and then begins playing again from the start. Most players simply do nothing, intuitively informing you that you’re playing the final track and there’s nowhere ‘forward’ to go. A button on the remote handset switches the display from elapsed track time through elapsed disc and total disc remaining time – but there’s no track remaining time option, which is the one I tend to use most, curiously enough.
   The sunken ball bearing control buttons on the RED’s fascia are deliciously tactile in operation, however when driving the player via its front panel one’s hand obscures the display. After all, there’s a good reason why the majority of disc players have their control keys below the display window rather than above it.

COMPELLING RIDE
So much for the look and feel, what about the presentation of the music? To cut to the chase, the RED Reference MkII sounds magnificent. There’s a spirited directness to the sound that makes for compelling listening, characterised by a strikingly lucid midband that allows you to hear right into the densest of mixes.
   I’ve been somewhat spoilt of late, having been enjoying the pleasures of similarly luxurious and stratospherically priced CD players from Oracle and Wadia. Whether or not the RED Reference MkII happens to be a magical synergistic match to my resident Levinson 386 amplifier and Townshend Galahad speakers I don’t rightly know, but after a few hours of exploring CDs in my collection I was in little doubt that this is a tremendous sounding player.
    While not quite as muscular and sumptuous-sounding as the Oracle CD 2500 MkII, or quite as fresh, clean and open-sounding as Wadia’s 381i, it struck me that the RED was delivering a happy balance between the two. By the second day of enjoying its music making, I found myself falling in love with it.
   I confess I didn’t expect the Reference to be a ‘kind’ player, anticipating a no-holds-barred and ruthless tearing apart of poor recordings. Instead I found it has the ability to draw you in to whatever is playing, making the most even of compressed and dynamically squashed pop and rock recordings. Squeeze’s 1995 Ridiculous album [A&M 540 440-2] proved a case in point. The song ‘Walk Away’ is a typically ‘over produced’ recording for want of a better term, lacking extreme high and low frequencies, the layer upon layer of heavily processed tracks having squashed all the life out of it. The Reference digs deep, brings it to life, and allows you to hear the myriad backing harmony vocal overdubs where typically the sound degenerates into a mushy haze. Moreover it seems to achieve this without being too brightly lit.
    Similarly the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium [Warner Bros 49996-2] was rendered moderately listenable, the Chord Reference player obviating the recording’s spitty high frequencies and brittle hard edge. Comparisons with Wadia’s £8000 381i showed that the Wadia was less forgiving. The Wadia has a lighter, more sprightly demeanour that creates magnificent three-dimensional images with high fidelity recordings but is less tolerant of poor source material. The Chili Peppers’ upfront and uncompromising production was every bit as jarring as I would have expected when listening via the Wadia. The Chord seemed better able to make the best of a bad job. Given Chord Electronics’ reputation for producing a fast, clean and analytical sound I didn’t expect such benevolence from its RED Reference MkII.

BACK TO BLACK
Meanwhile when analysis is required and desired the Chord delivers that too. David Sylvian’s atmospheric Rain Tree Crow [Virgin CDV 2659] sounded as dark as ever, the Reference MkII presenting the eerie soundscapes from the blackest of black backgrounds, together with immense energy and grunt from the drums and bass synthesizer notes. The chocolaty rich sonority of Mick Karn’s bass clarinet was genuinely luscious on the track ‘New Moon at Red Deer Wallow’, producing the sort of textural bass quality delivered by Oracle’s £10,000 CD 2500 MkII tested recently [HFN Aug ’09].
   Importantly, the overall musical presentation is as coherent as it is extended. A CD of Stravinsky’s The Firebird [Mercury Living Presence SR 90226] with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra was so captivating I soon forgot that I’d spun the disc to assess the sound, ending up sinking into the sofa and enjoying the recording in its entirety as my system weaved its magic of transporting me to the concert hall.
   So not only is it gentle on ear with coarse and splashy recordings, it is transparent, immediate and naturally dynamic with audiophile quality recordings. To these eyes the RED Reference’s styling is about as subtle as a fully skirted ’n’ spoiler’d Subaru Imprezza that screams aloud, ‘Hey, look at me’ from each and every angle. But there’s no denying it’s a thrilling ride.

VERDICT
Aimed squarely at owners of substantial CD collections who are determined to squeeze every last drop of performance potential from the ‘Red Book’ CD-DA format, Chord’s RED Reference MkII can lay claim to being one of the best sounding players money can buy. To see how it suits the balance of your system, you should compare it with the Wadias, Krells, Esoterics and dCSs of this world.

 

Originally published in the November 2009 issue