Chord Electronics Ultima Integrated Amplifier Review

Posted on 18th March, 2024

Chord Electronics Ultima Integrated Amplifier Review

Chris Frankland auditions this very high-achieving, premium-priced powerhouse…

Chord Electronics

Ultima Integrated Amplifier

£8,500 RRP

Chord Ultima Integrated Amplifier Review

Chord Electronics was founded in 1989 by John Franks, a man whose engineering background is in the avionics industry. He sold some of his first amplifiers to the professional audio market—initially to the BBC, then to studios such as Abbey Road, Sony Music (New York), and The Royal Opera House. Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength, with more recent stellar success thanks to its fine-sounding digital converters.

Some say that amplification is where John's heart lies, however, and so it's always exciting when a new design breaks cover. Chord Electronics' highly anticipated new integrated finally made its UK debut at the Bristol Hi-Fi Show this February, after first surfacing at the High End Show in Munich the year before. The Ultima unit here is the company's first integrated, if you discount the diminutive Anni desktop amplifier. As you might expect, it sports lots of trickle-down tech from the more expensive Ultima power amps.


You can't help but be impressed by the construction quality of this amp, with its precision-machined casework made from solid aircraft-grade aluminium and chunky 28mm thick front panel. As a bonus, when you switch it on, you get the usual display of lights inside the case courtesy of a ring of LEDs. It certainly helps it stand out from the crowd. There is also a light around the edge of the large volume/input selector knob, changing colour to indicate which source is selected. The large, central domed push-button power switch also lights up and changes from red for standby to cyan for ready-to-use. The right-hand knob adjusts balance and can select AV bypass.

Chord Ultima Integrated Amplifier Review

You have three RCA unbalanced inputs on the back panel and one XLR balanced in. The Ultima also has a preamp output and AV bypass sockets that route the output of an AV processor straight to the power amplifier. That trickle-down tech I mentioned comes in the form of its ultra-high frequency switching power supplies and dual feed-forward error correction. This type of power supply has always attracted controversy, as some believe it generates noise and interference. However, I remember how Sony's TA-E88 and TA-N88 Esprit pre/power combo – which used such an arrangement – gave the highly respected Naim NAC32/NAP250 a very hard run for its money back in the early nineteen eighties.

Franks says it took him the best part of a decade to overcome some of the problems, but he firmly believes in the benefits that this type of power supply brings. Using a bank of smaller capacitors rather than the larger values used in conventional power supplies, he says that his power supplies deliver excellent transient response. They are faster to respond to the demands of a loudspeaker drive unit that has to be stopped and started microsecond by microsecond, he contends. The Ultima Integrated has four of Chord's smaller power supplies in order to fit neatly into the case.

Chord Ultima Integrated Amplifier Review

The incoming mains is filtered, rectified and then chopped using high voltage MOSFETs and sent to a ceramic-cored transformer operating at 80kHz, which means it can be much smaller than one toroidal type running at 50Hz. Chord Electronics also says this ensures it will not interfere with any audio signals. Some of the company's larger power supplies are rated at 4,000 watts, and Franks points out that a conventional transformer would need to be the size of a car wheel to achieve that.

The Ultima delivers its claimed 125 watts into 8 ohms through the company's own custom-made, matched MOSFET output devices operating in Class AB sliding bias mode. Lower levels are handled in Class A, with Class B kicking in for the loudest bits.

The other interesting design feature of the amp is its dual feed-forward circuitry, which Franks first came across when reading articles by the legendary Malcolm Hawksford of Essex University. This was then picked up by a young engineer at Bell Labs, Bob Cordell. Franks says Cordell made an excellent low-powered amplifier, and he decided to develop that technology further. Basically, this circuitry monitors what is happening at the MOSFET output devices and generates an error signal that is then compared with the standard feedback signal. If a discrepancy is detected, it adds a difference signal to counteract it. The corrected signal is then fed back again.

Chord Ultima Integrated Amplifier Review

Franks has used this technique to overcome what he sees as a weakness in Class AB and B amps when the N channel transistors hand over to the P channel devices for the negative part of the waveform. This is where crossover distortion is generated, and he says the feed-forward circuitry he now uses results in significantly lower distortion figures – a claimed 0.01% THD.

