Mojo Audio MYSTIQUE X D/A CONVERTER ~Full Review

The Mojo Audio Mystique X D/A converter takes us to a new level of digital sound perfection!

Mojo Audio’s proprietor Benjamin Zwickel specializes in designing and manufacturing digital source components that are based on proven engineering rather than fashionable marketing rhetoric. The designer’s adamant yet pragmatic approach to error prevention vs error correction has a history of winning prestigious awards from many well-known audiophile publications.

Being a student of Ivor Tiefenbrun, the founder of Linn, Benjamin was sold on the philosophy that “time and tune” were what made “music” music. It is that same Holy Grail of time and tune that Benjamin seeks in his DAC designs. To Benjamin, anything else, such as bass depth and weight, HF layering and penetration, or 3D holographic imaging, are just “attractive distortions” if they are not accompanied by proper time and tune. He found that when the time and tune are preserved that all other desirable characteristics will naturally just fall into place.  

A LITTLE BACKGROUND MUSIC

Benjamin started Mojo Audio in 2009 as a part-time income while obtaining a degree in Computer Electronics Engineering Technology. But before he completed his first semester, Mojo Audio sales had increased so much that he had to hire other electronics engineering students to work for him. And Mojo Audio was born.

Benjamin Zwickel designer Mojo Audio
Benjamin Zwickel Designer

In the early years Mojo Audio manufactured cables from vintage Western Electric wire, manufactured low-noise linear power supplies to upgrade computers as music servers, and did upgrades and non-oversampling modifications to vintage R-2R DACs and CDPs. During that time Benjamin studied the schematics from all of the greats such as Sony, Philips, Marantz, and Revox. It is from their designs that he learned how to properly implement R-2R DAC technology.

During that time, he had many old-school mentors from which he learned that just because something was “newer” didn’t make it “better.” Most of the advancements in modern electronic technology are in terms of smaller size, faster speeds, and greater efficiency, not sound quality. That is why his DAC designs use the best of 100-year-old (LC choke-input power supplies), 40-year-old (vintage R-2R DAC chips), and modern technology (XMOS USB receivers, SiC Shottkey diodes, amorphous core chokes, etc.) to achieve their natural and neutral sonic character.  

What Benjamin considers to be the most significant contribution to his DAC’s sound quality is the use of choke-input power supplies in the analog sections. Many of his advisers were in a sense electronics historians. He learned that with the invention of the transistor and the marketing of it as a smaller, cheaper, alternative to the vacuum tube, they needed a smaller and cheaper power supply to go with it. And so, the capacitive-input power supply became the new standard at the expense of sound quality. Even today all the best tube amplifiers still use chokes in their power supplies.

Similarly, in modern times, the switch-mode power supply became the standard because it was even smaller, cheaper, and even more energy efficient than the capacitive-input supplies classically used by most DAC manufacturers. It is no wonder so few companies still use choke-input power supplies since they are the largest, heaviest, least efficient, and most expensive type of power supply you can use. Any other power supply typology is used to save size, weight, and expense, not to improve performance.

But unless the laws of physics have changed in the past 100 years, the only type of power supply that could store both current and voltage is one with a choke in it: capacitive-input power supplies and switch-mode power supplies only store voltage and thereby will always be off in their time and tune. Knowing this it was quite obvious that the more energy a note requires from a capacitive power supply, the more off-time that note is from the other notes, and that is why Mojo Audio uses only choke-input power supplies to power the analog sections of their DACs. All of which brings us to the newly introduced DAC from Mojo, The Mystique X.

COMPARATIVE DESIGN CHARACTERISTICS

As we compare the R-2R configuration used in the Mystique X to a few other notable and somewhat similarly excellently designed competitors, one notices some differences and similarities. The units compared here include the BorderPatrol SE-1 and Audio Notes CD3.1x/2. (also The Denefrips Venus II which has been reviewed by us here.)

Mojo Audio Mystique X D/A converter inside

Here we can compare the BorderPatrol, Audio Note, and Mojo Audio DACs:

  • All are minimalist in their features, inputs, and outputs.
  • All use vintage non-oversampling R-2R DAC Chips.
  • All use chokes in their analog power supplies.

