I finally got my hands on the latest LampizatOr development in the phonostage department, the current flagship VP4 Silver. I also visited the company’s headquarters for an interview with Lukas Fikus and Andrzej Hutnik. Below you will find a transcript of said conversation revealing a lot of details concerning the path that lead to this model.
MD (Marek Dyba): I have opened my review of your LampizatOr VP4 Silver phonostage with an old joke, that says that all audiophiles, sooner or later, learn/mature/wise up (some say: grow old) enough to convert to tubes and vinyl records. So let me begin by asking you, how did you, a digital guy, after all, your brand is famous mostly for digital-to-analog converters, also a tube guy, that’s true, but a designer of ones of the best DACs, got into vinyl?
ŁF (Łukasz Fikus): I believed, even before the first phonostage, that people who liked my DACs were actually those music lovers who didn’t like digital sound. They looked for some digital source that would sound „right” for them, and their reference point was vinyl. So actually my digital customer was a person who said „Digital sound hurts my head”, so I need a digital source that would sound like a vinyl record. I also knew, that I liked this type of sound they talked about and that I was able to do a pretty good job to offer them what they needed with our DACs, DACs that according to many resembled the analog sound of vinyl records most of all digital sources available on the market. It was actually the very foundation of the whole success of LampizatOr. We gave people what they needed and even the biggest vinyl aficionados could finally appreciate and enjoy the sound of digital files. The next logical step was to try and develop yet another type of component, one that they all needed, a phonostage. I thought, that if I could offer digital devices that delivered sound these people enjoyed, I would be able to develop a specialized device for them as well, one that would perform at least as well as one they already had, or maybe even better.
MD: OK, but before we move on to vinyl, I have a question regarding your digital products. Were these customers and their love for analog sound a reason why from the start you focused strongly on the DSD format?
ŁF: Let’s make one thing clear first. I am not an expert on digital audio. I am an expert on currents, voltages, and lows governing electricity. That’s why I approached digital audio reluctantly, and I tried to „marry” digital audio with my knowledge and experience regarding electricity. To do it right I had to spend 10 years experimenting and getting closer and closer to the truth. Finally, my extensive electrical knowledge and much less advanced regarding digital audio led me to results, to devices, I really liked. So when I got into phonostage development I didn’t have to depart from my digital knowledge and experience, but rather stay true to my electrical expertise, to understanding what current is, voltage, anode, cathode, and grid, and to my fondness of tubes. And I knew I could utilize that in any device, an amplifier, DAC, tuner, or phonostage. So turning my focus for a while toward vinyl records I didn’t „betray” my previous achievement, I built upon them.
MD: So it seems that you started the „phonostage project” not for yourself, but rather for others?
ŁF: Yes, that’s true. At this stage, I didn’t even have my own turntable or vinyl records. What’s more, I didn’t even think that I would ever become a vinyl aficionado, I was sure that this chapter of my life was behind me. On the other hand, I realized that since I had spent 10 years gaining knowledge and experience that allowed me to develop top-class D/A Converters it would be a real shame not to use them for phonostage development. I thought it would be a quick and easy process and I was… wrong, really wrong about it because it turned out to be much, much more difficult than I thought.
MD: Was the main issue, the main difficulty the huge gain one has to apply to a very low signal from a cartridge?
ŁF: Yes, exactly, that was a huge challenge. When it comes to amplifiers we are dealing with a voltage gain, meaning that there is an X signal in the input, and a Y signal in the output, in the case of tube amplifiers we are talking about gains of 1, 1,5, 2, or maybe 4 if you go crazy. Because if the amplifier receives an input signal, say 2,5V, and in the output 2,8V results in 1W output, which translates into, say, 94 dB sound level, which is very loud. In fact, very few people use more than 1-2W output from their amps, apart from some short peaks, which means that in a tube amplifier, all we need is a gain=2. And in such a case some issues, some noise or hum that come from the environment, ground loops, or even tubes themselves are hardly noticeable, if at all. In my DACs, the voltage gain ratio is also set at single digit level, so 2 to no more than 4, while we also change some impedance ratios and buffer some signals. When it comes to a phonostage though, to amplify a signal from an MC cartridge we need a gain ratio of 3 to 4 thousand! And we need to remember that there is also the RIAA equalization, so a circuit that reverses the process used to record signal on a vinyl record of cutting out bass and adding treble. So the bass in the signal read from a record’s groove has to be additionally boosted by 20 dB. So now, if there is some hum at around 50Hz frequency so it gets amplified 3000 times plus the aforementioned 20 dB (another few hundred times). In other words, a phonostage works in the same way as an electron microscope focused on the 50 and/or 100 Hz hum. Dealing with that is the most difficult stage of phonostage development and by studying other brands’ designs we could see how difficult it was for them. So one of the first issues we had to face was unimaginably difficult for us. Finding all the necessary solutions took us years of small successes and failures.
