Mola Mola Makua Preamplifier / DAC / Phono
The Unbearable Joy of Thinking Outside The Box
Now that GTT Audio & Video head Bill Parish and I are finally back on friendly terms (heck, he even calls me on the phone occasionally to give me a hard time, and to ask when I plan to get around to finishing the reviews I promised to write, if ever), it seemed like the right time to share with the world my thoughts on a wonderful suite of electronics from the cutting edge design team at Mola Mola, the Dutch electronics wizards with the funny sounding name.
As I teased at the start of summer (HERE), when a planned review of mono amps and a matching preamp from another manufacturer unexpectedly fell through last spring, I slyly hinted to Mr. Parish that he instead let me fool around with the Mola Mola separates that are the subjects of this review. The sexy and svelte design, reasonable size, and manageable weight of the amps (the Kalugas) and the full-feature preamp (the Makua, here stacked with a world-class DAC and superb phono card) suggested that the Dutch amp / preamp would fit in perfectly at Casa Jeffries, an abode big on charm, but short on space.
As many of you have discovered in recent years, smaller is
often better, particularly when it comes to amps, speakers, and the like (less
mass, sweeter sound, fewer drivers, better coherence, and so on). This is
precisely what our own Marshall Nack discovered when he previewed the Mola Mola
suite back in 2016 (HERE).
However, Marshall deliberately chose not to evaluate the DAC and phono stage
back then, better to minimize any unnecessary sonic variables during the review
cycle. For this review, Mr. Parish suggested that I go whole hog and assess the
Makua with all available options, so I did, much to my pleasure and sonic
For all the audio hermits out there, the central figure behind
Mola Mola, the infinitely curious Belgian designer Bruno Putzeys, is widely
regarded as one of the young mavericks of high-end audio engineering. I would
add to that very short list Benno Baun Melgaard of GamuT fame, and now also the
top designer at Raidho Acoustics, Louis Desjardin of Kronos Turntables, and Leif
Swanson of Von Schweikert Audio.
If I missed anyone, blame Greg Weaver. He helped me to compile
Bruno spent nearly a decade honing his skills at Philips's
Leuven, Belgium based Applied Technologies Lab before fleeing the roost to chart
his own path. At the time, Putzeys believed (and still does) that the future of
amplifier design lies squarely in the Class D universe, a perspective apparently
not shared by Philips at the time.
Liberated from the design limitations imposed by Philips,
Bruno hit the ground running. His first major claim to fame came when he
designed the Universal class-D (UcD) power amp module, the subsequent N-Core
amplifier modules, and various switch-mode power supplies, all for Hypex. In
case you didn't know, Hypex sells these building block components to other audio
manufacturers. Hypex also offers DIY amp kits based on Bruno's Class D amp
modules for all the Saturday afternoon audio tinkerers out there. The list of
firms and products that use Putzeys-authored components includes Grimm Audio, in
its AD1 all-discrete DSD analog-to-digital converter, LS loudspeaker range, and
related Grimm Audio professional-grade gear; Kii Audio's Three loudspeaker;
upper crust amps from companies like MBL and Theta, and down to earth companies
like NAD, each of whom utilizes the N-Core Class D amplifier module in their
product lines, a testament both to that unit's incredible adaptability and
inherent good sound (not to mention outstanding measured performance).
In short, Putzeys may be the most influential audio designer
currently working that most audiophiles have never heard of.
Lusting After Tiny Boxes
Unlike some of my colleagues, many of whom won't even consider
listening to a pair of mono amps unless they weigh at least 80 pounds each (plus
the latter's equally well-endowed, Ron Jeremy-sized preamps and phono stages for
that matter—Positive Feedback reviewers, you know you who you
are), I am more than happy to invite petite-sized guests to spend time in my
listening room. I'd much rather woo the petite, light-on-their-feet,
sweet-sounding amps that are my apartment's natural partners in crime over the
sluggish, clunky, microwave oven-sized loofah rolls that pass for
"real" amps and preamps in some quarters.
