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The final battle of giants

Can old champions defend themselves from the young challengers?

CD player shootout:
In the first corner:   Old era champion - Grundig 9009 (lampized)
In the second corner: The HiFi press favourite Wolfson WM8740 DAC inside the Cambridge Azur 640 player Lampized
In third corner: Internet opinion leader: Burr Brown PCM1794 DAC inside the best so far from Shanling - the supercool CD300 Player Lampized
And finally in fourth corner: Lukasz Fikus new discovery - The LAMPUCERA  DAC with Cirrus CS4397 DAC and CS8416 receiver - Megalampized

Four dream machines. Four gems which without super price tags represent the best that High-End Anno Domini 2008 can offer. Even without Lampizator and without any mods -  super products on their own.

The seek for truth continues. The winner - in any event - is you, the reader. I have checked hundreds of players and re-worked nearly 100 to find out what is behind good sound.
At the end - you can save tons of money by not buying any bullshit and paying reasonable money only for top value.

I managed to narrow the choice of DAC chips only to 4 types. One is the oldest champion, a cult status chip - TDA1541As1 and the three others are just kids, all born near 2005, all 24/192 compatible, Wolfson from Scotland, BB from Japan/USA and Cirrus from USA as well, with steroid loaded muscles and testosteron pumped self confidence. Can they be even comparable?

(I must admit, that the UltraAnalog DAC D20400A  and AK DACs and ringDac  were beyond my reach and budget so we must wait patiently  untill I get one.)

You can also read about TRANSPORT project HERE

Meanwhile - let the battle begin.

1. Grundig versus the Shanling

At first I tought that the Shanling thrashed the Grundig, but the fact is that it was just louder. After a couple of switches back and forth, I thought that the Shanling is a touch more transparent, a touch more open on the top, and the bass was both faster and deeper.
Overall, I prefer Shanling but in midrange alone - the Grundig may have an edge in "warmth".

2. Grundig versus Wolfson

This is no contest - Wolfson does everything that Shanling did so well but does it to even higher degree. So the differences are apparent. There is no doubt that I can't defend the Grundig. It is OUTSHINED by a very small yet so important margin. Especially the bass from Wolfson is in another league from all three contestants - it s more natural and by that I mean FAST and CONTROLLED.

3. Lampucera versus Shanling
Whatever Shanling is good at, Lampucera does a little bit better. Very little bit. The lampizator stage is slightly different but the Lampucera - every time I try it - rises my blood pressure more that Shanling. I could have both, but if you ask me - Lampucera is the one. Cheaper, more universal, and so easy to apply. RCA or XLR, op-amp or tubes - all is a snap.

4. Lampucera versus Wolfson
This gets tough. Lampucera at first seems better in treble and attack, Wolfson is warmer and more human. After changing more CD's, I am loosing my confidence. I am sure Wolfson has better bass controll, more lean and rock solid foundation. In bass NOTHING AT ALL can touch the Wolfson.
Overall, they are so similar and so good, I must push myself really hard to make any valid comment at all. I am probably biased towards Lampucera because it is more of what I need it for - to give it to ALL THE PEOPLE. I am a self proclaimed Prometheus - remember.
This can help to resurrect every CD or DVD or even a PC soundcard with SP/DIF.
Wolfson must be purchased with the new player.
In the end sonically I give them DEUCE (equal).

5. Grundig versus Lampucera
Switching the selector in real time resulted in my total disbelief. How can this little sucker be so good ? Mother of Lord, am I a lucky guy to experience all that? Knowing how good the Grundig is, I decided that in my ranking I must create the new CATEGORY ZERO to reflect the  quality difference.

6. no possibility to try Shanling against Wolfson/Azur.

Oh my goodness, I am exhausted. All these players are so good that listening critically for the smallest niuances which make a difference is no mean task.
The good news - despite the fact that I have EXTREMELY revealing system, the differences are really small, so if 4 differently made tools get the same result - means that we are circling DAMN CLOSE around the point of perfection. Truth is within reach!

The differences are so miniscule, that they can also be linked to different capacitors in Lampizator, different cables, different transports or AC cords.
Grundig has 6H1P tubes in SRPP, Wolfson had the same albeit in SE mode, not utilizing its balanced outputs, Lampucera was megalampized with gigantic 6H13C in triode mode, and Shanling was single ended SRPP with 6H6P tube.

Unfortunately I have neither time, nor patience, nor will to conduct a scientifically objective blind ABX test in ideally controlled conditions and with 0,1 dB volume adjustments etc.

I knew beforehand, that the overall sound will be all similar and all good. So I concentrated
on the usuall criteria like bass and trebles, but instead I looked for the goosebumps, halucination factor, brain fooling illusion factor, involvement, enjoyment etc. These implicit qualities which can not be measured or even described, yet they make the whole important High-End diffrence from the mere HI-FI.

Any person is welcome to do a similar test and to reach totally different conclusions, what I am saying is TOTALLY SUBJECTIVE but OTOH it is free from any moral, cultural, financial or other forms of bias. I am a free man and I tell you as it is.

Bigh thanks to Doctor Skibinski for endless patience and lending his critical ear and wise brain.

Here is my verdict.

It is a very hard section to write!

In my opinion, the Wolfson DAC inside Cambridge Azur 640 Player is fantastic and equal to Lampucera 1.0. I can not choose one over the other. They are both
about equal
which means superb.

