World Premiere Review
A decade ago LampizatOr was not yet on my radar. My review of the LampizatOr Amber 4 stereo DAC / preamplifier, as seen here, is a testament to their efforts over the years. It wasn't until the New York Audio Show in 2014 that I first heard one. The rig was totally comprised of gear that was new to me. The only familiar thing was Lyle Lovett singing "North Dakota." I didn't have much to say about the sound quality, which is neither good nor bad.
Spring forward to November, at the Capital AudioFest 2021 and there were more than a handful of their various DACs on display. LampizatOr has become a top brand, and while they are best known in the US for their DACs, they offer four levels of "turnkey" systems in which everything, including cables, is made by LampizatOr. Their speakers feature open baffle midrange and tweeters with enclosed woofers, much like the early Tekton Design speaker I found so delightful back in 2009. Today, I dare say they are at the leading edge of DAC design.
That they have come so far so quickly is not by chance. Lukasz Fikus, now 57, was formally educated in electrical engineering at Warsaw Polytechnic University, specializing in power distribution and high voltage physics. He also picked up an MBA from the Warsaw University of Technology School of Business which collaborates with London Business School, the HEC in Paris (a prestigious business school), and the NHH (Norwegian School of Economics), one of the top business schools in Europe.
By the time he was ready to start his own business, he had risen to the position of general manager for Poland of a major international electronics company. Keep in mind that he was a young man of 26 when the Soviet Union dissolved, so his career developed during very exciting times in Europe. At 43, he was eager to break out of the corporate world and establish a company in the field of his passion.
"LampizatOr" is a combination of "Lampa" (which means vacuum tube in Polish) and "Terminator", which presumably has something to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger. In any case, that's Lukas' nickname and he runs the show. He is determined to keep his company "right-sized" so it remains fun and he has control over the quality. He is committed to keeping production within Poland, in-house, where he can keep full control of the acoustic signature.
His design philosophy embraces large transformers, multiple power supplies, and full-size chassis, with Teflon-coated silver wire used along with generous point-to-point wiring — not to forget those vacuum tubes. The components are over-specified and chosen by ear. Where compromise is made, they let it be known, and offer upgrades for an additional cost.
Almost all of his products are made to order. I found that his willingness to customize his products for his customers made his product line a bit confusing. Obviously, with models with exposed vacuum tubes, tube rolling can change the look, but it can go far beyond that. LampizatOr's Amber 4 DAC, for example, can be ordered as a basic single-ended DAC starting at $3750. You can add a remote volume feature bringing it up to $5300. Or you can get a basic balanced DAC for $4250. Beyond that, you can make it balanced with a remote for $6360, which is what I requested for review. With four different digital inputs, and a single-ended analog input it becomes a versatile preamp. With a tuner and a phono stage at my front ends, I'd be short one set of analog inputs, but more on this later.
So clearly, not all Amber 4 are created equally. But fear not. LampizatOr keeps complete production records for each product, along with a serial number and full documentation in their log book to facilitate any future servicing or upgrading needs. Each component comes with a five-year unconditional and transferable warranty that should facilitate resale if you decide to upgrade to a higher model. Furthermore, products can be upgraded in the future, should your needs change. After servicing or upgrading, they will negotiate a three-year warranty from the time of such repair or upgrade. After a complete overhaul, previously owned products get a new logbook entry, a new serial number, and a new warranty.
Shipping is by air via DHL so it arrives in about 48 hours. The DAC was double-boxed and arrived unmolested. This is a very customer-centered way of doing business, so their success is not all that surprising.
