This is a review of the Lampizator Big 7 DAC. Sorry for the length. I will save you some reading, I love this thing. I am an old time analog guy, I have hated digital since it first came out. I found it harsh and fatiguing and unlistenable past the first CD. SACD however showed promise. Now with the Big 7, I have probably purchased my last record, I know I will not buy another turntable, and more than likely I have my last cartridge and tonearm. I can think of no greater endorsement.
Now, in case you think I am trying to justify dropping 10+ large on a single piece of equipment, this is my second Lampizator. Let me digress. This is going to get self-indulgent.
Over my 40 years of audiophilia, I have learned a few things. More expensive isn’t always better. Although interconnects can make a big difference, there is nothing you can do to a piece of wire to make it worth $1000+ a foot. If you like it, it is good. As you make more money, prices will rise to keep the top gear completely out of reach. The transistor was the last true breakthrough in electronics design, and not necessarily for the better. The last breakthrough in speaker design was the ribbon tweeter 50 years ago. (I know there is plasma, but it’s not really catching on.) The first CD player is now 25 years old. And, oh, and my last absolutism, digital sucks!
The most important component in my audiophile evolution, is a $600 homebuilt single ended triode amplifier. It puts out 2 watts from a pair of 45 directly heated triodes, and is the best amplifier I have ever heard. It destroyed everything I thought I knew about Hi Fi. It won’t drive my Sound Labs (I have owned these speakers 31 years), so I have a set of Altec 755a drivers mounted in open baffles at the other (back?) wall of my room.They have no bass below about 70hz and no treble above 15khz but oh that stuff in the middle!
The Lampizators have been just as transformational. They destroyed everything I thought I knew about digital.
My first was a used Big 6 purchased from an A’goner. I used to read Lukasz Fikus’s blog years before he started his company. His advice improved my appreciation of digital sound greatly. He mostly “Lampizated” CD players by inserting his own tubed output stage in lieu of the original. Then one day he came up with a DHT DAC design using at first the 300b, then the 45. I couldn’t wait for him to publish his plans so I could build one. He never did. Instead he started making them himself, quitting his industrial job as an electrical engineer working in power distribution in Poland.
The Big 6 is not one of these DHT DACS, but it does have a tubed output stage. It took every signal fed to it and threw away the extra bits to reach Red Book standard 44.1/16, and then ran them through an R2R ladder DAC chip. Everything played through it just sounded like music. I was in heaven. I take back all the bad things I have ever said about digital. Then one day, I played a PCM song that I had ripped from a dual SACD, and compared it to the SACD version played through a DENON DVD/SACD machine. They were all but indistinguishable. SACD was the digital I actually liked, finding it smooth and almost analogish. So I thought, if Lampizator can make PCM sound like DSD, what can they do with DSD? Robert Reich, the U.S. distributer, wasn’t sure the Big 6 could be retrofitted and talked me into a Big 7 instead. They took the Big 6 in trade and gave me every dollar I had spent for it.
They make them to order, and mine has 2 outputs, 3 analog inputs, RCA and BNC S/PDIF inputs and USB. It has the optional volume control with remote selection of the input. Basically it has a built in pre-amp, using the existing output stage. It also has the Discreet R2R ladder PCM decoder. There are no DAC chips, no op-amps and no feedback. The rectifier is a tube and the output tubes can be 101d, 2a3, 45 and 300b. I have tried all but the 2a3, and the 300b is best. If you want to know how the R2R compares to the Delta-Sigma chip, I can’t help you, I’ve never heard it. According to the Lampizator website, there is no audible difference, at least with their latest technology.
I went with Lampizator in the first place because I was impressed by Lukasz’s philosophy in circuit design and digital. We do this all the time, John Curl, Nelson Pass, William Z. Johnson etc. When they first came out, the Dollar to Euro exchange rate was not very good, making them too expensive for me. That has since changed resulting in about a 30% price drop, although they are still not what I would call cheap. This is when I started seriously looking into them.
I want to talk about system building for a second. I have as good a system as I have heard in many years if not ever. So how can this happen? I have not heard everything. None of my equipment can be considered expensive. My now 16 year old amplifier replaced a pair of Audio Research Classic 150s that cost twice as much. If you could find them, you could buy a pair of my speakers for a couple of grand (the Altecs are worth more than the Sound Labs). I used to hang around the audio salons many years ago, and heard a lot of very good gear, but stopped going when the systems I heard were not any better than mine. We don’t really have that option now, high end stereo stores are a rarity these days. My system is unique, mostly out of production, and not particularly expensive. The Big 7 is the most expensive part. The most expensive preamp I ever owned, I hated (Audio Research SP-15, loved my SP-6). No, my system doesn’t sound like live music, and neither does yours.
In case you are curious.
Analog front end: Miyajima Shilabe, Linn EKOS, Pink Triangle Anniversary (the best turntable I have ever heard, and I have heard quite a few), Vendetta Research SCP-2a.
There is also a Koetsu Rosewood Pro-IV, one of the masters last and greatest cartridges. It still works but is ancient in cartridge years.
Digital: Core Audio Technologies computer, Lampizator Big 7 (If you are listening with a CD player, try using a hard drive. Big improvement.)
Preamp: Lampizator internal switching and volume.
Amplifier: Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 (one of 500 made)
Speakers: Sound Labs A-2, NOT A2x, worked over by Sound Labs about 20 years ago. Bottom of the line when they were made, and yes, I have heard what was the top of the line at the time, the A-1.
