Review: LampizatOr Lite 7 DAC DA converter
IT was circa 1983 when souped-up Volkswagen Beetles were eluding California Highway Patrol cars by simply out-speeding them in police chases. Something had to be done and, as a result, the CHP purchased a fleet of Ford Mustangs, that iconic American muscle car. Problem solved.
Fast forward 31 years later: I am speaking with Lukasz Ficus, owner of the acclaimed Lampizator, a small manufacturer of hand-made audiophile components based out of Warsaw, Poland, about possible upgrades to their customizable Amber DAC (digital to analog converter, which processes and converts digital source material to analog for playback on audio systems). I ask him if he would make one with the big, coke bottle-sized vacuum tubes.
His response shocks me.
“You wouldn’t soup up a Volkswagen Beetle, would you?” he challenged. “If you really want superior performance,” he asserts, “you should buy a sports car instead!” Although very good, the Amber was their entry-level DAC; rather than pour money into costly extras, why not simply go with one of their higher end models?
In the end, I chose the Amber DAC Plus with Jupiter copper cast wax capacitors, a 6X5 rectifier tube and an extra TOSLINK input. I auditioned it for several weeks and reviewed it for publication.
It was amazing. As a point of comparison, I pitted it in A/B tests against a stalwart, tube-based $5,500 DAC that was hailed for its musicality. Souped-up or not, the Amber DAC Plus outperformed a DAC over twice its price! (You can read that review here)
I ended up buying it. I showed it off to my friends, listened to digital music endlessly and, with my wife, took in Sawyer Fredericks’ sublime vocals as he won The Voice on HDTV with it. I even posted pictures of it on Facebook! Wondrous as it was, now and again, I was reminded of drivers red-lining their 300 series BMWs and Acuras on Chicago’s roads, while the occasional Mercedes, Porsche or Lamborghini simply glided about the speed limit. Bottom line, I wanted the equivalent of a premium sports car parked in my hi-fi system.
Lite-en My Wallet?
Then in April, when I reviewed Audio Expo North America (AXPONA) 2015, I took great interest in the Lampizator Big 7 ($10,500) and their flagship, the Golden Gate DAC ($15,400). These were way beyond my budget, but when I met Lukasz Ficus there, he informed me about the Big 7’s stripped down version, the Lite 7 ($5,300). “At almost half the cost, it sounds pretty close to the Big 7,” he enticed. “Let me know when you want to upgrade from your Amber!”
I initially passed, but when the opportunity arose to review the Lite 7 a few months later, I bit hard.
I See the Lite
Several months later, my stepdaughter calls me when she signs the delivery slip for the Lite 7 on a Monday afternoon. The parcel is nearly twice as tall as the box the Amber had come in (thankfully, the DHL driver set it inside the door for her). They did a thorough packing job — double boxed, very well padded. And when it’s unpacked, I am blown away.
Everything about the Lite 7 screams performance. It’s a sumptuous sports car disguised as a DAC – shiny, sleek, and low slung. Like the classic Corvette’s lightweight fiberglass body, it’s sheathed in black Plexiglas. Viewed from above, it conjures lavish speedsters at auto shows, hoods up, flaunting pristine supercharged engines, radiators, fans, cabling and serpentine belts; looking through the Lite 7’s translucent vented cover, you see an impressive array of lights, wiring and components. And with an oversized pair of directly heated single-ended triode tubes (usually reserved for use in tube amps) protruding from the rear, it calls to mind a black Mercedes Formula One racer. It’s stunning.
I notice that the Lite 7 I received doesn’t have wood sides like in the pictures on their site, so I email Mr. Ficus, who responds with the following message:
The top is plexiglass. The sides are usually wood for the Big7 except
special orders of black. On Lite7 the black plexi is standard, except
special orders for wood. So it is a mirror situation from Big 7.
My wife says she prefers the all black Plexiglas to the wooden sides, anyways; it's more contempo. But with the Lite 7, as I’m about to find out, it’s not all about looks.
What’s Under the Hood
A pared down version of Lampizator’s Big 7 DAC, the standard Lite 7 comes equipped with the following:
• Jupiter AM series output capacitors
• Standard Psvane 101D, with provision to switch to 2A3, 6A3 or 300B or 45-245-345 vacuum tubes.
