Lampizator Atlantic DAC

When I was a younger man, I used to frequent an Indian restaurant on lower Lexington Avenue in Manhattan called Curry in a Hurry. It wasn't far from my apartment. Upstairs, I'd sit over a heaping tray of russet chicken tikka, poori, nan and greasy samosas, and watch Bollywood musicals on the TV that was chained to the ceiling. What I liked most about Curry in a Hurry was a Bengali dessert called rasmalai—cheese curds in clotted cream flavored with cardamom—and a sign on the wall that read, "Eat Like a King, Pay Like a Pauper."

This maxim pretty much spells out my approach to travel, art, audio and other potentially expensive pastimes—the dubious notion that expertise can overcome a lack of funds. If I couldn't afford the things society valued and commodified, I'd find things that it didn't, or didn't yet. I like learning about odd subjects—the more obscure, the better—and sometimes I've succumbed to the idea that insider knowledge mattered more than something as banal as money. I mean, anyone can simply walk into store and hand over a credit card, right?

Like all delusions, this one is rarely borne out in reality. Take the Lampizator Atlantic DAC that recently found its way to my Brooklyn apartment. The basic model retails for 4000 euros, but Fred Ainsley at Lampizator North America sent me the bells-and-whistles version that costs twice as much. I took the thing out of the box and stared at it—a surprisingly light black box with a chunky knob topped with five Soviet-era military tubes, including a massive rectifier. Mine had a shiny silver button on the front and came with two remotes. It certainly looked like nearly ten grand of audio, but just at that moment a part of me refused to believe that it would play music as convincingly as my beloved Holo Spring L2—at $1800 an insider pick and a stone bargain. No way was this thing going to be as good.

You've probably already guessed how this utterly unfair comparison turned out, but I'll tell you anyway. When I sat down in front of the Atlantic and told Roon to play music, I was surprised—then flabbergasted—by how varied the recordings sounded. The DAC captured differences in studio ambiance, microphones, and stereo mixes that I hadn't noticed before. Different sounds sounded… different. In any case, more different than through the Spring. It rendered instrumental timbres with more color and less grayness. And then there was the voicing—the Lampizator made tone. A rich thick amber tone that lent the music heft and body, something I nearly always enjoyed, and made even poor recordings easy to listen to. The Polish DAC exceeded the Spring in other regards, too—music came from wider, taller and deeper soundfield; it was more dynamic, more detailed and more emotionally compelling. Looked at one way, comparing an $1800 DAC to one that costs around $10K is silly, but then again it's instructive. Sometimes more is more.

Here's another thing I learned. Sitting in front of the hi-fi with the Lampizator in it, I found myself more relaxed: my neck and jaw, in particular, weren't as tense as usual. This was an unsettling thing to notice. Like most of us, I listen to the hi-fi to relax, not make myself more tense. But what I was noticing was a sudden reduction in the effort that my mind (and body) made to fill in the perceptual gap between the music reproduction in the room and the idea of the music. The gap, say, between the actual sound coming out of the left speaker and the mental image of Dexter Gordon playing a Conn M tenor saxophone in Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, in 1962. I've become so used to the effort that I stopped noticing it—until the Lampizator arrived. Because it created a more realistic facsimile of the music than I was accustomed to, my mind suddenly had less to do. This was fun.

My version of the Atlantic came with a volume control that allowed me to use it as a preamp, which I did with my Shindo Montille and also a power amp made by my friend Oliver Sayes—a 6-watt Western Electric 91A variant with Siemens 3CM drivers, 0D3 gas-filled regulators, triode-wired 307A pentode outputs and Electra-Print output transformers, not to mention a mess of chokes and oil-filled caps. Oliver's steampunk amp reminded me of a good single 300B amp. It made a richer, bigger and more colored sound than the Montille—it's attitude was more life-affirming and pleasure-driven—and made for a particularly sweet match with the Lampizator. With this combination the strings of Earl Scruggs's banjo and Merle Travis's guitar on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The Circle Be Unbroken sounded appropriately sweet and plump, but also eerily present.

Following Ainsley's advice, I fed the Atlantic via the USB input (using an Audioquest Diamond cable). He also suggested leaving it on all the time—apparently the mysterious Soviet tubes it uses are ubiquitous and inexpensive to replace. I've always scoffed at audio remotes, but this, too, turned out to be a case of sour grapes—having now lived with one, I found the convenience pretty fantastic. But as with most DACs that offer a volume control, I preferred listening with my Shindo Aurieges preamp in the chain, which lent recordings a more dynamic and focused sound.

My time with Atlantic wasn't an all-out lovefest. On some tracks, I got the impression of a slight disconnect between the smooth, rich sound of its tubed output stage, and the digital decoder itself. As with some tubed DACs, there were moments when the Atlantic could sound harsh and rich at the same time—a kind of honey-on-tinfoil effect. This was particularly noticeable in the way the Polish DAC reproduced saxes, trumpets and harmonicas—tough instruments for any digital source to handle. Thankfully, this happened mostly with early-digital or poorly mastered recordings.

While I had no comparably-priced DAC on hand to compare to the Atlantic, I did receive a very heavy box containing the DENAFRIPS Terminator, a DAC from China that's recently developed a rabid online following (review forthcoming). Like the Atlantic it's a ladder DAC, but there the similarities end. A quick comparison showed that the Terminator makes music with a cooler tone but even bigger dynamics, a deeper and taller soundstage, and a more detailed, textured sound—while sounding as organic as the Atlantic. On the other hand, the Terminator doesn't offer the Atlantic's volume control, remote, possibility of tube rolling, and weighs more than both of my road bikes combined.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the Lampizator Atlantic—in fact, our weeks together were eye-opening. It makes music in a generous, unfatiguing and humane manner and excels at getting at the emotional meaning of the performances. It's easy to listen to and to use and has no glaring flaws. I cannot tell you exactly where it stands in the pantheon of the very best digital sources—but it sure would be fun to find out.

Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus and the forthcoming Young Heroes of the Soviet Union. He contributes to The New York Times Magazine, Travel + Leisure and Saveur and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Doak's picture

I do wish you'd been sent a more "affordable" version of the Atlantic, such as one with only a tube rectifier option (supposedly the biggest jump in SQ for the $$). That version is tagged @ 5K Euro.

Your mini-comparison of the review unit with the Denafrips Terminator is intriguing. A "shoot-out" of the Terminator with the above configured Atlantic would be intriguing indeed!

findog3103's picture

I have an Atlantic with super clocks and tube rectifier and can not be happier. I started with a level 4 and worked my way up to this version. I totally agree with this review and if you are looking for a wonderful DAC, you won't be disappointed with this choice.

Doak's picture

Unit was sweetened with dual mono DSD and 1uf Jupiter Copper output caps bypassed with Mundorf Supreme Silver/Oil. LOVE the sound of this unit. It would take something very special for me to ever let it go.
Would LOVE to hear an Atlantic configured as yours is.

How would you, or could you, characterise the difference/improvement in sound of your Atlantic vs. L4 DAC?