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Red Reference


Chord Electronics have updated their top CD player, the Red Reference, to MkIII state. Rafael Todes listens to his violin and is impressed.

It is obvious when picking up the Chord Electronics Red Reference III CD player that its designer John Franks means business. At 14kg, and the solidity of a wrought-iron fire grate, the unit sports handles on each side to make it liftable. This is aesthetically more pleasing than the Audio Research front rack mounts, and does genuinely assist in picking the unit up.
    The second most striking feature of the player is how the CD transport is mounted at an angle of 45 degrees to the vertical. New to this version is a motorised door, which has mounted in it a magnetic puck, which cannot be mislaid. The door hinge is extremely robust: it has interleaved fingers and phosphorous bronze bearings – and Chord claim that the 14kg player can be supported by the hinge alone. Not a fact I’d like to verify! Finally, there is a Cyclops-like glass eye at the top of the player, which gives a view into the innards of the machine.
    Control is via the front panel, where twelve stainless steel ball buttons perform the standard operations. A red numerical display shows the frequency of the up-sampled output, which is set to 176.4 kHz. The mechanism of the transport is a Philips Pro 2 affair, isolated from the assembly carrier block mechanism with springs and dampers.
    On the digital side, Chord have opted not to use one of the usual-suspect chips, but instead a custom chip designed by Rob Watts, formerly of Deltec Precision Audio fame, who has over 30 years’ experience in the field.
    Each section of the critical pulse array has its own ground planes, separate power planes and power supplies. This helps to provide tolerances that are exemplary, even at this substantial price. The digital signal is filtered and re-clocked to four times the original sampling frequency 176.4 kHz, using a Watts Transient aligned filter algorithm, before conversion to analogue.
    Usefully, the player has a USB input, marked USB HD, which can asynchronously play High Definition music files up to 192 kHz from a computer. In this mode the player’s clock control's proceedings, not the computer clock. It means a computer feeding the player must work asynchronously though, and to get both PCs and Macs to do this Chord Electronics have their own software, supplied on a CD or downloadable from their website. It allows Macs to run at 192kHz sample rate, where 96kHz is standard at present. PCs cannot work asynchronously without driver software being loaded.
    In addition to the USB input, there are Optical, Coaxial and AES/EBU digital inputs, all S/PDIF standard, plus a word clock input for synchronisation to an external digital source, so music stays synchronised with video Chord explained to us. The inputs are selected by a front panel button, being switched through the DAC to provide an analogue output to the hi-fi.
    There are two digital AES/EBU S/PDIF outputs and both optical and electrical outputs from the transport, for an external DAC.
    Analogue outputs take the form of unbalanced phono sockets and balanced XLR outputs.
    A substantial metal-clad remote control, with accompanying booklet, is programmable to include the services of other remotes. This is a well thought out and appreciated touch, and helps alleviate the problem of multiple remote confusion.

I did most of my listening up-sampling to 176kHz: there appeared to be a minor glitch in the software when the up-sampling feature ceased to work after using the USB input. A brief phone call to Chord Electronics and going back to the optical input, altering the frequency of up-sampling soon fixed the problem.
    Listening to one of my trusted recordings of Solti conducting Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin” on Decca, the first quality that comes across in spades is the sheer smoothness of the player. The strings have a sonorous, mellow quality to them without any hint of treble harshness or glare. The sound is both woody and silky at the same time. There seems to be, rather like the question “where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” a parallel hi-fi defining moment question – “where we’re you when you heard your first Chord Dac 64?” I have heard several people relate to me this moment in audio. It’s characteristics were a rolled-off top, with a sweet and powerful engaging sound. The Red Reference has the same DNA. And in this particular piece, which contains a ‘Sicilian’ rhythm, I’m aware of other decks being more lilting with the timing of this figure – the Red Reference seems a bit buttoned-up and missing some of the bounce and spring I’ve heard from lesser decks. It isn’t a DAC64 our measurements revealed, but it retains strong elements of its sound.