MD: I know that you’ve been working with tubes for years, but, correct me if I am wrong, it would be easier to develop a solid-state device. So didn’t you start with easier solutions?
ŁF: Yes, you’re right. The aforementioned microscope enlarges not only whatever stylus reads from a groove, and the aforementioned issues, such as hum, and even ones that appear in the input stage that come from a tonearm, cables, connections that are not properly shielded, and so on, but we have to remember, that the first tube stage is amplified by the second, and the second by third. Tube itself is quite a noisy, hum-inducing device, although all that happens a few dozen decibels below music level. Yet with all the gain stages also the character of a tube that is dozen times more noisy or capricious than a transistor’s, gets amplified. So tubes because of all those technical issues are not the best choice for a phonostage circuit. Yet on the other hand, because of its tonality, musicality, and naturalness, it is a great choice for this application. So designers get to a point where they have to consider or pros and cons and decide whether the sonic advantages outweigh the technical issues. It was a difficult decision to make for us, and I believe that many other brands concluded that it couldn’t be done. As a result, they developed a hybrid phonos with the first gain stage based on transistors with their additional advantage being their low impedance, which is a good thing for cartridges, and they produce a very low level of noise, which is beneficial for signal. And only then, in the following stage(s) they use tubes. We, as LampizatOr (which is a word-play based on the Polish word for tube, which is „lampa”, ed.) could really follow this path as it would go against our philosophy, and we could lose face, so to speak, in the eyes of our customers. This choice turned out to be the biggest challenge for us. Not resolving the issues of noise and hum that originate from the environment we listen to the music in, but those from the first stage of the phono amplifier, which we decided would also feature tubes. Getting rid of all the remaining hum and noise from the first stage of our device took us almost 5 years and cost us dozens of almost-ready prototypes. After trashing dozens of PCBs and prototypes and „losing” a lot of money I just couldn’t give up, I just had to finish this project no matter how much longer it would take and how much more it would cost. The issues of all the hum and noise had to be resolved and a certain high level of performance was achieved benefiting from all the musicality of the tubes.
MD: Was it possible to use some of the knowledge and experience gained over the years of building D/A Converters in the process of phonostage development?
ŁF: Yes, but actually maybe 90% of the knowledge we accumulated over that years that were useful in this project was about how to overcome failures, how to look for different solutions, how to approach logistics and mechanics of our prototyping process, and not about how DACs worked, because that knowledge was not applicable.
MD: I understand, yet did you design a power supply from scratch for the phonostage or were you able to use what you learned when designing your digital devices?
ŁF: The power supply is almost identical because this section wasn’t a real issue. I mean at first we focused on this section trying to develop an overkill PS, to oversize everything in it. But we quickly learned that it wasn’t necessary for the final success but it did significantly increase the cost of said device, it took up space in the chassis, it increased the temperature inside, number of components we had to use, so it was something that was not necessary and if we have kept it, it would have been only for show. One of the things I really am proud of is that my company never does anything just for show, and if we used something in one of our devices it means it had to be used to achieve certain results. Hence in all projects, if there is something that isn’t really essential and is there just for the wow effect I remove it even realizing that some potential customers, ones who buy audio products with their eyes, may not like it. Sorry, but I don’t care. Developing a product we have a limited budget so we choose to use it where it really matters.
MD: Yet, it is also true, that over the years you have improved significantly the interior design of your products. I don’t know, maybe you still followed the function, but the form also improved. I remember the times when the circuits looked a bit chaotic and some potential customers were deterred by it. And having peaked inside the VP4 Silver or Pacific I know that currently you are using great-looking, perfectly made PCBs, and everything looks really orderly in there.