With all of its electronic wizardry, I was naturally keen to find out what the Ultima would deliver in terms of sound quality. To this end, I hooked it up in my lounge to a pair of Russell K Red 120Se speakers, which are a favourite of mine just now, with my chosen source components being an Audio Note CDT-Five CD transport and DAC5 Special DAC. By the way, there is no phono stage fitted to the Ultima, so anyone wishing to play their vinyl will need to buy one. Chord of course has its Huei MM phono stage and if you have a moving coil, there is the Symphony.


This is one seriously capable integrated amplifier. With the superb Hey Nineteen from Steely Dan's Gaucho album, you can immediately hear the control of the Ultima. I loved its rendition of the punchy, staccato rhythm and the excellent bass grip. Drums were dynamic and detailed in their presentation, and those stabbing synth bursts had power and poise. Vocals were open and articulate, and the whole track moved well with a compelling and tight rhythmic push. It was quite an auditory experience.

Chord Ultima Integrated Amplifier Review

I am a big fan of guitarist Larry Carlton. His Discovery album, along with Alone But Never Alone before it, was a major departure for him as he played only acoustic guitar on them as opposed to his signature electric – remember, he is known as Mr 335 (Gibson ES335, that is). On the track A Place for Skipper, the Ultima gave great insight into his playing and how each note was shaped. When his play sped up, and his fingers flew this super fast-sounding amplifier proved no slouch and did not hold him back. The drum kit was handled with great dynamics, detail and delicacy, providing insights into the weight of each strike on metal or skins. The track moved well, too, with the ebb and flow of its wonderful bass line being flexible and fluid.

Moving to the album Heartfelt from jazz combo Fourplay (Bob James, Nathan East, Harvey Mason and Larry Carlton), I played the track Galaxia. Straight away, I was captivated by the hypnotic piano playing, with the Ultima making short work of the fast-fingered runs on the keys, keeping notes separate and distinct. Bob James's masterfully understated piano was matched by Nathan East on bass. The Ultima kept it super tight and tuneful, while the drum kit was explosive and dynamic – but with subtlety where it was needed on cymbals and snare. The track hung together beautifully and moved in the way you'd expect from four of the best jazz artists in the world.

Chord Ultima Integrated Amplifier Review

So the Ultima is fast and nimble with jazz, yet it also delights with rock. Hurts So Good from John Mellencamp's The Best That I Can Do is a standout track and this integrated showed why. The vocals had the edge that they should have, yet were devoid of sibilance, while the drum work was tight and powerful. The guitars were articulate and purposeful, and the whole track just really powered along as it should. It is an easy track to make sound forward and aggressive, but the Ultima did not do that. It was poised, detailed and easy to listen to while conveying the hard, rocky edge that the track naturally possesses.

Overall then, this amplifier offers exceptional performance and is surprisingly even-handed with it – no musical genre gets preferential treatment. Whatever I threw at it, it took in its stride – from the hard rock of John Mellencamp to the smooth jazz of Fourplay. It sounds powerful, poised, articulate and dynamic, reveals all the layers of a recording, and gels beautifully together into a coherent whole.


The beautifully built and finished Chord Electronics Ultima Integrated amplifier is not inexpensive but still represents fine value for money. At this price, it is, of course, up against stiff competition, but I still came away quite beguiled by it. During my time reviewing it, I grew to like the Ultima Integrated a lot, and I can say with confidence that if you are in the market for a high-end integrated amplifier, you'd be foolish not to have it on your shortlist. It really is an essential audition.

Visit Chord Electronics for more information


      Chris Frankland's avatar

      Chris Frankland

      One of StereoNET’s most experienced reviewers, Chris has written for a multitude of hi-fi magazines, from Hi-Fi Answers and Hi-Fi Sound, to The Flat Response and Hi-Fi Review. A regular concert-goer, his quest continues to find hi-fi that gets as close as possible to conveying the raw emotion of live music.

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      Tags: chord electronics 


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