With a team of vanguard engineers at the helm, the Chord Electronics brand is one, which sets such an outstanding precedent, that even the brains of the most discerning ‘self-confessed’ audiophiles are left silent in a heartbeat. However, as these ‘Chord’ products continue to burn an indelible sonic footprint in the minds of many, today we shall be exploring the aptly named entry level ‘Chordette’ range; specifically the ‘Toucan’… it is certainly not one to miss.With a team of vanguard engineers at the helm, the Chord Electronics brand is one, which sets such an outstanding precedent, that even the brains of the most discerning ‘self-confessed’ audiophiles are left silent in a heartbeat. However, as these ‘Chord’ products continue to burn an indelible sonic footprint in the minds of many, today we shall be exploring the aptly named entry level ‘Chordette’ range; specifically the ‘Toucan’… it is certainly not one to miss.
Unboxing and Build Quality:
With the Toucan modestly arriving in an simplistic blue and white cardboard packaging that supports the internal unit with a firm cardboard shock cradle, the unboxing ritual here is fairly unremarkable where the unit appears to be partnered only by a simple specification sheet, and a branded 12v PowerPak UK AC adapter. It would have been courteous to have seen a complimentary RCA cable bundled in to make a perfect package, but this is no problem at all.
Upon lifting the Toucan from out of dark depths of its cardboard pre-sales tomb, a strong element of passion imminently makes itself known when the unit sees the first light of day. Having clearly demanded only the highest levels of craftsmanship, the Toucan’s enclosure has been meticulously engineered from a single block of aircraft grade aluminum to not only look fantastic, but to also aid this (near) impossibly small unit to dissipate any minor heat created within its guts. However, this sturdy exterior construction is further complimented with a single lit red viewing porthole. This porthole isn’t as invasive as it might appear in many PR shots, because in the flesh you can look through this pleasant clear crystal-glass screen to admire a serious feat of engineering. In fact the engineer who designed the Toucan has been responsible for developing technology for an aircrafts near-indestructible black boxes. This really is testament to what the Chord Electronics brand is truly about.
Personally I have found the construction of this unit to be solid, and has a very nice weight to it that works in conjunction with four pre-fixed small clear rubber feet so that even when you are maxing out your connectivity, the unit won’t slip and slides round on the surface that it sits on. Furthermore, the input connectors appear to be made to an exceptionally high standard. However, I do feel that the two push-button switches on the front (that allow you to select between standard/focused mode and USB DAC/Analogue Input) to feel a little on the flimsy side. Likewise, I would have preferred for the potentiometer to have a touch more resistance when selecting the volume, but I do understand that this is simply a matter of opinion/taste. Besides from these seemingly minor points you are certainly getting a product that physically sits well in a premium-priced market.
Regarding the colour options, the Toucan appears on various distributors to come in either bare machined aluminum or with a two-tone (black) anodized aluminum shell. Having requested a black unit, Chord Electronics were able to supply us with one in a matter of days; so if you are design conscious then feel free to ask the distributor if you can have it in all black. For a product that I’m sure will last many years, it is always important to take the time to future-proof your investment with asking for a specific colour scheme that will be easy on the eye as you glance over to your front end. It is also worthwhile mentioning here that the finish of the enclosure is ‘textured’, or brushed, aluminum. This helps to minimize damage during construction, and if you purchase a ‘silver’ unit, it may come as some relief that if something was to damage the exterior (ie. scratch) then it will be much less visible. Either way the finish is flawless, and has the ‘Chordette.’ name deep-etched in to the top panel. I have to say informally that the ‘Toucan’ looks ‘the business’, in fact I found it to look even better in person than it does on a screen, where it currently sits as our pride and joy at the review desk.
Features and Connectivity:
Apart from its super small footprint, the Toucan features two (electronically) independent 1/4″ headphone outputs. Although both are controlled by only one central potentiometer, if you have a pair of headphones that are matched in impedance you will not notice any issues. Likewise if you suddenly connect another pair of headphones you won’t experience any loss of power. This is an important feature for those in general, but specifically for users with a two sets of headphones in the 250ohm range this is critical. Even when in use in the studio, having an headphone amp that matches the quality of your equipment is something that is often overlooked. Many studio owners settle for sub-par units, or look at headphone amps as only something for audiophiles. To us this doesn’t make any reasonable sense. I have used the Toucan for average listening use, but I have also used it in a professional audio environment, and have found it to certainly aid the critical listening experience when mixing or mastering, and even helps with translation. For this factor the Toucan should be herald as an audiophiles dream add-in component, as it stands up well in both markets without imposing itself.
Having tested many dual output headphone amps, we have noticed that when two sets of headphones are connected, the power output is staggered and leaves the audio feeling stylistically insipid. Although already mentioned, this is an ace up Chord Electronics sleeves, and something important to take into consideration when buying any dual-output headphone amp… Now moving away from this feature it seems appropriate to discuss the two separate analogue inputs. Many headphone amps only offer the possibility of inputting an RCA, yet the Toucan likes doing things in twos, so on offer here is the possibility of an male XLR input. This suggests to us that this was designed to be used in consumer and pro audio applications where the user can input a signal out of an audio interface from TRS jacks to XLR. Having tested both inputs, there is no differences between whatever analogue input you choose to use, but you cannot have both an XLR input device connected alongside an RCA. For want of a better word, the reason for this is that the signal input is ‘interfered’ with, and thus produces a highly undesirable listening experience. I can imagine having the appeal of being able to have both analogue inputs in use on the device, but this minor oversight doesn’t impose itself in a realistic situation. Finally, both of these inputs are well located on the back of the unit, and are tightly secured to the enclosure.
