For those of you with attention deficit disorder, or those likely to skip to the end, let me help you by starting at the end: the LampizatOr DSD DAC is a game changer and represents one of best values currently available in today’s high-end. Full stop. End of line. You are welcome.
Let me back up a step and talk about “high-water marks”.
First up, for me, is the dCS Scarlatti system I heard set up at Jacob Heilbrunn’s old place in DC. Heilbrunn is a staff writer for TAS and TONEAudio, and is the proud owner of a stunning mega-system. The day of my visit, he was running a full Scarlatti stack into some giant Wilson loudspeakers, and powering the whole with electronics from Ypsilon. While I was there, I got to hear his Caliburn turntable front-end, and yes, it was absolutely remarkable. Loved the tone, the depth, the imaging … but the Scarlatti mopped the floor with the Caliburn and it wasn’t even close. To this day, that properly set up system, fronted by that dCS digital front end, was the “best I’ve heard” (thanks again, Jacob!).
Backing away from that, the next-best digital I’ve heard happened right here at home — with the incredible (and radically more affordable) Da Vinci DAC from Light Harmonic. Into my reference TIDAL Audio Contriva Diacera SE loudspeakers, powered by Vitus Audio electronics out of their “Reference” Line, the Da Vinci destroyed my previous digital reference, the heretofore invincible Berkeley Alpha DAC “System” (with the Alpha USB converter). The Da Vinci is here on loan for a review that’s been rather difficult to write — I turn the music on and completely forget what the hell I’m doing.
Now, I have to say that while the Da Vinci is absolutely mesmerizing as a front end, my vinyl front end is not just reference-class, it’s world-class. Built around a TW-Acustic Raven AC-3 with a matching Raven tonearm sporting an Ortofon Windfeld cartridge, I run that through the matching Raven phono stage; the total investment, new retail, would run about $40k. Stunning amount of money — but for what it is and what it does, it’s one of the best vinyl rigs out there and one of the very best I’ve ever heard. But it’s not the Caliburn. And if I had Mitt Romney money, there are a few things I can think of that I’d love to do to my turntable that might make it sound better. Maybe. But I don’t really care — it’s way better than “good enough”. Head to head with the Da Vinci, I prefer my vinyl rig. Usually. Not always. But usually. But that’s the first time — ever — that a DAC has made me question my investment.
The LampizatOr DSD DAC is now the second.
It’s … sublime. And I can’t even tell you how pained I am to write that bit of flowery claptrap. But … hell, it’s times like these that make you appreciate why the language has those poetical corners. Sometimes, that’s the only thing that it makes sense to work with.
In many ways, the Da Vinci is clearly the superior system. It has all the bass, top-end and midrange transparency that you could imagine, much less, ask for. It’s not only “reference class”, it’s probably the best DAC I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying at chez moi. Everything sounds better through the Da Vinci. And when fed a diet of truly incredible recordings, the Da Vinci is downright eerie in the soundstage it can throw into my room.
The fact that the Lampi is not only not embarrassed by the Da Vinci, but can actually hang in that company brings to mind all manner of scrappy upstart imagery. This is the Lightning McQueen of DACs. It just came out of nowhere, but it’s here now, and soon you’re all gonna know that name.
Putting aside for the moment that this Lampi only plays DSD files and that this Da Vinci only plays PCM files, the system-as-a-whole sound with either DAC can be electrifying. And that’s … amazing.
I have to confess that more than a little of this is entirely unfair. DSD DACs have an inherent advantage, and one that’s obvious, but perhaps routinely overlooked. To prove the point, lemme ask you a question: how good are the source files you’re playing? They vary, don’t they? And here’s the fun bit about DSD that detractors or doubters might have missed — DSD files, on average, tend to have better care and feeding during their creation process. Maybe more care during recording or mastering or whatever. The result tends to be less compression, better background noise suppression, &c, and this means that the average DSD file is a far cry from totally sucking. Not always true with PCM, and worryingly common if you ask me. So, given that the source material tends to be better, it’s perhaps no wonder that the result also sounds better. I mean, garbage in, garbage out, right? Give it the good stuff and get good stuff in return — isn’t that an audiophile mantra?
Okay, so that’s enough apples-to-oranges comparisons. Obviously, I don’t have a Double DAC from Light Harmonic on hand, nor do I have a “full” LampizatOr (the new models incorporate this prototype DSD decoder onto a daughter-board fitted out inside their PCM DACs), so that’ll have to wait for some imaginary date. Suffice it to say that the Da Vinci still rules my roost, but the Lampi DSD is unique in that it’s made the first serious run at Mr The King so far.
More specifics — the Lampi DSD I have here is a prototype. The final version, which is available now, has two major differences from this prototype. One is the inclusion of an auto-sensing switch that lets the system automatically shift from DSD64 to DSD128, and if you ordered the dual-format Lampi, it’ll also auto switch from DSD to PCM and back. The prototype, by contrast, accomplishes the changes from DSD versions with a physical toggle switch. So, that’s one. The other big difference is in the capacitors — the final, shipping version has Duelunds. To all reports, they make a significant difference. The next reviewer due to receive this DAC can be thankful that those caps were not included, or this might not be leaving — ever. Ahem. Anyway….
