Monday, 27 June 2016

Dealer Visit: Hifi Lounge, Bedford. Chord Mojo DAC Review



This review is as a result of a visit to this dealer to pick up a demo pair of PMC speakers and is therefore written as a customer, not as a reviewer as such.  Hifi Lounge were not aware that I would be writing about the visit (in fact, neither did I at the time, it occurred to me later that it might be something worth writing about).  

Are the days of the high street hifi specialist numbered?  House of Linn is a large Victorian end terrace house in a residential area of a town just outside the M60 Manchester orbital, Cymbiosis are in converted farm buildings and there are many other examples.  As hifi polarises into mass market convenience and high priced specialist products, with those companies and dealers in the mid-range probably feeling increasingly squeezed, there is no need for the higher end dealers to remain in the high street.  “Passing traffic” is no longer likely to just drop in, rents are very high, customers want somewhere easy and convenient to park, and most auditioning is based on pre-arranged appointments.  Buying quality hifi is now more likely to be a long decision process that’s best done in comfortable, more home-like surroundings in a quiet location with none of the distractions and hassles of a town centre.
Which brings me to Hifi Lounge, based just outside Bedford.  The approach is along a gently winding country road and a smooth gravel drive that feeds a number of “units”.  But these are not units of the industrial variety, but converted brick-built former farm buildings.  The car park is surrounded by trees, well-kept grass and hedges.  As soon as I arrived I felt relaxed and I hadn’t even got through the door.  Hifi Lounge is identified by a discrete logo on one of the buildings and you enter through a lowish wooden door.  Paul greeted me with a friendly smile and handshake.  He’s an easy bloke to get on with, as is his partner Wendy and it feels more like going to visit some friends, or perhaps genial B&B hosts, rather than a retail environment.

On the left is the “office” area with desk and some stock.  This is also online central for web content and correspondence.  Straight ahead is the staircase and on the right is the smaller dem room and, importantly, the kitchen area.  A good mug of proper tea was soon in hand – appropriately in a PMC branded vessel.  This smaller dem room is arranged with kit along the longer wall and a sofa opposite, thankfully a good distance away from the wall behind the listener.  A good number of items of kit are lined up on racks and there are some pairs of speakers – one pair set up for listening, the others along the shorter end wall.  On the day of my visit there was much evidence of Naim, Rega, Bryston, Arcam and PMC in this room.  Whilst being the smaller room (I’m guessing its about 5m x 4m), it does represent a very realistic size for many homes and will therefore help a good number of customers get a decent impression of a realistic set up.  D├ęcor is both modern (with wall art mural), casual and comfortable.  The ceiling is lowish, giving a cosy feel.  Nice.

When I was there, another customer was listening to some amp options in the, much larger, upstairs dem room.  This is slightly larger in floor area but also enjoys a high vaulted ceiling with exposed beams.  There’s a projector available and this room will better suit larger speakers, customers with larger rooms and, at a guess, those with larger wallets too.  I appreciated the 12” picture frames containing album sleeves – apparently these are changed from time to time and were recently all filled with Bowie albums as a mark of respect and appreciation.  I didn’t spend much time up here as there was a dem in progress and we didn’t want to disturb the other customer.  Back downstairs and Paul and I chat for a while about music choices, my current system, why PMC, what I was looking for in terms of a performance upgrade etc.  Paul comes across as genuinely interested, willing to discuss stuff he doesn’t sell and understand its merits and is clearly enthusiastic about the location and facilities he has to offer customers.

The PMC speakers are the demo units, so Paul brings the boxes and we pack them up together, still chatting about music and hifi.  Shortly afterwards the other customer comes down and joins in the chatter and it seems we have some work colleagues – current and past - in common.  I live in North Wales and have worked in Scottish, Yorkshire and London locations and here I am discussing colleagues with a stranger in Bedfordshire.  Small World and all that.

