Chord Electronics, purveyors of handmade British hifi - since the eighties, no less - have been making waves with their innovative DACs and headphone amplifiers. With flagship units such as the Hugo2 breaking the sonic barriers reserved for unforgiving audiophiles, their entry-level USB DAC/headphone amp, the Mojo, is aimed at audiophiles with a slightly lower budget. It’s among one of the most intriguing designs we’ve encountered, but does it match up to Chord’s legacy? We spent a month with one, and here’s our verdict…
If you are somewhat unfamiliar with DACs, this may just seem like splashing out a lot of dough on some exotic ‘audio enhancing box’ - you could, after all, get a speaker upgrade which is well above ‘entry level’ for that amount. If that’s the case you could do worse than checking our in-depth piece on DACs before continuing this read - and yeah, the Mojo is in the top picks too.
Peeling the Mojo out of its box, it feels very sturdy to the touch, neither too light nor too heavy. The unit is roughly the size of a full deck of playing cards and its rectangular black box appearance is spiced up by three mini opaque-looking balls - just a size up from a regular garden pea.
These produce a slight click when pressed and rotate freely in their sockets - a really interesting button design, because yeah, they are buttons marked with mini symbols underneath - one for ‘power’, and the other two with + and - for volume adjustments. Holding the power button ‘on’ for two seconds wakes the Mojo and this process greets you with the buttons going into a full ‘Christmas Tree’ mode, flashing their lights and fading from color to color. All this is followed by a quiet click and the unit is ready for use.
This is a good place to mention that the Mojo runs on a rechargeable battery and requires around ten hours of charging before its first use. One of the two micro-USB ports on the side is dedicated for charging (a mini light stays on until charge is complete) and the second is purely for data streaming from your player of choice, whether that may be a computer or a handheld ‘smart’ device. When fully charged, the Mojo will last around ten hours of continuous playback and consecutive charging takes much less times - approximately four hours or so.
Next to the mini-USB ports you’ll find two additional connections dedicated for inputting digital audio streams - a 3.5mm coaxial and a optical S/PDIF. The all-important headphone output is on the other side of the unit, and oh glory, there are two in fact!
In terms of physical details, we like such minute details as the eight mini screws at the bottom - they are of the hexa-variety, requiring a mini-allen key instead of a Philips screw driver. This keeps curiosity and idle thumbs at bay - the Mojo is far from being user-serviceable, after all.
A little about functions. The power button changes color depending on the audio bitrate - the Mojo auto-senses the audio sample rate as well as the type of audio file being played - for instance white light is reserved for DSD files. Volume adjustments are also indicated with the volume control buttons changing color - a real gradual visual change.
Before we move on, one last thing - if holding the two volume buttons pressed for a few moments, the headphone preamp will be bypassed (buttons illuminating in light blue) and the Mojo is ready for a full tilt Line Level output - this can be potentially damaging to headphones, so make sure it is reserved for use with Line Level equipment only - mixers, active speakers and so on. A full manual is available for viewing here.
(It’s worth noting that Chord recently launched Poly, which turns the Mojo into a “high-resolution wireless network music player, streamer and SD card playback device, with wireless playback and control from smartphones.” We haven’t had a chance to test this yet, but we’ll report back!)
The Chord Mojo USB DAC is a true plug ‘n’ play affair and its versatility is one of the strongest selling points as it will happily work with a Mac, PC or any handheld smart device - iOS or Android. When linked to Apple (or Linux OS) computers all you need to do is select the Chord Mojo as the default audio playback device (Sound Preferences) and you are up and running.
For Windows machines you do need to download and install a driver from Chord Electronics’ website and every version of Windows since Vista is supported. As is often the case with Windows drivers, the installation procedure can be a bit of a pain but if facing any issues, just follow the steps as advised in the manual. In this operating system the Mojo can be used in several streaming modes - Direct Sound (DS), Kernel Streaming (KS) and WASAPI. These are dependant on the type of audio player of your choice and we won’t go too deeply into this as it is again explained really well in the Mojo operating manual.
Android OS device operation requires an OTG USB cable (On The Go) which allows native USB audio streaming - that’s all really. Chord do recommend hi-res players such as USB Audio Player or Onkyo HF Player as their settings really suit external DACs.
