Gramophone Dreams #55: Mola Mola Tambaqui D/A processor

Since the plague arrived, several of my closest audio friends have been chattering and bugging me constantly, not about masks, vaccines, Trump, or Biden but about Bruno Putzeys's digital-to-analog converter, the Mola Mola Tambaqui. They've been sending emails and texts like pesky kids:

"Herbie! Have you tried the Mola Mola? Come on man, what's taking you so long? Is Putzeys's DAC better than my MSB? Or the dCS Bartók? Or the HoloAudio May?"

I don't mind—I like it when people pester me about products they're excited about. That type of revved-up, need-to-know anticipation is what keeps our shared audio dreams going and growing.

I get extra-happy when they are gushing about DACs. Today, digital converters, both A/D and D/A, define the leading edges of audio engineering, and we need them to keep improving.

Ten days after my second vaccine shot, I visited one of those pesky friends and got a deep listen to the fish-and-ocean–styled Tambaqui. The longer I listened, the more convinced I was that the Mola Mola was clearer and more physical-sounding than any DAC in my previous experience.

I went home inspired. I must obtain a review sample, I thought, then study it carefully and report to my readers.

A large South American freshwater fish
The made-in-The-Netherlands, Bruno Putzeys–designed Tambaqui DAC ($13,400, footnote 1) came triple-boxed. The innermost box was a foam-lined Pelican case. Inside that was the small (7.9" W × 4.3" H × 12.6" D), light (11.5lb) Tambaqui.

The Tambaqui's Greek-temple proportions, rolling-wave profile, concave face, and Nemo-esque porthole display made every other component in the bunker look boring and conventional. As I sipped my morning coffee, I read the owner's manual and installed Mola Mola's iOS app on my iPad.

1221gram.bac

The Tambaqui has seven wired digital inputs, one each of the following: USB, TosLink, S/PDIF (RCA), AES3, Ethernet, I2S over HDMI. It also supports several Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC, aptX, LDAC. PCM is supported up to 32/384 on the USB and network inputs and up to 24/192 on all the other wired inputs. DSD is supported natively and via DoP (DSD over PCM), although Native DSD isn't supported on Windows versions earlier than 10. MQA isn't supported at all.

According to the Mola Mola website, the Tambaqui upsamples incoming digital audio to 32-bit/3.125MHz then converts it to noise-shaped PWM (pulse width modulation) format, after which it is channeled to a "discrete, 32-stage FIR [finite impulse response] DAC and a single-stage fourth-order filtering I/V converter" that converts PWM to analog with a specified S/N ratio of 130dB.

I started with the Mola Mola connected to Bryston Audio's neutral-sounding B1353 integrated amplifier. (See my Bryston review elsewhere in this issue. The $6695 Bryston has no balanced inputs, and the Tambaqui has no single-ended outputs, but my Tambaqui review sample included XLR to RCA adapters. Hoping to complement what I perceived as the Tambaqui's slightly cool, attention-grabbing clarity, I chose the richly toned, overtly spacious Cardas Clear Cygnus single-ended interconnect.

In addition to unbalanced outputs, the Tambaqui lacks user-selectable reconstruction filters. It also lacks a power switch. You turn it on by pressing any front-panel button, and you put it in standby by pressing and holding same. My review sample came with an Apple remote, which I didn't try. I controlled the Tambaqui with Mola Mola's easy-to-navigate iOS app, running on my iPad. Mola Mola offers an aluminum "rolling wave" remote at extra cost.

The Tambaqui is Roon Ready, so I connected its Network input to my router and used it as a Roon endpoint. My Roon Nucleus+ server was hard-wired into the same network.

1221gram.vilde

Listening
The first recording I listened closely to, Paganini & Schubert: Works for Violin & Piano by Vilde Frang (violin) and Michael Lifits (piano) (24/192 FLAC Warner Classics/Qobuz), left me smirking. The Tambaqui was providing some things that I've always told people digital can't provide: lifelike dynamics and meaty corporeality. I've played this recording with a variety of converters, most recently dCS's Bartók ($18,500 with headphone amp) and my long-term reference HoloAudio May (Level 3) ($4998). That day, with the Tambaqui DAC, Vilde Frang's playing displayed extra-forceful pluck and bite with rosin-on-the-bowhair descriptiveness that the Bartók and May converters could not match.