• Same Level 7 PCM DAC 384 kHz
• USB up to 32 bit/384 kHz
• The same DSD engine that the Big 7 uses
• RCA output pair
• USB input socket
• RCA-S/PDIF input
• DHT triodes in single ended anode follower configuration for signal tubes (45, 2A3 or 101D or 300B)
• A selector switch to choose three tube schemes (2A3/45/101D) but comes with one chosen tube pair (tube rolling is up to the buyer)
• One amplification stage
• One capacitor in series with the sound
• Separate transformer windings for tube circuit
• Separate transformer for the digital part
• Separate secondary windings for every task
• Lampizator’s top digital section with current-output DAC converters
• DSD based that uses un-manipulated, filtered, raw, native data stream as signal.
• A choice of a black or silver front panel, as well as the light up color of the eye ring surrounding the DSD activation button (you can choose red, orange, blue or white)
• Power consumption of 30 Watts
The size is 45 cm wide, 53 cm deep, 13 cm tall (weight is 20 kg shipping and 16 kg net). I take note of its size; needing roughly 22 inches depth to accommodate it, the Lite is too big to showcase on an upper shelf in my entertainment center and must go in a lower compartment with a door.
Experiencing Technical Difficulties
Initially, I had problems getting my Toshiba laptop to recognize the Lite 7 DAC. However, by rebooting both the computer and the computer, I was able to find it (it appeared as Amanero). I also had problems running it with JRiver, as there was some sort of issue between the Amanero USB driver and it, but eventually,after playing around with the sound source settings on the laptop, I was able to get signal from the computer. Still no music or sound!
It turned out that I had pressed the button encircled by the blue “eye” on the front of the DAC (which for the Amber, was an on/off button, but for the Lite 7, was a button to turn on native DSD playing). By releasing the button, I was abel to get sound. And what a sound it was!
Like getting behind the wheel of a Seven Series BMW after driving a 325, my wife's and my first impressions were that it is smoother, more sophisticated and weightier in presentation than the Amber. Wow. The Amber had more of a "wet" sound to it. In contrast, the Lite 7, while still presenting a slight shimmer, was a touch drier and more natural (I noticed that glowing sound with the Big 7 and the Golden Gate, too, but they were also more refined). No doubt, this dialed-back sheen has something to do with the Lite 7 using a solid state rectifier, as opposed to a rectifier tube, as the Amber DAC Plus, the Big 7 and Golden Gate DACs use).
I emailed Lukasz to inform him of my progress and confusion regarding the eye button; I had listened to a few cuts from a DSD download of Kieth Greeninger without depressing it, yet when I pressed the button, I got no sound.
He answered with the following message:
“The front ring button does DSD versus PCM - the DSD works ONLY when ring is pressed in. If you ever get the DSD sound when ring is out - there is a conversion going on in the computer.”
Try as I might, I couldn’t get it to work. He emailed me some photos of him clicking on screen settings of JRiver, which helped somewhat (unfortunately, the selections on his version appeared in Polish). Then, after doing some searches on Google, I found the link below that helped immeasurably:
In particular, the following passage was especially germane:
This uses the native DSD bitstreaming support built into ASIO 2.2. The ASIO driver for your DAC must support it.
To bitstream using this method:
• Select ASIO as your Audio Output Mode in Options > Audio > Audio Device.
• Select Tools > Options > Audio > Bitstreaming and select DSD. (In earlier versions, Bitstreaming is under Tools > Options > Video instead and you may need to select Custom and choose DSD).
I carefully followed the instructions and, suddenly, it worked! Now, instead of listening to DSD signal down-sampled to PCM via JRiver, I was listening to Native DSD via the Lite 7. Like washing windows you didn’t know were dirty, the new level of detail was astonishing.
We listen to a plethora of our favorites, including Eric Clapton, Cliff Richard, Jim Ferguson, and Bebo Norman. "Listen to that!", my wife exclaims, "And that! Have you ever heard it sound like that before?" We watch the movie, Pearl Harbor for the hundredth time and are enthralled with the newfound detail and balance playing through our speakers. Then, after letting the Lite 7 acclimate to my system for several weeks, it's time to give it a serious listen.
