Mobile devices that sport chops for high quality audio are far and few between. Our recent look at the LG V30 and its dedicated ESS SABRE DAC left us impressed but also disheartened at the fact that no other of its competition put the same importance in audio. Portable DACs are therefore still pertinent, but it also is that dedicated components are usually better than those integrated in smartphones because of size restrictions. One such DAC that is light years from anything you’ll hear in a smartphone (and that’s probably the most renowned portable DAC in the audiophile community) is the Chord Mojo. This Synopsis sums up what you can expect from the device.
The Mojo is a little guy. It’s actually technically Chord’s low-end DAC offering, but also its best bang-for-the-buck and most portable solution. It’s computationally not that far off from it’s bigger brother, Hugo, that costs 3x the price. Chord’s expertise equates to pricing that is generally not for the faint of heart, but the Mojo is in a way an attempt to bridge the gap. It’s not too unreachable with a price tag of $529 (on Amazon).
- Compact, pocketable size
- Premium metal build
- Easy to use
- Apple or Android compatible
- Best sound out of something this size
- Can drive headphones from 8 ohm to 600 ohm impedance
- Lit balls not our favorite controls
- Battery life is average
- Charges slowly
- Gets hot in operation
- EMI noise when connected to smartphone
- Packaging only comes with very short USB-A to micro-USB cable
What it’s like to use
- The Chord Mojo is plug-and-play on a computer or mobile device. It has the OTG function for audio out of the charging/data port on Android, but with Apple devices you need the CCK adapter. I/O is simply comprised of coax, optical, or micro-USB.
- There is a separate micro-USB port used just for charging. This means that you can charge and listen at the same time.
- Chord doesn’t opt for a typical volume knob, but for a clickable ball buttons and color indicators within them. For better or worse, Chord uses this implementation for controls throughout its products. It’s easy to use, but you need to understand what the colors mean:
- The two paired buttons are volume up and down. The lowest color is red and highest is white.
- A problem is that there aren’t enough discrete colors in the spectrum to allow for fine tuning. Chord’s solution (for a problem they created) is to make each color have two steps, and for there to be two totally cycles through the color range. You know which cycle you’re in because the first cycle keeps the volume+ button the same color while the volume- cycles, then when you begin the second cycle, both buttons cycle in unison. It may sound complicated but it isn’t after a couple times of playing with it.
- A nice thing is that the Mojo stays at the volume you leave it at.
- The lone button is the power button. You long press it to power on/off. It also has a color range, but that indicates the sampling rate that your connected device is outputting.
- There is a small battery indicator LED under the micro-USB charging port, with five steps. We would’ve liked the indicator at the top, so it’s easily visible.
- Chord strangely put two 3.5mm jacks. It’s strange because if you listen with a friend, you’ll likely have headphones with different impedances, resulting in different volume levels – and you cannot change the volume independently.
- Despite this being a “portable” DAC that can work with mobile devices, Chord doesn’t include a cable for them (instead, sells a total cable pack for a whopping $89). This means it’s not portable-ready out of the box, and you have to buy the appropriate cable first. All the packaging has is a very short USB-A to micro-USB cable. Tsk tsk.
- The unit is compact (fits in the palm of your hand) but at the cost of some thickness (0.86″). Just something to bear in mind if you stack it with a source device – it won’t be the slimmest combo out there. The Mojo also has some heft for its size (180g).
- In our use, battery life hits about 9 hours (volume about 1/4 of the way up).
- Charging can be a pain. The port can be picky about the charger because it only takes 1 Amp. Quick charging phones of today have chargers with more amperage, so it’s hit or miss if the Mojo accepts them. Remember that Chord only includes a short charging cable in the box, with no AC adapter.
- The lights in the ball buttons cannot be turned off, but they can be dimmed (by pressing the volume up/down buttons simultaneously). Unfortunately, even the dim setting is too bright in a dark room, making it an annoyance if you listen at night in bed.
- I’m not done. The slow 1 Amp charging means that it takes a whopping 4 hours to top up the 1,650 mAh battery from empty.
- The unit gets pretty warm in use. But it only becomes a concern when you’re charging and listening at the same time, where we can call it hot – not enough to burn you but it is alarming. Chord says that it’s no issue though, and that the device is designed to take the temperature.
- Sadly, Chord was not careful with EMI noise in the Mojo’s design. We’ve tried multiple Android devices and with all the radios turned on, we hear low-level noise/buzzing that goes in and out. It’s not severe to the point where it’s un-listenable, but annoying. A mitigation is to set the phone to Airplane Mode, but this kills the ability to stream music.
- The first thing that hits you about the Mojo is its musicality, and that’s the most standout and revered aspect of its sound. If that term is foreign to you, Head-Fi.org describes it well: “A sense of cohesion and subjective ‘rightness’ in the sound”. It’s hard to describe, but there is something very natural in the Mojo’s sound that you don’t find on many other DACs, like a fullness that you hear with real in-person music.
- The Mojo sound leans on warm, meaning that bass has a slightly larger impact than treble. Chord will tell you that everything is balanced, but bass is certainly not neutral on this DAC.
- Everything is clean and articulated throughout the spectrum, with great detail and beautiful timbre. Separation and dimensional imaging is also well-done. It’s tough to be analytical with this DAC (though you can be) because it’s easy to lose yourself in the sound and just enjoy it rather than picking it apart.
- Soundstage isn’t the largest you’ll find but it’s admirable.
- The amp isn’t as strong as some other DACs out there, such as the iFi Micro iDSD. This will result in not as much punch as your headphones may be capable of. Granted, the iDSD is a lot larger than the Mojo. We can’t expect the Mojo is move mountains for its size, but for the things it doesn’t do spectacularly, it is certainly respectable (especially considering it’s able to drive 600 ohm headphones).
- The noise-floor with sensitive, low impedance headphones (i.e. Shure SE846) is almost black – there’s the faintest hiss that easily gets overtaken by the music. The Mojo’s output impedance is <1 ohm, so it will play friendly with anything.
The Mojo certainly punches above its size. It’s actually one of the best sounding portable DACs out there, that also happens to be one of the smallest. That’s quite the feat and we applaud Chord. $529 is a lot of dough, but we do feel that the Mojo is worth it. The difference compared to a standard DAC like those on our phones is striking, and music becomes so much more pleasurable. But the device isn’t exempt from having to carrying and charge a separate device, as well as have a stack when you’re on the go. You’ve got to pay to play in the mobile audiophile game.
In the future, we hope that Chord addresses some of the Mojo’s concerns, like the snail-paced charging and EMI noise when connected to a mobile device. The company just released a wireless add-on component to the Mojo, called Poly, so they’re certainly invested in this platform.