Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe Preamplifier
From 1999 to the
expected release of Windows 7 in 2009, Microsoft will have issued six major versions of
their Windows operating system -- Windows 98 Second Edition, Millennium Edition, Windows
2000, XP, and Vista -- as well as shifted from 16 to 32 to 64 bits, and sent along
countless Service Packs and almost daily security patches and bug fixes. In that decade,
how many millions of people have spent how many hours messing around, trying to get
Windows to work?
Had we spent a tenth of that time defenestrated from our
computers and listening to music played through Lamm electronics, well, I daresay the
world might be a better place. In that same decade, Vladimir Lamm has updated his original
LL2 tube preamplifier exactly once; in March 2009, Lamm Industries introduced the
What it is
The LL2.1 is a single-box, tubed line stage with a gain of
18dB and operating in pure class-A. Like the LL2, the LL2.1 weighs 20 pounds and measures
19"W x 4.5"H x 15.25"D (including rack-mount handles).
As befits a ".1" upgrade, the new model is not
radically different from the old. New are a switch for on/off control of Lamm amplifiers
connected via an umbilical, and a switch to attenuate the gain by -15dB. This makes the
preamp more flexible for use in systems with high-voltage-gain amps or high-efficiency
speakers. Cosmetically, the volume controls get new knobs. Otherwise, there are only
"slight changes in schematic design." I scrutinized the electrical
specifications of the current and previous models -- Vladimir Lamm provides comprehensive
documentation for all his electronics -- and detected no changes there.
Around back are two sets of outputs, three inputs, and a
tape loop. All connectors are gold-plated, single-ended RCAs from Vampire Wire. One input,
labeled Direct, goes straight into the volume pots, bypassing the line and tape-input
switches. There are also a ground post and a port for the remote-amp on/off cable. An IEC
power-cord connector feeds into an internal RFI power-line filter, where the AC voltage is
filtered "intensively," per Lamm.
The front-panel controls include chrome toggle switches for
input selection, choice of gain, remote on/off, muting, and power on/off. The left and
right channels have their own volume controls, which are lightly detented and operated
smoothly. There is no remote control; its absence holds down cost and doesnt
compromise the sound quality.
On initial power-up, the LL2.1s electronic protection
circuit mutes all outputs while the unit stabilizes itself. An LED power indicator blinks
for about 40 seconds, then glows steadily. With an audible click, the mute relay engages
and the preamp is ready for action.
Lamm has indicated that his goal for the LL2.1 was, as for
the LL2 before it, to bring a more affordable Lamm product to market while maintaining the
core characteristics of all Lamm gear. Top-quality parts are used throughout the Lamm
line, and the LL2.1 is no exception. When I popped the hood, I saw Vishay/Roederstein and
Electrocube film capacitors, Cornell Dubilier electrolytic capacitors, a Hammond filter
choke, and milspec Dale resistors. All components are hand-selected and carefully matched.
The power supply features a custom-built Plitron toroidal
transformer that feeds a full-wave vacuum tube (6X4) voltage rectifier for conversion to
DC. This is followed by a choke-and-caps smoothing filter. The left and right signal
channels each incorporate two twin-triode tubes, a 12AU7 and a 6DJ8. Output impedance is a
low 250 ohms, and Lamm claims that the preamp can "drive any cable and any reasonable
real-world load." He recommends using the LL2.1 with amplifiers having an input
impedance of 10k ohms or higher. The preamp does not invert phase.
The LL2.1 is available in two editions, Standard ($5690
USD) and Deluxe ($5990). The Deluxe version: a) adds two electrolytic capacitors that
nearly double the energy storage of the power supply, and b) parallels the Vishay film
caps with top-quality Electrocube polystyrenes in sonically critical signal paths. This
review is of the LL2.1 Deluxe.
Review system, break-in, and use
I still get that Christmas Eve excitement when a
spanking-new piece of gear shows up for review. Sure enough, the old anticipation bubbled
up when a sturdy wooden shipping crate arrived from Brooklyn, inside it a newly minted
Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe. Its good to be an audiophile.
