When I heard I’d be reviewing Mola Mola’s Tambaqui DAC, the first thing that came to mind was not its bespoke field-programmable gate array (FPGA) architecture, nor that it was designed in part by class-D amplifier luminary Bruno Putzeys. No, what came to mind was an easily Googleable Facebook post about the Mola Mola, aka the ocean sunfish, that went viral in 2017. The relevant passage of that foul-mouthed screed:
They are the world’s largest boney fish, weighing up to 5,000 pounds. And since they have very little girth, that just makes them absolutely giant fucking dinner plates that God must have accidentally dropped while washing dishes one day and shrugged his shoulders at because no one could have imagined that would happen . . . “If they are so huge, they must at least be decent predators.” No. No. The most dangerous thing about them is, as you may have guessed, their stupidity. They have caused the death of one person before. Because it jumped onto a boat. On a human. And in 2005 it decided to relive its mighty glory days and do it again, this time landing on a four-year-old boy. Luckily [the boy] sustained no injuries. Way to go, fish. Great job.
I choose to lean in to this post-truth world we live in. I don’t care whether this characterization of the Mola Mola is fair, or would pass peer review for publication in a marine-biology journal. When you search for images of the Mola Mola on Google, you’re confronted with an exceptionally useless-looking creature that seems to defy the tenets of natural selection. It’s comforting to know that for all the staggering beauty that can be found in this world, such absurd creatures as this can float carelessly past the long reach of Charles Darwin. It gives me hope for myself.
Why has an innovative, high-end audio brand named itself Mola Mola? I have no idea. And is the Tambaqui -- another fish, this one freshwater and hailing from South America -- anywhere near as ludicrous as the Mola Mola? No, though apparently its fruit-based diet makes it fairly tasty. And is the Mola Mola Tambaqui one of the best digital-to-analog converters I’ve ever heard?
Mola Mola, based in Groningen, in the Netherlands, has produced audio gear since 2011. Their tidy stack of four products comprises: the Kaluga monoblock amplifier ($17,200/pair, all prices USD), which Pete Roth raved about in 2016 on sister site SoundStage! Hi-Fi; the Makua preamplifier ($12,200); the recently announced Kula integrated amplifier ($13,800); and the Tambaqui D/A converter ($13,400). The Makua and Kula can be ordered with an optional phono stage ($3000) and DAC board ($8200). The standalone Tambaqui’s architecture is identical to that of the optional DAC board, but, as you’ll read below, such recycling shouldn’t be mistaken for laziness.
At 7.9”W x 4.3”H x 12.6”D and 11.5 pounds, the Tambaqui DAC is refreshingly small. Unlike manufacturers who feel compelled to offer components in “full-size” cases regardless of their contents, Mola2’s creations are no bigger than they need to be. While the Tambaqui might not stuff an equipment rack as full as does dCS’s Bartók DAC, which I recently reviewed, its compactness means you’re not spending money on big slabs of aluminum that have zero effect on the sound.
Nonetheless, the Tambaqui is the first component I’ve reviewed that arrived on my doorstep in a Pelican flight case. Included were an owner’s manual, a pair of XLR-to-RCA adapters, a pair of cotton gloves, and an old-school Apple remote control. Mola2’s website does offer their own optional Premium remote control, but it’s not sold in the US.
The Tambaqui’s aluminum case is made in Germany; its wavy top plate, extruded and anodized, is folded over to form the faceplate as well. The contrast with the black aluminum side panels create a minimalist two-tone look interrupted only by a single central porthole on the faceplate for a tiny, monochromatic screen. This porthole is flanked on each side by two tiny polished aluminum input-selector buttons, above each a white LED to indicate signal lock (steady illumination) or muted (blinking). An even smaller white LED directly above the screen, set into the edge where faceplate becomes top plate, indicates that the DAC is active. The only other flourishes are the Mola Mola name and logo, subtly etched into the top plate.
