Chi-Fi v Brit-Fi – R2R v – Who will win?
I have in my hands the 3rd in the HM1000 series of dac/amps. I was the first person to be sent an HM1000 loaner and it feels like a long time ago! I have now been sent a loaner of their base model. This is the Red. The Red is the base model and retails at a slightly more wallet friendly price of $599. The difference between this and the flagship is in the preciousness and sophistication of the R2R chips. The Red has 2 lesser spec’d PCM1702 chips; the Gold has 4 higher spec’d PCM1704 chips. The Silver has 2 PCM1704 chips and sits in the middle of the range. Both R2R chips are no longer in production, having been phased out out in the late 1990s. Since they were phased out the PCM chips have achieved a mythical status, and R2R maintains a solid footing in the Dac market, despite the costlier, difficult implementation. The colour difference is the only way you’ll tell the Gold, Silver or Red apart. The Chord Mojo uses a standard off the shelf DAC chip. The implementation of said chip remains a closely guarded secret. The Mojo has 2 outputs, both 3.5 mm, whereby 2 headphones, or iems, or headphones and line out can be used at the same time. The reputation of the Mojo has now become the stuff of legends. The Mojo is revered by Darko Audio. It has been given the Darko product of the Decade status. What Hi-Fi awarded it the best DAC (£300-£500) of 2020, some 5 years after it’s release. The Mojo has remained my favourite portable Dac/Amp since my review and subsequent purchase of it on the first week of its release to an eager British public. Until now.
About R2R technology
R2R is the type of chip that went into the earliest digital audio gear. The chips were a lot more costly to produce than modern DAC chips. Modern DAC chips are easier to work with and are constantly being improved, at least in terms of their technical specifications. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of DACs out there have the modern delta sigma DAC chip. To go much beyond this description of R2R would take a lengthier explanation than would be useful for my current purposes. The research I have done into this describes ladders, resistors, noise floors, oversampling, non oversampling and delta sigma and pulse code modulation. One day soon I will do a short, layman’s terms description of what this and all the other weird audio technology is out there. For now, think of this in many ways as a tube amp v solid state amp debate. Some will swear by the warmth of tubes and some will thank progress for the more accessible solid state developments. There are those who will state that the sound of an R2R chip is less artificial sounding than a delta sigma chip, and there are those who say that an R2R is coloured in it’s presentation. Perhaps everyone is right.
HM1000 Red v Mojo
The Mojo has some features that the HM1000 lacks. The first of these is the ability to power 2 iems or headphones at the same time.
When doing reviews, (of course) this is a great way to compare 2 like minded headphones simultaneously. An audiophile need only take a Mojo and their existing IEM/Headphone to a store and they have an quick, easy, wire free way to check out the products they’re interested in. One side can be permanently connected as line out to your big amp, the other side can be used as a headphone amp. And it’s a pretty darn powerful headphone amp to boot. It’ll run a 600 Ohm headphone and it’ll run the tiniest of earphones, with little or no hiss. I have tried and tested a lot of other products and I quickly came to the conclusion that adding a Mojo to a Digital Audio Player would more than likely increase the enjoyment of that product. The Mojo can also take an optical amd a coax connection.
This gives it the edge on wired digital inputs as compared to the USB only functionality of the HM1000. The Mojo is smaller and less chunky than the HM1000. The Mojo is a matchbox to the HM1000 being a cigarette packet. The Mojo has a scratch resistant surface. Although neither dac/amp has a gui, the R2R has a brushed glass window. The back of the device is equally as shiny and therefore extremely prone to smudges and scratches. In a certain light, at a certain angle, you can see those precious PCM R2R chips. Otherwise, it looks like it’s a DAP. But a DAP it is not.
The HM1000 is more versatile, and more up to date. The HM1000 Red is a wireless device. It has bluetooth. It is a relief to say that the bluetooth does not need a great deal of mastery. You switch the device on, it flashes blue. You search for new bluetooth devices on your phone, connect, pair and the HM1000 will go solid blue. My Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G is 2 years old now and has Android 9 on it. It automatically accepted the Mi on board with an LDAC output, the highest quality codec bluetooth currently has available. LDAC output is only stable at short distances, so be mindful to keep any LDAC device as still and as close to your source as possible when using it. LDAC is as close as bluetooth has got to lossless sound quality. The HM1000 goes close to being a standalone DAP. You can insert a micro SD card, install HiFiMan remote and sync your files from the sd card to the phone. You haven’t physically taken up lots of real estate on your smartphone by doing this. Your phone simply knows the location of the audio is being streamed from the HM1000, rather than the phone itself. The HM1000 Red supports 3.5 mm balanced/unbalanced 4.4 mm balanced and line out.
