LampizatOr Generation 5 Level 4 DAC
A major upgrade to the company’s generation four.
Review By Wayne Donnelly
I had been hearing about wondrous DACs from Polish manufacturer LampizatOr for quite a while, but had not had a chance to listen to any of them. But last spring when I spent some time at the AXPONA show near Chicago, I made a point of visiting a couple of rooms featuring them. My review of the LampizatOr Generation 5 Level 4 DAC shows how much more enjoyment you can get from your music with the right setup. Often in the past I have found that it is hard to isolate the contribution of a given component to an unfamiliar system in an unfamiliar – and often sonically compromised – hotel room. But this time the sound coming through those digital sources was so superb, and so much more musical than even good hi-rez setups heard at previous shows, that I wanted to learn more. I spoke to Fred Ainsley of LampizatOr North America, and we arranged for me to do the first review of the soon-to-be-released Generation 5 LampizatOr Level 4, the entry-level DAC offered in North America.
At the show I had heard both a Level 4 and a top-of-the-line Level 7 DAC. The Level 7 was beautiful-sounding, but it is a two-chassis product with a five-figure price. My audio setup simply didn't have room for two new chassis, and even if I fell in love with the Level 7 my exchequer couldn’t accommodate the price. The Level 4 has a single chassis, and while it is not inexpensive, I could stretch my budget enough to acquire it if I had to have it.
For several years I have been listening to a ModWright-modified Denon 3910 multi-format player. Though that player is pretty long in the tooth for a digital component, with its tube output stage it has had a richness and musical "rightness" that have made it beat out competition from a number of standalone solid-state DACs. A couple of years ago I replaced its original Tung-Sol NOS 5687s with 6900s. Originally developed for military use by Bendix and later manufactured by Mu, the 6900s are superior in every way: detail resolution, full harmonics, and extended frequency response with especially powerful and well defined bass. With those tubes the ModWright/Denon has delivered performance closer to – though still not equal to – my analog rig. After that experience I asked that my Generation 5 review DAC be designed for the 6900s.
My plan was to use the ModWright/Denon as the transport for the LampizatOr DAC via SP/DIF. To get me started, Fred Ainsley sent me a Level 4 Generation 4 unit so I could have a basis for judging the improvements in the Generation 5. The comparison would not be exact, as the Generation 4 had ECC182 tubes. Early on I was puzzled when the Generation 4 suddenly stopped playing. After some initial panic I remembered (picture Homer Simpson hitting himself on the forehead and shouting "DOH!") that because the ModWright/Denon had been programmed to switch automatically to SACD when a hybrid disc was loaded, and the DAC reads only the disc’s Redbook layer. The Denon had to be reprogrammed. After that was done I had a few days to play with the Generation 4. A couple of weeks later my Generation 5 review unit arrived from Poland after it had been tested and burned in for a several days.
All LampizatOr products are hand-built in Poland by designer Lukasz Fikus and a small team. In addition to the DACs, the company's preamplifiers, amplifiers, transports and music streamers are all available in North America. Only cables, speakers and DIY products are not imported. Each unit is built to order, and undergoes extensive testing, burn-in and music listening before being shipped. Retail customers get a seven-day money-back guarantee, and a five-year warranty that is transferable if the unit is sold. If a component returned to the factory for upgrades, that transaction generates a new five-year warranty. That bespeaks real confidence and commitment to support the customers that are most impressive.
Every LampizatOr DAC is in effect custom-built, with PCM or DSD decoding formats, RCA, XLR or BNC output connectors, and a choice of capacitor upgrades. Level 4 design highlights include tube rectification, tube output stage, three chokes and an almost electrolite-less power supply. It uses some of the highest-quality parts available, such as a superior digital board capable of 32-bit/384kHz playback. Prospective buyers are encouraged to contact LampizatOr to discuss what they want to have in any LampizatOr DAC.
With all the possible variations, the prices reflect the chosen features for each DAC. The base MSRP for my Level 4 Generation 5 DAC was $4195. A capacitor upgrade added $300 and DSD added $700, bringing the price to $5195. RCA outputs and USB & S/PDIF inputs did not incur any additional amount.
The LampizatOr European site is well worth reading to understand Lukasz Fikus's design approach, which is very different from common trends in digital designs. For instance, he does not believe in oversampling. No switching power supplies are used, only linear power supplies with custom-wound transformers. Lukasz believes that tubes are essential. He spurns the commonly used DAC chips, uniquely using a combination of far more expensive parts. Every hand-built DAC uses very short point-to-point silver-in-Teflon wiring. There are many other points, but the reader can see those on the website. I mention this manifesto because it illuminates the LampizatOr design philosophy.
