Lampizator DSD DAC
Publisher's note: Bruce Brown is a professional recording and mastering engineer and owns Puget Sound Studos.
Lampizator DSD - An Early Listen
Some things in life just go together, like peas and carrots or peanut butter and chocolate. Then the opposite can be said about pickles and ice cream or digital and tubes. Yikes! Did I just say that?
Years ago, when consumer digital was in its infancy, I remember a company that did just that. They paired a digital DAC with tubes and the brand was California Audio Labs. I had never liked this “perfect sound forever” digital stuff until I heard one of these units at a local hi-fi shop. I went back two or three times just to hear digital from these DAC’s and players. Nowadays, several companies are modifying digital equipment with tubes and there are a few manufacturers that have tube DAC’s on the market. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. All DAC’s have either someone’s chip or FPGA in them that does the math. What sets all these DAC’s apart is the analog stage. DAC’s don’t sound different because they use one chip or another. They sound different because of their filters and analog stages.
Now I don’t claim to be an EE or even play one on TV, but there's something going on inside this DAC that DSD is done right. Lukasz Fikus, the designer of this DAC, claims that this is the purest form of DSD. There is no up/down sampling, PCM conversion, filtering or other funny stuff going on and I tend to agree with him. I could care less what the insides hold or what kind of tubes it uses. I want the best sound possible at all cost. This is for the purist audiophile that wants the best DSD the format has available.
I’m more of an A/D aficionado and have several at my disposal with the best being the Grimm AD1 and Merging Horus. The best DSD DAC I have used to date has been my Playback Designs MPS-5. I have had other DAC’s including the Mytek Stereo 192/DSD, MSB Diamond with Diamond PS, dCS Scarlatti and the DAD AX24. The Merging Horus I currently have also has 8-channel D/A capabilities of PCM rates up to 384kHz and DSD up to 256fs. All in all, I keep going back to my trusty Playback Designs to give me the most faithful representation of what goes into my A/D converters, be it mastering, archiving master tapes or listening to a live mic feed. If the LampiDSD wants to knock the Playback Designs off its pedestal, it has some very big shoes to fill.
I received the very early prototype unit in a non-descript box with just the unit inside. Please note the word "prototype" because developement of this product is moving fast and changes have already been made as noted at the end of this early listen. I don’t recall any documentation included or any extra tubes of the sort. The distributor told me just to connect the powercord and a good USB connection and hit “play” on my favorite software player. I currently use two DSD capable software players, HQPlayer on the PC side and Audirvana+ on the Mac side. I currently have about 27TB of DSD files so I’m good in that dept. I queued up a tape archival we did of Oscar Peterson and hit play…. Nothing. Time is money that I have precious little of so I just set it aside for when I had time to troubleshoot the problem. About a week later I sat down and plugged the USB into the Playback Designs, hit play and I was golden… it never fails me. I then re-booted and connected the Lampi and get nothing again. I contacted the distributor and he was very helpful getting me up and going. Seems the Lampi wants to see DSD over DoP. Okay, we’re cooking with gas now. I toggled through a few tunes and upon first impression, I was quite surprised. There is so much equipment that comes through the studio for me to try out and most of it leaves as quickly as it arrives. So far so good, the Lampi is redeeming itself quite admirably. Now on to the critical tests.
I had a DSD mastering session for a client in Columbia. He needed a quick turnaround and I didn’t want to disconnect the Lampi from the system. I mastered the tracks according to what the client wanted and sent them off. The next day I put the Playback into the system and wiped clean all my settings from the previous day. I mastered the same tracks and wouldn’t you know it, the settings were exactly the same, down to the 1/4dB dip I placed at 1250Hz. I’m impressed!
