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2014 Midwest Audiofest Tent Sale & Vintage Audio Swap
Chord Mojo DAC/Headphone amp review
Whether we like it or not, the shape of audio equipment is slowly but inexorably starting to change. Freed from the need to accommodate physical media and with the analogue preamp being challenged by the adjustment of volume in the digital domain, the roles and functions of each box are far less set in stone than they once were.
Few products embodied these changes better than the Chord Hugo. As Chord Electronics had made the move away from ‘normal’ form factors for many of their products, the progression to make a small combined DAC and preamp that worked as happily on battery power as it did on mains was smaller for them they for many other manufacturers. As a product, the Hugo divides opinion. I find it excellent as both a headphone DAC and partnered carefully, it is a tremendous preamp too. What is also interesting is that when my Wife’s singing pupils encounter it, as a concept, it makes perfect sense to them in a way that those of us who have spent more time with physical media and boxes that are 430mm wide can struggle with. Their only real gripes with the Hugo are far as they are concerned are that it costs £1,400 and really it is a bit big to be considered truly portable.
As it turns out, Chord had some of the same thoughts too. Even before the Hugo had been launched, the company had been looking at making a smaller and more portable Hugo. Chord boss John Franks had in mind something the size of a cigarette pack but he also had in mind that this ‘mini Hugo’ would be able to match the Hugo for performance and cost £400. As you can’t tell company bosses to go away and stop asking the impossible, the result of this request is the Mojo (an amalgam of ‘Mobile Joy’).
Getting to this point hasn’t been plain sailing. Like Hugo, the Mojo makes use of a Field Gate Programmable Array (FPGA) chip that makes use of Chord’s bespoke software to perform filtering, decoding and volume control. The Hugo’s FPGA is fairly energy efficient but the heat dissipation requires a Hugo sized chassis to work. The Mojo is built around a new FPGA that reduces heat build-up and this in turn allows for a smaller board that is able to handle the battery being laid across the top to further shrink the size of the unit. Until this became available, the Mojo simply couldn’t exist.
As a result of being able to use this chip and software, the Mojo supports the same extremely comprehensive decoding range as the Hugo. PCM is supported between 32 and 768kHz and DSD up to DSD512 (and if you have anything in DSD 512, do get in touch) which means that the Mojo is comfortably state of the art in this regard. Equally impressive is that this USB requires a driver to function with Windows but otherwise is completely driverless when used with Macs and via OTG cables into Android and iOS devices.
As well as USB, the Mojo supports optical connections via a conventional Toslink connection and a coaxial one fitted with a 3.5mm connection. These inputs are then made available to a pair of 3.5mm headphone sockets. These are not dual mono so are more about allowing for two listeners at once. Like the Hugo, these connections can both swing half an amp of power so should be able to handle even some fairly demanding loads attached to them. Where Mojo differs from Hugo is that with the recognition that this more portable device is more likely to be used with highly sensitive in ear monitors, efforts have been made to reduce the Hugo’s already very low noisefloor. This is quite an achievement in that unlike a number of rivals, the Mojo has no gain switch and instead makes use of the same volume ramp regardless of what you connect to it.
Of course, in saving £1,000 off the list price, some features of the Hugo have fallen by the wayside. You don’t get an RCA output or the quarter inch headphone socket of the Hugo and the bluetooth functionality has also been removed. This last feature is something of a double edged sword. As it is made of metal and has no aerial, the bluetooth range of the Hugo is pretty woeful and it cuts out with annoying frequency but equally, used within the defined limitations, it is a very handy convenience feature. There is some evidence that the bluetooth connection is going to be added via an optional add on in the future.
Externally, the Mojo is a clever piece of equipment. If you hold it in your hand with an understanding of the history of Chord Electronics, it feels like something from the company. It does this while at the same time managing to avoid some of the general weirdness of the Hugo. The inputs and outputs are all labelled (something that Chord has been curiously reluctant to do in the past and the input switching is done by voltage detection on the inputs (and Chord goes on to explain the priority on which this will work). If you are using the Mojo as your first piece of Chord Equipment, it won’t scare the horses.
At the same time, the Mojo is not totally free of idiosyncrasy. Chord has employed the system that the Hugo uses to show incoming sample rate and volume which is a variable coloured LED system. This is something that you get used to and once you know your colour shift, you can work out what the Mojo is doing at a glance but it lacks the immediate obviousness of a bog standard display. Additionally, Chord has fitted the Mojo with buttons that are in fact plastic spheres that rotate freely in their housings and attract fingerprints like nothing else I’ve ever seen. As a final curiosity, the Mojo has two USB connections, one for signal and one for charging which presumably pertains to the use of the FPGA which doesn’t easily allow voltage to be passed through it. Battery life on the other hand is good. The Mojo allows for a ten hour battery life from a four hour charge which is competitive with the competition but the Mojo can’t act as an emergency charger for your phone.
