The Lampizator Amber 3 DAC Review. HiFi Hype or the Real Deal?
By Steve Huff
Ahhh the good old Digital To Analog Converter. Today I want to talk about my experience with a brand that has lots of mystique and hype behind it. Lampizator is based in Poland and makes exotic high end HiFi gear that has many loyal and enthusiastic fans. Their DAC’s have been praised to no end. I have had one in my reference system for a while now and after hearing 20-30 dacs over the years I can say I never heard one quite like this. It’s different for sure.
I remember back when CD players first came out. The very first models were so expensive at the time coming in at around $1,000 (and this was in the 1980’s) and I remember seeing some for much more. Those silver discs were hyped to no end as offering the best music reproduction one has ever heard in their life! The hype back then was big and I was happy to be living in those days as a teenage music lover who rather than playing shiny discs was happy spinning my vinyl each and every night.
A 1980’s CD player
I was intrigued with CD back in those first days and I remember hearing a demo in a shop where a salesman played a CD of glass breaking. As I was listening I heard a voice say “WOW, DOESN’T THAT SOUND SO REAL?!?!” The Salesman was really pushing for a sale to my Father who was with me (and was in control of the cash). I didn’t get a CD player that day but I did get one for Christmas the following year and even though it lacked in sound quality when compared to my lovely records I was so used to playing, I was excited! NO more skips, crackles and pops in my music!
Little did I know that I would sacrifice some of the soul that was buried within that music!
The silver discs back then were convenient and cool but the sound was also quite “cool”, as in, thin and different sounding to what I was used to.
Gone was the big fat vinyl sound and in its place was a leaner meaner sound that had hints of splashiness and brightness and sometimes it hurt my ears and gave me headaches (fatigue).
The reality is that back then in those early days of CD digital sounded sterile and brittle compared to what we have today. We were too thrilled with the new tech of those silver little discs to realize that while it sounded cleaner (yes it did) it lost a ton of magic that we heard from our nice vinyl systems at the time. Gone were the clicks and pops and that made us think digital was a better format (and in some ways it was) but as I said above, also gone was the soul and passion of the music.
Music lovers who are my age or older (I am 51 as of his writing) lived through a time in the 80’s and 90’s of horrible recording quality. Artists stopped recording their new albums in Analog and went to “DDD” which meant ALL digital. When I saw those letters on the back of my CD’s I knew I would be a but unhappy with the sound.
As we progressed throughout life into the 2000’s and beyond technology improved within Digital playback (especially for those who are audiophiles or have a passion for music). In fact, over the last few years we have had options in digital that recreates music so beautifully many have dumped their very pricey vinyl systems in favor of pricey digital DAC’s.
I remember quite a few years ago reading forums where most were saying “A DAC IS A DAC” and there could be no differences in sound as “bits are bits”. Today most of us realize that DAC’s do sound different once you hit a certain price point, and they most certainly do. High end DACS have a goal of making digital sound more analog. and some of the insane priced DACS do just that. MSB and DCS are two that come to mind but man are those DACS costly.
A Lampizator in Red
The DAC plays an important role in a 2 channel high end system and there are many types to choose from, and yes they all sound different, especially as you climb the price ladder.
Some dacs may have slight differences (low end dacs will typically sound the same and use off the shelf chips) and some will sound so different it will leave you scratching your head as to how a digital signal can sound so different from different DAC’s. It’s really all about the implementation and design of a DAC that dictates how it converts those digital 1’s and 0’s to an analog signal for your system to amplify.
If you are looking for a basic affordable DAC to provide better sounds than an internal DAC can one needs look no further than this $199 DAC. It will sound a bit better than something that is built into a lower end receiver or CD player and it is affordable at under $200. If you are reading this because you are one of those music lovers who are looking for that rich, deep analog sound from your system and are wondering if higher end DAC’s really do make music that much better than read on.