Let me forestall another issue — is there really an audible difference between DSD (aka DSD64) and double-DSD (aka, DSD128)? In short, hell yes. I suspect much of this has to do with the way these files are captured in the first place, but rest assured that those ultra-massive files actually do yield sonic benefits.
There’s really not a lot of DSD128 material available for download, but there are a couple of sites. I’d recommend the Opus3 material, over on DSDFile.com, and visiting the folks at High Definition Tape Transfers. Both those sites allow downloading of either DSD64 or DSD128 — and the latter site will let you take your to go order in PCM192 as well.
From DSDFile, I got the following:
- Yamina, Love Letters
- Mattias Wager & Anders Åstrand, Live at Vatnajökull
- Gösta Rundqvist Trio, Treecircles
From HDTT, I picked up:
- Kid Ory plays W.C. Handy
- Mel Butler/C.B. Fisk Organ Music from Downtown Presbyterian Church Rochester
- Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D minor op.40
In each case, the DSD128 files sounded more open, more detailed, more natural and more musical than their DSD64 peers. The effects were not subtle — if pushed for an analogy, I’d say the differences were akin to the differences between good Redbook and good 24/192. Yeah. Significant. I’m going to revisit those tracks separately, so I’ll leave off here with a couple of notes. First, Yamina has a dead-sexy singing voice. Her EP is a bargain, and if you’re a Patricia Barber fan, you’re gonna love this EP. Very sexy, voluptuous music here. The Live at Vatnajökull, is about as opposite as you can get; it’s pure mayhem. The “Fasten Seat Belts” track is also featured on their sampler album, and it’s a zip-fest of dynamics and acoustical tricks panning across the soundstage. This was a crucial track for the DSD/double-DSD discrimination task — the decay, air, and sheer spaciousness on the double-DSD track was like a knock directly on my third eye, and if that sounds weird, trust me, it’s not nearly as weird as this track was. Very nifty. The HDTT Shostakovich is full of rosin-soaked angst. I mean, it’s dripping, with the DSD128 version offering just that much more texture in the bowing and is just that much more plaintive in it’s wail. The HDTT Butler/Fisk Organ Music had speed (I know, weird, right?) and dynamic range, with plenty of low-petal action. The DSD128 version is more about reverb, acoustic decays and space. All told, a convincing case for getting yourself a much larger hard drive for all those massive files.
Best part? All this was new-to-me music! I love that.
Another point of comparison — the Mytek Digital Stereo192-DSD DAC. I know there are many fans of this piece, and IMO, that’s rightly so – for the record, I count myself a fan. This unit has been my only DSD-capable DAC for the better part of this year and has been part of my reference desktop/headphone system since it arrived. For the asking price of $1,595, the features in this little black box are really hard to beat. Overall, the sound quality is very good, even if not on par with the best I have in-house. And while the LampizatOr handily trounced the sound quality of the Mytek, part of that isn’t the Mytek’s fault — that box only handles DSD64, for starters. Whether the difference was due to a different conversion mechanism – the Mytek is an actual DAC with a real converter chip, unlike the Lampi DSD, which is much more of a modulator, with some basic filtering. Oh, and then there are those tubes. Interestingly, at least for those curious about noise-floor and any inherent loss of fine detail due to the tubes, I can honestly say that I have absolutely no insight here at all. In my time with the Lampi DSD, the detail retrieval was absolutely first-rate. I had an option to swap amplifiers several times during my playback time, and those changes had far more impact that the DAC seemed to. Or rather, the detail was there for the amp to either reveal or hide, depending.
Downsides? Of course, there are some. It’s an excellent performer, but €2.500 (~$3,400US) for a DSD-only DAC is quite a bit of cash to lay on any barrel head, outstanding performer or not. It’s also a bit simple on the scale of the audiophile aesthetic. Totally works, and for what it is, it’s very respectable-looking, but the look isn’t shouting “novelty!” from any rooftops, if you follow. As to function, the production models will feature the auto-switching feature that makes my trips back and forth to the rack unnecessary – that’ll be very welcome. The only other thing I really want is an auto-muting circuit that’ll clamp down on the surge and pop that happens when I jump tracks in Audirvana – something I advise against, by the way. That snap! sound is really disconcerting. Using the built-in Next button inside the Audirvana player eliminates the surge between tracks (usually), but not on that first track (or if you’re impatient with the playlist and decide to jump ahead). Anyway, something to be aware of, and may well be something the designer will address shortly in software or something.
Okay, so that’s way more than I wanted to offer up at this point. This DAC will be winging its way over to the crew at Computer Audiophile next for a thorough examination by Ted Brady, their resident DSD expert/enthusiast. I’m sure Ted will pretty much invalidate all my enthusiastic results, which would be fantastic — because I’d really like it if all you … ah … kind souls … would helpfully not besiege the LampizatOr team with orders until after I get mine in, that would be super.