Listening – first round
I’m starting my listening tests with the Antipodes K50 Music Server, connected via a Jorma AES/EBU cable to the Tambaqui (set to 6dB fixed volume level), the Audio-GD Master 1 preamp, CH Precision A1.5 power amp, and Magico S1 Mk2 speakers.
Remember that I wrote earlier about my preference of Multibit or NOS DACs over Bitstream DACs? well, the Tambaqui turns that idea on its head. Not only does it not sound like a typical Bitstream DAC and more like a truly superb Multibit design, but it also seems to even offer much of the very aspects that I hitherto only attributed to NOS designs such as the Aqua.
What I have against Bitstream DACs is that they can sound lean and overly bright, in addition to having a subjectively less soulful delivery, even if they are often more highly refined and/or more detailed than comparable Multibit designs. Indeed, it takes a lot of engineering effort to design a really good Multibit DAC, which is probably one reason why you only see this type of DAC in extremely high-end products such as the CH Precision C1.
Well, bright, the Tambaqui is certainly not, and neither is it overly lean, at least, not when compared to the Aqua Formula xHD. Actually, the Italian DAC (a NOS, multibit design) is slightly leaner and also a little brighter than the Dutch DAC, go figure! What I like so much about the Aqua is its incredible transparency, resolution, and neutrality. Amazingly, the Tambaqui performs very similarly in each and every one of these aspects, whilst being even more linear. The Aqua can indeed be slightly lean and appear to have a “tipped up” sonic balance, and the Tambaqui provides a flatter and more even-handed balance.
Although the Tambaqui sounds incredibly neutral and linear, it does add a touch of warmth and sweetness in the midrange, compared to the Aqua. Whether this is interpreted as coloration on the Tambaqui’s part or as a lack of color on the Aqua’s, remains up for debate. I can add that the Tambaqui has more of a velvety approach while the Aqua is more of the immediate and direct kind. I hasten to add that both DACs sound highly articulate and neither sounds soft or rounded and in terms of dynamics or impact, I also can’t say that there is very much between the two. But, compared directly, the Aqua has just slightly sharper transients which makes for a slightly snappier sound whereas the Tambaqui tends to excel more with tonal richness. For instance, the transient of a piano note has more immediacy with the Aqua (which I like) while the sustain and tonal body is better conveyed by the Tambaqui (which I also like). Ahhh, you got to love the complex world of high-end audio. While I feel that the Aqua has the edge with highly rhythmic music and the Tambaqui with vocals, strings, and wooden instruments, I’d have a hard time choosing between these two DACs.
On balance, I really can’t state that one is better than the other. It’s much more a matter of taste. As mentioned, in terms of resolution, there’s nothing between the two DACs and both have an absolutely grain-free presentation.
If all that sounds like swings and roundabouts it’s worth noting that the Tambaqui costs 3.700 euros less than the Aqua while also offering volume control and a Roon endpoint. Which is what I will look at next.
In order to assess the quality of the onboard Roon endpoint, I added the Aqua LinQ Network Interface to the mix. Fed via HQPlayer with an NAA stream from the Antipodes K50, the LinQ provides an even more transparent, precise, and articulate AES/EBU signal than straight from the K50, which is perfect for very high-level comparative tests such as this one.
Before moving on to assessing the Roon functionality, I made a last comparative round between the Aqua Formula xHD and the Mola-Mola Tambaqui, now both fed from the LinQ via Jorma AES/EBU cable. On these assessments, I can be short, for although the baseline has shifted a little, the aforementioned differences simply remain in place. It’s worth noting that the K50 by itself is a smooth, relaxed and warm-sounding source while routing the network signal through the LinQ makes for a cleaner and tighter, and arguably also drier sound, which, depending on the rest of the system configuration, may swing the opinion on the most ideal DAC match more toward the Tambaqui.
Switching from the LinQ’s AES/EBU output to RoonReady, straight from the K50, the Tambaqui responds entirely in line with other DACs that offer both inputs, by sounding smoother and a little rounder, at the expense of a small measure of directness and bass incisiveness. Otherwise, it sacrifices very little compared to the LinQ’s output via AES/EBU. When comparing the K50’s AES/EBU output to the unit streaming directly to the Tambaqui, similar differences are heard, although less distinct. Given that the LinQ is a 5.680-euro standalone endpoint, I’d say that these results speak very well for the Tambaqui.
Listening – Round two
The Tambaqui review overlapped with the Aequo Stilla Active loudspeaker review, and as part of that review, I first listened to the Tambaqui using its built-in volume control in comparison with the CH C1. Interestingly, the Tambaqui steered the sound in a different direction from the CH DAC. One might think of the CH sound as being very neutral and, across their product line, this is indeed the case, but the C1 DAC, in particular, deviates from that preconception by sounding quite full-bodied and tonally well-developed. In the past, I have compared its sound to that of classic Wadia but with higher resolution and airier treble, but I’m aware that the Wadia glory days are by now a distant memory and this reference may not serve everyone.
In any event, switching from the C1 to the Tambaqui straight to the Stillas makes the latter actually sound more similar to what one might expect a typical Swiss product to sound like. In comparison to the C1, the Tambaqui’s is just as highly resolving and revealing and every bit as refined which is not that big of a surprise, given earlier comparisons between the C1 and the Aqua Formula xHD but what I did find surprising is the sheer solidity and even-handed balance of the Tambaqui’s performance. If I didn’t know any better, then I’d have assumed that it was a multibit DAC.
The biggest difference I heard was in terms of soundstage, which the C1 portrayed considerably bigger, mostly in terms of width, whereas the Tambaqui tends to focus more within the speakers, and it does this with razor-sharp definition.
Compared to the sonorous and full-sounding C1, the Tambaqui’s delivery is tighter and cleaner and possessing of remarkable purity and crispness but, like the Aqua, it is also leaner and tonally less rich. But whether that’s a plus or a minus will greatly depend on the rest of the system. With my Magico S1 MkII’s, for instance, using the Tambaqui directly connected to the A1.5 amplifier yielded a fantastically detailed, open, and precise sound but ultimately with less soul and natural flow than I like. But in the combination with the inherently rich, full, and spacious-sounding Stillas, the Tambaqui all by itself made for an absolutely perfect match.