Apple iOS handhelds (iPhones and iPads) need to be of a fairly recent generation (later than 2012 model basically) as only lightning port models are supported (no 30-pin port models). Again, a cable kit will be needed (Apple camera converter) for the lightning port, and the Onkyo HF Player is again superb for any audio at any bitrate and that includes DSD files.
Forget the fairy lights and other smart features; at the end of the day if you are paying good money for a supposed world-class audio performance, this needs to be just so, right?
The DAC market has exploded in recent years, and when shopping for a new DAC, most people first compare audio resolution bitrate specs. The Mojo is not shy in the bitrate figure department - it is, in fact, pretty much unique at this price range with its ability to play digital audio of up to 768kHz! If CD audio can be described as ‘proper’, this means that the Mojo can deal with audio resolutions that are seventeen times that. That’s scary bitrate headroom, and this also makes the Mojo the absolute don for DSD file playback.
Connected to a Macbook running a hi-res audio player such as Tidal amongst few others, it takes us no time to get a sound out of the Mojo. And there it is - after listening to some 192KHz masters the difference (to a regular DAC audio) is hardly imaginary. It is the difference between first listening to something with tired ears, after running all day through a loud city crowd...vs. enjoying your favourite pair of cans in a quiet listening room after a good night’s rest.
Words like clarity, depth and detail come to mind - you can hear deep into the mix and the sense of dynamics are also immensely improved - Mojo’s soundstage is wide and airy, very much the audio equivalent to a widescreen movie experience and nothing in the mix feels crammed - instruments and voices sound vibrant, with a lot of separation.
The bass content is full and tight - all the way down to the sub registers. The top frequencies display a lot of sizzle - present, yet silky, and never harsh. The all-important, ‘make it or break it’ mid-range stays true and fair with any kind of audio material - spoken word, acoustic Americana and all the way through contemporary Nashville productions, piano concertos, raunchy rock guitars, as well as urban beats that really challenge the high mids of any audio system. The Mojo simply shines.
A pleasant surprise was to experience the headphone preamp volume controls. Now this may seem an odd statement, but after spending a long time controlling your volume through a big volume knob or long throw faders, regular ‘up’ and ‘down’ buttons can so often feel super annoying. Not this pair though. Mojo’s amp volume increments are so fine and adjustments feel so smooth and gradual that it’s been a real pleasure to use these fairy light buttons (as we call them now). Lastly, if you’ve wondered why the heck does this thing need to charge longer than any smartphone...the answer is again about the headphone amp. This thing can power any headphones - with impedances up to 600Ω.
With a street price, (which now probably means not a local brick-and-mortar hi-fi shop, but Amazon) of around $500, calling the Chord Mojo ‘entry level’ may indeed sound like a joke to many. But ‘entry level’ here is only on account of Chord Electronics’ usual standards. Being the cheapest out of the current five or six DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) models available on the company’s site, the Mojo shares much of the clever industry-leading tech that made its pricier siblings Hugo and Dave into household names amongst audiophiles.
Since our paws were itchy for some DAC action, we are extra keen to check the kind of magic that ex-aircraft electronics designer John Franks (Founder, Chief Engineer) and his team have managed to squeeze into their collective Mojo.
The box is matt black and small enough to hold in one’s palm. Chord’s graphic design team have done a sterling job of offsetting the dark packaging with a clear image of the unit on top of the box, surrounded by a handful recent industry awards and review quotes (out of many more bagged by the Mojo since its release in October 2015).
When opening the box our attention is grabbed by ten circles in a full spectrum of rainbow colors printed on the two sides of the inner box - a hint at the Mojo’s chameleon ability to change its button colors as a visual guide to different frequency sample rates. We already mentioned that multiple functions and modes are also indicated by color changes, so it's nice to see it echoed here.
The rest of the packaging consists of little more than the wrapped unit itself and the surrounding white foam shock absorbers, keeping it safely tucked away from harm.
With so much writing on the box (the intended purpose of the unit, OS compatibility, industry quotes, etc.), there’s hardly any use for a printed manual booklet. Not many manufacturers do that anymore anyway - on account of Amazonian forest preservation, manufacturing costs and of course the fact that everyone now checks stuff online. The only accessory the Mojo comes with is a single 10mm micro USB charging cable.
