The Lake People Reference Series is a desktop headphone amplifier and DAC stackable combo system. It is priced at €800 and €900 for each.
Disclaimer: The Lake People Reference Series sent to us is a sample in exchange for our honest opinion. We thank Lake People for this opportunity.
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Sadly, Lake People is a brand that is not often covered on Headfonics. Depending on your location, maybe you haven’t heard of the brand altogether. But I am sure you have heard of Violectric before. Violectric is the premium audiophile brother of Lake People. Their devices definitely look amazing, but I’d categorize them in the super high-end category and thus their prices start up pretty high too.
Luckily, Lake People consists of the same German team. Active since 1986, they have built up a formidable reputation for quality and affordable prices in the professional audio segment. In the German hifi scene, they have also been one of the default recommendations for headphone amps ever since I started this hobby – and probably before that, too.
I must say that some of Lake People’s amps, like the entry-level G103, are a bit too focused on functionality. The homepage shows that aesthetics and subjectivity-manipulating marketing is not their strength. I seriously never expected to see the MS Comic Sans font in 2016 again, but I was wrong.
After a short chat with Fried Reim, I can say that this is a very honest and down to earth company that does not try to hide anything. It gives a great sense of confidence and ‘the lake people’ really know what they are doing.
Reference Series Pitch
Enter the Lake People Reference Series. The Reference Series closes the gap between Lake People and Violectric. In fact, some of these devices are partly equal. The amp is based on the Violectric V100 and the DAC I received for review includes the XMOS 24-192 USB upgrade, an option that was taken over from Violectric too.
The Reference desktop audio chain currently consists of four devices, enumerated 02, 04, 06 and 08. Devices RS 02 and 08 are fairly similar. Both headphone amplifiers only show a single difference: 08 additionally packs a Neutrik 4-pin balanced headphone output on top of two 6.3mm outputs. RS 04 is the ADC, a device of lesser interest for most consumers. Finally, 06 completes the setup with the DAC. This review will focus only on RS 06 and 08.
What do I expect from these devices? First of all, Reference is a big word. I expect performance that is unmatched – or at least undefeated – at the same price point. At the requested price, this is not an easy task. The amp starts at 550 € and will cut you back 800 € for the additional balanced output. The DAC is sold for 700 € and raises up to 800 or 900 for USB upgrades.
Secondly, as with Lake People’s background, I do not expect fancy extras or useless options. I want unadorned streamlined functionality. Every device has exactly one function and I expect it to do well at that. These are quite some demanding expectations that this review has to meet, so let’s find out if Lake People manages to satisfy me.
Packaging & Accessories
The packaging is very functional. There is no complex packaging at all. Just some unbranded cardboards with Lake People-customized tape wrap and a sticker for the content with handwritten serial number. The boxes are extremely well laid out with plenty of foam on the inside, though.
There aren’t many accessories needed for these devices, so they come shipped almost naked. You will find a power chord and additionally a USB cable for the DAC (if you upgraded to a USB option). Included in the box is the printed user manual. It is well-written and very detailed. It also explains some of the design choices.
Build Quality & Design
The build quality of the Lake People Reference Series is top-notch. In fact, this is not limited to the Reference Series. All their devices use a metal body. Even the entry desktop amp G100 is made from stainless steel, no wonder the Reference Series is built extremely durable. The black anodized aluminum on the Reference Series does look a lot more attractive, though. It is easily the best-looking in all of the Lake People line-up, though not quite the looker as the front plates from Violectric.
However, anodized aluminum has a tendency to scratch easily. Unfortunately, I have to confirm my fears after I placed the DT 1990 Pro on top of it for a photograph. Even careful placement allowed thin-lined scratches on top of the amp.
Knobs & Buttons
While the volume knob is made from aluminum, the power button is not. The power button and the other buttons for cycling the source or deactivating resampling on the DAC are made from plastic and wiggle around a bit. They are not as tight and firm as I would like them to be. However, they are also not as important either so it doesn’t really bother me.
Design-wise I personally would have taken a more minimalist approach on the front plates. Perhaps allocate all secondary information to the top or bottom, even though it would mean additional production steps. But, all in all, the design gets the job done, even if this particular desktop setup will hardly impress with aesthetics alone.
The amp has a nice weight to it. It won’t move when powered on. However, the DAC is quite a bit lighter and thus can be moved back when pushing the power button. This is not an issue when the combo is stacked. Also, the LEDs are very bright and colorful. It would not be my first pick for a DAC in a home setup that is placed near the television.
I allow myself to address another minor point of critique. The layout of the amp on the back is very confusing. The in- and outputs are labeled correctly, but instead of sticking to the standard color code of the DAC, e.g. red-colored ring for the right channel and white for left, Lake People decided to use white for output and red for input disregarding the channels – this does not match the layout of the DAC. To take it a step further, left and right are switched. This would make sense if it were a big speaker amp and you’d have to bend over to reach the connections. For a small headphone amp, it makes more sense just to stack L and R channels over another.
The review unit is based on the X-Mos 24/192 USB upgrade kit. There is also a cheaper version with Tenor 24/96 chip available. Apart from the optional USB input, the digital-to-analogue conversion is the same. The X-Mos upgrade is supposed to work without additional drivers with any Mac and is also supposed to support the connection of an iPhone with a camera connection kit. While I had no issues with either the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, my iPhone 6S Plus would not be willing to feed the external DAC. YMMV.
Inputs are fairly limited with a balanced AES, an optical and a coax connection, but that shall not be worthy of criticism.