The Lamm preamp fitted easily into my reference system. My
preamp is an Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk.III with built-in phono section. Amps are monoblock
Atma-Sphere MA-1 Mk.IIIs, whose 100k ohm single-ended input impedance mated well with the
LL2.1. I linked the fully balanced amp and preamp with XLR-terminated Shunyata Research
Antares and Aries interconnects. Using the Lamm LL2.1 meant switching to the same model
cables in their single-ended versions. Taipan Helix power cords feed the amps from a
dedicated Shunyata Hydra Model-8 power conditioner drawing wall juice via a Shunyata
Python Helix Alpha AC cord. Speakers are Audio Physic Avanti Centurys with Shunyata Orion
cabling. Sometimes I insert a Speltz autoformer between each amp and speaker to show the
amp an 8-ohm load.
Two digital players were on hand: the Audio Research CD5
and the Ayre C-5xe multiformat player. Part way through the review period Ayre upgraded my
C-5xe to C-5xeMP status; the MP stands for their new 16x-oversampling Minimum Phase
digital filter, which aims to eliminate transient pre-ringing and reduce post-ringing to a
bare minimum. To my ears, the effects of this digital whizbangery were increased harmonic
nuance and overall better articulation. I heard more detail from recordings of large
orchestral and choral works, with vocalists and instruments better differentiated from
each other. If you ask me, this is a no-brainer of an upgrade.
My vinyl rig includes a cocobolo Teres 320 turntable with
Verus rim drive and SME V tonearm wielding a Transfiguration Orpheus moving-coil
cartridge. Balanced and single-ended Silver Breeze tonearm cables came from Silver Audio
to connect to either the Atma-Sphere MP-1s native phono section or an Audio Research
PH7 phono stage. I connected the PH7 to the Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe with either Shunyata
Research Antares or FMS Zero interconnects.
Shunyata Research Python Helix power cords connect preamps
and source components to a Shunyata Hydra V-Ray power conditioner, using a Shunyata
Anaconda VX power cord into the wall. RealTraps acoustic absorbers, including large corner
bass traps, are plentiful throughout my 21L x 18W x 8.5H listening room.
These room treatments pay big dividends.
Lamm Industries runs in each LL2.1 for 72 hours prior to
shipment, and recommends a minimum of 200 hours of burn-in after delivery. Across the
review period, the review sample never changed its fundamental character from what I heard
early on. Unlike with some gear, no new revelations or great blossoming occurred after a
certain number of hours. Instead, a steady, subtle refinement took place, especially
through the upper midrange and treble, where at first strings and brass had a teeny touch
of sheen, and metal percussion, such as xylophones and bells, sounded with a slightly
glassy harmonic. By the time Id put 400 hours or so on the LL2.1, this character had
dissolved into some of the most natural instrumental tonality Ive ever heard.
Throughout my time with it, the LL2.1 Deluxe was
straightforward to use and functioned flawlessly. The auto-muting worked to perfection,
and the control switches never emitted clicks, pops, or other electrical transients. The
Lamms internal power conditioning let me run it straight from the wall with no sense
of grain or hash. I heard no transformer noise, and the LL2.1 drove 9 interconnects
with ease. I found that the Lamm reached optimal performance after a 45-minute warmup.
What about the Line and Direct inputs? I didnt expect
to hear a difference, but I did, though I wouldnt bet the farm on detecting one from
the other in a double-blind test. Across all frequencies, music through the Direct inputs
was faintly clearer and more neutral in tone. Draw your own conclusions here.
The sound of music
Ive owned a variety of preamps over the decades and
have listened to many more. Memorable favorites include Conrad-Johnsons 16LS and
ACT2, the solid-state Esoteric C-03, and my current pre, the Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk.III.
Straight from the box, first LP, first CD, the Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe delivered an immediate
connection to my music, rivaling the best Ive heard in terms of listening enjoyment.
