Gramophone Dreams #55: Mola Mola Tambaqui D/A processor Page 2

I've been waiting impatiently since 1983 for digital to sound this raw and unprocessed. With the Tambaqui, these doggedly artful Segovia performances were presented with a potent, affecting, analog-like physicality.

Curious to experience an even bigger, more direct and forceful presentation and a little more Mola Mola bass, I replaced the Falcons with Harbeth's M30.2 monitors and played my favorite fun soundtrack, Alexander Desplat's Isle of Dogs (16/44.1 FLAC, ABKCO/Qobuz). That led quickly to a moment where I kicked myself for not playing the Harbeth speakers more than I do. Driven by the torque and horsepower of Parasound's 12-cylinder A21+ power amplifier, the 30.2s sounded fast and strong with mesmerizing resolution. With the Tambaqui driving the Parasound directly, dogs and drums and wood flutes had a more material presence than they had when, later, I fed the Bartók to the same Halo–Harbeth combination.

Next, I listened to Wingless Angels, a simple (possibly two-track) recording produced in Jamaica by Keith Richards in 1973 (16/44.1 FLAC, Mindless Records/Tidal). I often listen to this track casually from my iPhone, and I always thought it was a messy, muddy, dirt-floor recording. The Mola Mola directly driving the Parasound played those deep drums and that Nyabinghi chanting with pure, supertidy, electrostatic-speaker detail backed by deep, primal force. It was a revelation.

On the same recording, the Bartók DAC showed me an even more detailed picture of the recording venue—I could hear the tiled floor—and the placement of performers within it. Without a preamplifier, I experienced a more intricately detailed Bartók, which in turn showed me a more atmospheric Wingless Angels recording, which let more of that supercool, 1973, changing-the-world, Jamaican vibe come through.

1221gram.circuit

Without the preamp, both DACs sounded more transparent, more microdetailed, less dynamically restrained, and more alike. The Mola Mola Tambaqui focused my attention on the dense bodies of the performers and their instruments. The spaces surrounding them were radically clear but possibly lacking in textured air. The dCS directed my attentions to those same negative spaces: the subtle textures and pulsing energies and space around the performers. The Bartók favored nuance over density. Both DACs delivered music with high levels of engagement.

The headphone output
Because there are no holes in the Mola Mola's curved front, I almost forgot it has headphone outputs. When I remembered, I plugged the super-resolving, low-sensitivity (83dB/mW), 60 ohm, $5000 HiFiMan Susvara open-backs into the Tambaqui's XLR4 headphone output. If the demon-load Susvaras play as clear and solid as the Tambaqui DAC does,

I thought at the start—or as fully and effortlessly as an amplifier designed by Bruno Putzeys usually does—then they will get the same applause I gave the Bartók's world-class headphone amp in my June 2021 Follow-Up to Jim Austin's September 2019 review.

1221gram.cab

I began my comparisons using the album I used to assess the Bartók's headphone amp: Cabaret Modern: A Night at the Magic Mirror Tent (16/44.1 FLAC Winter & Winter/Tidal). With the Bartók's headphone amplifier, this album was sharply focused, overtly dimensional, and enjoyably cinematic. With the Tambaqui headphone amp, it was less three-dimensional, less atmospheric, and less magical. The Mola Mola presented a closer, denser, more intimate view of the players, but they didn't feel as live as they did with the Bartók. The Tambaqui recovered plenty of inner detail, but that detail was faintly shaded and low in contrast.

Sticking to the approach I took in the dCS report, next I tried the high-sensitivity (106dB/mW), 35 ohm Focal Stellia dynamic closed-backs. Boy did I smile. Brightness, atmosphere, openness, and a good amount of leading-edge transient bite reappeared. Rhythm and beat keeping improved, which in turn increased the pleasure factor from good to very good.

Overall, though, the Tambaqui's headphone amp could not match the rousing superlucidity of its DAC or the reserve power, dimensionality, and atmospheric allure of the Bartók's headphone amp—even without the Bartók's Expanse 1 and 2 cross-feed options, which I did not employ in this comparison.

Comparisons
Is the Tambaqui better than my forever-favorite HoloAudio May Level 3 DAC? "Better" is not a word I often use, but the Mola Mola makes music bigger, clearer, more solid and rousing than the May. The Tambaqui encourages me to listen longer and more closely than I do with the May. That's what "better" means to me, so yes, it's better.

Is the Tambaqui better than my newest reference, the Bartók? That's a tougher question.

