Chord Electronics Huei MM/MC Phono Preamplifier Review
With its funky glowing coloured spheres, Chord Electronics' new Huei phono stage trips the light fantastic for analogue addicts. David Price goes for a spin…
MM/MC Phono Stage
Have you ever been made Managing Director of your company, and then had to launch the product that you'd just designed before you became MD? Me neither – but that's exactly what has happened to Matthew Bartlett of Chord Electronics. At the end of the company's thirtieth anniversary year, founder John Franks has stepped down from running it on a daily basis to become Chairman, and Matt has been promoted to the top job, having previously been the Manufacturing Director.
He's also the brains behind the new £990 Huei MM/MC phono stage, so is keen to point out that despite the brand's recent great success with DACs, Chord Electronics isn't a one-trick pony. “Don't forget that the company has its roots in analogue and amplifier design”, Matt declares. “John has a huge amount of vinyl, which we used in the development of this new product. Of course many of our customers have vast record collections, as well as using our equipment for streaming, CD and digital music playback, too…”
Huei is an odd moniker for a phono stage, but that's par-for-the-course for Chord Electronics these days. Matt says there are no clever double-entendres in the name, explaining instead that it was inspired by the attractive hue of the polychromatic spheres that make up its user interface. Therein lies the rub, because it is microprocessor controlled. In other words, you can forget about fiddly DIP switches on the underside of the unit – as per most other affordable phono stages on sale – and instead enjoy its swish glowing buttons. “Feedback from our customers on Mojo, Qutest and Hugo 2 has shown that people love the polychromatic controls and uncompromising build. It's also part of the new, emerging Qutest range, so it was important to employ the same form factor”, explains Matt.
Looking beyond the disco lights, the innards of Huei are based on the company's high-end Symphonic phono stage, and show much of the same thinking in electronic design terms. “Noise is, of course, the primary problem to be solved when doing a phono stage, and musicality is also important – careless design leads to a dull and lifeless sound. My aim was to keep the fully balanced architecture of the Symphonic – plus the UK design, engineering and manufacturing – but make it more affordable. We've done this by a super-short signal path and our trademark build quality”, Matt adds.
This phono stage uses a combination of discrete transistor and op-amp circuitry. “We use the most appropriate components for the task in hand”, he says. “It's a fully buffered design from input to output and sports an internal switch-mode power supply that gets its power from the supplied mains adaptor. A number of price-appropriate turntables were used to audition it during the design phase, including the Rega Planar 3 and a more high-end Wilson Benesch deck.”
There are two schools of thought for phono stages – one is to go ultra-minimalist with nothing aside from a power switch, and the other is to offer a welter of facilities, and in particular full cartridge load and gain matching. The latter approach is more flexible and future-proof but invariably leads to fussy switch-gear and a highly complex user-interface. That's why Huei uses a microprocessor-controlled front end and those pretty lights; the idea is to make the complex manageable. There are twelve settings for impedance matching [47k ohm (MM), 30 ohm to 47k ohm (MC)] and eight for gain [MM: 25dB to 35dB, 8-step user selectable; MC 48dB to 70dB]. There's also a subsonic filter giving -24dB per octave below 50Hz, via a Rausch Slope profile. The claimed maximum output voltage is 10V RMS, which is a lot.
Huei is machined from aircraft-grade aluminium billet to the same size as the Qutest [160x72x41mm] and weighs just 657g. Its spheres change colour depending on what gain and impedance setting you have selected, which in theory is a nice idea. However, in practice, you need the supplied user guide close at hand, because it's simply impossible to remember which hue signifies which setting. It's taken me years to figure out the Hugo 2 DAC that I use daily, which has far fewer colours to remember…
This is not a phono stage that wafts you away on a soft, velvety cloud to a place where every LP record you own – from The Ramones to My Bloody Valentine – sounds like a gentle pastiche of Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass. Instead, it stands up straight and drives the music right out at you, shining a clean, white light on the recording, warts and all. The Huei is all about clarity and space, rather than how well it smoothes out your forward-sounding cartridge or sweetens up your scratchy records.
The Chord's wide open, glass-clear midband integrates smoothly with a strong bass and crisp, extended treble. This makes for a very neutral reading of whatever LP you care to play, with the unusual combination of a well lit and highly revealing upper midband, and very low record surface noise. For example, Ian Dury's Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll is a late-period analogue master that's dry but detailed – and you're soon made aware of this in no uncertain terms. The Huei dusted it down and shone a bright light on it, which immediately drew my attention to the singer's distinctively rich but gravelly voice. At the same time, the accompanying drum work was a joy to behold, with an authentically tight snare sound and sparkly yet smooth hi-hat cymbals. At the other end of the scale, the song's gnarly bassline thumped along with real determination, sounding crisp but powerful.
This little phono stage lays everything out on a plate for you to enjoy then, letting the listener focus on whatever is going on. The classic disco/funk of Change's Glow of Love proved great fun, with an expansive sound that showcased the Chord's excellent soundstaging. Both piano and drum kit were located within the recorded acoustic with great precision, the lead vocal line overlaying them with total confidence as it pushed out forward from the centre. The Huei even kept everything carefully located and securely bolted down on the track's dynamic crescendos. It also showed fine depth perspective too, accurately signposting the relative location in the mix between lead vocals and backing instrumentalists, front to back.
The same no-nonsense approach could be heard in its deft handling of rhythms. Manix's Too Strong For So Long– a great, beat-driven slice of modern drum' n'bass – powered along with aplomb. I love the way this song sets up a sparse but increasingly busy groove in its opening section, with extra layers of rhythms being overlaid at the beginning of every four-bar phrase. Through the Huei this was clear to hear, and it pushed along the bass drum, rim shot and hi-hat work with real zeal. The song seemed to take the listener on a journey – whisking me along with a clear destination in mind – rather than ambling along neither here nor there. As the powerful sub bass kicked in, the music's intensity grew, but the Chord held on strong, completely in command.
Clean and open yet precise and controlled, the Huei is highly accomplished across a wide range of music – there's no sense of it being “good for jazz” or “great for rock”. Indeed I ran the gamut of my not inconsiderable record collection trying to catch it out but was left wanting. My abiding sense was of something that is beyond criticism at or near its price; it's only when you start putting it against phono stages at two or three times the money that you find fault. In absolute terms, it does sound a tad too matter-of-fact. For example, it didn't convey the subtle rhythms and dynamic accents of From the Undertow by Tony Banks as well as my high-end reference. I still loved the scale of the soundstage and all the detail within, but it didn't beguile in the way a true top-tier design can. For this kind of magic, I am sure Matt would point you to the Symphonic.
Chord Electronics' Huei is a great new phono stage that's likely to cause as much discomfort to its price rivals as the company's iconic and affordable DACs have done over the past couple of years. On every metric I can think of, it seems too good for the money – it is built superbly, has a versatile feature set, a sophisticated and distinctive user interface and also sounds a blast. The only caveat is that it's not in the business of flattering poor recordings, pressings or systems – you'll have to look elsewhere for that. But if you like hearing your LP records as nature intended, then right now Bartlett's new baby is the best you can do on a reasonable budget.
For more information, visit Chord Electronics.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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