ŁF: Some may think otherwise, but we do listen to our customers, reviewers, and so on. In the past, I was a man who knew well how I wanted my devices to sound and didn’t like others to tell me what they should look like. I learned though, that people who buy audio products want them not only to sound great, but to also please their eyes, and I decided to stop fighting them. As a result, we started to do things not only in the right way but to offer something people can be proud of possessing and displaying in their rooms. And our current products look really good, I believe, also inside, also there, where you can’t see even after removing the hood. So a customer who decides to peak inside one day, won’t find there anything I would be ashamed of. So each of our products has to be well-made, look great, and sound the way I like it, I consider good. Obviously, I never work on a project alone. Usually, the development teams consist of four people. I am the one who doesn’t care much about the aesthetic features of the product, mostly about its performance, but there is always someone else in the team who takes care of that and they won’t let me introduce a new product to the market until it also looks well.
MD: Let’s stay with the design and a feature that both, your DACs and phonostages share – the weight. Does the VP4 Silver really have to be as heavy as it is?
ŁF: To do something right, and I am not talking about an uncompromising design, just a good one, it has to be big. If I didn’t have any restrictions I would make both our DACs and phonostages even bigger. Only then I would be able to design them the way I really want to. For example, I would love to have an oversized transformer with at least 50% more power than required, and the one we use has only 20% more. To use a bigger one, we have to consider also increased weight. For increased weight, we would have to use a thicker screw, but a thicker screw could damage the plate it is screwed to so we would have to use a thicker plate. A thicker plate means also heavier and probably bigger so we would need a bigger chassis. Bigger chassis is heavier so its walls have to be thicker to sustain rigidness and carry increased load. For a bigger and heavier device, we need a bigger more sturdy shipping case. In this way, just by using a bigger transformer for a few more watts of power, we get to a 20kg heavier shipping case and the price of the product increases by 40-50%. So each design-related decision has its consequences, and I laugh whenever I hear about an uncompromising design because I know it is not true – there is always some compromise involved, and ours is rather reasonable but its result is a half-a-meter deep chassis, and the total weight of 20 kg. There are many pocket-size phono preamplifiers on the market and they also offer some sound quality but I wouldn’t know how to make one.
MD: Don’t worry, there are some even bigger and/or heavier than yours. Tell me please, how did you choose tubes for this project? Why these particular models and not some others?
ŁF: The choice of tubes is critical for many reasons. Not all of the reasons are musical, and not all of them are technical. The current situation in the market is very complicated. First of all, not long ago the biggest tube factory in the world, in Shuguang, China, was damaged. In consequence, other, smaller manufacturers become overloaded with orders so they raised prices or changed their distribution systems. So the disappearance of the biggest player in the world from the tube market caused a catastrophe.
At this time Mr. Andrzej Hutnik (AH) joined us, one of the key people behind the VP4 Silver design
ŁF: Another key factor was the Russian aggression on Ukraine combined with the fact, that Russia is the second largest, after China, and the top considering quality, tube manufacturer in the world. It is true that most Russian tube manufacturers that did not work for the Russian army were taken over by foreign investors or investors who own rights to some Western brands. These two facts together, because Russia as the aggressor is an unacceptable partner for me, particularly when it comes to importing anything from them, make the complicated situation of manufacturers of tube devices even worse. As such we need wholesale quantities. We can’t buy small quantities on eBay, some NOS tubes from the 1950s are not a solution. So actually, we had to choose from 10, maybe 12 available tube models. We tested them all and chose the best ones among them. The process was simple and logical. We chose those that offered stable, repeatable parameters. You have to remember that tubes whose parameters vary by a few percent may be acceptable for an amplifier, but when it comes to a phonostage with an amplification factor of 1000, 2000, or 3000 times the initial tiny differences between tubes multiply resulting in either volume level or bass character difference between channels. Hence tube selection is critical and we need large quantities to select from a larger pool because we have to reject a lot of them. We can’t just buy 10 or 20 pairs, we need a few hundred pairs, measure them, break them in, pair them, and then test again in the device, to make sure that the RIAA equalization’s precision will stay within a tight margin. I can honestly say, that the tubes we chose are the best ones because they deliver an excellent performance – we haven’t found better ones in this regard so far, they are available and reliable.
