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Some final thoughts on the Lampizator Level 4 DAC

I miss my old Lampizat0r Level 4 DAC.

This says something rather telling, I think. There’s been a lot of gear that’s come through here that I’ve been quite enamored of. But even so, there’s very little that makes me think wistfully of Days of Yore. The Lampi was special.

It’s not that it was a perfect DAC. No, I think the Berkeley Alpha Series 2 DAC, with the outboard Alpha USB converter, is a better digital-analog converter — and may well be the best on the market, regardless of the price. It’s astoundingly good.

But let me rephrase and re-couch my approach just a bit and start again by saying that DACs, in general, are simply not as important to the overall sound quality of your system. They’re just not. Your speakers will hold that primacy of place, now and forevermore. You want to radically change your system’s sound? Get new speakers. It’s that simple.

No, a DAC is pretty tough to really pin down. It’s not a like a turntable. It’s pretty easy to tell when your turntable hits that perfect level of price/performance. Better ones just sound better — and when you break through the plateau to really good, it’s pretty much immediately obvious with the first record you play. The sound may be smoother, more relaxed or whatever, but however you say it, you’re likely to say that the music “just sounds right”. To me, timbre and tone aren’t really affected by a ‘table; with ‘tables, it’s more timing and pace. A cartridge, by contrast, changes the tone and timbre. Don’t like your turntable? Change your cart. BAM! It’s like magic — a whole “new-to-me” ‘table! And a tonearm? Ahem. Well, again that’s tough. A good tonearm does … nothing.

Just like a DAC?

That’s overly simple, but it makes a point. A great DAC is invisible. A great tonearm takes nothing away. With both, everything else is able to what they need to do to make the music flow.

Whatever. I’m trying to build an analogy here to simply explain that swapping out a DAC may actually have little or no immediately obvious impact on the sound of your system. Not to say that there aren’t differences. Sure, the differences may be there. But they’re subtle. With DACs and tonearms, they’re always subtle. Like with my reference DAC, the “Alpha System”. They differences are there (that’s why I bought them in the first place), and yes, I can tell the difference between it and other DACs, but — and it’s a hairy butt of a but — I wasn’t immediately bowled over by most of those differences.

So, yes, I found differences between the Alpha System and the HRT Streamer II+ that I use in my desktop system. However, with most music streamed from Pandora, say, and over the average, run of the mill desktop system, the differences are probably minimal. This may surprise you, given that the price difference is 20x ($350 for the Streamer and $7k for the Alpha System). That’s a big price gap to get “minimal” improvements! But it’s true — with most music, on most systems, your average listener will be just as thrilled with the Streamer. Now, add very complex and very well-recorded music (think: large, preserved, dynamic swings) and make the files high-res, and on a “great system”, the Streamer comes apart while the Alpha System is pretty much just hitting it’s stride. Then there’s the frequency extremes. Bass playback over the Alpha is impeccable. Bombastic when it’s supposed to be. Deafening when it’s supposed to be. Articulate when it’s supposed to be. &c. On the HRT, well, it’s not that the bass is bad, it’s just a bit muddied — but only by comparison. That said, on your bookshelf speakers, with their already muddied or absent deep bass, you’re simply never going to notice. And for the highest treble, when you’re looking for sparkle and air, well, assuming your speakers, music and everything else in the playback chain can actually bring it, with the Alpha, you’ll get it. The Streamer on the other hand, may struggle here a bit. But the mid range is where the magic of the music lies (as well as some 80% of the actual tonal content), and to really hear the level of finesse that the Alpha System brings to the table here, you need a really great playback chain. Which most of us don’t have. Subtract that superlative system, and, well, the value proposition of a $7k DAC may begin to look a little thin. That’s a bit odd to say in that no one is going to consider $7k a “value play”, even in the rarefied airs circulating in high end audio, but that’s not where I’m going. The point is that it’s actually pretty hard to tell these two DACs apart at first glance. Not that you can’t do it, but it’s harder than you might think — especially with average, run of the mill listening and even more especially on your average, run of the mill systems. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating — most DACS just don’t impact the overall system’s sound quality as heavily as some other components. You want to change your system’s sound in a big way? Don’t swap your DAC.

The Lampizat0r was the first, and only, DAC to make me rethink this. The Lampi is not your average DAC.

From the very first moment I put it into the system, and in every system I inserted it into, everything sounded different. There was this … glow. The mid range, and vocals especially, seemed lit-from-within. Tubes? Tubes! Wow. Objectively, I felt that it was an addition, and therefore was entirely artificial, but so what? It was utterly mesmerizing. You like jazz? Female vocalists? Light rock? The Lampi is going revolutionize your listening. It’s like someone managed to aerosolize crack cocaine. One listen and you’re gone, baby, gone. Hooked. And that’s how I feel, months after the departure of the beloved Lampi. Like an addict, pining for one last hit.

