Living With Lampis!
In my 40 years plus of Audiophile Life, it's not often that I have discovered, listened to, purchased, and lived with a family of electronics, that have transformed my listening room as I thought only I thought a multi thousand plus turntable, tone arm, and Koetsu cartridge could do. In my experience only a top rated analog system had the power, realism, and magic to enthrall one into believing they are at a live event instead of sitting in their listening room. Of course the digital siren had tried to dethrone my analog rig but couldn't quite make it. Such contenders as Yamaha, Oppo, Theta, PS Audio and even the legendary Mark Levinson Reference Digital products were quite moving and enjoyable and had tried to supplant my record spinner but couldn't quite close the gap. Until now. And this is how it went down.
Even though I loved my analog rig, I couldn't quite resist digital, computers, and iPads. Soon I'd added a PS Audio PWD II to my system and I was in business. I thought it sounded great. Not quite up to my analog rig but quite good. An audiophile friend of mine came to listen several times and liked it, but not as well as something he kept referring to as a "Lampizator". He in fact owned a Lampizator 4 and something called a TranspOrt that didn't play silver discs. I went to hear it. We owned the same speakers Legacy Focus SEs. Jim challenged me to bring over the PWD II for a direct comparison. I dropped off the PWD for Jim to listen to for a couple of days. My turn came soon. Jim was playing the PWD when I arrived. But his system didn't sound the same as usual. So we switched to the Lampi 4. After listening for a few moments my comment, "Is the PWD broke?" Of course it wasn't. It was then that I realized how really great Jim's system sounded. I knew what he'd been talking about. I'd been Lampizitized.
A quick Google search and I was reading all I needed to discover the story of Lukasz Fikus, what was a Lampizator, DACS made in Poland, vacuum tubes, Levels 4, 5, and 6, TranspOrts that didn't play silver discs, and sound that easily rivaled my analog rig. Quite an education. I had to have one. On the hunt. Found a source, Fred Ainsley, part of the Dynamic duo of Lampizator NA who soon pointed me in the direction of a Level.
Did I tell you that each DAC is custom ordered with features you select? Inputs, outputs, SPDIF, XLR, BNC, Dueland or Jupiter capacitors, USB, and something called DSD. Wow. I couldn't wait for my L5 to arrive. Endless patience and debates on the features of the DAC with Fred. About a month latter Fred is ringing and the DAC will be delivered by DHL in a couple of days!
The Level 5.
My L5 was a two box design with a separate dual mono power supply connected to the DAC box with an industrial sized umbilical cord connecting the two chassis. It was outfitted with a pair of double Dueland capacitors for the output stage, USB, XLR, and RCA digital inputs, a custom module for DSD playback, and a preamp with a remote to perform both volume duties and the switching of digital inputs. The preamp feature is about a $500 option which enables one to stay seated while switching inputs as well as replacing a tube preamp if needed.
I picked up Lampi at DHL, drove him home, and hooked him up after careful box inspection, reading the directions, dusting, picture taking, and downloading the USB driver.
Then I hooked up all the connections and fired him up. Blast off. OMG. Sound, no wait music, arriving at my ears in a rhythmic, melodic pulse. It was apparent that the Lampizator Level 5 is an altogether different beast than the Level 4. Jim arrived soon with his TranspOrt. A few connections, and while jRiver loads the library, we go to lunch. Can't wait to get back home.
Home. Then the music starts, we first play music via USB, incredible. Even after only warming up for about an hour, the L5 has leapfrogged over the Level 4, which was so far in turn above the PWD to make it sound like a toy. My friend Willie came over as well and we were all three amazed. It was like a whole new system. The Focus SEs were transformed into something I'd never heard before.
Next step, listen to Lampi as a preamp and take mine out of the system. Well maybe some trade offs, maybe, but then the circuit starts to warm. Oh my gosh, I can't stand it . . . Then ding dong, I've stayed up all night listening and my ride is here to take me to visit my relatives in Florida . . . Switch to continuous break in cd . . .