As the guys in my old neighborhood used to say, "I got me
some relentless for you right here, bub!"
Everything about the Mola Mola suite screams tactile, if demure, quality. Your Makua / Kaluga combo, should you decide to take the plunge, will arrive in lovely foam-lined flight cases, the amps accompanied by a very well-written instruction booklet explaining setup details and core control parameters. A cute little remote controls volume levels and input choices, but one must use the downloadable app to control the more involved DAC and phono stage switching and playback options. A pricier table-top console remote, that matches the aesthetics of the amps and preamp, is available for a hefty upcharge. Cheapskate that he is, Bill never once offered me the use of the pricier unit.
Someone must have told him that I'm a cheap date!
Tipping the scales at a hernia-inducing 15 lbs. per amp, and a
beefier but hardly hefty 24 lbs. for the preamp, each Mola Mola munchkin feels
as solid and substantial as an aluminum brick. Blessedly, their petite
dimensions and slim profiles (half-width for the amps, full width for the
preamp, but only about 3 inches tall) make them as easy to place and maneuver
into my audio rack as shoeboxes.
Seeing and the touching the Makua / Kaluga combo for the first time leaves a lasting visceral impression. It is akin to running your fingers along the sleekly curvaceous lines of the stunning Corvette ZR1, or a comparably tricked-out high performance sports car. Utterly minimalist in form, the Makua preamp and Kaluga Class D mono amps surely rank amongst the most sensuously inviting high-end components to hit the market in years.
The gracefully swooping bead-blasted aluminum chassis evokes ocean waves, no doubt a deliberate visual reference to the ocean-dwelling species of sunfish from which the company takes its name. The sculpted black side-panels that adorn the amps and preamp evoke the wood side panels that appeared on virtually every mid-fi receiver from the 1970s. Here the panels serve to break up what would almost certainly come across visually as a slightly monotonous swoop of bead-blasted aluminum, the black slabs contrasting smartly with the stark silver sheen of the main chassis.
Ergonomically, the Mola Mola suite eschews the visual minimalism of the chassis designs in favor of near total user control over all core operating features. An extremely well-executed app that you download to your preferred tablet or laptop, along with registering the preamp, provides a world of playback options. Day in and day out, I found the units themselves, and the associated control app, an absolute delight to use. The app allows users to configure the Makua's six inputs in numerous ways. One can, for example, configure each of the six as a dedicated phono input, assuming one has enough table / arm combinations in house to take advantage of this arrangement. Typically, and this is how I used the Makua, users will utilize input 6 as the preamp's high performing DAC, and input 5 as the dedicated phono stage. The DAC boasts an Ethernet / LAN connection that permits quick preamp / DAC / phono stage software updates, as well as AES/EBU, USB, and optical digital inputs.
Quoting directly from the Makua "long read" product description page, the "6 preset buttons are programmable via USB or Bluetooth to access any combination of channel, processing, and routing. In a system with mainly digital sources, the preset buttons would be programmed to select between them. Vinyl lovers, on the other hand, might want to use several buttons to select the same turntable, but with different EQ settings to suit their large collection of historic LPs. All five inputs are switchable between XLR and floating RCA connections, and all can be assigned as either phono or line. All stages in the Makua use discrete amplifier modules in a little-known topology called single-ended driven differential. Compared to doubly executed signal paths, this structure prevents noise from propagating all the way through."
I did encounter one ergonomic quirk during the review cycle, though I would hardly describe it as a deal-breaker. A few days after the MM suite arrived, I took delivery of the Kubala-Sosna Sensation cable loom that I reviewed earlier this month (HERE), and a loom of Silnote Audio cables a bit later. After some twisting, contorting, and more than a few foul language meltdowns, I finally managed to coax all the new cables into place (first the K-S loom, and then the Silnote wires a couple of months later).
