MAKAU AND BACK
My interest in the Mola-Mola brand had started with the Tambaqui when we were in the deep recesses of Lockdown. Roger at Nintronics had been kind enough to loan it to me as I wanted to move away from vinyl, but needed something not sounding too digital. My thoughts were in the direction of purchasing the Kaluga monoblocks and connecting them directly with the Tambaqui DAC; My Luxman 509x integrated would go in as a part exchange. Dropping the Luxman and Gyrodec would make things cleaner and simpler. I wouldn't be downscaling so much as modernising, as we progress more towards streaming and storing music locally. Or I could go with the Kula and keep the Gyrodec, but then I felt the speakers needed more oomph than the Kula could shake. I felt the Tambaqui and Kaluga combination would give me a good Roon Ready DAC/Streamer with 400wpc to drive the Focal Sopra's. It seemed perfect, clean and simple, all controlled from the iPad using Roon, it looked promising, or was it....
So, Roger ordered the Kaluga's and they arrived within a few weeks. I started by breaking them in before any serious listening. We set up an audition, and I spent an afternoon at Nintronics with a few others to see how it sounded. Something was missing; the Tambaqui's sparkle had gone; it was tame as though Tambaqui was holding something back. I was disappointed; what had gone wrong? We tried different interconnects and ended up with a bit of improvement, Bob suggested that we put a pre-amp into the chain, setting the Tambaqui to direct so it was not controlling the volume. The addition of The Gryphon amp added its own musicality to the sound, but more importantly, it allowed the Tambaqui to sing.
After looking at what pre-amps would suit and the confines of the budget that was now over, Roger made arrangements to get a demo Makua pre-amp from Sound Design Distribution for me to try out.
Enter the Makua
This Pre-amp is a 'Hybrid'; all front buttons are programmable, and you can customise the system to compliment your workflow. I decided to split the buttons to the left of the dial for analogue and the right for digital sources. Yes, analogue, i could keep the Gyrodec in the chain but it was moving away from my original plans. The demo unit came with the optional phono stage module and I was going to try it.
Mola Mola's whole design philosophy implements balanced throughout, which can be extended down to the phono cartridge to reduce any potential signal noise, but for now I would have to stick to RCA.
We now had a fully loaded Makua (Pre), Kaluga's (power) and Tambaqui (DAC/Streamer), all connected with balanced Jorma Design interconnects to the Focal Sopra's speakers.
Switching everything on, you would get the reassuring clicks, a few seconds of flashing LED and then all set. Turning the volume control bristled the resistor array, an LED on the volume lighting up and then dimming once at the desired volume was hit. I left everything to settle for a couple of hours before listening to get up to temperature; all devices, including cables, were previously broken in, so it was more up to me to settle into the new setup.
I spanked up Roon and chose my first track - Lee Morgan / Sidewinder. I like this track because of the sharp timing but lazy trumpet playing from Lee Morgan, many intentional nuances to his playing can easily get lost and become a little off. It was working; my feet were tapping, and yes, Lee Morgan's lazy playing was there in all its dirty glory. I was smiling; everybody was together, and you could hear their fun. Did I hear little scat mumblings from Billy Higgins as he peppered the stage with snares and high hat? I couldn't stop; I must play the whole album. More was coming through with the Mola Mola system, which now had more rhythm.
Okay, let us move to something more recent, LCD Soundsystem:- Oh, Baby. It is a messy track with Murphy's voice easily being drowned out. It's not an easy piece; if there are not enough current reserves from the amp, it will become a clusterfuck and the amp gets kicked in the teeth. Well, it survived, the detail came through; the grunge of the synth smacked and Murphy's melancholy sadness was there, pleading for you to listen. He had my attention.
With the Tambaqui acting as a pre amp, you are caging the bird, timing and micro detail is being lost. But with the Makua in the chain, all the Tambaqui has to do is sing and boy could she sing.
The Phono Stage
The demo unit had one installed, I could not resist. My turntable is a Michell Engineering Gyrodec SE with the SME 309 tonearm and Ortofon Jubilee phono cartridge recently re-tipped by Expert Stylus. My default phono stage is the Chord Huei, and it has served me well; these have little noise and can be configured for any phono cartridge.
Connecting the Makua was straightforward enough; I just had to choose which input to route to and then into the app to set the parameters for the phono cartridge. The app is where you see the level of effort Mola Mola went to to get it right; you have the option of MM and MC; if you choose MC, the load capacitance greys out (it's not necessary), you are left with Load Resistance and Gain. All possibilities are changeable on the fly as you listen (but react carefully as you do not want to blow those speakers), but what's more interesting is the Equalisation options or EQ curves. Record Labels used this to get optimum playback; most modern recordings default to the RIAA curve, but you may occasionally find a record sounding too thundery or the soundstage having shrunk. For example, MoFi's 'Original Masters Recording' of Miles Davis 'A Kind of Blue' sounds more open when using the Polydor setting. There is a lot of discussion around these settings and controversy, but if you choose early pressings, including Shellac and mono recordings, this comes into its own.
A Reference Phono Stage?
So, with my early pressing of Side Winder, it was time to see how analogue faired. This album I knew pretty well from my Chord Huei, so I had a good idea of what to expect and how it compared with the Tambaqui.
The soundstage opened up a little more with each musician becoming much better defined, and God was Lee Morgan, a Joker. His playing was there to bend the rules; it had gone from good to REALLY good as his performance, timing, and subtle expression became more apparent. I was smack back there; it was almost alive. Damn, I needed that phono stage. The background was darker, the stereo imaging more apparent, and the highs, sweet without being brash. The Gyrodec was to stay.
I was at the stage of taking my system to yet another level by adding the pre-amp. It was a giant leap and substantial cost, but bang for buck it and comparing it with the competition, it was pretty damn good value.
The Makua does not add caramel to your latte; it lets quality ingredients shine through. It will give centre stage by keeping all the elements simple; nothing changed. The optional phono stage makes this pre amp an extremely capable unit able to keep pace with the big guns. The look is simple and although beautifully made, it does not shout "look at me'. There is no flashy displays, pokey out valves or green glowing monograms to attract your attention. Just six tiny chrome buttons with accompanying pint point LED's and a volume dial. I think they have tried to mimic what lies beneath by keeping the look simple.
But brands have a following for a good reason, whether simple salt and pepper or ketchup with Mayo (Hell, everyone loves ketchup on their chips, don't they?) We all have different tastes, which makes HiFi so much fun; you make it to your liking.
I went back through old favourites and sought out more to feed my addiction to music. The Makua, Kaluga's and Tambaqui had managed to tame the Focal Sopra's and bring out their full potential. I was now hearing what the Tambaqui was capable of, and damn, it is one mighty fine DAC/Streamer. Combined with the phono stage, it was a perfect combination. The Tambaqui gave you convenience, and when the time came, vinyl would compliment/enhance that system that bit more. It was a fantastic synergy, but the Makua had to go back, and I had to make a decision......
I think you know where that went :)
At the time of writing, Mola Mola introduced their standalone phono stage at the Munich High-End Audio show calling it Lupe. And as Munich High-End demonstrated, vinyl is coming back, bigger, faster and stronger. Mola-Mola has done it again! First, with a standalone Tambaqui, and now with the Lupe. Both are killer components, and I think the Lupe will get much attention. I'd love to see how the integrated and standalone compare side by side. Maybe Andy at Sound Design Distribution can get a hold of one for us to see.