Home at last. The L5 sounds more and more awesome and it's reputation grows. Two friends and a dealer who has Audionote DACs and Clarus Crimson cables came over last night to hear the L5.
Well let me put it this way no one even wanted to try the Audionote out after they heard the Lampi! We played CDs, High Res computer files, and finally DSD. Just after they all swore it was the best DAC they ever heard, and were filled with amazement, I told them about DSD. They had never heard DSD before and were plenty skeptical. How could it sound any better? Then I played the first cut from the Opus 3 DSD Showcase 128. Their jaws dropped in collective amazement!
While we were listening we slowly inserted Dave's Clarus Crimson cables into the system. All the cables had been used in Dave's system so they were broken in. The first was their USB cable, I had just been using a generic USB from a printer until I decided what to buy. The insertion of the Clarus Crimson USB cable into the system was a revelation. As great as the L5 sounded, that one cable caused another two fold leap in sound quality. Next we inserted a Clarus component power cord into the L5. Another step up. Then finally it was time for the $2400 Clarus Crimson top of the line balanced interconnect. All I can, is WOW, I never thought my system could ever sound like this.
Pee in your pants good!
All the wiring changes occurred while and during playback of everyone's favorite music. Then like I described, it was time for DSD.
My love affair with the Lampi L5 continued for about 9 months. I can truthfully say my analog rig gathered dust. Lampizator DACs, TranspOrts, JRiver, an iPad, and instant access to your entire music collection are addictive and far more seductive than cleaning LPs and adjusting the table, tone arm and cartridge for analog playback. And what do you know, I soon developed a love/hate relationship with building and fine tuning an Audio PC with jPlay, the Audio Optimizer, linear power supplies, SSD, RAM caches, etc. That is a story for another day.
Too soon I read rumors about a new Lampi DAC, the Level Seven, with 4 tubes sticking from the top two normal sized tubes and two gigantor DHT tubes only used in power amplifiers. I was skeptical. How could anything sound better than the L5? I spoke with Fred. He assured me the Level 7 did. I read, I schemed, and plotted. Before I new it my Level 5 was listed on Audiogon and USA Audiomart. I had a few nibbles but about the time buyers became serious my father who battles Parkinson's every day was wounded by the scourge and suffered a broken hip at 86 years young. Of course all thoughts of stereo and L7s went out the door. Sales inquiries went cold. The Audiogon ad expired. (Not without certain suspicions by the good folks at Audiogon.) But Spring arrives, dad survives, and things settle down. My stereo system still sounds great. Another month goes by and an email appears from USA Audiomart. I have a buyer for the L5. Money arrives, Fred is called, money departs via PayPal and Lukasz is building me a new DAC.
The Big 7 Arrives.
It was with bated breath and much anticipation that I waited to hear news the my Big 7 was on its maiden voyage to the USA and my home. I couldn't wait to compare it to my fully broken in PS Audio Direct Stream that many audiophiles have been salivating over. As one read the reviews for the DS one would think it was able to part the ocean. Well . . .
The PS Audio Direct Stream is a great DAC. Please don't allow my comments to lead you to think I don't like it. I do. I own and enjoy it too. It was a great buy at the introduced price of $6000. But now it's an incredible deal at $3500 new through dealers on the Internet. As good as it is don't be fooled into thinking its a Lampi beater. A friend commented, "The DS sounds like a great DAC. But the Lampi Big 7 sounds like music!" (And I could easily claim the same for any Lampi DAC I've heard including the Amber. Lukasz Lampizator just gets music right.)
And really that's about the best way to put it. The Big 7 with its huge pair of EML 45s sticking from the top is certainly not inexpensive at about $9500 but when compared price wise to top DACs from MBL and DCS it is at least 1/3 of the price. Now I don't own either the MBL or DCS but I have friends whose ears I trust who do/did own these DACs and claim the Big 7 easily is their rival.
