REVIEW | „First Step Audio” series
Manufacturer: CHORD ELECTRONICS Ltd.
he scale of the event was worthy of the car or arms industry, meaning industries much, much greater than a microscopic (in comparison) high end audio industry. At 2 p.m. Greenwich time, in London's Shard - the tallest building in the UK, an ingenuous, 310m tall architectural marvel, Chord Electronics presented to the world its newest creation. And not just any creation but a one with strict directions of following a very ambitious path passed from its “parents”.
The purpose intended for the portable headphone amp/DAC Mojo (LINK) was extremely ambitious from the very beginning. It was supposed to combine two worlds, perceived as contradictory: the world of high quality audio with the world of portable devices so popular among young people today.
A bold task, not easy to accomplish, as many other manufacturers already had found out. After all – any audio device that is supposed to offer high quality sound must be big and heavy, right? Can't just be some small, light box with hardly anything inside.
Chord already tried to “convert” fans of portable audio with their brilliant headphone amp/DAC Hugo. But I think that only when Chord's management saw great sales results of this device they understood that there is still some open space on the market they could try to conquer.
Have a look at the look and size of Chord's bestselling product (even the manufacturer himself encourages customers to do so by presenting images directly comparing Hugo and Mojo) and you'll realize that it surely couldn't attract fans of portable audio. Hugo, although offering a fantastic performance, was too big to even be considered as a portable headphone amp/DAC. It might be used while traveling (I'll explain this small but important difference later), but surely not by young guys using their smartphones for almost everything they do.
So one of Mojo designers' priorities was to make it truly portable device with great ergonomics. It is much smaller and lighter than Hugo but also more user-friendly. But is it enough considering that in these aspects the predecessor wasn't doing so good?
I am a great fan of Chord designers talents and as such initially I had a hard time trying to assess Mojo's looks. One one hand I could recognized some of Chord's “DNA” here on the other it was very different from other products of this British manufacturer.
Some things did not change – a high quality aluminum case and characteristic ball-shape buttons known for example from its older brother's, Hugo – Hugo TT (LINK), design, that deliver also some information for user via different colors of backlit, proved Chord's origin. But there was no famous Chord's “glass window” allowing user to peak inside the device. It was replaced by a nice, stylish logo, much nicer than the one we can find on Hugo.
As I already mentioned, I am a Chord fan, so I'm able to accept even quite a-typical design. But being objective I have to admit that this looks won't convince everybody. Even more so because comparing it to other portable devices like, for example, AK Junior by Astell&Kern its look is not particularly appealing. Me personally, I didn't care about its appearance and I didn't feel like hiding it from my friends because of its “ugliness”. Things worked bit differently when I used it a tram – people looked at me with disapproval – how can he use such a large device? Well, this was the very first review of Mojo so when I conducted it people didn't really know the device just yet.
OPERATION OND FUNTIONALITY
One of the most important things about portable devices is how easy it is to operate them. Nobody wants to waste time struggling with a device while moving. Mojo's operation is pretty simple though. It sports only three buttons – on/off (no 1) volume up (no 2) and volume down (no 3). As I already mentioned all three of them (including on/off one) serve also as an interface for user. For example, if two volume control buttons light up green it means user might plug his headphones in without risking immediate deafness.
When these two button warm user with red color it's better not to put cans on until volume is dialed down. It seems like a smart solution that allowed manufacturer to save some space and probably also some costs, although it takes a bit of time to get used to it. After a while of using Mojo I started to treat this solution as natural one, but when I started to use it I had some troubles understanding what exactly Mojo tried to tell me.
It is worth mentioning that Mojo remembers the volume setting. It makes user's life easier – one can set the optimal volume once and forget about it, which is not the case with smartphones for example, that don't remember setting and each time one wants to listen to the music one must set required volume again. Another advantage of this device is a short battery charging time. Manufacturer declares 4 hours time for full charge and I can only confirm this fact. What's more – while charging Mojo one can still use it which means one doesn't have to stop listening when battery needs to be charged.
And finally the most difficult (for me) question – is Mojo actually a portable headphone amp/DAC or not really. Answering that question is difficult because I think there is no one correct answer to that. No doubts Mojo might be a remarkable traveling companion. It is a perfect solution if you're traveling and you can put it in your laptop bag and use it in train, on plane, or in hotel.
It will offer amazing musical experience in those places where, most of us anyway, so far had to spend time without them. Well, after explaining to our friends/spouses/kids – living travel companions why we prefer to listen to the music instead of talking to them, but I can live with that. Mojo would make for a great desktop device too – it takes a very little space on the desk, sports USB input which allows us to connect it with computer and forget about the outside world. I'll elaborate later on that but let me mention already that during my time with Mojo not even once had I used my nominal desktop reference device – three times as big, iDSD Micro by iFi Audio, that until this moment I'd considered the best option for desktop computer audio.