The New LampizatOr Amber 4
The new LampizatOr Amber 4 DAC / Preamplifier is not a mere upgrade of the Amber 3, but rather a ground-up new design derived from knowledge gained in the development of the Baltic-3 (starting price $5800) and their new flagship Horizon DAC, priced over $46,000. It includes a total redesign of the digital section, a redesigned power supply, and a new tube complement in single-ended triode mode with zero feedback. Its ECC99 super tube used as an output buffer with very low impedance allows the DAC to drive transistor amps particularly well. The Amber 4 does not have DSD512x capability, but their implementation of 256 is said to be better than their 512 used to be. And there is very little music available in 512, so this should be of little concern — especially since forgoing DSD512 allowed them to greatly improve the musicality of DSD256 and PCM when they redesigned the digital engine.
Used As A DAC In XLR / Balanced Mode
From there, I ran single-ended to my Eddie Wong M23SE Mk3 monoblocks, a parallel 300B monster with seven transformers putting out 18 Watts each. These amps are sufficient to drive the Kharma Ceramique 2.2 three-way speakers in my large listening room to about 100dB peaks at the listening position, nine feet from the drivers. The Kharma speakers are supplemented with prototype Tekton Design subwoofers fed from the line stage via single-ended interconnects. The subs fill in the bottom octave, tighten the mid-bass and improve the resolution of the midrange.
Pressing 'Play', it was immediately obvious that the Amber 4 was far superior to my Calyx DAC. The sense of air in the recording venue was evident even before I sat down in my chair. Tonal color (timbre) was next to impress me, and within a minute I had confirmed the resolution was also far superior as I fixated on various instruments. The front edge of the soundstage was a little deeper behind the plane of the speakers, but the music itself reached out into the room, unimpeded by any lack of transparency. Let me be clear: this is a very transparent DAC.
Having spent the past week at the Rochester International Jazz Festival, taking in four or five shows each evening, I can say the Amber 4 gets very close to live music with the right preamp, except when the horns and drum hits get over 100dB — and that is likely the shortcoming of my low powered tube amps.
The high resolution and excellent transparency together let me see past (or hear through) one instrument to follow the instrument next to, or behind it. This DAC does not exhibit pinpoint imagery with each instrument or singer placed in a bubble at a specific point on the soundstage. Rather, the music comes off the stage as an organic whole, just the way it does in real life. Sure, the performers are in their correct positions, but I was not falsely impressed or distracted by pinpoint imaging. With the sound more naturally integrated, I could bathe in the pace, rhythm, and timing and get into the soul of the music.
Another benefit of the excellent resolution and transparency was the perception of micro detail and both micro and macro dynamics. We talk about "seeing deeper into the recording" and "hearing familiar music for the first time, again". With the Amber 4, I experienced the attack and decay of notes more clearly. Words in obscure lyrics became more intelligible. Subtle inflections in a singer's voice or volume became more noticeable. And on dynamics — the music was more explosive, right up to the limits of my amps, when the recording called for it.
The downside of this is that it reveals poor recordings for what they are so some of your favorites may get played less often. With luck, the LampizatOr Amber 4 will pull out more musicality than the flaws it reveals, though I certainly would not call it "ruthlessly revealing." Aside from the demands of critical listening for this review, listening was always pleasurable and the toe was almost always unconsciously tapping.
And, speaking of dynamics, every recording has an optimal volume where it sounds best in your room, with your equipment. With my aging ears, I've found that I have been pushing the volume a little higher over the years to get more detail from the recordings. With the greater sense of "being there" that results from improved resolution, transparency, and sense of venue, I've found that I can dial the volume down two or three dB while still enjoying the performance.
Throughout JazzFest I've frequented eight different venues, each with its sonic signature ranging from a physically intimate (but acoustically loud) club to a large church to a medium size, acoustically excellent performance hall at the Eastman School of Music where more than a few of the musicians earned their degrees. One of the musical characteristics I relish is the sense of bloom and I had the opportunity to experience a lot of it in live performances at JazzFest.
