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Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC and Streamer Review

amirm

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#1
This is a review and detailed measurements of the Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC and Ethernet streamer. It is on kind loan from a member which is quite special when you consider it costing US $11,500 (£8,999).

As it should be the Tambaqui weights a lot relative to its size with generous use of free-form thick metal enclosure:
Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier Audio Review.jpg

You really feel like you have a high-end audio product until you touch it. The corners and edges are all extremely sharp. Not that you are going to handle it by hand but I always like to see the edges burnished at least, if not rounded.

There is a lot of connectivity as there should be in this price range:
Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier Audio Back Panel Review.jpg

Of special interest is standard Ethernet network streaming with certified Roon endpoint. Shame they don't emphasize this more.

The user interface is unique. Four buttons to select each input with a default volume setting. I must be dumb because I could not find a way to change the volume. I had to use the remote. There is either a problem with the remote or the unit in that trying to change the volume by 1 dB was very challenging. It would keep jumping up 2 dB or down 2 dB.

I did not need any drivers to use it on Windows. And simply connecting the Ethernet cable allowed instant streaming from Roon player. Nice.

The Mola Mola Tambaqui is a boutique DAC in that it implements its own DAC. It upsamples the incoming rate to a very high rate DSD and then converts that PWM signal to analog. Often we see such reinventions of the wheel as performing worse. Let's see if this is the case here.

DAC Audio Measurements
As usual, we start with our dashboard with USB input:
Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier Audio Measurements.png


As indicated, I dialed down to volume to get 4.3 volts (next step was below 4 volt) for proper comparison to other DACs with 4 volt output. Our focus immediately goes to incredibly low distortion and resulting SINAD (sum of distortion and noise relative to our signal) of 121 dB. This by a hair beats our best of the best DAC before:

Best Audio DACs Review USB.png


In case you are missing it, it is the yellow bar all the way to the left.

A bit odd though is the clock running a bit slow. Instead of 1 kHz, it is showing 0.99996 kHz. No, it is not remotely an audible thing but a bit odd that the clock is not as accurate as the rest of the unit. I may want to set my watch to it and I can't!

Mola Mola advertises signal to noise ratio of 130 dB. We don't quite get that:
Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier Dynamic Range Audio Measurements.png


They likely manually subtract the noise of the analyzer to get to the 130 dB. So no concern there.

We see the same low noise floor impressing us in Intermodulation distortion relative to level:

Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier IMD Audio Measurements.png


32-tone signal representing "music" shows incredibly low amount of distortion:
Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier Multitone Audio Measurements.png


There is talk of how great jitter is on this unit and we do get excellent results but some power supply related components remain:

Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier Jitter Audio Measurements.png


They can easily be ignored at levels below 140 dB.

Linearity is the star here showing perfect performance:
Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier Linearity Audio Measurements.png


120 dB/20 bits of accuracy is shown with ease.

Reconstruction filter shows a rather slow filter:
Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier Reconstruction Filter Audio Measurements.png


This results in some aliasing in ultrasonic domain:

Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier 1 kHz FFT Audio Measurements.png


That normally hurts THD+N versus frequency but there is some other issue at hand:
Mola Mola Tambaqui USB DAC Streamer Headphone Amplifier THD vs Frequency Audio Measurements.png


Expected to see a flat line at lower level than shown.

I will test the headphone performance in a future post.

Conclusions
The Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC shows again that just because a DAC is designed from ground up, it need not perform poorly. It is actually the opposite with it performing at the top of the class with respect to distortion and noise.

Since I am not the one paying for it for you to purchase it, it is not my issue to worry about the cost. As such, I am happy to recommend the Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC based on its measured performance and functionality.

------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

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solderdude

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#2
Reaching the limits of the AP in the multitone ?
 
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #3
Not yet. I could increase the FFT length and get a few dBs deeper. Makes it take longer so I don't use it by default.
 

Matias

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#5
Expensive DAC for people with every link in the chain maximized and willing to pay the big price tag. Diminishing returns for sure, but at least this one has returns indeed.
Thanks!
 

Veri

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#7
Really good results. If the digital filter was any steeper it would reach near textbook "perfect" measurement.
It's good to see boutique/"mysterious" tech marketing does not necessarily mean bad performance.

But really, D70/D90 performs similar and costs a fraction of this Mola Mola :) thanks to ASR we know we don't need to spend quite as much to reach top of the line performance. Thank you for the report, @amirm

For comparison, 1khz spectrum: Topping D90, Mola Mola. Chip-based D/A is not inferior.
 
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Matias

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#8
@amirm Bruno posts that the ADC is limiting the measurements and that a notch at 1 kHz should be used to show the DUT real distortion artifacts. I know this is not the standard measurements here in ASR, but for this one, could you make an exception and test his hypothesis?


