Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC / Headphone Amplifier Review
Holy Mola! Jay sits down to find that Mola Mola's Tambaqui DAC is much more refined than its fishy namesake…
DAC/ Headphone Amp/ Pre-Amp
Mola Mola is the brainchild of Jan-Peter van Amerongen of Hypex fame, and he commissioned the legendary Bruno Putzeys to design the Tambaqui digital-to-analogue converter. As his record shows, Bruno certainly knows a thing or two about digital audio; with brands such as Grimm Audio, Kii Audio, and Purifi on his CV, he's something of a Class D amplification guru. And of course, his fans in the industry know that he's no slouch when it comes to designing DACs, too.
At a cool £8,999, the Tambaqui is pretty much a cost-no-object high-end DAC, with the likes of the Chord Electronics DAVE as a key price rival. Not only are both DACs of the complex FPGA variety, but they also share a penchant for unusual naming conventions – Mola Mola being the scientific name for Sunfish and Tambaqui, the Piranha's large fruit-eating cousin. Furthermore, they both shun the use of off-the-shelf parts. The latter is a significant point because almost all digital converters use bought-in silicon from big-name chipmakers. Bruno Putzeys says, “I would have been happy to cobble it together from standard DAC chips, etc., if there had been any way it would have checked off my complete shopping list”, but it didn't.
His list included five main points. First, the DAC should have no noise floor modulation. Second, there should be negligible distortion from tiny signal levels up to full output. Third, jitter elimination down to very low frequencies would be necessary. Fourth, the digital filters should have negligible in-band ripple (i.e. no pre-echo), and fifth, they should have reasonably short ringtails. Unfortunately for Bruno, no DAC chip fulfilled the first item on the list.
Furthermore, no ASRC (Asynchronous Sample Rate Conversion) manages to tick off the third (although I'm told that a discrete PLL without SRC could be conceivably built). Finally, the remaining three points on the list don't seem to occur together in any standard chipset currently available, he told me, so he had to take the long way home. “For me, the secret is realising the importance of all five items mentioned above and getting them sorted by whatever means.”
The company describes the DAC architecture as being a two board stack, where all incoming data is upsampled to 3.125MHz/32-bit and converted to noise-shaped PWM on the first board. From there it is handed off to two mono DACs on the second board. This system also has bragging rights to a 130dB signal-to-noise ratio that Mola-Mola says is near the theoretical limit for 24-bit files, and far beyond that of even quad-speed DSD, Putzeys says.
The quality of the Tambaqui's gently textured metal case is excellent, as you'd expect at this price. It is flanked by rubberised cheeks and stands on thin rails which also have rubbery inserts. The device measures 200x110x320mm and weighs in at 5.2kg, so it is pretty compact. It's not only a digital-to-analogue converter but also a headphone amplifier. It can indeed even take on the duties of a digital preamplifier thanks to both the headphone outputs (a 6.35mm jack socket and a four-pin balanced XLR) and the XLR line outputs, being able to have their levels adjusted via the lossless digital volume control.
The rear of the unit also sports an Ethernet port, which is an extremely handy thing for the modern audiophile. Connecting the Tambaqui up to your home network opens it up to the world of Roon, with effortless playback from network-attached storage drives and streaming services like Qobuz, Tidal and heaps of online radio channels. The manufacturer says the Tambaqui handles digital sources up to 192kHz/24-bit via its S/PDIF inputs, extending to 384kHz/32-bit via USB and Ethernet. Additionally, it will play nice up to DSD512 via asynchronous USB-B and its Roon connection. Rounding off the inputs are TOSLINK, AES/EBU and I2S HDMI sockets.
At the front, the controls are deliberately minimal, with a brace of buttons either side of the portal-type display for triggering presets. It is the aquatic stylistic nods such as this window and the wave-like side profile of the DAC that single it out aesthetically from most other boxes out there. There's additional control available via an optional remote or the free Android/iOS Mola Mola app. Other than volume control, however, the app is more targeted at setting the DAC up and initiating firmware updates.
I plugged the Tambaqui's balanced outputs into my reference YBA Passion IA350 integrated and hooked it up to my network. Roon is controlled from an ageing Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro with digital music stored on a QNAP NAS. The results were pushed out through the Marten Duke 2 speakers as well as Oppo PM-1 and Erzetich Thalia headphones.
Sonically, the simplest way of characterising the sound of the Tambaqui is that it gives you more of everything. A prime example is Depeche Mode's Exciter album – which is a regular on my Compact Disc player, but streaming the Deluxe version from Qobuz through the Dutch DAC was like listening to it new again. The bass on this album has always been great, but now it was deeper and more vibrant. This extended bottom end allied to better resolution of David Gahan's vocals and, partnered with a wonderfully open and natural midband, had me rooted to the spot. Compared to lesser rivals, this digital converter makes music bigger and more tangible.
It wasn't just this product's admirable tonal balance and big, confident sound that impressed, however. Also, this Mola Mola DAC had a fine line in timing, making the music's rhythms seem more tactile and explicit. For example, U2's The Refugee is as close to a dance-floor filler as the band's classic War album has to offer, and via the Tambaqui it came across with an irresistibly dancey groove that didn't sound like I was listening to a digital source at all.
The Tambaqui's super-fine midband soon makes you realise where other DACs are going wrong. It shines a clean, intense spotlight on even the densest of musical mixes. It then goes on to reveal them with a combination of surgical precision and a wonderfully natural rhythmic flow. For example, Norwegian prog black metallers Borknagar threw pretty much everything at their 2016 Winter Thrice, from operatic vocals to blast beats and multi-layered guitars. However, this DAC presented all the parts faultlessly in the soundstage, when fed with the gifted download from my gatefold LP purchase. It's a tidy, clean and crisp sounding digital converter that has a forensic approach to doing its job, yet it never forgets that music is ultimately what life is all about.
This is not to say that it flatters fools gladly; the Tambaqui doesn't do charity work. Show it some poorly compressed audio files, and they remain precisely this with no attempt made to gild the lily, so to speak. On the other hand, let it sniff out the good stuff, and you are instantly rewarded with familiar tracks sounding the best you have heard them – with dynamics, micro-detail and vocal articulation as you've never experienced them before.
Overall then, this is a seriously class act with absolutely no particular Achilles heel. Even the headphone output stage was up to scratch, sounding wholly natural and organic. As soon as the horns start in Philip Glass's soundtrack to the film Naqoyqatsi, there's a tangible timbre to the instruments, but then the deep vocal chants enter adding even more depth and texture – all of which the Tambaqui conveyed with real zeal. That's all before the pounding heartbeat rhythm, violins and YoYo Ma's cello start. Instantly the listener is drawn ever further into the music, so much so that it seems hard to claw back into reality. This – as if it even needs saying - is just how music should be.
The market for premium-priced digital converters is small and even less for those without established names. That's why Mola Mola's Tambaqui had to be something seriously special to have a chance of success in this take-no-prisoners world – and so it proves. It is digital audio done right, with friendlier looks than some price rivals, excellent connectivity and top-tier sound quality through both line out and headphones. Chord Electronics' DAVE and the dCS Bartok beware, this is one of the best Roon endpoints going – and as such has rightly hooked itself a StereoNET Applause Award.
For more information, head on over to Mola Mola.
StereoNET UK’s Editor, bass player, and resident rock star! Jay’s passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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