By Juan C. Ayllon
I remember trying on a pair of reading glasses for the first time. We were on our fourth date, seated at a ringside reporters table at the Hammond Civic Center, where sweat flew, blood spattered and every thudding punch, every miss, cough or groan could be perceived. At 48, I couldn’t make out the tiny font on a bout sheet, when she reached into her purse and slipped me her spectacles. What was fuzzy and illegible moments ago read in startling clarity and my boxing report, as well as our relationship, went on to be a smashing success (she is now my wife).
High end DACs can be equally revealing and exhilarating. They are to digital music what HDTV is to television, bringing heightened clarity, nuance and lush, lifelike detail to the experience.
DACs (digital to analog converters) convert digital signal to analog for playing over headphones or speakers, and are contained in computers’ sound cards, iPods, TVs, game consoles, and other digital media devices. However, unless they’re housed in expensive players or preamps, DACs are often poor to mediocre, but when bypassed by linking a quality external DAC digitally to the device, the improvements can be startling.
A little technical mumbo jumbo
To create digital music, analog music is sampled and converted into ones and zeros. Expressed as “bits”. The more frequent the sampling rate per second (expressed in terms of hertz or “Hz"), the higher the bits, and the closer the sample sounds to the original source (http://discover.store.sony.com).
For comparison’s sake, MP3s run around 24 kHz and 32Kbps (don’t ask), while CDs run at 44.1kHz/16bit. That’s why CDs generally sound better than MP3 recordings. High resolution audio, which is associated with speeds of 96 kHz/24 bit and beyond, trumps them both.
Pulse-code modulation (PCM), a widely implemented means to deliver sampled signals is associated with CDs, computer digital audio and higher resolution recordings. More recently, a faster format, DSD -- or Direct Stream Digital -- has caught on and is a selling point for DACs that support it. DSD runs alternatively at speeds of 64 and 128 times the sampling rate of CDs and are known, respectively, as DSD 2.8MHz or DSD 5.6MHz. Most DACs support PCM, but the numbers that process DSD supported are rising.
Now, the market for DACs is tiered at levels around $100, $500, $1,000, $2,000, $3,000, and into the tens of thousands. For audiophiles, the "wow factor" DACs often cost between $3,500 and $15,000. It's cost prohibitive for many, but thankfully, like computers, advances in technology lowering that threshold.
Enter the Lampizator. Founded by retired Electrical Engineer Lukasz Ficus in Warsaw, Poland, their handmade DACs favor vacuum tubes and simplicity to transistors and their ilk and, as such, enjoy a cult-like niche in the audiophile community. I had read that their Lampizator 4, at $4,950, for example, gave the likes of the Meitner MA-1, the EMM Labs DAC2X and others going into the $15,000 range a run for their money.
Lampizator’s new Amber DAC replaces their levels 1 through 3 and is available in its base model form for under $2,000. Handmade, it includes the following features:
· ESS Sabre 9018 reference DAC chip
· DSD64, DSD128 and PCM playback
· Lampizator tube output stage
· Lampizator tubed power supply
According to its site, the Amber boasts “single ended triode with E88cc tubes, tube rectification, 192 kHz chip and a painted steel chassis.” Its dimensions are 5.24” H X 17 3/8” W X 13” D. More features, such as tube upgrades and additional inputs, can be ordered for an extra charge.
I opted to review the Amber Plus version with Jupiter copper cast wax capacitors, a 6X5 rectifier tube, an extra TOSLINK input (for use with TV and my Blu Ray player), and a boost in power (to offset the lack of gain in my passive preamp). This brings its cost up to roughly $2,300 through the U.S. distributor, LampizatOr North America (outside the U.S., they can be ordered directly from its factory in Warsaw).
The Lampizator Amber arrived double boxed and well padded, complete with a test report and an official Lampizator certificate reflecting its serial number and five year transferable warranty. It does not come with a power cord.
I discovered that the TOSLINK connection did not work unless the DAC was connected to a computer via USB. Via email, Lukasz Ficus said that the Amber was designed primarily as a USB DAC and must be connected to a computer via USB in order for it to work.
On first play, I was a tad bright and harsh-sounding, so I contacted the principals at Lampizator. In short order, I found out that occasionally unplugging their DAC for a minute acted like a computer’s hard reboot if it started sounding a little wonky. I was also told that additional burn-in time should soften the edges. Their advice worked, and it sounded great! I was now ready to compare it with a couple other DACs.
