Equipment Reviews – Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC
Introduction – A lot of press has already been printed about where, how and why Mola Mola got its name and the names of its product range. If I was a 2m wide Sunfish weighing in as much as a small car and swimming off the coasts of Oz then I guess I could feel happy about that. But Tambaqui is a kind of Piranha which bears no relation to how this DAC performs, but more of that later.
1984 was the year when I left college and it was also the year that the first CD Players started to arrive in the UK. I remember seeing my first one in a shop window in Dartford where I had been studying. It wasn’t long after that that enterprising UK manufacturers decided that CD Players could sound better with off board DAC’s, not that many of the early players had digital outputs of any kind. That’s difficult to imagine from today’s all digital perspective, but yes, I did buy the original Black Box from Arcam soon after they became available. I’ve owned many since then and am now looking again to see what would be best in my main system.
I still own the same two CD Players my Dad and I bought in 1984. He bought an original Marantz CD63 in gold and I chose the Toshiba XR-Z90 and I still have both the original boxes. They still work but neither had digital outputs so I couldn’t try them with the Tambaqui.
Technology – Mola Mola who are based in the Netherlands designed the Tambaqui to be just a DAC because it has a volume control, a headphone output (albeit on the back) and it can be used to stream music from internet sources (but only via Roon). For this review I only used it as a pure DAC fed via USB from an Innuos Zenith and Reclocker and RCA input from a CD Transport.
The Tambaqui doesn’t use off the shelf DAC chips for conversion but instead is based on SHARC Processors and upsampling all incoming signals to 3.125 MHz/32-Bit before conversion. It only has XLR outputs, no RCA’s here. Inputs are on RCA and USB type B only with the addition of the ethernet network connection. It is Roon ready and if you want to use it to stream music then you need a Roon account. It also has headphone outputs on 6.3mm socket and 4 pin XLR for balanced headphone listening. The functions of the 4 front panel buttons can be reconfigured using the Mola Mola App (Android or IOS) on a computer but to do this it needs to be connected via its ethernet connection to your network. It is also possible to change the output voltage to best suit your preamp from 6.0v, 2.0v and 0.6v. I looked at this but made no changes to the standard set up which selects the 2v output option.
In use it gets pretty warm and needs space to breath, I wouldn’t recommend leaving it powered up 24/7, preferring to set it in stand-by from which it starts much quicker than from a hard cold start. There was one occasion when I set it to standby overnight and the next morning it was still hot, so it clearly hadn’t shut itself down properly although the red light did indicate it was in shutdown mode. The Tambaqui doesn’t support MQA but still decodes the first level so you can still play MQA files but not to the full extent intended by MQA. It does play DSD files up to 512 via USB and PCM to 384/32 Bit. RCA inputs are limited to 192/24 Bit resolution as is normal.
The display is small and gives little information and always turns off after 15 minutes, I couldn’t find a way to keep it switched on. In any event it gives nothing away concerning incoming or outgoing data rates. As I have noted before it seems the more you spend on equipment the less information the displays give, personally I’m a sucker for a good informative display. The Tambaqui was only used as a DAC and was not tested as a streamer but I have used it in this way in the showroom to good effect.
The Tambaqui comes in a just £1 below £9,000, so it should sound good to warrant that level of expenditure. The same price as the Esoteric D-05X I reviewed recently and way more than the original Black Box (anyone remember how much that cost when new?). It is however much less than the entry point for a DAC from MSB and similar in price to offerings from Chord.
System Components – I inserted the Tambaqui between my Innuos Zenith server and USB Reclocker and the Michi P5 Pre-Amp and M8 Monobloc Power Amps feeding Marten Mingus Quintet speakers. Cables used throughout the review were mostly by Jorma.
