Review: LampizatOr Atlantic DAC











Fans of Part-Time Audiophile will recall my (on going) love affair with the Polish DAC wonder called LampizatOr.

Just to recall some of my highlights — once upon a time, I met up with the PCM-only Gen 3/Level 4 Lampi, and swooned. I ended up ordering a Gen 4/Level 4. I later tested out the DSD-only Lampi DAC, and was blown away. There have been many other versions of the LampizatOr that have come out since then, including the top-of-the-line Golden Gate DAC, pretty much the mega-pizza with all the trimmings one could ever want on a DAC.

When I stopped designer Łukasz Fikus mid-bolt down a hallway at AXPONA this year, a box of custom-made EML tubes to his chest, a crazed grin stretched across his face and his Joker-style laugh bouncing off the walls, I knew that it was time to head back down the rabbit hole.

Łukasz, trapped momentarily between rooms, hinted that he was contemplating a few new ideas. That’s not surprising — this seems pretty much the norm for the last several years. True, he said, but this was different.

Recently, he’d been testing a few odd-ball parts. Just exploring. But the upshot from that was … unexpected. He’d had some remarkable success with some odd capacitors and — get this — some vintage Russian pentodes, of all things. Pentodes, not triodes? Yes, he said, and then shrugged. The circuit sounds incredible, but it does preclude the ability to tube roll … so, not sure if that’s going to be okay or not …?

I think he was testing me, at this point, on whether or not I felt that I (we?) could trust his taste and sense of sonic justice. To be honest, while he had me exactly — I’m not much of a tweaker — we both knew that his customer-base most definitely are. So, what about me? Would I be willing to take the leap and be “locked in”, as it were? No rolling?

I’m pretty sure I just grinned at him.

Let me think on it, then. I have this trip coming — I’m actually sailing home across the Atlantic after the show. I’ll mull it over then, and I’ll be in touch after getting back.

And so he did.

The Atlantic

From Łukasz, mid June:

This DAC has been “in the making” for the most part of 2016, but it took the final shape and form during my May 2016 voyage across the Atlantic Ocean under the sails. This month on the empty ocean gave me time to think creatively and tap to my gut feelings about the possibility of finding customers for this amazing new product. Hence the name commemorates my sailing event.

Here it is: The Atlantic DAC – the best performance per dollar ever offered from our company. It sets the bar very high, and does it in a big style.

The key design factors:

  • Using DHP – Directly Heated Pentode tubes (our cheapest Directly Heated product!)
  • Running in Single Ended Triode (SET) mode – very puristic and elegant schematics
  • Conversion by means of Discrete Resistor Ladder DAC (R2R) – probably the best implementation in the known Universe
  • DSD seamlessly playing from mixed PCM playlists (up to 256xDSD) via USB
  • PureCopper Lampizator-brand output capacitors 
  • Level 4 type of chassis with Lite 7 power supply and other circuits (with exposed tubes on top)
  • Fabulously musical and easily available 4P1L tubes from the best Soviet military era

The combination of the above factors is impossible to find in any DAC in this price range, maybe even in any DAC period. The most exotic and highest in audiophile hierarchy factors like R2R and DHP make it extremely rare and desired breed of highest performance music players available at any price. 

What it does not have: DSD512 is not available for this price point, also fully balanced topology is not in the Atlantic program*. And no, it can’t have headphone output or concealed tubes. Tube rolling is also not possible (and totally unnecessary). 

Price 4000 Euro plus VAT.

*Pricing/option update as of 9/2:

Atlantic DAC SE

New DAC that combines R2R Discrete ladder conversion, PCM and DSD capability, DHP directly heated pentode tubes in triode mode, exposed tubes, Level 4 chassis style, solid state rectifier, Single Ended outputs only, RCA SPDIF and USB on board. copper caps .

4 000,00 €

Atlantic Plus SE (with rectifier tube)

4 500,00 €

Atlantic Balanced 

5 000,00 €

Atlantic Balanced PLUS (with rectifier tube)

5 500,00 €

Atlantic SE with Remote Control Volume and preamp input

5 000,00 €

Atlantic SE PLUS (with Rectifier tube) with Remote Control Volume and preamp input

5 500,00 €

Atlantic BAL PLUS (with rectifier tube)  with Remote Control Volume and preamp input

6 500,00 €

Additional DSD512 speed (all Atlantic DACs have DSD256x)

1 000,00 €

ONLY the DSD engine – 64-128-256-512 auto switching but without PCM at all

Price just like regular Atlantic without extra 1000E premium. But NO PCM AT ALL.