Each of the four input buttons can be assigned to any of the Tambaqui’s seven inputs: S/PDIF optical (TosLink), S/PDIF coaxial (RCA), AES/EBU (XLR), USB Type-B, Ethernet, I2S over HDMI, and Bluetooth (SBC, AAC, aptX, LDAC). The only outputs are balanced (XLR) -- there are no unbalanced (RCA) outputs -- but along with a pair of programmable 3.5mm triggers, the rear panel has a welcome surprise: balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (6.3mm) headphone jacks.
The Tambaqui can be used either as a fixed-output DAC into a preamp and power amp or integrated amp, or be run straight into a power amplifier as a line-level device. I downloaded the Mola Mola Remote app to my Apple iPhone 11 Pro and discovered that it connects to the Tambaqui via Bluetooth, not via the network input, which meant that, throughout my listening, I enjoyed rock-solid connection and snappy responsiveness to commands.
The app is terrific, and can be used to configure the Tambaqui’s four input buttons however you like. A recent firmware update allows the Tambaqui’s front buttons to be set as volume up and down. I was able to name each input, select the input source, and choose its routing (Line, Headphones, Direct) and phase settings. Unit settings can also be configured, including balance, display brightness, and output level (6, 2, or 0.6V). Best of all, as long as the Tambaqui is connected to the Internet, you can check for firmware updates that might improve its sound quality without any monkeying around. This lovely piece of software is one of the very best I’ve used with a high-end component. Another plus: The Tambaqui is certified Roon Ready. When I asked Mola2 if native MQA decoding might be included in a future firmware update, their answer was a definitive “Nope!” Fair enough.
Instead of off-the-shelf chipsets from ESS Technology or AKM, inside the Tambaqui you’ll find a purpose-built, two-board FPGA solution that met Mola2’s exacting performance targets. The first printed circuit board (PCB) has discrete input paths for PCM and DSD signals, each of which feeds a sixth-order Chebyshev polynomial interpolator, upsampling the signal to 32-bit/3.125MHz before the signal is bifurcated and converted to a noise-shaped pulse-width-modulation signal. That PWM signal is then run through a pair of monaural, 32-stage DAC chips that convert it to analog just before reaching the Tambaqui’s balanced outputs. Volume control is managed in the digital domain using dithering, which “converts quantization distortion into pure, constant low-level noise.” Finally, I was told that the Tambaqui’s headphone amplifier is “a fairly straightforward IC amplifier implementation with the only added twist that the RFI filter at the output is placed inside the feedback loop.” Mola2 notes that this ensures more consistent performance, regardless of the headphones or interconnects plugged into the Tambaqui.
The design goal for this DAC was simple: class-leading performance by not one but every metric. The Tambaqui isn’t only a queen of high signal/noise ratio, low distortion, or low jitter, nor does it merely offer a dizzying choice of digital filters. Accordingly, its specifications are impressive: signal/noise of 130dB (Mola2 doesn’t specify the weighting), unmeasurably low THD and IMD (they estimate a noise floor of -140dB), jitter of <300fs from 1kHz to 10kHz, and of <1ps from 10kHz up. The Tambaqui supports PCM signals of resolutions up to 24/192 through all of its inputs. PCM up to 32/384 and DSD to 64/128/256 are accepted only by its USB and network inputs.
Mola2’s design of the Tambaqui is elegant in its simplicity. There are no choices of digital filters -- the Tambaqui’s FIR filter is claimed to minimize pre-ringing and produce moderately slow post-ringing -- and upsampling is consistent across all inputs and signal types. Just select the Tambaqui’s output voltage, adjust the balance if your system is wonky or your hearing asymmetrical, and play. Also refreshing is that Mola2 doesn’t make multiple lines of products that meet the price points higher-end dealers might want to see. Like the Kaluga monoblocks, Makua preamp, and Kula integrated, the Tambaqui is Mola2’s best effort in its category of product, full stop. Why make something cheaper if it won’t sound as good? Why offer something more expensive if it won’t sound any better? I have a lot of respect for this philosophy.
