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March 2018
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Superior Audio Equipment Review
Mojo Audio Mystique V3 Non-Oversampling R-2R Hi-Res Audio DAC
The art and science of high resolution digital audio today.
Review By Jeremy R. Kipnis, At Kipnis Studios (KSS)

 

Mojo Audio Mystique V3 Non-Oversampling R-2R Hi-Res Audio DAC Review

 

  Back in April of 1980, when I was a lad of 15, I went to a recording session that featured one of the new digital tape recorders. This big device on wheels translated the microphone's sound into binary ones and zeros and recorded it on special 1/4" reel-to-reel tape. This process, known as Analog-to-Digital Conversion (ADC), resulted in a near perfect approximation of the incoming signal, unlike traditional analog magnetic tape, which requires special biasing and noise reduction. Anyway, this conversion to binary numbers allowed the finished and edited album to feature sound quality that was presumably exactly the same as that heard on digital master tapes, because the source and distributed copies are all identical numerical clones of each other.

Today it is typical to have this same conversion technology built into nearly every hand held cell phone, tablet, and laptop. But in the pre-CD days before 1983, recordings that were released on LP and Cassette tapes tended to have a lot of background noise relative to modern digital recordings. And LPs required sonic compromises during the cutting process in order to play properly on most turntables of the time. Consequently, the finished LPs of this era did not always sound like the original master recordings they were made from, especially if they had been captured and produced entirely digitally.

Of course, to hear the digital binary Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), that was contained on the finished digital master tape and CD, one has to convert it back to analog. Then as now, a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) is the interface between the coded digital recordings (PCM, DSD, MQA, etc.), and the analog world where our ears live. Today all cell phones, tablets, computers, car audio systems, multi-track home cinemas, and high-end two-channel digital audiophile systems, each contain a DAC.

All DACs are designed to take in a sequential series of binary numbers and output an analog signal that is supposed to be a precise match for what was fed into the original ADC during the recording process. But this is where a tragic and significant audible difference creeps into an otherwise beautifully conceived binary methodology for the theoretically perfect capturing and replaying of any sound.

 

Digital: Perfect Sound Forever
Back when CD first came on the market, it was toted as producing "Perfect Sound Forever," which is wonderful advertising lingo, but doesn't actually address the reality of making the all important jump from binary numbers back into analog sound. As it turns out, there are several different kinds of DAC technologies that have been created over the years. And each has it's own strengths and weaknesses, based on cost, technical limitations, and perceived sound quality.

The two basic categories are "Multi-Bit" or "Ladder" DACs and "Single-Bit" or "Sigma-Delta" DACs. These two categories of DACs can be implemented into more advanced and hybrid designs that are used in most modern DACs. And any of these technologies can incorporate different types of noise shaping, upsampling, oversampling, digital signal processing (DSP), digital filters, and format transcoding. Below are simplified descriptions of some of the more popular DAC technologies:

A) Multi-Bit R-2R Ladder DAC
The first and most basic type of DAC. It comprises three parts: a series to parallel shift register, an R-2R resistor ladder, and a summing amp. The R and 2R stand for "resistance" and "two times resistance" which comprise the two values of precision matched resistors that make up the ladder. Each "rung" on the ladder corresponds to a bit, and each time the resistance is doubled it decreases the reference voltage by half, which corresponds to the binary relationship between bits. A stream of digital words is fed in series into the input of the shift register.  The series digital word is "shifted" into the series to parallel register, which then outputs each bit simultaneously in parallel with each pulse of the "word clock" (WCLK). Each parallel output from the shift register corresponds to a rung in the R-2R ladder. And the output drivers from the shift register push a reference voltage representing each bit through each rung in the R-2R ladder. Then all the voltages from all the rungs in the ladder are added together by the summing amp. A simple and elegant solution. If you are playing a 44.1 kHz Red Book CD this process takes place 44,100 times per second. And to decode a 16-bit Red Book CD file, a 16-bit shift register and 16 precisely matched pairs of R and 2R resistors is required. Great sound quality and high value have been achieved using this design that is featured in the original Philips TDA1540 DAC chips from the 1980's. One downside to multi-bit DACs is that they can only decode PCM formats, such as Red Book CD, AIFF and WAV, or decompressed PCM CODECs such as FLAC, ALAC, and MQA. Another downside is that even with the most advanced modern technology they can not match the resistors in the ladder closely enough to produce better than a 20-bit resolution (although Zwickel and I disagree on this point).

B) Multi-Bit Binary Weighted DAC
Similar to an R-2R Ladder DAC, but simpler and larger. It requires the same three parts: shift register, resistors, and summing amp. But in the case of a binary weighted DAC, instead of creating a resistor value to correspond to each bit by summing multiple resistors in a parallel/series ladder configuration, it uses dedicated resistors for each bit (e.g. R, 2R, 4R, 8R, 16R, 32R, 64R, etc.) in a parallel configuration. In modern monolithic chip manufacture each resistor is laser matched on the chip using automated technology. So since it doesn't require more precision to match these resistors than an R-2R, and since it has half the number of resistors to precision match, it is actually less expensive to manufacture than an R-2R DAC chip. But since each resistor value is independent instead of the summation of several lower value resistors, it is significantly larger. Some theorize that because each resistor value is discrete as opposed to a combination of multiple smaller value resistors, this decoder design can display tremendous sonic accuracy and an incredibly low noise floor. Famous high-performance DACs produced by the original Theta Digital and Wadia used this technology. Of course being a multi-bit DAC, it is only capable of decoding PCM file formats, and being made from laser matched resistors, it is only capable of 20-bit resolution. (Again, Zwickel and I disagree on this point.)

