The Mola Mola Makua (website), much like the Tambaqui (review) before it, was a device utterly unknown to me before this review. Naming gear after exotic fish isn’t a new concept–I own a pair of Manley Snappers after all–but the gear from Mola Mola is decidedly different than Manley, which prides itself on its “Tubes Rule” motto. By contrast, Mola Mola has Bruno Putzeys and his heritage, an eye towards futuristic functionality and ultra high-end sonic pedigree.
I have to back up a bit here though and mention Bill Parish of GTT Audio and Video, who generously lent me the Tambaqui and Makua for review. I spoke extensively with him on a Skype call during the review period and got a lot of insight into the company and creation of these products. One particular quote regarding the tuning of the products struck me: Bill mentioned that Bruno tuned the Mola Mola units in Bill’s room and tweaked them until they sounded equal to gear costing tens of thousands of dollars more. “Sometimes the part Bruno was convinced was going to be the best part wasn’t. And we tweaked and tuned them until we found the best part.”
Words and photos by Grover Neville
Looking through GTT’s catalogue I found some exceptional high end gear, so this is certainly a tall order. The Tambaqui impressed me a whole lot though, and the Makua proved an even more interesting beast, so it’s not idle talk at all. This preamp is, in every sense of the word, high-end.
In the arena of gear costing more than thirty thousand dollars, I’ve noticed a few tendencies. I see them less as positive or negatives and more as cultural by-products, the tastes of folks who are in the right tax brackets to afford this kind of stuff. The first is a total sonic purity, which at one end can be somewhat dry and at the other end expresses itself as close to the “wire with gain” concept as possible. It’s totally invisible and without texture in a way that services the music.
Some people have used the term “clinical,” but I generally dislike that term as it has a particularly negative connotation. While it’s not to my personal taste, it’s not my job to tell people how to listen to their music. One of my favorite music theory professors owned a hi-fi system that was drier than an overcooked English breakfast buffet. For him, the lack of coloration was key to hearing deep nuances in classical music performances, and he engaged with musical expression like no one I ever met. Diff’rent strokes.
In any case, sonic purity is one of the traits of ultra high-end gear, the other is a razor sharp sonic definition, accompanied by similarly high-end build and functionality. In these respects a summit-fi product must be built not just impeccably but flawlessly, and function without a single hitch and sound as precise as it looks. Milled aluminum, fancy remotes, buffets of buttons and thick, imposing knobs dominate.
Mola Mola Makua
By contrast, the Mola Mola Makua front panel looks like a skeleton crew. Instead of serried rows of decals, laser etched text, and fancy buttons, it has a knob flanked by three unmarked buttons on each side. The chassis is a modestly textured aluminum chassis cut in a single elegantly curved wave, and a robust black paneled material on the bottom. At first glance it’s impossible to tell how the internals even fit inside the unit. On a much closer inspection, the unit has a clever bottom-facing circuit board access-panel, but this arrangement hides the guts while using less material and expensive industrial design than a more conventional design might use.
That concept accurately describes many elements of the Mola Mola Makua, which aims for ultra-fi quality without the ultra-fi price tag. Functionally those little buttons are all programmable, assigned to a channel which can take either RCA or XLR inputs, and allow the use of either the onboard phono or route it through the line stage. All of this, including volume, phono curves and the like, is operated entirely through the Mola Mola control app.
An app is decidedly an odd choice for the high-end American audiophile who tends to be a little more purist and against complex digital tech in their system. In Europe, however, the trend is towards digitally savvy products, and in this case the Mola Mola app makes a case for app control. I was very prepared to hate the app—the supplied Apple remote felt functional but dinky. I wanted a real, comfortingly hefty remote that could double as a burglar deterrent. Once I started using the app, my preconceptions melted away.
Mola Mola’s app is phenomenal, among the best app experiences I’ve ever had–not just in hi-fi, but period. It’s useful though not essential for using the line stage functionality—being able to rename, volume adjust and assign RCA or XLR to each input was a reviewer’s dream. I could easily compare RCA and XLR outputs from DACs for examples, or do level-matched cable or phono stage A/B’s with the touch of a button. By assigning the same input to two different profiles, then trimming one of the inputs until I got a level match, on-the-fly switching was a cinch. No complex switcher boxes that degrade the sound or take the ages to fiddle with, and no guessing at the volume knobs position.