What do I think of the Big 7 and how it compares to DACs I have owned? Let's compare the Big 7 to my Level 5.
I didn't really think the L5 could be bested. It was the best DAC I've owned. The bass of the L5 was always rock solid, got the beat of the music correct, and never lacked detail. The Big 7 is just better in every way, clarity, rock steady, bass only there when needed and then look out for thunder. The midrange of the two DACs was very similar. The patented Lampizator sound: open, clear, fast, the Big7 did everything the L5 does but just better. An audiophile owning a Level 4 or 5 could easily believe that the midrange could not be beaten. The DS certainly can't. It didn't take me long to realize that the Big 7 takes the midrange up another notch or 2,3,4 . . . You get the picture. The L5 and the treble? The treble of the Big 7 possesses a clarity that might be compared to the L5 like this. The L5 was like looking through slightly tinted glass while the Big 7 is like looking out the window with no glass at all on a clear day. Not in polluted China though. The result? Cymbals that shimmer with just the right amount of sparkle and decay. Voices even when grouped resonate in their own separate space.
Do I love the Big7? You betcha. Well worth any fine tuning that might need to be performed. It is a complex SOTA design. Like any high performance race car it might develop an issue or two. Even though Lukasz packed mine carefully and sent it out next day air via DHL (like he does for everyone), there was still an issue upon delivery. I just couldn't get it to turn on. A quick text or email to Fred was all it took to get the Lampi guys springing to action. Lukasz even called to help out all the way from Poland. The end result? The Big 7 had to be sent for service here in the states at the Lampizator service and warranty center. I dropped it off at UPS and it was back at my home playing perfectly in just a couple of days. Did I have to pay for shipping? Absolutely not. The guys at Lampizator are dedicated, caring, and could serve as the model for all high end audio boutique businesses to strive for. What else can I say?
Wait a minute! Stop the presses! I forgot to tell about DSD!
Of course the L5, Big 7, and Perfect Wave Direct Stream all play the standard PCM standards Redbook, 24/48, 24/96, 24/176.5, 24/192 and what's beyond with aplomb. HiRes recordings are not necessary of course but are much like the whip cream on a hot fudge sundae! Who'd want to do without them? Very addicting. The DS sounds especially good with PCM but surprisingly not quite so good with DSD. A Lampi DAC equipped with DSD is the cherry on top of a giant sundae. Simply breathtaking in realism. Voices just float in their own space. Uncanny comes to mind. I've refrained from discussing specific recordings but I have got to mention one: Elvis Presley: 24 Karat Hits in DSD. Simply put, I've never heard a recording like this. A must have even if you're not an Elvis Fan. Once you've heard Crying in the Chapel, In the Ghetto, or Love Me Tender you are certain to be a DSD fan and once you've heard these tunes on a Lampi DAC you'll be PayPaling the Lampizator guys.
The Road to Amber
After several months I received word that my Big 7 could benefit with some upgrades so back to Poland it flew. Due to circumstances beyond Fred's and Lukasz's control I learned it might be a couple of weeks before the Big 7 would be flying back home. No music. But a quick call to Fred and he was telling me about Lukasz's newest creation, the Amber DAC. And Fred agreed to send me the only Amber DAC in the USA to use while the Big 7 was home in Poland for updates and a tuneup.
I was excited to have music at home again but was prepared for disappointment. After the sonic bliss and heights the Big 7 brought to my system, how could this little DAC, the Amber even compare? And what is an Amber DAC?
✤LampizatOr hand made DAC
✤Fantastic ESS Sabre reference DAC
✤DSD and PCM in one package
✤Lampizator famous tube output stage
✤Lampizator tubed power supply
✤Great looking full size chassis which it shares with our Level3.
✤Great upgrade path (with chokes and caps)
Pretty good pedigree, right? But how did it sound?
The Amber Fred sent me was equipped with a RCA coaxial input. A simple job to hook up, right?