C) Multi-Bit Segmented DAC
Most complex and most expensive of the multi-bit DACs. Similar to both the R-2R and Binary Weighted DACs in many ways. The major difference is that in order to achieve lower noise and higher resolution they use multiple "segments" of resistor networks, one or more for the Most Significant Bits (MSB), and one or more for the Least Significant Bits (LSB). Then different segments are summed, multiplied by different values, and the segment summations are combined to reconstruct a resolution greater than 20-bits. The famous PCM1704 DAC chip is a good example of a modern 24-bit multi-bit segmented DAC. And there are even companies like DaVinci that boast about their proprietary 32-bit multi-bit segmented DAC technology. Of course unless a transcoding algorithm is added to one of these modern multi-bit segmented DACs, they still can only decode PCM formats.

D) Single-Bit Oversampling Delta-Sigma DAC
Simplest, least expensive, and most modern of the DAC technologies. Why? Because it doesn't require a laser matched shift register or laser matched resistor for each bit. A 1-bit "switch" processes the digital words in an oversampling "Delta-Sigma" loop. Delta modulation encodes the stream of numbers (PCM values) into a stream of pulses known as Pulse Density Modulation (PDM). The accuracy of Delta modulation is improved by passing the encoded output through a 1-bit DAC and adding the resulting analog signal, known as Sigma, back into the PCM input signal. This process is often oversampled (x2, x4, x8, etc.) to improve statistical accuracy. But most often, a 1-bit MASH (Multi-Stage Noise Shaping) circuit running at very high speed (MHz) has become the most commonly used DAC in modern consumer electronics. PDM is the native format of DSD64 a.k.a. SACD. A DSD64 file is 1-bit at 64 times the 44.1KHz sampling frequency of a Red Book CD, which translates to sampling 2,822,400 times per second. And that's just Single-Rate DSD: most modern Delta-Sigma DAC chips can decode Double-Rate (5,644.8KHz) and even Quadruple-Rate DSD (11,289.6KHz). To give you some perspective on what this all means, DSD64/SACD is roughly 33 times the resolution of a Red Book CD, and roughly equal resolution to a 24-bit/96kHz PCM file. By oversampling and running Delta-Sigma DACs at these insanely high sampling frequencies it puts the quantization noise high above the audible band. This allows them to use less extreme and more sophisticated post conversion high-frequency analog filtering that puts far less digital artifacts into the audible band than the "brick wall" high-frequency analog filters used in earlier types of multi-bit DACs. This type of DAC can decode both PCM and DSD, but since its native format is DSD, they usually perform better when converting Double- or Quad-Rate DSD.

E) Single-Bit And Multi-Bit Hybrid DAC
A combination of one or more of the above DAC technologies combined with algorithmic methodologies used together to save cost, increase versatility, increase accuracy, and/or increase mass appeal. This can include single and multi-bit converters, oversampling, noise shaping, conversion to PWM or PDM, as well as adding negative feedback to correct errors. In more advanced Delta-Sigma DAC chips 4- to 8-bit Delta-Sigma oversampling cascade several lower bit decoders in order to develop a more precise interpretation of the signal. This topology is used in the many fine DACs at affordable prices from PS Audio, Mytek, Bryston, AMR, and iFi Audio, just to name a few. This type of DAC can include all sorts of features, such as built in MQA decoders, built in digital volume controls, selectable output filtering, selectable dither, and digital EQ.

F) FPGA Hybrid DAC
Versions of the above DAC topologies executed in a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). This is actually not a different type of DAC, but more a way companies can engineer their own unique algorithms, noise shaping, oversampling, upsampling, error correction, firmware, transcoding, and filtering technologies, in a powerful, flexible, modest cost, integrated circuit (IC). The exact same circuits could be put into a dedicated IC module like the ones used by all of the above DAC technologies, but the initial investment and minimum production run quantities would be far beyond the means and needs of one manufacturer. Using an FPGA not only allows for more processor intensive algorithms, it also allows these DACs to be updated/upgraded at any time, making them potentially more flexible, while preventing obsolescence. Some excellent examples of FPGA DACs would be the more advanced DACs designed by companies like PS Audio and Chord.

 

 

And So...
With the right implementation and choice of parts quality, each of these different DAC technologies can produce stunning results. But many people find that each of the above DAC technologies also have different sound character from each other, and some prefer the sound of one over the others. But most of them are notoriously expensive and difficult to manufacture and do not hold-up in value as time passes and more and more digital formats keep coming our way. A perfect example of a new digital format that most DACs are not yet capable of decoding would be MQA. However, an exception to this is the first and oldest DAC topology mentioned above: the Multi-bit R-2R Ladder DAC.

Because R-2R DACs have been around the longest, hence having had the most time and money invested in their perfection, there are many highly regarded companies, such as Schitt, Metrum, Soekris, Total DAC, Aqua, and CAD, that believe the best way to achieve sonic digital perfection is with this oldest, simplest, and most modest DAC technology. And below is my review of one of the newest R-2R DAC contenders, the Mojo Audio Mystique v3.

