Chord Mojo DAC & Headphone Amp Review
Good things really do come in small packages
What is the Chord Mojo?At the moment, in terms of really interesting product developments, I'm pleased to say - considering this is AVForums, a site devoted to both audio and video - that after a slightly quiet period, video is big news again. We've got 4K sets coming out at a rate of knots, delivery systems that promise to finally give them the content that they deserve and a fascinating conflict between tried and tested LCD technology and OLED which is still very much in its infancy. With so much new technology at work, there is much still be established about the future of the hardware, software and the delivery systems.
Against this relentless wave of innovation, the world of audio is rather less able to deliver quite such headline grabbing news. Two channel in particular is a mature category and delivering something truly radical is a pretty tall order. Despite this, the industry has been busy of late dealing with changes of its own in how we use, enjoy and buy our music. Products that have been designed to take full advantage of this brave new world are rather different from what went before but can also demonstrate sparking performance. The Chord Hugo could be seen as a poster child for this movement. It demonstrates, staggering performance, flexibility and genuine innovation in one small box and it was one of my favourite products of 2014.
That makes what you see here a product that could cause a bit of a stir. It seems that while they are still extremely proud of Hugo, Chord hasn't been blind to the limitations it has as a portable device. As result of this, they have launched the Mojo (a shorthand version of 'Mobile Joy') which makes good on many of those limitations. Perhaps as importantly, the price of the Mojo has been trimmed by £1,000 at the same time. With Chord making some very bold claims about the performance of the Mojo, is this little box a very big deal?
Design and SpecsChord Electronics has carved out an impressive reputation for digital to analogue conversion over nearly twenty years of innovation. Central to all of their digital products is a different way of performing decoding to almost any other manufacturer. Instead of a commercially available DAC chip (an item of hardware that Chord is consistently scathing of), their products use a custom written solution that makes use of a Field Gate Programmable Array (FPGA) to run. This means that decoding filtering and volume control (effected in the digital domain) can all be undertaken in a homogenous fashion by a single piece of hardware running software written for the task.
This is all extremely clever but when Chord started investigating the possibility of making a smaller Hugo even before the release of the original product, they found that they had made something of a rod for their own back. The fantastically named Xilinx Spartan-6 FPGA that the Hugo uses (I'm not sure what is going on the world of chip design at the moment but there seems to be an ongoing competition to make them all sound like weapon systems) consumes too much power and generates too much heat to be placed in an enclosure much smaller than the current one. As such any attempts to shrink Hugo would have to wait.
The good news for Chord is that since then Xilinx has released the Artix 7 which boasts lower power consumption and heat buildup while allowing the same custom software (with further tweaks) to be run. This allows the Mojo to be a good deal smaller than the Hugo - the design brief from Chord boss John Franks was roughly the size of a cigarette pack and this has pretty much been met. By designing a smaller board and laying the battery across the top of it, the Mojo is a good deal smaller than the Hugo and a much more practical item to try and carry around.
In terms of what the Mojo can do, there has been no real trimming though. The Chord can handle sampling rates up to 768kHz and DSD256 and only needs a driver on Windows to achieve this. Chord has additionally fitted an optical input with standard Toslink connection and an SP/Dif input on a 3.5mm socket. This output is then made available to a pair of 3.5mm sockets that can either use the on board volume control or be locked to produce a line level output. For reasons that presumably stem from the FPGA, there is a separate USB input for charging.
Like the Hugo, the Mojo can swing half an amp into the headphone sockets to drive demanding loads but unlike the Hugo, the Mojo has been tweaked for more effective use with sensitive in-ear monitors. That there are any perceived limitations with the Hugo came as a bit of a surprise - it has served brilliantly as a headphone reference for some time now - but tweaks to Mojo have supposedly improved the performance at low levels with sensitive devices. One area where the Mojo differs from many competitors is that it makes do without a high gain and a low gain setting and instead uses a single volume ramp which means that this function is potentially important.
