Music breeds obsession. Whether it’s the hunt for that original Beatles vinyl pressing or the pursuit of perfect sound, the love of music can be enough to make the most level-headed person take leave of their credit card. Sometimes, though, something comes along that makes you remember why you loved music so much in the first place, and – ideally – doesn’t completely obliterate your bank balance in the process. Enter the Chord Mojo.
I’m sorry, DAVE
If you’re already coughing and spluttering at the idea of spending £400 on a piece of audio gadgetry, then let me give you some context. Chord Electronics is renowned for its mastery of ultra high-end audio – for instance, combine its top end DAVE digital-to-analogue converter (yes, it really is a DAC called DAVE) with one of the company’s reference preamplifiers and a pair of its matching power amps and you’ll be parting with the best part of $100,000. Oh, and don’t forget: you’ll need to spend the spare change on a pair of speakers.
The Mojo sits right at the other end of the scale. This is Chord’s attempt at bringing its audio-wrangling expertise to a wider audience. Taking the best bits of the company’s acclaimed Hugo headphone amplifier and DAC, the Mojo shrinks the technology down into a far more pocket– and wallet–friendly package.
By far the biggest appeal of the Mojo, however, is its flexibility: this battery-powered device doesn’t just work with smartphones and portable music players; it works with pretty much any Mac, PC or tablet. In short, the Mojo has ambitions to become the benchmark for pocket-friendly audiophile kicks.
It certainly looks the part. The Mojo is a sturdy, CNC-machined lump of metal that’s roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes, and Chord’s logo is laser-etched into its side. A pair of headphone outputs are embedded at one end while USB, optical and 3.5mm coaxial digital inputs are clustered on the other, and three unusual-looking spherical buttons are cut into the casing.
Hold down the power button for two seconds and the Mojo lights up; the other two buttons control the volume. Rather niftily, the volume buttons cycle through a palette of colours to indicate volume levels, while the power button’s hue indicates the current sampling rate. Press the two volume buttons simultaneously immediately after switching it on, and the Mojo clicks into line-level mode in readiness for connecting to a standalone amplifier. So far, so good.
Of the three connections, the micro-USB port supports the widest range of audio signal inputs, ranging from your bog-standard 44.1KHz sampling rate (what CD plays at) through 768KHz, and right up to the faintly ludicrous DSD256 standard, so-called because it uses a sample rate that’s 256 times higher than CD. You’re a touch more limited on the coaxial digital input, however, which tops out at 384Khz and DSD128, with the optical input reaching 192Khz and supporting DSD64. Regardless of which you choose, though, it’s fair to say that high-resolution audio is firmly on the menu.
The second micro-USB input charges the Mojo’s internal battery, which provides a claimed ten hours of music playback and takes around four hours to charge fully. Thankfully, you can both charge and play music at the same time, even if the Mojo’s metal case heats up noticeably to the touch when you do. Oh, and it’ll also take much longer to return to its fully charged state.
Practically-speaking, the Mojo’s size means that it is possible to pop the Mojo in a jacket pocket. It adds a fair amount of bulk to a smartphone, but small indents on the case’s edge make it easy to securely strap to the back of a phone or music player with sturdy rubber bands or, in my case, some spare rubber straps from a Garmin cycle computer. If you want the best possible sound quality on the move, the Mojo may be just what you’ve been looking for.
Installation is super-simple on both OS X and iOS. Hook up the Mojo to your Mac via USB and it just works. The same goes for iOS devices, with no faffing in menus required, but you will need to buy a Lightning to USB camera adapter and standard micro-USB cable.
Things aren’t quite as plug-and-play on Android or Windows. Windows users need to install a driver to get up and running; Android support for the Mojo is a little more haphazard. Chord’s own documentation suggests that some devices with Android 5 Lollipop and above will play all audio via the Mojo, but it’s entirely dependent on the phone in question. For phones that aren’t natively compatible, you’ll need to install the Onkyo HF Player or USB Audio Player Pro apps and rely on locally-stored files.