The Mojo has mainly been tested with my Lenovo T530 ThinkPad running jRiver and Tidal but has additionally been tested with an LG/Google Nexus 5 and OTG cable running the Hiby Music ap and Tidal. Various headphones and earphones including the Noble 6, Oppo PM-3 and Shure SE-315 have been used with it. Material including lossless and high res FLAC, AIFF and compressed Ogg Vorbis files have been used.
Chord doesn’t go in for modesty when it comes to their digital products. They regard the use of DAC chips as a painting by numbers exercise that shouldn’t result in the prices that some products apparently cost. Against this is the more real world observation that for all their technical firepower, Chord products don’t always earn the accolades that might be expected of a process that is supposedly superior. The review of the Hugo on this very site saw James delighted with how it performed as a headphone amp but less convinced by how it worked as a normal DAC. As such, Chord’s claim that the Mojo stands comparison with almost any DAC on the market needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
At the same time, having spent some time with the Mojo, there is little doubt in my mind that at £400, this is a seriously accomplished bit of decoding. What the Mojo brings to your music is absolute transparency to the extent where ascribing characteristics to it is hard to the point of impossible. If that doesn’t sound terribly exciting, think about that for a second. Play Get your fight on by The Prodigy and the Mojo is a fast, punchy and thoroughly exciting partner. The very next track can be Nick Drake’s Parasite and instantly all trace of the attack and bit is gone and instead there is a sweetness and composure to the Chord that allows Drake’s calm vocals and guitar to shine. The Chord is a window to the music, nothing more, nothing less.
If you are happy with the sound of your headphones or earphones, the Mojo is a means of sending an objectively perfect signal to them. The volume ramp is completely transparent and it changes levels completely imperceptibly. With the superbly capable Noble 6 Earphone, the Mojo is absolutely brilliant. The Noble is very slightly forward in presentation. The top end is still refined enough to be listenable for long periods but there is a drive, punch and liveliness that has made them a favourite here. The Chord simply gets out of the way and lets them do their thing.
The other immediately impressive aspect of the performance is that the noise floor is to all intents and purposes non existent. Given that the Chord uses a single volume ramp rather than a low gain setting, this is quite an achievement. I had never considered that the Hugo was anything else than a superb partner for in ear monitors but some time spent with the two back to back does suggest that the Mojo has the edge on its big brother.
If you don’t want a slightly ballistic edge to the performance, you don’t have to have one. With the more refined and considered Oppo PM-3 headphone, the Chord is able to deliver the slightly higher levels of current that they need to shine and the performance shifts to the strengths of the PM-3- superb midrange lucidity and almost liquid smooth upper registers. This does mean that if you are trying to alter the performance of a pair of headphones or earphones that you aren’t completely happy with, this is not the device for you. All that will happen is you more starkly hear what you don’t like about them.
So does this really mean that the £400 Mojo renders its big brother obsolete? Not quite. The voltages might be the same with both devices but if your headphones make use of a quarter inch jack, the full size connector on the Hugo seems to work slightly better. So it turns out with the line level output. The Hugo has no fixed level- you simply adjust the volume to suit. You can select a line level with the Mojo though by pressing both volume buttons at once. Via a 3.5mm to RCA phono cable into a Naim Supernait 2, there is a sense that this fixed output is fractionally too high. If you want something to use on the move and at home, Hugo edges Mojo although quite whether the difference is £1,000 worth is something you’d have to decide for yourself.
These quibbles should not detract from one of the best bits of digital I’ve encountered under £1,000 and a superb portable headphone amp. The Mojo can take any Android phone and imbue it with performance that should leave dedicated DAPs at almost any price rather worried- especially as some of these phones now support SDXC storage systems giving them potentially huge memory capacity. At the moment many high end brands- across categories well beyond audio- are trying to find ways of bringing customers into their fold with lower priced products that don’t compromise the brand’s key qualities. What you see here is one of the most ambitious but brilliant ways to do that yet to hit the market. Chord is tapping into a new generation of listeners who are at ease with their audio equipment looking and behaving differently and the Mojo is going to be a truly exceptional introduction to the brand for many people.
Contact; Chord Electronics
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