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Musings on Building a Digital Music Server Goes Portable: The Chord Mojo and the Importance of Synergy

01-18-2016 | By Andy Schaub | Issue 83

"I know it's only rock 'n roll but I like it, like it, yes, I do"

—The Rolling Stones

Not that long ago, I was working under contract at a big software company in Silicon Valley. However, I had been having tremendous pain in my right knee, largely from a sports injury, and got the point where it was clear that I needed to have a knee replacement of one type or another. You can either get a partial or a full knee replacement. I got lucky in only needing the partial. Still, I had to stop working and prepare for the surgery, which went very successfully, then keep myself busy for a few months while I healed. I had already realized that using my Woo WA7/WA7tp and a dedicated Mac wasn't going to cut it at the office, because they didn't want to be responsible for replacing my personal property (I think). So I sold my Woo WA7/WA7tp and gave my 17" MacBook Pro to a friend who likes to collect older computers and starting looking at things like DAPs (Digital Audio Players) to evaluate while I healed.

You know, though, DAPs are expensive and even then people often pair them with outboard DACs and/or amps, which just didn't sit right with me, so I waited until something came along that kind of killed two birds with one stone. A lot of buzz was going around about the Chord Mojo and people I trust were getting excited about it, plus it was time for a new iPhone and now you could get 128GBs of capacity. Plus, you can connect the Mojo to an iPhone 5S or higher with an Apple USB adapter (the "Camera Kit") and a short USB-A to Micro-B cable, plus I knew of a pair of "sleeper" headphones from Ultrasone (the Performance 880s) that I could get for a song and I knew would be just big enough to feel comfortable yet offer rather amazing sound for the price. So I ordered the Mojo and the Performance 880s from Moon Audio, and they arrived. At the same time, I went down to the Apple store and upgraded my iPhone to the space gray 6S with 128GB of storage.

With that much storage, I was able to put all of my ripped CDs in iTunes onto one device and have room left over for high-resolution files managed by any number of Apps (although I never got around to actually doing that, at least not yet ...). I choose the Onkyo HF Player because Chord specifically mentioned it, but there are others. So now I had an enormous library of ripped CDs in ALAC on my iPhone, a Moon Audio Silver Dragon USB cable plus the Apple adapter, and a pair of matching headphones. I added the Onkyo HF Player, aka the Music Player, to my collection of Apps, connected everything together, and started playing Ahmad Jamal's Blue Moon via the HF Player through the Mojo into the 880s. It was magical! Magic, though, has never been quite good enough for me, so I plugged the Mojo into my 13" MacBook Pro and starting playing high-resolution music—including DSD—using Audirvana Plus as a library manager and music processor. It sounded really good, but—sadly—just a hair too bright, so I set about customizing some cables.

First, I replaced the stock headphone cable, which is removable, with a six-foot run of Blue Dragon analog headphone cable. That did improve the sound, particularly allowing for greater dynamics, but I could still hear that brightness. Next, I replaced the Silver Dragon USB cable with a Blue Dragon USB cable, going from all silver to all copper, and that definitely got rid of the brightness. In fact, it made the whole sound quite lush. However, it was too lush, the high end was rolled off excessively, so I decided to take one more chance and order the Black Dragon USB cable, which uses silver-plated copper. The "Goldilocks" Black Dragon USB cable arrived yesterday, so I pulled the whole kit out of my pocket and out of the Performance 880 case, connected it all together, and fired up the album Ode by the Brad Mehldau Trio on my iPhone. I call the Black Dragon USB cable my "Goldilocks" cable because it sounded just right, at least with CD-resolution music, neither rolled off nor too bright, but with just the perfect amount of sparkle on top while retaining a sense of richness the Mojo imbues to everything.

Now what about my MacBook Pro? Well, I fired up Audirvana Plus after connecting the Black Dragon USB cable to my brand new 13" MacBook Pro. The first album I picked was Blue Coast Audio's Blue Coast Special Event 19 in single DSD, the section with Alex Degrassi, and it sounded fine. It's not the best miked performance of acoustic guitar I've ever heard (IMHO), and I think the intent is to show detail; but it did that successfully and the custom cabling kept any sibilance from getting out of hand, which was my intent. So it all sounded good. Next I switched to the 24/176.4 download of There's A Time by Doug MacLeod, which I felt sounded more professionally miked, and it was super. I had all the detail I could want, but it never felt thrown in my face. The guitar transients were there, but rendered just gently enough that they never left me feeling deprived nor like I was getting a migraine headache. Lastly, I switched to one of my favorite albums, Moment to Moment, at 24/192 by Cava Menzies & Nick Phillips, and it sounded incredibly super, rich but detailed with no headache potential and a characteristically comforting warmth.

