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Positive Feedback ISSUE 73
Level 4 DAC - Smooth Operator
as reviewed by Mark Pearson
LampizatOr audio products are handmade in Poland and are the brain child of Lukasz Fikus. The LampizatOr website is interesting to say the least and it gives you an insight into the mind, philosophy, and sense of humor of Lukasz Fikus. I highly recommend cruising over to the LampizatOr website and reading up on Lukasz's philosophy of designing audio electronics.
The LampizatOr Level 4 DAC finds itself somewhere towards the bottom of the LampizatOr DAC lineup regarding price. There are different options you can purchase for the Level 4 DAC which all contribute to the final price. The Level 4 DAC sent to me for review has the DSD option as well as a pair of Duelund Cast Copper coupling capacitors. The Lampi Level 4 will decode both PCM up to 24/192 and DSD up to 128fs. Balanced outputs are an option, but the DAC under review came with single-ended RCA connectors. With today's exchange rate, this brings the price of the Level 4 DAC the way it was optioned to around $4850.
The Level 4 DAC is built into a plain black box. You are not paying for fancy sheet metal when you purchase this DAC.
The Level 4 does use vacuum tubes, but you would never know it physically unless you flipped the DAC upside down and noticed the tubes sticking out of the bottom of the unit.
Unlike some products that use tubes and want everyone to know that by having the tubes stick out of the top of a linestage for example, the Lampi is in tube stealth mode. I would also venture to say that if someone listened to the Lampi Level 4 and didn't know it had tubes, they just might be very surprised when they found out it does. The Lampi does not sound 'soft' or 'rolled off' in the high frequencies. Nor does it sound 'mushy' or 'syrupy' nor any of the other negative adjectives that people sometimes use to describe tube sound. The high frequencies have a real dynamic snap to them and just sound realistic. This is not your great-aunt Matilda's tube DAC.
Before we go any further, I need to pick some nits. The Lampi Level 4 arrived in sturdy enough packing that prevented any shipping damage. However, it makes liberal use of the type of Styrofoam that sheds billions of tiny Styrofoam beads as soon as you open the box and look at the Styrofoam. It's even worse than packing peanuts and we all know what a joy they are to chase around your home. Also, the Level 4 arrived with no owner's manual and no power cord. Someone did take the time to write a little note on a piece of tape and stick it above the front panel push button switch so you would know whether you need to engage the switch or disengage the switch. More about that anon.
Before I'm finished griping, I have to say that at this price point, I really would like to see some type of digital display that tells you what the DAC is decoding. My reference DAC is the Mytek Stereo 192 which retails for less than half of the price of the Level 4 DAC. The Mytek has a convenient display that always tells you what bit stream you are locked onto. With the Lampi, you know via your computer software what it's sending to the DAC, you just have to have some faith on how it is being decoded by the Lampi.
The push button switch on the front of the Lampi which makes up the 'O' in the LampizatOr logo is supposed to switch between PCM and DSD playback ('in' for DSD and 'out' for PCM). That's what the piece of tape on the front panel told me anyway. On the backside of the Lampi, there is a toggle switch that has hand written by a Sharpie pen "PCM" above the switch and "DSD" below the switch.
The power switch on the back is a two position toggle switch with the 'up' position being normal phase and 'down' being reverse phase.
Since all of the wall outlets in my dedicated room are wired with the correct polarity, I used the 'up' position on the power switch.
I had lots of trouble trying to get the Lampi to synch up to Foobar and after talking to Lukasz, I decided to download Jriver and use that as my software interface. Lukasz sent me some screen shots of what the configuration should look like using Jriver and with Lukasz's guidance, I soon had the Lampi up and running. Being confused about the push button switch on the front that is supposed to choose between PCM and DSD and the toggle switch on the back which is supposed to do the same thing, I asked Lukasz what the deal was. Lukasz seemed confused about the switch on the back and said it didn't matter because the switch on the front determined the method of playback. I'm sure part of the confusion is the fact that the only words I know that are remotely Polish are 'Polka' and 'Kielbasa.' Lukasz's English is a zillion times better than my understanding of Polish.
