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Going home and away with the Chord Poly

  • Home. Berlin, Thursday, 5.30am. Sleep was elsewhere. I was wrong. Not just the title of the 8-minute closing of The Sisters of Mercy’s Vision Thing – on this morning streaming via Roon from an Intel NUC, via Ethernet cabling, to the Chord Mojo – but also the concept of having erred. I’d previously pegged the Mojo as one of the finest DACs available below a grand but with the qualifier that it was, at times, a smidge bright and ever-so-slightly thin. I not considered that these audible characteristics might have come from the USB cable and the network streamer.

    That is, until now. The British company’s entry-level, portable, battery-powered DAC had never sounded better. Executing the hand-off of ones and zeroes now was the Chord Poly (£499/US$750), the Mojo’s bespoke network streamer that slots into its digital input socket array for a directly-coupled USB connection. Mojo becomes Mojo-Poly whose coaxial and TOSLINK inputs lay dormant. Catch up on the Poly introduction here and here. The Mojo was reviewed here.

    For a speckless view of Vision Thing’s internal organs, the Mojo is nigh impossible to beat below the $1K marker, even with a MacBook Air as source and a cheap USB cable connecting the two. Going digital direct with Chord’s direct-connecting Poly – no USB cable – wrestles any qualifying quibbles to the ground.

    Poly’s hardware setup could not be simpler. On software, it’s a different story, both because of Poly’s extensive feature set and the forthcoming iOS GoFigure configuration app that seeks to smooth the setup process. Buckle-up, boyo. We’ll be travelling at speed and there’ll be some bumps along the way.

    When Poly arrived last October in a presentation box that dreamt of a life outside the audiophile ghetto, its initial network setup went like this: clip Poly onto Mojo; power on Mojo which then powers on Poly; put Poly into config mode via a pinhole push (below the microSD slot), connect a smartphone to Poly’s newly-created ad-hoc wireless network; pull up the Poly.Audio config page; enter wireless network credentials; activate Roon mode; reboot. The Mojo-Poly pairing was now a Roon Ready* streamer.

    Six months later I had access to a beta of Chord Electronics’ GoFigure app that, for iOS users at least, takes the hassle out of Poly setup: GoFigure exploits Poly’s Bluetooth connection for device config and operational mode change-ups (of which there are several). I began with Poly in Network Mode, connected to my home wifi network. Per the pinhole setup method, once rebooted, Poly’s LED flashes blue (on and off) whilst searching for the home network and locks green once connected.

    Working as a strawberries-and-cream two-fer with Mojo set to line-level output, the Mojo-Poly package sees off the (Roon Ready) AURALiC Aries Mini’s analogue outputs on avidity and punch. A closer call comes from the Sonore’s microRendu hooked into the Mojo with AudioQuest Carbon USB wire; here the conjoined Mojo-Poly wins out on rhythmic poise and richness, especially in the lower treble to which many listeners, including myself, are sometimes sensitive. Next to the Mojo-Poly, the AQ/Sonore pairing opens the curtains on a little more daytime glare than I’d like.

    It was now February and I’d been listening like this since Christmas, conducting streaming DAC comparisons with a pre-amplifier from PS Audio and active loudspeakers from Genelec. As the winter sun slowly pulled itself up from behind the 4-storey buildings that line Friedrichstr., a pair of Signature Edition ProAc Tablette and an AVC pre-d Vinnie Rossi LIO was now doing the heavy lifting. The week prior, it was a pair of Sennheiser HD800S headphones, run balanced from the LIO’s XLR headphone socket, that reminded me of the Mojo’s cleanly defined take interpretation of the low bass tones and textures that swing pendulously throughout Rhythm & Sound’s dubbed-up The Versions.

    The Mojo-Poly not only renders the USB cable redundant but its 9-hour internal battery keeps streamer and Mojo DAC away from a potentially noisy mains power supply. Heck, money not spent on a fancy USB cable or deluxe power conditioner would cover a Mojo-Poly purchase. Moreover, with Vinnie Rossi’s LIO in play, the entire hi-fi system runs off-grid. A USB charging cable can be connected to the Mojo-Poly 24/7 should you so wish.

    The doorbell rang. It was 6am. Did I know what time it was? Yes – time for headphones. I hit mute on the LIO and pulled the Zu Mission interconnect from the Mojo’s 3.5mm analogue output (of which there are two), picked up the Mojo-Poly and placed it on a side table ready for a pair of AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon and John Tejada’s Dead Start Program, the latest in his line of long players that pick up on bouncy, big-room electronica right where Orbital left it.

    Roon Ready and battery powered, the Mojo-Poly isn’t tied to the hi-fi rack or even the listening room. Dropped into a back pocket and drawing the finest audible result thus far from a pair KZ ATE IEMs, I grooved to John Tejada’s Fabric 44 DJ mix – gaplessly – whilst mopping the bathroom floor. I then pulled up Orbital’s Brown Album whilst making an omelette downstairs in the kitchen.