Over the last 10 years or so I have heard many dacs. I have been able to audition quite a few at home and they ranged from semi big dollar brands (Luxman, McIntosh) to $50 boxes that I had to hear so I could determine if there REALLY WAS a difference between big dollar and low dollar dacs (there is).
I have also heard dacs that were built into integrated amps that were pretty expensive. The Vinnie Rossi L2i SE ($3500 DAC module) and McIntosh MA8000 for example (A $10k Integrated). All sounded different to some degree and presented the music in different ways (all sounded great). Some were sterile. Some were fluid. Some had a big open sound, others were more compressed. Some brought a huge soundstage and others a small one. Some sounded harsh, some sounded soft.
So yes there are differences in digital to analog converters and today there are a few stand out higher end brands that have some pretty hardcore fans. One brand has been on my radar for a while now due to their tube designs and raves in the audio world. The designs range from Plain Jane to gorgeous and the prices match the looks of their higher end offerings.
Made in Poland with Serious Passion
LAMPIZATOR is a brand I heard about a few years ago and as I dug deep into the rabbit hole of audio forums and DAC’s in particular. I was hearing from real people who bought these DAC’s (rather than reviewers) and many were calling these big massive tube dacs the best in the world for taking a digital signal and CREATING MUSIC rather than a clinical or artificial HiFi Presentation.
It has been said that the qualities of Lampizator Dacs are similar (or better) to a REALLY high end analog system. As I read more and more I was more and more curious. I was going on 2+ years with my Chord Qutest in my system and while other DAC’s came close to the Chord for pure musical enjoyment I always came back to the chord in the end. It just delivers a nice punchy sound with texture and meat on those bones with some fantastic transparency as well.
WHOA! $30,000+ for a top of the line Lampizator DAC? A box that converts digital to analog and allows it to be heard from your speakers for $30,000?
The $30,000 LampizatOr Pacific DAC
Sure, it was gorgeous that Pacific DAC, but no way no how will this ever happen for me as I do not have $30k laying around that I can throw at a DAC (nor could I ever imagine doing so) but as I looked down the list I saw one that was within my financial reach. The Amber 3, which is the “starter” DAC from Lampizator at about $4300 for the most basic model without volume control and single ended RCA connections.
The basic looking Amber 3 DAC
This was a pretty basic looking box, No big tubes up top like the more serious offerings (There are three inside) but at just over $4k it was doable, though I was hoping to spend less. I read that if I placed an order it will be hand made and shipped to me from Poland, where the Lampizator products are made.
Before I committed to that I decided to check Audiogon and TMRAudio.com to see what used Lampizator DAC’s were available as maybe I could get it quicker and save some cash as well. I saw two Pacific $30k dacs for under $20k, A $20k+ Golden Gate for $12k and a couple of others including an Amber 3 that was JUST LISTED for just under $3,000.
It was used but looked new and was tested by The Music Room, a dealer of fine used high end audio. THIS IS AN AMAZING STORE for anyone looking to save on high end audio. They sell used (and new) and the used gear is tested and rated correctly in regards to age and condition. They offer a 15 day return policy as well.
They had a less than one year old Amber 3 for under $3k (close to a $1500 savings) so I jumped thinking if it was no good or didn’t wow me it would be sent back for a full refund.
A few days later the big Lampiator DAC arrived and I was ready to hear if this brand was more about hype or if it was truly something special. The packaging was perfect and I give major props to The Music Room for their speed of shipping and their quality of shipping. The DAC looked great and after I unscrewed the top to place in the tubes I was ready to roll.
I have to be honest. This Amber 3 is built into a big plain looking box. I am not a fan of the looks of this model, and you can tell it’s the “Starter” DAC in the Lampizator lineup. Not very attractive and about 30X bigger than my Qutest yet it does the same task of converting those digital bits to analog. Hmmm.
Yes, bits are bits but these bits are treated differently between the Lampizator Amber 3 and the Chord Qutest without question.