So what does the Lampi Level 4 DAC sound like? In a word, wonderful. This is a very quiet DAC in terms of its noise floor which allows the music to emerge out of a very black background. The Level 4 DAC has very good dynamics, tonal shading, and it doesn't emphasize any part of the frequency spectrum across the audio band when playing back DSD. The Lampi has a definite high frequency purity about it. The Lampi is very fast and dynamic and again, you would never guess it uses tubes.
The one thing the Lampi Level 4 does that no other DAC I have ever had in my system has done is the proper decay of notes. Most digital has no problem with the leading edge of notes even if they don't seem to be as fully fleshed out compared to great analog, but this is the first DAC I have heard in my system that hangs on to each note as it's decaying into space. It doesn't matter if it's the sound of a drum head being struck, a piano note fading out, bass guitar (either acoustic or electric) or the sound of cymbals decaying. The Lampi Level 4 just hangs onto the notes and lets them decay naturally like you would hear in real life. It makes music sound more natural and therefore more real. My listening notes commented on this quality time and time again.
I have to confess and say that I much prefer listening to DSD than PCM. I'm an analog person at heart and DSD is the most analog sounding digital that I'm aware of. I can listen to DSD for hours on end with a smile on my face. I have never had the same level of comfort listening to PCM regardless of the DAC being used.
PCM initially sounds exciting to me because of what I term its 'wowie zowie' factor of exaggerated dynamics and bass that I don't find to be natural. It never takes long before the perceived thinness creeps in and I get fidgety and want to play some analog in order to relax. I have lots of PCM music including hi-rez 24/192 files and I hear the same traits in PCM regardless of resolution and different DACs. Those of you who love PCM can take my bias into account.
One example of a PCM recording that has less than stellar dynamic range is Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" from Innervisions from the 24/192 file. It just sounds compressed and closed down compared to the LP. And this is not the fault of the Lampi because this hi-rez file sounds the same to me on every DAC I have played it over.
The cut "Willow Weep for Me" from the Shota Osabe Piano Trio album Happy Coat is another classic example of PCM bass that is a tad overdone and will drive many systems to boom land. Ray Brown played one mean acoustic bass, but it sounds way more natural when recorded in DSD. Again, this isn't the Lampi causing the overblown bass, it's just telling you what is on the recording.
A great Ray Brown Trio recording is Summer Wind-Live at the LOA. When the file is played back over the Lampi, now you get a sense of being at a live event and hearing acoustic instruments that sound so real and natural you could just reach out and touch them. Ray Brown's acoustic bass is very powerful, very dynamic, and yet it retains all of the roundness and harmonics that you hear from an acoustic bass being played live. This album sounds so real played over the Lampi that you just want to melt into your listening chair. This is a perfect album to listen to when you are trying to unwind from a hectic week at work and you need to relax to start the weekend off right.
Every DSD recording that I played through the Lampi was a great experience. Whether it was jazz, classical, rock, or opera, they all sounded really, really good. I do have to admit that for the here and now, my favorite genre of music is jazz. One of the many things I love about jazz music is that it has such expressionist drumming with very wide dynamic shadings. From the soft sound of brushes caressing a snare drum and cymbals to a wide-open solo that is literally bringing the house down, the Lampi brings it all alive. You can hear the sticks hitting the drum heads, the rims, the decay and resonance of each of the drums, and how and where the drummer is hitting the cymbals.
If you are in the market for a great sounding DAC that is capable of playing back both hi-rez PCM and DSD files and which just happens to use tubes, you owe it to yourself to give the Lampi an audition. There has been a 'buzz' building around the Lampi DACs on audiophile forums for awhile and now I know why firsthand. It's time for me to pack the Lampi up and send it back, but I can assure you that I will miss it greatly. Highly recommended. Mark Pearson
Level 4 DAC
North America distributor
LampizatOr North America