Miniaturisation of electronics has allowed incredible breakthroughs in mobile computing. Meanwhile traditional hi-fi designers have been slower to seize upon the opportunities of micro-electronic engineering.
See: more audio hardware reviews.
And why should they? After all, a unit like a CD player has to be a certain size in order to support the standard silver disc, then leave a comfortable amount of panel space to distribute the necessary control buttons, along with a display to provide a read-out of track information.
In the emerging discless future though, there’s less reason to make hi-fi separates in shelf-filling widths. And so we now find smaller component systems such as this Chord Electronics’ Chordette series system, the Index and Scamp, tiny components built into little aluminium bricks that nevertheless pack in most of the power and functionality of regular units.
See: review of Chord Electronics Chordette Gem.
In the example of the Chord Electronics Index, a network audio streamer and D-A convertor, there’s certainly little reason to make it much bigger than the 160 x 72 x 41mm space that this diminuitive hi-fi unit occupies.
In serious audio design circles, there’s even a good excuse for building electronics this small, as it mandates shorter audio signal paths, potentially leading to lower signal losses and reduced opportunites for RF interference.
Chord Electronics Index & Scamp: Features
The Chord Electronics Index can play music from ripped audio files stored on a computer or network storage (NAS), as well as play internet radio streamed live from the seemingly countless station now broadcasting online. You can also plug in a USB hard disk or flashdrive as a local source, although it won’t read attached MP3 players.
You control the Index from a compass layout of buttons on its top, with information indicated on a backlit display that shows playing track, time data and audio bitrate. These buttons have the precision click of Swiss switchgear, although they do require some concerted depressing to get your input.
There’s also an even smaller’n’cute remote control, essentially a credit-card sized zapper that’s been given its own Chordesque full metal jacket to match the tank-like build of the Chordette units. Membrane switches on these remotes are never easy to press, and this is made worse by burying the little buttons inside its 10mm metal coat.
The best way to control network streamers like this is with a dedicated app on a smartphone or tablet. There’s no such app provided by Chord although you can use a generic UPnP control app such as SongBook Lite – which is how we handled the Index from an iPhone.
SongBook Lite is not especially intuitive to operate but will do the job with some exploration and much trial and error. From the app you can select between network-stored files and internet radio, even if SongBook app can only seem to point you to a smaller sub-set of radio stations listed through the TuneIn.com catalogue.
Chord Electronics Index & Scamp: Player, meet amp
We tested the Index with its matching integrated amplifier, the Chord Electronics Scamp. Our test system comprised Harbeth LS3/5A speakers and Kimber 8TC speaker cable.
The Scamp and Index can be paired together in a custom support stand, the Coupé Carry, that resembles an open-frame toolbox with carry handle. Or a high-tech metal hand basket.
While we applaud the amplifier’s electronic design, based on proper Class A/B architecture and thereby avoiding the brittle, soullessness of Class D that’s nearly ubiquitous in modern consumer audio, the Scamp in not without two potentially show-stopping issues.
On the usability side, forever a key factor, it lacks a simple on/off switch. That wouldn’t be so bad for those amps which tend to be left on all day by audiophiles who appreciate the better sound of a ‘warmed up’ unit. However in the Scamp’s case you will be more inclined to reach for its non-existent Off switch in order to quell the sound of its always-on cooling fan.
Due to the lack of external heatsinking beyond the all-metal chassis itself, and that good-sounding but less power-efficient amp topology, the Scamp is likely to get warm – hence the use of a fan to regulate temperature.
In fairness, this is a reasonably quiet fan, but when you’re paying thousands for your inky black audio noisefloor, only silent operation will do. In a quiet room and in the lulls between the music we could hear the distant whirr at work.
Chord Electronics Index & Scamp: Sound Quality
There is a character to most Chord Electronics equipment that we’ve heard, and which for the greater part we’ve come to admire. In fact a Chord Electronics SPM 1200C power amplifier has long formed the heart of our reference stereo system, relied upon for its vice-like control of bass, vast reserves of instantaneous slam and walk-through stereo soundstage potential.
It actually surprised us that despite their miniature proportions the Index and Scamp followed the house sound – detailed, precise and quite enveloping in the way the hi-fi can get out of the way of the music.
And as with other Chord kit, it can on occasion take no prisoners in less than perfect recordings. With a slight tilt toward the brightly lit and exposed, some digital music did sound a little forward and terse.
But perhaps thanks to the trademark high-frequency power supply technology –with which Chord Electronics has majored for decades, long before the rest of the audio industry latched on to the idea – there was none of the smearing and opacity that less-than-optimal linear power supplies can imprint on the final sound.
Solo classical guitar, here played by Xuefei Yang from a 16-bit CD rip, had the tangible in-room presence that could make you look up from other distractions – such as writing this review – to follow the beguiling lines of nylon-strung melody and harmony. All this revealed in a natural and believable acoustic space.
Rock and pop material had plenty of pace to keep attention focused, although the limited bass extension of our speakers didn’t always bring out the full weight of a song. Yet even without full-range monitors we could hear the clean low-end extension beneath trip-hop classics and 80s goth-rock, well-timed, unmodulated and tuneful.
As well as excellent timing, crossing the Ts of rhythm and dotting the Is of inflection, the system showed a knack for following pace when required. Sometimes too pacey, suggesting unneeded haste to get to the end of a song.
Tonally the system towed the Chord line that leans just toward well-lit revelation, but was never heard as overly bright, let alone grainy. In contrast to the tuneless grit of Class D treble, highs were sweet, well extended.
Regrettably the D-A stage of the Index is only specified up to 48kHz sample-frequency audio, so hi-res 24/96 or better material was off the menu. And formats are limited to MP3, WAV, FLAC and WMA – Apple Lossless is also unplayable by the Chord Index.
Chord specifies the Scamp amp with 40W power per channel, although that’s into an 4-ohm load – expect below 30W from more traditional 8-ohm loudspeakers. Volume was rarely wanting though, and more sensitive speakers would give greater output than was possible from our venerable but inefficient broadcast monitors.