Of course reducing the price by almost two thirds does mean that some features present on Hugo have had to fall by the wayside. There is no full size headphone socket which limits you to 3.5mm models or bulky adaptors. The adjustable filters have been removed (although I confess, I found the ones present on the Hugo to be so subtle in reality that they are rarely used) and the Mojo does without Bluetooth.
This last omission is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, as it has no aerial, the all metal Hugo has a woeful range and suffers from dropouts but equally, it does make for a very convenient feature. Retaining it would have allowed the Mojo to take the fight to the Mass Fidelity Relay and other Bluetooth devices. There is some evidence though that Chord is planning some Mojo add-ons that might go some way to solving this.
Externally, the Chord is still recognisably a product from one of the
UK's more idiosyncratic manufacturers but does manage to make some positive steps forward in user friendliness. For starters, Chord has labelled the inputs and outputs - something they've been previously loathe to do. There is no porthole or other oddity and instead of an input selector, the FPGA detects audio on an input automatically and switches to that. The Chord is able to show volume level and incoming sample rate via colour variable LEDs. The power control changes colour to show sample rate and the volume controls to show level. Once you've learned your colour flows, it actually works really well. A small light below the charging USB socket gives you battery life which Chord claims is ten hours from a four hour charge. For the moment, Mojo is available in black only.
What's good about the Mojo?Chord Electronics is a high-end manufacturer. The oddly named DAVE DAC that they launched at
Munich is no less than £8,000 and the range goes higher still. That the Mojo exists at all at £400 is pretty impressive but the specs and claimed performance are what really makes it stand out. Chord doesn't really do modesty and is effectively claiming in their own literature that Mojo isn't simply performance competitive with similarly priced headphone DACs but can instead lay claim to being at the very highest echelons of digital performance full stop. If these claims have any basis in reality, it means that Mojo is punching well above its weight.
This is doubly impressive when you consider that the Mojo is still built in the
UK and very well built too. Chord claims that the Mojo is 'tank proof' (a claim that stems from a German reviewer driving an AFV over a Hugo with no ill effect) and it is certainly a very, very solid piece of equipment. Throw in the good collection of features and that state of the art specification and you have a very competitive piece of equipment.
The Chord can handle sampling rates up to 768kHz and DSD256 and only needs a driver on Windows to achieve this.
Any drawbacks to the Mojo?If Chord is indeed working on a Bluetooth add on, then the only real area of weakness in the audio specification is in hand. There are some minor usability quirks though. The 'buttons' are in fact hard plastic spheres that rotate in their enclosure and don't feel as nice to use as some rivals. They are also truly biblical fingerprint traps. The Mojo is also unable to use its battery as a charger for a mobile device which is a party piece of the Oppo HA-2 and something that has proved useful in the past.
The Oppo is aesthetically something of a thorn in the side of the Mojo. Oppo's decision to make it the same basic size as a mobile phone does mean that it sits in a pocket more easily and it looks and feels more elegant than the Chord does. The rotary volume control is also a nicer thing to operate than the Chord's glowing balls and the charge indicator is far clearer and easier to read. The HA-2 doesn't have it all its own way though. The Mojo has better input choices and a sample rate indicator so there are pros and cons to both units. Some reviews have also mentioned that the Mojo gets hot while in use and especially when charging but anyone who has used most portable phone chargers won't be perturbed by it.
TestingThe Chord was mainly tested with my Lenovo T530 ThinkPad running jRiver, Tidal and Spotify and a Google/LG Nexus 5 with an OTG cable running Tidal, Spotify and Hiby Music. Music used comprised compressed OGG Vorbis from Spotify and lossless and high res FLAC and ALAC from Tidal and my own music library. The Mojo was then switched to line out and connected to a Naim Supernait 2 via 3.5mm to RCA phono cable for testing as a line output DAC. A small amount of video testing via YouTube, Sky Go and Netflix has also been carried out.