I don't want to imply that the Mojo is perfect. It has a slightly dark sound that might put some people off, but which might make a good match for IEMs, and I have yet to get the battery to last as long as it's hypothetically supposed to. However, for the money, it's really cool. I also like the fact that I can use it with multiple devices ranging from a mobile phone to a laptop computer. I would just say that you need to match it very carefully. My Mojo, headphones, and the custom cables have all been selected much more carefully than I ever had to do with my Woo WA7. On the other hand, the headphones and matching didn't cost that much, and you can't carry a WA7 running off of batteries in your pocket. From what I've read, the Hugo might perform better, but it's larger and—more to the point—four times as expensive. That's just too much for a portable DAC and headphone amplifier (around $2000), at least for me.

I should add that, after listening for a while, I came to find the Ultrasone Performance 880s physically a little uncomfortable. I think it has mostly to do with the ear cups being shallow, meaning that my ears often pressed against the foam-like substance covering the drivers, making my head feel warm. I'm not slamming the Performance 880s. They're great headphones for the money, but they're not in the same league as my old faithful Ultrasone Edition 8s, which have been modified with Moon Audio Silver Dragon V2 cable. I pulled the Edition 8s out of their cubbyhole, put the V2 mini-plug termination on, and connected them to my Mojo, which was in turn connected to my iPhone 6S through 12" of Black Dragon USB cable and the Apple Lightning to USB adapter (the "Camera Kit"). I put on the Edition 8s, which are physically smaller than the Performance 880s but still more comfortable and certainly more resolute, then queued up the album Live by Nick Bartsch's Ronin in the Onkyo Music Player. I really love this album, partially because of the undulating synthesizer dynamics. The iPhone/Black Dragon USB/Mojo/Silver Dragon Edition 8s did not disappoint. It all just jammed.

CF000093 1 copy-brighter

I think that, up until now, the best portable music player I have ever heard is a triple stack of an iPod Classic, an original AlgoRhythm Solo, and an original ALO Connoisseur tube-hybrid headphone amp, all using the Silver Dragon IEM cable in one configuration or another. I used the same headphones, the Silver Dragon Edition 8s, and for the two albums that the batteries would last before I had to recharge all three devices, I felt like I was in heaven. Now I feel that way with my iPhone 6S and the Mojo, it's just all more portable and can be connected to my MacBook Pro as well. I had hit the mother lode (plus the charge does apparently last a lot longer, although I do wish the Mojo could be charged and played at the same time, which it apparently can't). Again, we're talking about a system: the Black Dragon USB cable, the Silver Dragon Edition 8s, and the Onkyo Music Player App, not to mention the iPhone 6S and the Mojo itself. Plus, it all looks really cool and modern together, the sort of thing you would expect to see at a Silicon Valley startup.

I connected the Black Dragon USB cable to my MacBook Pro and fired up Audirvana Plus, which I now use as a music library manager and signal processor (i.e., no more iTunes for me), then launched the 24/192 album Moment to Moment by Cava Menzies & Nick Phillips again. It sounded even more like heaven, reminding me in form if not in whole of my Ayre QB-9 DSD/Cavalli Liquid Gold combination, which is just stunning. So I guess you could say I was happy. I'm sure I could try 1,000 more combinations, but I think I have found my bliss, and this article is very late (and I haven't even taken a photograph yet). So I'm going to stop here and say that I feel that I've found a combination that, while sounding different, offers me the level of musicality I used to get from my 17" MacBook Pro and Woo WA7 in a kit I can carry in my backpack (without a tube power supply, sadly). That was my original goal and I have accomplished it, so, as they say, quit while you're ahead. By the way, I do listen to headphone cables besides Moon Audio. I've owned Cardas and I've heard the Nordost headphone cable designed for the Audeze LCD-2 (or 3 or 4) as examples. I still like the Moon Audio better. "The time is gone, the song is over, thought I'd something more to say."(*)

Kindest regards,


(*)"Time" by Pink Floyd