    In the bathroom, the Mojo-Poly had dropped its Roon server connection too frequently to be tolerable. Fingering my ISP-provided modem/router as the most likely culprit, a Google Wifi kit was brought in to give my two-floor apartment more reliable wifi coverage. Problem solved! Oh – know that Poly only sees 2.4GHz wireless networks.

    Assessing audio gear isn’t only about a writer’s own preferences. S/he must think of others. In my Mojo-Poly-d home streaming scenario, that meant considering Roon-less users. After another coffee, I used the GoFigure app on my iPhone to move Poly’s operation mode from Roon to ‘Other’. On a GoFigure-free Android phone, I access a less elegantly-styled Poly config panel by pointing a browser at Poly.Audio.

    A Poly reboot shuts down Roon Readiness and pushes UPnP into service. Android’s Bubble UPnP and iOS’ 8Player apps now see my network’s NUC-hosted UPnP server and Poly’s renderer but pushing play once more on the John Tejada Fabric mix reminds me of why I (almost) never use UPnP – gapless playback is absent. That’s not a Chord thing, It’s a UPnP thing.

    As a second alternative to Roon and running in parallel to UPnP, Chord have specified the lesser-known Music Player Daemon (MPD). MPD smartphone clients tend to be more spartan than their UPnP counterparts but they’re generally faster and – crucially – play gaplessly without issue.

    There are numerous freely available MPD control apps from which to choose – on Android I opt for Mupeace. On iOS MPDluxe gets the nod. Neither offer UPnP’s automatic server discovery – an MPD limitation. Instead, we must enter the MPD server’s (Poly’s) IP address into the smartphone app manually – a one-time deal if the IP address is fixed but most users will probably have their router auto-allocating IP addresses dynamically. Fing, a free download for Android and iOS, helps us keep track of any changes.

    Installing an MPD server on Windows is simple enough but on MacOS it can be trickier (and falls beyond the scope of this article). Nevertheless, iMac and MacBook users shouldn’t write MPD off just yet. Chord have stuffed Poly’s sleeve with extra tricks, the first of which is Poly’s internal server software.

    Slide a microSD card into Poly’s side and it will serve up the card’s contents via UPnP and MPD. Bring a protocol-appropriate app into the picture and we see Poly play server and renderer (client).

    With the Chord addendum still running in Network mode, I had Bubble UPnP (Android) instruct Poly to serve The Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me OST to itself before repeating the same process with 8Player (on iOS) and Planetary Assault Systems’ Arc Angel, if only to confirm that Poly-as-UPnP server works as advertised. It does…mostly. With Bubble UPnP, playback occasionally stopped for no apparent reason when using. The fault might sit with Poly, or it could be UPnP playing up, or a Bubble UPnP issue or even a Xiaomi Mi A1 bug. Debugging is best left to the professionals – my job is simply to report my experiences and provide some context.

    The more we hear about authorial intention (“As The Artist Intended”), the more UPnP’s absence of gapless playback – a full second between tracks that we don’t get from the CD – continues to grinds this techno album-focussed listener’s gears. Thankfully, MPD delivers Arc Angel’s track transitions seamlessly (as the artist intended!) and offers greater connection stability than UPnP.

    For the record, and so it isn’t read erroneously, I’m not anti-UPnP, I’m pro-gapless (and pro-software-stability). An attitude brings us to the Glider iOS app (~€10) that, with Poly turning app developer Joe Stelmach’s head, now gives us the best of both worlds. Glider harnesses the power of two simultaneously-running server protocols to exploit UPnP’s automatic device discovery but hand-off Poly playback to MPD’s gapless playback engine.

    If the microSD card is removed, Poly’s MPD server shuts down to leave Glider as an immensely pleasing UPnP control app that suffers none of the occasional (and inexplicable) playback interruptions haunting this commentator’s Android / Bubble UPnP usage. Glider is a must-have for iPhone/iPad users because it makes the Poly experience more enjoyable.

    Glider’s ability to sidestep niggles reminds us that the smartphone is not only Poly’s main control point but also its display. In my office, I gave MGMT’s Little Dark Age a first listen that, like most music, benefits from the Audeze’s LCDi4 speed in Mojo-Poly hands. Were Poly to have a display, on the desktop I’d be able to read it without issue but downstairs, lassoed to the LIO, with yours truly sitting two metres back, reading anything smaller than the LIO’s volume numbering would be close to impossible. As we shall see, the absence of a screen isn’t a bug but a feature.