MD: Łukasz told me before about some challenges you had to face while developing VP4 Silver, such as avoiding any hum and noise because those would be amplified 3000 times by gain stages. Were there any more challenges? What about grounding?
AH: It’s true, we need a high gain for MC cartridges, as they provide a signal at a level of, say 0,25 mV and the phonostage’s output should deliver 2V, right? So we are already talking about 2000 times amplification with 1 mV cartridges, and there are those that deliver only 0,1 or 0,2 mV, actually most of them do. So we need a gain factor of even more than 2000, maybe 3-4-5 thousand. Which is over 70 dB. So every problem in the input stage, all the noise, hum, tube noise, is also amplified and mixed with the signal from the cartridge. So yes, when it comes to tube devices it is a huge challenge. But I believe we successfully met this challenge because customers, especially those who already bought the VP4 version, never complain about noise or hum. And we do ask them for their assessment of noise and hum level compared to their previous phonostages, particularly solid-state ones where it is much simpler to achieve a better Signal to Noise value, and they all tell us that our phonostage is very quiet.
MD: I agree with them – it is very quiet.
AH: I am glad to hear that. I don’t know if I should let you in on a secret, but the most critical element, due to its place in the whole gain chain, is what happens in the input, so in this case, SUT (step-up transformer; ed.) that we implemented in the device, including its primary winding. Before we found the right one we tested several. We build numerous prototypes, one after the other, and step by step we got where we wanted. It was time-consuming and cost a lot of money. So one of the biggest challenges was what happens in the device right after the signal comes in via input. The current version finally satisfied us. The other one was to ensure enough gain for our phonostage to work properly with any cartridge. A lot of top pickups deliver as low as 0,2 mV signal and we couldn’t afford not to support them, also because these cost 5k USD and more and it’s their owners who should be our customers. For 0,2 mV we need another 10 dB gain on top of 70 dB. Another thing to consider was the loading settings for cartridges.
ŁF: We decided to stop at five settings and offer some standard loadings but since customers sometimes require some specific values we are glad to fulfill whatever they need. Each of the settings, apart from no. 1 is customizable. We can’t go beyond 2 kΩ though.
MD: But there is also an MM input that requires 47 kΩ loading, right?
AH: Yes, and it was also a challenge to offer an MM input bypassing SUT. We had to compromise here. Standard settings for MM cartridges are 47kΩ loading and 100pF capacitance, right? But true MM aficionados expect more settings. So they want either an option of selectable settings or customized ones. We couldn’t offer it in VP4, but who knows, maybe one day we will design a phonostage exclusively for MM cartridges offering more settings for their users. In the case of VP4, you have to remember that the MM input is not meant exclusively for use with MM cartridges. If it was, one could ask, why would anyone pay 30k PLN for a phonostage to be used with 300 PLN pickup? It doesn’t make sense. The high-end guys use MC cartridges. And yet, a lot of the latter expect an MM input because they can use it for their MC cartridges assuming they want to use their own SUTs. If you have your own Silver Kondo SUT all you need is the last gain stage or a top-quality MM input for your 20k USD cartridge. That is why we had to treat the MM input as seriously as the MC ones. Customers who require an MM input often are twice as demanding because they use it with a cartridge and SUT that cost as much as a good car. And this is an important reason to take proper care of this input’s loading because it „sees” SUT, and the SUT „sees” the cartridge, and finally the cartridge via the SUT „sees” our input. There are several loadings for MC pickups, but for MMs currently, we don’t have any choices.
ŁF: We have to also consider, that the MM input may be used with mono cartridges. First of all, there are a lot of customers who listen to mono records and they usually have a second tonearm with a mono cartridge, and it is often a Moving Magnet one. There are also people, who have such expensive MC cartridges, that playing a record may cost them more than the record itself. Playing a record means that a stylus gets worn off, and since you can’t simply replace the stylus in MC pickup, you need to send it for re-tipping which costs usually around 80% of the price of the new cartridge. So if you’re using a 10k USD pickup and an assumption is that it will be able to play 2000 records, it means that playing one costs you 5 USD. So people who have very expensive cartridges often have a second tonearm with a „good MM” pickup just to check out a record they bought at some flea market. So these guys also need this „strange”, „inexpensive” input in an expensive phonostage.