During my first days of listening, the Mola Mola's most conspicuous sonic trait was a bright, evenly illumined clarity.

The dCS Bartók and the HoloAudio May both measure extremely well; the Mola Mola Tambaqui seems likely to do the same (footnote 2). Nevertheless, each DAC imparted its character on every recording that passed through it, each alluding to the truth of the recording in a different way. In NOS mode, the HoloAudio May presented recordings solemnly, saying, "This is the whole truth." The Bartók is British; it never boasted about its talents, but one day I thought I heard it whisper, "This is the truth Mr. Reichert." Mola Mola's Tambaqui did not whisper—it declares loudly: "See! The truth is more beautiful than you thought it would be!"

1221gram.miles

On piano recordings, the Tambaqui sounded true in the same manner as the HoloAudio May in OS mode but with more dynamics and tonal brilliance, tighter, quicker bass, and denser images. On Miles Davis's Teo Macero–produced In a Silent Way (24/176.4 FLAC Columbia/Qobuz), Miles's and Herbie Hancock's notes are dosed with generous artificial reverb. The Tambaqui heightened that reverb's presence—made it seem extra-forceful—without sacrificing weight or leading-edge bite.

On all the recordings I tried, the Tambaqui seemed to expose the core, or body, of recorded sound in a way that upped the intensity of my listening experience.

I frequently stream a remastered version of Vladimir Horowitz: Carnegie Hall Concert, May 9, 1965 "An Historic Return." I like the program (Busoni, Scriabin, Debussy, et al.), and the recorded sound of Horowitz's piano has a purity I never get tired of hearing. With the Bartók, on the 24/192 MQA version on Tidal, which is how I usually play it, that piano sounded solid and vivid. With the no-MQA Tambaqui, Roon unfolded the same Tidal MQA file to 24/96k, but it sounded slightly muffled in comparison. Alternatively, with the Mola Mola and the same album in 24/192 FLAC, via Qobuz, the transparency, detail, and purity were off the charts. The sound from my speakers was unusually forceful and corporal.

Tambaqui without a preamp
When the Tambaqui arrived, my daily driver reference system consisted of the Bartók connected to the Rogue RP-7 preamplifier and on to the Parasound A21+ Halo power amplifier. The amp was powering the Falcon "Gold Badge" LS3/5a loudspeakers. In recent years I've used two DACs as references, both already mentioned: the HoloAudio May and the dCS Bartók.

1221gram.2

On a morning-coffee whim, I connected the Tambaqui directly to the Elekit TU-8600S 300B amplifier, controlling the volume with the DAC's volume control. Now, it was the Elekit driving the "Gold Badge" speakers. When the music started, I cried and laughed at the same time. On Areni Agbabian's first ECM recording, Bloom (24/96 FLAC ECM/Qobuz), I heard—and saw—previously invisible molecules of live, reverberant energy. Everywhere I listened, I experienced more, stronger energy and more nuanced dynamic expression. If you're keeping a log of Wow! moments, this one was mind-opening. I'd never experienced this amount of raw clarity or textured delicacy from Qobuz or Tidal streaming.

The next day, wearing a smirk, I hooked the Tambaqui directly to the Parasound Halo A21+ amplifier driving the Falcons. This time I chose balanced AudioQuest Mackenzie XLR interconnects because the solid-core Mackenzies sound cooler and more transparent than the braided-wire Cardas Clear Cygnuses. I wanted this Mola Mola–to–Parasound audition to deliver maximum force and clarity. It did much more than that.

This Mola Mola–Parasound combo made recordings sound bold, solid, and blue-sky clear but never cold or hard. It put fingers-on-strings tangibility into my current streaming obsession: The Art of Segovia (24/96 FLAC DG/ Qobuz). The Tambaqui-Halo matchup made Andrés Segovia sound direct, unfettered, and unmitigated, like a direct-to-disc LP.


