Now we do NOT discriminate DAC’s for their shape and size but if one word described the Lampizator Lite 7 that I have been living with for a little while now, it would be BIG. See in my head I was receiving the Lite 7, which is a new model and a slightly different take of the Big 7, opting for some lesser components where possible to decrease the price, while trying to hold as much of the same performance, or at least that is how I am seeing things. because of the name I thought it might be smaller than the aptly named Big 7. That being said the Lite 7 still uses the same chassis, so in actual fact, its just as big a DAC and that really is saying something.
The Level 7 DAC is the flagship of the series but while that may be visualised in the Big 7, the Golden Gate sits above that for ultimate supremacy and the Lite 7 is the cost thoughtful little bro. It still has a few things in common actually, like using the same DSD engine for example. In fact standard between all three Level 7 variations is the USB and SP/DIF input, tube compatibility and the fact a 101D tube is stock, the Lite 7 however has a lower model of Jupiter (so still highly respectable) AM capacitors than the others and has no chokes either (rectification is done solid state). When you see the price of €4,900 (€5,880 with shipping) compared to the €8,500 (Big 7) and €13,000 (Golden Gate) and consider the similarities it seems like the Lite 7 could be a lot of DAC for a good price, and I don’t mean only in sheer size!
Now lets back up a bit and look at who Lampizator are, a Polish based DAC firm whose owner and brains, Lukas Fikus has a love for Lamps (polish for tubes, which is obvious in his designs) and Terminator, maybe not as obvious in his design. Almost all their products are flanked by big fancy tubes whose glow emits an ever growing heat, that is just the Lampizator way. I have always liked Lampizators general approach to things and keeping costs fair, the first thing that stood out about them way how their site is made on iWeb, like my original site! For the sake of the Lite 7 DHT triodes were chosen for obvious reasons when it comes to the output stage. They are also implemented in single ended mode. For the conversion side of things a standard chip of some type is implemented, however to prevent the public jumping to pre made conclusions such as Sabre being bright or Wolfson being warm, he chose to not disclose what the model used is, because quite rightly, what does it matter at the end of the day, you will like the DAC or you will not.
In the current day and age where feature sets seem to be growing all the time on DACs, when you get to a point where the NAD M22 DAC/Pre has a touch screen, the Lite 7 instead takes things back to a simpler time with what it can do, while that is not to say it doesn’t have some tricks up its sleeve! In terms of connectivity we have RCA outputs as the only option of getting the analogue signal out, no XLRs, which is a shame for me even if configured to be single ended simply as items like my Questyle CMA800R headphone mono blocks need an XLR input, as did the Amphion Amp100 Monos I had in my small desktop speaker system. That being said if you want balanced, it does seem to be an additional option for €1000 (it is a quad mono design, with 4 caps and triodes on output duty), which seems fair enough and would be essential for me. I am sure most others would live happily forever with just single ended RCAs. On the input side a SP/DIF RCA and USB input will be staple, but you then get to pick one more input on top of that, be it you still use optical (I don’t know why you would aha) or AES/EBU XLRs, which is what my unit’s have. Input switching is done with some big flick switches on the back and they are not the only switch flicks. You also have the power toggle on the back, which is probably not the ideal positioning for it. You then have the last switch, which allows you to choose different tube schemes (101/45 and 2a3) for rolling. This is super smart and is the ace of this DAC, the chameleon like ability to change its output tubes and really change the sonic traits is just something no other DAC I have ever owned has been able to do and its has opened up a fun way to interact with the DAC and its sonics, although you may end up burrowing a hole in your wallet doing it, if I owned this, I wouldn’t stop trying new tubes!
Now i was under the impression that one of the things about this DAC to keep the lower cost possible was that the Lite 7 would have no customisability but apparently you can add the balanced option and also at €1000 is a Volume Control unit, turning this into a pre-amp as well. I actually have this version as well and picking a version is not as simple as saying I will grab the pre amp version for the sake of it. I think the choice really does depend on how you plan on using it. The pre amp is a VERY capable one, just like that in the totaldac or Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum, these integrate so well with the DAC that they really do perform at a high level. But in the case of this, having the pre amp actually means you end up with a weaker output and therefore if you have a pre/integrated/headphone amp that you love and goes well with your system and you just want a DAC, that performs well with a great line out, don’t complicate things, just get the standard model. If you have however been putting up with a half decent pre amp even up to the price of something like the NAD M22, I think that extra grand spent will go a long way in improving your system and is well worth the investment. The addition of the screen and the remote does also make usability a little better but then as a pure DAC you just leave it be anyway. I thought we should grab Josh’s thoughts being the HiFi guy!
“The option to add a volume control, at the very base point, is a fantastic idea. The opportunity to have the two components in the same chassis and designed and tested by the same company not only cuts connections, but guarantees the customer of the synergy between these components. On top of this, you have more room on your rack too!