Since it arrived, the Bartók has delivered the most compelling, pleasurable, undigital digital I've experienced at home. So has the Tambaqui. The Tambaqui and the Bartók sound more alike than different. Both DACs admit users to an elite level of digital audio playback. The dCS and Mola Mola turn streaming music into a sophisticated, high-level pastime, but there is one thing the Tambaqui does that the Bartók does not do: intense, raw clarity. And the chief byproduct of that intense, raw clarity is that recordings appear denser with a more believable corporeality than I've previously encountered from digital.

Before the Mola Mola, the Bartók was by far the most vivid, enlivened digital I'd ever used. Before the Tambaqui, the Bartók was the only DAC I wanted to use. Now I am torn. Both DACs show that improvements in the quality of digital playback have not stalled. No fact can be of greater importance to our listening hobby.

The Bruno factor
From my perch, Bruno Putzeys looks like today's most powerful audio shaman. Best I can tell, he has redrawn the frontiers of power amplifier design. With the Mola Mola Tambaqui, Putzeys seems to be punching away at the fundamentals of digital conversion.

I wrote to Putzeys, asking, "When you began your design work on the Tambaqui, did you have one chief goal? What did you want to show the world about digital converters? And, how did you know when you found it?" With Bruno's permission, I am quoting at length from his reply, lightly edited, because so much of it is thought-provoking and supports my hope that digital can continue to improve: "If there's anything I wanted to prove, it was that digital done right sounds like analogue done right.

"Compared to the state of the art, I had quite a shopping list of things I wanted to get right, but the absolute number one item was a completely signal-independent noise floor. If the noise floor modulates, that immediately gives the sound away as 'digital.' If you want to see a typical sigma-delta converter at its worst, feed it a constant code (ie DC). Some DC values produce clearly audible whistles. If you want to tease an R2R DAC in a similar manner, feed it a ramp signal. I wanted something where the noise floor is truly just a steady hiss, no matter what signal you put in. This is what drove the choice of single-edge PWM as the digital intermediate code.

1221gram.life

"As luck would have it, I'd invented precisely such a modulator in 2004 as a mathematical stunt with no particular application in mind, but that it might be useful for a converter was clear even then. I filed away the idea, waiting for an excuse to make a DAC. That came when we started demoing with the Makua and Kalugas [Mola's pre and power amplifiers, respectively] and had trouble finding a converter that would show off the quality of the system without multiplying the price of the whole setup....So, a DAC project got under way in 2013.

"Initially, I looked at using only a single, high-current switch to convert the PWM signal, but it soon struck me that running a number of them in a time-staggered fashion would allow me to remove most of the PWM carrier right away and so reduce noise. That was the core of the design. The remainder of the project was being completely anal about all the other stages of the converter: digital filtering, clocking, and analogue-output filtering.

"Of those, only the digital filter needed to be optimized by ear. It's pretty obvious that a more stable clock is more ideal, and an output filter with lower noise and distortion is also more ideal. But there's no ideal upsampling filter, a priori: The ear is not a spectrum analyzer. You need to listen to original high-rez files, filter them down, upsample them again, and then hear which kind of filter chain leaves the smallest sonic fingerprint. That is to say, how do you get from high-rez to (eg) "Red Book" and back whilst getting the smallest possible audible change? And then it turns out that a lot of filters out there sound really impressive, but only because they're heavily euphonic—not because they're sonically neutral....To make matters worse, the optimum design differs for different sampling rates....

"Clocking was addressed using a very stable, non-adjustable crystal oscillator—adjustable ones are quite noisy—and synchronizing the signal using a homegrown asynchronous sample-rate converter that forms part of the digital filter. How that was done is a story in its own right, but it might take us a bit far [afield]. Same for the analogue output filter stage, which is also rather original in its conception. So, as much as you'd like to know what the magic ingredient is, I can only tell you that it's about getting all the parts right, not just individually but as a system. t's not sexy, but then real engineering rarely is."

Putzeys's email is evidence that paradigm-shifting designs are still entering the hi-fi marketplace.

My latest explorations suggest that we've reached an important audio-historical crossroad, a moment in audiophile time when the highest-quality components measure the same amount of excellent, and the best digital and analog sources offer almost equal levels of listening pleasure. Yet everything sounds conspicuously different.

Which leads me to ask: Would anyone recognize "truth" if they heard it?

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

allvinyl's picture

I thank you for making me aware of the Phonobox. I currently use a Lino C phonostage and can take advantage of its ability to output a flat signal(non RIAA) or a RIAA signal. Regardless, how would I configure the Phonobox into my system so I'm taking the Viola Crescendo linestage out of the phono signal path? (Excuse my thick headedness)

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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