That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It’s all you need to get this baby going, aside from your headphones. Chord Electronics are sort of humble (but clever) by allowing you to get any additional cables and bits you might need for the Mojo...by purchasing the official Mojo Cable Pack.
You do get everything with this - from elastic bands for attachment the DAC to smartphones, to the full selection of cables you might ever need - to help out in any situation. Similarly, with something so precious and fairly small, you can also add the beautifully designed Mojo Case - “Protect your investment’ it says and it doesn’t get more self-explanatory than this. All we can add is that all of these accessories are absolute top notch in terms of quality.
Despite its many clever features, digital connections, super-versatility and so on, the one ‘feature’ we’ve been most impressed with has been the Chord Mojo’s audio detail.
There is a running joke among music producers that they are never able to hear ‘that’ sound again after leaving the audio mastering suite (the place where only the pair of speakers are worth $100K). The Mojo kicks up a very close second place to that scenario in our opinion and for the price bracket, it really gives an astounding performance.
- Stupendous specs.
- Excellent and detailed audio quality.
- Clever ergonomics.
- Dual outs.
- Gets quite hot.
For a similar spec level, and amount and going for the same portable setup, you could also check out the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label ($549). This is still a small DAC, though a bit larger than the Mojo - roughly as large as a smartphone. It’s designed with a good-sized volume control and again, this unit can be handles of up to twelve hours of playback and if your smartphone starts running out of battery power, the DAC can kick in a SmartPower USB option to charge your device - a cool feature!
Conversion is handled by the famed Burr-Brown brand of chipsets - up to 24-bit/768kHz, and as the iDSD part of its title suggests, the iFi can handle DSD, or any other file for that matter, with aplomb. It doesn’t reach Mojo’s staggering high conversion rates though.
Our second alternative is the Audio-Technica AT-PHA100, a very formidable DAC/headphone amp designed by a company that knows more than a thing or two about headphones. This is a unit quite similarly priced to the Mojo and with a pretty similar shape and size. There are plenty of differences of course and the first we spot is the inclusion of a classic volume pot on right hand side. Audio-Technica have unsurprisingly specced some impressive components for this DAC - an NJR Muses 8832 pre-amp circuit featuring a Texas Instruments LME49720 op-amp. The DAC chipset inside is the famed ESS ES9018K2M.
The AT-PHA100 handles bitrates of up to 384kHz/32-bit (half of Mojo’s figure, but still mighty impressive) and of course just like the Mojo, is also capable of DSD audio playback (up to 2.8/5.6MHz). What is also interesting about this DAC is that it accepts analog signals, and so it can be used as a standalone headphone preamp (there’s a dedicated switch for that, as well as a low/high gain one). When used in such ’analog preamp’ mode, its seven hours of playback time is nearly doubled. The AT-PHA100 sounds terrific, and it’s really good that Audio Technica have included all cables and even bands for attaching the AT-PHA100 to your smart device.
If audio quality is more important than portability you deserve to check out Schiit’s Bifrost converter. Slightly cheaper than the Mojo, but here you don’t even get a headphone amp. This may seem as a slight disadvantage, but this is pretty much how audiophiles think and talk: “Nope, no preamp, all your money is spent on the converter technology itself”. Which is indeed more than just impressive - the Bifrost is the first DAC at this price level to feature multibit audio conversion hardware.
Already widely used in cutting edge space, military and medical program digital technology, these types of hardware chipsets use bit-perfect precision that vastly outperforms the capabilities of ‘regular’ sigma-delta type converters (we know - that sounds technical. Sorry.) All you need to be aware of is that they sound incredible. You would need a head amp on top of this, but the Bifrost is a tremendous alternative to the Mojo.
|Chord Electronics Mojo||$498||Yes||Chord Custom FPGA||Yes||32-bit/768kHz|
|iFi Micro iDSD Black Label||$518||Yes||Burr Brown||Yes||24-bit/768kHz|
|Audio-Technica AT-PHA100||$392||Yes||ESS ES9018K2M||Yes||32-bit/384kHz|
|Schiit Bifrost||$399||No||AKM Verita AK4490||No||24-bit/192kHz|