The Tambaqui arrived while I was in the middle of a marathon research session for my day job. I quickly plopped it on my work desk, hooked up a Chromecast Audio device via the Mola Mola’s TosLink input, and began streaming Tidal HiFi. Headphones were a wired pair of AKG K371-BTs designed to match the curve devised by Harman International. As I work, I usually play trance, dance, and electronica -- I can be pretty Eurotrash -- and the Tambaqui sounded fantastic with that garbage: überclean, consummate control, expansive. But Benchmark’s DAC3 HGC ($2199) and Mytek Digital’s Brooklyn DAC+ ($2195), each of which has a built-in headphone amp, do just as well in these regards -- audiophiles who own those models shouldn’t expect a sea change in sound quality by jumping up to the Tambaqui. The one thing I heard from the Tambaqui that I didn’t from those other DACs was utter ease and naturalness of sound.
After a couple days of desktop listening to the dreck I love -- mostly Above & Beyond, Armin Van Buuren, and Welsh DJ Sasha -- I moved the Mola2 into my reference system: an Intel NUC computer used as a music server and running Roon, Tidal HiFi, and Qobuz Studio Premier; Hegel Music Systems’ H590 integrated amplifier-DAC; KEF LS50 minimonitor and Reference 3 floorstanding speakers; and cables and interconnects from AudioQuest, DH Labs, and Nordost. I ran the Tambaqui as a variable-level DAC into the Hegel’s balanced inputs, those XLRs configured as a home-theater input to let the Mola2 directly drive the Hegel’s power-amp section (301Wpc into 8 ohms). The Tambaqui also pulled duty as an external DAC to Linear Tube Audio’s Z40 tubed integrated. I plugged the Intel NUC into the Tambaqui’s USB input, and connected the DAC to Roon via the Network connection. Without my having to search for it, the Tambaqui showed up automatically as an option -- Roon Ready indeed. I connected another of my Chromecast Audio devices to the Tambaqui’s TosLink input so that my wife could stream music to it via Spotify Connect. My entire system gets its juice from an Emotiva CMX-2 power conditioner, to ameliorate the electrical hum of our century-old home’s ancient wiring.
Mola Mola’s website pitches the Tambaqui as “Digital that’s as good as analogue” -- the sort of hype that’s been foisted on audiophiles for decades now, while never delivering the goods. There’s been steady improvement along the way, with outfits like Berkeley Audio Design, dCS, and Weiss Engineering slowly but surely, over the last 15 years, bridging the gap between state-of-the-art digital and state-of-the-art analog sound quality. I suspect that those who worship at the analog altar will never be truly convinced of the digital apostasy, even when that digital performance is objectively -- I use that word lightly -- superior in every measurable parameter. But I also think that the latest, greatest digital audio components -- those that, like the Tambaqui, don’t use off-the-shelf chipsets -- demonstrate just how narrow the divide has become.
I was struck by two aspects of the Tambaqui’s sound in my reference system. The more important of these -- indeed, the most analog-like -- was the complete absence of edginess and harshness compared to more affordable chip-based DACs. As someone who loves the transient snap offered by good digital, I don’t love DACs that smooth out the sound, obscuring the finest details in an ephemeral search for “musicality.” To my thinking, that defeats the purpose. The Tambaqui hid nothing at all.
The other aspect of its sound that made such a good early impression was soundstages that were consistently deeper and wider than those projected by, say, the very good (but not reference-level) DAC in my Hegel H590. At first hearing in my reference system, the Tambaqui sounded entirely at ease, as if expending no effort at all. A propitious beginning.
I’d begun by bypassing the H590’s built-in analog preamp to have the Tambaqui directly feed the Hegel’s amp section as it drove my KEF LS50 minimonitors. I cued up “Lose Yourself to Dance,” from Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning Random Access Memories (24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC, Columbia/Qobuz). The image of the soundstage was first-rate -- Pharrell Williams’s high-pitched voice shone out from the center of the stage with remarkable clarity. Nile Rodgers’s delicious guitar work felt rich, textured, and highly articulated, yet I heard no overemphasis or shimmer in the leading edges of his notes, or any splashy decay or reverb. In fact, the entire recording felt very balanced, natural, even analog. I then set the Tambaqui’s output to fixed level, to send its signal through the Hegel’s preamp stage, and played this track again. The differences were fascinating: Williams’s voice was pushed farther forward on the soundstage, and Rodgers’s guitar strings suddenly had more sheen. Everything was a notch more vivid.