AH: Circling back to challenges. The first one was noise, distortion, hum, and so on. We dealt with them. The second one was necessary features and that’s where we had to compromise a bit. We couldn’t offer it all in one device. In our most advanced version, we offer two MC inputs and one for either MM cartridges or Moving Coil ones via external SUT.
MD: Do the two MC inputs differ from each other?
ŁF: No, they are identical. Right after the input socket signal is sent right to the very same spot. We can’t really offer two different inputs because it would mean having two different input stages, two sets of SUTs. It would be very expensive to implement and probably not really used by customers. It is easier two buy two phonostages. In terms of features, there is a question of output(s). There are some phonostages that are balanced designs through and through, but there is only a handful of them and they are very expensive. And hard to make. We do not belong among those rare manufacturers but rather follow in this regard in the footsteps of the rest of them, of the 99%. In other words, right after the signal enters our device the whole circuit is single-ended. Still, because there are customers, who have fully balanced systems, we can offer a balanced output. The whole design of our phonostage remains single-ended.
MD: So the signal is symmetrized right before outputs, right?
ŁF: Yes. It is not difficult to build a symmetric circuit, but it is almost impossible to build a balanced RIAA equalization circuit. Because it is so sensitive, there is so much gain between input and output signals that building four independent RIAA channels, and then summing them up hoping the result will be flat, or that, so to speak, they will sum up to zero, is unachievable. Even if you consider only a 1% or even 0,1% difference between resistors it is already too much for required precision. And remember that additionally solder points may start to drift already after two years, shifting the value by a few ohms, and it will be hugely amplified in this circuit. It is easier to imagine such a solution built using solid-state components because it would be easier to control all the electrical parameters. With tubes, it seems very difficult. I am not sure if anybody actually does that.
AH: There is the third, maybe the most important „pillar” of our device – sonic performance. We worked on it for a long time as well, because RIAA equalization decides not only about the sound but also about precision in both channels. It’s not just about sound, tonality, frequency range, various sonic aspects, details, and so on, but also about soundstage, imaging, and precision of phantom images placement on the stage. The identity of the RIAA in both channels ultimately decides the final sonic effect. So you need not only precise components for such a circuit, but also paired with utmost precision, and that means that you need a lot of them to select perfectly matched ones. Even the quality/precision of the measuring instrument you use contributes to the final effect.
ŁF: Before we spoke about the size and weight of our devices. So let me circle back to this issue and give you an example. At some point in the circuit, we use the so-called signal capacitors or the ones that the musical signal goes through. And from a purely technical standpoint, these could be very small capacitors, say, of the size of three grains of salt. If you decide to use ones of somewhat higher quality their size will increase to that of, say, a nickel. Even better ones will be of a size of a dime. And then we compare them to capacitors we use in our most expensive DAC and the sound improves. There is a problem though – these are as big as soda cans. So there is a question, what do we do about it? Because we need eight of them and there is not enough space in our chassis to fit them. We also have to design a new PCB because we can’t just squeeze these caps using force, we need a new PCB to keep proper spacing between components. So we do all that, we put all these capacitors onto the newly designed PCB and it turns out that where before there was no hum, now there is some. And so we have to start again, and design and make a new PCB. To fit these huge caps in we had to get rid of some other, less critical component(s). Even though it is so much work, it is also time and money-consuming we will still do it because once we hear the sound we truly like we don’t want to go back to the inferior performance.
AH: Provided that we manage to keep a proper signal-to-noise ratio, because the bigger the component, the more interference-prone it gets. So there is some limit, and you have to watch for S/N so that there is no more noise/interference but only a better sound. Speaking of capacitors, let me share a small secret. One of the capacitors we use in the signal path is custom-made. It has low capacity but has to withstand high voltage and remain small.