    My mate Barry e-mailed from Sydney: “Oi, Darko! How’s it going in Berlin? I got rid of my home Internet connection and I no longer have a modem/router. All my Internet data comes from my iPhone. How would I use the Mojo-Poly to play Spotify?” I had an inkling that Barry was trying to trip up my enthusiasm for the Chord streamer on a technicality.

    “Hey Barry – Easy. You’d use the GoFigure app (or Poly.Audio) to enter your phone’s SSID and password and then reboot Poly back into Network mode. Poly would then connect to your phone’s internet connection. Chord’s software team have Spotify Connect development on the roadmap but it’s not ready yet. When it is, Poly’s firmware will update in the background; you might not even notice. Until then, the workaround is an easy one: you stream Spotify from iPhone to Poly via Airplay. Only this week I dug into Nina Kraviz’s 2018 Awakenings’ DJ set, streaming it via Airplay to Poly from a Macbook Air that pulled on my home internet connection. All you’d be doing is telling Poly to use your phone as a modem/router. Isn’t it nice that Chord gives us so many connectivity possibilities?”

    The number one condition of entry to the GoFigure beta testing programme laid down by Chord was that I share nothing from inside the app before it lands in the App Store

    Our man from down under fired back the next morning: “OK. Understood. But what happens if my mobile Internet connection goes down? And besides, it’s well known that hot-spotting a phone’s Internet connection runs the battery down more rapidly. Doubly so with Airplay. And what about Android users who haven’t sourced some obscure Airplay workaround?” Yikes – Barry had a point. Strike that. He had three.

    One less-than-satisfactory answer to the absence of Airplay (for ‘Droiders) is to use Bluetooth. The latter comes up short because of its data compression. Lossy Bluetooth just doesn’t sound as good as lossless Airplay. This is especially noticeable with the Poly – it features none of the optional codecs beyond the mandatory SBC. No LDAC, no aptX, no AAC.

    Adding insult to insult, Poly’s Bluetooth connection management isn’t like other Bluetooth devices. In its current state of development, Poly won’t allow the disconnection of one Bluetooth source device and the immediate reconnection of another. She demands a reboot in-between. (I’m guessing here but) It’s likely that Chord doesn’t intend Poly’s Bluetooth connectionless for audio streaming and more for device configuration via their GoFigure app.

    In addressing Barry’s point about using Poly with zero Internet connection, our story, along with Poly’s operational mode, now turns (to) away.

    The GoFigure app (and/or the Poly.Audio web config page) allows us to cut Poly over into a something called Hotspot* mode where the Chord streamer becomes a wifi router/hub without an Internet connection. In Hotspot mode, Poly presents as a wifi hotspot to proximate smartphones and tablets (and PCs and Macs) and doles out IP addresses accordingly.

    Getting Poly into Hotspot mode means paying attention to operational details that go beyond the already jam-packed instruction manual. After clicking Poly-12345678 in the phone’s network settings, iOS users should (counter-intuitively) click ‘cancel’ on the ensuing sign-on screen and then ‘use without Internet’’ to complete the connection. Android users should click the three dots in the upper right of the sign-on (Poly.Audio) screen before hitting ‘Use this network as is’. [Side note: Android devices that keep the mobile data connection alive whilst connected to wifi by default will need to be told not to. Google will tell you how.]

    With Poly in Hotspot mode, the iPhone and/or Android device talks to it directly over wifi. Roon is now out of the picture but we can still do many of things we did in Network mode: Airplay remains but for streaming services, we must fall back on offline content. Bubble UPnP users will see their Android device show up as a UPnP server allowing any music sitting inside the phone’s storage to be streamed via UPnP to Poly. Most useful of all, we can push play on the microSD card’s contents using any UPnP or MPD app. Or Glider.

    Can you see where we’re headed? The Chord Mojo-Poly is battery powered. It can play music from a microSD card. Instead of playback control coming from a touch screen, our wifi-direct-connected smartphone does the talking. iPhone users wanting to dig into offline Spotify or Tidal content get the bonus benefit of Airplay. In other words, Mojo-Poly is a DAP without a screen or customised (read: functionally hamstrung) operating system, its control revolving around the smartphone, no USB cable required.

    Back to that super-chilly winter’s Thursday that started at 5.30am with albums from The Sisters of Mercy, John Tejada and Orbital. I took the Mojo-Poly, clipped inside its plastic case, to the gym for a 10km bike ride soundtracked by Tales of Us. iPhone playback control came courtesy of Glider.

    It’ll come as no surprise to existing Mojo users that the Mojo-Poly runs rings around the Sony NW-ZX2 DAP on output power, detail, acoustic mass, bass weight, heft, treble extension and rhythmic poise. You name it, the Mojo-Poly does it better.

