Before I jump into the Mola Mola Tambaqui, I have to share a delightful tidbit of deadpan humor from my roommate. While amusing on its own, it ended up more prescient to the little DAC on review here than I expected. I’ll preface this by saying I have an unfortunate habit of stress-buying exotic furniture, an idiosyncrasy my beleaguered roommate has grown well-accustomed to at this point.
“I don’t think we could have vegans in our house again if we bought this,” I said as I gingerly brushed the recycled antler lamp. Fuzzy. Yup, they were real antlers. “Vegans aren’t environmentalists,” came his sardonically dry response. Yikes. While my roommate’s proclivities may tend more towards the tree-hugger than the plant-eater, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that an antler lamp wasn’t precisely the right choice for our quirky mid-century loft. I departed the Moroccan Imports and Lodge Furniture store–how could I NOT go in with a name like that?–antler lamp-less.
Words and Photos by Grover Neville
When I returned home, I performed my regular ritual of flipping on my Manley Snappers, reaching for a record, Ghost in the Machine by the Police in this case, and… finding myself stumped. I have at this moment at least three top-flight phono pres in-house for review, and I’ve been having so much fun spinning records that I’ve been doing perhaps a little more listening to vinyl and gear than to music.
For the first time in a few weeks I found myself feeling like I was being offered a milkshake and a ribeye during a heart attack. Too much of a good thing. I wanted to listen to what I wanted to listen to today, and what was called for was decidedly non-distracting background music.
Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC
Having decided on some digital palette cleansing, I went about my business until I found myself enticed by an interesting and startlingly clear bell in the Tchaikovsky Ballet LP I had put on. And then an unusual drum-bass interaction in a Talking Heads remaster. Soon enough, I found myself snuggled on my couch, phone in hand, cueing up several hours worth of music in Roon.
“Vegans aren’t environmentalists” might as well have turned into “vinyl-heads aren’t addicted to digital.” The truism seems straightforward enough, but I felt the gently accusatory glance of my hi-fi conscience glaring down at me. I was sinning, listening to digital and really enjoying it. The culprit, the antler-lamp of my system? A curious little box called the Mola Mola Tambaqui.
All Hands on DAC
Mola Mola, the Dutch company whose DAC is under review here, was not a name that was at all familiar to me until just a few months ago. Their parent company, Hypex, and the designer behind the Tambaqui DAC, Bruno Putzeys, are much better known to many audiophiles, myself included.
I happened upon the Mola Mola Tambaqui completely by accident. I was doing some research on top-flight solid state preamps, during which time the eponymous sunfish-inspired company’s name came up in regards to their Makua preamp, which I also have in for review. The Tambaqui is essentially a standalone version of the optional built-in DAC module for the Makua.
The chassis is the Mola Mola standard of a very slightly textured anodized and milled aluminum. The material is hard to describe with words, but feels extremely high-class yet natural to the touch. It’s also quite heavy despite its diminutive size and gives every impression of being a very heavy duty piece of kit. The front panel and operation is as unusual as the textured, wavy top. There is no power button; the unit is turned on with a simple press of any of the front panel input buttons, and off with a short press and hold of the same. However, the Bluetooth-connected Mola Mola app is the more effective and intuitive method of operation. More on that later.
The Mola Mola Tambaqui features a plethora of digital inputs, the standard array of S/PDIF, Optical, USB and AES/EBU, but also included are an I2S over HDMI and an ethernet connection. The Tambaqui is a Roon ready device, and I found it to work a treat when plugged in to my router as a Roon endpoint.
Output complement is a pair of XLRs, and a single 4-pin XLR and 1/4-inch headphone outputs. I tested the Mola Mola Tambaqui as a preamp and found it very nice in that regard, though I prefer a dedicated linestage for its ability to paint a system with a sonic brush. System tuning still has a place here. On the other hand, while the headphone output of the Tambaqui was adequate it certainly wasn’t up to the standards of truly top of the line headphone setups. My reference SPL Phonitor XE was a bit like when your grandmother finds you trying to bake a pie in the kitchen. When she takes over, the pie gets better. With the Tambaqui driving the SPL, the combination on headphones was epic. Of particular note was the Focal Utopia and Arche combination with the Tambaqui.
I digress however–back to the Mola Mola Tambaqui proper. I had a very informative and fascinating call with Bill Parish of GTT Audio & Video and Ewald Verkerk of Mola Mola. They talked to me extensively about the inception of the company, and some the really interesting upcoming products as well as the design process with Bruno, much of which happened in Bill Parish’s East Coast listening rooms.
“Sometimes the part that Bruno knew was going to be the best… well, it wasn’t the best. But we listened and we tested it against the best sounding and most expensive gear we could find, we wanted it to sound even better than that,” Bill shared with me.
Fascinating. My interpretation of that, and my listening experience with the two Mola Mola products I have in currently is that they do indeed seem to compete with $40,000 gear rather than other $8,000-$12,000 gear. More on that later, because the bit about testing, tweaking and extensive listening was even more intriguing to me.
