What the heck is in THAT thing? That was my first reaction to the huge road case I signed for from my delivery guy. My second reaction was “Dayum, I don’t remember there being an amplifier headed my way. This sucker is heavy!” Ohhhh, I thought, it’s the LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1. I flashed back to my days of helping load the van with all our band gear, and I channeled my inner roadie as I hauled the case back to the staging area, my garage studio, for unpacking.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
Once in the living room, I had to clear a spot on a rack shelf to house the impressively large (20” x 17” x 4”) and heavy (a little over 37 lbs) box that is the LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1. When I turned it on, there was the money shot staring me in the face, a round, orange Nixie tube display on the front panel that glowed with numbers displaying which loading option is chosen for the phono cartridge. The setting is changed by a large black knob to the right of the Nixie tube display.
I wanted to grab a phatt stack of Benjamins like Skrap in that episode of Easy and start throwing money at my new special friend.
When I came out of this juvenile trance my shallow desire based on looks alone started to wane. I looked forward to getting to know Ms. LampizatOr on a deeper level. This would take more than a first date, as I found out.
Warm Me Up First
I am very familiar with the occasionally fickle nature of audio gear, both pro and hi-fi. In the case of the LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1, my first listen was a little disorienting even after leaving it powered up for a few days to warm up. The sound was messy, dynamically compressed, and the bass sounded very rolled off. A day later and after a few emails with Lukasz Fikus (Mr. LampizatOr) I got out my hex nut wrenches, popped the top and checked a few things that he suggested. Nothing seemed amiss.
Reassembly, then back in the system, wait a few minutes and then…a few quick spins before I had to go to work was all it took. BAM!
I felt tingly. That buzz of excitement when the sound all falls into place but has some new elements to the presentation that gets my mojo working. I couldn’t wait to dig in for extended listening. Maybe it was switching the voltage selector back and forth, or one more day of being on. Maybe it was bowing to the open box in a gesture of fealty to the vacuum tube gods. I’ll never know.
One thing that was fortuitous about opening the top was I could see first hand how well this thing is built. Like “last forever and never break” well built. Which is what you want if you’re planning on buying something to last a lifetime.
A huge toroidal transformer in the power supply that looked like it would be at home in a power amp. Lots of high-end caps and resistors and those gosh darned toobs (6N2PB, ECC803, EL34, 6X5) plus a pair of input transformers that look like LampizatOr branded Lundahls, but I’m not positive.
Audio porn at its finest.
I’m not gonna geek out about the particulars of the circuit, or my usual long-winded back story about the design goals and such. This is one time I don’t care all that much and you probably don’t either. I’ll just say Lukasz and his peeps clearly know what they’re doing and leave it at that. I’d rather talk about using it and how it sounds.
The LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1 comes with an interesting manual, however, which adds some method to the madness. The MC1 was designed to be used only with typically low output moving coil cartridges. Lukasz feels that having a single circuit deal with the very different gain ranges and different loading for both MM and MC is too much of a sonic compromise. Do one thing and do it to the highest degree. I can respect that. Evel Knievel only rode motorcycles through the air, did anybody ask him to do motocross?
Plus, don’t the vast majority of serious audiophiles use MC carts? The ones that would be lusting after a phono preamp like this certainly would. And for the same ostensibly sound-ruining reasons, the gain is fixed. Take THAT, versatility.
On the back panel of the LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1 are RCA connections for the phono in and RCAs for the output to a line level preamp. The front panel has that sexy glowing numerical display for the number corresponding to the different loading options. 0 is a handy mute setting with 1 through 5 being: 50, 100, 200, 400 ohms, and INFINITY. Did they throw infinity in there just to mess with me? Whatever.
Also the manual states that setting 4 (and ONLY setting 4) can be factory wired for any special value a user may require. Okay, that’s pretty cool. Side note, there is no pop or extraneous clicking sound when changing the loading settings, even while music plays. There is also a nifty little dial meter on the left side of the front panel that indicates proper current is happening in the circuit.