Now what I can tell you specifically is that other than the output level differences the volume control has minimal influence on the signature of the DAC. This is a good thing, it means the pre is working purely as a volume control remaining transparent and honest to the sound of the DAC. It’s a £1000 option and the best pre i know of at that price point is the Parasound P5 and that is not as transparent as the pre in the Lampizator, not as impactfull or detailed either.
The Antelope Platinum is approximately the same price as a DAC/Pre, and in a test with other listeners, on a range of amps and speakers, the Lampizator was unanimously the preffered. The attack, detail, clarity and refinement were the stand out factors that crowned the Lampizator, thats not to say the Antelope didn’t win in some areas though. Sonny mentioned the NAD M12, and while it is a very different product, if you compared them sonically solely as DAC/Pre’s, there really is no comparison.
As a figure, how much money do you have to spend to get a truly transparent pre that is as desirable as the Lite 7’s? Well I will let you be the judge of that, but it is no small feat, Lampizator have done a great job with this feature!”
In terms of actually dealing with digital, the PCM system is capable all the way up to 32/384kHz so all your needs are covered and then it has a separate system designated to handling the DSD up to double rate (128), which as far as I care is where most collections begin to stoop anyhow. The separate engines seems smart for the fact it is not a DAC designed with trying to handle two formats in mind, there is a DAC designed to decode all resolutions of PCM, then another one that Lampizator have done everything to make sure it decodes DSD as well as possible (you can actually buy this as a stand alone DSD only DAC) and this to me sounds like the philosophy for digital conversion. It does however come with one caveat. On the standard version the big button in the O on the front is actually a switch between the two engines (you can do via remote on the volume control version). That means if its on a rack in a HiFi, your controlling your server (such as my BMC PureMedia) with your smartphone or tablet, sitting in the comfort of your chair controlling the music. Switching between DSD and PCM, which in my music collection happens regularly, means getting up and having to labour over to press the button. Even when I had this on my desk and the button close, when I was listening album to album it was simpler, but when listening to music on shuffle, it would catch me on guard and I would realise the gapless playback wasn’t working, I just had not switched to the DAC to DSD mode. Sadly while it is something I would like to say has become second nature, it is something that has continued to niggle me, mainly in an environment where getting up is needed.
The USB connection is also rather smart in the fact it is converted to I2S through a Amanero Combo 384 module. I have actually had some interesting discussions regarding I2S such as with Adrian Lebena of Sonore who is very passionate about how much better I2S is than USB being a signal that is unaltered. The problem is, not enough DACs use it, which like he said, seems backward. So Lampizator have seemed to have made a clever route around the problem that a lot of people don’t have I2S connectivity but reap its benefits. The Amanero module works driver less for all music with Mac and Linux and with a quick driver download for Windows (works even with Windows 10), I have tried on all three platforms.
What can I say, I had seen the pictures, I had heard the rumours, but nothing and I mean NOTHING prepares you to how big this boy is, after yelling at Josh about the size on receiving it, when he first actually laid eyes on it in person he was still as shocked as I had been first time round. For the space conscious audiophile or the headphones/desktop guy, it may not be the one for you, but any decent HiFi rack shouldn’t have a problem so needn’t worry there. For use in my headphone system I actually used a plinth under my desk to sit it, which was actually ideal as once set up it needs little fiddling with, that worked nicely. The official size is 45cm/53cm/13cm (W/D/H) but even that in the pictures may not quite prepare you, this is a bigger DAC than any I have ever seen.
It is heavy as well, mainly due to the thick cut metal chassis that installs faith in its build on the touch and then it is installed all over again when you pick up its 16kg of cinder block like body. Its simple really, mine is all silver, but you can opt for a black front plate if you are a two tone kind of guy. I am never going to say this is much of a looker, the only reason it comes a little noticeable is because of the tubes sticking out, that can draw peoples attention, especially when on, but the actual unit is pretty plain. I like how the switch on the front is merged into the company logo, I like mine with a simple white LED but you can change colours from a list, to spice it up a bit but is never becoming a real looker, although some of the copper bodied golden gates do look real special.
If you do opt for the volume control module you get the addition of a remote control and screen. The screen is basic but works nicely, letting your scroll through options and then just giving you the dB number in bold on a dimmed screen when everything is playing, subtle screens can be nice on the eyes. It still does not give a lot of information either, something people might not like about the screenless standard version. The Lite 7 will never give you a bright indiction of sampling rate and things like that. I am over that sort of thing though. The volume pot makes a lovely clicking sound as you move through the steps and it is very satisfying. Knob feel is not the sturdiest but still was pleasant to use, again mainly due to the sound effects, that also respond to using the remote naturally.
