The rear panel is densely packed, with both balanced XLR and single-ended RCA inputs and a set of multi-way WBT binding posts taking up a lot of the rear real-estate. There are also small phase switches set below one of the two speaker terminals; although it’s unlikely you’ll throw one by accident, it’s worth making sure these are oriented correctly when connecting the system up to prevent stripping back the system trying to find what’s making it sound a bit ‘swirly’ (in my defence, it was the end of December and several glasses of Christmas cheer had been imbibed). The case itself is finished in brushed black or natural aluminium, the only power button is the one next to the IEC power inlet, and the only indicator lights are the blue LEDs on the circuit board, which are visible through the vent holes on the Étude’s front and top right-hand side.
Power it up and there are a few seconds of muting before the gentle ‘click’ of a relay puts the Étude into play mode. The same happens in reverse when powered off. As this effectively acts as a soft start and power-down, it means there are no clicks, pops, or thumps through the speakers during these stages. The amplifier chassis barely gets past ‘warm’ to the touch. It’s warm enough to know that the amp is powered up, but it’s a far cry from a Class A griddle.
The new amplifier manages to successfully combine elements of Chord Electronics’ classic amplifier designs with a personality all of its own, and the two blends perfectly together. The Étude has Chord Electronics’ signature precision and accuracy of tone, dynamics, and detail that set the brand’s amps apart from the outset. There is a mountain spring cleanness to the Chord Electronics sound that is all about balanced detail (not only ‘balanced’ in the ‘mode of operation’ sense, but more integrity to the way detail is presented that fascinates the listener).
However, where the Étude also excels is speed and pace to the presentation that could sometimes be lacking in Chord Electronics’ other amps. There’s a ‘snap’ to leading edges here. A perfect example of what this means is Ringo Starr’s drum solo from ‘The End’ [Abbey Road, 2009 Stereo Remaster, Universal Music Group]. Twenty seconds into the track, Ringo masterfully addresses the ‘he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles!’ quip. It still has Ringo’s distinctly swampy, behind the beat, feel, but he positively owns the song, despite some good solos from all. Where this pans out for the Étude is that you can hear Ringo ‘occupying’ that song perfectly, as opposed to just laying down a beat. A lot of very clean, slightly sterile sounding solid-state electronics lose that distinction, and Ringo could be being covered by an admittedly very good drum machine. Here, the clean and detailed sound is still uppermost, but it’s joined by an ability to live in the music. This sounds like an abstract term, even more so than praising an amp for its ‘inky silences’ (the Étude gives good velvety in those stakes, too), but is understood once you hear that speed, precision, and sheer enjoyment.
This is practically a perfect storm of good for a power amplifier. Most want that detail and accuracy. They want an amplifier to replicate the sound in the studio. But they also want the musicianship to make the cut too. It should sound like what went on in the studio as well as a portal to the control room. The Étude does both very well indeed, arguably better than most other Chord Electronics amps, although the Ultima is architecturally similar. There is more of a sense of musical flow to the Étude than I expected, but this comes without a trade-off (many other designs do that musical flow well, but at the expense of some dynamic range, bottom-end energy, solidity, or soundstage size), but the Étude retains Chord Electronics’good reputation in all these aspects of performance.
Ultimately, this is the first rung on a new ladder for Chord Electronics and its amplifiers. If Étude proves to be the success I expect it to be based on its performance, I would expect the technology to reach into a lot more products from the brand. The only limitations of the Étude revolve around it not being a bigger amplifier. The power is enough for most speakers expected to hang off a four-grand amplifier, but if you really go for it and partner the Étude with more demanding loudspeakers and expect it to play Wagner at ‘Sweeping Majestically Eastward’ levels, you are going to need a bigger amplifier. Bridging will help, but I suspect Étude will unlock a number of far bigger amps from the brand.