MD: I am glad to hear that you are already a big or important enough manufacturer so that renowned component manufacturers agree to work with you on products tailored to your needs. Large manufacturers order custom drivers, capacitors, and so on, but they do it from the position of power, so to speak. Let me ask you something before I forget. In your price list, I saw another model coming. It seems you’re planning a new flagship phonostage, Horizon.
ŁF: Yes, that’s the plan but we’ve been sort of waiting until VP4 is fully accepted by the market meaning users and reviewers. Only then we are able to put it aside, treat it as a finished product and move on. We will add some components and features we couldn’t fit into VP4, and lock them up in a bigger, more expensive, heavier, and more complex chassis, where we will be able to put in everything we couldn’t in the VP4, and perhaps eliminate the few compromises.
MD: What elements are you talking about, for example?
ŁF: For example, not 5 but 10 loading settings.
AH: Can you, as a user, confirm it would be an added value from your perspective? I know there are different approaches to that issue.
MD: I know some designers, mostly Japanese, who claim that they offer only one loading, 100 Ω, for MC cartridges because in their experience changing loading to other values has such a small impact on the sound, that it is not worth their time to design and build an option of loading adjustment.
AH: I agree, but we offer what most customers want.
MD: What about gain? Other manufacturers often offer an option of adjusting the gain. The minimalist version is a toggle switch between „high” and „low” gain. In your phonostage, the gain is not adjustable.
ŁF: Some say, that a phono stage is actually a version of a line stage with phono input. So once, we had a power amplifier and a preamplifier before it, that featured tape/recording input, one for TV, digital inputs, and phono inputs for MM and MC pickups. All these features we built-in into a preamplifier but ultimately all signals went through the last gain stage, which today we call a line stage, and it features also a volume control. What we do is an orthodox phono stage, so to speak, with no gain adjustment, no volume control, and a super-simple and super-specialized circuit. But yes, we do consider whether adding a volume control is a good idea, although we also realize that it would mean doubling the job of an amplifier featuring a volume control. In such a case, there would be two volume controls, one after the other. We would have to consider adding some bypass.
MD: There is one more feature that has been gaining more traction recently, particularly in the more expensive phonostages, namely an equalization curve selection, or offering more than just RIAA.
ŁF: Yes, we could offer more curves, we could have switchable balanced and unbalanced outputs, also buffered and unbuffered ones. The problem is, that we never know the component our phonostage will be sending a signal to. If we knew it is a high quality, preferably tube, preamplifier, we wouldn’t have to buffer the output. That means one stage lass and a few percent of problems less to worry about. And a better sound! But since the device there can be also an unpredictable solid-state preamplifier, one that, for example, has a 5 kΩ input, so one of a very low impedance, not buffering signal would mean deviating equalization towards and as a result no or poor bass. So we have to use a buffer, which is a sort of immunization against what components our phonostage will be connected to. In this way, we are sure, that no matter what, having a buffered signal we don’t have to worry. Yet, since avoiding buffering could mean an even higher sound quality, we consider adding a switch, so that a user in a particular case can decide which way offers a better performance. Long story short, the number of features we could include in our top phonostage is huge. You can check out such devices as, for example, Studio by Paravicini, and you will see dozens of switches and knobs that allow users to find an optimal set of setting for every situation. On the other hand, though, each switch, relay, each adjustment introduces some sort of sonic compromise. That’s why we prefer not to have all that to offer the best, purest sound possible.
ŁF: Apropos all those features and settings that we theoretically could implement in our design, as a businessman, not a designer this time but a businessman, I know that we are a small company and we can’t have a vast lineup. We can only manufacture a finite number of units. So we don’t really try to maximize our market share, we don’t try to please every possible customer. So I believe that there are much more people in the world who would rather buy a simple, feature-wise, device offering stunning performance. I guess we could count those in thousands which means that the demand is bigger than the numbers we could supply. There are much more such potential customers than those who would buy our device if it offered all the options/settings/features in the world. Satisfying the needs of the latter group would be infinitely more complicated for us, it would require another five years of development and also refining what we already know. Adding any feature, or any change of the scheme of the device may cause going back to searching for reasons of hum, and that can take a really long time. So adding more features means spending a lot of time on development, and investing a lot of money. You can do that, but it is a choice – what you want to be a decisive factor for potential buyers. Yes, for some it could be a large number of various equalization curves because they have hundreds of old records from before RIAA became a standard. And it is possible, that they have 100k USD to spend for phonostage. But there are few of them so it is a matter of deciding whether you really want to target them or a much larger group of those who don’t need a plethora of features, just the necessary ones and the best possible sound.