The true value of the app came when I used the phono stage built into the unit. There were dozens of curves built in as well as adjustable loading and capacitance, and even the RIAA curves could be tweaked to achieve semi-custom EQ profiles to account for record variance. As with the other inputs, I could assign these to any internal input and then level match and compare it with the press of a button to any external phono stage or digital source. “Reviewer’s dream” may have been an understatement. With the app control, this unit is a gearheads’ omniscient control center. All seeing, all powerful. Combined with the rock solid performance and clean, uncluttered GUI, I found very pretty much nothing to dislike about the app.
This brings me to the performance of the phono stage itself. While there are many fine DACs out there–and certainly the inbuilt DAC which is nearly identical to the Tambaqui is a fine choice–the built-in phono stage I would call less of a choice and more of a requirement. The flexibility alone makes it a strong tool, but it would mean nothing if the sonic performance didn’t back it up. I’m happy to report that the Mola Mola Makua phono stage is about the cleanest, least colored, most linear phono preamplifier I’ve ever heard. I found no situation in which it was anything but dead silent and supremely dynamic.
If you’re in the market for a phono stage which is full of vibe, color and tube-magic, this is not the one to choose. It’s in every way a reference if you want an ultra-fi, linear, neutral and dead-quiet phono stage. This is also the story of the sound of the Mola Mola Makua when it comes to the line stage as well, as it shares much the same sound.
Line Stage Sound
High end is pure and clean and open. It’s not dry, but is open and insightful with a sense of headroom and height to the soundstage that instrumentation-style solid state often doesn’t have. Nothing is antiseptic or clinical about this presentation, even though the Makua is highly detailed and neutral. Response through the midrange is excellent, accurate and about as invisible sonically as I’ve ever heard from solid state. In direct comparisons to some very nice tube gear, it’s got less vibe and coloration, but I really can’t fault it in any way.
The Makua is as good as I’ve heard transistors get, so the choice between a tube unit and the Mola Mola is going to come entirely down to taste. And I must say that even as a tube lover, I thought the Makua makes a spectacular case for transistors. There’s no trace of misplaced or annoying texture, only total openness, endless headroom and clean, sweet gain.
Bass is where the Mola Mola Makua gets particularly interesting and, in a sense, demonstrates the most personality. It’s not so much because the frequency response is tilted any particular way–in fact, it seems dead neutral as does the rest of the frequency of the preamp–but rather because of the quality of the bass. It’s again, not dry or hyper-tight as some uber-fi gear is, but it’s not underdamped either. In fact, it seems organic and liquid smooth. I find this actually less of a coloration than the unrealistically tight and exaggerated thump of some super low distortion gear.
Since the bass doesn’t draw attention to itself out of context, the Mola Mola Makua seems to present a more cohesive musical whole. When the bass is supposed to be notable, the innate texture of the bass in the recording comes through. When it’s supposed to blend into the mix, it obliges. This coherency runs throughout the frequency ranges for the Makua, and it presents a remarkably fluid musical picture. I have heard some very high-end systems that are so detailed and separated that they fall into a trap whereby the treble, midrange and bass sound unbelievably detailed and resolving on their own, but together present an unpleasant and disjointed musical picture as though things have been over-tuned. The Makua is not one of these systems.
I noticed this character with the Tambaqui, but I notice it even more with the Makua. It is transparency in the truest sense of the word, a sonic character which simply blends into the music. There is very little to reveal a distinctive character, but it accomplishes this by avoiding the dry or antiseptic nature of some very high end gear. It’s clear to me that Bill really meant it when he told me how much time was spent carefully tuning this gear. It feels like it has just enough of that human touch to temper the startling clarity and detail into something eminently listenable, yet that will still satisfy the high-end listener in search of the highest heights of resolution and detail at almost any cost.
To me, this is gear that brings the taste of the summit down to a price a less well-heeled audiophile can afford. This is not cheap gear by my standards as an audiophile, but then I’m not exactly in the market for a forty thousand dollar preamp. If I was, and I could only afford a twenty thousand dollar preamp, I’d look long and hard at the Mola Mola Makua and probably not look back.
As it turns out, even with the phono stage–which I’d consider nigh mandatory–this preamp comes in at quite a bit less than that–$12,200. Likewise, if I were an audiophile with a budget that didn’t stretch that high but I wanted a line stage control center that would give me the sonic purity that is often the realm of supremely expensive electronics, I’d also take a hard look at the Makua.
I challenge you to find a preamp which sounds significantly better and not merely different, for anywhere close to the price.