Of course, it is not relevant to all types of music or all instruments, but say, the sustained notes of an electric guitar, a flute, a Hammond B3 organ, a piano with the lid up in the right room, or even the sense of volume of a drum when it's hit... well, you get the idea. Bloom is something tube gear can do really well and with the Amber 4, my tube preamp, and tube monoblocks, the sense of bloom was spot on. To recreate great bloom it takes great transparency and resolution, along with great power supplies, to maintain extended notes, and sustain the decay or the reverberation from a venue's walls. And the greatness has to be present at the head of the chain or you will have a hard time trying to recreate it in a normal size listening room.
Another strength of LampizatOr's Amber 4 was the recreation of music in the treble. Most of you will be thinking of massed violins, but my critical signifier comes from American Folk Blues Festival '70, a live recording, obviously originally analog. It is one of my most transparent CDs. Shakey Horton opens up "Hard Hearted Woman" with a riff on his harmonica held tightly to the microphone. When people hear this for the first time (like at an audio show) they dive for the volume control to save their tweeters. But actually, it stops just short of the redline and stays there for about five seconds. On any gear short of excellent, it sounds dangerously screechy. On the Amber 4, it sounded like ol' Shakey was right in the room. And both string quartets and massed violins were not bad either.
Regarding the soundscape, my speakers are on a 40' wall with the side walls far to the left and even farther to the right. Almost everything I review has a very wide front soundstage unless it also proves to have a very recessed soundstage, which will make it narrower. But that is rare. The speaker baffle is 56" from the front wall, so I also get great depth — like out into the front yard. And the vaulted ceiling (low at the front wall and high behind the listening chair) usually contributes a good sense of height to the music. My experience over the years seems to indicate that architecture and speaker placement have more to do with soundscape, though certain speakers have wider projection than others.
While a wide and deep soundstage is pretty much a given for me, more important is a sense of actual space of the recorded venue (whether recorded live or created in the mastering process.) That imagery comes from the micro details of recorded reflections in the original venue and the room tone present in every room, much of which resides in the lowest octave. This is an added benefit of subs, beyond the reproduction of musical notes.
Used As A DAC In RCA / Unbalanced Single-Ended
Both sets of cables were the new Synergistic Research Atmosphere Excite SX ($2995 RCA, $3195 XLR, one-meter pair), so it was an apples-to-apples comparison. While these are expensive, they are not inappropriate for a DAC of this caliber. You can certainly spend a lot more on cables with Synergistic and many other companies. You can also buy more expensive DACs from LampizatOr.
In comparing the two (single-ended vs. balanced) there was a noticeable difference in volume, indicating that the Amber 4 is a true balanced DAC, not just a single-ended DAC with XLR outputs added for convenience. If a DAC puts out a 2V signal in single-ended, it would put out 4V in balanced. Consequently, I had to increase the volume when listening to the single-ended input.
This can be significant if your preamp has a relatively high gain. If you normally listen to a source with a 2V output with your circular volume control with discrete resistors in say the 11 o'clock position, minor adjustments up or down will result in minor shifts in volume. If you switch to a source with a 4V output, you will need to drop your volume knob down into the 8 o'clock range, where rotating the volume knob a notch, either way, will likely produce a large shift in volume. Consequently, you may not be able to find that "just right" level you seek. Having the volume control on the LampizatOr Amber 4 gives you a second attenuator where you can make those fairly small adjustments.
Acoustically, the music was identical through either the balanced or single-ended output with the 1m interconnects. If your rig requires a long interconnect run, say from one end of the room to the other, you will be best advised to go with the balanced output of the DAC and run it to either a true balanced preamp or true balanced amplifier.
Ergonomics And The Remote Control
It is all very intuitive, except for the fact that the volume reverts to the lowest setting if power is cut off, such as when changing cables. This is a great feature to keep you from blowing out your speakers, I suppose. When using the remote, as you switch from one source to another, the volume level of each source is maintained, once it has initially been set. The yellow numbers indicating the volume setting were easily readable from my chair about 11 feet away, and they were just the right brightness to be clearly visible in daylight and not too bright while listening in the dark.
