May 2000Lamm Industries LL2 Preamp
by Todd Warnke
Right up front Ill let you know this was a difficult review to write, not because of any ambivalence I feel toward the Lamm LL2 or because Im unconvinced in any way about its performance. Rather, the LL2, with awesome clarity, points out the difference between purpose and process, a difference that separates the true music lover from the mere audiophile. And even more directly, the deep involvement level of the LL2 makes writing a review a nearly impossible and almost completely superfluous task.
Starting with the purpose/process dichotomy, it is, unfortunately, all too easy to confuse the two. At work we do it all the time. You know, those familiar territorial squabbles between departments and/or department heads. Or the clash over whose nearly identical project gets implemented. The confusion starts when we define a goal, and then in working towards it, get caught up in the minutiae and find too much meaning in the plan. Unfortunately, we do this at home as well, although the Fifth Amendment allows me to neatly bypass the gory personal details of this category. And, if somewhat less significantly, we do it with audio.
Bluntly, the purpose of a home playback system is to re-create recorded music in your living quarters. The process by which it does this is to take a stored musical performance, extract it, run it through control and/or amplifying devices, and lastly convert the electrical signal to acoustic waves by using a set of speakers. But once again, all this is simply process -- method and nothing more. The goal remains music, be it classical, rock, jazz, soul, R&B, ambient, rap, or even (God forbid) country.
Basic stuff, I know. But this distinction between focus on playback equipment and the result, music, is where the line is drawn between audiophile and music lover. The audiophile and the audio reviewer spend umpteen hours on the process, examining and re-examining the staging skills, frequency extension, microdynamics and detail extraction of a particular component and system. And, if I say so myself, we do a damn fine job of it. When I read a review, whether in TAS, Stereophile, Listener, or here at SoundStage!, it is rare that I disagree with the observational results therein. If Marc Mickelson says that speaker A has no last octave, my own ears concur. And if Art Dudley says that cartridge B stages better than cartridge C, almost without fail I hear the same thing. The language of process reviews and the skills of the first-line reviewers are such that clarity and competency are givens.
On the other hand, the music lover usually finds that all this talk about how the insertion of this wire or that amp opened the stage two percent and squared off the back corners to be just a bit odd. While it may be observationally true, the final question from the music lover remains, "Yeah, but does that matter if it didnt let you feel more in touch with the music?"
Lest you think Im anti-audiophile, let me be clear. Great gear combined in an intelligent system and set up correctly truly does let more music through, but not only because it stages better, has better extension, allows all the nuances of a recording through, or has great dynamic impact. If that were the case wed go home to THX-spec systems and call it a day. No, systems and components are good when they do that, but to become great they also have to allow us to feel more. That is, they must arrive at the destination; they must deliver on the purpose of this pursuit, and they must do it without attracting attention to the process.
So I guess then that when we write equipment reviews, we all write about the music and not the process, right? Yeah, and Microsoft board meetings are all about how to generate bug-free code cause thats really what customers need.
No, when we write, the reviews tend to be of single components and not about music. Perhaps reviewers can be forgiven for this as we take our systems apart regularly and in doing so begin to concentrate on its parts. We insert a new piece and then try to describe how the whole changed, all the while ascribing the differences to the new piece. And in doing this we want to use terms that convey concrete information, something more descriptive than, "It rocked my world, man!" So we focus on process.
Perhaps, too, many of us realize the conundrum of explaining the musical feeling of the system/component to someone who hasnt heard it, which is somewhat akin to the Zen command, "Describe the taste of salt!" Until you taste it, no explanation will satisfy, and after you have, no explanation is needed. So perhaps we take the easy way out, and rather than attempting the impossible, we settle for the achievable. Whatever the reason, the audio press has focused on process, and in doing so has led a generation down the same path, myself included.
All right, perhaps that last passage was a little rough on me and my companions. A good review certainly needs to contain concrete information. Knowing the performance characteristics of a component is a good thing. For starters, it helps narrow down the audition list when youre building your system. But the point is that a good review doesnt end there. Ultimately a component review must return to the purpose and answer the most important question, "Does it make music?"
