Lake People G103P and G109P Headphone Amplifiers
Introducing Lake People
Don't feel bad if the name doesn't ring a bell, Lake People is not a high profile company compared to many of the big players on the market. They started in 1986 making gear for recording and television studios, and have been making headphone amps since 1989. Despite this pedigree, their focus on studio gear combined with their German origins kept them fairly obscure as far as the North American market is concerned.
That changed some when they launched the Violectric line a few years back. Violectric is focused on the audiophile market, and is very Head-Fi friendly with their compact enclosures. The line consists of several headphone amps, a DAC, and a phono stage. I use Violectric gear in my reference setup and quite enjoy it.
The actual Lake People branded models have always been very utilitarian in form and function---basic sturdy enclosures or rack-mount configurations, mostly XLR inputs, that sort of thing. But with the newly redone G-series of headphone amps, Lake People are now reaching out to the home user with attractive but low key black aluminum enclosures, choices of RCA or XLR inputs, and reasonable pricing. In this review I sampled the lowest and the highest priced models in the range to see how they stack up.
Lake People Models
G-series models are available in Standard or Pro configuration. For the entry level G103 model, Standard means RCA inputs only, while Pro means XLR inputs. The unit is so small that I don't think they had room for both types. For the top range G109, the Pro adds XLR but keeps the RCA inputs. Pricing is a bit complicated - here's the list I was given, in Euros rather than US Dollars.
- G103S - 245 EUR
- G103P - 295 EUR
- G109S - 445 EUR
- G109P - 495 EUR
To an an extra wrinkle to the equation, those prices include 19% VAT, which would not apply to orders outside of that area. If we take away VAT and convert EUR to USD using the current exchange rate, the G103 and G109 come to approximately $250 and $450 respectively. Pro configuration adds roughly $50 to each price. These amps are so new that there isn't a North American distributor yet. Those duties will likely fall to the same distributor who currently handles the Violectric line. (UPDATE: the new North American Distributor for Violectric and Lake People gear is located HERE)
Before we get into specifics of each amp, I'd like to discuss the general topic of headphone amplifiers. There are two main camps in the headphone world: those who feel that all competent headphone amps sound identical, and those who think each amp has a unique flavor of its own. Interestingly, Lake People/Violectric has managed to become well respected among both types. NwAvGuy has repeatedly used Violectric as an example of well engineered gear, yet there are plenty of subjectivist users with expensive power cables and interconnects who have also given Violectric praise. It's not often that a company can bridge that gap and earn respect from both sides.
I asked Lake People CEO Fried Reim about his design philosophy, and about headphone amp design in general. About what makes amps sound different from one another? Most any well engineered amp will have a practically ruler flat frequency response assuming it isn't being over-driven beyond its capabilities. With frequency response being identical, how can two amps possibly exhibit any differences in sound? Fried agrees that amps can in fact sound different, and he gave me some thoughts on how or why that may be the case. English is not his first language but you should have no problem understanding his point:
"You are right, a properly made headphone amp from any brand will most times measure ruler flat concerning the frequency response in the audible range and far above. But here is where the differences begin. Every designer has his own approachabout how far the frequency range should spread. The unwanted regions are cut by the use of capacitors.
"As you know, the frequency edges are defined at -3 dB. And at this point we also are faced with a 90 degree phase shift. Cutting the low end at, lets say, 3, 5, or 10Hz is of minor interest in my opinion. You can't hear that low with a headphone anyway, so frequency or phase shift issues are really negligible.
"All this is more critical when cutting the high edge of the frequency range. A limitation to 50 kHz (-3dB) will affect the 20 kHz level by about 0.5 dB (which is not critical) but also by a noticeable phase shift at this point and below. So somebody might argue: why not kick off all these upper frequency limitations ... and in fact, some manufacturers do so. But in times of massive electromagnetic interference from everywhere it is not very intelligent to design an amp which is capable of amplifying long wave radio frequencies. Also, any CE or FCC certifications will be out of reach.
"Even when there is no specially designed frequency limitation, real life audio electronics are limited by component issues. These are described as GBW (Gain Band Width) and slew rate. The higher the feedback gain, the lower the GBW and the slew rate. And here we come to another reason for sonic differences: although the frequency response is flat and (measured) distortions are low, low internal gain (+8 dB, a factor of 2.5 with Lake People/Violectric models) not only keeps the noise floor low, but also allows for high GBW and high slew rate.
"But in my opinion most sonic differences are caused by impedances. The output impedance from the amp will always interact with the impedance from the headphone. This will have more or less influence on the frequency response and thus affecting the sound of the connected headphone. In some cases this will support your personal preferences, in some cases not. In former times when most premium headphones had high impedances this was not a big issue. But many of today's premium headphones have low impedance.
"It is very difficult to measure what really is input to the human ear. So frequency/impedance interactions are most times calculated theoretically and displayed in a 2-dimensional curve, or better (as there is also an SPL interaction) in a 3-dimensional "waterfall" model. Perhaps you have seen MLSSA measurements from loudspeakers in different rooms. The headphone listeners "living room" is between the transducer and his ear, but also affected by the individual shape of the outer-ear and inner-ear. And here the whole thing goes beyond perfect measurability ...and thus a subject for personal taste, tales, magic ...
"To limit impedance issues Lake People/Violectric models offer output impedances well below 1 Ohm and so the chances are low for impedance related interactions between the amp and the can."
This isn't meant to be an exhaustive treatise about the ins and outs of amplifier design (though I think that would make for an interesting article all by itself). Rather, it is an interesting look into the opinion of one designer in the objectivist camp who believes there are legitimate reasons for why his designs sound distinct from one another. The bit about measurement difficulties falls in line with what Tyll has been saying, and also backs up the idea that some headphones can sound better or worse than their measurements would lead you to believe.
Speaking of measurements, Tyll has been working on a test suite for headphone amps but it isn't ready yet. So at this stage all I can do is talk about the design of these amps, and tell you how I subjectively feel about the sounds they make. Though I have a feeling these types of amps will end up doing well in Tyll's battery of tests, rather than the "tuned by ear" audiophile variety.
Let's have a look inside, and listen to the amps ...