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Chord Electronics Scamp Review

Chord Electronics Scamp

TL;DR:

The Scamp is an ultra compact, very solidly built, 40w per channel class A/B amplifier that is part of the Chordette range. If we forget that it has a less than capable secondary built in DAC, in comparison to modern solutions, the micro sized Scamp is a surprisingly loveable product with good sonic capabilities. Whilst the Scamp is an detailed, full, and articulate miniature, the central positioning can occasionally feel stretched.


Review Preface:

Part of the Chord Electronics ‘Chordette’ range, the UK hand made ‘Scamp’ is an ultra compact class A/B 40w per channel (into 4Ω) power amplifier that aims to be convenient in terms of workspace and portable - if required. When it was initially introduced in 2010, along with its partnered Chordette preamp, the ‘Prime’, ‘Scamp’ was way ahead of its time, in fact the whole Chordette range was. But, now a number of years later, is ‘Scamp’ still relevant when paired with Chord’s latest and greatest DAC technology, or has it been left in the dust? Today we shall find out.


Before proceeding I would like to highlight the fact that the Scamp was previously sold without it’s proprietary power supply, an item that would cost the consumer an additional £150. Now, in 2015, Chord Electronics supply the power supply in the same package for a total cost of £990.


Unboxing, Build Quality, and Features:

As soon as you cast your eyes over Scamp’s garish orange packaging, you can’t help but feel disappointed with the presentation. As you’ll discover later on, this cut from the 90’s cheap Chinese design doesn’t fit the personality of the product, or the pedigree, at all, and it certainly seems as if you are buying an outdated device. However, as you dig deeper away from the dated skin you’ll notice that Scamp, and all it’s counterparts, are, for the most part, well protected. Inside the box Chord have put together a standard package consisting of; a standard 3m USB A to USB B cable, a standard region specific 1.5m IEC kettle lead, a very simplified instruction manual and warranty card, the Mean Well branded 12v 8.5a AC/DC switch mode power supply, and the Scamp itself. Currently the Scamp is only available in two colours; anodised black and naked brushed aluminium. It was once the case that you could order Scamp in a wide range of colours, upon request, but this is no more. Today we have the anodised Scamp in stock and it stands very crisp and smart. The black anodised finish is consistent, it shows no patchiness, is very hardwearing, and I can confirm that it’s appearance is a stark very deep black, even in bright sunlight.


In order to make the Chordette range, Chord Electronics CNC mill the design out of a single solid block of aircraft grade aluminium, and it’s as solid as a rock. Apart from the obvious sonic advantages, this material is hardwearing and gives a [400g] weight to the product that it desperately needs considering its miniature 6 ¼” x 2 ¾” x 1 ½” size. The Scamp is definitely the smallest amplifier I have seen to date, let alone of a premium design, and Chord have still payed as close attention to the finish as they do with their TOTL amplifiers, even if it’s complexity cannot compete. If we expand on this, the milling of the material is top notch, there’s no burrs, the lines are crisp and clean, and all the aesthetic detailing is executed in good taste. This further continues when you turn to the rear of the amplifier and discover that the spacing around each of the connectors is perfect. Whilst Scamp’s understated design has been optimised for temperature control, I personally feel as if its understated appearance is perfect for its purpose and is still aesthetically pleasing. You can easily have this amplifier sat on a desk, as it is here, and have no problems at all with it taking up vital space, which, in turn, makes the Scamp ideal for use in a professional, or project studio environment where workflow is key, and space comes at a premium. Despite Scamp’s size, I do feel that what is generally missing from this design is an On/Off switch and I can’t believe that this is missing. Personally I don’t like Scamp to be left constantly on and so my only option is to manually remove the power chord, to which I am almost always greeted with it disagreeing down the back of my desk. Sure, for best performance Scamp should always be left on, but I think that the user should be the judge of whether they’d like this to be the case.


As we come on to take a look at the rear connectors, it’s clear to see that Chord have tried so desperately to fit everything in. What I can’t see the logic in is having the amplifiers settings switches and volume potentiometer on the back of the device. Understandably you won’t use the settings fixed gain and mono block bridging switches a great deal, but if you use the power amplifier on it’s own, accessing that potentiometer becomes a massive hassle, especially when its proximity is so close to the binding posts and you have no way of knowing what position it is in. Because of this, and the fact that the Scamp sadly has only one stereo unbalanced RCA input, it’s best to partner it with a preamp to get the best out of the device and to also have balanced input connectivity even if Scamp is incapable of a true balanced input. In this situation I personally recommend Chord’s ‘Prime’, or the remarkable Tilbury Audio ‘Passive Preamp’ (a bargain at £129, and certainly more than capable in this system). Interestingly if you are someone who would like to get the full 80w out of Scamp, you can transform this amplifier into a mono block and bridge two together [bi-amp]. Doing this is simple although I only have one Scamp on test at the moment. Other features are that there are only four gold plated binding posts, and if you’re using Scamp in a rack system paired with the ‘Prime’ preamplifier, or any other Chordette unit, you can tap the power from the Scamp without having to use multiple power supplies. As a secondary feature, Chord, rather unusually, built a DAC into this device. This sort of makes the Scamp like a mini integrated amplifier that can connect to your Mac/PC without any need for additional drivers. Whether you would like to do this is up to you because the [’03 released] Burr Brown PCM2704 digital to analogue converter isn’t exactly impressive at all. When Scamp was released back in 2010 that chip was ‘acceptable’ for the time, it was dated and by no means excellent, so, over five years later, it’s noticeably outdated in terms of it’s sonic performance. If we put this into perspective, Chord’s Scamp can only go to a measly 24bit 48kHz, and the same super cheap [‘technically’ defunct as of 2012 with the release of TI’s ‘C’ model] PCM2704 is now used in sub £20 DAC designs, which seems plain insulting for Chord to still use this in a £900 device, even if it is a secondary feature. Chord could, and should, have done better, if not then they should have removed this feature. For this reason, along with the fact that it doesn’t sound great, I shall not be discussing this with the forthcoming ‘Sound Quality’ section.