All of which is preamble to the second reason this has been a difficult process. In short, in its most salient characteristics, the Lamm LL2 is very much like salt. To describe its essence to someone who has yet to experience it is fruitless. And after you have heard it yourself, what more can reviews add? The involvement level of the LL2 is so intense, so deep, and so much like music that my words end up getting in the way -- which, of course, makes writing a review a pretty difficult task. However, since some of my ancestors hail from La Mancha, Ill give it a try.
Joe Friday mode
The LL2 is the entry-level preamp in the Lamm line. Actually, since the line has but two preamps, entry level might not be the best description. Rather, it is Vladimir Shushurins, the head of Lamm, pure-tube preamp design (the L1 is a hybrid design employing tube rectification and solid-state output devices, whereas the LL2 uses both tube rectification and tube output devices). And it also happens to be the lower priced of the two models.
In order to get the LL2 to market at a lower price than the L1, the LL2 forgoes some of the control features of its elder sibling. Where the L1 has two pair of RCA tape outputs, an RCA output and an XLR output, the LL2 has a single RCA tape output and a pair of RCA outputs. As for inputs, the L1 has two tape and five line-level RCA inputs, while the LL2 has a single tape, two line inputs and a "direct" line-level input. Both preamps use dedicated right and left channel gain pots, the superb but pricey ALPS Black Beauties, but the L1 adds a single master-volume-control pot. The L1 also has a phase switch that the LL2 lacks.
As for those tubes, the LL2 uses a 6X4 as the full wave voltage rectifier. Each channel then uses a single 12AU7A in the first gain stage (NOS, American manufacture) and a single 6DJ8 in the second (directly sourced from Russia by Shushurin). In this day of declining availability and rising prices of super tubes, the total tube complement of five is quite nice. Since the LL2 is quite revealing and benefits from the use of those super tubes, only having five to contend with means you dont have to decide between college for the kid and good sound.
The rest of the specs, better than 84dB signal to noise ratio, 50k ohms input impedance, 250 ohms output impedance and frequency response flat from 20Hz to 20kHz (-3dB 1.5Hz to 400kHz) are all excellent for any preamp, much less a full tube preamp. The LL2 is also available in two incarnations: standard, which costs $3990, and deluxe, which raises the price to $4290. The difference? The standard and deluxe versions of the LL2 use identical chassis, PC boards and parts; however, the deluxe version has approximately double the power-supply energy storage and has all its film capacitors paralleled by high-quality polystyrene types. This review is of the deluxe LL2.
Placing the LL2 into my standard system (JVC 1050-XL as transport, Dodson DA-217 Mk II DAC, Atma-Sphere M-60 Mk II amps, Merlin VSM-SE speakers, wire by Cardas and Audio Magic, power cords by Audio Magic, Hovland, and JPS Labs, power conditioners by Bybee and VansEvers), and cueing up MeShell Ndegeocellos Peace Beyond Passion [Maverick 9 46033-2] my first impression was of extended and smooth highs coupled with a very articulate and natural midrange. But mostly it was of prodigious bass. Deep, yes, but also full and rich. You know, fatback, sassy, bouncing bass. The kind of bass that reaches deep into your soul and proves George Clinton right, "Free your ass, and your mind will follow."
Now, fatback bass isnt the be-all of audio performance, but when its there, and when its right, as it is with the LL2, its an amazing thing. Besides the drive it gives R&B, bass with all the timing and detail cues correct gives jazz a sure and steady pulse, as well as building the foundation for classical.
Case in point, a friend in Paris suggested that I check out the new, official EMI Sergiu Celibidache Brahms releases (thanks Marcello!). Now Celi is notorious for many things -- not recording and for being difficult to work with, but especially for his controversial timings. Those timings (in many pieces his versions are 30%+ longer than the average and often are the longest on record) are a product of his belief that music is a live event that is the "...highest activity in profound passivity," a line he took from the Roman philosopher Plotinus. This concentrated passivity, coupled with his Zen belief in the requirement to live in the moment, from nearly all accounts endowed his live performances with great depth, beauty and emotion. On the other hand, his few recordings can sound either static or meandering. Well, the foundation laid by the LL2 -- accurate, full, nuanced and powerful -- gives these recordings a sense of movement regardless of the tempo. So even when the pace slows, the pulse remains strong and steady, and Celis approach makes complete sense.