    This player scores well on orchestral weight, it does the textures of instruments beautifully, the flute is breathy and highly realistic, you can see the forces of the pizzicato strings in action. Sometimes players with less grasp of detail lose the scale of the forces involved in this recording – not so here. 
    Moving to Renée Fleming and the “Song to the Moon”, from Dvorak’s Rusulka, Fleming’s voice is particularly solid and powerful without being edgy, there is great clarity in the accompanying instruments sitting behind the singer, the player manages to separate the textures brilliantly tonally. Spatially, however, I have on occasions heard better using the Weiss DAC202. The player is “presenting” the performance to me, it’s not interpreting it or ramming down my throat. Perhaps this is some indication of the player’s  studio-natured personality?
    The DG Bernstein Mahler 5th Symphony is one of the most persuasive accounts of this symphony: a dying conductor, on his last legs in one of the most emotionally troubled of symphonies. Right from the very start, the trumpet fanfare and the orchestral answer to it, the huge orchestral forces are kept in rock solid order by this player. It really is a test of the  unit’s resolution, whether it can keep a 100- piece orchestra from imploding, and the Chord Red Reference III rules the orchestra’s players with an iron rod. When I hear grip and control coming from a Red Book CD, I sometimes wonder why we need high resolution!
    Moving to one of my own recordings of the Allegri Quartet made live from the Holywell Music Room in Oxford of Beethoven’s Quartet Op 18 number 6, using a couple of Neumann microphones, with absolutely no digital processing, no normalising, things started slotting into place for me. I can hear more into the details of this recording than nearly any other CD player I’ve encountered. The layers of details tonally are staggering. The energy of the first movement of this quartet, which is Beethoven’s only real attempt to produce a comic opera, without voices is like the opening of a bottle of champagne. The player is not varnishing the sound in any way that I could detect, it’s providing a stark no holds-barred version of the recording. This may not be to everyone’s taste, there are those who will enjoy more affected renditions, albeit less truthful!
    Playing the same recording through my computer (Toshiba plus Windows 7 running Fubar at 24 bit/96k) and using USB into the Red Reference III, adds a real sense of where we were sitting for the recording, the sense of the hall’s intrinsic acoustic and a significant slice of extra realism. The DAC part of this player and the USB to S/PDIF conversion seems to be really superb, thoroughly well thought out and shows what high-res. is capable of.


It took a while for the penny to drop, and for me to ‘get’ where this player is coming from. It is extremely accomplished, it adds very little to the mix, almost to the point of being stark. It doesn’t really join in the party, but presents things as they are.
    Its most appreciative home is likely to be a recording studio, as its point of view is highly analytical and unvarnished. It has been designed from the ground upwards in a wheel-reinventing way. There will always be those people who appreciate a more “referential” type of sound, and I think for those people, this player will find a happy home.

- superb solidity
- intense detail
- spcially revealing

- highly analytical

Ability to separate textures
Excellent USB DAC facility

Chord Electronics Ltd
 +44 (0)1622 721444

Frequency response was flat to 20kHz our analysis shows and this player uses the QBD76 DAC apparently, which gives identical results. A modification to pulse performance gives a pronounced roll off at high frequencies, measuring -0.6dB at 10kHz at -2.6dB at 20kHz when testing with a raised cosine pulse, identical to Chord’s now discontinued DAC64, a convertor that is highly regarded for its almost analogue sound. So the Red Reference III player combines elements of both it appears.
    Distortion levels were low throughout the player’s entire dynamic range, measuring 0.0005% at 0dB through to 0.18% at -60dB. There was obviously little noise in the -60dB signal and as a result of this and low distortion EIAJ Dynamic Range measured a very high 101dB. Output was high at 3V.
    The measured performance of the Red Reference is exemplary, in keeping with earlier Chord digital products. NK

Frequency response (-1dB)
CD     2Hz - 20kHz

0dB      0.0005
-6dB     0.004
-60dB    0.18
-80dB    4.3

Separation (1kHz)     145dB
Noise (IEC A)    -117dB
Dynamic range    101dB
Output    3V





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