Mojo Audio Mystique v3 DAC

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I've known Mojo Audio's owner/designer Benjamin Zwickel for some years now. He's a restless sort of chap, like many brilliant designers I've met. Always tinkering and figuring ways to make his products better. He's also, at least where his magical boxes are concerned, meticulous to a fault. 

Zwickel broke into the high-end scene producing cables. Very fine, they were. And very reasonably priced. He later began modifying Mac minis, creating excellent storage devices.  

Jump a few years, and Zwickel's up to his pits in bits. Servers and DACs. I reviewed his latest server; it was excellent but had some of the eccentricities of the designer.

He uses the very finest parts and partners with companies that produce what he needs to exacting specifications.  

Next, to his DACs.  

I have nothing but admiration and profound respect for Zwickel’s design skills, and his DACs, in particular. Each generation has sounded wonderful and has built on each other’s strengths, now in its zenith in the v3 version. 

Zwickel’s DACs sound like unDACs. Allow me to explain. He seems to get the essence of analog, with all its natural and airy presentation — way more there, there — while offering the pristine and clean backdrop that the very best digital delivers. In fact, they are supremely musical DACs. 

His last version [reviewed here] gave my reference Bel Canto Design e.One DAC 3.5 Control Preamp [with power supply — USD$5000] a real run for its money. Not better, certainly not worse, just different. I love my DAC, but I kept telling anybody that would listen that Mojo Audio has something special, here.

I heard that quality the first time I heard Zwickel’s kit at the 2014 Rocky  Mountain Audio Festival in Denver, CO. He had the oddest, eccentric setup, wierd speakers, extra tweeters, etc, but it sounded beautiful. Smooth, detailed, with a nod to very fine analog. Very much like this fabulous new v3 Mystique I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing these past few months. 

The new Mystique has a larger footprint than previous versions and converts PCM format files up to 24-bit 192KHz via a galvanically isolated USB, a coaxial S/PDIF, or TosLink optical formats. I asked Zwickel which input he thought sounded best. He thought all three had benefits. I used the USB input throughout the review period. 

Mojo adds: ‘In addition to Femto audiophile clocking, the fifth independent power supply 100% isolates our USB from all other power supplies in the DAC - not even a ground plane is shared. This eliminates the need for any external USB reclocking or regeneration devices.’

Partying with Ben Zwickel at the opening shindig of Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, 2014.  

Partying with Ben Zwickel at the opening shindig of Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, 2014.  

I asked Zwickel to give me a précis about his philosophy of sound, design and a little Mystique history:

In a way the Mystique v3 has been over 30 years in the making. Back in the mid-90's I decided it was a waste of $$$ to spend about 1/3 of my audio budget upgrading my turntable when nearly all music was being digitally recorded, mixed, and mastered, and I was only listening to LPs about 20% of the time. There began my obsession with digital sources. For over a decade I switched from one whose who CD player and separate transports/DACs to another until I heard a non-oversampling DAC for the first time. From then on my focus was only on NOS digital.

For more than another decade I was purchasing the whose who of vintage CD players and DACs with vintage R-2R ladder DAC chips and modifying them. I was studying the schematics of these famous designers, upgrading their power supplies, upgrading the parts in their signal path, and then converting them to NOS. The first couple years Mojo Audio was in business a significant percentage of what we did were upgrades and NOS mods to vintage CD players and DACs.

At a certain point I realized that there was not enough space in the chassis of the gear we were upgrading to put in the power supply I wanted to use. So I began to purchase OEM NOS DAC boards and upgraded the power supplies and the signal path component parts. The DACs Mojo Audio sold from 2010 to 2012 were made with these upgraded OEM DAC boards.

During that time I'd compared all the most famous vintage R-2R DAC chips: TDA1540, TDA1541, TDA1543, etc, until I came upon the AD1865 - one of the last generation of R-2R DAC chip designs. Compared to the older R-2R DAC chips the AD1865 had significantly lower noise, significantly better channel separation, significantly better linearity, and significantly higher resolution. 

At a certain point I realized that we could do a much better job with isolating the power supplies in these NOS DACs if we engineered our own circuit boards. So in 2013 we released our Mystique v1. The name "Mystique" is in reference to the mystique NOS DACs seemed to have among certain audiophiles. The Mystique v1 was a direct-coupled NOS DAC built around the AD1865 DAC chip with nine Belleson ultra-low noise regulators isolating every category of chip and clock. 