Another interesting option is an ability to drive two pairs of cans at the same time. Mojo had enough power to drive simultaneously quite a difficult load, Sennheiser HD800 and even more difficult to drive Audeze LCD-3. Well, OK, with these two plugged at the same time Mojo had a really hard time, but considering its size and size of these headphones it should have died immediately. But it didn't which is admirable – respect!
But is it really a portable device? Could one really use it while commuting, or spending time in the city center? To be honest – I don't really know. On one hand the new Chord is, especially considering its high-end performance, a small device, easy to operate. On the other hand it is actually not that small compared to, say, a smartphone (unless what one has is something like Samsung Galaxy Note). When you combine it with some high-end player, like one of the FiiO or HiFiMAN devices – such system would be even less portable. You won't find too much understanding or approval in the eyes of people passing by.
I assessed headphone amplifier/DAC Mojo in few different environments/situations. It worked as a part of my desktop system where I could compare it with iFi Audio iDSD (price tag around 2500 PLN, so the same as Mojo). I used it also when traveling, with my HP laptop as a source, and I compared it with much less expensive Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS (around 600 PLN). Obviously I tried it also when I went out, using USB adapter I connected it to my phone (Samsung Galaxy A3) and, using a coaxial cable, together with HiFiMAN HM-901 (priced at around 4100 PLN).
Anybody who listened to any Chord device in controlled environment know, more or less, what to expect from any other device coming from this manufacturer. Mojo definitely keep similar sonic signature, offering almost identical experience as the 10 000 PLN Hugo TT. Considering its price, Mojo does everything nearly perfectly so it is difficult to point out particular sound feature that stands out.
In fact there are at least few of them. First of all sound is so rich with details, like there was a bunch of sounds that were not there before. The bass range impressed me particularly because of its remarkable definition and control. It is powerful, punchy, but it never dominates the presentation, it plays its role. Using this solid bass foundation, midrange is amazingly rich, dense and dynamic which makes the performance simply immersive. Treble deserves a separate mention as it is very rich with details, but never too bright, screamy or tiresome.
As a result Mojo (and few previous Chord products) offers another important advantage – there is no limit for volume level – it may play very loud without side-effects (I mean on sound quality as playing loud surely might impair hearing). It happened many times that I realized after a while that I'd been using some crazy volume level disturbing other members of my family. Even when pushed to crazy levels, Mojo delivered elegant performance like no other device I knew, and I meant any, from similar or even higher price levels. Another key feature of this presentation is its coherence. All elements come nicely together, support and compliment each other. At the same time sound is particularly resolving and soundstage is really wide surprising listener with its scale. Listening to numerous albums I was always able to point out precisely phantom images placed withing soundstage in a very natural, “correct” way.
But the coolest thing about this device is that is capable of delivering a remarkable performance no matter what album one throws at it. Whatever genre, band, label, even recording quality – Mojo treats them all equally, meaning allowing them to present what's really best, most valuable in them.
I remember how thrilled and amazed I was listening to one Beatles album after another, and we all know that none of them offers actually an “audiophile” quality. But with Mojo sound became not only acceptable (I still mean a sound quality not music itself) but simply good. Same happened when I enjoyed some Slayer albums including the famous Reign in Blood from 1986 and the latest release, the Repentless. Mojo simply enhanced, improved the experience, fun and I could easily point out how.
And yet the best possible experience waits for those who's libraries contain tones of high quality recordings. Listening to the latest album by Aquavoice, Water Music & Other Early Works, recordings of Peregrin ensemble or the first ever album recorded in a Sistine Chapel (Cantate Domino by Sistine Chapel Choir) moved the experience beyond anything I heard before, it was a pure magic. Yes, each time Mojo overlaid its sonic signature on every recording but it was done for their benefit, to help them present their best “face”. I think that the best summary of this review is telling you that Mojo switched on my special “mode”, the one that tells me to listen to every possible piece of music I love just to check out how they sound on this device. Needless to say – they all sounded fantastic!
So, what should one do with such a hard-to-classify headphone amplifier as Mojo? One one hand it outperforms all competition in its price range. On the other it is supposed to be a portable amp/DAC and it's really not, it better fits more “traditional” high-end setups (although does listening via laptop/tablet as a source of signal in a hotel room really falls under “traditional” category?). If you ask me – I could live happily with Mojo for a long time, until Chord release another mind blowing product, that is.
Will it convince today's teenager to use it with his/her phone? I sincerely doubt that. Will it convince people who just entered the world of high quality audio and look for a good performance to be achieved in combination with their laptops/tablets? I bet that these features combined with excellent performance and very reasonable price will convince many of them. I am absolutely sure of that.
It might not be the most portable design, but it fully deserves RED Fingerprint for sound quality!
Specifications (according to manufacturer):
Inputs: Micro USB (up to 32 bit/768 kHz), Coax – mini Jack (up to 32 bit/768 kHz), Toslink (up to 24 bit/192 kHz), Micro USB – for charging