CHORD LAUNCH MOJO
Noel Keywood, publisher with vertigo, looks closely at Mojo – and not out of the window.
London, September 14th, 2015. Thirty-three floors up London's Shard tower, Chord electronics announced what they told assembled press was their most important product yet: Mojo. And in Mojo I found there is a very interesting story about Britain, manufacturing and our future ability to participate in an industry that nowadays is led by the world's largest companies, most of them being in the USA.
Mojo is a small, portable DAC and headphone amplifier. Importantly its price is small too: £399. And for that you even get a machined alloy case, Chord style.
The reason it is seen as important by Chord electronics says much more than its small size would suggest. Its predecessor, Hugo, was a big success, helping quadruple the turnover of Chord. That's a big figure. Chord started out making lavishly specified studio products for the professional music industry. They tentatively moved into consumer hi-fi some time ago and 'survived' in the market. But with the £1000 Hugo their unique DAC technology suddenly reached a wider market, including that for portable audio – bigger than the domestic hi-fi market or studio market by a mile, or a 1.6km.
Mojo capitalises on Hugo technology, packaged into a yet smaller case to make it truly portable. And as I was told many times by its designer Rob Watts at the reception, we don't believe in DAPs (Digital Audio Players), we see the future as providing better sound from mobile phones. And that is what Mojo does.
The cruncher is this however: Chord told us 3 billion phones are in use worldwide and that if they get a small percentage of that market they would need to manufacture 350,000 Mojos per annum. That is a ridiculously large figure for a small UK hi-fi company but Chord still intend to get as big a share as possible of what is at present a relatively undisputed niche. They realised after Hugo they have the technology and – almost uniquely – the skills to do it, so have set up high volume, automated production – in Kent, a county in Southern England best known for growing apples. Yes, Mojo is built by robots in the UK at a special factory set up for the job. With robots, Rob told me, China loses its advantage of low cost labour and it is better to assemble in the UK to control quality.
Rob told me about modern automated production methods 24 years ago, when we discussed his use of surface mount devices in the Deltec Precision Audio (DPA) PDM-Two DAC (June 1991 edition), at that time made in Wales, near Cardiff. Rob was designing his own chips even back then, but has since come a long way. Still living in Wales, near Carmarthen, Rob now however travels the world almost continuously on business as a designer (for US chip manufacturers) and for Chord, to explain Hugo – and now Mojo.
So my story here is about the global electronics business as I'll call it, and where Mojo fits in. It isn't going to match iPhone sales but it is a demonstrator of what is possible when advanced engineering skills, in this case supplied by Rob Watts' unrivalled knowledge of digital and analogue audio, gets the backing of a company that understands manufacturing and – in particular – global marketing. The assembled UK hi-fi press, quaffing champagne at the Shard (I stuck to water to understand what Rob was saying to me!), were preceded by the 'serious' press, meaning the Financial Times, Times, Telegraph etc. to get the message out to a wide audience. As a quick aside, this is standard procedure when investment in glitzy high technology is involved; Mission did the same with NXT for example.
You'll be delighted to know that low price was seen as the key. Mojo had to sell for £399 – and not a bean more. It had to be affordable to the mobile phone toting masses of the world – all 3 billion of them! And it had to outgun all potential rivals. This is the hi-fi side of the story.
It is Rob Watts own and unique WTA (Watts Transient Aligned) DAC, with its 26000-tap digital filter (commercial chips manage 20, Rob told me) that sets Mojo apart. And that is what you can now buy for £399, due to automated, high volume production in a new, purpose built UK factory. "I can get digital noise patterning down to radically low levels with this DAC architecture" Rob said, "and this helps smooth all digital, even that from CD". "Lower distortion and better digital timing in particular improve the perception of stage depth".
Was he spinning me a line, as I quaffed water 33 floors up? No, because he knows Hi-Fi World can measure all this with our advanced Rohde&Schwarz UPV audio analyser – and measurement proves Rob's point. Mojo manages 125dB dynamic range – better than most DACs available, irrespective of price. See our Mojo review for more on all this.
We'll publish a full review in the January 2016 issue of Hi-Fi World, after using Mojo over many weeks in both a reference hi-fi system and hooked up to our mobile phones to provide high quality headphone listening, as intended. In the meantime robots in Kent will be churning out thousands of Mojos at a time, eventually outnumbering even Kent's apples, Chord will doubtless hope. NK