 

Perfecting Perfection
Since first becoming a professional producer and audiophile engineer, back in 1990, I've had the pleasure and opportunity to listen closely to a numerous variety of DACs, featuring variations on all the different design technologies listed above. When I first arrived at Chesky Records, a noted New York City audiophile label, the DAC of choice was either a Sony TCD-1000 Professional DAT Recorder or a Sony TAE-1000ES Digital Pre-Amp. Both of which featured Sony-based oversampling DAC chips with a maximum output of 18-bits at 48 kHz.

It was clear to me that an audiophile label such as Chesky should embrace the high-end, stand alone, state-of-the-art DACs of the day, in order to fully realize the sonics inherent in their unique single microphone approach, and 128x 20-bit Analog-to-Digital conversion; a pre-cursor to Double-Rate DSD and also used by Telarc, at this time. I had been reading various audio magazines such as Stereophile, Audio, The Absolute Sound, and Stereo Review for some time and was well aware of their top Digital-to-Analog (DAC) converter choices. So, we started off by adding the Theta Digital Generation II Binary Weighted Multi-bit DAC ($3250) to both the recording and editing systems, which I manned daily.

 

Mojo Audio Mystique V3 Non-Oversampling R-2R Hi-Res Audio DAC Review

 

First recording we made after changing DACs? Clark Terry Live at the Village Gate [JD49] and also The Second Set [JD127] from that same live session recording in October 1990. Here, we had the rare opportunity to watch and listen to engineer Bob Katz drop in a single AKG-C24 stereo microphone set to figure-8 pickup. He'd make an adjustment to the mic's position or band member seating location and then we'd go to the control room and have a listen on Stax, Sony, and AKG headphones, as well as on a special pair of Cambridge Soundworks Ensemble Speakers that I had gotten directly from designer Henry Kloss for this recording session. The improvement in imaging detail, tactility, dynamics, and soundstage size due to listening through the Theta DAC were all palpable and quite obviously an improvement. In fact, the better DAC made it possible to create better sounding more believable recordings. Just have a listen to Vivaldi's The Four Seasons [CD78] which I produced and recorded a year and a half later using the same microphone and an even better DAC.

As the years went by, stand alone DACs from Analog Devices, Audio Research, Goldmund, Krell, Stax, Manley, Sony, Pioneer, Ultra Analog, Wadia, and Yamaha all came in and out of regular use while we made one album after another of jazz, classical, blues, pop, new age, Latin, soundtrack, etc. As early as 1993, we were recording 16-bits at 96 kHz. And all these varying musical genres made me acutely aware of just how the digital to analog process, as well as the driving amplifier's electrical relationship to the speakers, contribute directly to a very wide range of possible sound characteristics: brighter, duller, bigger, smaller, wider, deeper, more or less dynamic, etc. These differences in sonic character were more than many might imagine could exist when listening to the same exact digital master tapes. One reason why I believe some of the labels I respect the most, such as Dorian Records and Reference Recordings, have produced such a consistently excellent and identifiable sound quality in their albums, is because for years they used Wadia and Spectrum components throughout their recording, editing, and playback systems.

 

Fast-Forward To Yesterday
For the past 24 years, since I founded my own audiophile label, Epiphany Recordings Ltd., I've been lucky enough to explore and contribute to both the art of Stereo recordings as well Home and Professional Cinema capture and presentation. Some of my contributions include the Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS) for 4K resolution images combined with multi-channel sound that includes height, width and depth, fully enveloping the audience. My goal all along has been to bring together the necessary knowledge base from history's finest efforts in creating the best sonic and visual media presentations possible utilizing state-of-the-art, hand-made technologies to produce incomparable "You Are There" experiences of picture and sound. Here, even a two-channel CD can have the necessary information recorded within it to produce a completely believable hemisphere of sound when carefully decoded and replayed in a controlled listening setting.

Over the last quarter century, there have been many changes in how we buy and hear music. Bit depth has increased from 16-bits to 32-bits; sampling frequency has increased from 44.1 to 768 kHz; and huge libraries of HD recordings are now available to stream online. As such, I continue comparing many of the same recordings on new vs. older formats, such as SACD vs. DVD-Audio vs. LP vs. Reel-to-Reel Tape. I have made it a special point to closely study certain recordings, albums, and tracks I know and love. These comparisons have taken decades of dedicated listening and observation and occurred with the widest possible variety of high-end and low-end speakers, in both large and small acoustic listening spaces, and with a plethora of associated recording and playback gear. The results have varied sonically based on many factors. Yet, when everything is said and done, even a first edition LP pressing from 50 years ago can be made to shine like new on today's playback gear. Often far better then anyone had heard it at the time of it's production and release. And surprisingly as good or better than today's best efforts to restore and re-master the same.

So it will not surprise you that my preference when it comes to DACs and other audio gear leans to the sonically invisible. I want my gear to simply get out of the way so I can actually hear what is going on with each different recording. Aural colorations are to be avoided at all costs because these change the balance of the sound that I am listening to, which could result in my changing or altering something during the production or mastering process in error. As a producer and reviewer I demand this completely transparent window on my music presentation or else I would forever be chasing after a certain sound characteristic while never truly achieving it. Therefore, for me certain DACs and other audio gear make the grade of ultimate transparency (A+) while others are sometimes a complete departure from that pure neutrality (B+). Though these more colored components often sound very good or even terrific in a very specific way, they are not audibly invisible within the reproduction chain.