Chord Electronics Scamp ConnectivityEven though we previously mentioned that the rear connectivity all seems rather cramped, I’ve still found success when using premium interconnects with oversized connectors. My The Chord Company Signature Tuned ARAY RCA and Epic Twin speaker cable plugs into the Scamp with no issues whatsoever, and there’s still some room to play with. However, with Scamp weighing in at 400g and sporting a landscape pill design, you might wonder whether the device can still remain stable with numerous cables plugged into the back. Unless you’re using Scamp on the edge of a desk, it surprisingly remains stable and flat upon the surface. Unfortunately because of the cramped backplate, bi-wiring speakers with Scamp is quite a difficult task. To effectively combat this, although you will still have even more clutter, you can combine a pair of banana plugs with a pair of spade terminations. I would imagine that in this situation the Scamp might become unbalanced unless you use thinner cabling. Another annoying fact is that, due to Scamp’s size, the cable management is pretty poor so you will have a bulk cable trail that does need tidying, and includes Scamp’s thick 1.3m proprietary power chord that goes down to a power brick. As a side-note, by having this separate power supply, Chord have managed to keep the cost of Scamp down, keep the size small, reduce internal noise, and help with thermal regulation. The obvious fact is that you’ll have to locate this somewhere. Although, speaking of thermal regulation, I have definitely noticed that Scamp manages to remain cool throughout long listening sessions. Sure I’m using an 8Ω speaker pairing, but I would still expect to feel some heat coming off the amplifier. I believe that the reason for this is that this amplifier has a large grille front with a small 1 ½” fan on the bottom which is constantly circulating the airflow. Thankfully this fan is totally silent during use and I haven’t ever been able to notice that it is in operation. However, if Scamp does overheat, it will enter into an automatic overload shutdown procedure which protects both the amplifier and speakers. As a bonus feature chord have a red LED which partially illuminates the speaker grille at the front. In a lit room this LED is unnoticeable but, in low light, you can see the reflection of the holes on the surface of the bench. If you aren't too keen on this it may come as bad news that there is no way to switch off this feature. Due to the fact that each Scamp is hand made, you could possibly ask Chord to omit this feature although I am unsure of whether this can be done.


If you’re wondering about Scamp’s capabilities, just as we mentioned within the preface, this is an amplifier that can deliver 40w per channel with a 0.03Ω output impedance. Chord recommend that you drive speakers of 4Ω and above with Scamp and, in this situation, I have paired this amplifier with my 8Ω ‘bookshelf style’ Audiofilia AF-SM1 near-field monitors, to which Scamp drove them to excess in a medium sized room. I have found that if you intend to use Scamp with larger speakers, or intend to use it to drive speakers in large room, it may be best to look for a more powerful amplifier that has more headroom to play with. Albeit much more expensive, Chord currently offer the Mezzo range, which is essentially the same as Scamp with more power output and balanced circuitry. If you can’t stump up the cash for the £2460 Mezzo 50, or £4200 Mezzo 140, then, sadly, your best bet is to look at another manufacturers offerings.


Review Technology:

Lossless tracks from 16bit to 24bit and 44.1kHz to 192kHz, Apple ‘MacBook Air’, Sonic Studio ‘Amarra’, CAD ‘USB’, ARCAM ‘irDAC’, Chord Electronics ‘Hugo’, Lynx ‘Hilo’, Channel D ‘TRS to RCA’, The Chord Company ‘Cadenza Reference’, Tisbury Audio ‘Passive Preamp’, The Chord Company ‘Signature Tuned ARAY’, Chord Electronics ‘Scamp’, The Chord Company ‘Epic Twin’, Audiofilia ‘AF-SM1’.


