Hardware Reviews

Mola Mola Lupe irresistible vinyl amplification

Mola Mola Lupe phono stage

Mola Mola Lupe phono stage

At a retail price just shy of £7,500 Mola Mola’s Lupe phono stage can hardly be characterised as entry level, but neither can it be classified as overly expensive if we consider the broader market. At the risk of losing readers struggling to square the sometimes quite ridiculous cost of our audiophile obsession I’m going to call the Lupe mid-price.

Why that matters is because cost is one thing but sometimes value is quite another. Mola Mola has form for producing products that deliver sonics considerably better than their price points might suggest. The Tambaqui DAC is one example that gives little-to-nothing away to alternatives costing up to twice as much. Other reviewers tell me the company’s amplifiers similarly sound better than we might expect for the money. Now the phono stage from the same stable is available we can observe the pattern all over again. It too sounds superior when compared to some significantly more expensive alternatives. Coincidence? I think not.

Mola Mola Lupe phono stage

Both the Tambaqui and now the Lupe owe their existence to the Makua preamplifier which can be specified with an optional integral DAC and phono stage. First Mola Mola took the Makua‘s DAC boards and put them into stand-alone chassis with their own power supply to create the Tambaqui. Now it has done the same with the Makua’s phono stage to create the Lupe.

The sharp-eyed will note that the specifications of the optional phono stage in the Makua and those that attend the Lupe are identical. It’s possible that the dedicated power supply in the Lupe confers an enhanced listening experience, but since I haven’t heard a phono-equipped Makua I can’t comment. Where the Lupe definitely scores is in its flexibility. It has an interface board that allows up to four tone arms to be connected at the same time – one balanced and three single-ended, each of which can be allocated its own fully custom parameters.

The Lupe handles cartridges with outputs ranging from 30uV to 5mV by virtue of gain being settable between 52dB and a whopping 87dB. As a signal to noise ratio of 98dB on moving coil inputs (86dB on MM) suggests, the Lupe is quiet enough to make even rather left-of-field cartridges such as Audio Note’s IO series with their 0.05mV output an entirely practical proposition, no step-up transformer required.

Mola Mola Lupe phono stage

This notable degree of utility results from Mola Mola’s design choices. Rather than daisy-chaining amplification circuits as most alternatives do in order to achieve the different gain required by moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, the Lupe has two entirely separate Class A discrete amplifiers, one for moving coil where low voltage noise and higher gain are needed, the other for moving magnet cartridges where the lowest current noise is desirable.

The Lupe’s configurability surely makes it one of the most, if not the most, flexible phono stages available. Controlled via an iOS and Android Bluetooth app, loading and gain can be set for each input, and choosing from a library of 43 different equalisation curves including RIAA, enables even the most obscure recordings to be heard as intended. The app also allows fully custom bass turnover, low shelf and roll-off settings to be applied.

The review sample Lupe was fed by a Soundsmith Paua II cartridge hung on an Origin Live Agile arm fitted to an OL Sovereign S turntable. An icOn 5 balanced line controller handled attenuation duties (volume control) and fed the Lupe’s output to Quiescent T100MPA monoblocks driving PMC MB2se speakers.

Mola Mola Lupe phono stage

With a middling volume setting and no record in play, many phono stages emit plainly audible noise, but the Lupe was so very quiet I wondered at first whether it was actually working. Even with an ear six inches from the speakers I could detect zero hiss and zero hum. On lowering the arm, the kerdunk of the stylus snuggling into the groove was reassuring but also sounded uncommonly energetic, suggesting that the Lupe was about to leverage its low noise floor to deliver some startling dynamics. And so it did; teamed with the Soundsmith and Agile, which themselves exhibit a very low level of groove rush, the Lupe sounds almost digital in the comparative blackness between notes that it achieves.

What is striking about the electronics inside the Lupe is that the circuit boards don’t feature what we might term regular-sized discrete components but are instead a forest of tiny surface-mounted devices. The company says it has learned how to make small components sound big, and the Lupe demonstrates that this statement is more than mere commercial hubris.

Sound quality

I’d characterise the Lupe’s sound as neutral, but within that framework of neutrality it is capable of delivering quite shocking weight and slam along with dense tonal and textural detail. I think some might find its disinclination to editorialise unsettling but the Lupe would not be the first audio component to challenge listeners who want a sound that is lush and valvey. As well as being neutral it is also forensic, showing the differences between recordings like few alternatives that I have heard. Mola Mola positions the Lupe as an archive-grade phono stage and while that’s undoubtedly because of its extraordinary connectivity and flexibility, it could also be said to refer to its highly-developed sonic resolution.

Mola Mola Lupe phono stage

The review sample took some 300 hours to burn-in, during which it sounded thin and pinched, while at other times bloated in the low-end. That’s not exceptional in my experience of new out-of-the-box audio components – a Chinese DAC that I owned for a couple of years took in excess of 700 hours to stabilise – but it takes on a greater significance when we understand that playing time is what’s required… and then realise that 300 hours is more than 25% of the lifetime of the average stylus.

Burned-in, the Lupe made an emphatic case, in the end irresistible, to join the household reviewing platform. The engineers at Mola Mola who will never get back the weeks, perhaps months of their lives that they spent coding its library of equalisation curves and other functionality will not be impressed, but I decided to buy the review sample purely on the grounds of its sonic abilities.

The decision to scrape together the money was made during the course of a rainy afternoon’s listening during which I must have played around seven or so albums spanning the genres from fusion jazz to baroque. It was the 1969 Archiv recording of Purcell’s Ode On St. Cecilia’s Day by the English Chamber Orchestra under Charles Mackerras that, so to speak, sealed the deal. The Lupe’s extremely low noise floor gives a vibrancy and openness to all forms of music, but on quality material such as this with such a wide recorded dynamic range it takes the listening experience to a new level.

Mola Mola Lupe phono stage

Lesser phono stages have rendered the recording a confused mess during its more dynamic and complex moments. The Lupe showed that actually, Deutsche Grammophon’s technical supervisor on the recording Günter Hermanns did an outstanding job, balancing the competing demands of the acoustic response of Wembley Town Hall, the ECO’s instruments, the combined choirs and the soloists. The bass duet Let These Among Themselves Contest between the unmistakable John Shirley-Quirk and Michael Rippon was rendered by the Lupe with an expected weight and power, but at the same time the Mola Mola revealed in the two voices, textures and tonal nuances that I’d not heard before. Telling of passion mixed with vulnerability and making the performance all the more vivid and satisfying.

Few of us will have much need for the full extent of the Lupe’s notable flexibility, but we can all acknowledge and appreciate remarkably strong sonic value when we hear it.

Specifications:

ype: Solid-state, MM/MC phono stage
Phono input: 3x RCA, XLR
Analogue outputs: single ended RCA, balanced XLR
Input impedance:
MM: 75 Ohm, 18, 30 47, 120 kOhm
MC: 60, 100, 150, 250, 400, 650 Ohm, 1kOhm
Input capacitance: 0pf to 380pf in 9 steps
Output impedance: not specified
Gain: variable 45dB to 87dB in 10 steps
Output level: not specified
Signal to noise ratio: not specified
Dimensions (HxWxD): 110 x 200 x 320mm
Weight: 5.1kg
Warranty: 2 years (5 years with registration)

Price when tested:
£7,300
Manufacturer Details:

Mola-Mola
T +31(0)505264993
http://www.mola-mola.nl

Type:

phono preamplifier/stage

Author:

Kevin Fiske

Distributor Details:

Sound Design Distribution
T +44 (0)800 0096213
http://www.sounddesigndistribution.co.uk

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