Footnote 1: Mola Mola, Kattegat 8, 9723JP Groningen, Netherlands. Tel: +31(0)505264993. Web: Mola-Mola.nl. US distributor: GTT, 356 Naughright Rd., Long Valley, NJ 07853. Tel: (908) 850-3092 Web: gttaudio.com

Footnote 2: John Atkinson's measurements of the Tambaqui are presented in a Follow-Up review in the January 2022 issue.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Jack L's picture

...... expression. " qtd HR

Hi

Bingo, HR. Now you got it - going DIRECT !!!!!!

Active linestages are REDUNDANT soncially, irrespestive of design/pricing as they screw up the music signals by adding harmonic & phase distortions to the music signals passing through them, IMO. This is physics !!!

My skeptical ears hear the sonic difference with & without since day one many many years back. That's made me build really PASSIVE linestage as 100% linear active & passive linestages were nowhere available back then & even today.

Why not as all CD/DVD/DAC get adequate output voltage & low impedance to drive any commercial brandname power amps to full power ???

FYI, my design/built phono-pramp installed a passive bypass switch to allow my LP, CD/DVD/DAC music signals driving DIRECT my brandname & home-brew tube power amps.

I bet you'd drop yr jaw bigtime when you listen to LP music going from the phonostage DIRECT to the power amp ! I do it ALL the time for as I can't tolerate the music impaired by the redunctant electronics in the music signal path.

It is the forceful latent energy you may have missed so much now fully liberated together with the "nuanced dynamic expression" !!!

Listening is believing

Jack L

Jonti's picture

I do the same: EAR Yoshino Phonobox (which has volume control) goes directly into the power amp. Compared with running the Phonobox via a pre into the power, the sound is much more vital and alive.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Bingo ! Listen to the music not any sales pitch !

"Geat minds think alike..." quoted D Belchier in 1618.

Be a smart consumer!

Jack L

redwoodaudio's picture

Herb, as the serious DAC reviewer who appears to love digital-as-analog sounding gear that you are, I'm surprised you haven't (to my knowledge at least) taken possession of a Lampizator tube DAC for review (formally or informally). I would love to read about your take on the to-my-ears natural, full-bodied, and expansive Lampizator tech. (Lampizator Atlantic TRP blew away the Holo May in my system).

Jack L's picture

Hi

WOW, for some lousy USD3,760 to own a DAC 'game changer' would be toooo
good a deal ! Made in USA !

Jack L

georgehifi's picture

What kind of voodoo is Bruno hatching here, can someone explain to this dummy is it R2R or Delta Sigma? As it says it's 24/192 (PCM DXD??) and yet it up-samples to get DSD??

Cheers George

DH's picture

Bruno uses neither Delta Sigma nor R2R; he and his collaborators have proprietary DAC architecture which apparently is partially software - FPGA driven. The Kii Threes use a similar system.
description of Mola Mola DAC process:
https://www.soundstageultra.com/index.php/equipment-menu/988-mola-mola-tambaqui-digital-to-analog-converter

gbroagfran's picture

I own one of these. Yes, it a very good DAC, the best I have yet heard. But a couple of comments:

1. I have never heard the "Big Boy" DACs so I have no idea if the Tambaqui even qualifies as the best. It is the best I could afford at the time, but would not necessarily be my first choice if I had unlimited funds.
2. Though fabulous, it in no way competes with my SME/Aquilar/Koetsu/ turntable overall for sound quality. It does possess some of the best qualities of the TT, which surprised me.
3. Doing a sound quality evaluation with 30.2 speakers is a joke. I do own a pair and they do not sound anywhere as good as my other speakers, which are SoundLabs and Quads. They make nice bedroom speakers, but are not anywhere as good as needed to test the Tambaqui.

