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Chord Electronics Mojo: portable audio’s new talisman? UPDATED!

  • Mr Mojo risin’. “Hello John – Any likelihood of you getting to the UK in October. We have a launch of a new product to be held in a very fancy restaurant at the top of the Shard London, Europe’s tallest building. If so, I’d like to send you an invitation. It’s on the evening of the 14th October.”

    The emailer was one John Franks of Kent’s Chord Electronics and I had a inkling as to what would be getting the champagne dinner treatment. Franks and his DAC-developing sidekick Rob Watts had alluded to a smaller, less costly Hugo over a Sydney-side Sunday lunch in February. Watts and the perpetually Dad-joking Franks were touring Australia to promote the newly launched Hugo TT.

    With my return flight from Denver’s (earlier-than-usual) RMAF already booked, a flight to London two weeks later wasn’t a possibility. Chord Electronics’ Australian distributor Radiance AV would keep me in the loop: Franks intended to bypass the usual product announcement practice of 1) issuing a press release alongside manufacturer shot photos and 2) then sending out review samples.

    Press releases often see web publication verbatim (or with the most minor of edits). “That’s standard industry practice,” said one TAS staffer at RMAF. Is it? Really? Without reporter-supplied context/insight and only manufacturer shot photos to run alongside the release, the results tend to look as if they’ve been punched from the same cookie cutter (which they have!). And if you’ve seen Dave, Rob Watts’ statement unit (that Franks referred to in Munich this year as the “Pompidou Centre of DACs”), you’ll know that Chord Electronics are anything but a cookie cutter company.

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    A rose ‘tween two thorns: John Franks and Rob Watts.

    Neither the Hugo, the Hugo TT, the 2Qute and Dave house an off-the-shelf DAC chip. Instead, they use an FPGA chip, a blank canvas onto which Rob Watts paints his code. Chord’s FPGA implementation isn’t the same as PS Audio / Ted Smith’s – one of several reasons why the Hugo/TT and DirectStream don’t sound alike.

    Think of it this way: give Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver the exact same ingredients and ask them to bake a tray of choc-chip cookies in the same kitchen and you’ll get two distinctly different results. Celebrity status aside, this is what sets them apart as chefs.

    And so too it is with DAC designers. And audio journalists. Each adopt a different approach to their craft. DAR chooses not to run incoming press releases as copy/paste jobs. Chord elects not to deploy readymade D/A converters.

    This parallel – albeit drawn by yours truly and not John Franks – might be one reason why he requested that I be one of the first to report on his company’s new product on (or after) October 15th. Or perhaps it’s because we both know that hifi is both a matter of life and death and utterly meaningless; a very English way of seeing the world. The joke here is that you’re seven paragraphs deep into a post that has yet to even mention the product. Suckers!

    It’s called Mojo.

    Happy?

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    Franks’ elaborate plans indicated that he wanted the Mojo launch to be a short, sharp shock. A cattle-prod to the rib cage, a taser to the shoulder blades. The Shard was booked, invites were dispatched, a competition was run on Head-fi (clue!) for one lucky reader to attend the launch dinner and – more unusually – review samples were sent out before the announcement proper.

    For maximum impact, the event would be shrouded in more than a little secrecy and news of Mojo would be embargoed until launch day. Am I a player or am I played?

    Despite Mojo being a strong hand for Chord Electronics to play (you’ll see why shortly), a product launch like this doesn’t come cheap and without financial risk. For those in the know, an embargo is not a light suggestion lest they risk future intel/product supply.

    Only yesterday, a would-be party pooper in the form of an overseas distributor putting his product page live too early came and went just long enough for Google to cache details and an eagle-eyed Head-fi-er to make public news of Watts’ latest DAC: the Chord Mojo. A leaky bladder is one thing but fucks not given by writers of ensuing ‘news’ stories reporting on the leak, embargo be damned, are likely seen by Franks and co. as dicks shaking dribbled piss into the launch party punch before even a drop has been served.

    Permission was sought from John Franks to publish this piece ahead of tomorrow’s embargo lift.

    What are we talking about again? That’s right: Rob Watts’ latest DAC: the Chord Mojo.

    With Hugo sales reportedly having defied even the most optimistic of forecasts, Franks spied an opportunity for his company to further capitalise on portable audio’s upward trend. Mojo is a concatenation of Mobile Joy.

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    The Hugo (review here) was, initially at least, squarely aimed at those looking to soup up sound quality whilst on the go but many owners were so taken by its filigreed and gossamery handling of detail delivery that it usurped main rig rivals in two channel systems. “Its success came in spite of its size,” says Franks.

    And if the more luxurious Hugo TT (review here) was intended to soak up the stay-at-home-audiophile demand, the Mojo points us in the other direction: smaller and more affordable. In his presentation at the Shard this evening, Franks will cite the world’s 3.5 billion smartphone users as Mojo’s target market.

    Mojo brings better sound to those same users by extracting digital audio from a smartphone’s microUSB or Lightning port and decoding it and amplifying it to more exacting standards than those offered by Apple or Samsung.

    The Chord Mojo is a DAC and headphone amplifier. US$599 in the USA, GBP399 in the UK, AU$899 in Australia.

    My review sample arrived a few days ago and it sounds noticeably superior to the iPod Touch. And for once the ‘night and day’ cliche applies: the Mojo’s SQ trounces that of the Samsung Galaxy S5.

    In its engine room sits a Rob Watts-coded FPGA (Xilinx’s less costly Artix-7) and a battery: up to 10 hours to discharge, 4 hours to fully recharge. The Mojo one-ups the original Hugo with the mains charger sending its advance apologies of its absence. Power instead comes over USB into one of two micro-USB sockets. The other is for connection to a smartphone. Or computer. Connect both USB inputs – one for power, one for data – to charge as you listen.