This review will describe the Level 4 Generation 5 using discs played on my Denon transport. I wanted the DSD capability included because I plan to implement DSD computer audio in 2015. I had originally planned that step for two years ago, but in September 2012 I had a stroke that put me out of action for a year. I will have a bit of a learning curve, as I am not a skilled computer user, and my visual impairment exacerbates such endeavors. But after I have experienced the LampizatOr decoding DSD in my system, I will write a follow-up review covering that feature.
When my Generation 5 DAC arrived, there were a few surprises. Luckily I had very competent help in unpacking and installing the DAC. Joe Jurzec, a partner in Purity Audio Design and an admirer of my Wells Audio Innamorata power amplifiers, generously volunteered to help. I was surprised by the packing. The DAC was wrapped in several feet of plastic wrap and protected primarily by flimsy-looking sheets of Styrofoam. LampizatOr says this packing has adequately protected units shipped from Poland, but I think custom-fitted inserts would be more protective. There was no power cord (not a problem as I use very good aftermarket power cords), and no owner’s manual. There was a single sheet of basic hookup instructions, and a nice note from Lukasz commending my choice of the 6900 tubes, which he called "the crème de la crème of output tubes."
At first glance the Level 4 doesn’t look like a tube DAC. It has a sturdy black steel casing with no visible tubes, or even heat vents, in the top. Turning the chassis over, one sees that the tubes are inserted through the bottom of the chassis, protruding slightly from the bottom panel. The DAC has four tall feet to provide clearance and ventilation. There is no digital display on the front panel, only the LampizatOr logo, with the upper-case "O" surrounding a pushbutton switch for selecting PCM S/PDIF or DSD USB inputs. The power switch – and somewhat confusingly-- input switch -- are on the rear panel. For the S/PDIF connection I chose an IXOS digital cable. That company is out of business, but this cable sounds superb.
Since he knew that I planned to use my NOS 6900 output tubes in the DAC, Lukasz supplied the Generation 5 with good modern-manufacture 5687s. (NOS 6900s are rare these days.) The ModWright/Denon requires tubes in the output stage, although they are not in the S/PDIF digital out circuit. Joe Jurzec switched the tubes, placing my 6900s in the DAC and the 5687s in the Denon. Now I was ready to start listening.
Before we installed the Generation 5, I had spent an afternoon listening to a range of music through my ModWright/Denon player. During this time I used quite a few hybrid SACDs, which were automatically played using the SACD layer of each hybrid. The first things I wanted to discern were, first, what was the difference when the NOS 6900s were moved from the ModWright/Denon to the LampizatOr; and secondly, what were the differences between hearing the SACD layer of a hybrid SACD through the ModWright/Denon player versus the Redbook layer through the LampizatOr.
Those comparisons were not very difficult. From the beginning, playing the new Valery Gergiev/London Symphony Orchestra hybrid of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, the sonic improvements were clear. The LSO Live label's discs typically have fine soundstaging, but the LampizatOr widened and deepened the stage, with more precise, "visible" imaging. The low strings and drums, so important in the orchestration of this work, had greater depth and power than I had previously heard. At the other end of the frequency spectrum the violins were more open and beautifully extended, and the "bite" of the trumpet was more present than I typically hear on recordings-- but hear regularly in Orchestra Hall during my frequent Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts.
A completely different recording environment is heard on the Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony performance of Leonard Bernstein's complete score of West Side Story. This is now the definitive recording of that great musical. It was recorded in concert, and the lively soundstage of the recording suggests that attention was paid to spatial relationships during the event. A case in point is the "Quintet," a very operatic ensemble passage in which the rival Sharks and Jets, and Tony, Maria and Anita all sing passionately about the coming climactic night. Playing this ensemble through the LampizatOr let me hear every individual strand clearly, with every word easily intelligible.
Solo piano, always a test for audio systems, quite revealing when I played Paul Lewis's Schubert Wanderer Fantasy. This had sounded good in SACD through the ModWright/Denon, but the Redbook layer through the Generation 5 delivered more explosive dynamics and a deeper, more articulate capturing of the left hand. These differences continued to emerge through many hybrid SACDs. The Generation 5 consistently presented more natural reproduction from Redbook than the ModWright/Denon could achieve from SACD.