MD: My assumption is, that if you decide to make Horizon Phono it won’t be cheap so you could target the richest customers.
ŁF: Yes, that’s true. Horizon will be more expensive even without hundreds of new features. We assume that since there are many cartridges that are even more expensive than our current top phonostage, an even better sounding, hence more expensive one will sell. I believe that people who listen to both, files and vinyl, and who can afford Horizon DAC, will find Horizon Phonostage interesting.
AH: Let me tell you a true story. Recently, a very important guest visited us and we prepared for him the best version of VP4. Since we also had Horizon DAC at our disposal we decided to compare the same music played from files and from vinyl records. So there were six experienced audiophiles sitting there and listening and which one they liked better? They said Horizon, but only because the sound was more detailed.
ŁF: The outcome was easy to predict – they listened to hi-res files versus vinyl records, and we all know the frequency range of the record and crosstalk. So for those who looked for more details, DAC had to be the better choice. But when it comes to the sound, its realism, to how natural it was, VP4 was a clear winner. Long story short, we compared our two flagship models and it turned out that they offer a similar level of performance. One of our customers who already had Horizon got his VP4 Silver two weeks ago. He let it break in for two weeks and yesterday he sent his impressions. Before that, he had listened to the MC-1 phonostage, a model from around two years ago, and in comparison, Horizon was much better. Now, when he got VP4, he says that they both represent a very similar level of performance. Such feedback is important for us because we have been looking for a reference for VP4 not even among other phonostages but among DACs. Since Horizon belongs to the best D/A Converters there are, saying that our phonostage represents a similar level is very satisfying.
MD: I won’t ask you where did you get this SUT from, but could you tell me why you chose this particular SUT for VP4 Silver?
ŁF: As for SUTs we focused on manufacturers who’d already been making them. We understood, that it is a product that requires proper knowledge and experience, hence we can’t expect some local workshop to make them for us. Also, the most famous Japanese manufacturers, such as Tango and Tamura, started to scale down their portfolios. Particularly during the COVID-19 time, they downsized their lineups because they realized they couldn’t sustain manufacturing dozens or even hundreds of models. So naturally, they focused on those models that sold best hence depending on their lineup was not a safe option for us. We did buy all SUT models from several reliable manufacturers and listened to all of them. First, we selected a brand that sounded best to our ears, and then we listened to all models they offered for phonostages. Ultimately it turned out that silver was a better choice. Not because it is a precious metal, or that it is cooler. It simply offers another level of musical experience. Once we learned the sound with a silver SUT we had no choice, we couldn’t really go back to a cooper one. That’s probably the key to the superiority of the Silver version. Considering how low the signals from MC cartridges are we think that the „silverness” of the SUT and other connections and soldering points is critical for such incredibly low signals.
MD: Where the idea of developing the Silver version came from? Did it start with a silver SUT or you wanted a silver version and found the means to make it?
ŁF: Actually, it was the SUT manufacturer who told us that he had a silver SUT that was 10 times more expensive than those we had listened to before. It was clear from the start that if we used it we couldn’t just replace the copper one for free, so to speak, that we had to design another, more expensive version (of the VP4 – ed.). And once we did test the silver SUT it turned out to be so much better than the less expensive one that I even considered giving the copper version up altogether and keeping only the Silver one even knowing it would be significantly more expensive. In this way, I could be sure that our customers would get the best sound we could offer. We have always been focused on sound quality, on offering the best one we can even if it means offering more expensive products.
MD: Let’s clear one thing out – I tested a single-ended version and when I checked the price list it seemed that it is the only one that you offer. So the question is whether you’re even planning on offering a balanced version.
