Review: Chord Mojo Portable DAC / Amp – Headphonesty

great baby. Yes! how portable audio got its mojo back.

With over 70,000 units sold since its launch in October 2015, Chord’s mo(bile) jo(y) has become a personal icon of hi-fi style and design. Immediately recognizable and passionately loved by many, the mojo remains a staple for audiophiles on the go. Now, 4 years after launch, I’ll take a look to see if it still lives up to all that hype and can really bring portable bliss.

Reading: Chord mojo headphone

chord electronics was founded in england in 1989 by owner and chief designer john franks. In 1989, the CD and digital music revolution was just beginning. Located in an old pump house building (built in the late 1800’s), in a small town called Maidstone, Chord set out to improve the musicality of digital fonts.

With the addition of lead engineer Rob Watts in 1994, Chord’s recipe for success was ready. Over the years, Chord has built a reputation for British-made studio quality audio performance in both its consumer and professional products. His amplifiers are in use at the BBC, Abbey Road Studios, Sony Music New York, and the Royal Opera House in London.

chord spent a couple of decades before tackling the creation of a portable dac (the hugo). a year later he followed up on a design for a smaller and less expensive portable dac. mojo was born.

chord products are known for distinctive and quirky design coupled with exceptional build quality. mojo is no exception. Out of the box, the Mojo is surprisingly small, solid, and heavy. imagine a deck of cards made of black aluminum and you’re in the right ballpark. the iconic multi-colored ball buttons are as retro as the pictures make it out to be.

I love the look and feel.

I remember there was a time (not too long ago) when I thought mojo looked a bit strange. the whole aesthetic of the chord was lost on me. times change and I have come to appreciate (a lot) its unusual design. now let’s see if i love how it works too.

mojo specs

  • charging input: 1 micro usb 1 amp charging port
  • usb input: 1 micro usb 768khz/32 bit compatible input port
  • coaxial input: 1x 3.5mm jack 768khz/32bit coaxial input port
  • optical input: 1x 96khz/24bit toslink optical input port
  • connectors output: 2 x 3.5mm headphone jacks
  • output impedance: 75 mohms
  • dynamic range: 125 db
  • thd @ 3v: 0.00017%
  • power output @ 1khz – 600Ω: 35mw
  • power output @ 1khz – 8Ω: 720mw
  • weight: 180g (0.4lbs)
  • dimensions: 82mm (length) x 60mm (width) x 22mm (height)

mojo packaging

Simplicity is the name of the game here. the mojo comes in a small black cardboard box. slide off the top and you’ll find the mojo hidden in white foam and wrapped in a protective plastic bag. Underneath the mojo is a 10cm micro usb cable that can be used for charging or to connect to a source (phone, computer, transportation, etc.).

The sample rate frequency guide is printed on both sides of the slider box. this is a 10 step color table ranging from 44 to 768 and dsd. Since the power button, volume buttons, and battery status indicator all cycle colors to indicate level, it would have been nice to include these visual graphics on the other side, instead of repeating the same information from the frequency guide on both sides.

No manual is included, so chord should expect users to have some experience connecting such devices or to read the manual online.

mojo design

mojo is a combination battery powered dac and headphone amp that can accept hi-res pcm files up to 24/768 and dsd files up to 11.2 (quad dsd). but not mqa.

dsd files are decoded without decimation to pcm. The Mojo incorporates dripping DAC technology from the high-end Hugo series and Chord’s own Dave products.

chord uses a unique dac implementation based on fpga technology. An FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) is an integrated circuit (IC) that can be programmed after manufacture. but more on that later.