Siegfried's picture

Excellent tracks ; it's been a pleasure playing them on my system and Wingless angels was a discovery. Thank you. But the tracks you picked are very consistent with the monitors you used : all the tracks I played, including the reggae, have no low end extension. Can't say that expressions as believable corporeality more solid analog-like physicality forceful and corporal are unfounded with those tracks on my system so I don't doubt you but you simply have not assessed and compared the behaviour of that DAC below ,say, 60 Hz (par level with 1 K for the Harberth https://www.stereophile.com/content/harbeth-monitor-302-40th-anniversary-edition-loudspeaker-measurements) which is about true (the 60/1K parity) of the reggae track as well while loudest bass notes are about a dozen dB louder, round 114, and it rolls off very fast below a 55 small peak, still much lower than the 114's ... Considering the price of that DAC it's a bit of a problem not to know how it fares comparatively in sub bass, me think...

deandome1's picture

Not to be or sound critical, but why is it that new, otherwise state-of-the-art, DACs like this beauty keep coming out without USB-C jacks? I asked that of google, and read many posts answering "USB-B is more sturdy, you don't need the throughput capacity, they're not that common", etc. Of course, these threads were at least 4 years old, mostly 8-10...and USBC is actually much more durable re. # of insertions (not that this matters with a rear-connection, the cable will not be moved often!) and they are now der rigueur with every laptop, tablet and Android devices (and everyone knows iPhones will be joining the party soon!).

It's kind of condescending that mfgs don't use them, implying that owners are too old and stodgy to keep up with the realities of modern tech. And c'mon, admit it; most of you (and I!!) are LOOKING for excuses to buy new cables! And even if it's they're not 'needed', capability-wise, what about considering the convenience factor? I'm now at the point where all I use is USB-C/Thunderbolt (same connectors, different, but compatible, protocols), and mostly the ones that have those connectors on both ends. I've been prevented from using my Dragonfly several times cuz I didn't have the usb adaptor with me.

Thoughts?

thethanimal's picture

Probably because of the myriad cable options available it doesn’t really matter. These DACs are generally thought to be used with a streamer or a server instead of a laptop or phone connection, so a standard USB-A to USB-B cable would be employed. But if you really want to use a newer laptop a quick Google search told me AudioQuest, Cardas, and Nordost all make USB-B to USB-C cables, and I’m sure all other decent manufacturers do as well. If you’re buying a $13k DAC I doubt you’re using a freebie cable, so if you’re buying a new cable anyway what’s the difference?

donnedonne's picture

Lovely review. Thanks Herb. I have not heard the Mola Mola (yet), but I've home demoed some wonderful DACs in the $10k price range. The Meitner MA3 (Roon Ready) is flying a bit under the radar -- you may want to seek it out for review as well. It's *strikingly good.*

thethanimal's picture

Herb, considering you’re running a Roon Nucleus and both the Tambaqui and the Bartok are Roon endpoints, it seems like connecting both to your preamp simultaneously and running them as a group in Roon would provide an interesting setup for direct A/B comparisons of “Bloom” and “Art of Segovia” in MQA from Tidal and 24/96 from Qobuz, obviously streaming from just one service at a time. I would love to hear your ruminations on the comparisons (even though I could never afford either DAC).

Herb Reichert's picture

I did exactly as you suggest for this report. I make those kind of comparisons all the time. (I usually have two DACs ROONing at once.)

The dCS Bartok decodes MQA extraordinarily well. The Mola Mola does not decode MQA.

As for 'which format might sound better?' I regard all forms of digital reproduction with equal levels of extreme skepticism; and judge sound quality one streaming track at a time.

hr

thethanimal's picture

Thanks for the clarification, Herb. Knowing the setup gives me a framework for interpreting your impressions.

Your digital skepticism mirrors my vinyl skepticism. Not that I don’t think it can sound good, but I haven’t been able to hear something in my room price commensurate with my Node 2i that can match it. Perhaps when I’m an empty nester I can find the time and money for the slight neurosis (meant in the best possible way; we’re all a little neurotic about our passions) required for proper turntable playback. In the meantime my local hifi dealer can clearly demonstrate that a Brinkmann/ARC analog source can trump a dCS Vivaldi — at least on the right recording. But I haven’t the money for either.