The output of the DAC is perfectly clean to my ears. Neither when forwarded to a dedicated headphone amplifier, nor when included in a speaker setup do I sense any hint of coloration. The product’s purpose is well-defined: to stay true to the source. Without a doubt, there are meatier sounding DACs out there, but the RS 06 aims for clarity and lightweight precision.
The Reference DAC also provides the option of resampling. In most cases this is advisable but it largely depends on the output source. I would say that in most cases the soundstage increased a little bit and the sound became more liquid. This helped with some treble peaks of some headphones, too. One instance where I’d say that it sounded better without resampling, is when playing The Beatles – Help (24/44,1). Vocals were a little bit rougher when resampled and I perceived them as smoother and darker when resampling was deactivated. This could be due to strong background noise on the original recording.
For most consumers, I think the DAC is quite an important piece of hardware. Especially since the industry is pushing further into HD audio, trying to feed us with DSD, 32/768 audio or proprietary files (for example MQA). The DAC is possibly the most short-lived unit in an audio chain. Lake People’s RS 06 is fairly unimpressed with the fast movement, though, and thus focusses on the basics. This it does well.
I want to keep Jesus out of this, but I keep phrasing something with the term ‘holy’ in my head. This amp is really grand! Should I start with sensitive earphones or with heavy-to-push fullsize cans? Doesn’t really matter as the HPA 08 performs equally well in both categories.
For starters, this amp has five different gain settings. From -12 dB to + 12 dB. On the lowest gain, volume is precise enough to adjust the source material to sensitive CIEM. At less than 0.15 ohms output impedance, the compatibility for multi-driver IEMs is secured. You can even up the gain and you won’t notice background noise. On the other hand, these get louder than any headphone I know could ask for. The HE-6 doesn’t even need half the volume available.
There is no audible background noise and the dynamics are so ridiculously high that it seems as if the RS 08 flattens every headphone’s tuning with a hot iron. The result is an amazingly deep and wide sound sphere in which details float around and wait for the listener to pick up. This is the best amp I have ever reviewed.
Thus it isn’t really a let down that Lake People dropped all gimmicks like crossfeed or optional bass and treble boosts. The RS amps do nothing but superbly amp the input. There is really nothing else to ask for.
By default, the amp passively forwards the input to the output to link the amp to your speaker amp. E.g., Source > DAC > RS 02/08 > speaker amp. However, you can also choose to use the amp as a pre-amp. Thirdly, you can use the option active pass-through with volume control to use the amp for monitors, for example. For this, you will have to open the unit and reposition the jumpers.
This is without a doubt a high-quality versatile headphone amp for purists.
This category is easy. Simply put, everything goes. Well, aside from Stax and other non-generic power requests. My point is that if you have a headphone with a 6.3mm termination (or equivalent adapter), the RS 02 will be a very safe choice. The amp is as free of sounding as can be. Every argument about non-compatibility with any generic headphone is simply invalid. For me personally, this is the reference.
Sure, you can raise the point that a particular headphone sounds better with another amp, but then most probably it is the other amp bringing its own sound character into the mix. Of course, you do not need such a heavyweight for small IEMs. There are definitely cheaper solutions that achieve the same transparency – even portable solutions at that.
I have not dug deep into the 2k, 3k, 5k or even 10.000 € price range of amplification. Even Lake People offers higher-priced solutions under the Violectric name. But at this point I am not sure how to justify any alternative if price is also of concern.
Interestingly enough, most of the Reference Series sound character actually comes from the DAC instead. In recent years, DAC chips have become very powerful and all should handle most tasks similarly efficient. Many people argue the process of digital to analog conversion does not have a sound but my recent review of the ADI-2 Pro should prove that claim wrong. The RS 02 DAC is very clean sounding and in combination with the RS 08 it creates a very slightly analytical and sterile presentation – in the most positive way.
But for instance, there are some headphones that pair better with the DAC than others. If you still have an HD 650, you can get more smoothness or warmth from a different audio chain. If you like the more analytical approach of HD 800, then the Reference Series combo is what you’re looking for. I found this setup to work very well with Beyerdynamic and Hifiman headphones.
In terms of the competition, the DAC RS 06 falls a bit behind with support. But the question is, do you really need anything more than 24/192? If not, you have a perfectly clean sounding digital-analog conversion with a powerful output. Yes, I do use crossfeed on the Chord Hugo when I can. When compared to the RME ADI-2 Pro, there is a lot to be missed. The question really depends on whether the user is a purist or not.
I feel very different about the amp, though. The RS 08 (or 02 respectively) is truly a reference product. The output irons out any headphone’s flaw and music come to life in the most positive transparent way. It is more neutral than any other amp I have reviewed so far and that says quite a bit. The Hugo cannot match its dynamics, the ADI-2 Pro has a slightly weightier amplification and the Benchmark DAC3 cannot match the Lake People’s versatility. The RS 08 stands its own.
As a whole, the Benchmark DAC3 HGC might impress more consumers that are looking for a good companion in the living room. The abundance of in- and outputs make it easier to implement it in a speaker setup, as well as the convenience of a remote. It cannot match the superior headphone amplification, though, whereas the DAC unit sonically performs on a similar level.
The ADI-2 Pro has proven how digital audio makes sense and perfectly makes use of modern DSP functions. While it is a superb DAC and amp, the Lake People Reference Series does output a more transparent sound. It really depends on how much you want or need additional functionality.
The Lake People Reference Series is easily recommendable for headphile purists. DAC and amp sound very clean and linear without any flaws. Especially the amp impressed me. Aiming at the same sonic qualities as the pricier Violectric products, the Reference Series deserves its name in my humble opinion.