The Mojo supports 3.5 mm unbalanced and line out. Whereas the Mojo uses the older tech micro USB and needs a decent cable to trickle charge, the HM1000 uses USBC. OTG is less hit and miss than with the Mojo. The Mojo has a separate port for charging. The HM1000 can charge at the same time as it hooks up to your laptop as an external DAC. The Mojo will need 2 of your laptops ports to charge and dac/amp simultaneously. The Mojo has an 8 hour battery life compared to the HM1000s 9.5 hours.
Finally, the UK retail price of the Chord Mojo is £399. The HM1000 Red is £424 + postage + customs as per ebay below.
The end price will be considerably more for the HM1000 Red. But, consider this: the only way for the Mojo to achieve the wireless functionality of the Red would be to add it’s big brother, the £499 Poly. Decisions, decisions…..
Sound quality – Chord Mojo v HM1000 Red
The sound quality was where I believed the HM1000 would be left wanting. The Mojo has been with me for so long now and has always produced the goods, despite being up against DACS with much newer technology. And yet…. The tests were conducted using each device as an OTG device and also by hooking them up to my Macbook Pro Retina. I used a HiFiMan HE1000 SE, Drop HExx and Meze Rai Penta to cover all the bases.
The SE is the most demanding of the above headphones. It is easily run by the Mojo but is near the limit of the Red’s output capabilities. In each and every headphone, the 1000 gave more music than the Mojo could accomplish. The finesse that the Mojo exemplifies is outclassed by the HM1000. The HM1000 has a smoother, wider, balanced sound with more micro details evident than the Mojo. When the volume was matched with the devices and I was pushing the limits my ears where happy with, invariably I would need to turn down the Mojo and I could cope with the HM1000. There are three gain switches to the HM1000. Of course, these need to be paid close attention. The HE1000SE needed high gain, the Drop HExx low
and the Penta super low gain.
The Mojo, a disappointment to listen to – the HM1000 Red, a joy. May I offer a caveat to all this reviewing malarkey for those of you who own and love your Mojo? The only way I knew I was getting better than the Mojo was when I tried it directly against the HM1000. If I’d never tried the HM1000 Red, I’d never have known the Mojo wasn’t quite as good as I’d held it up to be. And once this device returns to its makers, or is moved on to another reviewer, I’m sure I’ll go back to enjoying life as it was before. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the sq of the Mojo; it’s just that there is now something better out there, at around the same price.
Notes of caution
You’ve read this, you have a Mojo and you were thinking of getting a Poly. Now you’re thinking of chucking in the Mojo and getting it sold tout suite before everyone jumps on the bandwagon and getting an HM1000 instead. Ok, fine. There are two things to consider. The first; the HiFiMan Remote functionality. This takes some perseverance to set up. Put simply; it’s a nightmare to set up. Headfi.org has some great hints on how to make it work. The Remote is described as in beta stage only, so HiFiMan won’t support you on this. Indeed – take a look at that official HM1000 Red page. “TF card slot (firmware updates only)”. There is hope; it can be done! I’ve got a 512 Gb card happily working in the Red. I also managed to get a card working with the Gold model as long ago as last year. It wasn’t without tears, but they turn from sorrow to joy in the end!
The second issue is the current availability of the HM1000 Red. Stockists in my neck of the woods are limited. Buying direct from HiFiMan seems to be the only route currently open. This means customs charges and a little longer shipping time. That means sending back to China or the USA if there’s something wrong. I can only vouch for the model I have here, and that’s all fine and dandy. Lastly, could the problems people are having with the Remote App result in said company ditching this route altogether and offering an even cheaper option that is more user friendly? One day, we may see a device from HiFiMan that delivers on the GUI as well as on the sound quality. A Hidizs style app and player with this R2R setup? Now that would be something, wouldn’t it? Until then, we must content ourselves with real good sound and slightly clunky apps. Once we can get our heads round this, life’s not so bad, is it?