I'll say that again: Sonically neutral and colorless is what I'm after; whether microphone, speaker, amplifier or DAC. Yet, such honesty in audio also means that certain tracks, songs, and albums just don't sound very good, especially if they are made and mastered or remastered under less than transparent listening conditions. Good recordings sound great, while bad recordings can sound terrible. It all depends on which recordings, who released them, which source they were taken from, and what gear they are played on. For those of you that are interested in making similar comparisons, many of these details are available in the cover notes

 

The Gloves Come Off: Comparison Of The Century
As I've mentioned, I have heard a lot of DACs over the decades. And I've also heard a lot of everything else: ADCs, Microphones, Mixers, Editors, Amps, Pre-Amps, Cutting-Lathes, LP Cartridges, Wire, AC Generation, DC Generation and Filtration, etc. So it is unusual to be given an opportunity to listen to a piece of gear that in so many ways can turn your head and make you say, "WOW, I didn't know it could be like this!"

What do I mean by this? Well, with my 37 years of listening to digital recordings from both sides of the microphone, and my 49 years of paying attention to fine sounding recordings and performances, I feel I can confidently make some observations that will have value long after I stop typing my professional opinion. And I can site some interesting examples of music and recordings, both rare and well know, that you can get a hold of to make your own listening conclusions. Please realize that there often is need to make adjustments to the listening room, speaker's location, and other factors in order to achieve good sound. And in order to hear a lot of what I'll be discussing, one needs to at least be able to have a good sounding system, regardless of price points and age of gear.

Lastly, whether listening to a 32-bit/384kHz file from a music server, or a 44.1kHz Red Book CD in a spinning transport, or a Lame MP3 from an iPod, the same exact music will sound just fine if it was properly recorded and the system is properly set up. Even the best of components will sound poorly if you and the speakers are not properly aligned with and tuned to the room. This includes your sitting with the speakers being in close to an equilateral triangle together, proper seating height, speaker rake angle and toe-in, system frequency response, and several other factors we don't have time and space to discuss. Read on, if you dare. But be certain to make your own comparisons using known reference materials before criticizing any of my remarks; you may be surprised what you have been missing all these years from your system(s).

 

The Mystique V3 DAC: Non-Oversampling Solution

Zwickel also told me that he didn't actually have any intention to get into the manufacturing end of the audiophile industry, it just happened serendipitously when he decided to go back to college in 2009 to get a degree in Computer Electronics Engineering Technology; at the age of 49, no less. His intention was to transition into medical tech or aeronautical electronics after graduation. But like most students he needed money. So he started selling hand-made power cables created from vintage Western Electric wire and offering R-2R DAC upgrades on eBay as a part-time gig.

By the end of his first semester, Mojo Audio's popularity and sales had grown so much that he had to hire other students to work for him. In his last semester he was the first student in the history of the college to get special dispensation to write up and present his first commercial linear power supply, the Joule v1, instead of the portfolio and capstone project all other classmates were required to do prior to graduation. He confided in me that he drove most of his instructors a bit crazy. And... I know the feeling.

Though it was the power cables, linear power supplies, and Mac Mini upgrades that brought in the money, Zwickel's obsessive compulsive passion for the past 25 years has always been to develop a DAC that produced life-like music. Nearly all products sold by Mojo Audio were developed so as to allow him to do the R&D on his DAC. And nearly all of Mojo Audio's profits from day one went back into R&D on this pet DAC project.

Early on, he came to the conclusion that non-oversampling R-2R topology resulted in what he considered to be the most natural and life-like presentation from a digital source he had heard. He wanted to learn from the masters, so he spent countless hours studying schematics, doing upgrades on, and using non-oversampling conversions of the best vintage R-2R CDPs and DACs from Sony, Marantz, and Philips.

 

 

If you skipped past all that detail above in Section 2 that concerned historic DAC designs, I'll just summarize here by saying that R-2R based-circuit design for a D/A chip is the oldest practical technology, and also the simplest and easiest to make sound very good, or even great. Apparently Zwickel agrees with me on that point. By 2009, he decided that there just wasn't enough space in these vintage CDP and DAC chassis to fit the parts that he wanted to use. So he began modifying DAC boards made by other companies, building custom power supplies, and putting them in custom chassis.

Mojo Audio sold a handful of these hand-built DACs, but their real business was Mac Mini upgrades. Like myself, by 2005 or so, he had decided to dabble with Apple Mac Mini computers and refine their ability to act as great sounding digital music servers through use of better power supplies, superior wire, low-latency RAM, SSD storage, optimized OS X, and bit-perfect music playback software, such as Pure Music, Audirvana 3, and JRiver Media Center 23. Since he had been building "silent" media servers for personal use as far back as the early 1990's, it is no wonder he'd been successful in marketing and selling a line of dedicated outboard power supplies and tweaked out media systems to audiophiles, videophiles, and music lovers over the years.

Yet, with all this, it wasn't until Zwickel started to designed his first DAC from scratch in 2012 that Mojo Audio actually got seriously into the DAC business. His goal was to design the most musical DAC that could be sold for under $3000 -- a price point that he considered to be affordable by most serious audiophiles (including himself).

