LampizatOr Baltic 3 Hi-Res DAC Review
Łukasz and Lampizator North America principal Fred Ainsley have recently announced the launch of the nearly $50,000 Horizon DAC, which I will get to hear at its official launch during the third Florida Audio Expo in mid-February of this year. While the three previously mentioned devices share a commonality, a circuit foundation based upon Directly Heated Triodes, the remarkable device I'm going to recount for you here, the Baltic 3, has a notably different heritage.
His goal was approximating as closely as possible the enchanting sonic achievements offered by the Golden Gate DAC, but at roughly one-third the cost. Łukasz says that after some ten years of experimentation and prototyping, he arrived at this design, which he considers to be a breakthrough, one embodying all he has learned about digital-to-analog conversion, yet offering exceptional value. He shared with me that with the $6600 LampizatOr Baltic 3, he feels he has pushed Noval tube design circuitry to new limits, representing the pinnacle LampizatOr DAC design based on such "miniatures".
The faceplate is very spartan, with only the laser engraved LampizatOr logo, about two-thirds of the way down from the top, oriented so that the stylized O in the logo is centered, outlining the ring lit pushbutton switch to select the USB input. All other inputs (S/PDIF, TosLink, and AES/EBU) are selected using a switch on the rear panel.
Moving to the rear panel, from right to left we have the AC selector switch (either 115 or 230 V), followed by the power toggle switch, both mounted directly above the IEC mains socket. Next, we see the branding badging, including the serial number, which takes up about the next one-third of the rear panel. We then encounter the input selector knob, immediately above the Hi-Lo gain selector, either 4 or 8.5 V. These are followed by a set of balanced XLR outputs, then the single-ended outputs, each oriented vertically, left above right. Next up, the optical and RF S/PDIF inputs, and finally, the USB and AES/EBU XLR jacks.
The Baltic 3 features truly balanced topology, and incorporates four monophonic channels, with the individual channels devoted to generating each phase of the stereo signal. Incorporating the LampizatOr digital engine #53a, their code name for the Delta-Sigma (∆Σ) based converter (here) it is based upon, because of its proprietary nature, no other details are offered. The design of Delta-Sigma analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) results in an engine that is approximately three-quarters digital and one-quarter analog.
Such converters typically consist of an oversampling modulator followed by a digital/decimation filter working together to produce a high-resolution data-stream output. As well as being their most popular engine, it supports automatic recognition of all sampling rates from 32kHz to 768 kHz, bit rates from 16 to 32 bit, and DSD 64, 128, 256, and 512. However, Apple iOS-based computers will only support up to Quadrate DSD (DSD256) files.
The circuit also includes the Polish-made True Copper Miflex output capacitors, which offer Oxygen-free, non-inductive copper foil designed using a polypropylene dielectric. As well as employing this newly applied tube topology, one that Łukasz claims redefines what is possible using Noval tubes, it also applies a directly heated, dual diode rectified, CLC, (or Pi type) filtered anode power supply. As touched on, it offers four digital inputs, USB, S/PDIF, TOSLINK, and AES/EBU, as well as both single-ended and balanced outputs.
The use of USB data with the Baltic 3 requires the installation of an additional converter module to convert the "packet" data into a steady I2S stream. Using an asynchronous converter, it implements internal RAM, two clocks, as well as its own power supply and power transformer secondary winding. The USB module requires a specific I2S over USB audio driver for Windows, while Linux and MAC iOS (essentially a GUI laid over a UNIX core) will both work without any additional drivers. The Baltic 3 uses the "JL-Lampizator" USB module, and the appropriate Windows driver may be found here.
As delivered from the factory, AC to DC conversion for the Baltic 3 is accomplished via a 5C3S (or 5u3C when stenciled in Cyrillic) rectifier, mounted front and center. The stock input front end uses a set of Chinese Psvane 6SN7GT "Blue Balls," mounted at the one-third points, left to right, on the centerline, front to back. The rear-end output buffers use a set of Russian Electro-Harmonix Gold 12BH7s, again mounted on the one-third points left to right, halfway between the front-end sockets and the rear of the chassis. Interestingly, Łukasz also included a set of rather rare 1953 Soviet Military NOS MELZ 6H8C Metalbase tubes to roll in place of the stock Chinese "Blue Balls," as well as a set of current production Russian re-issued Mullard 12AU7/ECC82s to roll in place of the stock Russian 12BH7s. More on that soon enough.
The stock tube set, the 5C3S rectifier, the Psvane 6SN7GT inputs, and the Electro-Harmonix Gold 12BH7 outputs.
