He’s affable and relatively slender, with short black hair pushed up, a stubbly grey beard, and a button down black shirt hanging out over his blue jeans. Unlike many vendors wearing ties or business casual here, Lukasz Fikus (51) remains one of home audio’s more galvanizing figures. Renowned for his vacuum tube based digital to analog converters (DACs), he takes a few minutes from his busy schedule to talk shop.
A graduate from Warsaw Polytechnic University in Electrical Engineering with a specialty in power distribution and a major in High Voltage Physics, Fikus earned an MBA from WUT School of Business in Warsaw. An audiophile with cult-like status for his Do It Yourself blog, after working 19 years at a large multinational corporation, he left his position of Poland General Manager to found his company in 2010. With six employees and six subcontractors in his Warsaw-based factory, he has created a buzz in the audiophile world with their astounding sounding vacuum-tube based DACs.
Lukasz Fikus: Pleasure to meet you, and it’s a wonderful day in Chicago! It’s my second time here, and the show is better than ever! I’m very pleased with our rooms and the general direction of the show and the industry’s going right now. I see a lot of improvement in terms of sound quality. I think that many companies learned the lesson from a couple years ago and focus on sound much more than the presentation or the look of equipment.
Our equipment — LampizatOr DACS, especially — is present in six rooms. We partner with our colleagues. We’ve worked, for example, at previous shows in Denver, New York, Washington, California, and Las Vegas, so now we’ve created a network where we can share rooms and cost and provide them with our DACs in exchange for exposure. So, you are able to hear different rooms with very different speakers and different amplifiers — the common denominator will be the LampizatOr DAC, where you can draw your own conclusion, whether you hear certain characteristics that will be common for these rooms. And I think that the sound is spacious and it’s freely hanging in the air between the speakers. It’s the so-called disappearing act of speakers, where the sound perceived by the listener detaches from the equipment and is projected into the room — just in a way like a hologram in a Star Wars movie is projected. So, you have the illusion of participating in the live event, rather than the illusion of sitting in front an electronic box.
On his focus on music, electrical knowledge and tubes — with chips:
LF: I’m an electrical engineer, so this is what differentiates me from other designers — that I’m not particularly good with electronics, so I build my stuff based on music and my electrical knowledge. It’s rather the Ohms Law and the current and voltage that I work with, rather than electronic components like chips and transistors, which are much more difficult for me to manage.
So, I created my unique school of sound based on what I can do well and avoiding what I can’t do, which led me to using tubes, which are much more electrical devices than electronic. So, I brought the tubes back to the business in collaboration with chips. This is what makes our company unique — that we don’t use tubes for amplification, like in hundreds and hundreds of amplifier manufacturers. We combine tubes with chips in a way that was not done before. We combine technologies from before World War II, which means triodes, with chips that are made today. These two technologies are separated by 70 years, and they’ve never been meant to work together (yet) we found a way to make them together, and it gave results that people appreciate. And that’s how the success came of the company to have a unique sound that more and more people appreciate and endorse.
It was my disadvantage to start the business not being electronic engineer, but I turned it into a successful story.
A Fundamental Shift in Their Business:
LF: A couple of years ago, we tried to advance from our top model of digital to analog converter (called DAC). We used the DAC with the best digital technology known to us — with the best chips, the best converters and the best tubes, but the tubes which we used to use small, most common tubes so-called Novell tubes. They have the size, let’s say, of a small cucumber. So, trying to build a higher model, a better product, led us to use bigger, and more expensive, more exotic tubes called DHT, which stands for Directly Heated Triode, which are kind of the mother of all tubes. They were developed in 1914, which is before the Russian Revolution and World War I. In most cities, people used horse carts when the triode was developed. So, we tried to use DHT. It was extremely successful and a lot of people confirmed that they’ve never heard sound like that.
So, little by little, the whole business of LampizatOr was shifted from just using tubes to using almost exclusively DHT tubes. And today, DHT represents 75 percent of our sales, and the remaining 25 percent is probably amplifiers, which also use DHT. So, we became not only tube specialists, but DHT specialists, which sets us apart from competitors. And I don’t know of any other company that uses DACs with DHT and DSD technology combined together. So we developed and marketed — or we really created a niche in which we are the biggest fish today.