This is taken from the Lampizator Website about the Amber 3, their least expensive DAC:
“Amber 3 started shipping in August 2019 as a successor to Amber 2. We put a one year effort to squeeze as much of a good sound from Amber 2 as possible. It took a total redesign of the digital section, which in new form is derived directly from the Pacific program. It is by all means not as sophisticated and costly to make, but it retains surprisingly a lot of the Pacific good qualities – pure, natural, effortless, spacious and super dynamic presentation worthy of at least twice as expensive product.
We also redesigned power supply, and chose completely new tube compliment – consisting of a ECC99 super tube as input amplifier, in a zero feedback, single ended triode mode, as well as ECC82 as low impedance output buffer. This DAC, thanks to having output buffer – can drive particularly well the transistor amps.
We are very proud of this DAC, and the fact that at an entry level price we can outperform any competitor known to us. This DAC gives joy and bliss in spades.
Some other highlights are: copper output caps, CLC power filter with tube rectifier 6X5, true balanced option, volume control option, full analog preamp of very high quality, USB operation of the highest caliber, newly designed muting to avoid pops and clicks in computer operation, and many many more.”
On the rear of the Amber 3, at least my version without volume control or balanced inputs I have connections for USB (what I use), optical, and coax/S/PDIF. There is a toggle switch with a low and high gain setting. It takes a typical power cord and the sound does change with different power cords. I tried a Cardas Clear Beyond power cord as well as a Nordost Blue Heaven. Funny as I preferred a basic heavy gauge stock cord and kept my Clear Beyond on the Pass Labs XP-10 Pre amp. With the Clear Beyond on the Amber 3 the sound became quite a bit bigger but also WARMER which was too much of a good thing in my system. So it did very well with the big stock cord that was in the box but your mileage may vary.
Testing the Hype
With the hype train so big in some forums for the more pricey Lampizator DAC’s I wondered if these qualities would be there in the lower cost but still very expensive Amber 3? I knew if I LOVED this dac then I would most likely one day want to hear something up the ladder from Lampizator to see how much more magic it could bring. For now though my focus was on this sort of plain looking big box that was sitting on my equipment stand.
Before I talk about the sound quality I want to say that the build quality of this DAC is wonderful ON THE INSIDE, where it matters. When I opened up the DAC I could see the quality that was put inside of this box. I could see why the cost of this unit is what it is. The build and parts quality appears to be top notch.
AWAY WE GO!
I was ready to fire up some music I knew well so I could see just how much change there would be from my beloved Chord. Now, I always heard the Qutest DAC as a rich and deep sounding DAC that had the capability to do layers, detail and depth along with a nice “meat to the bones” kind of presentation.
One thing I hate with my digital is when it sounds thin or bright and the Qutest always brought me details and a wide soundstage without being harsh or bright.
With the Amber 3, when it first started playing music in my system I disliked it.
I hooked it up in my reference system which consists of Klipsch LaScala AL5 speakers, Cardas Clear Reflection Cables, Pass Labs XP-10 Pre-Amp, Pass Labs XA 60.8 Monoblocks and my Lumin U1 Mini Streamer.
I thought it sounded flat, dull and like a sheet was placed over my speakers in comparison to the Chord DAC. Where was this expansive soundstage, this sweet analog sound and the solidity and liquidity I read about? EEK!
I could not believe the sound was so dull, so constricted and so “blah”. I also heard a little bit of hum coming from the DAC itself (though not through my 105 DB efficient speakers) that I could hear slightly from my listening position.
What a disappointment, and so instantly!
I even wrote an email to The Music Room saying this wasn’t going to work. They wrote back within an hour with a full return authorization and they were awesome to deal with.
But then I FOUND THE ISSUE and IT ALL CHANGED!
I was reading a forum where the creator of the DAC (and users) said it sounded its best when in High Gain mode. I had it on low as when on high it clipped the Pass Labs XP-10 pre-amp I had running in the system. To fix this I just lowered the volume on my Lumin U1 Mini streamer to about 85% and that fixed the clipping issue and this alone turned the Amber 3 into a whole new DAC. The low gain option was only put in for those who could not use the high gain setting but it is always recommended to use High Gain if you can. I can now say I agree 100%.