Sound Quality:

Despite its size, sonically, the Scamp is a very capable amplifier that delivers the same Chord in house sound that we’ve come to know and love. For those whom aren’t familiar with this, I would best describe it as characteristically uncoloured with a clean, mildly lean, bass presence and vivid analytical soundstage. If you’re now thinking of Hugo’s stock signature I would say that you’re on the right lines, but Scamp amends this with slightly more bottom end presence and slightly less super high end extension. I would definitely say that Scamp has a more calm persona and doesn’t resort to using top end aggression, or forwardness, to gain focus, instead it retains clarity with a mildly soft and smooth detailed edge which is broadly uncongested. Likewise, throughout the frequency range, from bottom to top, there’s no smearing at all, even in the midrange, and it sounds clean and concise. It’s certainly obvious to the listener that Scamp performs so effortless that it’s clearly been designed with transparency at it’s heart to deliver the most honest window into the music itself. If you’re a bass lover, or a tube roller, then the Scamp will offer you little reward as there’s absolutely no saturation going on here at all. This is a more modern, musical, sounding device. For this reason you will have to be careful with poor, saturated top end, or brilliant recordings because, on the odd occasion with its strident appearance, Scamp will highlight this with brutal honesty. The result can be a painful listening experience where the Scamp will focus, like a mild magnifying glass, on the top end distortion to have a quickly tiresome delivery. Saying this, this won’t happen often, I’ve only experienced this with poorly judged recordings and the sound never becomes piercing, just moderately fatiguing. In most instances, Scamp’s in house [typically] ‘British’ signature will allow long listening sessions without premature fatigue. You just have to remember that Scamp is not overly bright in the slightest, it’s fresh presentation has the feeling of feeling right to the ears with good tonal balance and excellent definition with every note expressed.


In a discussion regarding Scamp’s dynamic contrast, generally it has an expansive range with a prevailing sense of realism and tight articulation. Notes aren’t unduly accented across the range with hyperrealism and Scamp, like before, performs organically with an energetic edge, which is why it becomes so impressive and relatable. In the low end there’s no bloat and sustain, impactful bass rhythms feel sensibly defined with finesse and have great natural flexibility without sharpness or heavily forced articulation. Playing electronic music with sharp prevailing rhythms still delivers the same impressive clarity as acoustic genres and can sound regimented when the music calls for it, what you won’t get is super mega hard clicky rhythms showing their unnatural beauty, but Scamp does an admirable job and adapts well. Scamp does have the energy and the authority is there, so electronic music playback with Scamp is largely a positive experience, when used with the right DAC. No matter what genre you put through Scamp you always are rewarded with a lucid experience with excellent control, which continues no matter what frequency area you chose to focus on. In the low midrange Scamp still remains focussed and articulate in order to not loose clarity and this continues up throughout the range, with no areas of compression. In the top end of the spectrum, the dynamic contrast and articulation is impressive. Scamp is strident and manages to stick to the rhythm with super fast and precise action, leaving nothing left to question and its pace doesn’t, surprisingly, leave any shrill grittiness behind. Ultimately the Scamp has a near on perfect transient response and dynamic contrast to the ear, that sets a precedent for the competition.


With regards to the stereo image, Chord’s Scamp delivers a nice vivid soundstage with a natural ambience. In fact that way that Scamp presents it is such that you’re able to instantly build an accurate mental image of how the engineer arranged the instruments, and you can effortlessly understand the environment with shocking clarity. For example, you can easily pick out a single instrument and follow its path throughout the arrangement without your ears ever feeling strained. If you do pick out the most micro details, this is obviously more difficult task, but the stage has been set to make this easier than it might seem and this is what’s impressive about Scamp, the listening experience is, largely, organic with a realistic sense of air, depth, and articulation. However, there is an area where I do feel that Scamp is a little let down; the central domain. To me, I feel as though, at times, this area lacks solid boundaries and it can feel parted if you carefully listen to it. Scamp seems to favour an airy approach, but it doesn’t seem able to present a true centre point, which can effect the cohesion. I am still impressed with Scamps imaging, for the large part, I just wish that there was more solidarity here so that you could be rewarded with a scarily holographic performance.


Conclusion:

The 40w per channel class A/B Scamp is a an impressive desktop power amplifier that certainly outperforms its compact Chordate footprint. With a CNC milled chassis, Chord have made this miniature as solid as a rock, and its convenient understated design seems well judged to place it wherever you want. Even though Scamp can be used as a single solution, it’s connectivity and odd switch/potentiometer placement doesn’t quite cut it, meaning that it is vital that you pair it with an appropriate preamp. Secondly I am unsure of why Chord have built a DAC into this unit, especially one which definitely shows its age now. Either way, when Scamp is connected to an independent source, it yields Chord’s typical in house style with no apparent caveats. Weirdly this is a ‘grown up’ amplifier, it has such a detailed, revealing, uncongested, clean, and articulate sound, which is certainly the reason as to why this unit is so loveable. The Pro Audio Web Blog awards the Chord Electronics Scamp with a four and a half star rating.



Edd Harris

Edd Harris - 23rd July 2015

UK RRP: £990.00

Editors Rating:

Four and a Half Star Review
Chord Electronics Scamp Review
4.5/5 stars
The Scamp is an ultra compact, very solidly built, 40w per channel class A/B amplifier that is part of the Chordette range. If we forget that it has a less than capable secondary built in DAC, in comparison to modern solutions, the micro sized Scamp is a surprisingly loveable product with good sonic capabilities. Whilst the Scamp is an detailed, full, and articulate miniature, the central positioning can occasionally feel stretched.