Was it perfect? No -- and Ill talk about some of that. Were musicians in the room
with me? No. Rather, the LL2.1 was both disarming and engaging; it connected my heart and
my brain through my ear. On first hearing, I let out an audible Ahhh . . . I knew
it and felt it: This one was very right.
We can describe music and its reproduction via a core
analysis of dynamics, rhythm, and tonality. But apart from an orchestra conductors
internal vision, looking at these elements of a score does little to communicate the art
of a performance. I found that the LL2.1 revealed its character not through analysis but
holistically. Listening through it was like sitting farther back in the hall -- not in
terms of image scale or dynamic impact, but in the sense that it seldom pulled my
perceptions into tight diagnostic focus. While I never forgot that I was reviewing the
Lamm, this awareness seldom took me out of the moment -- in fact, just the opposite. While
I heard gobs of musical minutiae, the LL2.1s personality was of a whole; it
delivered music with the completeness of its designers vision.
I love components that dont make me think about them
while they do their job. Alas, I must think about them to do mine. Cogitating over
what I might call "the Lamm sound" and how to describe it, I concluded that the
standard audiophile vocabulary might not do it justice. My anecdotal notes describe the
LL2.1 as a "big-picture preamp," a "preamp for musicians," a preamp
for folks who enjoy music more than hi-fi bragging rights, a preamp for those not
suffering from audiophilic meticulitis. Its my job to tease out the sonic bits with
words, but if youre like me, youll best learn the truth of the LL2.1 Deluxe
through your ears. Lets listen to some music.
Hear the tremolo violins at the start of Bruckners
Seventh Symphony, as performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under the thoughtful direction
of Karl Böhm (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 419 858-2). The LL2.1 conjured these strings as
gossamer delicacies, light as air. Yet they were substantial, possessed of a shifting
tonal density of expression that served as the perfect foil for the cellos carving the
opening theme. Bruckner paints with a sweeping lyrical brush, and hearing his music
through the LL2.1 enhanced my appreciation for this work. The Lamm line stage didnt
emphasize outlined image specificity, although if I concentrated -- breaking the gestalt,
as it were -- instrumental images were clear, and the movement of musical lines across
sections was easy to follow.
What the LL2.1 did do was deliver performances within a
rich, not overly resonant acoustic space, its presentation bereft of etch, glare, or
spotlit hyperrealism. Dialogues across interior woodwinds were clear and uncongested.
Instruments and performers within that space possessed a near-palpable tonal presence best
not described by mapping their coordinates within it. The Lamm was extraordinarily quiet
for a tubed preamp, and at idle, near dead-black quiet. At speed, I heard no hash or grain
Soundstage depth was excellent, its width largely within
speaker boundaries, and varying appropriately with the recording. My nearfield Audio
Physic speakers do a great job of soundstaging, yet so compelling was the Lamm
LL2.1s sound that it drew me away from thinking about amusical attributes
such as layered depth and image placement. It took me away from "listening
visually." I had defocused my audiophile instincts and now had to force myself to
take notes. Night after night, the LL2.1 consistently drew me in to greater aural
engagement with the music itself.
The Lamm really showed off those wonderful pizzicato cellos
in the first movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, as performed by Jascha Heifetz with
the Chicago Symphony under Walter Hendl (LP, RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSC-2435). Quick
and deep, their movement undergirded Heifetzs solo, imbuing it with zest and life.
With the orchestra going full bore, the Lamm easily resolved the interplay between the
cellos and double basses toward the end of the movement. Fine-spun dynamics coupled with
the Lamms excellent rhythmic gradient to make obvious Sibelius love of lower
strings to propel his music forward. Across the frequencies, leading-edge transients were
faintly relaxed but in no way dull; the Lamm never sounded incisive or analytical. Decay
was excellent, and contributed to the vibrancy and ambience of acoustic space that placed
the performance in the context of the concert hall.