They both make  unbelieveable great sound, the difference is that Cambridge can be bought anywhere in the World as a ready product. Without any mods it is a CD player guaranteed to deliver. The Lampucera is in fact a simple DAC KIT available from Hong Kong - just wrire to LAwrence, he can help:
lawrencechanbig (a.t) msn(dot)com
The name of the kit does not exist hence my Lampucera nickname was invented as a temporary solution.
Search ebay for this item, which sells for 70 USD from H-K:
Similar although not as economic and puristic solution is a Zhaolu DAC 2.5C

The shanling CD300 comes as a VERY CLOSE second. The difference is very small, but I had to make differenciation. BB1794 is a hell of a DAC but it looses just a thin hair. Nevertheless, it is a great chip to be admired.
The Grundig holds in the midrange department, but it does not hold in the bass or highest trebles.
So the WINNERS ARE: Wolfson ex aequo with the Cirrus, a nod to Cirrus if we can buy it cheaply  as a kit, a nod to Wolfson if we buy the whole Cambridge or other player like Arcam Diva CD72.

There is a link which I found AFTER this all has been said and done, which means that "great minds think alike". Having said that, the other test was 100 times more professional and objective, kudos to these brave guys and Mr. Ciuffoli himself

January 2008 follow up number one:

I could not live with the deuce, as Ali G says - "one must always be a little bit better than the other".
So I took the Wolfson and CS4397 for a secound round - the shoot-out session:
The setup was this:
Lampucera - meaning a naked CS4397 DAC chip connected to Sony CDP-555ESD transport via a no name coax cable. The DAC chip connected directly to XLR balanced inputs of ARG OTL mono amplifiers, driving my P-12 speakers - bass Altec Lansing 416-C in-wall mounted, mids Saba greencone 20 cm Alnicos and Raal ribbon tweeters. Each driver a champion of the respective category.

Wolfson - inside Cambridge Audio Azur 640 C-2 CD player (brand new) and with a direct bypass - DAC to XLR (balanced as well). Output op-amps omitted.

I used 4 or 5 best CD albums that I own- Shirley Horn Remembering Miles, Friedman Liebzeit Secret Rythms, Metheny's First Circle on K2/XRCD/Gold, and  Lhasa's Living Road. Plus some more.
I did about 10 switching rounds with all these albums, listening to all aspects like: bass BLOW and IMPACT, thread/instrument separation, echo and air in the recording venue (recreated) , human voice "humanity factor", brain fooling/involvement/hallucinations, treble purity and decay.

Despite trying hard, sespite having EXTREMELY revealing chain - I can not hear a slightest difference at all. No matter what criteria - I can not pin-point a difference that's verifiable, consistent, objective etc.
With a gun pointed to my head - I would be forced to make a decision - I think CS chip makes me more smile, more feel like "this is it". But this is subjective. It is like choosing between two variants of the same Porsche - the preferred one does not matter, it is STILL A GODDAMN GOOD THING.

To get the "Cirrus sound" - the Zhalou 2,5 DAC offers a ready product  - just bypass output section, and to get the Wolfson - the better option is Azur 540C - it is cheaper than 640 but has same DAC chip. (second chip would not be used anyway, it is a waste of chip in the 640).
So again - it is a deuce.

February 2008 - follow up:
With the help of a very experienced ears of Wieslaw, we spent one free saturday morning critically evaluating the best players.
The shoot-out this time was:
Wadia 3200 transport driving the lampucera with 6sn7gt lampizator
Azur/Wolfson connected to 6H1P lampizator (almost the same tube)
and finally Wadia transport driving V.A.C. DAC2.
This is an old tubed dac from USA which is a handmade monster. I could not believe my eyes - apart from a tubed output stage it has a Philips SAA7323 DAC - one that was specified for boomboxes. An all-in-one-chip of high integration, but by far - not a HIGHEND DAC.
Despite that - Wieslaw consider it his reference, and he knows what he is saying. He probably had at home more highend gear than anyone I know.
The good old Grundig 9009 was also at hand for reference.
This time I caught the apparent feature of "the wolfson sound" - it has the best drumming ability of any other player. I do not mean bass, I mean just that - drumming. A jazz-rock piece with some drum solo had such natural sound, such breathtaking velocity, such impact, such truth - that I was speachless for a long time. I turned the volume to the red zone and the experience was like a rollercoaster ride. I am not joking.
No other player was even close.
The VAC surprised me - it was the only player with overall different kind of sound. I could tell it blinded from 20 other players. It seemed to prefer the highest highs and did it with purity and delicacy I never heard in my life. The upper octaves can only be compared to a 20 000 Euro turntable system. I was not sure if I like it or not, but I admit that the level of details in the 10k-20KHz region was just beyond my wildest expectations. But the tilt was too strong - it did not have nearly as good midrange or bass. So this is a player (DAC) for detail freaks with ribbon tweeters.
Considering the cheapness of the SAA DAC chip - VAC company made a real miracle piece of equipment. Hats off to them.
Perhaps we were tired of this test, because at the end of the day the Grundig proved to be the most listenable player.
Then Wieslaw decided to upgrade it and we fitted the new tubes - a 400 USD a piece Siemens E801S. Supposedly THE best tubes around.
I did not have a chance to listen to this upgrade, but Wieslaw swears that it took the Grundig straight to heaven and left the other players on earth.  Howewer unfair - because others did not have supertubes - I trust His opinion.
So the quest for the BEST continues ...

A half year later - it was time for the SECOND ROUND OF THE BATTLE - READ HERE

BACK          to be continued....