No, it’s not that the Lampi was a perfect DAC. It really wasn’t. Big orchestra or otherwise very dynamic music — and I mean stuff with high contrasts and fast transients here — and the Lampi got a little lost while some super-high-end DACs, like the Alpha System and the MPS-5 from Playback Designs, simply couldn’t be shaken. Also, the bass was b – i – g on the Lampi. Probably too big. On my Maggies, which are renowned for their seamless bass integration, a bit of bloat was instantly obvious. It was also more than a matter of “tube bass” vs “solid-state bass” — yes, the bass was a little loose and soft on the Lampi, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It just seemed a bit much, especially on tracks that relied on clean, clear bass. And while I didn’t explore this avenue, I strongly suspect that the “culprit” here wasn’t actually the DAC, but the tubes — different tubes and you’d get different bass, that’s my guess. So, while my loaner-Lampi just overdid it here, I want to note that on my Maggies, this wasn’t horrible or hard to listen to — not at all. In fact, I was able to turn off the subs and not notice their lack. Not strictly correct, that bass, but so what?

The Lampi made me ask myself “What are you looking for in a DAC?” Before the Lampi, I thought I knew the answer to that. Linearity, baby! Make mine ruler flat, if you please. After the Lampi, well, let’s just say that I’m a bit more open minded than I was before it graced my rig with it’s thermionically blessed presence. Because here’s the kicker — with the right music, the Lampi was just magic. From that first startling moment to that last, lingering note. It’s just magic. And that’s saying something. Maybe something important.

Recently, I’ve become aware that the Lampi Level 4 now has a big brother, the Lampizat0r Level 5. Pricing is now a bazillion dollars. Which is what I need to tell myself lest I do something idiotic.

But … I miss my Lampi.

I was chatting with Tekton Designs’ Eric Alexander today about his new speakers, the Pendragons, a pair of which I have in for review. They’re spectacular, by the way, but that’s not the point. The point is a comment he made during our conversation when I asked him about amplifiers and his personal choices. He said something along the lines of this: “Amps are tools and like any tool, you need to choose the right one for the job.” DACs are like this, too, I’ve somewhat belatedly realized. There are DACs that you can use for your SOTA high-res orchestral recordings. There are DACs for reviewing other components. And then there are DACs for that “other stuff”. Maybe … there’s room for more than one or two in an audiophile’s toolbox. That’s all I’m saying at this point. But if I were to buy another DAC, I know where I’d be shopping. Okay, that’s really all I’m saying. I’m shutting up now. Bye. [1/3/12].

[Editor’s note, 3/20/12: guess what I just did?]

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8 Comments on Some final thoughts on the Lampizator Level 4 DAC

  1. ‘DACs, in general, are simply not as important to the overall sound quality of your system. They’re just not. Your speakers will hold that primacy of place, now and forevermore. You want to radically change your system’s sound? Get new speakers. It’s that simple.’

    Totally wrong! The source always has and always will be the most important part of the system.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // November 22, 2013 at 4:13 AM //

      Sorry to disappoint you, but no. The best that a source will do is let your speakers operate closer to their ideal. But a source is never going to make your speakers better than they are. In a long line of bottlenecks, the last is most important — everything else was/is/will be limited to what your speakers can do.

      • Ok, if you had $10000 to spend on the best sounding system you could put together and you were offered a DCS Vivaldi for $8000, would you put it in that system and spend the remaining $2000 on amp and speakers?

  2. I owend a few DACs, know I own a Lampi Level 4 Gen 4 with Volume Control Unit. The Lampi makes a direct emotional Connection to the Music, once heard, its like a drug. I will Never miss that feeling. Thats it!

  3. Jim Anderson // March 3, 2012 at 9:06 AM //

    I have agree with Mr. Falbaum. The Wadia s7i has an awesome sounding DAC, and will soon be available in 24/196 with upgraded USB.

  4. David Falbaum // March 2, 2012 at 10:16 AM //

    You should try the Resolution Audio Cantata. It’s by far the most musical/analog sounding digital I have heard. Stereophile did a review last year and in most ways got it right, but spent too much effort talking about the swiss army nature of the unit. It has inputs for anything you want and sounds the same regardless of the input. The only DAC I have heard that is any better is a Wadia S7i which is 3-4x the cost.

    • Socrates7 // March 2, 2012 at 10:46 AM //

      Haven’t had the pleasure of doing more than drooling on the chassis. If the sound is as good as the styling, I’m sure you’re right about it’s value.

    • Thomas // May 5, 2012 at 8:03 AM //

      I already compared Cantata to Level 4 DAC and there is no way for me to stay with Cantata. It is much more mechanical sounding machine – specialy if compared to
      Lampizator Level 3 or 4 DACs.Looks better for sure,but doesn’t match the sound.

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