Upon receiving this unit we were very surprised to find that it features a USB input with a dedicated DAC circuit. You can opt to use the inbuilt DAC by flicking the push switch on the front, and then your analogue signal input is removed from the circuit in favor of its own dedicated DAC circuitry. Without offering too much information into how this complainant operates too early, using the Toucan’s DAC is as easy as pie! All you have to do is plug in and play. The device will appear in your audio devices, and can operate incrementally up to 92kHz and 24bit via any USB1, 2 or 3 port without the need for any unnecessary CPU and RAM clogging software. During review we encountered no issues with using the Toucan with various digital players. Obviously we always recommend playing lossless audio files, and there was absolutely no playback hiccups with using ‘audiophile’ playback software’s such as Sonic Studio’s Amarra, Audiofile Engineering’s Fidelia, iTunes etc. Personally, I was astounded by how good the internal DAC is, because many headphone amp manufacturers deliberately leave out this component in favor of ‘focusing on quality’. To put it bluntly, the toucan is an awesome multipurpose product that feels that Chord Electronics have been every inch on focus during every element of design. Clearly what is on offer here from Chord Electronics is a hell of a lot for your money; even at £900! Now, without further adieu, we shall critically discuss the sound quality.
Okay, right off the bat I am going to say that this is one small unit that packs one hell of a punch. Having tested a variety of headphones with the Toucan, we can confirm that it firmly performs well with any pair that you may own; up to 500Ω. Notably we found that in a studio environment, high impedance dedicated ‘professional audio’ headphones were given the lifeblood that they deserve to optimally perform. In particular we used a pair of Beyerdynamic DT250’s (RRP: £140), and we taken back by the experience that we were presented with. I must confirm that the DT250’s are not the headphones that we used to perform our review, but how the Toucan managed to bring such a dynamic and engaging listening experience to a pair of middle-of-the-road studio based cans was significant.
However much we were blown away with the performance with the aforementioned headphones, we used a pair of Beyerdynamic T90’s, Grado RS1i’s, Grado PS500’s, and various others to catalogue a performance average. Now that this has been mentioned, it seems relevant to highlight one other arguable feature that is comparable to a ‘marmite experience’; the ‘Crossfeed Filter Switch’. Personally I found the implementation of this feature into the circuit to be a brash. The purpose of this switch is to increase the stereo field for a more ‘immersive’ listening experience, however it seems slightly out of place. I would imagine if you have a substantially bass heavy pair of headphones then this feature might appear as beneficial, otherwise you will expect to find that the stereo field to become unnatural, the bass presence to diminish, and the highs to sound fragile. As this is an additional feature, I have no arguments about its placement; it is an entirely subjective experience that the user can choose to use if they wish, but for the rest of the review I would like to highlight that we have not engaged the ‘Crossfeed Filter’. Likewise the technology that we have used to process this review is: WAV file input from CD using Amarra > Sonic Studio ‘Amarra’ > Prism Sound ‘Orpheus’ > QED ‘J2P’ > Chord Electronics ‘Toucan’ > Various headphones.
Finally… we have reached the apex! Welcome to a biosphere of unmistakable sonic excellence; enter the Chord Electronics ‘Toucan’. Throughout the entire time that I have spent with this unit, I have bonded with its quaint charm in such a freakishly paternal way, and having tested this headphone amp next to some of the best there is no doubt in my mind that it holds a ground of its own. However, it has to be said that this unit does require an exceptionally long burn-in time before it reaches the benchmark, but sadly I enjoyed listening to, and nurturing, the transformation across hundreds of hours of playback.
In terms of the stereo image it portrays it appears to be very natural, it hangs in to every genre with a balanced uncluttered focus, yet it has this spacious feel to the presentation of each instrument in its place. However, I love the reason as to why the Toucan performs in this way. It is the relationship between how well it represents fast transients with such brutal accuracy against a liquid soft touch for more subtle instrumentation. Both of these critical elements effortlessly marry to precision-throw instruments against an aural wall where reverb tails can be followed, subtle harmonics are heard to make a scarily accurate live presence, and every breath hangs on to your puppet mimicking lips. The Toucan is every bit a very detailed beast! Actually right now I can remember the first time I heard a beautiful drum solo with a nice hall reverb… .. . We’ll say no more.
Anyhow, with the Toucan there isn’t any real favorable EQ applied within the chain, apart from a slight top-end lift and maybe a little extension on the deep low-end. Depending on the type of headphones that you are using this effect can seem more present, but I wasn’t bothered by this effect because it didn’t shrill into my ears or smash them into obliteration during tracks of the electronics persuasion. Overall the sound is, as I said very pleasant, with great presentation of bass frequencies, luscious mids, and crystal clear highs. I haven’t found a genre where the Toucan doesn’t shine, but I would have liked a little more power for some classical music recordings.
Finally, we shall discuss the inbuilt DAC. To use the digital input on the Toucan I do recommend buying a good quality A to B USB cable from someone like AudioQuest. The reason for this is that this component doesn’t sound like it was just thrown in to the Toucan on a whim; it is much better than I anticipated. I found the DAC to be very detailed, with highs that are controlled, and bass that is reasonable. If you are someone looking at buying both a headphone amp and a DAC then this is the best that I can recommend. Just like the headphone amp on its own, it is detailed, and accurate, but other than this all I can say is that you won’t be disappointed.
The Chord Electronics Toucan headphone amp and DAC is one of the finest out there. It has brilliant connectivity, is engineered to an AAA standard, is beautifully detailed and pure, and will be the only headphone amp that you will ever need. Here at The Pro Audio Web Blog we cannot recommend the Chord Electronics Toucan highly enough, and for this reason we award it with a full five out of five.