Jack L's picture

Hi

For merely $699 (price for a Norde 2i from Amazon now!) to get the sound of quality vinyl? It must be a miracle down to the earth from the Almighty Above, pal.

Good luck, but don't hold your breath too soon.

Jack L

thethanimal's picture

Well that’s part of my point, pal. (I mean that to be funny, but I can never tell if your “pal” is condescending or not.) So what’s a guy with a budget to do? A Node 2i into a Decware Zen Triode into full-range speakers can be startling in its realism, but to get that from vinyl it seems like I’d have to spend a full fortune and make listening accommodations that don’t dovetail with raising a toddler. I have a borrowed preamp and Technics 1200 but it just doesn’t match the Node. Is it the cartridge? The preamp? The condition of my old records? How can I tell?

Jack L's picture

Hi

For your very limited budget, when a Nord 2i + triode amp can make you happy, why not ?

Yet yr above post "skeptism" gave me the impression that yr Nord could replace vinyl sonically ! I am utmostly skeptical about yr claim.

If you'vd tried hard enough like yours truly, you surely don't need to "spend a full fortune" to get superb vinyl music which blows away digital sound todate, IMO.

To help you to get closer to the music nirvana - vinyl music, let me answer yr questions raised above from my only a few years experience switched over from digital. Who does not start with CD player anyway ??

(1) phono-preamp: YES, phono-preamp is most most CRITICAL part of the
vinyl music reproduction chain. It equalizes the frequency response
of the record recording & boosts the very weak phono cartridge
signals to high enough to drive any power amps to their rated output
power.

Only all triode tube preamp sounds closest to live performance,
IMO. There are quite a few brandname tube phono-preamps in the
marketplace. I shook my head bigtime in looking at their circuit
designs. Most those well-known brandname makers, price irrespective,
design/built their phono-preamps to sell features instead of selling
music quality. Well, marketing to make money ! No money no honey!
Can't blame them.

That's why I had to design/build music friendly phono-pramp for my
own use with 100% linear active devices - triodes, only years
back!! No tetrode/pentode tubes & any bi-polar junction solid state
devices, e.g, FETs, transistors & op-amps which all get non-linear
transfer charactersitcs. This is physics.

Simplicity is the very KEY word for any musical sounding amp
designs. LESS electronics in the circuit path, BETTER will be the
sound. I experimented anough in the past years to confirm this
musically. I forgot to tell you, I am a die-hard audio DIYer,
thanks to my decades' electrical engineering background & my
addiction to quality music. This has saved me a huge fortune to get
music cloest to the live at home.

(2) Cartrdige: with the phono-preamps of RIGHT design, any cartridges would sound good if not better ! Not many rich & willing can afford a $15,000 cartridge, right? My experience told me, given the right match with the right phono-preamp, a not-too-costly MM cartridge can sound pretty musically gratifying.

Mind you I got a MC cartridge/factory matching discretee solid state class A PP headamp (both same Japanese origin) on my SME s-shaped black tonearm. So what! I still prefer my much less costly MM cartridge which sounds more neutral than my MC cartridge. Why? MC cartridges tend to get some tonal characterstics, which I'd call colouration & I don't like at all !

(3) "old records"

If you know how to manage your old records, they all sound fine.
FYI, my 1,000+ stereo LPs are all picked up from thrift stores for a buck or so a piece, including 30+ digitally mastered LPs.

Given PROPER treatment before use, you can 'resurrect' yr old vinyls up to 7th heaven.

Have I spent "a full fortune" to get superb vinyl music? Not at all.

Listening is believing

Jack L

PeterG's picture

I think you missed the qualifier "price commensurate" in his first Node reference. I own a Node on a secondary system where it does very well. It cost less than a pair of interconnects on my primary system, where, not surprisingly, the Node's limitations are obvious.

Those of us with the means to own high-end systems would do well to encourage others to get the best sound they can for the money available. As a source for <$1,000, the Node is excellent.

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