What does it take to build a good-sounding DAC these days? In general, it requires a mixture of the latest technology plus engineering practices that have stood the test of time. Some DACs focus on implementing the fastest sampling rates or on the latest file format or technology, e.g., MQA, DXD, and DSD256. Others might pay more attention to reducing electronic noise and vibration.
But here’s another DAC for your consideration, the Mojo Audio Mystique v3, which focuses on delivering the basics as well as possible rather than trying to push the digital envelope. That means it only plays PCM files up to 192kHz sampling rate/24-bit word length, and no DSD or MQA. One might ask why Mojo Audio chose to limit a new DAC in this way when most other new ones seek to expand the latest technology envelope as far as possible. Benjamin Zwickel, owner of Mojo Audio, explains: “Our DAC is a purist product, much like a dedicated phonostage. For optimal performance we believe that digital signal processing and linestage functions should be performed by other components. We could have easily put an MQA and DSD decoder as well as up/down sampling algorithms into our DAC. But we believe these functions are best performed in the software of a music server. This allows the heavy lifting to be done by a more powerful processor and allows for the upgrading of software to assure the most advanced decoding, digital signal processing, and digital filtering. It also allows the consumer to do as much or as little of these processes as they want as opposed to locking them into one company’s obsolete technology.”
If you’re willing to accept these limitations to realize extraordinary playback of Red Book and medium-high-resolution PCM files, then the Mystique v3 DAC may be right up your alley. After all, what matters more is how it sounds, not the type of input file. Virtually all recordings are available in 192kHz or lower-resolution PCM versions, even if they were mastered at a higher resolution, so it’s not like you’re going to be limited in the availability of the latest recorded albums.
The Mystique v3 (hereafter referred to as the Mystique) was possibly the simplest DAC I’ve seen—just a somewhat hefty black chassis of folded metal with dimensions of 17.5" by 3.25" by 12" that weighs 23 pounds. Features are limited: three inputs (USB, coax, optical), with three buttons on the front panel allowing the user to select the desired input, and LEDs indicating which one is selected. Depending on whether the Mystique has balanced and single-ended outputs ($7555) or only single-ended outputs ($5555), the price is based on what’s not there as much as what features are included. In other words, on simplicity. Per the Mojo Audio website: “Our ultra-purist R2R topology has no digital filters, noise shaping, upsampling, oversampling, or error-correction. Our direct-coupled analog output stage has no output capacitors or transformers to limit bandwidth or color the sound. For optimal performance we use multiple ultra-low-noise, ultra-high-dynamic dedicated power supplies that isolate each type of chip or clock… Our technology brings you closer to the original musical performance.” That last sentence is what got my attention; after all, isn’t that what the high end is all about? Zwickel calls his ultra-purist approach “error prevention vs error correction.” If that goal is achieved without the latest bells and whistles, why do we need gigahertz sampling rates and complex encoding schemes? Sometimes we lose track of that. I know I have. Sometimes I’ve blithely assumed technical advances automatically equal sonic improvements. Was I wrong?
Zwickel claims his DAC “uses the best of 90-year old technology, the best of 30-year old technology, and the best of modern technology. The 90-year old technology is the choke-input power supplies developed by Western Electric. The 30-year old technology is the vintage 20-bit R2R Analog Devices AD1862N-J DAC chips that [Zwickel considers to] offer the purest digital-to-analog conversion possible. And the modern technologies are the XMOS USB input, ultra-low-noise femto clocking, and ultra-low-noise ultra-high-dynamic discrete regulators.” Zwickel believes that “though modern technology allows things to be smaller and cheaper, some of the older, larger, heavier, and more expensive technologies have far superior performance.” I could list a host of other impressive construction features, but rather than cut and paste them from Mojo’s website, I’ll refer you there instead. Zwickel says that the single most significant design feature that contributes to the Mystique’s sound was “the choke-input power supplies that give our Mystique v3 DAC natural, neutral, effortless, time, tune, tone, timbre, and harmonic coherency.” I’ve heard of a single choke-input power supply built around one main transformer, but never before the five choke-input power supplies used in the Mystique. Zwickel states: “You can never have too clean, too fast, or too isolated a power supply. Power supply is what makes the difference between the DAC playing the music vs. the music playing the DAC.”
Installing and Using the Mystique
My first impression while installing the Mystique was physical: It’s very solid and non-resonant. That confirmed a statement by Zwickel that “everything we make is more of Ferrari than a Lexus. No bells and whistles. Our chassis are engineered for low resonance, high rigidity, high durability, and low RFI/EMI.” I’ve had other components about which similar claims were made, but the Mystique delivered on its claims more than any others I’ve seen. When I received the unit it had already been broken in, but as with every component I install in my system, I let it operate a few days for optimum playback. There was no user manual available; I’m not sure one is needed but just in case, I’ll write one here:
- Put the DAC on a shelf and add any isolation devices. • Plug the power cable into the IEC to establish Earth ground.
- Plug in the digital input cable(s).
- Plug in the output interconnects (balanced or single-ended).
- Turn on the power using the switch above the IEC connector.
- Push one of the three input buttons on the front panel (USB, coax, or TosLink).
- Turn on your digital source (streamer, server, or transport).
- Leave the DAC turned on 24/7 for optimal performance.
- If there are any problems, turn off for one minute, and turn back on again.
That’s it. I suspect that audiophiles who are cowed by the numerous options on many DACs will welcome this simplicity, which I’d describe as plug-and-play.
Since my review unit was the balanced model, I connected it to my linestage with balanced The Mountain interconnects by van den Hul. A minor glitch: The Mystique’s XLR output jacks were not marked to show right or left channels. A small annoyance. Easy to figure out: The one on the left is left and the one on the right is right. An Audience Au24 SE power cord that’s specifically designed for digital components provided the AC power. SOtM’s overachieving sMS-200 network audio adapter served as the source, fed by the company’s mBPS-d2s battery power supply. An Audience Au24 SE USB cable connected the SOtM to the Mystique. I used Roon playback software; the Roon Core was installed on a Dell Latitude E6330 laptop, with Roon remote control software on my iPad and on a separate Windows 10 laptop computer I use to jot down listening notes. Music files were stored on a USB drive attached to the Dell laptop.