There can be no question that my first exposure to the Mola Mola Lupe phono stage in April of this year left me more than merely impressed. In fact, you can see my initial reaction to this remarkable phono preamplifier on Bill Parish’s GTT Audio YouTube Channel, in Episode 78.
You may be more than just a bit surprised to learn that this now stand-alone, remarkable product is the full realization of what was originally designed as an optional add-on phono preamplifier plug-in for Mola Mola’s superb Makua preamplifier and Kula integrated amplifier.
Words and Photos by Greg Weaver
My first take with this diminutive and, while not exactly falling into the budget category at $9,850, still remarkably affordable phono stage, was almost impossible to believe. And as engaging as it was at first blush, after living with this little fish in my reference rig, it made a deep and lasting impression! Let’s take a closer look at this remarkably versatile, surprisingly small, and affordable, reference-grade phono stage.
What I mean by little is that the Mola Mola Lupe uses the same form factor as the Tambaqui DAC. It is just about four-and-a-quarter inches (110mm) tall, seven-and-three-quarter inches (200mm) wide, and twelve-and-five-eighth inches (320mm) deep. While the rear, sides, and bottom are flat surfaces, the face is concave, top to bottom, and the top undulates, like a sine wave. This clearly unorthodox casework, with its non-parallel, wavy top and face, in fact, is not just for the unique aesthetic it provides, it is done to also help mitigate vibration-induced resonances.
The bowed faceplate is elegantly Spartan; just four small spherical buttons, each with a surrounding white LED to show which one is selected, equidistantly spaced horizontally across the vertical center of the face, two on either side of the central one-and-five-eighths inch (40mm) round display, which has a small power indicator LED centered above it where the face and top panel meet.
There is virtually no unused space on the rear panel of the Mola Mola Lupe, which, moving from left to right, contains a set of stereo XLR inputs, followed by 3 sets of stereo RCA inputs, a set of RCA stereo outputs, a set of XLR outputs, followed by a trigger input, a trigger output, and finally, the EIC socket for the AC power cord. That covers my initial reference to its diminutive size, so now, let’s talk versatility.
Manipulation of the four buttons on the Lupe’s face allows for quick, and convenient control of options like toggling between on and standby, choosing your input, toggling mute and active, etc. While I’ll leave it to owners to absorb all those details as daily users, the real experience comes with the installation and use of the iOS or Android Mola Mola app with your mobile devices.
Once installed, you start at a home page that displays connectivity and offers four user-configurable presets, including settings such as display brightness control, subsonic filtering, mono summing, and polarity inversion of left, right, or both.
With more granular exploration of the settings on the Mola Mola Lupe, you have remarkable control of the two separate Moving Magnet and Moving Coil input stages. This is important to note, as most other phono preamplifiers simply add another gain stage to create their Moving Coil mode. After selecting your mode, MC or MM, you will discover the enormous control you have over both the sensitivity – ten different gain stages are available – and termination loading. MM gain options are either 45dB or 50dB, but the MC gain options are among the most widely diverse selections I’ve yet run across, including 52dB, 57dB, 62dB, 67dB, 72dB, 77dB, 82dB, and 87dB! Resistive loading options include 60Ω, 100Ω, 150Ω, 250Ω, 400Ω, 650Ω, 1kΩ, 18kΩ, 30kΩ, 47kΩ, 75kΩ, 120kΩ while capacitive loading values of 0pf, 50pf, 100pf, 150pf, 220pf, 270pf, 330pf, 380pf are available.
Are you ready for this? It offers those LP archivists out there 72 equalization curves – the RIAA standard and 71 others! No, REALLY! The EQ drop-down box lists all the combinations of record labels and periods that they were able to obtain data for, virtually every published cutting curve, including many 78 RPM versions. And if for some reason you are unable to find a specific setting, or if you just want to explore, you may individually manage bass shelving and two different time constants.
With Lupe’s bass shelf settings of 14dB, 18dB, or 20dB, if you perceive the bottom-end performance as too boomy or thick, you can decrease it. Conversely, you may try increasing it if the bass is lacking in weight or authority.
Using its T1 constant settings of 200µs, 250µs, 318µs, 400µs, or 450µs (microseconds), you have control of the bass turnover point. If you find the sound to be too wooly, you may increase that time constant, or, conversely, you may lower it if it sounds too thin. With the T2 adjustments of 50µs, 64µs, 75µs, or 100µs (microseconds), you can manage the treble roll-off. Increase the time constant if the sound is too bright or edgy, decrease it if it lacks definition or bite. Once you’ve hit on your desired result, you just save it as one of your four configurable Presets on the Home Page.
And I’ve saved the best for last. Not only are all of these remarkable settings, adjustments, and presents made in the analog domain, but they can all be selected and adjusted from your seat – while you are listening to the Mola Mola Lupe! And if that doesn’t impress you as being versatile, you don’t know much about phono preamplifiers.
I don’t know how many phono preamps you may have experience with, but I’ve had my hands on more than just a few over the past five decades, products ranging from just hundreds of dollars to approaching one hundred thousand dollars! I can tell you that none of them can offer this degree of functionality, versatility, and remote-control capability, regardless of how much they may have cost.
Honestly, as close as my $19,000 reference phono stage, the Dynamic Sounds Associates Phono III, comes by way of offering six different gain settings, five selectable EQ curves, and providing muting, display brightness, gain, and loading option selection from its remote, it still doesn’t begin to match the adaptability and convenience that this superb new entry from Mola Mola offers.