Though there has been a bit of a modern resurgence of the use of R-2R DAC chips in recent years, I find it interesting that the two other famous and highly regarded DACs I owned not only used vintage R-2R DAC chips but are among the very few DACs to also use chokes in their power supplies. So apparently Benjamin is not alone in much of his design criteria.

However, there are obvious technical differences; which are:

  • The BoarderPatrol SE-1 uses one Philips 16-bit TDA 1543 DAC chip, the Audio Note CD3.1x/2 uses one Analog Devices18-bit AD1865 DAC chip, and the Mojo Audio Mystique X uses two Analog Devices 20-bit AD1862 DAC chips.
  • For power supply rectification both the BoarderPatrol SE-1 and the Audio Note CD3.1x/2 use tube-rectified power supplies whereas the Mojo Audio Mystique X uses 100% solid-state power supplies rectified with ultra-fast zero-recovery Silicon Carbide (SiC) Schottky diodes. 
  • For power regulation in the digital section, the BoarderPatrol SE-1 and the Audio Note CD3.1x/2 use fairly minimal generic IC power regulators as compared to the Mojo Audio Mystique X, which uses nine independent ultralow-noise ultrahigh-dynamic discrete Belleson regulators to isolate every chip, clock, and module.
  • Between the amplification and the output connectors, the Border Patrol SE-i and Audio Note CD3.1x/2 use capacitive coupling whereas the Mojo Audio Mystique X is direct-coupled with nothing between the output of the op-amps and output connectors.
  • For output amplification the BoarderPatrol SE-1 uses the internal op amps in the DAC chip, the Audio Note CD3.1x/2 uses a tube output stage, and the Mojo Audio Mystique X uses Staccato class A discrete solid-state op-amp modules. 
  • The BoarderPatrol SE-i and Audio Note C3.1x/2 both have only single-ended outputs while the Mojo Audio Mystique X has both single-ended and balanced outputs. (Audio Note’s separate DAC’s do have balanced outputs, at a higher price point).
Mojo Audio Mystique X D/A converter back view

WHAT THE DESIGNER INTENDED

To better understand Benjamin’s ideas on R-2R DAC design and configuration, his great article, “The 24-bit Delusion” is immensely informative and ultimately concurs with what many audiophiles and music lovers believe to be the best sound one can hear and/or obtain within the current state-of-the-art of digital audio reproduction.

The conclusions point out why Mojo Audio prefers the R-2R ladder DAC chips as well as stating that high-resolution digital files can be less preferable than standard PCM (Redbook) files. This is contrary to the majority of companies using 24-bit and higher Delta-Sigma DAC chips.

In Benjamin’s recent article, “7 Myths of Digital Audio Dispelled,” he explains how Sony, Philips, and Dr. Nyquest were correct that double the sampling rate recovers 100% of analog resolution and how it is not higher digital resolution but rather statistical error correction done by Delta-Sigma DACs which fuel the misconception that higher resolution digital files sound better.

Only R-2R DAC chips actually “decode” whereas Delta-Sigma chips “interpolate” the digital signal. So though the statistical error correction and interpolated output of modern Delta-Sigma DAC chips can yield a smoother and more fluid sound than vintage R-2R, Benjamin finds the algorithms they use can’t tell the difference between bit-read errors and emotional content and they tend to correct things that don’t require correcting leaving the music to sound overly processed and homogenized.

Having spoken to Benjamin Zwickel numerous times before the arrival of the review unit, he described to me what his true technical and musical intent was with the MystiqueX as well as his other high-profile DAC designs:

 “When people claim to hear significant differences between 16-bit and 24-bit recordings it is not the difference between the bit depths that they are hearing, but most often the difference in the quality of the digital remastering. And most recordings are engineered to sound best on a car stereo or portable device as opposed to on a high-end audiophile system. It’s a well-known fact that artists and producers will often listen to tracks on an MP3 player or car stereo before approving the final mix….

The quality of the recording plays a far more significant role than the format or resolution it is distributed in. But to increase profits, many modern recording studio executives insist that errors be edited out in post-production, significantly compromising the quality of the original master tapes. So, no matter what format these recordings are released in, the music will always sound mediocre, since you can never have a higher performance than what is on the original masters. 