The remote seems a bit tacky, the Lampizator logo looked a bit like a sticker and like the totaldac remote the all plastic build just doesn’t ooze class. It also is not a purpose designed remote, with you having un needed options and using things like numbers to carry out actions. Not simply pressing a DSD labeled button or a USB input button. But this is a cost headed DAC so I am more chill to this than the twice as expensive totaldac, which I was a little more cruel to.
While not related to the build, I did just want to add how I like the certificate of ownership that comes with these, was quite a niche little perk!
Stock Sound with Psvane 101D Tubes
Your a tube guy, you love that richness they provide, that warmth, that smooth, buttery tone… mmmm, its like a hot water bottle, so damn cozy! That may be one of the only situations where this DAC may not be for you. “Sonny you have it all wrong mate, look at the way it proudly wears those valves, the lampi will be as tube as it comes”. Sadly or not so sadly that is not the case, the Lite 7 is so much more when it comes to being a DAC, it can show off qualities in a combination where no stereotype can do it justice, by saying it doesn’t sound like the stigma a tube based product has, do not jump to the conclusion it sounds like a solid state, this is like nothing I have heard before, in a very positive way, because you are going to want to hear it in your system.
Now even though we are limited (without the extra 1000 bones) to single ended the output is still very powerful, much more so than the also single ended totaldac and the sound from top to bottom is big, bold and dynamic, absolutely everything about it reeks power. Tonal balance seems to be in very good order, with a full bass and energetic treble sitting either side of a midrange that does feel on the dryer side. Big is not just what the frequencies sound like though, the soundstage also shows off width that few are capable of. It may just not have the depth of the totaldac or the Antelope Audio Platinum when Atomic clock is equipped, but bare in mind without the clock that Antelope is not on par in any dimension and thats when the DACs actually cost pretty much the same thing. The presentation of this DAC though is one of the big separators of the sense of depth because it is very forward in its sound and put you very close to the stage, therefore ending up with a flatter sound.
The bass is like the solid foundation you expect for any good product. It provides weight on impact, depth when needed and a natural decay that allows the DAC to show off great rhythm, whether listening to some Dave Brubeck or Oasis. I think all these qualities provide for a bass which you just can’t go wrong with. Comparing to say the North Star Incanto, that feels warmer yet empty in comparison, with more decay and presence yet less extension and impact, in fact I can say they same thing about BMC’s offering as well. I think this DAC borders on the edge of going over emphasised very nicely, it is not close enough to feel like the mark is over stepped yet it always sounds fuller than weak or lean. For example I would say that the totaldac just steps into over emphasised with its syrupy decay and the Rein Audio X3-DAC instead sits in the overly lean group. People may prefer the extremes but it makes sense to get something like this, that doesn’t stray to far from linearity and does it well. Oh and if you do want to try the other types of sound, pay attention to my tube rolling section later, it is possible, you can even get totaldac levels of decay and extension.
I would say the midrange is the least boastful range of this DAC, providing stability and detail in the middle. I feel while it sounds certainly on the dryer and level headed side, that decay and presence increases a tad as we move into the upper mid sector, and you hear this through a sound that is very much clarity orientated. Knowing how I evaluate DACs you are probably quick to think that I am probably getting at a sense of falseness in the sound then, not here! A great sense of clarity can very easily sound digital and metallic like with the Yulong DA8II but for whatever reason that is not the case here. The Lite 7 is not one of those uber analogue devices but it plays music well and doesn’t feel bitty or artificial and we do have a sense of richness and body wherever your hard-drive of songs may take you. I think the overall weight of this DAC combines with a sound that never feels grainy at all. I also feel that an area this DAC strives in is having such a well outlined sound, the edges are hard and everything is so tight and defined, this allows such a clear picture of whats happening.
From the upper midrange we have a treble that to me is probably the star of the show. It comes across very obviously and perhaps has more presence than any other area of the DAC. The magic is that it doesn’t sound bright or fatiguing, instead we have a understanding between presence and quality that just seems boggling, note presentation is spot on and it provides air in spades and sparkle in the amounts you need. It is a thicker timbre that makes it that bit easier on your ear, no feeling of sharpness come across and even in tracks with a lot of cymbal crashes and pitchy pianos, it seems to be provided with its own space say its piece and move on with out even the slightest bit of over exaggeration.
So now for the limitations of this DAC, because while being a great one, it is not perfect and while value certainly feels great, it will not be taking on all the giants of the DAC world, although I bet it could slay a few! I don’t know how it compares to the Big 7 and Golden Gate but it can not keep up with my totaldac in some areas. While tonally these products are rather different, and you can read the deeper comparison in the d1 review here, putting those differences aside I sense some areas where the Lampizator comes up a little short. For a start so much forwardness, boldness and size can sometimes be too much at once. It can be like a boxing match to be heard between all the difference factors of a song and we start to borderline a touch of smearing. Because of this and so much going on, sometimes layering is not so obvious and separation is just not quite pin point. In comparison a top level DAC like the totaldac is so precise that you can always hear the gaps between instruments in live space the background is just that much quieter. I think on an un biased level, finesse and refinement are not quite flagship, and thats when the price shows and becomes more fair. Lastly this just is not that uber analogue sounding product, it is not a DAC that will bring you back to your vinyl days, it is digital done excellently but is not paired with that rolled off non oversampling sound or super warm bass that getting people crying out “analogue” this and that.