    That SQ performance delta is narrowed a little by the AudioQuest DragonFly connected to the Xiaomi Mi A1 with OTG USB cable but in terms of sound quality, the Chord double-pack still remains the best of the three and by a convincing margin. Only one device here – the Sony – asks that we use a long out-of-date operating system and its laggier UI.

    Returning home to field some emails, the LCDi4 got their own office workout via Darren Nye’s Emotional Intelligence EP, released on the Firescope label run by B12’s Steve Rutter. Reminded of Rutter’s earlier work and wanting to hear Time Tourist for the first time in a long time, I needed to put Poly back in Roon mode. That meant moving the Chord streamer from Hotpost mode to Network mode – easily done with GoFigure app, slightly less so via the Poly.Audio browser-based config on Android (but still manageable).

    The next morning I wanted to take the Mojo-Poly to the gym once more but this time with the Xiaomi Mi A1 and Mupeace app in charge of Poly in Hotspot mode, her IP address always I could have easily used the iPhone’s GoFigure app to bounce Poly from Network mode to Hotspot mode before I left the house but I thought it fair to consider Android users. GoFigure won’t be showing up in the Google Play Store for a while yet.

    Poly’s operational modes can also be switched up with headphones on and a long push to the pin-hole below the microSD card slot. Keep the pin depressed as a synthesized female voice reads through menu options. When she says, “Mode: enter Hotspot mode”, let the pin pressure go until she finishes saying, “Mode: press to enter hotspot mode” – then press the pin-hole again, this time with a short click, and wait for Poly to restart. Poly can be returned to Network mode in a similar fashion – hold the pin down until you hear “Mode: enter Network mode”.

    Know that I prefer to use Hotspot mode’s Poly.Darko web interface to specify Roon operation before clicking the ‘Reboot on save’ button and heading back into Network mode. The pin-hole method I reserve for moving Poly into Hotspot mode.

    Until GoFigure arrives, these functional oddities will lead less-experienced Poly users down some dark alleys and occasional into dead ends. Perseverance is the only way to unlock those eureka moments: “Oh, so that’s how it works!”.

    With great power comes great responsibility. For end users and reviewers. No other product has commanded more of my time in sussing out its signal routing possibilities in the seven years I’ve been writing about audio. At home, the Mojo-Poly is a Roon streamer, a UPnP streamer, an MPD streamer and an Airplay streamer. As are many products like it.

    For home listeners, the downward price pressure being applied to the entry-level network streamer by the Raspberry Pi and its audio HATs means the retail space carved out by the Sonos Connect is not the retail cakewalk it once was. For regular readers still wondering, into the Mojo, the Poly offers greater image solidity than the ALLO DigiOne and custom S/PDIF wire. Such comparisons seem trite when Chord have tailored Poly to physically fit the Mojo. Mojo users seeking the ‘best’ price-appropriate home streamer for their DAC, the Poly is it. A DAR-KO Award effortlessly earned.

    And yet Chord have extended the Mojo’s with a 9-hour battery power, microSD card reader and pocketability for portability, at home AND away: for commuting via the train/plane, for working out at the gym or wandering the streets of our own towns.

    Astell&Kern’s AK Connect augments microSD card playback with UPnP and real-time Tidal streaming but doesn’t permit offlined Tidal (at the record labels’ behest) and there’s no Roon, no MPD and no Airplay. Also in doubt is a DAP’s – any DAP’s – ability to match the Mojo on the breadth of headphone compatibility through its combination of raw power, low output impedance and low electrical noise – one sound technical reason for not adding a screen to Poly.

    To DAP manufacturers whose sales figures don’t rise/fall on bragging rights and brand image, the Mojo-Poly should have them in a cold sweat, especially when they see the Chord pairing coming in at under a grand and aceing many of their existing US$2K+ models on functionality and sound quality.

    Chord Electronics is the first to admit that developing software takes time. GoFigure will launch first on iOS with an Android version to come later (at which point we can all drop the config pin method). When it does I will be able to say with confidence that the Chord Electronics has pulled off one heck of an ambitious project with aplomb, making good on the double disruption foreseen by yours truly at product launch. I emphasis project (not product) because the next streamer coming down the Kent turnpike – the 2go, a ‘Poly’ for Hugo2 – will cement Chord Electronics’ reputation as one of the most adventurous and forward-thinking digital audio manufacturers of the decade.

    Further information: Chord Electronics

    Footnote #1: Chord’s software team are currently trying to iron out a glitch with iOS Bluetooth where the host device fails to drop the previous Poly connection and shows duplicate units in iOS’ Bluetooth panel. The workaround before reconnecting is to tell iOS to forget both Polys, reboot Poly and restart iOS’ Bluetooth.

    Footnote #2: Poly is yet to be formally certified as Roon Ready.

    Footnote #3: Hotspot mode was previously referred to by Chord as Access Point mode.

    Written by John

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

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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