One uncommon feature we had among NOS DACs is our hardware-based 6X IC demultiplexing circuit that separated the left and right channels from the digital stream with bit-perfect alignment. Compare this to most NOS DACs that used a single IC for demultiplexing that resulted in the left and right channel's digital words to be offset by 13 bits. We still use that same 6X IC hardware-based demultiplexing circuit in our new v3 DAC.

In 2014 we wanted to get more performance from our DAC and engineered a new output stage using the best signal path parts we could find: OPA627 IC op amps, Vishay's best TX2575 "Nude" resistors, and foil and polystyrene film capacitors. Technically speaking our v2 had an identical circuit to our v1, just made it with higher performance parts and two more Belleson regulators. 

 In 2015 we started the R&D on our v3 DAC. During that process we found a few better performing component parts. During the first half of 2016 we offered a v2 Plus that incorporated some of these parts in our existing v2 DAC. The v2 Plus was identical in chassis, weight, and price to our v2, but performed significantly better. 

In the latter part of 2016 we were finalizing the design of our v3 DAC. Aside from our v3 being our first DAC with multiple inputs, we upgraded the AD1865 18-bit stereo DAC chip to a pair of AD1862 20-bit monolithic DAC chips that theoretically quadrupled the digital resolution. The signal path circuit in our v3 is pretty much identical to our v1, just with better performing component parts. We also upgraded from two to five independent power supplies for better isolation. The fifth power supply powers the galvanically isolated USB input - for 100% isolation it doesn't even share a ground with the other four power supplies. We then borrowed technology from our new Illuminati power supplies and made all five power supplies in our v3 DAC choke input feeding a 4-pole Mundorf AG+ capacitor. 

Choke input power supplies were designed over 80 years ago by Western Electric and are still used today in some of the more exotic and expensive tube electronics. Using a choke input has several advantages. The main advantage is that the crest factor and heat of the rectified DC is literally cut in half. Picture the top half of a mountain's peaks cut off and used to fill in the valleys. The choke input also acts as a power reservoir, lowers noise significantly, and feeds the capacitive filtering pre-regulated DC. This allows the capacitive filtering to be considerably more effective and feeds the ultra-low noise Belleson regulators less than 10% the ripple they would get from capacitive filtering alone. This allows the regulator to run at about 1/10th capacity, at roughly 10 times the speed, and with a fraction of the heat.

As you can see, Zwickel is extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful about his designs. The v3 is the culmination of seriously focused research. Do the numbers translate into improved sound? 

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I can report that its sound is remarkably smooth and assured, but its musicality, the musical presentation Zwickel prefers, is where it truly shines. 

Specifications 

  • Built around Analog Devices' legendary monolithic AD1862 non-oversampling R-2R ladder DAC chips
  • Ultrahigh-performance Sparkos discrete op amps for I/V conversion and anti-aliasing.
  • Vishay TX2575 0.1% tolerance "nude" metal foil resistors and foil polystyrene film capacitors.
  • Direct-coupled analog stage with no capacitors or transformers between the DAC chip and output.
  • Left and right channel digital word synchronization to ensure perfect phase and time coherency.
  • Independent circuits to adjust the MSB for the left and right channels at the zero voltage crossing.
  • Five independent choke input power supplies feeding twelve Belleson SPZ ultralow-noise regulators.
  • Ultra-fast soft recovery diodes, Mundorf M-Lytic AG+ 4-pole and Sanyo organic polymer capacitors.
  • Laboratory grade filtered IEC with multistage AC filtering that is extremely tolerant of line noise.
  • High-performance Furutech connectors connected to the PCB with cotton covered UniCrystal silver wire.
  • Anti-resonant polymerized aluminum composite chassis with ferrous internal EMI shielding.
  • Stillpoints standoffs and Sorbothane feet come standard - optional Stillpoints Ultra Mini feet upgrade.
  • Field convertible from 110VAC to 250VAC both 50Hz and 60Hz. Special order 100VAC available.
  • Solid brass ground post and DC ground lift for optimized system grounding.
  • 17.5"W x 3.25"H x 12"D and 23 pounds.

