Gramophone Dreams #55: Mola Mola Tambaqui D/A processor Ken Micallef June 2022

April 3, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

Ken Micallef wrote about the Mola Mola Tambaqui in June 2022 (Vol.45 No.6):

When Herb Reichert reviewed the Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC ($13,400) in his December 2021 Gramophone Dreams column, his praise for the Bruno Putzeys–designed processor was effusive. “Mola Mola’s Tambaqui did not whisper—it declares loudly: ‘See! The truth is more beautiful than you thought it would be!'” “The Tambaqui seemed to expose the core, or body, of recorded sound in a way that upped the intensity of my listening experience.” “Transparency, detail, and purity were off the charts.” “I heard—and saw—previously invisible molecules of live, reverberant energy.”

John Atkinson’s measurements of the Tambaqui were also impressive. “The Tambaqui offers almost 22 bits of resolution, the highest I have encountered,” JA wrote, concluding, “The Mola Mola Tambaqui offers state-of-the-digital-art measured performance. I am not surprised HR liked its sound.”

Curious as to how the Tambaqui would perform in my larger room, with different components, I picked up the unit Herb had reviewed, then in the possession of another reviewer here in New York City.

The Mola Mola’s Pelican road case was a thing of beauty, encasing the Tambaqui in a nearly bombproof container, with heavy-duty latches and a sturdy handle. Importer Bill Parish, of importer GTT Audio, supplied the Mola Mola’s sleek remote control, made, apparently, from a solid billet of aluminum. I downloaded the Mola Mola app to my iPad.

Other than a Roon Nucleus+ server, the system I used to appraise the Tambaqui was nothing like Herb’s system. Herb used Bryston Audio’s B1353 integrated amplifier, with Cardas Clear Cygnus single-ended interconnects, and a Rogue RP-7 preamplifier to a Parasound A21+ Halo power amplifier, connected with AudioQuest Mackenzie XLR interconnects. Falcon’s Gold Badge LS3/5a’s and Harbeth’s M30.2s were his loudspeakers.

My setup included a Sonore optical-Rendu player and TRENDnet switch, streaming Roon/Tidal/Qobuz from an Apple iPad mini. A 1m run of Inakustik Reference USB 2.0 cable connected the Sonore opticalRendu to whichever DAC was in use. The DAC was connected to a J E Sugden Masterclass LA-4 preamp with a 2m run of Triode Wire Labs Spirit II (RCA) interconnects. The preamplifier’s balanced outputs were linked to an LKV Research Veros One PWR+ power amplifier with Cardas Clear Cygnus balanced interconnects. Loudspeakers were my DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96s (on their own low stands) or the GoldenEar BRX standmounts on 24″ Sanus stands. Those speakers were connected to the LKV amplifier with a 10′ pair of Analysis Plus Silver Apex speaker cables. An IsoTek EVO3 Aquarius line conditioner was used in my 1875-erected Greenwich Village apartment, where power conditioning is a must.

The Tambaqui presented a series of firsts in digital playback in my system: a Goliath soundstage with proportionate depth and fantastic layering. I’ve never heard such scale and natural dynamics from a digital source; it made my in-house (functional) DAC sound rather small. Of course, we’re talking $13,400 for the Tambaqui compared to the Denafrips Ares II at $750. It ought to sound better.

The Denafrips Ares II, a “24Bit/1536kHz, native DSD1024, discrete resistor ladder” DAC, according to the Denafrips website, has suited my ears and tastes just fine during its stay here, with exceptional resolution. But the Tambaqui sounds like the next generation. Its massive scale was joined with dense, corporeal images—again unlike any digital technology I’ve heard. Music had weight, energy, space, and scale, with large, physical images.

Does the Tambaqui sound like analog? Not to my ears. It resolved source material better than any analog I’ve had in my house, and it certainly cast an immersive, remarkable soundstage, but the Tambaqui still sounded digital. In this case, that’s a damn fine thing. All the virtues of digital with no apparent vices.

Listening to jazz, electronic, and rock through the Tambaqui was like attending a gala premiere at a large movie theater like the old, grandly Romanesque Ziegfeld Theatre here in Manhattan. The Mola Mola made music with a sense of aliveness and vigor that made listening both fun and revelatory.

I love discovering new pop singers via the streaming services. My latest find is Norwegian electronic vocalist ARY and her album, For Evig. In the electronic lament, “The Sky Was Forever” (24/44.1 FLAC, The Orchard/Qobuz), ARY’s voice was piercing but melodious, swooning over synth pads and dinosaur-scale synth bass. The Mola Mola retrieved every vocal movement, from sibilant sighs to P-popping plosives. Amid the song’s droning synths and deep synth basslines (bass synthlines?) is buried something that sounds like the flup-flup-flupping of giant insect wings. The Mola Mola’s intense clarity and exacting recovery of every sonic element startled. Those humongous flup-flup-flup insect wings actually scared.

Another sticky electronic treat, Leah Ryder’s “Caracal” (24/48 FLAC, Epidemic Sound/Qobuz) buzzed sleepily until a waterfall effect and gelatinous, dripping tones oozed through the track like electronic slugs or snails. A swelling, round-toned electronic bassdrum rhythm appeared, with a keyboard melody above. Clean rim clicks sounded stiff and hard. The Mola Mola stretched “Caracal” around my room.

Seeking something more intimate and jazzy, I landed on pianist Florian Weber’s Lucent Waters (24/88.2 MQA, ECM/Tidal) with bassist Linda May Han Oh, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and drummer Nasheet Waits. The piano sound on this recording is only so-so, but Waits’s drums were clear, precise, and nearly as 3D as those fluttering insect wings.

Ready to rock, I wondered how AC/DC would sound in such superhigh resolution. The title track from 1981’s For Those About to Rock (24/96 FLAC, Atlantic/Qobuz) launches with one of the most powerful intros in rock history, lead guitarist Angus Young’s shuddering blues-picking supported by Phil Rudd’s bassdrum. The Tambaqui resolved Rudd’s foot-driven beat as a very large, resonant wooden barrel with air inside and natural studio decay around it. When AC/DC rolled into the song’s chorus, the Mola Mola created the most voluminous wall of rock I’ve ever heard in my tiny walkup tenement. The Tambaqui delivered every crunching guitar and bassdrum wallop on a massive stage, with scorching energy. The Mola Mola’s penetrating transparency allowed every recording to rise to what seemed to be its original and intended character.

Switching out the Mola Mola and the Denafrips Ares II back in, I was surprised at first by how well the Ares held its own. It’s an energetic DAC, upfront and present, palpable, with good dynamic range and fine imaging. Its low-end performance was nearly equal to that of the Tambaqui. Compared to the Mola Mola, though, the Ares II had less body—less physicality on instruments and vocals. It was more forward and grainier, and it lacked the Mola Mola’s immense soundstage, naturalness, and ease. The Ares II made a good first impression but sounded a little noisy and squashed compared to the much more expensive DAC. At about 1/18th of the Tambaqui’s asking price, the Denafrips Ares II is still a very good value.

The Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC is easily the finest digital-to-analog converter I’ve heard in my reference system, provoking fresh epiphanies with well-known music. Its beautiful remote control and its ability to function as a preamp adds more value to this expensive machine. If you can afford it and want what is likely one of the very best DACs available—I haven’t heard them all—then there’s a good chance that the Tambaqui is for you.—Ken Micallef

NEXT: Measurements »


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Ken Micallef June 2022

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