World Premiere Review!
From the Beginning
For those interested, you may see my brief history of the brand as laid out in my Baltic 3 review, or with my YouTube channel conversation with Łukasz as seen below.
Unlike Any Other...
First of all, this DAC is clearly like no other in my experience. To begin with, it is the most massive, and to these eyes, the most visually engaging digital engine I've yet seen. It is some seventeen and a third inches wide, nineteen and three-quarters inches deep, and stands six and three-quarters inches tall, sans tubes, and double that with the factory shipped valves mounted. And it weighs in at and striking seventy pounds!
But what a beauty! The exo-chassis is CNC milled from inch-thick solid slabs of metal, and the seams of the four sides and the top cover are left untouching - by just a fraction of an inch, giving the illusion that they are floating in space. The name "horizon," in all lower case, and the brand LampizatOr, are etched as outlined letters in white, appointing the upper left and lower right corners respectively.
Then, there is the centrally located two-digit Nixie tube display, and three round buttons immediately beneath, labeled from left to right, -, SEL, and +, on the front panel. Now, I grew up in an era where most all calculators, test equipment, and computing devices I used in labs and classrooms used Nixie displays, or what is known as a cold cathode display, in essence, an electronic device resembling a tube, but utilized for displaying numerals or other information with a glowing discharge, so I'll admit to finding this look to be sexy as hell.
But LampizatOr's choice to use the more retro-looking, stylish Nixie tubes was motivated by more than merely the suave aesthetics it would bring to Horizon. Rather, they were chosen for the benefits they afford, including both their prolonged longevity, and their virtually nonexistent self-radiated noise level, one many orders of magnitude lower than that of LCDs.
The three buttons offer full control of the Horizon, with left - and right + buttons to control volume or input choice. The center SEL button will toggle the Horizon in or out of Standby mode (the rocker power switch is on the back panel near the IEC socket) and is the input selector once powered on. After the warmup countdown finishes at power up, the Nixie display shows the selected input number, 1 for S/PDIF, 2 for AES/EBU, 3 for TosLink, 4 for USB, 5 for HDMI I2S, 6 for RJ45 I2S, 7 for Analog RCA input, and 8 for analog XLR balanced input, for about three seconds, then it reverts to showing the volume level.
Mine shipped with a reddish-maroon top plate, closely matching the finish of my Von Schweikert Audio ULTRA 9 loudspeakers, but it is available with as plated copper, in a black matt (matching the chassis body), Sahara silver, mirror chrome, or any RAL color.
As well as the forward centrally mounted Emission Labs 5U4G rectifier on the top plate, mine shipped with four Tung-Sol KT150s, with the two more forward responsible for creating the positive and negative phase components of the right output signal, while the matching pair to the rear generate the positive and negative phase components of the left output. These are power pentode tubes, with the basic tube choice here being an EL34 or KT88. Finally, two Psvane 6SN7GTs, dual triodes that each handle both phases of the left and right channels for the DAC conversion input, are located centrally along the front-to-back center line on the top plate, between the KT150s.
Now this begs the question, why use such big power pentodes here, devices that would seem to be ridiculously over-specified for the job in this circuit? But according to Łukasz, that's the key to the big, bold, effortless sound that the Horizon generates. He freely admits that he really doesn't know why this application of power pentodes is so successful but, capitalizing on the counsel of one of his mentors, Evgenyi Kreminsky, of Lviv, Ukraine, he suggests that it may have something to do with the density of milliamps per square inch of metal as the electrons flow from their Cathode to the Anode. These tubes can conduct many tens of, or even one hundred, milliamps, from a five-hundred-volt supply. But in Horizon, using a more modest two-hundred-volt supply, conducting just five milliamps, he suggests that it may be analogous to having a dual overhead cam V8 engine powering a ridiculously small, light car.
Further, it uses precisely controlled AC heaters, safely limited in both voltage and current to provide excellent protection and long life. The anode high voltage supply uses LampizatOr's proprietary tube power supply, comprised of a high-grade toroidal transformer, one EI-transformer, a dual diode directly heated rectifier, with a choke and capacitor filter providing passive filtration and energy storage stages. After the rectifier diode tube, the supplies are then split into quad-mono sources to power the two phases of each channel!
Its balanced operation is achieved using a fully balanced digital engine that produces four analog outputs simultaneously, left positive, left negative, right positive, and right negative. All four outputs are treated equally and are given their own individual volume control ladder, filtering, signal shaping, and amplification, which explains the need for four triodes per DAC (a pair of 6SN7 dual triodes are used) and the additional four big pentodes for anode loading.
In my experience, Horizon's seven-tube complement works in a way I've never seen applied before in any DAC. The pentodes provide power supply regulation, active anode loading, and cathode buffering, all at the same time, thanks to their three grids. The dual triodes provide voltage amplification and current conversion for the DAC process, which suggests that they have a huge influence on the resultant sound. More on that soon enough.
When reading about Horizon on their website, you will see that they are deliberately secretive about the actual DAC chips that they use. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic settled in, several major chip manufacturers, having recognized LampizatOr's obvious fanatical implementation of digital technology, and unsolicited, started shipping them packages of newly developed chips, requesting that LampizatOr take them for a test drive. Working from this pool of emerging DACs, Łukasz told me in conversation that it was the single biggest increase in quality he had ever heard in his time as a designer. So, when you ask what chip they use in Horizon, be prepared to hear the otherwise uninformative code name, Engine Nineteen.
But by implementing this new-found innovative chip technology, which as Łukasz had stated was unlike anything he had seen or heard prior, he was inspired to create his current masterpiece. Though it took almost a year to write software to control the DAC process, especially for DSD512, by using their custom firmware, they have created a distinguished DAC that has reset the bar on digital playback for me.