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    The Mojo’s digital inputs aren’t restricted to USB. (Some) Astell&Kern-ers, gamers, Apple TVers and those with a mini-toslink outputting PC or Mac will likely welcome the Chord’s inclusion of a toslink input. There’s a 3.5mm mini-coaxial digital input too; not to be confused with the twin 3.5mm headphone outputs located at the other end of the unit. The casework is all aluminium with the underside’s four corners dotted with rubber feet. That ‘Mojo’ font – straight outta Microsoft Works?

    I’m willing to bet John Franks has underestimated just how many people will use Mojo as a desktop DAC. AudioQuest Dragonfly on steroids? A quick A/B says hell yeah.

    Both coaxial and USB inputs can accept PCM data rates of up to 32bit/768kHz as well as up to DSD256. The optical tops out at PCM 24bit/192kHz, no DSD.

    Of more practical importance for street life is the Mojo’s size and weight. 82mm x 60mm x 22m and 181 grams.

    On output grunt, Chord play it confident but not overblown: 35mW into 600 Ohms, 720mW into 8 Ohms. IEM users will want to know the Mojo’s output impedance: 0.075 Ohms brings everyone home. Compared to the Pono Player, the Mojo is more energetic and widescreen of presentation when driving a pair of (seriously impressive) Campfire Audio Lyra IEM. How’s that for a super clean, transient incisive pairing that’ll fit in a coat pocket?

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    With review units only landing down under this week, my initial thoughts come with an un/healthy salt sprinkle. The Mojo seems to mainline the house sound of its more expensive siblings and as such is perhaps better suited to headphones that don’t share its preference for detail excavation as priority number one. The Pono doesn’t play that way and is a better match for the Lyra as a result.

    I can picture the Mojo being a good match with Cardas’ EM5813 Ear Speakers. I know it’s a good match for the $30 Xiaomi Piston 2.1 where the Chord unit really helps the already big-bottomed Chinese-made IEMs to peel the midrange onion.

    Going larger with a pair of the slightly warmer HiFiMAN’s HE-400S proves not only to be a sound Mojo match but Dr Fang’s entry-level cans also make it considerably harder to contest the Chord-rated 125db dynamic range – impressive on paper and in reality.

    The Mojo’s back story and vital stats covered, I’m making this post a sticky. More in-depth, listening impressions, comparisons as well as additional thoughts are still to come but don’t expect their arrival until AFTER Chord Electronics’ London launch event has blown its last party streamer.

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    Despite my being midway through honouring the ritual of burn in, the Mojo was compared to the AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2 and the Resonessence Labs Herus. Mojo stitches details together in a far more intricate web than its less costly rivals; it’s altogether more talented at revealing the inner-complexities of music and therefore more immersive. It’s also more extended up top but I’d still peg the Herus as the most muscular of the three. Painting with more finesse but less physical expression than the Herus, the Mojo is closest to the Dragonfly’s similarly more lightweight take. Some might find the Dragonfly’s comparative smoothing of the cymbals and snare hits to be more conducive to long term listening. That said, the Mojo can drive the HiFiMAN HE-1000 to more satisfying SPLs than the AudioQuest dongle.

    Also worth noting is each DAC’s ability to play ball (or not) with iPhone 6, iPod Touch 5G and iPad Air 2: the Dragonfly is barred at every turn by Apple’s power draw red card. So too (now) is the Herus. That the new Mojo is able to get frisky with each Apple unit’s rear end without a retaliatory slap to the face is good news for anyone looking to supercharge the sound quality of their iOS device. The launch day’s interstitial conclusion then: in 9 out of 10 respects, you get what you pay for with the Chord Mojo.

    After a coupla days use the Mojo gives up more of its personality. This DAC-amplifier’s sonic flavour is one of candy floss, cotton candy, fairy floss (or whatever you call it in your part of the world): turning over music’s structural delicacies with a certain granular sweetness and extending the uppermost frequencies such that transient decay is served with ladder-to-the-sky extension and recording space ambience is VERY well communicated; on depth and width and all-round inner-space immersion the Mojo aces both Astell&Kern’s AK Jr, which sounds hard and steely in the top end by comparison. Or perhaps the Mojo possesses an uncanny knack for presenting music as a spider’s web: a powerful whole built from the intricate stitching together of seemingly fragile component parts.

    Compared to the AK120 II, the Astell&Kern has the thicker, richer bass thump of the two but cannot match the Mojo’s the starry-eyed wonder when it comes to detail delivery. In this sense, the Mojo sits closer to a planetarium experience. Moreover, the Mojo’s low frequency extension is considerably better than one might expect from a US$599 component – bass notes have greater clarity than the Resonessence Labs Concero HP – but not the latter’s gritted teeth delivery. Here the Mojo sounds more graceful and effortless.

    I don’t foresee the Chord DAC/amp pairing too well with MrSpeakers similarly aerated Ether. Like the Hugo before it, the Mojo is better matched to ‘phones that pull (and push) their own acoustic weight. The Sennheiser HD650, rewired for balanced XLR termination by ALO Audio and then downsized by two adaptors (XLR-6.4mm then 6.4mm-3.5mm) by yours truly, bring sufficient meat to the table for the Chord to slice and dice.

    On seasoning, the Mojo is pure paprika – piquant sweet. Its burnt orange colour lively to the eye, its tongue taste predominantly front palette. Tone colours aren’t as deeply hued as the Aqua La Voce S2’s smouldering cumin rub but Rob Watts FPGA-hosted spice cuts through more sharply.

    More as time permits… More here.

    Further information: Chord Electronics

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    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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