Because of my system, which is equipped and for USB yes and no.
It was easy to connect my Oppo to it via the coaxial out and input. Then I connected the analog outs to my TRL DUDE preamp. Insert a CD into the Oppo, press play and . . . . No sound! Were the amps on? Yep. All cables connected? Yep. Hmm. A quick call to Fred who told me a tube could have come loose in shipping and gave me permission to open the Amber. Yep, sure enough one of the three tubes had wobbled loose. Back in it went. A quick screwing and hookup and . . . Music! Emmy Lou Harris was singing in my room once again. The sound? Surprisingly good for just being turned on. The bass was a little whompy at first, the treble maybe a touch bright, but the Amber clearly possessed the magic realism and midrange that only (in my experience) is the hallmark of a Lampizator DAC.
But, you know, I had to get the Amber in sync with my tricked out PC. A quick check and yep, my PC does have a coaxial output. I hurriedly made the connection, fired up the trusty iPad, sat in the listening chair, turned out the lights, pointed the remote at the DUDE, selected Emmy Lou and listened to the sweet sound of nothing. Drat. What gives? The simple answer? I don't know. Another one of those arcane PC mysteries that are sometimes unsolvable.
Wait a minute. The doorbell just rang. What's this? My Lampi USB TranspOrt has been delivered by UPS? The wheels turn. Aha! I'll connect the coaxial output of the TranspOrt to the Amber input. That'll do it!
After downloading the EXD driver for the USB TranspOrt and getting Windows 8.1 to approve the unsigned driver, I jRivered the iPad and suddenly there was music. After listening to a few of my favorite cuts, (Emmy Lou Harris, Stevie Wonder, The Decemberists, and Johnny Cash it soon became apparent just how good the Amber DAC was.
When connected to the TranspOrt, Amber displayed sure strutted her stuff. The most objectionable characteristic before with the Oppo was somewhat whompy bass which I had attributed wrongly to Amber. The bass was punchy, well defined and clearly lost the womp. The treble was extended but smooth, and the best part, the Lampizator midrange and realism were right there. Soundstage and imaging were very good but not as vivid as I've heard my system. At this point, the Amber was in my mind really a keeper. One could insert this DAC into any system and it wouldn't be embarrassed.
To me, one hallmark of a well engineered component is its ability to improve as one's system does. The next step: rebooting my PC to my second operating system Windows Server Essentials 2012 r2 along with JRiver, jPlay, and the excellent Audio Optimizer. (If you've not heard this combo with a tweaked PC you owe it to yourself to at least seek out someone in your area and give it a listen.) Would Amber respond?
In a word yes, the bass, treble, and midrange became even more refined and Gadzooks the images floated precisely in their own space, lots of front to back depth, and the soundstage became more transparent.
Ok, so if Amber is this good, is there any reason to seek out a Level 4, 5, 6, or Big 7? Well to be honest, I'm sure the Amber could give the Level 4 a run for its money. The Level 5? Pretty close, but Amber lacks the slam and resolving power the dual mono power supply and boutique parts the Level 5 is powered with. Remember the Level 5 was the most musical DAC I'd heard until the Big 7 experience. The Big 6, aka the Fikus DAC, I can't speak to as I've never heard one. I'd sure like to though (Fred and Lukasz! You listening? Hint, Hint). Ok the Big 7? In a word no, the Big 7 is just over the top. See above.
I've certainly not heard even a fraction of the DACs available today. But for $2000.00 Amber has to be one of the great buys in audio. I've not even tried tube tolling or inserting an audiophile fuse into it. Why? Just to busy listening.
According to the Lampizator site Amber can now be customized with premium parts like Jupiter and Dueland Caps and other goodies. Plus DSD. Looks like Lukasz just can't help himself. Associated gear Click to view my Virtual SystemSimilar products
PS Audio PWD, PWD II, and the Direct Stream. Mark Levinson Reference 30.6 DAC, Theta Gen 5, Oppo,