And thus was born the first Mojo Audio Mystique v1 DAC in 2013, engineered with his own circuit boards in a simple square chassis and based on the AD1865 18-bit DAC chip. It was non-oversampling, and only had a single input (USB or S/PDIF), but what really set it apart was the isolated power supplies feeding each type of chip or clock independently with nine Belleson ultra low-noise regulators. It also had an unusually hardware-based 6X IC demultiplexing circuit that realigned the left and right channel's digital words so they are not the typical 13 bits apart in time. The direct-coupled output was the necessary final step in the design, with no capacitors or transformers in the signal path, thus assuring the shortest, most transparent and phase accurate reproduction possible. The Mystique v1 DAC sold for just under $2,000! Interestingly enough, Zwickel has used an almost an identical circuit in every future incarnation of his Mystique DAC, including this new v3 on review, here.

Within 12 months, Zwickel had made further improvements by coming out of the current output of the AD1865 DAC chip and into a new output stage utilizing some of the best signal path components possible, like OPA627 IC op amps, Vishay TX2575 "Nude" resistors, metal foil and polystyrene film capacitors, and a total of 11 Belleson regulators - two more than in his v1. By late 2014 Mojo Audio released a Mystique v2 DAC in the same simple square chassis as the v1, with the same Analog Devices AD1865 DAC chip, but with the new output stage that resulted in significantly smoother and more articulated sound quality. The Mystique v2 sold for just under $2,500.

Not satisfied even here, in 2015 Zwickel decided to build the DAC of his dreams – cost is no object – the culmination of 25 years of R&D. While researching the Mystique v3 he discovered even better sounding component parts to substitute, like Sparkos discrete op amps, which he incorporated into the Mystique v2 Plus during the first half of 2016. The v2 Plus was almost identical to the v2 and sold for the same price. Numerous requests have resulted in a re-release of the newly upgraded version of the Mystique v2: the v2 SE will sell for the same $2500 as the v2 and v2 Plus.

Finally, after an additional two years of continued R&D, Zwickel released the Mystique v3 DAC, which first became available the middle of 2017. This new, wider-shaped product, features three inputs (optical, coaxial, and USB) and an upgraded pair of 20-bit Monolithic AD1862 DAC chips. For those of you unfamiliar with digital math, these 20-bit chips have 4-times the digital resolution of the 18-bit chips he used in the v1, v2, and v2 Plus.

But what really sets the Mystique v3 apart from its predecessors are the five choke input power supplies, similar to those he developed for his new Illuminati series of dedicated outboard power supplies. For those of you that are neither electronics historians or techs, the choke input power supply was developed about 90 years ago by Western Electric for use in military field radios. It is still used in the most expensive of tube amplifiers, but is completely unheard of in a low-power component like a DAC, let alone the use of five of them!

By adding a choke between the rectifier and first capacitor of a power supply the crest factor, heat, and parts wear are reduced by literally 50%. The choke also acts as a reservoir for power and pre-regulates the DC, doubling the efficiency and effectiveness of each consecutive stage of filtering. Mojo Audio's Illuminati power supply concept combines the best of old-school heavy iron choke input regulation, feeding a highly decoupled four-pole Mundorf AG+ capacitor, with modern ultra low-noise ultra high-dynamic Belleson regulators. 

The fifth power supply in the Mystique v3 is used for the USB input and is 100% galvanically isolated from the other four power supplies... not even the ground plain is shared with anything else. To my knowledge, this is the most isolated USB input topology without resorting to an external transformer or re-clocking system of some type, such as those made by iFi Audio, Wyred4Sound, and SOtM.

 

Sound Quality
DACs are perhaps the most difficult of products to write a cogent review about; much like cables they must be heard in a system in order to reveal their hidden sonic wonders. I proceeded to review the Mojo Audio Mystique v3 in a way so as to make sense of it versus other musical sources, such as LP, R2R Tape, and other DACs. These three sources have been commonly used in audio systems for over 35 years now, and other than requiring an RIAA step-up pre-amp for the LP (other than my ELP Laser Turntable – with special line level output), they only require a volume control between them and the amplification stages. So I took many of the great recordings I have used repeatedly and played them back through these three sources, each plugged directly into an amplifier and speakers, in order to allow for the most neutral evaluation possible. Over 12+ weeks I rotated sources, amps (Crown Macro Reference, Carver Black Magic 20, Mesa Boogie Baron, and Digital Amp Co Golden Cherry monoblocks), and speakers (Ologe 5 [& 10] with 20 Subwoofer, Magnepan 1.7i, PureAudioProject Quintet15 – Horn1, Burwell & Sons Mother of Burl) within two different rooms in order to make the following comparisons and observations.

The reviews I read of the Mystique v2.0 were very positive, indeed, describing the sound produced as reminiscent of hearing real instruments with believable timbres resolved in palpable live acoustic spaces. Given the tendency for hyperbole in the press and on the internet, I didn't know what to expect when I first unpacked and warmed up the v3 back in October 2017. But it was clear from the outset that this was a no nonsense design, with only what is needed for the best possible audio reproduction, while still maintaining a relatively accessible pricing for high-end audio gear. No AC power chords are included with Mojo Audio's products, so I used a variety, including Cardas, LessLoss, Hi-Fi Tuning, and the new Skogrand SC Wagner Power chord. I'll discuss observations made in both my large (treated) studio mastering room, and my medium sized (untreated) living room using the same recordings. In both cases, the Mystique v3 was plugged directly into the chosen amplifier via a variety of interconnects, both ordinary and super high-end. And I tried a variety of vibration isolation products from both Solid-TECH, Navcom, Iso-Hexagon and so on in comparison to the feet that come with it.