Digital Versus Analog: The Toughest Test
I am a diehard analog lover. After decades of collecting records, my collection of LPs numbers over 5,000. In recent years I have treasured my fully tricked-out VPI Aries 3 turntable – especially after installing the Steinmusic Aventurin 6 cartridge, which I chose for a 2013 Blue Note award. As stated earlier in this review, my goal when listening to CDs has been to come as close as possible to what I hear through analog. After putting the 6900 tubes into the ModWright/Denon player, listening to CDs had become more enjoyable -- way better than the old days, when I could seldom listen to digital for more than an hour or so at a time. For this review I decided to match strength to strength.
The Antal Dorati / LSO Stravinsky Firebird on Mercury is the greatest recording ever of that piece. For this comparison I played the Classic Records 45 rpm,180 gram, single-sided pressings against the remastered Mercury CD. I had made this same comparison using the ModWright/Denon player, and although the CD was impressive, there was a clear improvement over the CD from that superb LP reissue. With the Generation 5, it was really touch and go between them. If anything, during the thrillingly raucous "Infernal Dance," it was almost impossible to choose one over the other. I was especially amazed that bass response, which the Stein cartridge captures better than any cartridge I have ever heard, was essentially matched by the DAC.
I had similar results pitting the Classic Records 45 RPM, 180 gram, single-sided pressings of the Fritz Reiner/Chicago Respighi Pines & Fountains of Rome against the remastered RCA CD. The opening movement, "The Pines of the Villa Borghese," has especially challenging passages for high strings, as they mimic water dancing in sunlight. This is one of the great recordings ever made by my beloved CSO, and again the digital experience yielded little if anything to that great LP reissue.
I have always found the limited-edition LP of Patricia Barber's wonderful Modern Cool more revealing sonically than the CD, even after Mobil Fidelity Sound Lab did a superior CD reissue. Through the Generation 5, the vocals became more natural and intelligible, and the original bass-heavy sound was much better controlled.
All of the titles discussed above are generally recognized as "audiophile" recordings. But I was curious about other genres and recording styles. I picked two favorite old rock albums: Yellow Moon by the Neville Brothers and Los Lobos' The Neighborhood. On both of those I had always found the CDs relatively unpleasant to listen to, and I preferred the LPs. The Generation 5 made the CDs more fun to hear, and pretty much equal to the LPs. Although the DAC was certainly giving me more information than I had heard before, it was as if it managed to "throw away" most of the digital glare and edginess. Ultimately, I think that what I like best about the LampizatOr is how it allows me to enjoy CDs – even from the early days of digital – that were previously sufficiently poor sounding to make me reluctant to play them. I feel as if I have gained virtually a whole new CD library!
The Bottom Line
As much as I love my analog setup, especially after adding the Stein cartridge last year, my physical disabilities make it a lot more work to play an LP. Although I enjoyed my ModWright/Denon player more than any previous digital sources in my system, I still went to LPs when I wanted to hear the best sound my system could produce. Now I can just relax and enjoy CDs, without feeling that I am compromising. The LampizatOr Level 4 Generation 5 DAC essentially frees me from worrying about the sound and lets me relax and enjoy the music.
At a retail price of $5195, the Generation 5 is a substantial purchase. But to me it gives great value for the degree of listening pleasure it delivers. I expect that when I have mastered DSD computer audio it will prove to be even more of a bargain. I may also check out whether a newer and better disc transport will get even better results from my CD library. As I'm sure you’ve already figured out, this wonderful DAC, as Dylan would sing, "ain't goin' nowhere."
Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz) 4/5
Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz) 5/5
Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz) 5/5
High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up) 5/5
Inner Resolution 5/5
Soundscape Width Front 5/5
Soundscape Width Rear 5/5
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers 4.5/5
Soundscape Extension Into Room 4.5/5
Fit And Finish 3.5/5
Self Noise 5/5
Value For The Money 5/5
Type: Vacuum tube digital to analog converter.
OPCM conversion engine with tube power supply based on 6X5 diode
Stereo tube output circuit
Three separate independent power supplies, three chokes
DAC: 32-bit architecture, 32-bit/384 kHz file format
Outputs: Stereo RCA
Digital Inputs: S/PDIF RCA and asynchronous USB
Five-winding transformer, 50 VA total
Paper-in-oil output capacitors
Black or silver front panel