REVIEW: CHORD ELECTRONICS MOJO HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER & DAC
With the release of HUGO a couple of years ago, and HUGO TT more recently, Chord have stamped their authority on the DAC and headphone amplifier market, thanks to designer Robert Watts and his devotion to the cause.
HUGO raised loads of eyebrows when first announced; its small form factor meant portable audio could be taken to another level, and it was. Mighty big claims were quickly backed up by the HiFi press and enthusiasts and with its success, shortly after came the bigger ‘TT’, the not-so-portable version.
Whether it was what Robert Watts had learned from the development of those two products, or the market potential they saw for portable audio, likely both, work soon began on the next product. In fact, we now know the idea for the next product started back in 2012.
NEVER SAW ‘EM COMING
MOJO, a smaller DAC and headphone amplifier was a well-kept secret at Chord HQ. The quirky naming conventions at Chord prevailed, the name stemming from ‘Mobile Joy’. I prefer ‘BUDDY’ myself, but that’s just me.
A DSD capable DAC and headphone amplifier small enough to fit in your hand, a worldwide press embargo had punters guessing just what the extravagant product launch would be.
They never saw MOJO coming. Neither did we. The company renowned for true high-end components had already laid the foundations for a market that would see the Chord name become more well-known, and they’d shake the market up with a revolutionary new product that was affordable for most enthusiasts.
In the portable audio category, companies are racing to produce “hi-res” digital audio players, but Chord’s main man, John Franks, had the vision and the smarts to realise that consumers already had a device capable of doubling as a ‘DAP’ in their pockets. The humble smartphone; makes and takes calls, allows for selfies on-the-go, and of course, plays and streams music. It just sounds bad!
Of course, smartphones were never designed primarily as a music device. Built to a very low price, the inbuilt DAC is not of ‘audiophile’ grade quality, more “simple and crude” as Franks puts it. Nor is the headphone output anything to get excited about.
“What if we could fix that?”
Yes, Mr. Franks, you’d be on to something indeed.
Apparently, 4,000,000,000 people own mobile phones. That’s a big market to tap into. Wish I’d thought of it!
INS AND OUTS
Connected (in most instances) via a micro-USB cable to your smartphone, MOJO extracts that digital signal and bypasses the smartphone’s DAC, passing it through Watt’s ever-improving DAC code.
Franks made a great comment recently about reviewers assuming that all DACs using ‘Field Programmable Gate Arrays’ sound the same, much like DACs using off-the-shelf chips from Burr-Brown, Wolfson or AKM. Guilty as charged, to a small degree.
The fact is, FPGA’s can be looked at like a blank canvas. The artist (in this case, Watts) paints the picture, and only their talent will decide whether it will be the next Mona Lisa, or resemble something my four-year-old daughter draws on a Saturday afternoon. Her drawings are pretty good!
So Chord makes pretty good DACs now, we know that. The fact is, they’ve miniaturised the technology. That’s no small feat. The MOJO code is apparently very similar to the Hugo.
MOJO has no less than a 26000-tap digital filter, which according to Watts, “reduces quantisation noise to negligible levels, with most commercial DACs having only 20 taps or so”.
They’ve also added to it a dual output headphone amplifier that is powerful enough to drive virtually all headphones. At least, all the ones you’d be willing to wear out in public. Power is rated at 5mW into 600 Ohms, 720mW into 8 Ohms. I find the dual output handy for a/b testing various headphones.
In your hand, it feels a little like a pretty good weapon. It’s cold, solid aircraft grade aluminium with a durable matt black finish. If you’ve only see pictures of it so far, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might be plastic.
Inputs one end, outs on the other. It lends itself well to a belt clip or case I think, and I’m led to believe some accessories are coming shortly.
Paying homage to traditional Chord styling and their token port hole, free spinning clear acrylic balls allow for input selection as well as volume control. Lit up in various colours you’ll need to familiarise yourself with, they indicate bitrate and volume level, and they’re a welcome inclusion.
A world-class headphone amp and DAC that is compact enough to fit in your pocket, featuring USB, Coax and Optical inputs, plays for up to 8 hours before a recharge is needed, is simple, easy and comes in at just $899 in Australia. Seriously, folks, Chord has nailed it …
At least until I tried to connect it.
HELLO PHONE, MEET MOJO
With the supplied micro-USB cable, I tried to connect it to my Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Umm, Chord, the other end of the supplied cable has a full-size USB connector! I resorted to connecting it directly to my laptop for the initial tests. A driver download from the website, and we were up and running in no time.
Just in case Chord is reading this, I performed the required initial overnight charge, I promise. On that note, I learned you could charge and play MOJO at the same time, but you do need two micro-USB cables connected.
Ever tried buying a micro-USB to micro-USB cable? It seemed until recently they all but didn’t exist. Fortunately, I found a USB adaptor cable in the drawer of cables you’ll never need, resulting in the required micro-USB on both ends.
For iOS users, you’ll need one of Apple’s CCK cables to make the connections, apparently.
For Android, USB Audio Player seems to be the pick of the bunch for apps that support USB audio pass-through, although I didn’t have a problem getting sync with TEAC’s HR Audio player, among others. You’ll need to look elsewhere for iOS reports, sorry.
While a few of us in the press had MOJO before its worldwide release, I had heard some pretty remarkable claims that it was better than HUGO, but I went into this eyes open and tried not to be swayed.
