I usually bump into Mojo Audio’s Ben Zwickel at the industry party the night before the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver. It’s becoming a tradition. Zwickel gets us as many drink tickets as allowed then the rest of the evening is wine, more wine, dinner, and then even more wine, interspersed with stories of the year’s audio adventures. Let’s just say he’s ‘energized’.
He’s also got one of the most interesting audio philosophies. He brazenly eschews the ‘audiophile’ nature of hifi sound. What I like to call ‘ziss, boom, bah’. He prefers discussing the gentle, the delicate, the subtle. Sure, he likes it loud like the rest of us, but the devil is in his details. And his kit always errs on the musical.
So, it was a pleasant surprise to hear from him before our ‘same time next year’ moment. And even more pleasant to hear him say that two new components were on their way to Audiophilia for an exclusive. The Mystique DAC v2.0 ($2,499.95) and his new CAT Server (review forthcoming).
What I enjoy about Zwickel is unlike so many in the audio design business, what I hear as audio descriptors from him sound exactly what comes from his electronics. Just think about how difficult that is for a moment. Producing sound from electrons is hard enough, but to tweak the electrons into one’s particular taste in sound is another matter. There are a lot of ‘assemblers’ out there. Not a lot of audio artists. With the Mojo kit that I’ve heard, Zwickel chooses, assembles, then creates. The magic in hifi is in the creation. Like all art.
This Mystique DAC is in its second generation. It converts up to 24-bit 192KHz high-resolution music files via USB or S/PDIF formats. In accordance with Zwickel’s ‘purist’ philosophy, the v2.0 does not use ‘pre or post-digital filtering, digital noise shaping, upsampling, oversampling, or error-correcting algorithms. Our digital signal path is the purest possible. This is not true of many so-called non-oversampling designs that still incorporate algorithms for noise shaping and error correction.’
The v2.0 comes with all the goodness on the inside. There is no onboard digital volume control and no LEDs (the unit is intended to be powered at all times).
I used the new Mojo Audio CAT Server ($4,299.95) to test the DAC. It seemed the most musical thing to do. More about the CAT setup in the forthcoming review.
I heard the first gen Mystique at the RMAF show last year. It was just as Zwickel described — a timbral realism that I found refreshing. My flute was my flute. My teacher’s flute was his flute. I often times hear a player waving afar from the stage. With good digital, the listener is in a good seat in a good hall. The instrument sounds as it should. Where it should.
This new DAC takes the original's timbral realism and doubles down on noise floor and the ability to undress the harmonic structures of music. For example, the theme from the film American Beauty. My ‘go to’ track above all. If you’ve read my reviews, you’ll know why. I use it for every review. Of course, this superb DAC handled Thomas Newman’s intensely layered music with ease, even at what I call a ‘sub atomic’ level. Just after the introduction, there is a synthesized run as a pick up to a strong beat on the following bar. I listen intently at this moment as I know there are subterranean layers that Newman has synthesized. For the first time, I heard them -- three (or four) tracks under the ‘zip’ of the electronic glissando. I chuckled with delight. Audiophiles, you’ve all experienced ‘that’ chuckle.
I used the Newman glissando as a musical GPS. It kept me focused, on track to hear what this v2.0 adds to the magical Mojo original. Arnold Bax’s The Happy Forest orchestral tone poem served notice. I love the Naxos recording, and it’s a hell of a ‘busy’ score, but there was always lots of music in the murk that I had difficulty hearing on many systems. Not so, here. Pizzicato basses and bass clarinet have been subjugated musically by Bax and sonically by the Naxos engineers to accompanying status. The Mystique v2.0 unravelled all. And most importantly with timbre intact. The instruments shone with the others.
When in 'assembling' mode, Zwickel uses only super high quality parts from manufacturers such as Analog Devices, Vishay, Burr-Brown and Belleson to help tell his musical stories. The fit and fish of the unit is top class. Simple and with a small footprint. There are several changes on the board from the original. Mojo has added a discrete I/V conversion output stage, and two more Belleson regulators. Mojo suggests 'The result is the most natural time, tune, and timbre possible from a digital source. Effortless micro-dynamics and incredible micro-detail preserve the tones, textures, and spatial cues that bring you closer to the original musical performance.' Agreed.
Although the micro dynamics are spellbindingly effective, the macro type get a workout. The thunderous bass line from the aforementioned Newman track was indeed thunderous, but like the best digital, it was separated (not separate, if you know what I mean?) from the din above. Clinical but tactile.
The highs from the stratus and the mids also maintained the definition but also the timbral beauty. The woodwind soloists from another Naxos gem, Shostakovich 10th Symphony finale intro, sounded wonderful. The oboe's ecstatic line full of angst while 'hearing' his breath control and manipulation of the double reed to change mood.
And voices. Oh man. Muddy or Frank -- Folk Singer and Only the Lonely, respectively. All good DACs replicate the voices well but only the best get the space. Sure, both are studio projects, but whatever atmosphere the engineers conjured, the Mystique captured. It was such a pleasure listening to these two albums.
There are lot of good DACs for sale. And with digital downloads, you'll need a great one for the foreseeable future. I love the Bel Canto DACs and have written about them enthusiastically in Audiophilia. I also love Calyx digital products. The Mojo Audio Mystique DAC 2.0 certainly matches both the Bel Canto and Calyx products I've heard. That is hearty praise. And audiophiles looking for their next DAC, should hear Bel Canto, Calyx and Mojo Audio. But I will tell you that Zwickel's sound philosophy is bloody intoxicating. If you like subtle, gorgeous sauces in a plain old meat and two veg world, you need to audition this DAC.
Further information: Mojo Audio