 

Listening Tests: Transparency (A)
I began, not surprisingly, with the Twin Peaks soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti, first released in the fall of 1990 on CD to accompany his then new ABC-TV series. From the iconic first notes of this album, it immediately becomes clear how special this recording is. With a plunky, echoic bass guitar hanging in space just to the left of center, and the shimmering cymbals that grow along with the Rhodes keyboard, everything is surrounded by a perfectly dialed-in acoustic – a rare treat. Subtle interplays with the quieter synth parts in the rehash of the bridge section are wonderfully resolved by the Mystique 3, which can project a group of instruments playing at many different volume levels out into a soundstage which is crisply and precisely clear and delineated as if watching the stars on very cold clear winter's night. Although I've found the Twin Peaks CD is a great musical listening tool all the way back to the day it was released, I find that this new DAC can reveal bits and pieces of it that I simply hadn't clearly heard before. I was fascinated with layer upon layer of this mix, from cello and keyboards, to the wide range of percussion instruments on display. The Mystique v3 allowed considerable macro and micro dynamics to come through unimpeded, sounding unprocessed and immediately in front of and around me.

The aural fun continued on the Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me film soundtrack from 1992. Track 4, Don't Do Anything (I Wouldn't Do), continues the same high level of super studio recording technique, but with a larger ensemble that now includes bowed and plucked bass, xylophone, piano, and drum kit. And along with Track 5: A Real Indication, which includes weird vocals and Sax obbligato that punctuates a wide and deep soundstage, containing many discrete musical and sonic elements, which seem to mix naturally. Not at all the electronic digital facsimile that I have come to expect in so many ways and on so many systems that often sound bigger than life. Again, the bowed bass is visceral as is the voice, coming from a place well beyond either of my listening rooms actual back and side walls. In each track mentioned above, as well as the many other examples from David Lynch's The Twin Peaks Archive, I find a rare level of sonic and musical transparency that will easily help you get the most out of any playback system, quickly and enjoyably. Note this collection of 213 tracks was released in 48 kHz online, offering superior sound quality to CD.

 

Mojo Audio Mystique V3 Non-Oversampling R-2R Hi-Res Audio DAC Review

 

Listening Tests: Transparency (B)
Next up, Philip Picket and the New London Consort, performing works by Michael Praetorius and others from the 16th Century. The album, entitled Sinner and Saints on the London / L'Oiseau-Lyre Decca Records label (1996) features a great repertoire for an early wind and percussion ensemble combined with occasional voice(s), strings, and pipe organ. I believe this recording will surprise even the most jaded classical music listener: a simple, classic, transparent sounding recording, with enough grit to make for memorable listening, and audiophile gear comparisons. When hearing track 2, the size and shape of the ensemble can be clear as a bell on a well tuned system. But with the Mystique v3 DAC in place, there is a certain definitive feeling of being transported to a different location and then vividly hearing sounds that caress your ears and heart. You'll be hard pressed not to start tapping your feet and you'll marvel to the focus of the sonic illusion presented. Obviously special attention has been taken to make your listening experience the most enriching emotionally possible.

Tracks 3, 5, and 7 are just as much fun. You'll thrill to what can only be called a stunning mirage of sound. Even my mini schnauzer, Nero, could not help himself as he tried to figure out where the music was coming from. Mind you, this was only with the Mojo Audio DAC and not any of the others on hand for this review. That's high praise because this dog regularly hears the highest levels of fidelity and is used as a guide for proper timbre and spatial projection from audio gear. If there are 3D qualities in the recording, the dog will clearly look in those directions. I also must point out that his ability to hear and respond to sounds with precise, repeatable results is a mainstay in making sure my evaluations are actually dealt with honestly, having a third party with hearing that is better than any of ours, also assessing the sound. And dare I say this was the result with more than just one set of speakers or amps during the comparison and review period.

 

Listening Tests: Dynamics (A)
When it comes to recordings, dynamics are one of the least appreciated aspects of sound reproduction. This is because real life acoustic and electrically amplified instruments sound very different at specific performance venues, than in your living room, in your car, or listening with headphones. In fact, in order for most recordings to sound decent, they actually need to be compressed so that louder and softer parts of a song are each closer to the same volume level. Of course many audiophile recordings pledge a clean path straight from the microphone(s), that is claimed to be God's own wisdom resolved.

In order to hear truly wide dynamics, you need to listen under very, very quiet conditions. And this can often reveal aspects of even your favorite songs that you simply never heard before. And given the apparently low, low (forgive the repeat) noise floor and ultra low jitter that propagate Zwickel's well considered Mystique v3 DAC design, new things were revealed to me in surprising and subtle ways, from recordings I had worked on myself.

Let's take the case of Paquito D'rivera and his Chesky Records album Havana Café [JD63]. A recording decked out with his full band and recorded at legendary RCA "Studio A" back in 1992 before it's ultimate demise. This single stereo microphone recording will lay waste to most systems because it is capable of incredible, unrestricted dynamic range, when played at full tilt. If you think you've heard it all, try playing this recording so that the last note on track 1 measures out at 113 dB! Yes, that's deafening. But it only lasts for a short burst. And let me tell you, the lead up to that last triple forte is impressive in it's own right. Yet, I was stunned to hear inner instrumental details from the piano and sax, much less the drums that simply were slightly hidden before hearing this whole album through the Mystique v3. The shear clarity at the loudest and softest ends of the dynamic spectrum, in combination with a palpable, detailed portrayal of the acoustic and instrumental space around the musicians, made for a truly scintillating listen.