WELCOME TO HEAD-FI
To give some perspective, I’m a HiFi enthusiast. I like to sit in a room, surrounded by sound. Headphones for me, have been more of a convenience thing. Travelling, wanting to listen to music without upsetting the rest of the household, you get my drift. While I appreciate that there are some die-hard headphone and even ‘desktop audio’ enthusiasts, I never really got it.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve listened extensively and even owned some very capable and respected headphones and associated products. However, nothing ever sucked me into wanting to don some ‘phones, over listening to a traditional HiFi setup.
It was at this point while listening on my laptop I decided to go back and read my notes on HUGO. Did I hear then what I heard now? My small, diverse and ever-changing range of headphones is different now, but I was already frantically changing between Astell&Kern’s new T8IE in-ear monitors, Grado’s ultra-affordable SR60, and the Telefunken Audion 110th Anniversary over ears.
It was refreshing to be impressed with something ‘out-of-the-box.' It seems lately every review item that comes through our office needs 100+ hours run-in time.
Not long into listening, a few audible glitches and digital artifacts later, I decided Chord was probably right about charging the MOJO for 10 hours before first use. Damn. Fortunately, everything was resolved the next day.
OH SO SWEET
Separation of instruments, spatial placement, texture and timbre of instruments, and sweet tonality. I really couldn’t fault anything I heard so far.
A recent discovery for me that has made its way to my “favorites” playlist is Lubomyr Melnyk, a Ukrainian pianist, and composer. He’s known for his ‘continuous music’, a piano technique that uses rapid notes and a complex note-series, using the sustain pedal held down to generate overtones and sympathetic resonances. These overtones blend or clash according to harmonic changes, and MOJO arguably did a better job rendering these than my PS Audio DirectStream DAC.
MOJO is stunningly revealing, true-to-source, and less digital sounding than DACs I’ve heard at many times the price. Timing in the digital domain is everything, I’m told, and far more technical than I care to understand. Assuming Watts is making major advancements in the underlying code, I’d say he’s getting pretty darn close to perfection.
The stereo separation of the electric guitars in Nils Lofgren’s “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” widens the soundstage well beyond the headphones, while you can hear the intended grunge and texture of the undoubted tube driven guitar amps.
Blues Company is a German blues band on the fantastic Inakustik label. Everything I’ve heard on this label just shines. Their 2010 release, “O’Town Grooves” is no exception, silky smooth modern blues with a bit of brass and funky bass lines.
The lower frequency response is smooth and has impact and authority. Kick drums have the presence they should, while bass lines are full and show no signs of restraint or compression.
We put it out there in the Hugo TT review earlier this year:
The Hugo TT was smooth through the frequency range but it did have a subtle lift at the top end and the same at the lower end, below around 100Hz. It’s as if you added a notch or two to the treble and the bass controls of the older style integrated amplifiers that had tone controls. It’s a classic smiley face curve. It’s difficult to imagine that it wasn’t deliberately voiced this way.
While that comment wasn’t received well by some, it wasn’t intended to be a criticism or negative at all. It’s all in the voicing, and I argue that designers are not aiming for 0db from 20Hz to 20kHz. After all, that sounds flat and lifeless.
While I won’t suggest that there is any resemblance to a smiley face curve with MOJO, I can’t help but believe there’s just a tweak at either end of the frequency response once again. Let’s call it Chord’s “house sound.” It only adds to the musicality, engagement, and warmth of sound. It’s not a bad thing. I certainly don’t like a clinical sound, and I’m sure Chord don’t either.
I’m happy to stand corrected If I’m wrong!
THE END OF THE DAY
Well, it was more than just a day. In fact, I’ve lived with MOJO for a couple of months now, both at the desk during the daily grind, as well as on-the-go. MOJO is powering the tunes as I write this now. MOJO has become a buddy indeed.
MOJO has introduced me to the joy of listening through headphones. End of story. Well, not quite, as I think the conclusion of a review ain’t so simple.
Chord Electronics’ MOJO is a revolutionary new product. It enables a whole world of potential customers to appreciate high-fidelity music, and that’s a good thing. While $899 RRP may seem very reasonable to those of us within the hobby, it’s still not affordable enough to tap into even 10%, or even 1% of those 4billion smartphone owners worldwide. We are edging much closer to undoing the damage MP3 did to the world though, thanks to Chord.
Those that were lugging a HUGO around in their backpack can now relegate it to desk duty. MOJO is up to the task.
I enjoyed the original HUGO, and at the time of its release, it was ground-breaking. It wasn’t enough though to get me into headphones, nor to purchase one myself.
MOJO sucked me in. I use it daily. It’s compact, convenient, and it just sounds bloody good. And it’s mine. I bought this one.
I have no hesitation in awarding the Chord Electronics MOJO, “Best in Class” in the combined portable headphone amplifier and DAC category, as well as an “Outstanding Value” award.
Drop into your local Chord dealer and audition one for yourself. Don’t forget to load up your smartphone with your favourite tracks first.
For more information visit Chord Electronics.
- Output Power @ 1kHz
600 ohms 35mW
8 ohms 720mW
- Output Impedance: 0.075 ohms
- Dynamic Range: 125dB
- THD @ 3v - 0.00017%