Space, The Final Frontier
I can’t go on any longer without hurling as many superlatives as I can think of about the imaging properties of the LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1. It’s like the gravitational pull of a distant but massive black star is pulling you into the sound field. It’s hard to explain.
Things in the center are anchored and floating in space between the speakers and yet there is a beautiful arc of depth that seems to go waaaay back behind the sounds that are in the foreground. It’s similar to what the Qualiton APX-200 power amplifier does, but in a slightly more eerie (and fun) way. Instruments, vocals, and ambience that are spread wide contribute to the holographic display field as an homogenous rather than an etched, pin-point type of vibe. I suspect this may have something to do with harmonic content. More on that later.
With a lot of records, my speakers did the disappearing act but in a way that I haven’t heard the system do before. My listening biases are not heavily skewed towards knockout 3D imaging, but when everything else about a component is right (by my ear), I’m more than happy to scuba dive in those warm, clear, Caribbean vacuum tube waters and watch (listen to?) the little fishies of sound float by.
Listening was done using a Rega P10 with a ZYX Ultimate 100 cartridge. The ZYX output of .24 mV is perfect for the default high gain of the LampizatOr. A PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell was used as the line level preamp into a pair of Pass Labs XA-60.8s driving Qln Prestige Three speakers. I started out listening to the LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1 using the Audio Hungary Qualiton APX-200 to drive the speakers but switched over to the Pass amps early on.
Something about the qualities of the Pass amps seemed to match particularly well with the LampizatOr phono stage. Doubling up on tubes by using the Qualiton amp was a bit TOO much of a good thing.
Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, Hit Me
Another thing I noticed about the sound of the LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1 is its ability to pound out transients with the verve and slam of the best of ‘em. However, the leading edge of very hard-hitting snare drums (i.e. Stewart Copeland) or cymbal crashes or vocals with lots of energy around 3-5kHz had a slight helping of cream added to the black coffee. It’s a really nice trick to pull off. Great transient slam without any feeling of dynamic compression, yet never sounding etched or edgy or glassy in any way.
Bass energy was full, clean, tight, and very satisfying. It didn’t quite reach down into the Bowels of Hades as heard on other phono pres in my system like the RCM Sensor 2 or a Simaudio 310LP. But there was more than enough there to feel like D’Angelo or The Weekend or Dr. Dre were bangin’ on my woofers.
Remember that distortion that I heard during the first day of testing? Well, after about 4 or 5 days of being powered up, that initial messiness ended up receding into a subtle but nonetheless rich-sounding hue. This was apparent on anything in the mid/upper mid to lower treble region. Like thin coats of clear lacquer had been applied to the wood. You can still see the grain, but now it’s smooth to the touch.
I played with the choices provided for loading quite a bit during the first few serious listening sessions. At first, I listened predominately with the 100 ohm position selected (Nixie tube number 2) which is the recommended loading by ZYX for the Ultimate 100. But never one to be constrained by the ‘correct’ approach, I explored. I was convinced that #5 (INFINITY!) was my jam until finally setting on door number 1 at 50 ohms. Big, Bold, and Beautiful.
This Is Where I Yak About What Certain Records Sound Like
I’m gonna keep it simple. Everything I listened to sounded great.
Big, rich textures. A huge 3D soundstage no doubt aided by some subtle but very inviting additional harmonic content supplied by the LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1. I never got the feeling I wanted things to sound cleaner because there was plenty of detail and, just as remarkable, a lessened sense of any harsh or gritty tonality. Overall, a hair on the warm side of the spectrum, but with plenty of space between transients and a luscious tone. Again, rich but not at the expense of clarity. A sprinkle of cinnamon on hot apple pie. Just like Mom used to make.
The Vinyl Phono MC1 pulled me deeply into the music. I fell in love.
Rage Against The Machine – Evil Empire
Pounding and sufficiently gnarly without any glassy glare. I felt like I was actually IN the room at Cole Rehearsal in Los Angeles where this was recorded. I turned it up LOUD.
