Chord Huei: review

Chord Electronics make some of the best sounding DACs in the world. But digital is not why we’re here today. Below you’ll find our review of the Chord Huei. It sounds as clean as it looks.

Listening to the Chord Huei made me think about the cursory way we distinquish between vinyl and digital. Vinyl sounds warm, digital sounds cold. Vinyl sounds engaging, digital sounds fatiguing. Vinyl sounds organic, digital sounds hard. That’s audiophile wisdom for you. This is generalization which is as ubiquitous as it is wrong.

To wit: all things being equal I’d say the Chord Qutest DAC (€1395) sounds smoother, warmer, more organic, than the Chord Huei phono stage (€1175). Likewise, I’d peck the Huei as sounding cleaner, more forward, crisper. Going by the wisdom of yesteryear the Huei sounds digital and the Qutest sounds analog.

The Chord Huei is a standalone phono stage with a wealth of possible settings. For someone who mostly uses the onboard phono stage which come with whatever amp I am using at the time, it seems borderline excessive – but in a good way. For me, a crucial part of picking the right amplifier has previously been how good the onboard phono stage was. That eventually led me to first Rega integrateds, and then, for a clear step up, Croft separates. 

The way of the Huei

The Chord Huei looks like a Qutest with a few extra buttons. That makes it an attractive piece of gear from where I’m sitting. It’s very functional and clean – and yet the signature glowing buttons sets it distinctly apart. There’s no question this is a Chord product. Having the Qutest and the Huei in your setup would visually be a minimalst’s dream. Like the Qutest, in the middle there’s a big see-through hole made of tempered glass where the innards are visible. Ornamentation where you remove something rather than add something makes sense to me. I feel the same way about those glowing buttons: they aren’t jewelry – they look cool because they are functional.

This is a small phono stage. Each of its four buttons control a specific set of features. One is for switching between MC and MM. One is a Rumble Filter (very cool). There’s a button to set Gain and there’s a button to choose Impedance. I used the MM Grado Reference Master 1 cartridge and depending on the recording I set gain at 30 or 32 dB. I only used the Grado cartridge so I didn’t worry about setting impedance. On the Chord Huei, that is limited to MC cartridges. The Rumble Filter was engaged the whole time as it lowered noise quite substantially on some records.

Why don’t I use MC cartridges? My feelings toward MC cartridges are sort of the same as toward hi-res music and DSD. I prefer a DAC where 16/44 is done right rather than some half-baked DSD implementation. Likewise, I think that if you’re on a tight(er) budget you get better sound with a good MM cartridge than with en equally priced MC. Also, I mainly use the onboard phono stage in various pre-amps and integrated amps, and often they don’t even do MC. Then you have to buy a step-up transformer which means even more money that, I think, is better spent on an even better MM cartridge.

The Chord Huei: Ancillary equipment

My turntable is archaic. It’s designed and built by Hans Henrik Mørch. Aesthetics matters and it looks exactly the way I want it to. It was a gift from my parents. I’ll never sell it and have never contemplated upgrading it. My tonearm is also from Mørch. It’s his UP-4, and it’s a unipivot design. All together a very clean and retro-looking setup that still sounds very, very good.

The cartridge I used for this review was a Grado Reference Master 1. I used two different headphone amps, the Cayin HA-1A MK2 ($999) and the Schiit Asgard 3 ($199). One tubed, one solid state. Two amps, two prize points.

Headphones were, as ever, Audioquest Nightowl and Sennheiser/Drop HD6XX. Why headphones? I enjoy listening to vinyl on my speakers, but vinyl and headphones is an underrated combination. You get the intimacy of a good pair of headphones and you get to hear how quiet and aligned your vinyl rig really is. With headphones there is nowhere to hide. If something is off, you’ll know it.

Without comparisons a review quickly becomes meaningless. I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the phono stage in my Croft Micro 25R pre-amp (£1400). I thought this was a good opportunity to see just how good it is. Surely, it can’t compete with the Chord Huei, a stand-alone phono stage costing almost as much as the entire pre-amp. Well…

With the Schiit Asgard 3

I wasn’t really surprised that a solid state Schiit and a microprocessor-controlled any-cartridge compatible phono stage from DAC virtuosos, Chord, makes for a clean sounding combo. Above I reflected on the difference between analog and digital. The Chord Huei and Asgard 3 produced the least ‘analog’ sounding vinyl playback I’ve yet encountered. Very clean, very quiet, slightly cool.

The Danish band Lowly is difficult to categorize. Their album Hifalutin is, I suppose, (indie-)pop; it’s melancholy, it’s profound, it’s not too pretty, it’s acoustic and electronic and the female vocals are strong and delicate. With the Asgard 3 and Huei those attributes are laid bare. It is very detailed, and while there’s a minor hardness to the sound it never becomes strident or sibilant. The bass is very articulate; punchy.

I don’t care for this word, but maybe the sound of this combination is simply what people understand as neutral. I know this recording well and while I have all the detail and dynamics I could ask for, the Asgard 3 and the Huei leaves me a little cold. Sort of uninvolved.