It was now sounding bigger, larger and was in no way dull or boring. Instead it was smooth, fluid and had an amazing way of bringing forth details (they were all there yet it sounded full bodied. dense and rich). It was neutral but also had body and a slight warmth to it with a wide and deep soundscape and quite beautiful slight 3D presence.
It also had what I would call a honey type of richness to the sound. Something you would associate with tubes. A density of sorts. It wasn’t gooey or warm but rather sweet and silky with nice separation of instruments (but not to the extremes) and a tangible realness to the music and vocals.
THE VOCALS? They were to die for. Seriously huge, big, natural and vividly real with a presence I have not yet experienced in my space. I knew the Chord was good at this so I wanted to compare. I placed the Chord back in and all of the sudden it sounded brighter to me than I remembered. It also placed the vocals front and center about 2-3 feet into the room and as rich as the Qutest is with vocals it was thinner and more digital sounding all of the sudden, and it was not a small difference.
I still enjoyed this more energetic kicking sound from the Chord but the Lampizator was quite different As I listened I KNEW 100% I was listening to digital on the Qutest as it sounded…well… digital. I then started to notice a sharpness I somehow didn’t notice before.
Back in goes the Lampizator Amber 3.
When I sat back down with the Amber 3 I heard more of an effortless liquid sound, as if the DAC was not trying to make the music sound less digital but it just did so with a natural ease, as it was built to do. The Chord sounded as if it was trying hard to wow me with pizazz while the Lampizator was just being itself and producing music in a way I have not heard before in my system. It was 100% magical.
I then decided to switch it up and placed in a Shiit Freya + Pre amp with an Aegir Amp (which is Shiit’s Class A amp) and while the sound become smaller, sharper and with a more recessed midrange the character of the DAC still shone through. When I placed the Chord into the mix with the Shiit gear I was now getting a more thin and bright sound, which allows me to understand why some feel Chord is bright. Synergy matters and the chord did not gel well withe the brighter Shiit gear. Back to the Amber 3 and after an hour or two I was getting in the groove again.
After a couple of days listening to the Schiit gear (review soon) I went back to the Pass Labs and that heard the Pass signature of gorgeous mids, sweet highs and an authoritative bottom end. I just love the sound of Pass Labs amplification as it does so well with almost any other up or downstream gear. But as I listened into the night I was almost addicted to the sound with the Amber 3 within the system.
This must be the Lampizator sound I thought. After days of listening. Quite the change up from my 1st sit down with the cold out of the box DAC in low gain mode. High gain is 100% where it is at with this DAC and it is a completely different sound over low gain. I also found it does its best after 20 minutes of warm up.
It is Organic. Smooth. Fluid with Body and Density. Details yet not in your face or ever etched or exaggerated. It was sounding like music and not artificial HiFi that some products specialize in to wow you up front (but you then tire of them over time).
Placing the Chord back in, and even the iFi iDSD I heard those making beautiful music but again, I now heard those DACS as if they were trying hard to impress with their pizazz and wow factor. The Lampizator brought a totally different sound and as great as those other two are they were just in a different category for me (not as musical or magical).
I could tell when the Lampizator was in the system that everything truly sounded very relaxing and nice. It had a refinement and beauty to the sound that I did not get with the other (albeit Lower cost) DACS that I have tested. Part of this, again, is the system itself. I have spent countless hours getting my synergy right with everything, and that can make all the difference.
It has to Stay.
I emailed The Music Room to cancel my return as there was no way I could send this back after what it showed me it could do in my system.
After two + years with the Qutest who has taken on all comers I finally found something that bested it for me and my tastes and I didn’t think that would be the case. I expected this DAC to be more hype than performance so it surprised me for sure.
I would not call this DAC analog like or even tube like. It’s like something I have never heard before in my system and it’s almost hard to explain really. It did equally as well with standard Spotify streaming and high res streaming from Qobuz or Tidal.