 

Listening Tests: Dynamics (B)
Dynamics come in two flavors: macro and micro. The first are the big changes from loud to soft that we all look for to describe emotional excitement and contrast of mood. But the second describe all sorts of details that you might not think important until I point it out to you. Micro dynamics are the small nuances between good, very good, and even great sound. Once you hear it properly, you'll know it's music from the first note, while the next will make your toes tap, and the last gives you goosebumps up and down the back of your neck and scalp. If you have doubts, just take a listen to your favorite song on an inferior playback system: AM radio in your car or most earbuds costing less than $100. Compare that sound and then how you feel hearing the same recording under great playback conditions with great gear – you will find it hard to go back to the flat and restricted sound from AM radio; it's like listening on your cell phone speaker instead of your full sized stereo system.

 

 

Listening Tests: Imaging (A)
The illusion of hearing sound spread out between two speakers, and even enveloping the listener in a three-dimensional sonic hologram, has long been an audiophile goal since stereo was first experimented with by engineers at Bell Labs and EMI back in the early 1930's. But imaging is a tricky combination of microphone technique during the recording, combined with the geometry and acoustic conditions during playback, both being favorable to the type of loudspeakers being used. But given a great sounding properly set up system, the Mystique v3 has the uncanny ability to "lens" or "project" a soundfield "image" with amazing tactile palpability. It is as though the artificial soundfield had made the leap to being real. This is always a tricky proposition to explain, but I'll try.

Take a classic album like Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's Jazz Samba, made at a time (1962) and on a label (Verve) then using high quality magnetic tape, vacuum tubes, and LPs as the defacto standard of recording production and distribution. Whether heard on original pressings, recent remasters on LP, or the CD (44.1kHz/16-bit) and it's HD File successors (96/24 or 192/24), this is always a truly intimate and compelling concert. And it's ensemble has never sounded better digitally or more coherent and focused than through the Mystique v3 DAC. Why? The sound staging is just magnificent with depth, width, height, and envelopment that is very reminiscent of the experience when listening to the first edition Reel-to-Reel and LP pressings, sold in 1962. With this DAC, it's like being thrown in a time machine and going back to whenever and wherever the album was originally recorded.

 

Listening Tests: Imaging (B)
Ever since I first started paying attention to the qualities in recordings, and a system's ability to replay those distinctive qualities in such a way as to fool the ear, I have been convinced that some engineers "get" the concept of 3D imaging, and some don't. The illusion of almost real three-dimensional sound in your listening room, with all the instruments spread out on a virtual stage, offering the distinct impression of hearing a live musical event. You have no farther to look or listen for imaging than the first two Chesky Records, Audiophile Jazz and Test Sampler, Vol. 1 [JR37 - 1990], and More Test Sampler, Vol. 2 [JR68 in 1991], which sound as amazing today as when they were first released.

Volume 1 – Track 7 is the previously mentioned Clark Terry, but here playing Pennies from Heaven. And as I have remarked before, the imaging with this single microphone set-up is just splendid, pinpoint, and open in a fashion that makes the speakers in any properly set up system just disappear. But again, through the Mystique v3, this cherished favorite of the last 28 years has an even more delicate, refined, and layered presentation than I have heard before, short of the original 1/4" 15 IPS analog master tape. Obviously I'm a bit prejudice in regards to that recording, since I was the one that edited it for release onto LP and SACD. Also, Volume 2 – Track 8 shows a totally different sonic view of Clark that is from his Live at the Village Gate album I spoke about at the beginning. Instead of the almost colorless qualities of the RCA "Studio A" acoustic in the first example, the second is an actual nightclub and bar with an audience, recorded live. At once, one can hear a much more characterful room with the band surrounding the single stereo microphone. Yet through the Mystique v3, the degree to which one can "see" or rather "hear" the room acoustics, and even the shape and height of the club, was revealed more easily and more precisely than on just about any other DAC I'd played this treasure on. The rather surprising level of sonic detail revealed by the Mojo Audio Mystique v3 DAC is pretty damn amazing, especially with a recording I have heard repeatedly on some of the best DACs in the world, not to mention directly from the simultaneously recorded original analog master tape.

 

Mojo Audio Mystique V3 Non-Oversampling R-2R Hi-Res Audio DAC Review

 

Downside
It is often the littlest things. Yet a review needs to comment on both sides of the user experience. And while sound quality is a 9, and design and build quality an 8. I found myself using several different USB cables that were long and heavy; made from solid rectangular core in the case of DaVinci USB, and with ferrite beads with the iFi Audio USB. The net result was to pull on the USB connector at the back of the Mystique v3 in a way that looks like trouble might happen. At no time did I have any issue with this input, but it begs the question: could a USB input be found that is anchored to the chassis back so as to take up some strain relief?

When I asked Zwickel about this USB issue he commented that this was actually two of the unique performance features of the Mystique v3: apparently the USB and all other inputs "float" on anti-resonant mounts and apparently all power and signal connections inside the DAC are hard wired soldered instead of connected with removable plastic connectors and ribbon wire like most other companies use.

