Chord Mojo portable DAC / headphone amp – a review

I’ve never heard a Chord product prior to this review. I’ve seen the ads in Stereophile – pictures of shiny DAC’s festooned with colorful splashes and considered them to be a bit whimsical for the high-end audio industry. But the Mojo is a serious little piece of hi-fi – and the designers and engineers behind it seem to be just as passionate about good sound as they are of piquant aesthetics. In fact, after giving the Mojo a good hard listen, I’m sure of it.

Description

The Mojo is about the size of a deck of cards and housed in a rugged anodized aluminum enclosure. There are three ‘marbles’ inlaid into one corner of the case which control power on/off and volume. Sample rate and volume level is indicated through the varying color schemes that light them up. There’s dual 3.5 mm output jacks for sharing the Mojo with a friend or quick headphone comparos. On one end is a slew of inputs and outputs: a mini-jack for coax input, a Toslink optical input port, and two USB ports – one for connection to a PC and the other for charging. Both USB ports can be used simultaneously, though the manual states that the Mojo will take a very long time to charge and get quite warm if it’s also playing music, so I wouldn’t recommend doing that too often. There’s a little LED underneath the USB charging port to indicate battery status while the Mojo is powered on or charging.

I won’t go into all the file formats / sampling rates that the Mojo can handle – suffice it to say that it’ll probably handle whatever you throw at it.

Operation

The Mojo is simple enough to use. Just press and hold the power marble to turn it on or off. To start up in DAC mode, hold down the two volume marbles while powering it up. Note that Windows users will need a driver before they can use the Mojo with their PC. Mac and Linux folks are free and clear to plug and play.

Listening

The first thought that struck me when I first turned on the Mojo and played a track through my Audeze LCD-XC’s was that this thing had some personality. It surprised me with its warm midrange and slightly plumped up midbass. These days, I’m fond of using Florence + the Machine’s “Ship to Wreck” off their latest album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (CD, Republic, B0023122-02) as an initial litmus test. In the Mojo’s case, Welch’s vocals were pleasantly immediate and palpable. Cymbals were brassy, though their presence was a tad muted. Bass was in abundant quantity and had decent impact, but texture was softened. I got the impression that the Mojo was voiced to have high boogie factor vs. the typical staid solid state sound.

That impression didn’t change as I cued up “I Miss You” from 25 (CD, XL Recordings, 88875176782). Adele’s sultry, charged performance took on a creamy smoothness that caressed my eardrums. Spatial resolution was excellent – images were stable and didn’t drift across the sonic panorama. If there was one nit to pick here is that sometimes the Mojo sounded just a touch too mellow – as if it’s holding something back lest you get entirely lost in the music. That same creamy lusciousness could also serve to remove some of the air around instruments and voices. Though the Mojo was perfectly capable of placing performers within a space, I didn’t quite get the sense of the space around them.

This tendency towards politeness made “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” from Led Zeppelin’s III (CD, Atlantic, 82678-2), come across just a touch too refined. Robert Plant’s voice lost some of its edge and dynanism. Sometimes when you want to rock out, that emotional rawness needs to be communicated a little more forcefully. Similarly on “Love Songs on the Radio”, the Mojo’s presentation was richer than I’m used to – so much so that Rachel Goswell’s vocals appeared to have shifted to a slightly lower register. Still, the Mojo offered up a more natural perspective than some other DAC / headphone amps that I’ve heard – portable or not.

The Mojo’s performance as a standalone DAC in a speaker system was also engaging. Its tonal balance kept it from sounding thin and uninvolving. On “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” also from 25, the Mojo really strutted its stuff. The bass was thumping and Adele’s vocals were given a full-bodied treatment that belied the Mojo’s diminutive size. Spatial resolution carried over from the headphone experience for the most part, though there wasn’t too much of a sense of depth. However, there were still some evident weaknesses that the little Chord couldn’t shake off. On “Al Vaiven de mi Carreta” from Afrocubism (CD, Nonesuch 52993-2), the Mojo sounded sweet and composed, but couldn’t quite resolve the full performance – background musicians receded just a bit too much into the mix and the inner details on plucked strings and vocals were a tad smoothed over. The same could be said with the Mojo at the helm on “I’m Old Fashioned” from Blue Train (CD, Blue Note, 53428). Sax, trumpet, and trombone shed a bit of microdynamics which served to dial down the expressiveness from each of their turns in the spotlight. Piano was reproduced with warmth and bloom, but the Mojo blurred Drew’s touch on the keyboard.

Overall, the Mojo put on a pleasing sonic show. There wasn’t one track that didn’t sound at least good through the Mojo and plenty that sounded great.

Comparisons

Now I really wish my Explorer 2 hadn’t died just a few weeks ago so I could make a direct comparison. From memory, I think the Meridian Explorer 2 is the perfect foil to the Chord Mojo. The Mojo paints a more romantic view than the Explorer 2 – think Monet vs. Vermeer. I believe it would also best the Explorer 2 as a DAC in a speaker setup. However for headphone duty, the Explorer 2 matches the Mojo in the spatial resolution department while also serving up a more detailed and vibrant sound. I think it’ll mainly come down to personal taste in that case.

The Mojo easily outshone the DragonFly v1.2 with JitterBug – especially when used in the speaker system. The DragonFly simply lacked the coherency to keep up with the Chord on complex musical passages and didn’t have the same reach into the bottom octaves. In the DragonFly’s favor is its seemingly more articulate midrange that allowed it to pick up a bit of inner detail on instruments and vocals.

A few months ago, an Emotiva Stealth DC-1 happened to grace my system. Trying my best to recall its performance from memory, I get the impression that the Mojo and Stealth are pretty much on a level playing field. Both offer up a smooth sound but I feel that the DC-1 probably edges out the Mojo when it comes to imaging and perhaps detail retrieval.

For an even more unfair comparison, I pitted the Mojo against my current home reference – the DNA Sonett 2 paired with the Ayre C-5xeMP. This really was no contest. The DNA / Ayre combo exhibited a clarity and organic cohesiveness that the Mojo could not match. The dynamics, inner detail, and air returned. Yet, taken on its own, the Mojo still satisfied.

Tweaks

Seeing as how the Mojo is run off a battery and given my experience with the AudioQuest JitterBug on portable DACs with their own power supply, I really wasn’t expecting much when I added the tweak into the playback chain. Boy was I wrong. The Mojo’s midrange and treble gained some articulation and presence. Some of the inner detail that went missing during previous sessions was restored. At this point, my recommendation is that if the Mojo is used as a desktop DAC, it might make sense to experiment with some USB tweaks to get the most out of it.

Conclusions

At the Mojo’s asking price, Chord Electronics has put forth a strong value proposition. I’ve read elsewhere that Mojo is really a concatenation of two shortened words – mobile joy. It’s an apt name for this portable music-making machine. If you’re looking to add a little spice to your setup (with a touch of sweetness) then the Chord Mojo deserves an audition.

Associated Equipment

Headphones – Audeze LCD-XC

Loudspeakers – Vandersteen 3A Signature

Amplification – Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty

Sources – Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP

Cabling – Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8 speaker cable, Blue Jeans MSA-1 mini-RCA interconnects

Power / Tweaks – AudioQuest JitterBug, Bryston BIT-15

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2 thoughts on “Chord Mojo portable DAC / headphone amp – a review

    1. I’m not familiar with the Onkyo or the Oppo, but I did own the AQ DragonFly v1.2 for a while. The Mojo is definitely head and shoulders above the DragonFly – especially evident on the speaker system. The Mojo sounds more refined with a meatier presentation than the DragonFly. The Mojo is simply more musically satisfying.

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