The Pink Triangle, EKOS, and the Sound Labs, were the only pieces I actually listened to before I bought them. I am one of the few (only?) people that put a Linn tone arm on a non-Linn table. The ITTOK/EKOS happens to be an exceedingly good tonearm, and it mates beautifully with my British turntable and especially the Koetsu.
The MF amp and Sound Lab speaker combination seems to be made in heaven. The Sound Labs are wonderful, but have a ridiculous impedance curve anywhere from 2 to 10 ohms. They also have an insatiable thirst for power. The Nu-Vista puts out 300 watts into 8 ohms and 1200 into 2 ohms. I know other amps do that too, but the Nu-Vista has a tubed (nuvistor, hence the name) input mated a transistor output. This makes it unique. I bought it, because I bought a Nu-Vista preamp based on a review. I loved the pre-amp so much, I reserved the matching amp, designed for the pre. Even though they have matching serial numbers, are supposedly made for each other, and both sound wonderful, I have never actually liked them together.
So putting together a system this good, and it IS really good, with which I am totally happy, seems to be a matter of dumb luck. It also says to me that there must be a plethora of very good components, and very good systems, out there. This takes me back to my axiom: If you like it, it is good. If you are, like I was, looking for the ultimate, ”if only I could afford the XYZ Platinum version instead of the XYZ Gold version I have now, everything will be finally wonderful”, you will never be happy. Revel in what is, instead of what might be. You will be much happier. If you want to try a new component, that’s great, that’s how systems evolve, but just chasing the next most expensive piece of gear isn’t necessarily the answer. I was the least happy when my system was at it’s highest spent dollar value. I caught myself one day, choosing records based on the sound quality and not the music quality. I sold my turntable shortly thereafter, without a replacement in mind. That’s what started the great turntable search. It was the early ’90’s. Everything in my system has changed since that day, except the speakers, and nothing cost more than what it replaced. That is why the Big 6 was such a big deal, I found myself listening to the music--not the quality of the recording, or the equipment, and enjoying it thoroughly. The Big 7 took a few weeks to settle in, and will probably continue to do so, but it is the equal of the Big 6 now, and I hope it continues to improve.
Is Lampzator the best DAC made? Probably not. The $178,000 (fully optioned, and another $25,000 if you want to buy one of their wires. Only $109,900 base price.) MSB Select DAC could, and damn well better be, superior. But is it 10-18 times better? I doubt it. Who buys these things anyway? If I had $180,000 to blow, I’m buying a Ferrari.
Lukasz Fikus says his goal was not to make the best DAC, but to beat the best analog rigs. Has he? I have done a comparison between the few albums that I own on LP and digital. The list is thus:
Beatles, I used the White Album, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, and Apple 44.1/24 delivered on a usb thumb drive. It is a 2010 remastering and the entire catalog is included.
Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman, Island LP and Mobile Fidelity gold CD. PCM and converted DSD versions.
Jazz at the Pawnshop, not the same album but same recording session. The original LP and Late Night, the previously unreleased songs, in native 256x DSD.
The one caveat, except for the Jazz, each of these is a different mastering, so I can’t blame you if you dismiss my findings. Equipment listed above.
The winners are:
LP vs. PCM; LP. I like the delicacy and detail of the PCM, but analog has a fuller sound. It seemed like Cat Stevens was about 3 inches wide in PCM. If only I could have a combination of the two. As it turns out, I can.
LP vs. 64x DSD converted from PCM; DSD. Keeps the good aspects of PCM without the 3 inch wide feeling. This one was close, the delicacy and detail of the DSD won out.
LP vs. native DSD; no contest, DSD
Native DSD vs. converted DSD; native.
The common theme here is that DSD encoding is, at least to my ears, superior in every way. Does this translate down to the less expensive DSD DACs? It did in the case of my DENON, and it’s a lowly, inexpensive disk spinner. I haven’t compared it to my Big 7 DAC, I don’t have any common recordings and it will not play DSD through my DAC.
So there you have it, digital doesn’t suck. Only every CD player I have ever heard, and I do mean every one, sucked. I have always liked SACD, but never before considered it superior to vinyl. The Lampizator DSD converters all work the same way which I understand is basically the same as a radio. The radio signal comes wafting into your radio on the back of a carrier wave and the two are separated inside the radio, leaving just the signal wave. There is no other processing of the signal. Lampizator does this without any chips. To my knowledge, no one else does it this way. As an aside, I don’t get digital fatigue listening through radio, and I’m sure all those signals are run through a DAC.
So was the R2R upgrade a waste of money? Perhaps, but it is good enough that I doubt I will be converting all of my songs. (Dumping PCM entirely would have saved me $1400. You can buy a lot of hard drive space for that price, and you will need it to hold a large library worth of DSD files.) Very little music will be available as native DSD, just as very little music will ever be available as high definition PCM, and not every LP was converted to digital. I enjoy listening to it (PCM) and it is not the least bit fatiguing. Switching from DSD to PCM and back requires a change in the JRiver software settings and a change to the input on the DAC (done via the remote). You get a horrible static if you mismatch DSD and PCM. The preamp function and volume control are very good, equal to any preamp I own (C.A.T., Nu-Vista, Korneff). If you consider it eliminates a preamp and a set of interconnects, it is a bargain.
Is there a better DAC out there? Maybe, but I don’t really care. Remember “If you like it, it is good”? This is good, and I like it. It will probably be the last piece of equipment I ever buy (upgrades don’t count).