Designed and manufactured in England, the Mojo features a solid cnc-milled aluminum casing with distinctive frosted marble style LED indicator buttons. It has usb, coaxial and optical digital inputs and two 3.5 mm headphone jack outputs.

the mojo won the ‘what hi-fi awards 2018’ for ‘best dac £300-500’. also won the ‘eisa award for best product 2016-2017’ for ‘usb dac/headphone amplifier’

shiny round balls

Without a doubt, the most distinctive design element of the mojo is the three glowing round buttons. these function as multipurpose indicators of volume level and bitrate, in addition to being volume and power controls.

press the power button (marble a bit further away) for 3 seconds or so and the mojo turns on. the power button cycles through a rainbow of colors and with an audible click, it’s ready to go. the brightness of the leds can be changed from (look at me!) bright to (much more subtle) dim by pressing the volume up and volume down buttons simultaneously.

The power button will not light up if the mojo is not properly paired with the source. USB cables of low quality or longer than 1.5m are not recommended.

at the lowest and highest volume levels, one led will stay on a static color while the other will cycle through the rainbow of colors for very precise volume control. this can be useful for dialing at a comfortable volume with extremely sensitive elements.

line level output

the mojo can support line level output for use with an external amplifier or speaker system. When you turn on the Mojo, press and hold both volume buttons to set the volume to a standard output level (3V) for typical line-out use. both volume balls will light up light blue.

the mojo does not have a separate amp section, as the output comes directly from the dac circuitry (albeit with the addition of analog circuitry). this means that any volume level can be used as a line level output without signal degradation, nor is it necessary to “bypass” the amplifier circuitry to get the highest quality signal.

Although the mojo has a pair of 3.5mm outputs, it is single-ended and does not support a balanced headphone connection. it was designed to output up to 5v, which should be enough to output 120db of clean sound in most headphones. chord claims to be compatible with headphones up to 800 ohms, and I can attest that the mojo will drive the 600 ohm beyerdynamic t1 with aplomb.

staying on the single ended architecture also means that the mojo doesn’t need to duplicate its internal circuitry and thus keeps its size small. this avoids some of the potential problems with balanced headphone connections, while maintaining an impressively high power output for a portable device.

input selection

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the mojo has 3 different digital inputs: coaxial, optical and usb. input selection is automatic and by default the mojo will always select the usb input if it is plugged in. input priority is in the order: usb – coaxial – optical.

battery and charging

Battery life is about 8 hours and it takes about 4 hours to charge the mojo with a 2a 5v charger. there is a small led indicator located under the micro usb charging port that changes color to indicate the battery level.

It is possible to hear the mojo while charging, but the charging will take longer than if the mojo is off. this will also make the mojo quite hot. There have been reports of unwanted audible noise and buzzing being introduced by certain chargers, so it may take some trial and error to find a charger that works for you.

magic magic. what makes it different?

We mentioned it earlier, but it’s the chip and the implementation that sets the mojo apart from other dacs on the market. rob watts, chord’s principal engineer, designed a custom dac based on an fpga chipset.

an fpga (field programmable gate array) is not a dedicated dac, but a multipurpose chip that can be programmed to make virtually any digital device. it has much more processing power than typical audio chips. rob says “…mojo has 500 times more processing power than conventional high-performance dacs.”

rob believes that extremely high precision digital filtering is the key to extracting the highest quality sound from the digital to analog conversion process. in his words, “the job of the filter in a dac is to recreate the missing parts of the original analog signal: the signal between one sample and the next.” the sampled signal data is stored and then “touched” to access it.

Critics of rob’s work cite his hearing experiments as clairvoyant and unscientific, but rob passionately maintains that sound quality is directly related to filter accuracy. he claims this results in decreased jitter, noise, and distortion.

mojo came out about 2 years after hugo was initially developed. at that time, chip technology had changed radically. the chip inside the mojo is about four times larger and much more powerful than the hugo fpga chip supporting around 27,000 taps.

oversampling and more filtering

all of rob’s dac designs upsample to 2048 times (about 16 times normal). it is often recommended that the source do any oversampling before the signal is sent to a dac. this is not the case with mojo, as additional filtering is done when mojo upsamples the signal.

concerns about hot topics

What makes mojo special is also cause for some concern. all that processing power in the fpga chipset has an unwanted side effect: heat. and we all know that heat is the enemy of electronics and batteries.

