Chord Electronics Poly Review
Let’s get Polyamorous
What is the Chord Poly?The Chord Electronics Poly is… well, it might well be a whole new product category. At the launch of the Mojo portable DAC back in 2015, those attendees fortunate enough to be sat near company boss John Franks (I wasn’t one of them for the record) were shown some mockups of a ‘bolt on’ for Mojo. Details were sketchy – Franks wasn’t supposed to have shown them at all – and for the most part it was assumed by most of us that this would be a Bluetooth add-on, something that was absent from the standard Mojo. In this respect, we were half right. A quarter anyway.
Nothing more was heard about this bolt-on for over a year until at CES this year it reappeared as the Poly. Far from being a simple one function bolt on to add Bluetooth, Poly is in fact a device that converts the Mojo into a completely self-contained audio player. Even this statement doesn’t fully cover the scope of what this little box of tricks can do. In effect, if you own a Mojo, Poly is the device that turns it into something rather different in scope and scale.
This brings up three overlapping questions. Does Poly fulfil its ambitious brief? It purports to do a great deal so it’ll take a little time to unpick whether all of this functionality has been delivered correctly. Following up from this, is it something you will feel the need to own? Finally, should you decide you need it, do you want to pay the £500 asking price – on top of the £400 that the Mojo itself has already set you back. It’s time to delve into one of the more intriguing devices to cross our path this year.
The Poly (the name is from the Greek root ‘Polus’ meaning much – Polygamy, Polydactyly etc), is a Mojo accessory insomuch as if you don’t own a Mojo it is entirely non-functional. It attaches to the input end of the Mojo and uses the USB power and signal connections to interface with it and the coax and optical connections to mount itself. As such, using the Poly will prevent the Mojo from working as a normal DAC. It is perhaps just as well that the Poly does a fair bit.
First up, the Poly is network capable. Install it on a home network and it will access shared data in the manner of a UPnP network streamer. A pretty capable streamer too. Sample rates up to 768kHz are supported (although as I still have no material recorded at this unlikely level, it remains something that is largely hypothetical). DSD is also supported via DOP and if you want to do compressed music, it can too.
More notably, the Poly can support and serve its own content as well. There is a slot for a micro SD card which is at least SDXC compatible. Chord says there is no upper limit on storage which is bold but if true SDXC support is present, it means that Poly has a notional capacity of around 2 terabytes although the largest micro SD card currently for sale (October 2017) is 400gb for which you will be invited to pay over £200.
This gives a clue to where Chord sees the Poly being used. Slap a micro SD card in it and you have a device that is a portable audio player. As Poly uses the battery of the Mojo to run in addition to its own internal power, it is able to operate autonomously. As such, this means that a Mojo/Poly combo can be used as a portable audio player – more of which in a bit. The Chord is also completely capable of being used as a network streamer server in the manner of more conventional looking rivals.
To add to the appeal Chord has additionally fitted the Poly with three other useful features. The first is Apt-X Bluetooth, allowing it to pair with the usual clutch of devices. Like the Hugo2, there is a break in the metal chassis to allow for a more capable aerial to be mounted and range seems pretty good. Additionally, it can work with iOS devices via AirPlay as a conventionally selectable device. Finally, the Poly is fully compatible with the Roon music management software that has been making some waves as a seriously accomplished example of its genre. You get a free trial when you buy the device.
DesignThe more eagle-eyed amongst you will have probably noted that when I say a Mojo/Poly is capable of being used as a mobile audio player that there are some immediate question marks to that. As a combined device, the limit of the controls extends to volume and power – all of which are on the Mojo rather than the Poly. As such, while the Chord is capable of functioning on the move, it can’t do so on its own. Like a number of devices I’ve reviewed in the last few years, the Poly can be placed on a network by using a phone or tablet to join a hotspot it creates to then give it instructions to join your own network. Chord has tweaked the functionality of this hotspot to allow the Poly to use it as point of control all the time. With software like Bubble for Android, you can select the Poly as the renderer and it (or indeed your phone) as the server and play content.
In practise, this works… but I cannot honestly say it offers much (or any) tangible benefit over connecting a Mojo to your phone via OTG cable. The Chord’s hotspot is effective enough but if you want to use your phone for standard commute based things – looking at AVForums, arguing on Twitter etc. – you are going to find yourself flitting between the hotspot and your 3G/4G signal. If you suddenly need to pause or stop playback, it’s simpler to turn the Mojo off which is far from a perfect solution to this issue. It’s possible to use the Chord as an alternative to a DAP but I don’t think that’s its core virtue.
In physical terms, the Poly looks and feels like the Mojo which is hardly terribly surprising give the two units join together. Considering how much it is capable of doing though, the Poly is impressively compact and for the most part, it is easy to use. I don’t especially like pinhole reset function for joining networks – Chord supplies a special tool but its easily lost and I’ve taken to using a specially filed thumbtack which lives in my wallet. If you join the two units together though, the result feels weighty and quite confidence inspiring.