Sound QualityBy any stretch of the imagination, standing up in front of a room full of assembled press and saying that their £400 product sounds better than products that rivals are asking many times that price for might be taken as bold, ballsy or suicidal depending on your view of these things. As Chord instructs you to charge the Mojo for ten hours before use for the first time, they could at least ensure we were all a fair distance away before we could really test these claims out. At a basic level however, they are not completely unfounded.
Now to be clear, the existence of the Mojo does not prevent me from lusting after the Naim NDX, Nagra DAC or even have me seeking to recycle the Hugo but it does in reality redefine what digital under £1,000 is capable of doing. How so? Simply put, the Mojo is a window into the music, nothing more, nothing less. During the very positive review of the Oppo HA-2, I ascribed character and traits to it. I found it a little tonally dark and quite forceful in the way it makes music. I rather like this - it reminds me of how my Naim system works but nonetheless it represents a deviation - however small - from absolute accuracy.
The Mojo however, does not deviate. As a means of hearing exactly what is on a recording, it has few equals and none that I've encountered below £1,000. What you are treated to is an unfailingly accurate and entirely honest reproduction of what is on the track. There is also nothing remotely digital about that sound. With a halfway decent recording like the Editors latest effort IN DREAM the Chord captures Tom Smith's vocals with absolute clarity and the effect is completely believable. The reproduction of tiny details is absolutely startling but they never grab the attention unnecessarily but instead wind their way into the performance perfectly.
As a DAC therefore, the Mojo is superb but it is as a headphone amp - especially with IEMs (in-ear monitors) that it really makes a claim for greatness. As I mentioned earlier, I don't have any issues with the Hugo as a device for listening to earphones but it does appear that the tweaks made to the Mojo give it the edge over its big brother. At lower levels - which is all IEMs need - the Mojo seems even quieter than the already stealthy Hugo and there is the slightest sense of sweetness to the performance that the bigger unit lacks. The combination of Mojo and the Noble 6 is a round of drinks over £1,000 and there are very few other means of listening to music - be it via cans or speakers - that can get close to how fantastic this duo sounds.
Are there any weaknesses? Perhaps. Thankfully for Chord, the Hugo is still the fractionally better choice for full size headphones - even if this is solely as a result of there being a full size headphone socket on it - and when tested as a line level DAC against the Mojo, the Hugo is preferable there too. This is partly down to the line level being set - in my opinion - slightly too high on the Mojo and the Hugo sounding slightly more refined even when levels are corrected. The Oppo doesn't go down without a fight either as that same dark character and sense of drive can make it a better subjective choice with rock or electronica and slightly better able to tame bright IEMs than the entirely neutral Mojo.
Simply put, the Mojo is a window into the music, nothing more, nothing less
- Truly outstanding audio performance
- Well built
- Well priced
- Control 'balls' are a bit weird
- Line output a touch high
- Can't act as a charger
Chord Mojo DAC & Headphone Amp ReviewDuring testing of the Mojo, I was forced to consider whether I would be handing out another Reference Status badge. In the end, I haven't but I need to be clear, that the reasons for me not doing so are miniscule and mainly based around the existence of the Hugo and items like the Naim ND5XS in the review archive. The Mojo can't be viewed as an absolute reference in this context with the existence of products like this. With this minor spate of pedantry out of the way, the rest of this conclusion is entirely positive and for this reason the Chord earns a near perfect score and, considering its price, easily earns a Best Buy badge.
If you don't want a separate DAP and instead want to achieve the best possible performance from a smartphone, this is it and to be clear, I wouldn't fancy the chances of any current portable audio player at any price against the Mojo. The Chord combines truly state of the art decoding with a headphone amp that gets IEMs in particular singing like very little else. It is easy to use and beautifully built. There are some minor aesthetic and feature quirks but the core functionality of the Mojo is so good that they are of little real concern. This is a truly outstanding product - a demonstration of how good modern digital can be and when you consider the asking price, it is a stupendous achievement on the part of Chord Electronics.
Ease of Use9
Value for Money10
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