I’d always assumed that, all else being equal, eliminating from the signal chain an analog preamp and the attendant interconnects would result in better sound, objectively and subjectively. But I much preferred my H590’s analog preamp over the Tambaqui’s digital volume control. I don’t doubt that the Tambaqui’s volume control is excellent -- it most definitely is -- but when it drove the H590’s amp section, while its sound was expressive and ultradetailed, and arguably more neutral, it was also a touch subdued. But even if the Hegel’s preamp was adding something to the sound, its inclusion in the signal chain made for far more engaging listening for me. So that’s how I left things for the rest of my listening. As much as I champion neutrality and linearity in loudspeakers and electronics, I, like everyone else, have my indulgences. Please bear with me.
In “Frozen,” from Madonna’s Ray of Light (16/44.1 FLAC, Maverick/Warner Bros./Qobuz), our Material Girl somewhat eschews her pop roots to go ruminative. Her voice is airy, delicate, and extended, with an intoxicating glow at higher volumes that I love. The LS50s weren’t reproducing that effect quite as well as I’d hoped they would -- Madonna sounded a touch veiled and chesty -- so I replaced them with KEF’s far bigger Reference 3 floorstanders. “Frozen” opened up, Madonna’s voice now sounding a lot more spatially focused and more detailed. This combination of effortlessness and immediacy was phenomenal. I’d never heard this track sound better.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” The final speech by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), toward the end of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (16/44.1 FLAC, EastWest UK/Qobuz), re-created by Vangelis for the film’s original soundtrack album, sounded sensational through the Tambaqui. I played it again and again, marveling at how the steady rainfall provided a dramatic backdrop to those iconic lines, and at the halo-like glow around Hauer’s voice. The cannon shot that implies Batty’s death was gloriously concussive, its rippling reverb spreading from precisely between the Reference 3s to beyond their outer side panels. But what most caught my ear was that the focus of my attention was not drawn to Hauer’s sibilants, or to the size of the soundstage; despite offering a wickedly transparent gaze into Vangelis’s classic score, the Tambaqui’s staging was fair and evenhanded. It may not have offered the midrange lushness of a top-flight vinyl rig -- without vacuum tubes, what DAC will? -- but the three-dimensionality and tactile midrange presence of the Tambaqui’s sound got me awfully close.
This lack of spotlighting of any aspect of recorded music was what led me to prefer my Hegel’s analog preamp over the Mola2’s digital volume control. This quality was readily on display in “What Will Never Be,” from Eik Octobre’s (aka Emil Skovsgaard Christensen) ambient-classical Everything Has Its Echo (24/96 FLAC, ExoPAC/Qobuz). Gentle acoustic-piano notes and quivering violins dance about the fringes of the soundstage in the intro, before the track transitions into a tapestry of synths and expressive violin chords. The stringed instruments, in particular, sounded velvety and palpable, inviting me into this atmospheric piece and instantly putting me at ease. It’s such ease of sound that I believe will attract many audiophiles in their search for a long-term digital companion. I can’t imagine the Tambaqui producing listening fatigue in anyone.
Finally, I listened to Peter Gabriel’s take on David Bowie’s “Heroes,” from Gabriel’s album of covers, Scratch My Back (24/48 FLAC, Real World/Qobuz). Gabriel’s delicate, deliberate interpretation is spine-tingling. He starts from a place of repose but profound loss, and gradually works his way toward a more optimistic mood. The Tambaqui conveyed these feelings in spades, with exquisite definition of Gabriel’s pained and closely miked voice as his London Scratch Orchestra works itself up into a frenzied climax all around him. I sat back, admiring this $13,400 DAC not because it stood out in the signal chain, but because it didn’t. Instead, it just let me listen and feel, without my having to think or worry about anything -- including the sound.