Given that I’ve never done any business with Hifi Lounge before, I felt very welcome and that Paul was interested in what I’m looking for.  On top of that, with a refundable deposit sorted, Hifi Lounge were happy for me to take their pair of Twenty.26 speakers away to North Wales and audition them for a week in my own system.  Doing anything other than this would’ve been pretty pointless really, using a different room and electronics from a completely different supplier (ie, in the shop) would not have provided much information really – certainly no benefit over my existing experience with the 26s at hifi shows and from magazine reviews.  Hifi Lounge were positively keen for me to ensure that I got a good long home audition before spending with them.  There was no quibble or doubt about trusting me with the speakers, even as a stranger – they clearly understand their customers’ needs and how to support those needs. This is a great way to engage a customer and gain their trust, as well as their long term repeat business.

Once the speakers were loaded up into the car, there was one more thing I wanted to try whilst I was there.  I’d taken my FiiO X3 portable hi-res FLAC player and my Audioquest Nighthawk headphones along as I wanted to give the new Chord Mojo DAC / headphone amp an audition, and knew that Hifi Lounge are Chord dealers.  So Wendy took me over to the headphone room, opened it up, set the lighting ambiance and let me get on with trying the kit.  But first, what about the room?  A very long, slim room, totally dedicated to the pursuit of high quality sound strapped to your head.  I’m guessing, but the room is probably around 8m long with all the kit arranged along one wall, with tall narrow windows down the opposite wall.  The kit wall has a waist high shelf with headphone amps from one end to the other – above this is an equally long row of high quality headphones on headphone stands.  All the well-reviewed kit is there – Audioquest, Grado, Oppo, Audez’e, STAX, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, Shure, AKG, BeyerDynamic etc. etc.  What an array of choice!

I settled into one of the sumptuous leather wing backed chairs with the FiiO / Mojo / Nighthawk combo and lined up some tunes.  Wendy left me to it, just saying I should take my time and come back to the main shop when I was ready.  The first thing that struck me about the Mojo is how tiny it is.  Somehow, even after reading that it’s about the same size as a pack of cards, it still came as a surprise that it is, actually, the size of a pack of cards.  I suppose I’m just used to so much hyperbole in the press these days that I thought this was rhetoric for effect rather than reality.  So there it is, tiny.  But beautifully built – the satin black anodised aluminium casing feels solid and machined (as opposed to pressed) – it feels much more expensive than the list price would suggest.  The Mojo accepts normal USB and coax SP/DIF digital inputs, but also those from iPhones and Android – so great for being on the move. The controls are OK – you soon get used to what long press vs short press does and the action is solid and “well oiled” so to speak – the only downside being the rather bright colours which could be distracting in a darkened room.  But once the tunes start playing this rather pales (sorry!) into insignificance.  

I hooked up the FiiO using the coaxial digital output and set the Mojo to a sensible listening level – so not too loud.  Last time I heard a Chord DAC / headphone amp was when I bought the Nighthawks – it was the larger and more expensive Hugo and I wasn’t impressed.  The Hugo receives very good reviews but sounded artificial to me – certainly the same headphones being powered by the Audioquest Dragonfly and a Trilogy 931 amp was a much better experience – that combination working well together to provide a more natural, flowing and musical result.  So what of the Mojo?  Well it is most definitely a more enjoyable listen than either of those I tried earlier – there’s oodles of detail, but its refined not forced, it doesn’t sound like you’re listening to something digital, in that edgy, gritty excessive brightness that so many low budget digital products deliver.  This is classy.  There’s slam, deep bass and great timing - the music bounces along with energy but control.  This little box of tricks is a revelation.  At the price it’s an absolute steal.  I don’t have one yet, but once the main system has settled down I’ll be investing, and certainly before some long flights I’m expecting later in the year (and I’ll go back to Paul and Wendy to get mine).  If you’re as old as I am then you’ll understand what I mean when I say I think the Mojo is probably this generation’s equivalent to the NAD 3020 – everyone should have one that’s looking for top quality listening on a reasonable budget.  I’ve heard a lot of headphone amps in the last 12 months, this is easily the one to beat up to at least £1000.  Brilliant.

So Hifi Lounge – great location, great facilities and a warm welcome from Paul and Wendy.  I enjoyed my visit there, which is not normally something I can say about retail experiences.  They’re helpful, friendly, relaxed, clearly keen to let the customer spend time and make their own decisions, they run interesting events from time to time and offer great service, even to new arrivals.  Oh, and one of the best headphone choosing experiences anywhere.

Hifi Lounge have kindly reviewed this post for factual accuracy, but have had no influence on the opinions expressed.

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