The Listening Room
My listening space is a 12’ X 18’ living room with an oversize, 8'x7' window to the right, a smaller corner window at the front left side, a dining room to the left, and a vaulted ceiling some 18 feet high, with a adjacent dining room (on the other side of a handrail) to the left and a loft space above. Running alongside that left side, we have a large, overstuffed leather couch and chair, with the listener perched on an overstuffed leather loveseat to the rear of the room. Upfront, a large oak entertainment center houses my gear, and we keep a glass and bronze coffee table in front of the listening seat (my wife insists!). We have red oak floors. That said, I have made a few adjustments toeing-in the speakers and using “Room Correction” in the DSP Studio section of JRiver.
I share all this because it’s not the ideal listening room with three solid adjacent walls and speakers placed at precise thirds across the front wall. And, then, there's the glass-topped coffee table, which I'm told can create unnecessary sound reflections. Yet, it's important to note that all my home DAC auditions were performed here, my Von Schweikert speakers are better adept at placement closer to walls and, frankly, with the adjustments, the resulting sound is quite amazing.
Nothing Lite-Weight about this Listening Session
“Moon is Shining.” (Special Event 21 -- The NPR Sessions, featuring Keith Greeninger, Chris Lee, and Brain. (Blue Coast Records DSD 64 download. Folk/Blues).
I have to say right off the top that vocals and instruments have never sounded so “in the room” and engaging at my house.
For those unfamiliar with this download, it is a bittersweet ballad with acoustic guitar, drums, and upright acoustic bass.
As I listen, Greeninger’s throaty baritone is captured, alternatively, in its breathiness, tenderness, strength and vulnerability. Its natural timbre — as well as those of accompanying instruments — are conveyed better than with any other DAC I’ve used. Guitar strings squeak in protest as deft fingers shift, ply and slide over them, sweet notes ring out, float and decaying true to life. The sonorous plunks of the upright acoustic bass are richly textured, while the hiss of brushes striking the high hat sound — it’s all smoother, better balanced and refined — even weightier — than the Amber, which had previously impressed me so much.
“Jimmy and the Crows.” (Special Event 21 -- The NPR Sessions, featuring Keith Greeninger, Chris Lee, and Brain. (Blue Coast Records DSD 64 download. Folk/Blues).
A little more upbeat, running through the Lite 7, this bluesy rock song is more airy, ambient, and accurate than I’ve previously heard on my system. The attack of guitar strokes, brushes striking the snare drum and the plucked acoustic bass are true to life and mesmerizing. His haunting vocals are natural, full and balanced. It’s lush and juicy — especially with the dialog between the sweet, detailed guitar picking, high hat, guitar body taps, and bass. Summed up, it’s hard to imagine this DSD recording sounding any better.
“Almost Like Being in Love.” John Moriarty Trio. So Many Stars. (johnmoriarty.downloadsnow.net. 5.6 MHz DSD 128. Jazz.)
The pace, rhythm and timing are very good in this up-tempo jazz classic. John Moriarty’s piano is vibrant, well-balanced, pushed back a smidge (likely mixed that way to carve out a range for Bonet Moriarty’s vocals to have full bloom without being muddied by the piano playing at similar frequencies), its notes floating through the air, lush and vibrant; Jim Kerwin’s acoustic bass is resonant, well-defined and forward; Bonet Moriarty’s vocals are clear and a touch aggressive (again, likely mixed that way to make her voice stand out over the piano — or, maybe, it’s just that way naturally!), well-articulated and rendered. It’s a delightful tune and, playing via the Lite 7 at DSD 128, it’s very ambient and engaging.
“Light in the Fracture.” Emily Palen. Glass (DSD-Guide.com download, 5.6 MHz DSD 128. Classical).
There is an amazing sense of air about this recording of Palen’s violin. The timbre is well-defined, three dimensional and hauntingly resonant. The depth, the delicate details and decaying notes are captured and conveyed with sublime aplomb, making it a rewarding, visceral experience taking in this artists work.
