Do Tubes belong in a DAC? Lampizator Baltic 4 REVIEW

Review

This is a review written by Chris Baillie June 2024.

A DAC with tubes

Quality Hi-End Audio components come in all shapes and sizes. Polish manufacturer LampizatOr’s top-of-the-range DACs take up more real estate than many and are certainly eye-catchers. When I mentioned to Terry that I was looking at this DAC, like me, he ‘beamed’ at how he would love to have one of them on the top of his rack, simply for how they look. While I would love to review one of the brand’s top-of-the-range DACs, such as the Pacific or even the Horizon, I do not have the space or the system to do them justice fully. As you will read below, I was far from short-changed by the Baltic 4, which gives users an excellent opportunity to see what a well-designed tube DAC is capable of.

The Baltic 4 is the second up in LapizatOr’s range. The company describe it as ‘pushing the octal design to the limits’. The Baltic 4 is fully balanced and features LampizatOr’s digital engine Eleven, as well as a triode output stage. As you can tell from the name, the DAC is now in its fourth iteration. My review sample is an early production model; keen readers may notice that the faceplate is labelled ‘Baltic 3’, but rest assured, the DAC we are looking at here is the full ‘Baltic 4’ spec.

There are two versions of this DAC listed on the company’s site: the fixed output line level version, which retails for £6,480 and the variable output, as tested here, at £8,520.

lampizator baltic 4 dac review

Eye catching design

I have had all sorts of kit in my living room over the last few years, but the Baltic 4 will be etched into my memory for some time, as much for the way it looks as how it sounded. A number of visitors I hosted while the Baltic 4 was here had never ever seen anything like it. You can have choose a black or silver facia, with anodised finishes available in both colours. I think the silver facia fitted in quite well visually with the rest of my system, which includes a few two-tone components, such as the Moon 600i amplifier and Melco N1-S38 server.

Various finishes are available for the chassis and front button, some of which sound pretty funky. Paying customers get a remote with a volume control, input selection, and stand-by switch. Lowly reviewers often do not, so I got some exercise. The only quirk of note is that the stand-by switch is located on the front underside of the chassis, which meant lifting the front of the unit a little every evening to turn it on and off. The facia contains a display and rotary knob; pressing it will change inputs, and twisting it changes the input and output volume levels.

The variable output was somewhat wasted on an integrated amplifier user like me, so I had to set both input and output levels at 0db for maximum output into my
amplifier. As long as you stick to the stand-by switch and don’t turn off the rocker switch next to the IEC input, the Baltic 4 remembers your previous choice of input and volume level.

There are four digital inputs: AES/XLR, RCA SDIF, Toslink and USB. The Baltic 4 is compatible with every relevant digital format, and notably up to DSD512. At 13kg, this DAC is not especially heavy but feels well-built. Being picky, I’ll mention the volume/input selector was slightly wobbly, but this was a well-used, early production sample so take that into account for this.

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Tube Rolling Anyone?

GPoint Audio, the UK distributor, kindly supplied my sample of the Baltic 4 with a range of additional tubes for me to try out. I was surprised at just how much difference tube rolling made. LampizatOr’s website states that their five-year warranty may be invalidated by swapping tubes without written approval of the types of tubes users intend to use; be sure to do so or talk to your dealer about this before indulging.

I found the PSVane ACME 274 Rectifier and vintage Sylvania JAN 6sn7w military-grade RCA tubes in the middle row were the best combo, to my ears, at least. We didn’t have enough tubes to swap out the back row of tubes. You need to put the Baltic 4 into Stand-by Mode whilst swapping tubes; otherwise, it is just a case of vertically lifting the in situ tube, lining up the pins of the replacement and pressing it into place.

The tubes themselves only take a couple of dozen seconds to warm through, which helps when it comes to assessing the differences between tubes. If a ham-fisted tube ‘newbie’ like me could indulge in tube rolling without wrecking the DAC, it is something any potential owner can experiment with. Quenching the appetite for valves in a high-current valve-based power amp may prove a costly affair, but the tubes in the Baltic 4 are quoted as having a potential lifespan of up to ten years.

Glowing Performance

Even the best DAC needs a decent source to perform optimally. For music, I used my Melco N1-S38 server, from which I played files stored on its SSD and streamed via Qobuz. A CAD USB-IIR cable linked this combination. In between music sessions, we used it with a BT TV box via a Chord C-line optical cable. The Baltic 4 arrived, just as my time with the Moon 681/641 from Simaudio, the review of which was published here at PPS in May. I began listening to the Baltic 4 using the Moon 641 amplifier, then swapping back to my Moon 600i.