Letting Łukasz speak for himself, here are some design details (from the LampizatOr Atlantic Manual):

Why DHP ? The decision of using directly heated pentodes comes from three main decisive factors — the fact that other more popular tubes are getting rapidly harder to get and more expensive, second factor being that the whole DIY community reports that this is the best sounding tube they can find and third – that directly heated IS THE WAY TO GO for highest level of DACs as we demonstrated in our flagship Golden Gate.

Why R2R conversion? From 2014 we observe that the top 5 DAC companies in the world use R2R discrete ladders as their top solutions. These solutions go up to 100,000 Dollars for a DAC or even more. Therefore we co-developed our own R2R solution and we offered it in our Golden Gate DAC. Atlantic project is about bringing this superb and superior converter type DOWN IN PRICE POINT to be accessible by the majority of audiophiles.

Why Copper capacitors? Since there are only 3 components in total in our signal path — it is important to use these 3 parts from the highest quality group. The output capacitor is one of the three so we wanted to use the best available at any price. So here it is — our Lampizator house branded copper cap which matches the 4 known copper brands in quality of sound.

Why do you claim this to be your best DAC ever? Well, the above explanations sum up to the statement — that the Atlantic is the only known DAC that combines R2R discrete ladder conversion, Directly Heated triode tube output, copper capacitors (with real copper foil versus the metal vaporised plastic) and last but not least 10 years of Lampizator’s expertise in DAC technology. Zero local nor global feedback, zero opamps or transistors in signal circuits. Add to it the DSD capability and excellent test / purchase / warranty / upgrade policy and — you get as a package — the best DAC in the world.

DSD

Based on the shocking level of performance I heard out of the stand-alone DSD DAC, I was particularly interested to see how far Łukasz had come.

Side note: a lot of my peers are very … ambivalent … about DSD. Too dead, too few titles, and of those titles that are available, they’re too “audiophile” and not “mainstream enough”. Bah humbug, says I. No, I don’t find these arguments particularly compelling — and as a reel-to-reel enthusiast, I doubt I will ever. But whatever. Haters gotta hate. Me? I’m a fan. Well. Say rather, I’m as much a fan as I can be about an audio file format — to be honest, I don’t really care if it’s this or that, so long as it sounds good. And as I mentioned, with LampizatOr, that DSD sound can be spectacular. Anyway, back to curiosity:

From the manual:

Direct Stream Digital, also known as DSD format – this format is not new as many people think, it is as old as digital but it wasn’t used for consumer audio or home audio – before. It became very popular after 2010 and continues to make its way into our homes. It is VERY different than our well-known PCM format as found in our CD files, MP3, FLAC or WAV – AIFF. It encodes the music in the data stream differently, looks different and sounds different. It is the format in which the SACD discs were recorded and a format in which the analog master tapes were backed up by record companies. It is currently the format in which the master recordings are made in record industry.

In ATLANTIC DAC – for the first time we use AUTOSENSING and automatic switch from DSD to PCM and back. User doesn’t need to do anything, just enjoy.

Atlantic DAC will automatically recognise and switch all DSD speed rates from normal 64 SACD format to 2x (128x) and quad 256x format. 512 is supported only as a paid option shall you need one.

We believe that 256 is the maximum reasonable speed and going faster makes no sense.

Interestingly, the decoding path is completely different for PCM-based audio and DSD. In fact, “DSD doesn’t require conversion at all — only filtering and a channel split. Note also that it is completely different from the Fikus DSD engine [as found in the DSD DAC, or in the €500/€1,000 upgrade that you might add to a Big 7/”Die Siebener” DAC]. Just a different way to skin the cat!”

Here’s the processing flowchart:

The Box

There isn’t a whole lot to look at. The faceplate is LampizatOr standard, thick and aluminum, adorned only with the single, iconic button (which only turns the USB path on or off; power is around the back) and four screws holding it on. The casework is simple bent-metal, finished in a glittery pebble-blast, all drilled-out for ventilation. Two tubes poke up into the air.

Around the back, my DAC has a full set of digital inputs, including USB, SPDIF (RCA and BMC) and AES/EBU. A lone toggle flips between the SPDIF and the AES/EBU inputs. RCA jacks let the signal out.