On His Famous DIY Blog:
LF: I got involved with audio as a journalist, really, just writing funny stories about other peoples’ products, opening them and looking at them, modifying or testing because by nature I’m a doer; I’m a guy who likes to do things and try things and I like to have firsthand experience. I don’t rely on other people’s opinions, so that led me to the creation of the LampizatOr Blog. And since I was writing this blog in the English language, it was accessible to a large population around the world, and the feedback from that led me to grow and improve the blog, because people were very enthusiastic about exchanging ideas and giving expert opinions on sometimes expensive and exotic products like German Revox CD players.
So, based on that fame, it was easy to start my own company because the name was already famous and people trusted me. Like I was a trusted guy who knows what he’s saying and knows what he’s doing. So, I didn’t have to build a reputation for my business; the reputation was already there. And that was extremely helpful.
On the Dying CD, the 'Komputer' Music Server and how it's different
LF: We perceive the Komputer as the only way forward to reproduce digital music. The physical media, which is a CD or SACD physical disc, is probably going to disappear. I was saddened most of my favorite record stores around the world disappear. I’m walking the streets of London, Berlin, New York and there are no record stores anymore. So, it was a very important warning for me. It is going to disappear very soon. And also the music service CD players good-playing mechanism completely vanished. They were abandoned by the biggest makers like Sony, Phillips, Sanyo. They stopped making these drives, and all the existing companies that use CD as a spinning media, these companies use DVD drives internally, even if the chassis is very expensive. And DVD spinner is not meant to play music. They cannot do it in the long run because they are meant to play one movie per week.
So, I understood that the era of CD is over, and we have to move to computers.
Computers Sound Different
LF: Once we moved to computers, I discovered that each computer sounds different. And not only is the “Bits are Bits” a wrong statement, but also the computer is not the same, depending on which operating system you use, whether it’s Linux, whether it’s Windows 10, WIndows 7 or Windows Server. So, we started experimenting. We wanted for our customers to have a good source for the DAC that they were going to use, and our experiments with customers led us to conclude that there’s a huge unexplored technological — it’s almost like an abyss — where you have to jump from the CD era, going forward, to the computer era, and nobody tells you which is the way to go.
So, we decided to learn the hard way. We hired a specialist and gave him one year of free hand to develop something good. And he started building servers based on the knowledge he could acquire and everyday he would bring a new prototype, and we would listen in our factory using our best listening room, best speakers, best amplifiers. So we had a very good insight to what the computer can do. And everyday, we were making progress.
I understood that the learning curve is far, far from saturation. It’s still rising.
So, after one year and 30 or 40 expensive prototypes later, we arrived at a design that was kind of stable and allowed us to create a product that we could sell.
LF: It’s based on the most expensive materials and parts — building blocks that we could find on the computer market, but we selected them by ear.
So, it’s not good enough to buy the very good motherboard or very good microprocessor. We looked through every motherboard we could buy and every microprocessor you could buy and every RAM manufacturer you could buy, and we chose those ones that could make a difference in sound. So, we are very happy to have a computer that is absolutely redefining the sound quality that we could ever expect from a digital media. And, in my opinion, it’s miles ahead of a CD player. It’s the best and we have the best CD player in the world with to compare.
A DSD TIDAL Wave?
LF: This computer not only plays 16 bit red book files (i.e., 44 kHz CD files) ripped from their CDs, people make the transition from their CD collections to the hard drive, but also it plays high resolution files. It plays DVD files, DSD files, Super Audio CD (SACD) files, and it can convert on the fly any file to any other file while you listen. And also, it integrates with TIDAL and Spotify so you can, for example, listen to the high quality TIDAL stream converted, on the fly, to DSD, and using DSD DAC with tubes. So, the possibilities that this product creates are absolutely mind-blowing.
LF: I’m trying to be optimistic for the industry as such because two channel stereo reproduction is kind of endangered species, and our customers are getting older and the younger generation is using headphones and not really paying attention to stereo, so I hope that our industry will survive. And, just like it happens with vinyl, the stereo listening will make a comeback and be fashionable — something like reading books that modern society simply can’t live without.
Thank you so much.. I’m really glad to have spoken with you!
Editor’s Note: After I turned off the digital voice recorder, he told me about a recent event in South Africa, where DACs and other equipment were played one after the other. However, in their comparisons, the biggest difference, by far, was when they inserted their LampizatOr Komputer into a system. People were shocked, he said — especially those who ascribed to the theory that “Bits are Bits.”
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