Like many of the finest DACs available, the Horizon is provisioned to allow you to directly drive your amplifiers, totally bypassing your linestage or preamplifier. It offers both balanced XLR and single-ended RCA outputs and even features a set of XLR outputs to drive stereo subwoofers, an option I've not noted with other brands' designs. My listening with the direct output from the Horizon was virtually identical to my experience using my linestage, though for convenience and to more readily accommodate my analog source, the majority of my listening was done with my linestage in play.
I could go on at considerable length about the technology, design techniques, and applied engineering behind this amazing new flagship DAC, and for those so inclined, feel free to dig in on your own. While I'm not trying to diminish its import by abbreviation, I want to talk about the remarkable result of all the energy, engineering, and deliberation that went into crafting this overachieving music maker...so let's move on to what the experience of living with the Horizon is like.
The Sound Of Excess
Yet right from its protective flight case, with only its factory testing and burn-in time (roughly seventy-two hours), it was so clearly resolute, yet so rife with texture, rich in tone, and dimensionally corporeal, that I found myself thinking about how much more bloom, body, tonal, and spatial expressiveness could possibly reveal itself over the coming weeks.
My first 45 days with this remarkable component were spent listening exclusively to the factory-supplied tubes. It would be irresponsible for me to not get a handle on how this device performs as shipped. And I'm happy to report that with the included valve set, four Russian-made Tung-Sol KT150 beam pentodes, two Chinese-made Psvane 6SN7GT "Blue Ball" octal dual triodes, and that massive Emission Labs 5U4G rectifier, the results were magnificent!
Over my time in front of Horizon, I was simply elated with what I was hearing, basking in the steadily advancing, sometimes minuscule - but always relevant - improvements, as they crept into play as I accrued more and more time in front of my system. I was well rewarded, as the longer I listened, up to about the first five weeks or so, when it finally seemed totally run in, the more refined, expressive, and nuanced this remarkable machine became.
One of the first attributes that stood out for me was how extremely well this DAC portrays dynamic contrasts and their prodigious modulations. One of my near-consistent disappointments with the performance of many other well-thought-of DACs is how they tend to compress or foreshorten the gamut and fluency of rather large dynamic contrasts in music, ranging from the blaring cacophony at the opening of Prokofiev's "Scythian Suite," to things as viscerally startling as the opening of Pink Floyd's "In the Flesh?" from The Wall, or the bomb detonation near the conclusion of "Late Home Tonight, Pt. 1," from Roger Waters magnum opus Amused to Death. While I will acknowledge that that are many lesser systems that are otherwise unable to recreate some of these dynamic contrasts faithfully, in a system like mine, or any that would befit the installation of the world-class Horizon, it allows that extraordinary level of transmission and expansive energy to flow with an unmatched might, ease, and authority.
Unlike the decidedly more sterile, analytical-sounding entries from so many of the big-name DACs, the Horizon offers an unassailably distinct correctness of tone and texture. These qualities are so faithfully and richly rendered as to shed an entirely fresh, considerably more nuanced light upon intimate performances. Listening to subtly executed piano works like famed Georgian composer Giya Kancheli's 33 Miniatures, as performed by my good friend George Vatchnadze, or Steven Hough's renderings of Piano Music by Federico Mompou, the Horizon so realistically and adroitly exposes and conveys the vivid and lyrical hues and shades of the piano, moving you so unbelievable closer to, and so openly revealing the caress and eloquence of the performers touch, that it has set a new bar for me in this regard.
One of the more discernable failures of other competing DACs is their inability to faithfully recreate the space, and the subtleties of the physical placements and interrelationships, of the instruments spanning the soundstage. So many of even the most well-regarded offerings deliver a decidedly more dimensionally flattened instrumental image and limit the depth and breadth of their layering, presenting something that resembles more of a cardboard cutout propped up in front of you rather than offering the sense of the more real spherical wave launch and presence you so lucidly experience when hearing live instruments played in a real space. This near-consistent weakness of many DACs has been one of the most crucial factors fueling my ongoing resistance to digital music playback over the years.
Yet Horizon creates that space and those interrelationships so effortlessly, so vividly, so unmistakably, so consistently, that I have to proclaim it has established a new benchmark in this regard. No other DAC, at ANY price, offers the ability to so routinely and convincingly recreate the dimensionality and space of an instrumental soundstage laid out before you. It is unmatched in this regard in my experience.
Łukasz shared with me that he had chosen to exploit the ball triodes because their anodes don't make contact with the glass wall of the bottle, and they have no mica support, a consideration he described as being critically important in rendering overall midrange clarity. But I did spend time experimenting with the 6SN7 dual triodes, and I suspect most bottle-heads would agree that they offer a significant opportunity to affect the Horizon's resultant voice. I tried a matched pair of Psvane Shuguang Treasure CV181-Zs but felt they created an overly detailed presentation. I tried some vintage CBS/Hytron 6SN7s and found them to be too soft. But it felt like Goldilocks time when I inserted some older (about a dozen or so years) Russian Tung-Sol 6SN7-GTBs... It was just magic, resulting in the perfect symbiosis of definition and bloom... I stopped then and there, noting the most satisfying of smiles had appeared on my face.
One of the strongest affirmations that I may offer about the performance of this master DAC from Poland is that I could - at moments, and mostly with DSD files - be fooled into believing I was listening to an LP. As an example, I love the Steve Morse-fronted band "The Dixie Dregs." I have several copies of their 1980 release, Dregs of the Earth, including an early original US pressing and the 1980 Direct-Disk Labs reissue. I marveled at how remarkably engaging the 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC file sounded when directly compared to both those pressings. I honestly found the sound of the file played back on Horizon to sound more like a live performance than either LP. Those of you who understand will know what a strong endorsement that is coming from me!