It would be hard to come up with a better point of comparison with Mola Mola’s Tambaqui DAC ($13,400) than dCS’s Bartók DAC ($14,500). Also in for review, the dCS proved fascinating. Whereas the Tambaqui was designed as its manufacturer’s cost-no-object assault on the state of the art of D/A conversion, the Bartók is dCS’s lowest-priced model. Moreover, the smallish Tambaqui is a more focused, purposeful product compared to the full-size Bartók, which has the flexibility to slot into a greater variety of systems, and to accommodate more user whims and preferences.
The Bartók offers most everything the Tambaqui does, plus: unbalanced outputs (RCA), a second AES/EBU input, a second Network input, a USB Type-A input, an S/PDIF BNC input, and an RS-232 port -- as well as support for Apple AirPlay, Internet Radio, native MQA decoding, and Spotify Connect. The dCS also provides terrific flexibility of signal processing, allowing the user to select between DXD and DSD upsampling, and no fewer than ten digital filters with which to tailor its sound to the user’s liking. And, like the Mola2, the dCS has a pretty trick app. The only things the Tambaqui has that the Bartók doesn’t are Bluetooth support, an I2S input, a pair of 3.5mm triggers, a 6.3mm headphone jack, and a physical remote control. The Mola2’s headphone amp is a particular boon, given that dCS’s optional headphone amp costs $2750. Yet despite the two DACs’ differences, each uses FPGA hardware, and associated software solutions of their companies’ design. And each sounds laughably good.
As I had with the Mola2, I mostly bypassed the dCS’s digital volume control and ran the DAC into my Hegel H590 at full output -- I found the resulting sound more engaging and lifelike. Also as with the Mola2, I was struck by how well the dCS resolved every recording I threw at it -- and both DACs were clear cuts above the chip-based DACs from Benchmark and Mytek I’m intimately familiar with. But there were subtle differences. The dCS always sounded big, pushing out soundstages deeper and wider than from any other digital product I’ve reviewed. It was also consistently exacting, carving out every nook and cranny of a recording with unapologetic precision. Madonna’s “Frozen,” for example, sounded a touch airier through the Bartók, with slightly greater spatial definition around and between voices and instruments.
It took me hours and hours of listening before I could conclude with any certainty that the Tambaqui was just as resolving as the Bartók, but a bit more forgiving. While it couldn’t quite match the dCS’s wide and wide-open sound, it countered with an almost imperceptibly more robust and palpable midrange with “Lose Yourself to Dance” -- Nile Rodgers’s guitar sounded a touch more full through the Tambaqui. I caution against making too much of these differences -- it’s easily possible that my selection of digital filters on the Bartók accounted for part or all of the differences I heard. Less subtle was how much better the Bartók and Tambaqui were than their less expensive counterparts; I’d happily take either of them over the AKM-based DAC built into my Hegel H590. Spending more doesn’t always buy you better sound, but it sure does in these cases.
What I love about Mola Mola’s Tambaqui is its unmistakable identity. From its unique design language, bespoke architecture, and focused feature set, it doesn’t try to be all things to all people. But it’s perfect for those who, like me, use only Roon. And while choices of digital filters and upsampling paths might have been nice, I willingly defer to Bruno Putzeys & Co. to make those tactical decisions for me. This DAC’s incredibly revealing, impressively lifelike sound was beyond reproach, and its included headphone output is a nice touch.
Mola Mola’s Tambaqui isn’t the fanciest or the most feature-rich DAC available today, but is it one of the best DACs I’ve ever heard?
Yes, yes, it is.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- KEF LS50 and Reference 3
- Integrated amplifiers -- Hegel Music Systems H590, Linear Tube Audio Z40
- Digital-to-analog converters -- dCS Bartók, Mytek Digital Brooklyn DAC+
- Source -- Intel NUC computer running Qobuz, Roon, Tidal
- Speaker cables -- AudioQuest Rocket 33, DH Labs Q-10 Signature, Dynamique Audio Caparo
- Analog interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Shadow (RCA), Nordost Blue Heaven LS (XLR)
- Digital link -- DH Labs Silver Sonic (USB)
- Power conditioner -- Emotiva CMX-2
Mola Mola Tambaqui Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $13,400 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
9723 JP Groningen
North American distributor:
356 Naughright Road
Long Valley, NJ 07853
Phone: (908) 850-3092