Naturally, this would no more be a Chord Electronics product if it didn’t feature some singular aesthetic touches on the outside than if it wasn’t notably engineered on the inside. So, ULTIMA 5 is 22kg of assertively CNC-machined aluminium, fronted by a new fascia that’s fully 28mm thick. The polycarbonate power button in the centre illuminates in the same slightly medicinal blue/green as the exposed viscera beneath the perforated area of the top plate. The overall impression is that of something HG Wells might have used as a slow cooker.
Connectivity on the rear panel is a) surrounded by heat-sinking just as purposeful as the rest of the enclosure and, b) consists of balanced and unbalanced inputs, a pair of high-current speaker terminals and a 12v trigger. Even at comfortably more than nine grand, there’s nothing else a two-channel power amplifier needs. Not in terms of socketry, anyway.
Once powered up and left powered up, the ULTIMA 5 gets mildly warm – but it’s not a substitute for a central heating system in the way some less civilised designs can be. And once powered up and amplifying music (from any source than can be fed in via Naim’s UnitiQute 2 as a preamplifier, for most of this review, though, those were Clearaudio’s Concept turntable and Leema Acoustics’ Elements phono stage), this power amp strikes such a winning sonic balance between ‘civilised’ and ‘feral’ that it makes every listen a lights-down/volume-up occasion.
The innards of the ULTIMA 5 are explicitly designed to facilitate supremely fast dynamic response and flawless timing accuracy (as well as, of course, bottomless reserves of power). To that end, a 180g vinyl pressing of Bert Jansch’s Avocet [Earth Recordings] seems as testing a place as any to start.
Here’s a recording that percolates calmly, alive with virtuoso musicianship yet staunchly unshowy, and heavily reliant on the interplay between its three protagonists. The ULTIMA 5 delivers all of the necessary separation, focus and spring-heeled responsiveness that allow the greater-then-the-sums-of-its-parts ensemble to drive the recording forward – Jansch’s trademark rolling picking creates the kind of momentum more readily associated with avalanches. Throughout, the authority of the Chord Electronics’ power amp is never in question – and when Danny Thompson takes an extraordinarily accomplished and complex upright bass solo during Bittern, the ULTIMA 5 demonstrates all the speed, extension and dexterity required to track him faithfully. The edges of individual notes, their attack and decay, is crisply described.
A recording like this, that’s built around woodily organic instruments (Jansch’s guitar and occasional piano, Thompson’s upright bass and Martin Jenkins’ flute, violin and mandocello), allows the ULTIMA 5 to demonstrate not only its reserves of power and deep-breathing dynamic potential but also its mastery of tone and timbre. There’s a newly minted quality to the way the Chord Electronics’ power amp delivers this recording, a bright cleanliness to the sound that’s reminiscent of a sympathetically restored painting. All the finest details, whether of the tiny impact of a cuff-button on a guitar body or the second-stage harmonic details concerning differences in fretting, are presented in the most naturalistic manner. They’re not distractions, nor do they suggest the ULTIMA 5 is analytical just for the sake of it – rather they’re simply small, but important, components of a much bigger overall picture.
Exhibiting deft musicality is all well and good, of course, but to fully justify its price the ULTIMA5 needs to be able to rough it should the necessity arise. Dogrel by Fontaines D.C. is a classic ‘everything-louder-than-everything-else’ indie thrashathon, all poetic disaffection and haircuts that seem so severely out of fashion they’re almost certainly at fashion’s cutting edge. There’s precious little by way of light and shade here. But there’s more than enough bug-eyed drive to make up for it. And without sacrificing any of its poise or its powers of organisation, the Chord Electronics’ power amp rolls its sleeves up and piles in.
This is a recording that doesn’t have much need for the ULTIMA 5’s refinement, but it makes full use of the dynamism that’s on offer here. Even though this album sounds like it’s in the red from the first note to the last, the amp gives every competing element a bit of breathing space (a little like Moe yelling “spread out!” as he attempts to separate Larry and Curly) and positions the vocals in a helpful pocket of space at the front of the stage. None of this happens at the expense of integration or unity of performance. However – despite the ULTIMA 5’s ability to individualise each strand of the recording, the coherence of its timing means everything hangs together as an obvious part of a larger whole. Short of delivering the smell of cigarettes and stale beer at the same time, it’s hard to know how the amp’s presentation could be any more complete.