A very slight emphasis in the lower mids through the
midbass may have accounted for the LL2.1s rich timbral definition. I parsed this as
a fleshing-out, a making-whole, a lending body to harmonics and overtones -- but notes
never sounded lush or thick. Some ears may hear it as a darker tonality, but the more I
listened, the more I was convinced I knew this richness from the concert hall. It was not
unlike what Ive heard from Conrad-Johnson gear, absent that marques overt
warmth and sometimes caramel coloration. I listened to Mahlers Second Symphony, from
Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (SACD, Channel Classics SA 23506). From
the outset, the Lamm captured the stroke of mallet on taut and tuned timpani skin.
Trombones in the Sibelius Violin Concerto offered rich timbre with growly heft. However I
try to describe it, the Lamms tonal personality was key to its connecting me
emotively with the music.
Higher frequencies were smooth and extended. Piccolos and
top-end brass cut through the air without glare or coming forward. The pitches of brass
instruments sounded as good as Ive heard. In the Mahler Second, there may not have
been the very last bit of harmonic extension to the glockenspiels at the very back of the
orchestra. Highs from the LL2.1 were true to its overall character -- upper registers
nicely continuous with the mids, and notes never spare or thin. Listen to the harp at the
end of the second movement, several octaves above middle C. The Lamm presented it with
filigreed finesse, yet marvelously full of body.
Deep bass from the LL2.1 was weighty and muscular --
remarkable for a preamp at any price. Emerging from a black background, the massive
gong-drum on "Yulunga," from Dead Can Dances Into the Labyrinth
(CD, 4AD 45384-2), offered surprising harmonic nuance as it rippled out in concentric
waves of low-end energy. Compared to its own midrange, the lowest bass notes didnt
have quite the same level of harmonic resolution or leading-edge articulation, but my ears
didnt seem to mind. As robust as it was, the Lamms bass did not subvert the
overall balance of its sound.
Occasionally, when I pushed dense symphonic pieces -- such
as Brahmss Fourth Symphony, with Riccardo Muti and the Berlin Philharmonic (CD,
Deutsche Grammophon 435 683-2) -- into louder-than-pleasant volumes (+96dB), the bass
thickened and came forward. Since no prior component had placed the same low-frequency
demand on my system and room, I cant say if the Lamm LL2.1 was the cause or simply
the revealer of those limits. At my typical listening levels (typically, 80-90dB), the
LL2.1s low-end delivery had delicious heft and punch.
From pp to ff, from largo to presto,
the LL2.1s handling of dynamics and tempo was among the best Ive experienced.
It delivered a broad palette of musical texture shaped by amplitude and duration. Adeptly
capturing microrhythmic changes in bow speed concurrent with tiny shifts in volume told my
ears that real musicians were at work. Whether due to its vacuum-tube rectification,
custom Plitron transformer, or doubled-up power-supply caps, the Lamm sounded effortless
on big dynamic shifts. It drew from deep reserves to render the magnificently swelling
crescendos and cymbal clashes at the end of the Mahler Second.
Vocalists were fleshed out; performers appeared embodied on
the soundstage between my speakers. Gorgeous tone and controlled German diction made the
presence of soloist Birgit Remmert nearly tangible in the final movements of the Mahler. I
loved how the Lamm preamp revealed her steady command of the air moving from her
diaphragm, how it told me how her lips shaped each word.
Sopranos and pianos present challenging dynamics -- well
recorded together, they can make for an audio-component torture test. The LL2.1 Deluxe
portrayed the incredible dynamic range of Linda Ronstadt singing "The Moons a
Harsh Mistress," from Get Closer (LP, Asylum 60185-1). Despite the singer
being in an isolation booth, I heard how the power of her voice forced the producer to
subtly dial back its volume on the peaks. Likewise, the LL2.1 offered a full, clear,
surprisingly dynamic reproduction of baritone Willie Nelson singing "September
Song," from Stardust (LP, Columbia/Classic JC 35305) -- here, the Lamm caught
the faintest tremolo in his voice against a piano very closely miked. These performers
were not disembodied heads floating in space. Blending rich timbres with tight dynamic
control, the Lamm LL2.1 made it easy to suspend disbelief.