You should expect the mojo to get noticeably hot when playing music and when charging (especially when doing both simultaneously). The Mojo uses 1.7W of power when in use, and charging will add about another watt, but it has three independent thermal cutouts to prevent damage from internal overheating. mojo can never get hot enough to cause burns or damage.

The mojo uses its rugged aluminum case to dissipate heat (the battery and electronics are thermally bonded to the case), so ambient temperature has a lot to do with how hot the device will feel. if the mojo is wrapped or insulated, it will tend to get much hotter.

That said, there are a number of user reports online of greatly reduced battery life after a few years of use (whether attributable to charging habits or heat is debatable). regardless, the battery is located directly above the hot chip. what is very disappointing is the reported replacement cost of $200 for a new chord drum.

additional concerns

the mojo is somewhat susceptible to emi/rfi interference when connected to a phone and I experienced occasional telltale electronic buzzing and clicking noises. it wasn’t particularly prone and really wasn’t any worse than any other dac/portable amp I’ve used. Of course, turning on airplane mode on your phone eliminates this.

The final concern I want to mention is design. I am not referring to the peculiar aesthetic shape and size, but to the decision to simplify all the controls and indicators into 3 buttons. this interface will not be to everyone’s liking.

the ifi xdsd uses similar, but very small, multicolored LED indicators to inform the user of bitrate and volume level, but in practice, I found the xdsd a bit unfathomable.

the difference compared to mojo is one of complexity. where the xdsd is packed with features and a multitude of tiny leds (for 3d+, xbass, khz and input), the mojo is much more refined. the mojo’s round buttons are large and simple enough to comfortably view and interact with.

Where I found mojo’s UI to be intuitive and elegant, I can see some people struggling with the onboard controls, or preferring a standard volume rotary potentiometer, or wanting more than just an arbitrary color as an indicator. At the very least, ifi and chord could (at the very least!) include a chart in the case that lists the color of the led with the associated description or value.

mojo measures

mojo performance has been measured by several reputable sources including stereophile, ohmimage and audiosciencereview. stereophile summed up their results thus: “… chord mojo offers measured performance that is excellent for a portable device and would not be out of place in a high-priced conventional d/a processor.”

ohmimage was equally enthusiastic, stating: “…mojo blows most, if not all, high-end daps. it outperforms many, if not most, state-of-the-art desktop dacs and headphone amps. sure, they can supply more voltage into high Ω loads, but none of the offroaders I’ve tried even come close. not even close.”

audiosciencereview was much less enthusiastic in its conclusion regarding measures of mojo. It should be noted that the “…point of the review here is to verify the technical superiority of the design because that is what rob advertises.” concerns seem to center mainly around the question of price versus performance and whether it lives up to the designer’s claims.

It should be noted that audiosciencereview measurements were made with usb input only. however, depending on the source, each digital input may sound different. rob explains why different inputs can sound better or worse:

mojo sound

mojo is designed primarily as a portable device. Yes, it can be used as a stationary desktop DAC, but let’s face it, internal battery plus compact size equals portability. this means that most of my listening was completed with my apple iphone x. however, the comments in this section are my generalizations for all sources unless otherwise noted.

Ironically for a tiny handheld device, I found the mojo to shine brighter with full-size headphones. Not to say it doesn’t work great with iems, but the diminutive size ensures power and the ease with which it can drive large hard-to-drive cans. do you have the 600 ohm beyerdynamic t1? no problem here.

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It’s not just the power that impressed me when I heard the t1 with mojo technology. I’ve paired the t1 with a number of amps, both tube and solid-state, in an effort to tame its clinically unforgiving high-end. Somehow the tiny mojo pairs surprisingly well with the notoriously higher-frequency focused t1.

I think this speaks directly to the overall sound signature of the mojo. is a warm, detailed little device with a musical sound. if anything, while the high end is smooth and grain-free, it can attenuate the higher frequencies a bit. treble is on the relaxed side and is just the ticket to tame a dominant top frequency like t1 without losing clarity or a sense of transparency.