The LampizatOr DAC presents music very differently from the solid-state Moon 681 and, indeed, any other solid-state DAC I’ve heard. Whereas the best solid-state DACs build the musical foundation from the low frequencies up, the first thing you notice about the presentation of the Baltic 4 is its gloriously natural and palpable mid-range. After a period of acclimatisation, I began to appreciate the Baltic 4’s remarkable ability to communicate the musical message. Vocals, particularly female, are incredibly liquid, detailed, natural, and convincing. Acoustic instruments have body and texture, with a natural sense of decay and sustain. Micro-dynamics are a highlight, adding to that sense of engagement and involvement.

Compared to the best solid-state DACs, many of which cost more than double the price of the Baltic 4, this DAC lacks a little grip, drive and control of the lower frequencies. The music is presented in a slightly softer manner than you get from solid-state equipment, which is consistent across the whole frequency range, so the frequency extremes, whilst slightly further back in the mix, with the majority of music, integrate well and contribute to a coherent musical performance. Only when listening to heavy rock or dance music, did this detract from my musical enjoyment – LampizatOr’s higher-end DACs would be more suitable here.

While this DAC excels in music based on acoustic instruments, its ability to throw a huge, three-dimensional soundstage worked brilliantly with Brendon Perry’s solo album ARK (16/44 download). Here, the Baltic 4 created a beautiful sonic soundscape, in which my room was filled with swathing synthesisers and pulsing low frequencies. Since Brendon Perry is half of the musical duo Dead Can Dance, it seemed logical to listen to their most popular and best-produced album, Into The Labyrinth (SACD rip via the Melco) next. Anyone familiar with their work from this period will know this album was recorded in a converted church, and the Baltic 4 lets you hear this in no uncertain terms. Via this DAC, you are aware of the church’s acoustic majesty around each instrument, as well as the vocals. The Baltic 4’s ability with micro-dynamics was very effective with this album, drawing me into the vocals. Instrumental texture, soundstage dimensions, impact and weight of the drums were all reproduced realistically via this LampizatOr DAC. I enjoyed listening to this album so much via this DAC that I couldn’t resist cueing up another of their albums next, Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun. This album has a more distant soundstage perspective than Into The Labyrinth, which the Baltic 4 resolved beautifully. Again, the way it handled vocals and micro-dynamics proved it to be a fine partner for this album.

I was in the mood for some more left-field Prog, so it was time for some Krautrock from Can. I listened to Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi, again SACD rips via the Melco. The former can sometimes sound somewhat thin, but the Baltic 4 gave this recording some much-needed additional body. A particular highlight was the epic track Halleluwah. This track exhibits drumming maestro Jaki Liebezeit’s metronomic yet flamboyant drumming. The Baltic 4 made the track a thrilling listen, highlighting the drum strikes and doing a particularly fine job resolving the strange noises and effects, which are a signature of this classic Prog band’s output. Trying to make out Damo Suzuki’s lyrics is often a thankless task, but the way this Lampazitor DAC resolves vocals meant I understood more than when listening via a less
capable DAC.

I have been listening to a CD rip of the album Scarlet’s Walk from Tori Amos a lot recently. The Baltic 4 gets so much right with this recording. Despite the overly compressed mastering, Tori’s vocals are solid, liquid and lifelike, making listening to this seventy-plus-minute album a pleasure rather than a chore. The balance of this DAC highlights all the right parts of the recording, which, returning to my usual DAC, left this album sounding rather lacklustre.

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Conclusions

I very much enjoyed my time with the Baltic 4 and am already missing what it does well. Whilst it might not be the first choice of DAC that comes to mind for those with extensive EDM and Rock music collections, the non-fatigueing yet involving manner it communicates music will find it many admirers. Tube rolling is a great tool for fine-tuning the sound to suit the listener’s tastes and system matching. Highlights are the solid and lifelike way it presents instruments and vocals within a holographic soundstage, micro dynamics and its detailed and involving yet non-fatiguing presentation. I consider the Baltic 4 an essential audition at its price point. For listeners who appreciate the magic that a well-designed valve DAC like the Baltic 4 is capable of, there may be no going back to a solid-state device.

Pursuit Perfect System Essential Audition Awards

An Essential Audition Award is granted in recognition of a products high performance but with a certain uniqueness that makes auditioning even more essential.

For the full specification see the Lampizator website details here 

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