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Interview: Rob Watts at CanJam Singapore 2018

Interview with Chord Electronics Rob Watts by Chester Tan NXT Magazine

I attended the CanJam Singapore 2018 last weekend, and being writer for NXT Magazine, I was tasked to interview a few persons so that they can be featured. We managed to catch up with Robert Watts, Designer and Chief Engineer of Chord Electronics, well known for their development of digital-to-audio converter (DAC).

Unlike many DAC and DAP brands who use OEM audio chips, Chord designs their own, and as a result, their audio quality is uniquely outstanding. But I am always skeptical about claims stated on product materials, that is precisely why I do not like to write about news and press releases on my website. Despite glowing reviews all over the audiophile community over the years, I did not try the Chord Mojo.

But after the intimate conversation with Rob, I was so sold by his conviction that I bought the Chord Mojo the next day, just to see if whether the product lives up to his claims. Side note: I did not try it at CanJam because the atmosphere would be too tense and too noisy for me to hear minute differences.

Chord Electronics Mojo DAC with Sennheiser HD660S and Sony NW-ZX300 DAP

And as accurately stated by Rob, the Chord Mojo achieves an impressive level of clarity and details at the high frequencies (known as “transparency”), while the bass detail is also elevated yet retaining the neutral response, that is, no excessive boom.

Rob and Chord Electronics

Rob started by sharing his history with Chord, which went way back in 1996. He then did other projects with consumer hardware manufacturers and provided his expertise in quality audio chips, but these manufacturers were not interested in his field of audio accuracy. He then got back to producing professional-grade audio processors and returned to Chord to create some of the best DACs in the market. He has shared that he will continue this route of product excellence, and hopefully one day the cost will be low enough to reach to the mass market.

Interview with Chord Electronics Rob Watts by Chester Tan NXT Magazine
Photo: Shawn Chung, courtesy of NXT Singapore

How do you start your career with Chord?

First of all, I am an independent design consultant, and not employee of Chord. I have been working with Chord since 1996, when I developed own DAC technology. My aim has been to achieve a musical performance, but with better transparency. Over the years, I was able to do that by improving the accuracy of the DAC (digital-to-audio convertor) process by increasing the “taps” (the more taps, the better the accuracy to the analog source). In 1999, I could only achieve 8 to 9 bits accuracy. Today, I can achieve 16-bit.

In 2014, Hugo was launched, to allow listening to high-end audio music on the go. I did it as a fun project, and Chord Electronics would sell. Initially I expected to sell just a couple hundreds, but we ended up selling over 10,000 units. The success brought me back to focus on high-end audio products.

Given the huge success, it goes to show that your products are real quality and not just marketing gospel.

I always back everything I state with measurements. My job is to convince people that measurements are important, partly is to justify what I am saying. Whenever I made an improvement to measurement, it results in better sound quality. You can’t just base on listening test, because people often prefer distortion. My intent is to make the audio as transparent as possible, to recreate the experience of listening to a live unamplified orchestra in a concert hall, which sounds completely different from listening to reproduced audio.

What is keeping you busy?

Other than improving the current product category, I have a project to provide end-to-end, analog to digital, solutions from the microphone recording to the speaker sound. The other area I am working on is power amps, when pulse array DAC’s will be capable of very large amounts of power without changing the topology. Hence I will be able to couple the digital data to loudspeakers with an extremely simple and direct path, thus maximizing transparency.

The beauty of my approach with DAC is that it’s a single-ended output from DAC: 1 amplifier and current voltage converter, then drives the headphones directly. Chord DACs are so transparent because the analog section is simple. The reason that I can make it so simple is because I don’t need complex filtering.

Once I have succeeded in enabling this single approach of DAC and single amp, this will transform 2-channel amplification market, because we will achieve a level of transparency, yet simplicity in connecting from digital domain to analog domain, which no one has ever done before.

Any plans to design more affordable product for the mass markets?

I always go for excellence, and I’ve often been asked to do projects simpler than Mojo but I’ve rejected it, because I couldn’t get the performance. While we can’t do it today, it doesn’t mean we cannot do it in the future. I’m more interested in getting better sounds, so if I can get better sounds for lower cost, I will do that.

That’s why we do Mojo. The extraordinary thing about Mojo is that you can get truly high end performance for £400. The beauty of Mojo is that you can listen to it for 10 hours and still love the music. You don’t get the normal listening fatigue you get from other digital products. Mojo is very engaging, very musical, very transparent.

If there is a project that I am most happy about, it would be Mojo, because the number of people who bought it, because of the musical performance is so good. I’ve never expect the level of sales that we’ve got, and it’s been a blast.

 

Chord Mojo is easily available in Singapore at all good audiophile shops. The lowest price on Lazada as at time of publish is $799 (affiliate link).

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Interview: Rob Watts at CanJam Singapore 2018
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An interview with Rob Watts, designer and chief engineers of Chord Electronics, convinced me to buy the Chord Mojo, and it delivers transparent treble without fatigue, and detailed bass without too much boom.
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