Equipment used for the review:
· Lampizator Amber-Plus DAC
· Hegel HD12 DSD DAC
· Abbingdon Music Research AMR DP77 DAC
· Toshiba Satellite C655 laptop computer with JRiver Media Center, ripped CDs, FLAC and DSD files
· MacBook Air laptop computer with JRiver Media Center and select ripped CDs, FLAC and DSD files
· Belkin USB cable
· Two pairs (one pair for each DAC used) of Audioquest/Cinemaquest HD-6-X 1.25% Silver 100% coverage Triple: Foil with 95% Silver-Plated Braid and Foil - CL3 75Ω Coax Video Cables with ITC-18/RCA gold plated connectors
· Samsung Blu Ray Player
· Toslink cable (basic $10 six foot cable)
· Schiit SYS passive preamp for A/B comparisons
· A pair of Mark Levinson CAMAC connectors with one end retrofitted by Saturday Audio Exchange with RCA connectors to link to the Schiit preamp
· Mark Levinson ML-9 amplifier
· Two pairs of DIY Moonshine White Lightning speaker cables (featured in 6Moons.com) configured in bi-wiring mode
· Von Shweikert VR-5 HSE speakers
The Hegel HD12 DSD DAC, which has received some nice press, is relatively small at 2.35” X 8.3” X 10.24” and 6.6 lbs. and comes complete with a plastic remote volume and mode selector control, roughly the size of a credit card. It has coaxial and optical inputs and handles up to DSD64 (via PC only until March 2105, when Macs will also be able to handle DSD). It sells for $1,400.
The Abbingdon Music Research DP 77 DAC works also as a preamplifier and is encased in a beautifully machined aluminum casing with glass ports on top to view the tubes with dimensions of 17.7” W X 4.7” H X 14.6” D and a weight of 25.4 lbs. Featuring two DACS – one tube based and the other solid state, it has a hefty, aluminum remote control for volume and mode settings. For the purposes of this review, I operated it in 32-bit HD DAC mode. It is priced at $5,495.
I compared the Hegel to the Amber first, and after returning it to Holm Audio, Brian Walsh of Essential Audio dropped off the AMR for comparisons with the Amber several days later.
In the Hegel and Lampi comparisons, both were played off the Toshiba laptop using drivers downloaded from their sites.
When I tried this with the AMR and the Lampi, the AMR’s driver would not run properly. I called Brian, who in turn emailed AMR. They responded that there was likely some sort of conflict with the various drivers downloaded on the laptop. After several hours of trying to fix it, I settled on playing the AMR via my MacBook Air laptop.
For brevity’s sake, comparisons are listed together after each song used.
‘Special Event 21 -- The NPR Sessions, featuring Keith Greeninger, Chris Lee, and Brain.’ (Blue Coast Records DSD 64 download. Folk/Blues).
“Moon is Shining.”
Hegel vs. Amber:
This is a nice ballad with acoustic guitar, drums, and upright acoustic bass. With the Hegel, vocals are crisp and rounded with a just a touch of sibilance. Guitar plucks very articulated, shifting of strings on frets very clear. The acoustic bass is very articulated, realistic and present in the room. There is a slight sibilance when he sings, “Moon is shining,” but not exaggerated. It’s a very nice presentation with good resolution, clarity and a touch laid back.
With the Amber, the hiss of brushes on snare drum and high hat sound are more present and in the room. Vocals are little fuller and more forward sounding, the bass feels a little weightier and the shifting of strings on guitar frets a little brighter and pronounced.
AMR DP-777 vs. Amber:
Guitar strings squeaking on frets are picked up nicely with the AMR, the notes from the plucked acoustic guitar strings glisten and float in the air. Greeninger’s voice has a little less edge, and the acoustic bass’ is a little rounded. It’s very analog sounding, calling to mind Hallmark movies filmed through Vaseline-smudged camera lenses. It’s very soothing and pleasant.
The Amber is a touch more defined, with guitar strings squeaks more pronounced, the voice harder-edged, and the bass more taut and resonant.
“Close to the Soul.”
Hegel vs. Amber:
Vocals sound very similar with the Hegel. Guitar solo detail exquisite, balanced. They're not soft, but softened just a tad, with the subtle maracas shakes clearly in the background.
The echo and reverb effects on vocals are a little more obvious with the Amber. It’s just a touch more revealing. The guitar plucks, again, are a little more pronounced, the bass a little weightier, the maracas still subtly present, but surprisingly a little less than with the Hegel.
AMR vs. Amber:
I am astounded how similar the AMR how it sounds to the Amber when this song starts out — so much so that I check the A/B switch. Greeninger’s voice has a harder edge than in the previous song. Good detail! The maracas prattle in the background.
The Amber’s rendition has similar voicing, but with a smidge harder edge to the vocals. It’s a little more defined, with the reverb effects and a sense of air more apparent when he hits certain notes. The maracas also sound a little more forward.
“Jimmy and the Crows.”