Chord is also well switched on to the accessory side of things too. A reinforced leather case is available to carry both units when bolted together and it makes them feel like a single cohesive unit when you have it. The build quality of both is superb and while this might not be the most obvious manner in which you might spend £900, you can see where the money has gone.
More notably, the Poly can support and serve its own content too
How was the Poly tested?I have been in possession of a Mojo since the release event and – as might be expected – the Poly has been tested exclusively with that. I have used it on the move with Noble Trident and Audeze iSine earphones and a Motorola G4 Android phone as the point of control and in more stationary testing with a pair of Bowers & Wilkins P9 Headphones with an iPad Air being used for AirPlay testing and the Motorola for Bluetooth. Some testing has also been carried out at line level into a Naim Supernait 2 and a pair of Neat Momentum 4i speakers. Material used has included lossless and high-res FLAC and AIFF files, DSD and some Tidal and Spotify.
If you were expecting the Poly to sound significantly different to the Mojo that it attaches to, I am afraid you are going to be disappointed. In every sense, the Poly is a transport that has no real difference on the signal it handles – and even if it did, Chord has carefully engineered the Mojo to iron out such behaviour anyway. There should be no reason to be upset at this either because the Mojo remains one of the most outstandingly capable digital sources you can buy for under £1,000. Even after two years in its company, I continue to have moments where I am staggered at just how good this little DAC is.
What Poly does is take this hugely capable decoding platform and give it the ability to do things it previously needed third party equipment to do. Listening to the 24/96kHz remaster of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, the way that the Chord handles Hymn of the Big Wheel is just outstanding. There is a depth, naturalness and complete lack of strain or any sense of processing that means if you aren’t frenziedly trying to take notes on its performance, the Chord effectively ceases to be there at all. With good recordings in particular, the Mojo/Poly is capable of delivering a performance that is every bit as compelling as my resident Naim ND5 XS which is no small undertaking for less than half the price.
No less impressive is that the additional functionality delivers a very similar level of performance. Chord’s proficiency with Bluetooth has been recognised for many years and the Poly does nothing to let the side down. AirPlay is also exceptionally good and I’ve found one of my favourite ways of using the Poly is to stream Tidal via my iPad to it – thereby giving me the control interface you need to make the most of it. I have run some tests listening to the same file on a micro SD card and streamed to the network and would make no claims of being able to tell them apart. As long as the signal makes it to the Poly by one of the many means available, it will sound entirely uniform when it does. Once setup on any given network, I’ve also found it to be stable and unconditionally reliable.
As such, my sonic criticisms of the Poly are effectively nill. It can sound a little edgy with poorer recordings which is hardly unexpected and its general lack of colouration can mean that some rivals might sound warmer/more exciting/more dynamic depending on your personal preferences – as the Mojo does without the adjustable filters of the more expensive Hugo2, you have no way of adjusting this. It’s worth pointing out that while you might prefer a rival, the likelihood is that the Chord is the correct presentation.
All of this is achieved while retaining the Mojo’s nigh on untouchable qualities as a compact headphone amp. As distinct from the digital decoding, the output of the Mojo combines enormous reserves of power with non-existent background noise and total lack of harshness or aggression. Only Oppo’s lovely HA-2SE can really keep it honest and that can’t match the gain that the Chord has at its disposal. With earphones, the Mojo is a digital touchstone – what you hear is what the earphone is doing and the Poly simply makes it easier to directly access the content you need.
What Poly does is take this hugely capable decoding platform and give it the ability to do things it previously needed third party equipment to do
- Extremely capable digital front end
- Sonically transparent
- Gives extra performance dimension to Mojo
- Mobile operation has some shortcomings
- Can be a little fiddly
- Somewhat specialist
Chord Electronics Poly ReviewAfter some time spent using it, the Poly’s worth in part comes down to splitting the definition of ‘mobile’ and ‘portable.’ The Mojo/Poly block is – in the technical sense of the word anyway – mobile. It can be used on the move and it can outperform DAPs that cost rather more while it does so. The quirkiness of the process required to do so though means that I think many people will find it is simply too frustrating to use in this manner.
As a portable device that can be taken to various locations and setup on a network there (rather than used on the journey to the location), the Poly is a rather more logical offering. This is a high end network streamer and headphone amp that fits in a (large) pocket and as a piece of desktop audio, it’s hard not be enormously impressed. Its ability to act as a server under these conditions is not to be sniffed at either. No less relevantly, if you already own a Mojo, a Poly will turn it into a phenomenally capable digital source that could take up permanent residence in a static system.
Is it worth the asking price? After some time in its company, I’m inclined to say that this isn’t a ‘no brainer’ purchase. For many people, the basic inputs of the Mojo and the flexibility of other equipment will be more suitable but for a subset of Mojo users, the range of things that Poly does and the assurance in which it does them means that this unique product earns our enthusiastic recommendation.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £499.00
Ease of Use8
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