The remote control is quite addictive. At about 1.25" wide, a touch over 6" long, and 0.75" thick, it is a perfect size. It is made out of machined and anodized aluminum and has four tacky plastic feet that keep it from sliding on smooth table surfaces or the leather arm of your listening chair. The rounded corners and softened edges will not likely cut into cloth or scratch your leather chair. The six buttons control the volume, mute, input selection, and power and are arranged in a logical, easy-to-remember configuration.
Because the music was so transparent, I found myself frequently measuring the volume with my SPL meter and adjusting the volume with the remote. As I mentioned earlier, some music just begs to be played at a louder or softer volume. The design features and comfort of the remote meant I kept it close at hand and used it often. It's especially wonderful because my preamp forgoes that feature in the name of sonic purity.
Strangely, there is also a power button mounted on the bottom of the chassis, near the faceplate when ordering the volume/remote control. Logically, it is nice to have a power switch on the unit when shutting down the rig so you don't have to return to your chair to find the remote. Normally, this button is placed in the large "O" in LamipizatOr on the faceplate. The footers do not raise the chassis high enough to get my finger under it, so I had to use one hand to lift the front of the unit while the other felt around for the power button. The use of aftermarket footers might provide additional clearance to alleviate this situation if you wish.
Used As A Stereo Preamplifier
There was also missing a lot of inner detail in the music and the treble and sense of air at the top end were curtailed. The music lacked a sense of airiness like it was being cut off at 16kHz rather than 20kHz. The height of the soundscape was also dramatically lowered. There did seem to be a more direct translation of the source into music, but it was less musical and lacked some of the dynamics I experienced with the preamp in the system.
Lots of audiophiles try to run directly to their power amps from their sources and some probably do come up with workable combinations, but this wasn't one of them. My Coincident Statement Phono Stage has variable outputs that would allow me to run direct to power amps, yet I still choose to run it into my Coincident Statement Line Stage first. When I put the Coincident preamp between the Amber 4 and The Audion monoblocks, the music came back to life again. Still, you may never know how good the Amber 4 DAC is unless you run it in an all-tube system.
I didn't have long enough RCA interconnects in the Synergistic series I have been using, so I connected the LampizatOr Amber 4 DAC /Preamplifier to my tube monoblocks with high-quality JPS Labs Superconductor FX interconnects that were about $2000 for a 1-meter pair, back in the day. The music was almost as good as when using the Coincident line stage. Lots of transparency, bloom, spatial cues, and lacking primarily in the level of resolution, which I can easily blame on the cables being a couple of cable generations as well as a couple of decades old.
I can safely say that had I used the latest Synergistic cables I've been using, running directly from the LampizatOr Amber 4 to the tube monoblocks would have been just as good as running through the Coincident line stage. And it wouldn't surprise me if doing so was even better.
The important thing with using the Amber 4 as a preamp is to consider your connectivity requirements (and future needs) on both the input and output sides. The Amber 4 is heavy on digital inputs with four types but only has one RCA analog input. And it has only one RCA and one XLR output though it appears that both outputs remain active, allowing you to run balanced to your main amp and single-ended to a pair of subs though I'm not sure how well gain would remain matched if you change the volume. In any case, Lukasz seems to be willing to talk about such things and make such modifications if necessary, though he stands quite firm on the particular components of the electrical circuitry itself.
Digital Inputs: USB
To check out the USB input capability, I pulled my Dell Inspiron 15 7000 2-in-1 laptop (~$700) out of the home office and connected it with the Amber 4 with an older Synergistic Research Active USB SE cable. First, I pulled up David Checky's Jazz in the New Harmonic (Chesky, 2015), which is a lot like the Nordic jazz I love at JazzFest. It was soft sounding, so I reached for the Synergistic Research MiG SX footers ($995/set of 3) that I keep on hand for uber resolution and placed them under the laptop. That worked!
I don't know what the bit rate of the recording was but it was at least as good as the CDs I had been playing. It could have been as high as 24/192. Lukasz says they use a USB input and card of the highest standard. I don't have a lot of experience in this territory, but it wasn't much different than the live music I was listening to at the Lutheran Church. Easily, two thumbs up!
