First Look: Chord Mojo portable DAC/headphone amp

Or: Honey, I Shrunk the Hugo!

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Headphone amps and amp/DACs
First Look: Chord Mojo portable DAC/headphone amp

In late 2012, Chord Electronics Managing Director John Franks and the company’s digital designer Rob Watts were having an argument. In front of them lay the advanced prototype of what would be the Hugo. “We need to make that,” said Franks, pointing to the high-resolution DAC and headphone amplifier that would go on to redraw the high-end portable audio world “a lot smaller and a lot cheaper!” The HBO edition of Watts’ response is not repeatable, but the made-for-daytime-TV edit was “It can’t be done!” And Rob Watts was right… in 2012.

Unlike companies that rely on off-the-shelf chips, Chord Electronics products are subject to Moore’s Law, and the Field-Programmable Gate Array chips the company uses to store its D/A decoding algorithms, get ever smaller, cheaper, more powerful, and less power hungry. Couple this to a similar drive for smaller, more powerful, and more robust rechargeable battery technology, and what was true in 2012 is old news today. Mojo is the result.

Chord designed Mojo to be a portable DAC with a significant amount of the audio performance and headphone driving ability of Hugo, but for a fraction of the price. Franks also called upon that most unfashionable (but incredibly useful) dimensional comparison – Mojo is designed to be about the size of a packet of cigarettes. It’s also reassuringly solid feeling; not heavy, but… solid. Making Mojo that small means stripping the DAC’s functions to a bare minimum, and on one side are two micro USB ports, one for charging and one to connect it to a portable audio or PC source. Next to these is a Toslink optical connector and a 3.5mm Coaxial digital input (you can connect all three simultaneously, and Mojo auto-switches). Along the other side of the Mojo is a pair of 3.5mm headphone jacks, and on its top is three little opaque spheres that control the power and volume of the DAC. These have a little rainbow array of colours, the power on button denoting input frequency, the two up/down volume buttons showing volume level.

There is a colour chart showing the various sample rates on the packaging to the Mojo (Chord has cleverly made the box double as the Quick Start guide for the DAC). Both volume and sample frequencies are arranged in rainbow order (44.1kHz being red and lowest volume setting, 768kHz being violet and high volume, and DSD replay denoted by white, and full volume on the up/down controls). Aside from logos, some bolts to hold the thing together and four little hard blobs for feet, that’s all the connectivity you get with Mojo. And it’s probably all you need for a DAC that makes the portable Hugo look ‘luggable’ in comparison.

Chord strongly recommends you spend 10 hours charging the battery first time out (there is a little indictor LED under the charging USB). This invites obvious “Got My Mojo Workin’” quips when powered up that are, sadly, irresistible.  Mojo will run for eight to 10 hours between charges and takes four hours to charge. In addition to the standard mini USB connectors, Franks showed a prototype cover that would make connection to iDevices simple using one of Apple’s connection kits. This should be ready in a couple of weeks; connection to Android phones and USB-equipped computers is easy (there is a Windows driver: it auto-mounts on Apple devices), but until that box ships, connection to iDevices is a bit of a cable kludge. Blame Apple!

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