Hegel vs. Amber:
This is a more rocking, bluesy song and, with the Hegel, the guitar pluck kicking off the a bit brighter and his voice sounds a touch more sibilant. The guitar sounds well rounded. Heavy strikes of the brushes on the snare drum are impactful, the taps on the congas right there. It’s a nice, balanced presentation. The guitar picking towards the end is detailed and forward, the acoustic bass growls in the mix as he sings, “Sweet redemption,” the interplay of high hat, snare taps, bass, and guitar as he winds down the song is transfixing.
With the Amber, vocals sound more natural and less sibilant, guitar strokes have less edge to them. Plucked high notes stand out in starker relief.
AMR vs. Amber:
I am again amazed at the similarity to the Amber when the AMR starts its turn. The attack on the acoustic guitar and its voicing has a bit more bite to it. Brushes striking the snare versus guitar licks, interspersed with brushes on the high hat are deliciously haunting and emotive -- as are the smoky vocals and taps on strings, dry bass, and percussive strikes on the hollow guitar body.
The Amber captures all of this, but with a touch more sibilance and detail. If the AMR is a well-groomed professional walking out the front door to work, freshly coifed and cologned, the Amber is that same man after chasing a cab — there’s a little sweat, testosterone and a few hairs out of place. The high note guitar plucks and brushes slams on the snare are a touch brighter, more detailed and resolved.
Jim Ferguson. ‘Not Just Another Pretty Bass.’ (A Records. Jazz CD ripped to laptop).
“Not Just Another Pretty Bass” title track.
The Bass is very articulated in this fast paced jazz-rumba with the Hegel. The saxophone is up front, the keys sharp, and the high hat lilting. The bass solo is detailed, woodsy, with interspersed taps on cymbals ringing and hanging beatifically in the air. The drum solo is clear and vocals are very three-dimensional.
With the Amber, vocals are less harsh, but better fleshed out. The fast high hats clang true and the piano sound fuller, less sharp — more like a piano than keyboard (as the Hegel might suggest). The saxophone sounds more substantive and in the room, while the plucks in the bass solo sound a little deeper and resonant. The drum solo is less glaring and more rounded out.
AMR vs. Amber:
The AMR is compelling as it captures Ferguson’s soft, nasal voice; along with the luster of the piano’s ivories, a sonorous saxophone and the lilting drumsticks locking down the fast Samba beat, a well-articulated walking bass, and a resonant and balanced drum solo.
The Amber conveys that same energy, but with greater detail. Ferguson’s vocals are tad more defined, instruments, the bass and drums are harder edged.
My wife, who walks in from shopping, sits down and listens blindly to both DACs. 30 seconds into the Lampi’s turn, effuses, “I like this one better!”
A Change in Plans
She has me replay Greeninger’s “Moon is Shining”, along with Gwyneth Paltrow’s “A Little Bit Stronger” (fuller, more fleshed out and resolved on the Amber) and the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” (ditto) in other blind listening tests. She picks the Lampi every time.
“It’s not even close -- I feel like I’m in a live audience,” she says of the Amber. She’s not mincing words. “The (AMR) is amazing, but it creates that Disney World, very mellow, altered experience. When I listen to music, I want to have that front row, right-there feeling.”
I suspend comparisons for several days to tend to my wife, family and work. Then tragedy strikes. While downloading an MP3 file, a malicious virus co-opts my MacBook Air. An hour later, it’s tied up at Best Buy with the Geek Squad for the next five days.
With my report scheduled for posting in a couple days, I am terminating my comparisons between these two. I had wanted to work the rest of the song list, but I believe I have enough data.
Jim Ferguson continues with “Another Early Autumn.”
The Hegel’s presentation of the saxophone’s intro is reedy and convincing in the subsequent Stan Getz-like solo. High hats, along with the snare and tom kick out a nice Samba cadence riding nicely along with the piano solo. The acoustic bass is balanced in its presentation.
The Amber captures that saxophone’s reedy intro well, but, what’s more, it’s a more visceral this time around, with Ferguson’s voice, the saxophone, din of the high hat, and the tom drums sounding like they’re playing in my living room! The acoustic bass solo dueling with brush strikes on the snare are more fleshed out.
“Blame It on My Youth.”
The Hegel does a beautiful job of capturing Ferguson’s wistful vocals, the brushing of the snare and the weightiness of the bass in this remake of this classic jazz standard. The saxophone solo is rounded out nicely, and the piano accompaniment well represented.
The Amber presents a more substantive, fuller-sounding piano. Vocals are a little more three dimensional, and the intermingling of bass notes in the sumptuous saxophone solo are more pronounced and articulated.
Patricia Barber. Modern Cool. (Premonition Records. Jazz CD ripped to laptop).
“Touch of Trash.”