Also worth noting is because of the forward sound and the hard edges, this really is right in your face and pairing should be well thought out. I tend to prefer using a softer amp to slightly relax the sound a bit and make the listen a bit easier for longer periods. While the totaldac seems like a tube product to hand a bit of that sort of sound to a solid state amplifier, this certainly seems more apt to firming up and providing detail to velvety stereotyped tube amp, think the Jadis DA88 for example. Not that I haven’t loved using it with solid states, in fact it is pairing beautifully with my Questyle CMA800R right now!
Really though this is an ultra impressive product, don’t take me pointing out the few flaws to heart, no product is flawless and I pointed out just as many with the twice as expensive totaldac and I know Josh will the same with twice as costly Antelope and clock, don’t try to think anything is perfect, or more importantly, perfect for everyone. That being said the forward and balanced sound of the Lampizator is one very quick to impress and grab your attention and provided a sense of epic-ness to your DAC that I just have not felt in other products, regardless of technology.
Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’
I was quite excited about the tube rolling ability earlier on in this review and that is because we got the opportunity to actually do some tube rolling with this DAC, and was able to do so even more accurately because of having the two units, we could keep two sets of tubes hot and quickly a/b! The contenders were the stock Psvane 101D (matched pair seems to be about £105), Emission Labs EML45 Solid Plate (around €400 shipped from Germany), Shuguang 2a3-Z Treasure Series (£220 from AA Acoustics) and lastly some 6a3s that Greg (from G-Point Audio, Lampizator’s UK distributor) said are one of his very special tubes being NOS RCAs and could cost anywhere between £100 and £500 due to availability and luck. Obviously these are just some example of such a plethora of options available but it gives you the idea of what is capable by changing the valves on this DAC.
Psvane 101D – It is clear why these were chosen as the stock option, not just because of the price and availability but because they sound nice with a good balance and some loveable qualities. Obviously I have covered the sound in great depth above but in comparison to the others has the second most obvious bass, which come with solid extension and clear impact. Paired with a dynamic midrange that seemed to take just a small stope forwards in the upper mids for some great clarity and the ability to keep its head in the higher regions, it is an easy to get on tube and one that makes sense to start with.
Emission Labs 45 – These are the pair that me and Josh actually decided on being our favourites. It had the most natural and balanced impact in the bass with less quantity than the NOS’s and 101D’s but didn’t sound as lean as the 2a3s, it got the weight of the bass just right to my ears. The upper mids certainly seemed a little less present from this tube, creating perhaps a very slightly wooly effect on vocals, although it is not near as horrible as you might think, as these still ended up being our faves. I think in the end these were the most neutral of the four tubes we tried.
Shuguang 2a3 – These Chinese tubes seemed like the brighter of the tubes and also the best at conveying the subtle little nuances and intricate details in the music. The sub bass did seem a little rolled off though and the bass in general was a touch weak and on the lean side. However after the bass they are very linear and just so refined that you end up being pretty impressed, these actually come in as our second favourites, the EML45s were just a touch more refined still and also had the better bass to hand.
NOS RCAs – Wow is all I can say to these, they were something different and special without a doubt. These turned the tonality of the DAC on its head, making it more like that of my totaldac d1-tube-mk2. Basically very warm with signs of rolled off treble. It was also the thickest sound and was just so engaging because of the luscious and bouncy bass, which had quite an extended decay. Also what was extraordinary was the manner of the extension into the rumble zone, it was just mind blowing and earth shattering, I couldn’t believe just a tube change was doing this.
Putting This Back in the Big Box
You might not expect to see things like value be talked about at this sort of price point, but this deserves that sort of talk, I have reviewed and tried a lot of DACs other this last year and this shuts down anything I have tried under £4500 (with todays exchange rate it is about £4,200 in the UK with no additional fees from G-Point). We have the BMC UltraDAC, Exogal Comet with Upgrade PSU, North Star Incanto, the list can keep going and going and we are not going to top this, even our old pride of place member the Antelope Zodiac Gold with Voltikus PSU doesn’t match this. Add that to solid ability with the fact you will end up fine tuning this to your tastes with tubes, turn it into a class pre amp for less than a thousand quid and in my book you have nothing less than a winner. While it will not be dethroning the totaldac on our Pride of Place, we do feel confident giving it the Good Buy award, which is worth noting this is the first DAC ever to achieve this accolade.