"Life’s been way too interesting in the lab to sit down and report on the progress of the DAC. For the past few days I’ve been trying to find ways to force the Audio Precision to measure reliably to around -140dB. So far the only thing that has some impact is manually setting the input range a few notches higher. Otherwise, no luck. So this is where we are now.
fft2.gif

The distortion spectrum at higher frequencies looks pretty much the same so I’m going to spare you a clutter of graphs. I’ll post a full report later once the last firmware wrinkles are ironed out. But as a word of warning here’s an illustration of something I mentioned in the previous DAC post.
fft3.gif

The blue graph is the same as above. The red graph is what you get if you make the common mistake that both manufacturers and reviewers can be seen to commit: to convert the whole signal to digital without notching out the fundamental first using the distortion analyzer. Clearly the red graph would have looked precisely the same even if the signal had been perfect. Every distortion product is dominated by the analyser’s 10-year-old ADC chip. I’m mystified as to how people think they can design a high end DAC if they can’t see the effect circuit changes have on the low-level stuff. Of course using the notch filter only improves matters to a degree. It is not distortion free either, just a lot better. In particular with the second and third harmonic I have no way of judging what they are in reality. Probably a goodish bit better than -130dB. The higher order ones can be chalked up to the DAC, that much I’m certain of. But at least we can conservatively conclude that this prototype has a full scale THD+N of -127dB (0.000045%) and probably lower. Uncharted waters."
 
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Fred Jacquot

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#10
It upsamples the incoming rate to a very high rate DSD and then converts that PWM signal to analog.
I have no time to dig in, but I believe to remember that DSD and PWM are different encoding. Here the PCM is upsampled, then PWMed. The output of the FPGA is PWM at very high frequency that is then low pass filtered, like class D but at much higher frequency.
Here is the paper explaining how the stuff is working.
 
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amirm

amirm

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Thread Starter #11
@amirm Bruno posts that the ADC is limiting the measurements and that a notch at 1 kHz should be used to show the DUT real distortion artifacts. I know this is not the standard measurements here in ASR, but for this one, could you make an exception and test his hypothesis?


"Life’s been way too interesting in the lab to sit down and report on the progress of the DAC. For the past few days I’ve been trying to find ways to force the Audio Precision to measure reliably to around -140dB. So far the only thing that has some impact is manually setting the input range a few notches higher. Otherwise, no luck. So this is where we are now.
The distortion spectrum at higher frequencies looks pretty much the same so I’m going to spare you a clutter of graphs. I’ll post a full report later once the last firmware wrinkles are ironed out. But as a word of warning here’s an illustration of something I mentioned in the previous DAC post.
The blue graph is the same as above. The red graph is what you get if you make the common mistake that both manufacturers and reviewers can be seen to commit: to convert the whole signal to digital without notching out the fundamental first using the distortion analyzer. Clearly the red graph would have looked precisely the same even if the signal had been perfect. Every distortion product is dominated by the analyser’s 10-year-old ADC chip. I’m mystified as to how people think they can design a high end DAC if they can’t see the effect circuit changes have on the low-level stuff. Of course using the notch filter only improves matters to a degree. It is not distortion free either, just a lot better. In particular with the second and third harmonic I have no way of judging what they are in reality. Probably a goodish bit better than -130dB. The higher order ones can be chalked up to the DAC, that much I’m certain of. But at least we can conservatively conclude that this prototype has a full scale THD+N of -127dB (0.000045%) and probably lower. Uncharted waters."
All my measurements use this technique. More when I wake up later. :)
 

Matias

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#14
Top measuring DAC of ASR, and the NCore and Purifi based power amplifiers are top measuring too (just missed first place to AHB2). No coincidence there.

I wonder how his Makua preamp measures? I bet it would be top too.
 
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#15
Nice to see that all high-endish boutique DACs don't have to perform miserably !
another good boutique dac that should perform well based on the measurements posted by stereophile is the dCS (the Vivaldi especially)... but this comes at a price, and honestly I cannot see why should I pay more for that, since delta-sigma alternatives are equally good but less expensive due to the fact that they do not have to pay for the R&D of a new dac architecture.
 

fredoamigo

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#16
I will not buy it because in my humble opinion a $500 dac will do just as well.

but it's a very good answer to all those who say on other audiophile sites that ASR's first intention is to "explode" high-end equipment.
 

Music1969

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#19
As indicated, I dialed down to volume to get 4.3 volts (next step was below 4 volt) for proper comparison to other DACs with 4 volt output. Our focus immediately goes to incredibly low distortion and resulting SINAD (sum of distortion and noise relative to our signal) of 121 dB. This by a hair beats our best of the best DAC before:
Hi @amirm

Can you also please show dashboard for 2.1Vrms and 3Vrms output?
 
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VintageFlanker

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#20
I will not buy it because in my humble opinion a $500 dac will do just as well.

but it's a very good answer to all those who say on other audiophile sites that ASR's first intention is to "explode" high-end equipment.
Definitely. ASR's first intention is to "explode" high end snake oil.

I have no issue with very expensive gears if the performance is in SOTA territory!

Kudos to Mola Mola!
 
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