Contrast and compare
My Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk.III has a built-in phono section,
the V-Cap upgrade, and a few well-placed 1952 Sylvania 6SN7 bad-boy tubes. At $12,100,
its twice the price of the LL2.1, but comparing the two proved insightful.
Vladimir Lamm and Atma-Spheres Ralph Karsten are two
of high-end audios most experienced circuit designers. Their preamps reflect their
unique theories about music reproduction, and each has its own personality. The MP-1
Mk.III and LL2.1 are both true class-A tube designs built with top-shelf parts, yet each
takes a different path to audio reproduction. The Lamms circuit is single-ended,
while the Atma-Sphere is a balanced differential amplifier with a single gain stage. A
beefy output transformer is integral to the Lamm; the Atma-Sphere has none. Though the
MP-1 is perfectly functional as a line stage, Ralph Karsten designed it from the ground up
as a phono preamp. The LL2.1 is strictly a line stage that requires a standalone phono
stage for vinyl playback.
Listening to large orchestras perform works such as the
Bruckner Seventh or the Mahler Second, it was easy to hear differences between these
preamps. The Atma-Sphere delivered a straight-on front-of-hall perspective, while the
LL2.1s was farther back and more oblique. The MP-1 presented a wider, more expansive
soundstage with larger images, and fleshed out the back corners of the orchestra as
clearly as it did performers up close. Triangles and bells in the rear of the orchestra
that occasionally sounded faint or distant through LL2.1 were resolved with clarity
through the MP-1. I have yet to hear a preamp with the Atma-Spheres overall sense of
upper-octaves transparency. With subtler harmonics and a crisper attack, it vividly
reproduced melodies from orchestral performers. In the high end, so goes the old saw,
dollars buy the frequency extremes.
Across the midrange, the LL2.1 Deluxe delivered open, airy,
fully developed sonic images. Without drawing them with precise outlines, it placed
instruments in a highly realistic acoustic ambience. The Lamm painted the musics
story in palpable tonal colors, and led my ear to perceive the orchestra as an integrated
whole rather than as a collection of individuals. Both preamps delivered superior dynamic
contrast, and both were very quick, though front waves were crisper through the MP-1. The
Atma-Sphere preamp offered more low-frequency harmonic information, with tighter leading
edges. The Lamms bass was deeper, with a stronger visceral punch, and the way it
handled timpani at the end of the first movement of the Bruckner made for an impressive
finish that gave me both goose bumps and insight into the composers intent.
Each preamp engaged me emotionally in its own way, each
honored the music with its insight into performers and performances, and each delivered a
high level of listening satisfaction. If preamps were seasons, the Lamm leaned toward the
autumnal, the Atma-Sphere toward mid-spring. With my system configured and my
reviewers hat put aside, I rarely felt compelled to leave one for the other.
Im content with the fully balanced Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk.III, but were I in the market
for a preamp at a mid-level price that I could live with for a long time, the Lamm LL2.1
Deluxe would be on my short list.
Wrap it up
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the Lamm LL2.1
Deluxe is to say that, after I came to know it, I didnt want to review it -- I just
wanted to hear music through it. By the end of my listening sessions, the audiophile words
tended to fall away. The LL2.1s expressive flow, stalwart bass, and superb dynamics,
combined with a wonderful sense of acoustic presence and harmonic rightness, made me stop
thinking about componentry, and drew me in for many a joyful night of musical
satisfaction. Its virtue is its guileless blending of these attributes into a unified
whole. To my ears, it just felt like home. I described the Lamms sound as holistic
-- a word that might take on more meaning for you after youve heard it. When you
have, tell me if you think otherwise. I say "Thank you, Vladimir" -- its
good to be an audiophile.
. . . Tim Aucremann
|Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe Preamplifier
Price: $5990 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
2621 E. 24th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11235
Phone: (718) 368-0181
Fax: (718) 368-0140