“What Do You Want From Me.” Pink Floyd. Division Bell. (HDTracks. 2.9 MHz flac. Rock.).
Richard Wright’s Hammond organ and synthesizers sound spot in the opening moments, locked in with the David Mason’s drums and Guy Pratt’s electric bass keeping time. And then the magic —David Gilmour’s electric guitar, whaling away upfront and center. It’s massive, euphonic — orgasmic — with its dynamism, detail and timbre. And Gilmour’s vocals? The Lite 7 captures its quintessence in all its glory — the unique nasal tone, the reverb, and angst. Mason’s drums are full-bodied with lots of slam and presence. Simply put, this is rock and roll done right!
“Poles Apart.” Pink Floyd. Division Bell (HDTracks. 2.8 MHz flac. Rock.)
David Gilmour’s ambient and airy vocals (which are well-rounded, reverb-heavy and defined) take it up a notch in this slower, melancholic melody, its lyric acknowledging former bandmates Syd Barrett and Roger Waters. Starting off with Gilmour’s well-rounded vocals and acoustic guitar tuned in DADGAD (or Celtic) tuning, and electric bass, with Richard Wright on keyboards, it’s evocative, exquisitely clear, balanced and sweet in its presentation. And then Dave Mason’s high hat and snare — and Gilmore’s soulful electric guitar — take it to another level. It transports the listener on a lushly textured musical journey, present and in the room, with vocals, guitars, drums, orchestrations and programming washing over in textured layers like a psychedelic tsunami.
“Stowaway”. The Larry Corryell Organ Trio. Impressions. (Chesky Records. uncompressed CD ripped to laptop in Apple Lossless. Jazz.)
The warm glow of virtuoso Larry Corryell’s electric guitar’s leads and comps in this downtempo tribute to Wes Montgomery are rendered very natural and balanced. And there’s no mistaking it: Sam Yahel’s soulful Hammond B-3 organ sounds just right. The lows, the warmth, that unique earthy tone, and the slight grunge in spots — it’s just right. Combined with the air, pacing and snap on Paul Wertico’s high hat and drums, there’s an uncanny sense of presence, creating as it draws me into their jam session in an intimate setting.
In Lite of These Events
From the beginning, long before the Lite 7 was acclimated to my environs, it sounded exceptional. Like a select cabernet sauvignon, it was elegant, complex, balanced and robust. It rendered timbres naturally, with superb imaging, detail, and true to life. Frankly, this is the best sounding DAC that’s graced my system – and I’ve heard some good ones!
At $5,300, the Lampizator Lite 7 is not inexpensive, nor does it quite have the glow associated with some of its siblings; by using a solid state rectifier, versus a rectifier tube, that sheen is pulled back a smidge and, as a result, it sounds a touch more analytical. As such, I feel it strikes an excellent balance. Moreover, at roughly half the cost of their wondrous Big 7 DAC, it has a lot of its benefits.
Getting back to our car analogy, it’s like comparing a stock Ford Mustang to the Shelby Mustang, a hopped-up version of the same car. Bottom line, it’s a still Mustang, a high performance sports car with many of the same characteristics, not some souped up VW.
In the September 2010 issue of Car and Driver, Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter defined good handling as “the car does exactly what the driver requests and provides transparent feedback in doing so.” In my opinion, the same can be said of the Lampizator Lite 7: it responds perfectly to the driver (the music signal), and is very transparent in conveying it to the listener. For this, I heartily give the Lampizator Lite 7 DAC two checkered flags.*
*Oh, and did I forget to mention that we bought the Lite 7? Gotta roll...
· Toshiba Satellite C655 laptop computer with JRiver Media Center, ripped CDs, FLAC and DSD files
· Straight Wire USB Link USB cable
· Lampizator Lite 7 DAC
· Straight Wire Solo interconnects
· Schiit SYS passive preamp
· Straight Wire Solo interconnects with CAMAC connectors on one end (to connect to the Mark Levinson amp) and the other with RCA connectors to the preamp
· Mark Levinson ML-9 amplifier
· Straight Wire SoundStage SC external bi-wire cables
· Von Shweikert VR-5 HSE speakers