The overall impression is of hearing a much larger amp, one that is on the warmer side of neutral, powerful but tightly controlled. bass response is very full and sounds very smooth through the midrange. resolution and detail reproduction are excellent. vocals and instruments have a natural yet punchy quality.

I tried a variety of full-size headphones, from the unwieldy mrspeakers alpha dogs to the sennheiser hd58x and meze 99 classics. Regardless of design, sensitivity, or impedance, the mighty little mojo drove them all effortlessly.

Did I mention you can connect two headphones at once? Aside from dramatic volume differences between headphones of different requirements, two people can simultaneously listen to high-quality headphones with superior sound.

mojo brings out the best qualities of the headphones that are connected. the bright t1 feels warmer and fuller. the occasionally loose bottom end on ’99 classics pulls tight. the midbass becomes a visceral presence in the music that requires nodding heads and shuffling feet (but not overbearing).

iem compatibility

but didn’t you say that all this has to do with portability? who cares about full size headphones, what about sensitive items?

connect your favorite iems and you will be greeted with a wonderful and blessed silence. no background noise or hiss, and yet loads of power on demand. just what you (and I) expected.

Please note that this is not a sterile sound device. perhaps due to energy reserves, the presentation feels immediate and direct, rather than relaxed. Regardless of which iem or full-size headphones I tried, the character of the mojo engaged me with the music.

I really love the hue of the mojo. That’s what listening to music is all about. Pop open your favorite cans, queue up that new album, and lose yourself in sonic bliss. or dare I say “joy” in a “mobile” way?

the competition

I happen to have a couple of similar battery-powered dacs/amps that have made the journey through headphone audio with me. i really like both the jds labs c5d and the ifi nano idsd and they have honestly done their duty for the past few years. neither the c5d nor the nano idsd are still in production.

ifi nano idsd has a soft and slightly warm sound. it cost around $200 and was released a little before the mojo. Supports up to 384khz pcm and 12.4mhz dsd. it served as my primary desktop dac until it was recently kicked out by the khadas tone panel (review within my nhhybrid article).

jdslabs c5d costs around $250 and only supports playback up to 24/96. It sounds pretty clean and clear, but it suffers a bit from being a bit thin sounding for my evolving tastes. I find that I often use the first level of bass boost on the c5d to add a bit of punch and warmth to the sound (depending, of course, on the music being played).

the mojo has no bass boost circuit, no gain controls and frankly those additions would be completely unnecessary. the mojo low end is tight and punchy, controlled but very present in the sound.

the ifi and the c5d, while both are good devices in their own right, are simply outclassed by the mojo. power, clarity, presence and warmth are all on a higher level.

A more worthy competitor may be the ifi xdsd. though with its wireless capabilities, it’s closer to a mojo+poly combo. I didn’t fall in love with xdsd, but compared to the price of mojo+poly, xdsd looks like an attractive and affordable alternative. sound quality (even over bluetooth) was transparent and top notch.

however, mojo has an ineffable quality. the sum of design and performance seems to add up to more than just the parts.

conclusions

good. what’s left to say?

The mojo is a beautiful little garnish. it has more than earned its reputation as a portable device that others should be measured against. it has excellent build quality, an iconic design, a simple interface, and excellent format support.

that everything wouldn’t be worth much if it didn’t sound so good.

Fortunately, the mojo incorporates all the standard audiophile descriptions for decent sound. he is so nice and attractive. it is warm and musical, balanced but energetic, clean, clear and transparent. detailed and natural. powerful but controlled.

oh yes. I like mojo.

Is it absolutely perfect? not quite. a switch to disconnect the battery for dedicated plugged in desktop use would be great. a $200 battery replacement is downright ridiculous. and hey companies, if you are going to use a multitude of colors as indicators, record the values ​​in the box!

does mojo mean confidence, energy or enthusiasm? is it success? how about sex appeal? maybe spell or enchantment? in the case of chord mojo, the answer is yes.

where to buy?

you can buy the chord mojo at apos or amazon.

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