Also of note is that the unimpeded and direct output circuit has no mute, as is often the case in most commercial DACs. And what I found was a short "pop" or "scratch" sound about once every 37 seconds or so when the USB input is selected with no USB source. It is not loud but will play through the speakers anytime the USB source is missing, asleep, or off. This forces one to switch inputs on the DAC, switch inputs on the preamp, or turn the volume all the way down. It seems small but over the course of twelve plus weeks of switching and swapping components it can become a little fatiguing as one goes to start up or shut down a music system. repeatedly.

Zwickel commented that this was another intentional design feature. Apparently because the USB input is 100% isolated from the USB source, it is constantly powered on. That noise I mentioned is the USB input of the DAC trying to "handshake" with a USB source. Obviously he could have put some type of "mute" circuit in the DAC, but he felt that adding a reed switch, relay, or some such would both add unnecessary expense and degrade performance. Benjamin commented that his Mystique v3 is like a NASCAR, not like a Lexus. It is optimized for performance, not convenience. Customers that are used to a more "luxury" DAC with all the bells and whistles would need to get used to doing things like manually muting. He considers this to be the necessary price one pays for this level of performance.

Lastly, and this might be unique to me and my Apple 17" PowerBook, but there was a tendency for the connection as seen through various playback apps (JRiver, ChannelD, Audiorvana) and the Midi control to revert to 96 kHz and below, rather than up to 384 kHz. Simply unplugging and re-plugging in the USB from Laptop to DAC resolved the problem each time. But I have no understanding why the handshake across USB is not renewed after system wake-up. Beyond this situation, where music APPs other than iTunes automatically switch sample rate with different source files but were hindered due to the wake-up handshake error, everything else ran smoothly and without problems.

Zwickel was not aware of this specific issue, but reminded me that the Mystique v3 can only receive up to 192kHz inputs, so this specification might be the cause of my problems. He also mentioned that most player software has the option to limit output resolution to 192kHz, which he felt might have resolved this issue.

 

Mojo Audio Mystique V3 Non-Oversampling R-2R Hi-Res Audio DAC Review

 

Conclusions
To me a DAC not only converts binary numbers back into analog sound, it is also at the heart of our ultimate musical experience. No matter which artists we listen to, or where we choose to listen to them, if the music is from digital sources, we must appreciate that the DAC is a central piece of our modern audio systems. It is analogous to the way a car's engine translates gasoline into propulsion, which moves the car with the aid of a transmission, brakes, suspension, tires, etc. There are lots of rides out there with lots of engines, just as there are a plethora of stand alone DACs available to the audiophile, videophile, and engineer. But the ones that call out across time are the ones that connect us more closely with the emotional values conveyed by the musical performances we listen to. And here is a DAC called Mystique v3, that calls out to collectors of great recordings who cherish fine musical experiences and want the best possible connection across time.

What I heard through the Mystique v3 was what only some of the very best DACs in history have been able to achieve. A rare and breathtakingly seamless emotional connection with the music and sounds being produced. On cherished digital versions of albums that I've known or been involved in producing and recording, the qualities this DAC let through were the sort of experience one can expect to hear when attending a live concert and sitting in an ideal spot. If you close your eyes and listen carefully, you can resolve all sorts of things that most people never bother to think about, but they hear anyway. So often, these subtle inner details are crushed or distorted much the way different lenses change the viewers perspective in photography. But when listening to a well constructed audiophile music system, and occupying the center position in one's listening space, the distortion that affects most digital music is almost completely absent with the Mystique v3. It repeatedly allowed me to feel the sound in a tactile, visceral, and meaningful way, that is both (a)live and reminiscent of the best analog sources I have had the pleasure of hearing and working with.

Time and again, with CDs, HD Audio files, Blu-rays, HD-Audio, LaserDisc, MiniDisc, and DAT, I heard and felt more coming from this $5500 digital source, than from any gear short of the best of analog sources. Of course great analog sound comes with its own compromises, in terms of background noise, colored tonality, size, and price. While listening to great albums replicated equally in all formats produced over the last 60 years, my impression has been that the Mystique v3 may well offer a more direct and complete aural listening experience than 98% of all of audiophile and pro audio DACs I've heard. Obviously no device or product is perfect, particularly one made in small runs by artists that invest years of there lives just to get this one thing just right. It is clear that Benjamin Zwickel and Mojo Audio are on a heartfelt mission to bring you more from your digitally derived music and better fidelity than you have any right to expect for this kind of money.

And for those that want DSD, MQA, or another more advanced HD format of digital music, media, movies, and television, we both suggest you get some transcode software, such as dB Poweramp or XLD, to convert these other formats to an HD PCM format. From my experience, if a recording is made and mastered right, there is little emotional difference as to how you will experience each of these formats on a properly tuned system. And if the point of our hobby is, indeed, to Enjoy The Music, I can think of no finer way than to call up Mojo Audio and order up a Mystique v3 DAC to enjoy digital audio at it's finest, each and everyday!

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

 

Specifications
Type: Solid-state stereo Hi-Res Audio DAC
Two Analog Devices monolithic 20-bit 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 output stage and connectors.
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 ultra low-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 OCC 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 or 200VAC available for Japan.
Solid brass ground post and DC ground lift for optimized system grounding.
Dimensions: 17.5" x 3.25" x 12" (WxHxD)
Weight: 23 lbs.
Price: $5500 Unbalanced / $7500 Balanced

 

Company Information
Mojo Audio
3501 Vail Ave. SE, Unit C
Albuquerque, NM 87106

Voice: (949) 438-6656
Website: www.Mojo-Audio.com 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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