ŁF: We have designed the device, PCB in such a way that it can be used for both, single-ended and balanced versions, so the latter can be built. I am not sure though, that we will even promote it or if there is even a need for it because most phonostages are single-ended designs and thus customers are prepared to add a single-ended phonostage to their setups. When it comes to DACs people often use them to directly drive power amplifiers and the latter are balanced designs hence the need for a balanced DAC. It is not so when it comes to phonostages. Also, with DACs balanced outputs offer sonic benefits, but with phonostages it is quite the opposite. Still, we have such an option on board, so to speak, and we sort of wait for the response from the market, for the orders and inquiries that will tell us, whether there is any significant interest in a balanced version. As for the version, for now, we keep them both, the regular copper and silver ones. I believe that people will vote with their wallets and choose the better sound quality.
MD: Will you offer the owners of regular/copper VP4 an upgrade option in the future?
ŁF: An upgrade to the Silver version can’t be done, it is physically impossible. So if someone wants to replace copper VP4 with a Silver one we will accept a return of the former and deliver the latter. Obviously, the owner of VP4 will have to pay the price difference between the versions.
MD: Is the upgrade impossible because except for a different SUT also internal wiring is a silver one?
ŁF: There are even more differences. Some components we use in the Silver version differ from those you will find in ‘regular’ VP4. For example, capacitors that we selected after long listening sessions. It is not so much about using all the more expensive components for Silver, but rather about copper SUT sounding so different from the silver one that to match the character of the sound we need different components around it. Some of them work better with copper SUTs, some with silver ones, and the choice is not based on prices.
AH: The Silver version not only features a different SUT, but it is also a ‘luxury’ version. What you get in one box is a set of features and solutions, not all of them have to be even listed, but we know exactly what we did and what we added, and we know it justifies a higher price.
MD: Do I remember correctly, that you use also silver WBT connectors?
ŁF: Yes, we do use WBT connectors instead of standard metal ones, but they are not silver ones. We use WBT connectors for all inputs because we realize how small is the signal from the cartridge and how hard would it be to get through some poor conductor in a poor socket. Let me get back for a moment to the silver transformers. Let’s forget for a moment about the fact, that they feature very hard to make hence very expensive amorphous cores, and focus on the fact that they feature silver wire. Few people realize that in audio where silver wires are used, for example, in coils used in loudspeakers’ crossovers, in capacitors’ leads, in high-quality relays – and also in relays we use contacts are silver – in output transformers in amplifiers, and in this particular case in signal transformers, the silver wire itself is an issue or a challenge. The point is that the world’s industry produces huge quantities of copper wire, the so-called winding wire. It is more than just a copper wire because it is covered with insulating enamel. It allows you to wind it over cores without any additional isolation as the following windings touching themselves do not conduct electricity between them because the aforementioned insulation layer doesn’t allow it. In fact, it is a sort of non-conductive ceramic enamel, that is applied on the wire. The process is very difficult and there are only huge factories that do it, you can’t do it in your garage. Now, you need the same process for the silver wire, but it is not a product used by the industry as such. It is not really needed apart from the high-end audio so the demand for it worldwide is minimal. You can’t really convince a manufacturer who produces copper winding wire to switch to silver because the process of re-purposing of the production line for silver wire is complex, and for it to even be profitable customer would have to order several kilometers of silver wire. And remember that for any high-end product, you would need several cross-sections of the wire. Long story short, we would have to order kilometers of silver wire for each needed cross-section. That’s more that is needed for the whole industry for silver coils for the next 1000 years. And that’s still just one project that one company would have to order these quantities for. Most likely silver would be contaminated with copper because the whole production line would be full of copper wastes and fumes. All that long story is to tell you that getting a high-quality silver winding wire is incredibly difficult. I believe that only two or three companies managed to achieve it. That is why there aren’t dozens of small, boutique manufacturers offering silver transformers. It just can’t be done. It is one of the industry’s secrets, one of the entry barriers. Who can get through it and get such wires is quite lucky. Yet, if you don’t have access to such silver wires you won’t be able to get it, no matter how much you can spend on it. Even if it is 100k EUR or even a million, it is still not enough. That is why we are so lucky to know a manufacturer of silver SUT and amorphous cores, we are happy to have those at our disposal.
MD: Thank you gentlemen for your time and all the information you shared with me and our readers and congratulations on VP4 Silver! It is (spoiler alert!) a remarkable phonostage!
Manufacturer: LampizatOr Poland