The aesthetic is, ultimately, a little pedestrian. You want more than that, you’re gonna need to reach quite a bit up the model-stack to get it. But at this price, the LampizatOr approach is to stuff all the glorious bits on the inside of the case.

So, anyway, consider “the looks” as a word to the wise. Because if you’re down with the look (it looks like most of the other gear in my rack, to be fair), you’re in for a treat.

Setup & Baseline

My digital front end starts with an Aurender W20. As a “transport”, this box has a remarkably stable clock, a smooth-as-silk delivery, and functionality out the wazoo. Best of all, at least for the computer allergic, is that it “just works”. The connection to most DACs is straightforward — USB out, over, and in (but there is also AES and S/PDIF, for those requiring a “legacy” connection). There are no drivers to load and no configuration that I have to fiddle with; I just hit “play” and music comes out. To my ears, this front-end unequivocally and universally lets every DAC I’ve tried sound it’s very best. It’s also $17k, so I suppose you could say, “It damn well better.”

I have several DACs in-house, so before I dive into the Atlantic, I should probably recap those before I use them to home in on the noobie.

  • AURALiC VEGA: I’ve been a long-time user and fan of the $3,500 AURALiC VEGA DAC (reviewed here), which I’ve described as having a rather linear and “clean” sound — very low noise, very extended, rather airy and tending toward detail. I tend to think of it as my go-to as I believe it’s market penetration is significant and most ‘philes tend to be familiar with it. It’s still an amazing converter.
  • Exogal Comet: A relative newcomer, I was quite taken with the $3,000 Comet from Exogal (reviewed here), which I’ve described as having a meatier presentation (as compared to Vega) and an all-day kind of sound. It has some Bluetooth controls, and changing settings from my iPhone was rather convenient.
  • BorderPatrol: My budget-favorite (~$1,000) is from BorderPatrol, whose “entry-level” DAC certainly doesn’t sound entry-level. It has to be one of the most wild and open-sounding I’ve ever come across — and by “open sounding”, I mean, “makes most other DACs sound broken”. It’s a little breathtaking, really, but never in that fatiguing kind of way.
  • Bricasti M1SE: The reigning king of my converter world, the $10k M1SE from Bricasti is my current standard for sonic excellence. Big words? Maybe so. But the fine and distinguishing characteristics of the other DACs all take a clean step up the quality chain with the Bricasti, and that’s saying something interesting.

The rest of the review system includes my reference BorderPatrol P20 amplifier, joyously stuffed with Takatsuki 300b tubes, for 20 of the purest and cleanest and tonally deep watts I have to offer. I’ve also been lucky enough to be playing with the new Gibbon X loudspeakers (their best-yet, IMO) from DeVore Fidelity. Cables are from TelWire, the rack is from Box, and all the room treatments are from GIK Acoustics.

In this system, I used the Atlantic DAC exclusively via USB (which is just my preferred route). For those looking for a PC-based playback system you really should just upgrade to a Mac, the Atlantic uses the Amanero USB chipset — and drivers are available from them.

Listening

All of which now (finally?) brings me to the Atlantic. I’ll cut to the chase — the Atlantic is fantastic, full stop. You can skip to the end now.

The Atlantic reminds me quite a bit of the Gen 3/Level 4 — it’s macro, it’s inviting, it’s listenable, it’s natural in the way that only the very best timbrally-accurate portrayals can be. Music takes on a beguiling, liquid, and mesmerizing quality, and I found myself captured again and again by what I couldn’t help but think of as the intent of the music washing over me in waves. Taking the presentation in toto, I’d offer that the Atlantic sounds very linear (look ma, no humps!), throwing deep soundscapes with a rich sense of texture that only comes from a lit, airy and detailed presentation.

Take Into the Trees from cellist Zoë Keating. I tend to focus on small-set, small-focus pieces when reviewing, and the Keating stuff seems well-suited (without being boring) to sussing out timbre. The second track on this superb-sounding album is called “Escape Artist”, and features some really naked low-note bowing. Played with the Atlantic DAC, I may not be sure what brand of rosin she’s using, but I do know she ate her Wheaties that morning — and at least two full bowls.