Sound

I began, as usual, with the opening track from Thomas Newman's American Beauty. This track is an exceptional test for digital clarity, accurate timbres, especially tuned percussion, but most of all, speed. How does the DAC handle transients and decay; also, how does it handle sampled layers and all the musical tessituras in balance. This CD or its digital file should be in all your collections. Great music and incredibly good sound. It'll give your digital gear a workout and your ears a clean out. 

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I've never heard it better than on Zwickel's DAC. Two audiophiles who heard it ordered the CD immediately on Amazon. Now, to be sure, the track sounds great on many systems, and the Mystique handled every thing it threw at it easily, but it was the layering and deep, deep bass (much of it synthesized on this track) that was so compelling. Near the end of the track, a subterranean bass counter melody kicks in. It's heard three times, but you'll understand the v3's abilities at first hearing. So low, so distinct. The sampled glissando near the start of the piece also sounds very impressive on most quality gear. But, with better kit, come the layers. The layering on the Mystique is not only of many strands but they are all balanced and sound beautiful. 

I purchased my Raidho XT-1 Loudspeakers (USD$10,000 a pair/incl. stands) after hearing Fritz Reiner's RPO/Chesky Brahms 4 on them played by an Esoteric CD player, costing about 20K. It was so musical, so refined, so....analog. The Mystique brought back those memories on this magnificent CD. That it can compare to the DAC of an Esoteric suggests just what a bargain this superb DAC is. USD$4999 is a lot of money in anyone's books, but to get similar or better, I think you'll have to pay a lot more. My v3 was single ended. There is a balanced version for $6995. And if you're in the camp that thinks all USB cables sound the same, good on ya! Your pocket book will be heavier. I used the one provided to me by Antipodes Audio. Not sure of the name, but was assured of its excellent quality. And like Zwickel, Mark Jenkins of Antipodes is equal a stickler. 

Back to Fritz. Considering his many famous and benchmark performances with the mighty Chicago Symphony Orchestra, this London-based recording was reputed to be his favourite. It has such heart, such beauty, and a natural, if mainstream, interpretation. Another CD for your collection, I suggest. 

The (very difficult to conduct) opening has a dreamy quality one would not directly associate with the po-faced Reiner. The DAC portrayed it with lots of air around the fiddles -- and the fiddles had warmth and a sweet timbre. Violins can be a devil for subpar digital, both hardware and software. Here, the strings shine but also have great detail and rest upon the inky black background that we love about great digital gear. The lightning fast dynamic changes both in the 3rd movement and the Passacaglia sounded natural and lifelike. 

Voices of all sorts, ranges and styles sounded beautifully natural and lifelike. It was instructive setting a playlist with the lieder singer of the moment, Ian Bostridge singing his heart out to Percy Grainger’s Brigg Fair jumping straight to Frank singing Willow Weep For Me. You may think that Ol’ Blue Eyes would pale in comparison with the master classical musician heard just before (and Frank was very reverential towards great classical musicians — his favourite piece was Ravel’s Daphnis), but no worries. I wouldn’t say Frank kicked ass as the repertoire and styles are so different, but aesthetically, no bother. Both wonderful, but Sinatra on this track, from what I think is his greatest album, Only The Lonely, digs into the music’s soul like no other. Bostridge is beautiful, magical, Frank is simply the best singer I have ever heard. I remember a conversation where my favourite conductor, Herbert von Karajan said the same thing. 

No matter the repertoire, each octave is in complete musical sync – nothing shouts out, but each tesitura is organic within itself – each blend but do not bleed.  And yes, bass is pretty fabulous - weight and gravitas when recorded as such, but to these ears, accurate. As in the Philharmonia string bass section sounds the way it is supposed to on its seminal recording of Das Lied von de Erde (Klemperer/EMI). Rich, resonant, and down to the low C extension on my Raidhos. And incredibly fast and very low on the American Beauty track described earlier. 

Summary 

No matter the repertoire, you’re going to love the way the Mystique box unravels the bits and weaves them into pearls of absolute beauty. It is exceptionally well made and you’ve just read about how well the superior parts are chosen and compiled.

Zwickel’s done it again, but this time bigger and better. I urge anybody in the market for a 5K DAC to arrange an audition. I don’t think you’ll have to look further. And I would encourage the rich kids wanting to spend 10K and up – you folks should have a listen, too. Your dollars’ll thank you for it. Very highly recommended. 

Further Information: Mojo Audio