The Hegel’s presentation of this song is light and ethereal, like an exquisite fluffy lemon meringue whipped up in a Parisian bistro. Barber’s strong voice is very clear — HD clear — with a touch of sibilance! Notes float through the air exquisitely and the pushing and pulling of various instruments’ mixing levels are readily apparent as they take turns being highlighted. The Electric guitar is haunting and eerie, the bass tight, and the piano a little pushed back. The trumpet solo shimmers. Drum fills very clear and defined, with adequate impact and weight — very nicely presented, as with all the other instruments.
If the Hegel’s presentation is a meringue from a Parisian bistro, the Amber’s is prime Angus beef served up at Gibson’s Steakhouse in Chicago. It’s heavier, darker, and compelling. It’s like comparing a flavorful, but decidedly lighter pinot noir with a robust cabernet sauvignon.
The Amber renders Barber’s full but breathy vocals clearly with the slightest hint of sibilance, again with the vocal effects a little more readily apparent. The piano comes forward a bit more, as does the guitar. The trumpet solo is very rich, full and sassy. In truth, I think I favor the Hegel’s rendering of this song a little more because like pairing pinot noir with salmon (as opposed to a cab), it’s a slightly better fit.
Unlike with some, it’s “one and done” with the Barber album. Next up is
Stevie Ray Vaughan. In Step. (Epics Records. Blues/Rock CD burned to laptop).
With the Hegel, it’s solid and capable throughout – vocals, guitar, bass, keys, drums Vaughan’s guitar solo tone is good. Beyond that, it’s hard to say more with all the grunge and all that’s going on in this recording.
Once again with the Amber, there’s more weightiness, which with rock and blues, is perfect. The vocals, guitar and its grunginess sound a smidge better.
“Let Me Love You.”
Vocals are good, the bass line tight, electric guitar lead well articulated, and drums solid on the Hegel. The organ rings true.
I find the vocals, as rendered by the Amber more enjoyable in this song. It just sounds fuller and truer. Bass, drums and organ — they all sound a touch more substantive. The electric guitar just sounds right.
“Leave My Girl Alone.”
This slower paced blues-ballad sounds much better than previous songs from this album on the Hegel. The drums, the electric guitar and organ shine, now that they are allowed to breathe in their own space — they’re more clearly defined. You can hear the wood of the drumstick striking the high hat, and Vaughan’s electric guitar wines and wails in all its glory. And, of course, there’s the goose bump -invoking organ, making it euphoric and memorable.
Then, it’s the Amber’s turn with the Stevie Ray Vaughan classic. With just a hint more weight, you experience the drumstick keeping time riding the high hat, the bass locking down the rhythm section accompanied by the kitschy Hammond B-3 sound that not only works — it’s intoxicating. Combined with Vaughan’s rugged vocals and wailing, defiant guitar leads, I feel compelled to locate a candle lighter and hold it lit and swaying overhead, in my own private Stevie Ray Vaughan concert.
Going into the side by side comparisons, I was pretty confident that the Amber Plus would fare well against the Hegel HD12, which is priced almost $1,000 less at $1,400, but I had no idea how well it would perform against the AMR DP-777, which is more than double its price at $5,495.
As the trials passed, I began to see some patterns. The Hegel was generally a little sharper focused in the treble area, detail oriented, and had an overall pleasing, balanced presentation. It communicated delicate nuance very well – for the most part. I was surprised that it did not pick up that sense of air, space and effects used on vocals like the Amber. Furthermore, compared with the Amber, it had a lighter bass response and generally didn’t have the same sense of presence. It reminded me of David Bruce Pinot Noir which when paired with fish seemed the best tasting and balanced wine at a restaurant I waited tables at in the 90s. However, when put up against a cabernet, its lightness in body became readily apparent.
With the AMR, I found a beautiful organic, warm and musical sense. It sounded very analog, which no doubt the tubes helped. Its presentation was pretty and detailed enough to make it quite compelling. However, when compared with the Amber, it not only lacked the weightiness, but also the degree of detail that would make create that “in the room” feeling that Amber often evoked with quality recordings. It called to mind some of the Thomas Kinkade paintings, which present glowing, idealized paintings of life.
In contrast, the Amber wielded a versatile, but heavier footprint. Fast and detailed enough, it was pretty upfront in its presentation, yet very adept at rendering timbres naturally. In essence, it was very balanced, resented superb imaging and was very true to life. For me, the Lampizator Amber Plus DAC was overall more impactful and a tad more engaging.
What’s more, the wife had the “Wife Approval Factor”, which cannot be underestimated. She loved the sound and the price – we both did – so much so that we bought our review sample.
At $2,300, the Amber is a very good value – especially when compared to the AMR, which at $4,950 is more than double its price. And, regardless of cost, like those gladiators we viewed at ringside, it’s a worthy contender.