Said another way, there is a passage, some 1/4 of the way in, when the bowing goes wide open on the lowest string, and you can practically see the string vibrate in the space between the two speakers. Okay, I honestly have no idea if that’s the lowest string, or even if it’s a cello. But what I am sure of is that it sounds like an open wound. A longing hollowness, an echoing defiance, colliding across the big empty, spinning and shattering and fading, leaving dust but no light.

Said yet another way, this playback chain was all about the feels. And it is this kind of reaction that I’m rather feebly attempting to capture — emotion, its emphasis or lack thereof, is like pornography and the SCOTUS: you know it when you feel it. And I was feeling it. Now, this is not to say that the other solutions did not engender the feels — it’s not that. It’s all about the em-FAH-sis and which syl-LAH-bul carries it. And this kind of emphasis equals “big tone”. I put this in comparison with the Bricasti M1SE, which tends to sound a bit more detail-oriented. Both sound great, but they do appear to take entirely different paths to entirely different versions of what “great” means.

The “clarity” in this DAC — and by that I mean a combination of immediacy and “openness”, a description that almost defies words if the actual experience of the unveiling isn’t also in the offing — is excellent. If I was a reviewer of the “the arbitrary number assigner” stripe, I’d be giving the Atlantic a clear 10 out of 10, so that tells you how freakin’ impressive I think it is. Chances are, you’ve never heard a DAC like this. Coincidentally, I have — and that’s why I love that little BorderPatrol DAC — but outside of that, absolutely nothing else has come close.

Relatedly, micro-detail on the Atlantic is really good — easily on par with many of my references. Tiny recording artifacts, like the birds and crickets on “Roadhouses and Automobiles” from Chris Jones, are all present and accounted for. While this has become less important to me, on the overall arc of importance, but I know many folks push this one character to the forefront in any tally. Being upfront, the Atlantic is a step back from the Bricasti M1SE, but that is the class leader in that regard, and also happens to be considerably more expensive than the Atlantic.

Head-to-head, I think the Atlantic is “fuller” sounding than the VEGA and the BorderPatrol DACs, perhaps due to its low-end solidity and muscularity. The overall impression is “balance”, with no emphasis up top or down low, but rather a sense that it pushes deeper into the sonic image.

Where things get interesting here is timbre. Take the Shelly Manne drum solo in “I’m an Old Cowhand” from Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West (available on DSD, from Acoustic Sounds). With the Atlantic DAC, the sticks, the rim, the skin of the drumhead — all are exceptionally vivid and tactile and shockingly abrupt. That is clearly a real freakin’ drum. You can reach out and give a sharp whack yourself, and no equivocation about it. It’s there.

I know that these kinds of descriptions drive objectivists bananas, but the point I’m driving at is that there is more on heaven and earth … or, at least, something clearly something beyond “background blackness”, “frequency extension” and “transient attack” when it comes to describing DACs. There is a “thing” that tubes are said to do to a sonic presentation, but those stereotypes are almost entirely BS. I’m open to the idea that “good design” trumps all (or at least, most) of the barriers that a given tech can introduce. But every now and again, you have to wonder. Is it the tubes? Or, to speak with a different cadence, is it the even-order harmonic distortion that I find so agreeable?

Maybe so. But there is something different and altogether marvelous about this DAC. And yes, for the record, the background is silent (even with sensitive speakers, the Orangutan O/96), the frequency extension is excellent (and even better than my BorderPatrol DAC), and the transient attack is natural. Playback is seamless — my Aurender playlist transitioned between DSD and PCM, 44k and 192k, with no failures, glitches, pauses, or drops.

Conclusions

Editor’s Choice Award: LampizatOr Atlantic DAC

I’m going to put a pin in this review, here, with this as the money line:

The Atlantic is a phenomenal effort from LampizatOr. I’ve been a fan of the brand for many years, and I think this is their best work to date. Simply outstanding — a must-listen.

If I have a nit, it’s on the aesthetic — it’s unapologetically plain, as all the expensive stuff is clearly on the inside. If you’re down with that, then it’s up to you to decide how much to plow into your box. The functionality is kind of up to you — a balanced version, a remote control version, or a version with an analog attenuator, or a version that can support up to DSD512, all that is available.

For me, the “stock” version is precisely what I want. It handles all the “current” file formats and does so with aplomb and verve. I’m thrilled and completely captivated.

The DAC is staying and is going up on my Editor’s Choice list.

Most highly recommended.