In contrast, some of my favorite digital recordings were digitally mastered from 1950s analog recordings. Many of these recordings were done as a group of musicians playing in a room with one take per track and no post-production editing. Though these recordings have much higher background noise being limited by old-school pre-Dolby 60dB dynamic range master tape, they retain an organic character and in-the-room harmonic cues that can’t be duplicated any other way.”

THE SOUND QUALITY

Here we get to the meat and potatoes of the Mystique X in all its glory as well as a few debatable subjective perceptions that were observed.

Incontrovertibly, the Mystique X is a stunning piece of equipment in just about every way conceivably possible. It possesses certain qualities that the other 3 DACs described above indeed possess, but not always… in the quantity of this particular unit.

Immediately, one can perceive that Mystique X is a true leader in sound transparency. To delve into this area even deeper, one hears so deep into the layers of the program sources to a point that is unique among the high-end DACs currently available to the audiophile at this point in time. NO- I have not heard some of, or for that matter every DAC out there, including some more expensive units on the market, but I honestly doubt that most of them can equal no less prominently overturn the Mystique X within their relevant proportions and price points.

The sound stage perception and perceived depth unquestionably and distinctively penetrate the musical landscape with so many layers of heretofore never heard instrumental “detail” that one wonders what they were missing on that favorite piece of recorded music they have known quite intimately. Fresh new intricacies emerge at your ears, and you immediately take notice of this subtle and delicately distinguished instrumental and musical proclivity. Don’t get me wrong—though this is quite subtle, by any standards, it is noticeable to the most discriminating ears.

What seems to emerge with all of this is a sound that is non-aggressive, (which is also quite true for the Audio Note and BorderPatrol as well) and I mean on just about every piece of recorded music the unit was used with. (R2R design?) Detail, transparency, smoothness, transient response, and small layers behind layers of sound one had always been oblivious to suddenly “delight “your ears and senses in many ways. Quite ironically, though I have been torn between these infinitesimal differences lately with all DACs, I was never aware that they could honestly be cultivated – with the Mystique X however, the truth be laid bare before your ears to observe!

When observing the Mystique’s upper frequencies, it may as well just be stated that they are the most convincing and superlatively natural. Never a bit of orchestral string acidity is displayed, with a most exquisitely smooth and endearing high-frequency response—without losing any bite on instrumental intonations when called for. It proved to be the most acclimatized of all the DACs tested. Once again, the design factors operating within this unit have been brought to full fruition, indeed!

Carlos Kleiber Beethoven Symphonies

As one example, the historically remastered Deutsche Gramophone recording of Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic’s rendition of Beethovens 7th and 5th symphonies, one observes tympani and horn instruments emerging in tiny short bursts way back in the soundstage that is strikingly and transparently forthcoming as the whole orchestra blends into one. The reproduction with ‘Mystique’ displays a silky yet strong transient response emerging while the overall sound is elegant and never “shouting” out from the rest of the players. Though again, this is very nuanced, it is quite judicious as the sound embellishes you in a bath of depth and ambiance. (Note Benjamin’s preference for older digitally remastered analog recordings is exemplified by this recording.)

Magnificent Seven sountrack

Another spectacular disk is the re-recording (and possibly the best version of the soundtracks) of “The Magnificent Seven” by Elmer Bernstein on Koch Records with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. The opening main title is striking in its tonal purity and phenomenal depth and soundstage width. The Mystique X seems to combine the lushness of say, the BorderPatrol or Audio Note with a firm tonality amidst elegant yet resinous strings that the R2R design displays—without tubes in their respective power supplies or output stages of the aforementioned designs.

This is without a doubt one of the main highlights of this DAC. (Other program sources include: The Bangles Essentials – Columbia and Famous Western Themes of Ennio Morricone , London Starlight Orchestra)

BASS and MIDBASS YOU ASK?

Yes, the Mystique has this area of the frequency spectrum covered in spades, being just a tad bit tighter than the BorderPatrol, but not by much. With the Audio Note, it may be a bit more noticeable as the latter’s tubes in its output stage, obviously, give a less pronounced “punch” in the lower registers but again I must say, this is minuscule but apparent.