Bruno Putzeys is quite measurement-focused, and indeed the measurements for Mola Mola’s preamp claim an astonishing estimated -150dB THD and IMD level at full output of 7.75Vrms and +15dB of gain. Some other head-turning measurement claims are a -130dB signal-to-noise ratio for the Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC, and a THD and IMD figure that is estimated at -140dB. Both distortion figures for the DAC and preamp are beyond the measurement capabilities of the APX555. The Mola Mola website admits these are estimates at best, but the claims, if true, are rather head-turning.
These measurements from the likes of Bruno Putzeys doesn’t surprise–he’s certainly proven himself capable of jaw-dropping measured performance from Kii, Grimm Audio, Hypex and now Purifi. But to accompany this with an extensive tuning and listening process–and Bill Parish did mention to me that he and Bruno spent time auditioning down to the individual component level–well that’s an appealing thought indeed. But enough fawning over specs. What exactly is inside this little Mola Mola Tambaqui converter?
A Finger on the Pulse
Bruno Putzeys has mentioned, on various online forums, that he had a shopping list of sorts when designing the Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC that includes the following:
- No noise floor modulation
- Negligible distortion from tiny signal levels up to full output
- Jitter elimination down to very low frequencies
- Digital filters with negligible in-band ripple (i.e. no pre-echo)
- Digital filters with moderately slow transition (i.e. reasonably short ring tails)
There are a few interesting ideas here. The first item tells me this DAC is likely not using any dither or noise-floor modulation scheme, which would certainly help contribute to the extraordinarily quiet signal-to-noise ratio Mola Mola specifies on their page. The fourth and fifth items indicate that it is most likely an apodizing filter is being used, since having both minimal pre-echo and also short ring-tails generally cannot be accomplished with purely minimum phase or linear phase filters, even when an FIR filter is used. Mola Mola’s website seems to confirm this as they mention an apodizing response up to 80khz.
From Bruno Putzeys
On the internals of the Tambaqui: “Internally the Tambaqui consists of two boards. The first upsamples incoming signals to a huge 32-bit/3.125MHz and converts them to noise-shaped PWM. On the second board each channel is converted to analogue with a 32-stage FIR (Finite Impulse Response) DAC and fourth order filtering I/V conversion, which isn’t an R2R ladder or a standard converter but proprietary technology I’ve not encountered elsewhere.”
At the time that this DAC was designed, highly upsampled PWM* schemes were much more rare, though I believe DACs from dCS and others make use of this technology, and certainly PWM conversion technology run at very high sample rates is not completely unheard of in 2020. I’m not aware if any PWM DACs use specifically an apodizing filter response with a discrete upsampling board, and certainly the multiple SHARC chips on the Tambaqui’s board indicate that heroic effort has gone into coding what is likely a unique filter algorithm. Programming DAC filters from scratch is not at all for the faint of heart.
*Pulse-Width Modulation, also known as Pulse-Duration Modulation is a way to modulate the power of electrical voltages and currents by lengthening or shortening the duration of the signal. It is an important principal in the functionality of Class-D amplification, and has applications in everything from synthesizers to solar panel outputs. The more common form of digital conversion signal is PCM, which stands for Pulse-Code Modulation, in which an analog waveform is sampled at a regular intervals and then truncated or mapped (quantized) to the closest step within a range of digital values.
One of the requirements of PWM conversion is a switching signal, and the power supply of the Mola Mola Tambaqui, is likewise a switching supply as far as I can tell–all somewhat dirty words in the audiophile world, but capable of exceptional fidelity in my experience. So after all that tech-talk, how does the thing sound?
With a Rebel Yell
The first thing I notice about the Mola Mola Tambaqui is just how much detail comes through when playing music. The top end is unapologetically bright, but not the kind of bright that implies harsh, thinness, and which is often assumed when the words bright and digital are put side by side. I once heard someone describe EL-34 tubes as having a “sunshine-like” brightness to them, and in an almost oxymoronical sense, the Tambaqui has a kind of lit-up sunny warmth to its high end. Like a vegan with an antler-lamp, the Tambaqui is a bundle of paradoxes.
The brightness I’m talking about is an openness and sense of extreme detail, but it is accompanied by a liquidity and smoothness to the transients and spatial presentation that are very alluring. Most DACs I’ve listened to recently tend towards the occasionally two-dimensional, sometimes insubstantial presentation of Delta-Sigma modulation DACs. On the other hand, resistor-to-resistor DACS often have a reputation for sounding somewhat warm, sort of hazy but more substantial and viscerally punchy. While I can think of plenty of exceptions and variations in both of those categories, I can confidently say the Mola Mola Tambaqui sounds nothing like either of those DACs, at least not like any of the ones I’ve heard or have on hand.