The problem I encountered involved the power cords, both K-S
sourced and those from Silnote. Simply stated, because of their light weight (15
lbs. per side), the amps are quite prone to shifting position when one tries to
attach beefy audiophile-grade power and interconnect cables to the rear-mounted
inputs. Frequently, this results in the power cable coming undone. Compounding
things, the Kaluga amp power cord receptacle itself is not quite deep enough to
permit a tight connection between cable and amp, meaning that any pressure
exerted on the amp chassis risks dislodging the power cord(s) from the amplifier
power input terminal.
Given that lightweight stands out as one of the Kaluga's key charms, I would love to see MM increase the depth of the power cable receptacles to better accommodate the beefy after-market power cables that many audiophiles favor. This minor quirk aside, set-up of the entire system proved largely trouble free, and refreshingly uneventful.
The Weight Of Gravity
Preconceptions aside, I was left in utter disbelief at what
the Mola Mola pair delivered sonically, with a little help from the lovely
AURALiC ARIES G1 Wireless Streaming Transporter that I reviewed back in April (HERE),
and later, from the simply stunning Kronos Sparta 0.5 turntable and breathtaking
Kubala-Sosna Sensations cables (reviewed HERE).
Instead of the sterile, lifeless, closed-in sound that I have encountered with
some Class D amps, the Mola Mola suite instead laid bare (but never
antiseptically so) the intricate tonal shadings and delicate interplay of
timbres and textures that make Polish trumpeter Tomaz Stanko's 1999 release From
the Green Hill (ECM) so musically compelling. By the same token,
master tape-to-DSD transfers like Falla's Three Cornered Hat (London/DSD)
sounded reassuringly warm, airy, and holographically three-dimensional, what one
would expect playing the original London LP release of the same work on a
reference-grade analogue rig, but with all of the recording's inherent glow and
beauty retained by the Dutch / American partnership.
The result, to my ears, is a remarkably heightened level of transparency to sources and recordings, enhanced musical naturalness, heightened dynamic expressiveness, and the natural rendition of tone and timbre. As I have learned listening to some of the best gear available (the stunning Audionet WATT integrated amp, the otherworldly VAC Statement 450i iQ Integrated Amplifier, the Von Schweikert Audio ULTRA 9 speakers, the Kronos Sparta turntable with Airtight MC cartridge, the K-S Sensation cables), genuinely neutral components don't strip away tone, texture, timbre, air, bloom and musical life to enhance detail retrieval. Instead, the best stuff enhances our ability to appreciate and hear all the former desirable metrics more easily, while simultaneously unearthing ever-deeper levels of musically important detail across all fronts.
This gestalt net enhancement of sonic neutrality delineates
the exceptional from the merely quite good in high-end circles, which is why
listeners who both hear and appreciate the 5-7% increase in realism that
exceptional components deliver will happily pay the added tariff to secure those
gains, assuming their bank accounts can handle the upcharge.
The Mola Mola suite clearly belongs in the exceptional
category of high-end components.
What the Dutch dwarves sacrifice at their unapologetically
solid-state / Class D musical altar (and here only slightly), namely that last
bit of saturated tone, micro-dynamic expressiveness, and timbral density
(especially compared to vastly more expensive VAC Statement 450i iQ Integrated
Amplifier that I raved about HERE),
they correspondingly gift with class-leading quietude (or stillness, my new
favorite descriptor), convincingly holographic soundstage naturalness and
imaging precision, and thunderous bass power (hence my depiction of the
inevitable sonic trade off, however slight, as a net enhancement of overall
neutrality, and a pretty damn remarkable enhancement at that).
When transcribed by the DAC, my hi-def Qobuz streaming signal delivers the most intensely musical sounds I have heard in my listening room, even when measured against some truly great analogue sources. Trust me when I say that the DAC is that good!
Solo piano, a notoriously difficult instrument to record and reproduce accurately owing to its shudderingly wide dynamic envelope and full-range frequency response demands, sings with remarkable conviction through the Mola Mola suite with onboard DAC. These days, I'm often left scratching my head at what typically passes for naturally recorded piano tracks, what with their lightning-quick transients, little to no follow-up decays, malnourished power range expressiveness, and limpid, soggy bass. But on 89-year old Ahmad Jamal's late-in-life instrumental masterpiece, Ballades (mostly solo piano tracks), the aging master's timelessly evocative "Poinciana" reverberates and shimmers transcendentally, a neo-romantic marvel of nearly matchless improvisational beauty, and my vote for the best jazz performance / track/ album of 2019.