Just for kicks, I cued up the YouTube of Bruce Springsteen "Racing in the Streets" (Live at the Paramount Theater, 2009) with 5M+ views, some of which were mine through Grado SR 80e headphones and a Clarus Coda headphone DAC/amp. As much as I love listening to that song late at night in my home office, running it through the Amber 4 in the big rig was a revelation. I suppose now I'm going to need a silver-stranded HDMI cable and a 55" HDTV to wheel between my speakers. The genie is out of the bottle. That YouTube was followed by Bruce Springsteen at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio, on 8-9-1978, the full concert recently released and I was the 12,055th viewer! This could be addicting.
Design & Aesthetic
LampizatOr's Amber 4 DAC is a small fraction over 5" tall. It sits on four feet that, along with the standard faceplate, are the only carry-over parts from their Amber 3. The feet look well-designed with evidence of constrained layer damping, but being the tweaker that I am, I tried two of the Synergistic Research MiG footers, the 3.0 ($295) and SX ($995) that just fit under the Amber 4 with enough clearance on top. The improvement in resolution was noticeable with the 3.0 and very noticeable with the SX, which did not surprise me. Whether the cost of the footers buys as much improvement as paying for the next model up the line, I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me.
The chassis is folded aluminum which Lukasz says sounds better than steel, which "puts a lid and a blanket on the soundstage." There is a sheet of vibration-absorbing material glued under the top and a 3/8" thick anodized aluminum faceplate that can be ordered in silver or black. Structurally, it is very sturdy and it weighs 17 pounds, but from a vibration standpoint, it does not compare with billet aluminum, nor does it cost like billet aluminum. I also noted that there were no internal walls for the isolation of digital and analog sections.
I was tempted to try adding a sheet of ERS paper to cut down on the EMR/RFI, and to swap in a 1.6A Slow-Blow Synergistic Research Purple fuse from another component, but time was running short and the improvements of these tweaks are pretty much a given. An upgrade to the digital cable would likely have produced an improvement. I also noted that the clearance for the 12AT7 tube was pretty tight which might limit some choices for tube rolling.
The styling is a mix of modern and early 20th century. The LCD screen and contemporary knob land it in the 21st century while the metalwork of the chassis, including the slight metalflake in the textured paint, as well as the exquisite labeling on the back, are planted firmly in the 20th. I'm hard-pressed to think of anything like it, outside of the world of Ham Radio or scientific instruments. While the number of units they have manufactured is now around 2300, I hope they keep this look as a way of branding their products as they move into the future. It's a bit Old School which works well with their commitment to using vacuum tube circuitry.
I didn't think the Amber 4 would perform as well as it did. I didn't realize how much sound quality was lying untapped in my rig, but that's what great products do. They improve upon the component they replace and reveal the quality that was hidden in your other components all along. Listening to my rig with the LampizatOr Amber 4, it rates 5 Blue notes in a lot of categories based on what my system sounded like before. But I've also listened to a couple of hundred rigs at Montreal and Axpona in the past few months. Among them was one of the Best Rooms at Axpona which featured the new LampizatOr Horizon DAC (starting at €44,000) in the Acora Acoustics room that totaled about $600,000. Should I give the Amber 4 only 4 Blue Notes in case I someday have the opportunity to review the Horizon?
Since most people evolve their rigs as they go from rags to riches, at least until they hit "downsize mode," I'll err in the direction of 5 Blue Notes. While I can imagine what their flagship Horizon might sound like in my room, it isn't necessary, nor is it financially a sensible investment for me. LampizatOr's Amber 4 may be the entry-level DAC from LampizatOr, but with its unique combination of DAC chips and single-ended triode analog output stage, it's hard to imagine a more musical DAC in its price range. And if it works for you as a preamp, too, it practically pays for itself. Very highly recommended.