In any event, the Mystique X integrates the bass/mid response with a superlative continuity resulting in a seamlessly full and immersive sound quality to your streaming, CDs, and digital files and on all genres of music you may be using.

ANY STIPULATIONS?

If one implies the true meaning of the word, then it would be safe to say that there is not a thing that can I truly criticize when engaging the Mystique X DAC.

There were, however, times when I compared specific pop tracks or classical movements on all three DACs that inspired me to come to some clear-cut conclusions. These being that certain recordings, depending on how they were mastered and/or engineered, (read Ben’s response above) would galvanize me to use a particular DAC over the Mystique, or vice versa, to obtain their ultimate subjective sound quality.

This affirms the conclusion that on occasion, for instance, a digital recording may have had a more realistic response with any of the two other DACs employed above as compared to the Mystique X in the listening tests.

Admittedly, I was not surprised by this. The outstanding sound reproduction that the Mystique X produces, as one might expect, cannot bring every piece of source material to its most formidable heights in every listening situation.

Alternately, about 70-80% of the time or more, switching back to the Mystique X brought me a sigh of relief— as overall, this DAC had the most positive influence on my musical enjoyment and satisfaction of any DAC I have ever had in my system so far; and that my friends is the ultimate hallmark of this super machine!  

SUMMARY and CONCLUSION

There is no doubt that what Benjamin Zwickel has designed here in his Mystique X DAC is a revelation in its musicality and ultimate fidelity. Its use of vintage R2R ladder chips as well as the highest technical inclusions as outlined above is formidably acknowledged, particularly at its relatively modest price.

Speaking of pricing, the Mystique X has recently had an unprecedented COVID-related price reduction: the entry-level Mystique X, which I am reviewing, starts at only $7,999 and the full-blown Mystique X SE with all possible upgrade options sells for only $9,999.

Benjamin stated the reason for this price reduction is due to the unavailability of certain parts and unpredictable delays on custom parts, Mojo Audio does not have enough inventory to sell through a network of retailers as originally intended. So, in a bold move, Mojo Audio announced they will continue with direct sales only until these COVID-related delays end, and they dropped their pricing by 33% removing the retailer’s markup. Mojo Audio has stated that they would expect pricing to go up significantly by the end of 2023 when they predict these parts shortages will end, but in the meantime, they did not think it would be fair for them to be “double-dipping” on their profit margin.  

As such, all the listening tests proved that this is one of the finest DACs currently available to the high-end audiophile user on the market today. If you happen to be using a few other outboard DACs currently and have not tried or auditioned the Mystique X by Mojo Audio, you are truly missing out on an enthralling audio experience.

The Mystique X cries out “musicality” at every listening experience, and that is a mighty tall act to follow. I congratulate Mr. Zwickel for bringing such a fine product to the Audiophile market—and he truly deserves it!

The System:  Loudspeakers: Harbeth Compact 7ES-3 XD loudspeaker ~ Quad ESL-63, Audio Note AN/ED, vintage Spendor BC1 ~ Digital: Border Patrol DAC SE-I ~ Innuos Zenith Mk.3 server/streamer ~ Denafrips Pontus DAC, Audio Note (UK) CD3.1x/2  Analog: Audio Technica LP-7/ZYX Bloom 3 mc cartridge  Amplification: ~ Pass Lab XP- 12 preamp ~ Pass Labs XA30.8 power amp ~PS Audio M1200/ ~ Cambridge Duo MC/MM ~ Cables/ Conditioners: Inakustik AC-3500p power station & LS-4004 speaker cables, AC-2404 reference Air Power Cord ~ Audience Studio 1 interconnects, speaker cables, Clarus “Crimson” 75-ohm digital spdif / power cords/ Audio Art 1 e” AC Power Cord

PRICING (as auditioned with S/PDIF upgrade option): $8,499

MOJO AUDIO INC, 12941 Marva Place SE
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87123
United States of America

CONTACT INFORMATION: info@benjamin

949.Get.Mojo (949.438.6656)

WHERE the MUSIC BEAT meets the AUDIOPHILE ELITE !

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