The next project was for Wilson Audio. Dave and Daryl are as meticulous as I am about sound and this would be a good test for the Lampi. Track after track, I was actually enjoying the musicality from this DAC. I wasn’t distracted by trying to analyze every nuance and mistake. I could actually close my eyes and let the music envelope me. It wasn’t about transparency, bass slam, imaging or top end air. It was about the emotion of the performers in front of me. Publisher's note ~ If you've read my reviews over time, this is what I've been stressing and Bruce has just reiterated it. Real stereo is about its ability to convey the emotions of a performance. How it should be mainly judged is how effortlessly it achieves that. The less work your brain and other senses (all 6, 7 or 8 - who knows) has to do to decipher, decode and overcome recorded music, the better the gear is, regardless of price, appearance or measurements. The exciting thing is that, I beleive we are at the point where even some brilliantly designed, moderately priced (maybe not under $1,000 "Cheap Bastard territory yet) high-end stereo gear is able to go beyond all the "audiophile" qualifications everyone has been judging and quantifying in the past. We've almost gotten to the place where we can judge stereo gear mostly on how well it communicates the essence of the performance rather than measurements or analysing individual high/mid/bass, soundstage and all the other buzzwords we have so long employed. Think about that: when we go to live performances, are we thinking about frequency response, ohms, amps, THD, air or soundstage dimensions? Hopefully not. We are contemplating the music and how it effects our minds, bodies and spirits. So when Bruce and I say things like " It wasn’t about transparency, bass slam, imaging or top end air. It was about the emotion of the performers in front of me", that's HUGE. The point is, we're pretty close to being able to transcend the impediments of recorded music in our homes and suspend our disbelief that we are listening to recordings at all. We're not there yet, but it is becoming easier to bypass the left brain analytical machinations caused by gear limitations and go directly to the pure emotional right brain where music thrives and maybe, just directly to the soul. There is still one immense impediment however. Real live music is, in large part, visual. Until we have StarTrek type holodecks with Fleetwood Mac or The Boston Symphony standing in front of us along with the audio, the "real live" is still a dream. But the aural part is improving at a very fast pace now and despite what else may be transpiring around us, in this regard we live in exciting times.
Between projects, I sometimes listen to music in the background, but the Lampi kept pulling me in. It was distracting, but in a good way. I wanted to listen to my whole collection through this DAC, but time marches on and I had to return it back to the manufacturer. Publisher's note ~ I have just received - not even unboxed yet - the full production model that will be going into my system soon. Look for more on the real sound of the Lampizator DSD DAC!
Is the Lampi without faults? Well, no. I had to use SE interconnects. The normal consumer would probably laugh at that comment, but trying to integrate different equipment in a professional mastering room is a pain in the ass sometimes. I run everything balanced and if I have something show up that is not, I either have to use adapters or crawl behind the racks and put the jumper pins in the unused XLR inputs. I hear they can be special ordered now with XLR outputs though. Another pain was forgetting to hit mute. I don’t know if Lukasz has done anything about that or not, but it was pretty annoying when you get a sudden tick/pop from your speakers whenever you made a change in my software player or even going from different DSD rates. There was a toggle switch on the back that changed from DSD64fs to DSD128fs. I’d be interested in listening to a current production model.
So what’s the verdict? The Lampi is the best DSD I’ve heard. Picking apart the music, it betters the Playback in the bass transient dept. and is better or equal to it in everything else. Will I replace my Playback with the Lampizator DSD? No, and here is why. The Playback gives me the capability of spinning a SACD/CD, has ST-optical in/out to integrate with my Sonoma system and has balanced outputs. If you don’t need these aforementioned features, then the Lampi DSD is the ONLY DAC you should be looking at, and at a third of the cost of the Playback, it’s a no brainer!
I had an early stage DSD-only prototype fitted with standard Soviet output caps. Most current production versions of the Lampi DSD is a module in a PCM capable Lampizator chassis, i.e. Level 4, 5, 6 or 7 LampizatOr Dac with the optional DSD module. Most, if not all, of these DAC’s have Duelund cast copper output caps (option in L4-6 and standard in L7) or they have Jensen PIO copper foil caps. I would presume the Duelunds make a huge SQ difference over the Soviets and a significant difference over the Jensens, but they take a few hundred hours to fully break in. In summary, I did not hear the best of the Lampi DSD.
Also, the new production Lampi DAC’s will now autosense the DSD frequency. No more switches! Word also has it that gone are all the clicks/pops! Great news!!
Finally, even from the start the DSD Dac was available as balanced, it's just that the prototypes were made S.E. for simplicity's sake. Indeed, I would expect that more than 25% of the production DSD capable Lampizators are already made in TRUE balanced configuration.
Can’t wait to get a new one in here and try it. Looks like we have a new King!
HQPlayer on custom PC
Audirvana+ on Macbook Pro
Light Harmonic USB cables
Pass Labs XP-30 pre
Pass labs XA-100.5 amps
Wilson Alexia speakers
All cables (other than USB) JPS Labs Aluminata
DSD In rotation:
Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
Oscar Peterson – We Get Requests
Holly Cole – Temptation
Living Stereo – Leontyne Price : Arias
Living Stereo – Tchaikovsky : Piano concerto ½
Wilson Audiophile – S’wonderful Jazz
Wilson Audiophile – Steinberg/Abel : Sonatas for Violin and Piano
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