Testing and sound quality
I spent my day-to-day testing with the Chord Mojo connected to a MacBook Pro via USB, and my iPhone SE. I used a selection of headphones including a Sennheiser PC363D gaming headset, Sennheiser HD580 Precision headphones and an in-ear pair of RHA T10i – nothing especially exotic in the audiophile scale of things, and certainly nowhere near the $3000+ Audeze headphones I’ve seen some reviewers reaching for.
Whichever source or headphones I used, however, plugging them into the Mojo instantly made a difference. When testing audio kit, it’s often easy to convince yourself that you’re hearing dramatic changes when you’re not, but the leap from my MacBook’s onboard sound to the Mojo was unmistakable. Everything from heavily compressed YouTube tracks to 24-bit WAVs emerged sharper and more defined, with layers of clearly audible detail. What’s more, sounds seemingly floated free of the headphones – on more than one occasion, I took off the headphones thinking that sounds on the track were emanating from somewhere in the office.
Moving from the warm-sounding PC363D’s to my long-suffering pair of Sennheiser HD580 Precisions saw the biggest improvements. Where the iPhone SE and MacBook Pro struggled to provide enough power to drive the HD580s loud enough, and particularly so with quieter recordings or classical works, the Mojo reaches deafening volumes without a hint of distortion.
And this is where the Mojo deals its trump card. Connect a high-end pair of headphones to an Android or iOS device, and you won’t get the most out of them. My iPhone SE simply can’t deliver enough power to make my HD580 Precisions sound their best, let alone reach reasonable volume levels – connect them to the Mojo on the other hand, and they sound fantastic. And if you’ve got the Onkyo HF Player installed (which is available for both Android and iOS) you can get your hi-res kicks on the move, so it’s a win-win situation.
To check I wasn’t entirely imagining the differences, I decided to put my ears to the test. The site http://abx.digitalfeed.net/ presents a blind ABX listening test that challenges your ability to pick between compressed 320Kbits/sec AAC files and lossless 16-bit 44.1Khz versions of the same track. You have to repeat the feat ten times for each track, and select the correct i.e lossless track each time to prove you can reliably hear the difference.
The test tracks in question couldn’t be more different, ranging from the epic stadium rock of The Killers to the electronic soul of James Blake and disco-influenced glitz of Daft Punk, but switching to the Mojo certainly made the process easier. Telling the two audio files apart is very much a case of listening for relatively subtle aural clues – the attack of a high-hat, the airy sheen of a vocal or some realistic sounding reverb – but where I genuinely found it quite tough to discern those elements with the MacBook’s built-in soundcard, the Mojo made the job quicker and easier.
In fairness, I correctly recognised the lossless tracks ten out of ten times for The Killers and nine times out of ten for the Daft Punk track on both the internal soundcard and the Mojo, but on the James Blake track, differences that were near-indistinguishable on the internal soundcard became entirely obvious once I plugged in the Mojo. My score leapt from six correct to another ten out of ten. What’s more, I was able to complete the tests on the Mojo far quicker, with the lossless and compressed tracks sounding more noticeably different. This isn’t in the realms of confirmation bias – the Mojo is audibly better.
It might be affordable by audiophile standards, but the rest of us are still going to baulk at the cost of the Chord Mojo. Splash out on a worthy pair of headphones, and you’ll be lucky to get much change from $1200. Set your sights on more exotic partners, and the price will float effortlessly upwards and beyond the $5000 mark. The sky really is the limit. Well, that and your bank balance.
But this is perhaps the key to the Mojo’s appeal: for many people, the Chord Mojo will end up being the go-to device for everything music-related, be that through headphones or speakers, via a laptop or a smartphone, sat in the living room or crammed onto a transatlantic flight. Regardless of whether you’re using a relatively modest pair of headphones or the most exotic of professional studio monitors, the Mojo is never going to be out of its depth. If you’re looking for the ultimate in portable sound quality, then you can probably stop here – the Chord Mojo has got it nailed.