Performance – I am a great fan of FM radio and have a good selection of tuners at home, I just can’t help buying them. Many years ago I had a large FM roof mounted ariel installed by Ron Smith Ariels in Luton and my collection started then. The best tuner around in my opinion is one of the cheapest at the time and currently available second hand. It comes from the manufacturer you are least likely to be thinking of – Kenwood and its KT-5020 from 1990. Somehow Kenwood (Trio) just hit the sweet spot with this one, equal to or better than anything from the better-known recognised high-end FM tuner manufactures including Magnum Dynalab and Sansui etc. Don’t believe me, then try and listen to one, it’s the only one I have found that gives a proper wide soundstage and decent stereo reproduction, and it could save you a fortune, if you can find one. Anyway, this led me to start the review by trying internet radio using Roon via the Tambaqui DAC and I was very impressed. The BBC are getting better at digital radio over the internet (forget DAB) and listening to streamed Bob Harris on a Thursday evening was easily up there with FM via my Kenwood and Ron Smith.
I then streamed music from Tidal, Qobuz and from the Innuos hard drive and also played music from a CD Transport and was never disappointed with the results, whichever source I used. Try ‘James Bond’ from Iggy Pop’s latest album and you will hear his growly voice as clear as it can be, and the backing female singers were more present than they usually are. Moving on to Alison Krauss I listened to her Windy City album from 2017. Sometimes she can be a bit shouty but not via the Tambaqui where she sounded more relaxed, smooth and sophisticated. This again turned into a whole album experience and on ‘You Don’t Know Me’ the bass was more detailed than I am used to, and her voice was vibrant, heartfelt and passionate. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar on ‘Shelter From The Storm’ by Hans Theessink on Delta Time was resolved with the emotional clarity that very few high-end DAC’s brings to a music session.
Finally, I listened to ‘Into My Arms’ from Roger Daltrey from his recent album ‘As Long As I Have You’ and the Tambaqui rendered his voice with utmost clarity and again that word ‘emotion’ and the backing piano was right there in my room with Daltrey.
USB Cable Selection - I mostly used the recently introduced USB Reference cable from Jorma to connect the Innuos Reclocker to the Tambaqui during this review but at £2,750 for a 1 m run it’s expensive, it did however make a worthwhile improvement over my standard £400 USB cable and would be my choice if my budget allowed it. The Jorma gave more definition in the entire frequency range making bass weight more felt, vocals more involving and dynamics sound, well, more dynamic. I tend to find that the better (read more expensive) USB cables do have better connectors that fit more securely into equipment (with the exception of some that are ridiculously heavy and just pull themselves out) and perhaps these connectors are helping resolve better sound. If I hadn’t tried the Jorma USB I would have been happy with my £400 alternative but now I’ve heard it there’s no going back. A bigger piggy bank is needed.
Summary - Nintronics sell a variety of DAC’s to suit personal taste and budget and the Tambaqui falls in the middle of the price range. If you like the slightly forward and more direct sound that some DAC’s provide then you probably won’t like what the Mola Mola does as it is a little more laid back but no less detailed and is definitely more engaging. Whereas some DAC’s sound good for a while they can get a bit OTT on longer listening sessions, but the Mola Mola DAC just grows on you the more you listen, and I found my listening times extending with the Tambaqui more than they have with others at a similar price point.
It’s entirely possible to spend more on a DAC but if your budget only extends to the Tambaqui then you won’t be disappointed and in fact regardless of budget, you may just prefer what it does anyway. It’s all a matter of taste which is as it should be. You won’t be disappointed whether you chose one of our DAC’s from Esoteric, MSB, Chord, PS Audio or Mola Mola, they are all outstanding solutions to the conversion of digital to analogue. But definitely include the Tambaqui on your shortlist and if funds allow include the Jorma Reference USB cable.
Now where did I put that Black Box?
I hope that those of you taking the time to read my lengthy reviews have found it interesting. Please contact us at Nintronics to listen to this and other equipment in our three dedicated listening rooms, current Covid -19 restrictions notwithstanding.
Thanks for listening and if you have any questions than we are happy to try and answer them for you.
Bob at Team Nintronics – December 2020.