Okay, so it clearly has the versatility and remote functionality thing going for it. But how does it sound?
Mola Mola Lupe – Communication
I started with the typical litany of my war horse recordings, music I’ve listened to for decades, including things like Harry James & His Big Band, The King James Version (Sheffield Lab-3). From the opening drums, piano, and bass on “Corner Pocket,” through the last blat of the horns, the utter naturalness of this direct-to-disc recording put me at ease and had me smiling. There is an inescapable authenticity to instrumental timbre on this record, with a vividness of tone color, and an enveloping sense of texture. And it offers a sense of drive and dynamics, both in terms of scale and gradation, that is more than merely superb, it is infectious. The Mola Mola Lupe was up to the task of uncovering and recreating all of it, without smearing a beat or omitting any known nuance. Yeah, this was going to be good.
I headed on to another Sheffield “Oldie-But-Goodie,” the seven-minute “Improvisations by Jim Keltner” on side one of The Sheffield Drum Record (Sheffield Lab 14). Again, this direct-to-disc recording really taxes your system, from its transparency in revealing individual drum skin tone, to its remarkable dynamic attack and scale, to even communicating the effusive nature of Jim’s under-his-breath murmuring. The Lupe’s performance with this track was completely irreproachable.
Next up, a move to classical with one of my favorite performances and recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the 1989 King Record Company’s The Super Analogue Disc reissue of the 1979 London Records release by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, under Neville Marriner, (K38C 70040). This recording not only conveys the remarkably complex and vibrant tonality of the massed strings, but on occasion, it reveals the often muted or otherwise veiled beauty of the wooden bodies of the larger instruments like the cellos and double basses. And its ability to reveal the buoyant energy during the “Andante-Allegro Moderato” is riveting. Lupe’s ability to capture all these attributes and render them so readily is simply captivating.
Next up, one of my absolute favorite recordings and a true litmus test for ANY stylus or phono stage, Mobile Fidelity’s 1981 Half Speed remaster of the 1972 London Records release of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under Sir Georg Solti (MFSL 2-516). Side four of this two-record set covers the Fourth Movement, the Presto, featuring Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy. This is an exemplary recording, one that captures the orchestra’s power and the full frequency extension – especially on the bass end – in a manner more faithful to what I experience live during an orchestral performance than many others. Its ability to so clearly render the difference in physical height between the Soprano, Pilar Lorengar, and the male soloists during their interplay is simply remarkable, as is the unusually corporal entrance of the Bass soloist, Martti Talvela, at about 6:40, making this a standout recording, as well as a superbly challenging LP to replicate faithfully. But I have to tell you, the Mola Mola Lupe pulled this off with the grace and composure of a much more costly phono preamplifier, in many ways rivaling my twice-as-expensive reference phono stage.
Moving on to my mainstay, classic rock, whether recreating the wily charm of Rickie Lee Jones’ voice or the full shred of Joe Satriani’s distorted Ibanez, the deep, rich, baritone crooning of David Bowie to the texture and punch of Neal Peart’s Tama, Ludwig, and Drum Workshop drum kit, from Tori Amos’ emotional, breathy, purring mezzo-soprano musings to Ian Anderson’s breathing and singing at the same time into his Selmer Gold Seal flute, nothing was slighted, not in degree of nuanced timbre, tone color, texture, dynamic expressiveness, pitch definition, or overall extension.
In short, I never once felt I was in any way being shortchanged by the sonic signature of the Mola Mola Lupe. If you don’t think that is impressive – at this price point and with this overwhelming scale of versatility and capability – you likely haven’t been exposed to a lot of phono stages.
Another thing that is remarkable about the Mola Mola Lupe is how bloody quiet it is; its self-noise threshold is inaudible to the ear, and its distortion ratings are said to be immeasurable! That is something I cannot say about all other phono stages in this price range, or even most that cost twice as much. In fact, I will share with you another overachieving phono stage that I’ve had in my stable for years, one that carries almost the exact same retail price as the Lupe, was wholly embarrassed by the Lupe’s performance and has since found a new home.
The only nit I can find to pick with the Mola Mola Lupe is a slight faltering of absolute pitch definition and texture below about 40-45 Hz. Yet when listening to vinyl with the Lupe, you are treated to so much of the sonic accomplishments of much more costly, and considerably less versatile and flexible, phono preamplifiers, that unless you have lived with the slightly more accurate performance possible from the very best phono preamplifiers in that bandwidth, most listeners will not notice, or care.
Mola Mola Lupe Conclusions
What should have become clear by this point is that while I unconsciously and instinctively start listening to any newly installed piece of gear with my analyst’s hat on and digital notepad fired up, within a matter of minutes after dropping the needle when listening to my favorite music with the Mola Mola Lupe, I quickly dismissed those cares, put down my notes, and was simply transported into the message of the music. This is a powerfully musical and flexible component, one that has the chops and adaptability to make it your last purchase and get most listeners off the phono stage merry-go-round. Most ENTHUSIASTICALLY RECOMMENDED!
Mola Mola Lupe Phono Stage:
Input noise (MC): 0.35nV/rtHz
Input noise (MM): 0.9pA/rtHz
Sensitivity: variable from 30uV to 5mV
THD, IMD: not measurable
RIAA conformance: +/-0.1dB
Subsonic filter -3dB @20Hz
4 fully programmable presets
Mola Mola Remote app
Dimensions: 7 ¾” (200mm W) x 4 11/32” (110mm H) x 12 5/8” (320mm D)
Weight 11 ¼ pounds (5.1kg)
U.S. Distributor: GTT Audio