When it comes to delivering the deep frequency dive, sub-bass and bass are not only well-extended, they are very fast, tight, and offer remarkably solid and stable pitch definition, especially with DSD and higher sampling rate PCM sources. Listening to bass ample cuts from Qobuz, like "The Hell Hounds of Krim,”" from the 2016 King Crimson release, Live in Vienna, or "Sastanàqqàm," by Tinariwen, a group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali, from their 2017 release, Elwan, you are treated to a sense of the immense power and dynamism of such music. And while it may not quite match the blistering speed and über control offered by some pricier world-class DACs, their Pacific included, it nonetheless delivers exceptional performance for a DAC in such an affordable class.
However, midrange purity, along with tonal color and accuracy are clearly one of this entrant's biggest gifts to music lovers. Listening to cuts like "Laughing," from David Crosby's 2021 50th Anniversary remastered solo release (24-Bit/96kHz), If I Could Only Remember My Name, again from Qobuz, Crosby's perfectly micro-tuned guitar is lush and liquid, including much of the incredible presence and sustain I am treated to when playing my original US 1971 Atlantic pressing on my analog setup.
Staying with the same track, when listening to the sound of Jerry Garcia's pedal steel guitar, supported by Phil Lesh's dulcet bass tones, these guitars are beautifully rendered, laying bare their captured sparkle and inflection for your pleasure. Listening in to the mix, you are permitted to readily identify each distinctive and individual voice, most notably the high harmony vocalizations of Joni Mitchell as the cut winds to a close.
The uppermost registers are clearly and cleanly revealed, well-focused, and detailed, and offer a smoothness free of any notable etched sterility, so long as it is not part of the recording itself. I have been listening to Carlos Santana's second studio album, Abraxas, since its release weeks before my 15th birthday. Because of my extraordinary familiarity with, and love of, this LP, it has long been a reference for me. While the most remarkable release of this recording is represented by the 2016 Mobile Fidelity Ultra Disc One Step double 45 RPM LP, to compete with that superlative release in the digital domain, I purchased that same recording in the DSD64 format.
Listening to the beguiling chimes from the opening of "Singing Winds, Crying Beasts" from that Abraxas DSD file, I found the uppermost treble reaches ever so slightly remiss of that last level of extension, specificity, and detail. The resultant sonic envelope yields a slightly elusive perception of the air and space "of" and "around" those chimes and other sounds in the uppermost registers, marginally obfuscating the regeneration of the final measure of trailing ambiance and decay.
While presenting with an otherwise striking sense of space and being comparatively open and focused, the Baltic 3 exhibited just a bit of softness in this region. As good as this DAC is in this regard, I could never quite coax that final infusion of shimmer, air, or effortlessness, regardless of any choice of tubes I had at my disposal. The sonic result is that upper treble performance is both a bit warmer overall, and is not quite as incisive and resolute as with something like the MolaMola Tambaqui, or even LampizatOr's current big guns, the Golden Gate or Pacific.
Rolled out with the 1953 Russian NOS MELZ_6H8C inputs and a set of current production Russian re-issued Mullard 12AU7 outputs.
Where this device really makes a statement and clearly presents another of its bona fide gifts, is in those areas that most music lovers living on a digital playback diet are fated to suffer, that of exhibiting comparatively lean tonality and thin dimensionality. This DACs ability to render a focused, three-dimensional, realistically sized soundstage, with lifelike images, conveying a substantial sense of physical bloom and corporeal body is, well, enchanting, especially when rolled out with the NOS MELZ 6H8C Metalbase inputs!
This DAC more readily articulates the individualized voices of separate instruments and quite faithfully communicates their sizes and spatial interrelationships, more truthfully, in a more genuine manner, than any other DAC I've heard in its rather competitive class.
Further, its ability to relate both microdynamic immediacy and macrodynamic gradation are especially effective and quite engaging. It offers incredible control at scaling the human voice, in all its myriad subtleties, from recreating a startling QSound whisper of Sting's voice, off your left shoulder at the very close of "When the Angels Fall," from The Soul Cages, to reconstructing the chilling and powerful expressiveness as delivered by David Bowie on the opening cut "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," from the 1982 Giorgio Moroder Cat People movie soundtrack.
Another of its standout capabilities is that it fluently exhibits a persuasively palpable ability to present relevant musical detail, all the while maintaining virtually uncolored and markedly rich tonal color and texture. This exceptional little upstart effortlessly blends its stark tonal neutrality, its remarkably broad and expressive dynamic contrasts (micro and macro), and its firmly resolved low frequencies, with its overachieving ability to preserve the harmonics, timbral purity, fluidity, and dimensionality of a performance.
Dimensions: 17.375 x 4.75 x 13" (WxDxH)
Weight: ~29 lbs