Review: Chord Mojo portable DAC/amp | iLounge

Review

Review: Chord Mojo portable DAC/amp

B+
Recommended

Company: Chord

Model: Mojo

Price: $599

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Guido Gabriele

Chord is, in many ways, the quintessential audiophile product company. They make fantastically expensive, great-sounding audio products with ostentatious designs and custom internal components. For years, their products have been popular among those with lots of disposable income — unfortunately for Chord and their peers, a tiny market. It was for this reason that Chord sought to make an "affordable" device that would bring its technology to a broader audience. Though $599 certainly strains the definition of "affordable," the Mojo is one of the best portable DAC/amps we've yet heard.

The Mojo is easy to misjudge on looks alone. In pictures, it looks large and made of plastic, with three silly marbles where its controls should be. In the hand, however, it’s far more substantial — the chassis is made entirely of aluminum — and surprisingly small, about the size of a deck of playing cards. On the right side of the unit are two headphone jacks. On the left is a 3.5mm coaxial input, optical input, micro USB data input, and micro USB charging port — the Mojo is rare in that it entirely separates its power and data circuitry to minimize noise. Supported formats include DSD up to 256 khz (up to quad speed), DXD up to 786 khz (double speed) and, for us commoners, PCM up to 768 khz. Its distortion is an absurdly low .00017 percent, and its power output is healthy at about 500 mW into 16 ohms. There is no manual input selection — if more than one input is connected, the Mojo automatically prioritizes them with USB first, then coax, then optical. In our testing, the Mojo worked perfectly with macOS (no drivers needed), Windows 10 (drivers required), and iOS (USB Camera Connection Kit required).

Let’s talk about the marbles: they’re both an interface and a control scheme — they rotate freely in their sockets and take some getting used to, but they’re actually fun to use. The rightmost marble, marked with a power symbol, handles power on/off and indicates, with one of ten colors, the sampling rate of the music being decoded. Volume is controlled with the other two marbles; each of the Mojo’s 100+ volume steps changes the color slightly. At the lowest volume, both LEDs are off. As the volume is raised, the LEDs under the marbles color cycle through pink, red, orange, green, teal, blue, purple, then white, first with one marble, then the next, then into an “extended” volume range. If there’s a weakness here, it’s with the fact that volume must to be changed step-by-step, and judging volume by color is more art than science — “was the volume at yellow-green, or green-green?” Line Out mode can be selected by holding the two volume buttons before turning the Mojo on. Pressing both volume buttons toggles high and low brightness, which is helpful — in the dark, they can cast a colorful light show on the ceiling. When we first saw the marbles, we couldn’t help but think they were an unnecessary flourish; why couldn’t Chord simply use simple buttons and make the unit smaller? When we opened the Mojo, however, we understood — its 1650 mAh battery is tall enough that there’s room on either side for a slightly flashy interface.

All the above are things that set the Mojo apart from its competition, but what makes the Mojo truly unique is its DAC hardware. Where most companies use off-the-shelf DAC chips from suppliers like ESS and Burr-Brown, Chord uses a custom chip and proprietary technology, called an FPGA (“Field Programmable Gate Array”) with custom software. We’ve read about the technology; it’s extremely complex and, honestly, above our heads. We have, however, heard implementations of all the other major DACs, and can’t help but feel that there’s something special about what Chord has in the Mojo. It puts out tons of clean power for a unit its size and sounds great. Our only complaints about this unit are relatively trivial — the marbles get scratched in over time, controlling the volume can become tedious, and we can’t help but think that a different battery and marble-less design could have allowed Chord to make the Mojo a truly pocketable device.

Chord says that the name “Mojo” is short for “mobile joy.” We can go along with that. The Mojo has been at the center of a lot of hype; in our testing, the hype is well-deserved. For $600, we found the Mojo far more impressive than the 40% more expensive Shure SHA900 we reviewed last year. For its price, we think Chord should be able to include more than a single micro USB cable in the box (a “cable pack” is available for $99 more), but the unit presents a good value nonetheless. If you’re looking for a portable DAC/amp, we highly recommend that you check out the Mojo and see what all the hype is about. Come for the milliwatts, stay for the marbles.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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