That changes when I remove the Huei and plug in the Croft. Everything is smoother. Bass is not quite as distinct but there’s a mellowness present in the midrange that does wonderful things – to vocals, in particular. Any sibilance, if there was any, is gone. The sound is also chunkier, fuller, here. With the Huei it is more glass-like. The Croft is warmer, smoother, but, interestingly, detail retrieval is about the same.

I get the impression that the Asgard, as good as it is, is holding both phono stages back. But I prefer the Croft with the Asgard. The sound is rounder, richer and more engrossing.

I knew the Croft was good, but to edge out the stand-alone Chord Huei was unexpected.

With the Cayin HA-1A MKII

Death Machine, like Lowly, is a newish Danish band. Think folky melancholy acoustic-electronic singer-songwriter stuff. Or maybe Agnes Obel meets Ulver’s Kveldssanger, with a touch of Pink Floyd’s Meddle. It’s very atmospheric and dreamy and together with Lowly one of the most interesting Danish bands right now.

This time I start with the Croft. The Cayin and the Croft are both tube amps and that readily becomes apparent. The Croft and the Cayin make Death Machine’s Cocoon album sound better than I’ve heard before. The acoustic guitar is just right. Not dull, and with an edge that keep me engrossed. That innate quality of the Croft – which in my speaker system is its most important – of the right amount of detail balanced with a textural velvet smoothness and rich tonality is eminently translated by the Cayin and my HD6XXs. This pairing is delicate and rich.

Opening remarks aside: there is something right about vinyl, tubes, and headphones. It doesn’t necessarily sound better than hearing the same album through a comparatively prized digital setup. But it does sound different. It’s very intimate and tactile. There are textures here – some of which are probably distortions and surface noise – that I wouldn’t notice on my speakers. Textures that aren’t present if I listen to the same song via one of the DACs I have at my disposal. Does that make vinyl better than digital? Impossible to say, if nothing else, because the cost of my turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phono stage is much greater than that of my digital components.

I think the Asgard 3 is a price-performance beast. But compared to the Cayin with upgraded tubes it falls short. Remember: it’s about a fifth of the prize. Even though the Cayin instills some tube smoothification it is obvious that everything takes a step up. Particularly detail retrieval, ambience, tonality, texture, and – most important of all – my own engagement with the music. Cocoon is an album that is saturated with melancholy and the Croft/Cayin make this an emotionally charged listen.  

The Chord Huei and the Magic of Tubes

Sometimes there’s a moment in a reviewing process where everything changes. That moment came when I fed the Huei to some tubes.

I got so caught up in the Croft/Cayin combo that I almost forgot it’s the Chord Huei that’s under review. The Huei together with the Asgard played it too cool, too clean; skeletal, not enough meat on the bones. It was a neutral if slightly boring listen. Which, if we listen to audiophile wisdom, shouldn’t happen with dear old vinyl. Because vinyl sounds warm…. Well, with the Huei feeding the Asgard 3 there was no fuzzy warmth. There was, however, a crisp, clean, and transparent reproduction that almost bordered on fatiguing.

When I connect the Huei and the Cayin I feel I have done the Chord a disservice:

Now I hear what the Chord Huei is capable of. The Asgard held the Croft back, yes, but it held back the Huei more. This is a seriously good pairing. The Chord Huei really likes tubes. First, going back and forth between the Croft and Huei it is obvious that Death Machine’s Cocoon is a noisy record. Noise as in surface noise. The Rumble Filter alone makes a significant difference here. The result is still very clean, but not cool as with the Asgard. I don’t feel removed from the music. I feel mesmerized.  

The Huei is not as warm and smooth as the Croft which in this instance turns out to be a good thing. With the Cayin and the HD6XX, the Huei has extra bite. The bass is notably tighter and detail retrieval is improved. Now the Croft/Cayin proves to be a bit too syrupy. While the overall gestalt is still rich, the Huei takes everything closer to neutral.

There is more presence with the Huei. It is not just the Cocoon album I get this with. Electronic music is better with the Huei because of its bass grip and detail retrieval. The Croft is no slouch, but in this regard the Huei reminds me of the Chord Qutest in that it really does bass well. I don’t have the Qutest in my system anymore so take my aural memory with more than a grain of salt. If I remember correctly, however, the Qutest was fantastic in the low end. The Huei is the same. It’s the opposite of soft, but not hard. Rather, the bass is extended, clean and punchy like no phono stage, onboard or stand-alone, I’ve heard in my system before.

Summing up

With the Asgard I preferred the phono stage in the Croft. In itself impressive considering the price and the fact that the Croft Micro 25R is also a very good pre-amp. With the Cayin I prefer the Chord Huei. It improved dramatically when I put it in front of better amplification. I found that it benefitted with a bit of tube goodness. With clean solid state it might be a bit too cool for my admittedly warm-leaning taste.

Going back to the theme of analog vs. digital: with the Huei and with the Rumble filter engaged I couldn’t tell if I was listening to analog or digital. I knew, of course, but this is a phono stage that is powerful, clean, punchy, and quiet. And a detail monster to boot. The adjustability from the gain and impedance-matching control make this a supremely future-proof phono stage regardless of which cartridge you might put in front of it. That’s longevity right there; and a fond farewell to perceived obsolescence.

If that is what you’re looking for in vinyl playback the Huei is a good place to start. And, I think, a good place to stop. This just might be the last phono stage you’ll ever need…