The more I listened the more I loved this DAC.
With that said, it wasn’t the last word in detail or heading each notes reverberation. It also does have the quested background in my system.
I have found in my HiFi years that a piece that doesn’t wow me instantly but over time is something that usually sticks in my system longer and is usually very special in the long term. I learn to appreciate what is happening and what this particular item is doing in my system over time.
Any audio nut can relate with me when I talk about special pieces in our systems. Sometimes we sell them, regret it when we realize how much we enjoyed it and buy it again. I’ve done that once or twice in audio and a few times with cameras (Leica SL which I still own today). When you miss it, regret it and buy it again it means something was special about that piece.
This Amber 3 is one of those pieces.
This Amber 3 may not be a DAC that will thrill you out of the gate, at least it did not for me. What I found is that it’s strengths lie in what it DOES NOT DO, which is artificially change the music to wow you out of the gate like some other DAC’s. It doesn’t try hard, it just does its thing and does it well. It’s refined, dense and insanely musical.
This DAC for me is another one of those “Special” pieces just as my Feickert Turntable and Koetsu Cartridge is. Just like the Pass Labs Class A amplification. Just as my Klipsch LaScala AL5’s are. This DAC creates MUSIC and does so without any hint of digital glare, strain or grit and it is more like an instrument that brings you closer to the music without the fluff and gimmicks of competitors in the same price range.
My Amber 3 is basic. No volume control or balanced outs as those set you back extra if you order new. I went used and had to go with what was available. I had to stay within a budget and even so I am blown away by the rich music that this DAC creates.
I have also found a solution to the hum that comes from within the DAC at times (not heard through speakers). Turns out I discovered when my TV is on in my living room the small buzz/hum is heard from the DAC. When it is off, the DAC is silent. Strange but 100% OK with me as the sound this puts out is well worth a small hum as it is not audible from my listening seat. When the TV is off, it is about as silent as my Chord Qutest and that is amazing seeing that this is a tube DAC.
As thrilled as I was with the Chord Qutest (and it is still one of my top 3 fave dacs) when compared to the Lampizator Amber 3 it allowed me to hear a whole new level of emotion. Yes the Qutest can wow you with it’s hard hitting dynamics and bass, as well as the haunting placement of vocalists within your space but the Amber 3 does those things as well, just more organically and with more realism, space and a haunting realistic tone.
I can only imagine what the higher end Lampizator DAC’s sound like as I am smitten with this Amber 3.
It took me a bit to really understand what the Amber 3 was doing and to appreciate it deeply but now I do, and now I could not be without it. The Hype on the Lampizator DAC’s is real, at least for this Amber 3 model that is the lowest cost model they offer.
The Amber 3 truly makes music sound like real music rather than tipped up presentations and I have heard no weaknesses here at all. This DAC also has some trickle down tech from ghat gorgeous $30k Pacific DAC and that is pretty cool as well : )
I recommend an audition of this DAC (as hard as that may be) if you like your music to sound fluid, full, sweet, expansive and with sweet vocals. If you tire of the tipped up treble and flash that some very pricey DAC’s bring and just want to focus on the music, this Amber 3 will do it for you. Wether you are streaming Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz or playing DSD files from your server this DAC delivers on all fronts.
It does not have the best punch, the best separation or best 3 dimensionality. It’s not crazy transparent but it is above all else, musical.
You can order one new from Lampizator Direct. You can also search The Music Room to see what they have used. I have no affiliation with either Lampizator or The Music Room and I make not a cent from these audio reviews. They are done as a passion project as I love writing about my experiences with audio gear if I enjoy a piece of gear. If I dislike a piece of gear I do not review it. This was bought and paid for with my own cash as I had to hear a Lampizator, and it does not disappoint!
I thank you all for reading, I am going to get back to listening!
NOTE: SPECS of the Amber 3: Up to 32-bit/384kHz decoding (for PCM); DSD is supported up to DSD256, or Quad DSD.