Keith Jarrett – Death And The Flower
Extra trippy sounding with percussion floating in the air on the title cut. I thought I could see some very wide leather belts on bell bottom jeans when I heard this record.
Beck – Sea Change
The lush soundscape of this record was made even more lush yet without any extra upper bass mud. Trance inducing. I heard some cuts here that reminded me about tubes done right having a nice way of making mixes with a dry ambience sound just a little more wet.
Chet Baker – Chet Baker Sings
The night I was in the mood for this one, the LampizatOr rewarded me with a seemingly perfect presentation. Smoove.
Terry Gibbs – Dream Band
Another classic that seemed to be made for listening on a tubey but clean system. If your foot doesn’t start tapping to this record, I need to check your pulse.
Peter Tosh – Legalize It
I’ve read some people talk about how the sound of some vacuum tube gear will seem to implore the playing of certain styles of music that best show it’s strengths. I didn’t find that to be true for the Lampizator Vinyl Phono MC1. Reggae? Bring it. And pass me an edible.
Rush – Moving Pictures
That opening synth in Tom Sawyer was so wide my head almost exploded. Not really, but you know what I mean.
The Police – Ghost In The Machine
I referred earlier to the signature crack of Stewart Copeland’s snare. On some cuts and especially if played off mediocre digital, I get an almost instant headache if I’ve got it cranked. On vinyl and in particular through the LampizatOr phono pre, it was clean and sharp but never painful. Magic.
I have zero caveats when it comes to the sound (and looks) of the LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1. Full disclosure, I did try it with my Dynavector DV-10X5 and this very high output moving coil cart (2.5 mV) had too much juice for the MC1’s high, fixed gain. Gordon Lightfoot suddenly sounded like The Black Keys. However, in keeping with the intended user who would most certainly have a low output MC there shouldn’t be any issues. If anyone is very attached to a particular high output cart, then I imagine that the Vinyl Phono MM version is the ticket.
The tiny (and I do mean tiny) bit of transient softening I hear and like is, I’m guessing, more due to the input transformers than the tubes. It could also be the tube rectifier in the power supply. Whatever the case, Lukasz has fine-tuned the transient response and harmonic content like a master chef. He also offers a lot of his designs in a certain a la carte manner with various options including different tube brands and types. The unit I listened to was supplied with NOS tubes of various brands. I didn’t make any substitutions, but I can imagine for those experimental type folks, tube rolling would offer some sonic, fine-tuning fun.
In my work as a mastering engineer, not to mention how I have assembled my home system, I’ve always looked for gear that inhabits the magical nexus between mercilessly neutral and overly colored. My sonic happy place. It’s not terribly hard to find affordable, excellent sounding solid state gear that is clean and very listenable. If you’re willing to spend more, you can get a refined type of clean that has maybe a more appealing musicality.
But in my experience, vacuum tube gear that does clean and clear with just the right amount of vibe is harder to find. You can’t simply wire up a box using tubes and transformers and get all the glorious sounding aspects of such a circuit without a lot of work to minimize weaknesses. That is why I get so excited when I happen upon something using tubes that lives in my sonic happy place. Of course, dear reader, you should know by now that a visit to Nirvana ain’t cheap.
Like many of the other products in the LampizatOr line there are different prices for various metal work options for the case to allow users to get the look that most suits their taste but the basic, black cased LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1 reviewed here has a MSRP of $8,860.
After finishing this review I found out from Lukasz there is the flagship MC2 with TWO moving coil inputs PLUS a moving magnet input (switchable) AND balanced outputs. Nice. That goddess goes for a cool $10,747. The lower gain MM1 is $6,188 and the MM2 (no rectifier tube in the power supply) comes in at a paltry $5,247.
That’s a lot of scratch for most people.
However, for those that are deeply into the joy of experiencing music with a particular love of vinyl as being the medium of choice, the LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC 1 should absolutely be at the top of your must hear list. Vacuum tube lovers should run, not walk to audition this baby. It could be the phono pre you’ve been searching for.
But be forewarned: how can you put a price on love?