If you own the CD version of this work, or better yet, a
hi-def download of same (which is how I experienced this stunning release) but
have yet to listen to the album from start to finish, you are in for a real
treat. Finally, music lovers and audiophiles have been gifted a recording of
both life-affirming musical beauty and reference quality sound. Here, the Mola
Mola suite, particularly those stunning DAC boards, trumpet the three sonic
traits that make the Dutch combo so wonderful to listen to and through: stunning
quietude (or stillness), otherworldly, reach-out-and touch, sniff, and scratch
holography, and God of Thunder-like, rib-cage rattling bass power and reach.
With a recording this damn good, one really does get a credible sense of what a
real piano thundering unrestrained in the listening space sounds like. This is a
textbook example of what an acoustic piano can sound like when recorded well,
but rarely does.
The Phono Stage
Highly regarded reissues like Analogue Production's lovely Bill
Evans: Riverside Recordings drew me into the recorded acoustic in much
the way that a summer shower has the power to lull one into a refreshing midday
slumber. The Makua phono stage allowed me to appreciate unambiguously the
different sonic perspectives of several very fine turntables and cartridges, all
the while preserving the air, bloom, momentum, and life that make listening to
vinyl so rewarding. Where tables like the Origin Live Resolution Mk. III and
Kronos Sparta 0.5 (both currently in house) enthrall with their class-leading
transient precision and punch, the Kid Howard turntable / Cornet 2 tonearm /
Ortofon Cadenza Black MC cartridge suite that I recently reviewed (HERE)
seduced with softer transients, creamy textures, water-like purity and
micro-dynamic flow, and remarkable sweetness.
Personal vintage favorites like Lutoslawski: Overture
/ Funeral Music / Little Suite (Candide CE 31035) and Elie
Siegmeister: Concerto for Flute and Orchestra / Concerto for Clarinet and
Orchestra (Turnabout TV-S 34640) flowed with a billowing grace that
seemed almost dance-like, the Kid Howard suite poignantly contrasting the
gravitational pull of the Kronos 0.5 that I raved about recently (HERE)
with an almost hypnotic sensuality and charm.
Of the two models, I think that the Makua preamp, especially when outfitted with the optional DAC and phono modules, is the real sleeper here. Don't get me wrong. The Kaluga mono amps are stunning as well, quiet, powerful, lithe, and remarkably transparent to sources and recordings. But the Makua has that "hard to pin down" X-factor going for, a stealth-like quality that elevates the preamp into the upper echelons of the very best components on the market, regardless of price. To my ears the DAC's performance really stands out here, as well it should at the hefty $8,200 asking price. For your financial troubles, the Makua DAC gifts to you the most "transparent to sources and recordings" digital source component I have ever heard. Feed it a clean signal from a top-tier feed-forward device like the superb AURALiC ARIES G1 Wireless Streaming Transporter and you will, I strongly suspect, need to re-evaluate your unwavering allegiance to your $10,000 turntable / tonearm combo.
If you haven't guessed, I am totally smitten by these shoe box-sized charmers. I have asked Mr. Parish to let me hold on to these pit bull puppies for a while longer, so that I can both get their full sonic measure and listen to them with other top-flight gear, and he has agreed. In the here and now, and so long as Bill and I can stand one another, they are my new amp / preamp references, and come very highly recommended.
If you've been sitting on the high-end fence doubtful that well-designed Class D amps and solid-state preamps can deliver the sonic goods, particularly if you are a tube person, mark my words, the Mola Mola suite may very well change your mind. Now get thee hence and find a dealer, ASAP!
Pricing And Manufacturer
Kaluge Class D Mono Power Amplifiers
United States Of America Distributor
Voice: (908) 850-3092