The Tambaqui’s digital implementation is totally grain-free, there isn’t a hint of scratchiness or roughness to the its high end presentation. By contrast it isn’t sanitized or cold either, while i have heard DACs with deeper stages, the width and depth on the Tambaqui feel mostly proportional with just a slight sense of extra width pulling at the edge of the speakers and getting the image “outside the cabinets.” Like Harry Houdini, you pay a premium for a disappearing act, and you get it here.
I didn’t make these judgements in total isolation though. Handily, the Mola Mola Tambaqui has some functions which make comparing it to other devices quite easy, all controlled by the very simple Mola Mola remote app. Volume control, input selection, phase reverse, and on the preamp, extremely fast input switching and detailed volume input volume offsets made A/B-ing other DACs a cinch. The Tambaqui oddly enough only had 2V and 6V output settings, not the standard 4V, but despite this the app still put a variety of otherwise complex functionality easily at hand: headphone output control, fixed vs. line inputs, offsetting volume on different inputs, etc.
An ESS Sabre 9038 DAC chip I had on hand demonstrated the excellent qualities of the new Sabre chips, a kind of brilliance and detail with exceptional clarity. A click on the app switched the Mola Mola Tambaqui back into the system, and immediately the sound was transformed. Yes, transformed. Despite my dalliances in vinyl land, I grew up a die-hard digital devotee, and rarely do DACs transform anything. Transformation is a word I reserve for household devices like ovens and blenders, but in this case the Tambaqui completely transformed the system compared to the ESS 9038. More detail was present, yes, but the thing that immediately struck me was the combination of that aforementioned extreme clarity and liquidity.
Across all ranges there was a balance of extreme smoothness and extreme clarity, and in the bass particularly this was rather addictive. I’ve experienced some extremely expensive solid-state audio systems in the past, which while very resolving, occasionally felt as if they were performing a kind of “clean” which was too much damping and high-order harmonics. They had a nature which some describe as analytical or clinical, both of which are certainly describe the feelings they elicit in me when listening to them. With the Mola Mola Tambaqui the sensation was altogether different, as it displayed both a sense of spatial depth, a trick I usually only hear from very good R2R DACs, without the tonal coloration that usually accompanies that conversion type.
Bass was tight, but not in a hyper-damped solid state way. Soundstage cues and depth were holographically present, but not in a typically tube-y way. Focus and dimension were balanced evenly. My attention was drawn to the bass and treble ranges, not because they were necessarily accentuated, though they were both startlingly good. Upon closer inspection, the midrange had that “close to invisible” sound which balances an ever-so-slight euphony with a real sense of resolution. Not the kind which is thrown in your face, but the kind which draws you deeper into a recording and invites you to listen.
The difference of course being that there is a very small extra bit of crystalline clarity and detail which does let me know this is not a totally invisible piece of tube or analog gear. Now, this is not at all an issue, and certainly based on the megabuck systems I’ve heard, where this kind of “resolution at all costs” sounds is popular, the Mola Mola Tambaqui might even be called a touch expressive. I also noticed that the Tambaqui had a sense of openness and lack of compression which again seemed almost contradictory when considering the absolute clarity in all ranges, but in this case, the cake was not a lie. Like Appalachian Hippie Communes and Antler-based furniture, dynamic slam, dimensional texture and detail all coexist in surprising and delightful harmony here.
DAC Firmly in Hand
Bill Parish mentioned to me in our Skype call that he and Bruno compared the Mola Mola gear during testing to very high end gear costing tens of thousands of dollars, and even more. Compared to something like a bit warmer like a $2,000-$4,000 R2R DAC, the $13,400 Tambaqui is quite a bit more accurate and less tonally rich. Yet it offers some insight into the ultra high-end systems resolution and dynamic prowess of those ultra-fi systems without some of the ruthlessness that can come along with such heavily damped circuits aimed at perfect ‘accuracy’ in reproduction.
If the Mola Mola Tambaqui were a city, it would be Utrecht. It’s prim and proper by all appearances, the manicured image of perfection, and yet beneath it all it still has that signature Dutch warmth and character, even if a little more formally served than in Amsterdam. The Mola Mola Tambaqui is ultra-fi digital sprinkled with a little extra sonic coziness, and taken down the price ladder several rungs. Looking for Summit-Fi without the price tag? This little fishy could just be your ticket upstream.
About the Author, Grover Neville
Grover is recent transplant to Los Angeles, CA and a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied music, creative writing, and how to wear skinny jeans. After graduating Grover pursued a freelance career in audio, doing professional research in the fields of Auditory Cognition, Psychoacoustics and Experimental Hydrophone Design. Before moving to Los Angeles, Grover worked and lived in Chicago, Illinois as a mixing and mastering engineer. Working in genres such as Avant-garde Classical music and Jazz. As a recent transplant to L.A., Grover now works in the music, video game, and film industries. He is also actively pursuing a career as an independent musician, composer, and producer. Grover wrote for Innerfidelity and Audiostream, before finding his forever-home at Part-Time Audiophile.