A final two points about the bass excellence of the LL2. First, regardless of volume level, bass through the LL2 has impact and power, and completely pressurized the room. Secondly, coupled with this power, the bass of the Lamm LL2 is never slow, ripe or fat, so timing is always spot-on. It is perhaps a tad more emphatic down low than other preamps, but always on time.
Above this foundation, the mids are superb. Saxophones have that awesome combination of burnished brass, reed and bite that make them sound real. But perhaps no instrument was as well portrayed as the acoustic guitar; the Lamm LL2 reproduces finger, string and body in perfect proportion. And, oh the vocals! J.J. Cale is dusty, Roger Daltry macho, Sarah McLachlan enchanting, Joni Mitchell confessional, and Margo Timmins resigned and remorseful. Best of all, each is real, alive and more present than I had previously thought possible. At the very top, the treble was simply the best Ive heard. Most preamps seem to be able to get the jump and leading edge of cymbals right or the shimmer of brass right, but the LL2 gets both so perfectly correct that it really made every other preamp Ive heard sound mechanical and, well, wrong.
Staging through the LL2 was strong, but not quite its stellar suit. The bass power of the LL2 gave halls a rich resonance, fleshing out the space and adding depth to recordings, but without exaggeration. Left-to-right arrays spread from speaker to speaker with smooth transitions. Detail extraction, similarly, is strong, if not quite the finest Ive heard. Actually, details took on an almost completely different character than Im used to with high-end equipment. Since everything sounds full and fleshed out through the LL2, I often found myself reacting physically to sounds in the soundstage. The shuffle of chairs wasnt just the treble of a metal chair tip on floor, but also the sound of wood vibrating and the air being moved. The result sounded real, if less etched and hyper-detailed than the standard audio presentation.
And lastly, dynamics, especially of the macro variety, were the best Ive heard. If anything, the LL2 is perhaps too good, since late-night listening became a point of contention at the Warnke Snowshoe and Music Lodge.
Back at the top I made mention of the emotional involvement of the LL2. After months of listening I remain astounded at the impact it has had on my system. Each piece I have in my reference system has been selected to be truthful to both the signal and to the intent of the artist. And I thought I was getting the most from each component. Wrong. The Merlin VSM-SE speakers are even better than I thought. With the Lamm LL2 in the system, they reproduce all the subtle cues that allow a stereo to truly become expression. Vocal inflections were not detail, but flesh and air. Fingers on guitar strings were connected to arms that cradled the guitar body. Breathtaking stuff. But best of all, all this detail, nuance and expression was presented without etch or hype so listening sessions were cut short only by the need for sleep, food or a client phone call. Listener fatigue? Banished. And listener involvement? Off the charts! While this is not much more expressive than "It rocked my world!" I can tell you its all true.
Every ledger has two sides
OK, its an awesome preamp. But that doesnt mean its perfect. The midbass and upper bass are very slightly elevated. This gives the LL2 a full, rich but slightly dark character. Mind you, the treble really is the best Ive heard, as well as being fully extended, but nonetheless the bass accent and power pulls the ear towards the bottom end. And, very occasionally, the upper bass gave male vocals a slight added resonance.
A second effect of this darkness was that objects to the rear of the stage, while accurate and easily "visible," sometimes had to contend with very solid images at the front of the stage. While not producing cloudy sound, at times this effect meant that musicians at the rear sounded a bit distant. With orchestral recordings, where the miking usually results in an upward slope to the rear, this wasnt very noticeable, and was instead more noticeable on several but not all jazz recordings.
Lets see: detail resolution, as mentioned previously, is very good, but also just short of the absolute best Ive heard. And after reviewing the listening notes, thats about it for negatives.
Playing the field
Oh Lordy, I knew this was coming. Now you want to know how the LL2 stacks up against the competition. Well, fact is, and in spite of the wishes of the many of the most vocal denizens of the audio newsgroups who want to see blood-bath reviews or else proclaim conspiracy amongst the press, there are very few poor high-end products. Sure, there are more than a few items that dont deserve their lofty price tags, but that doesnt make them bad, just a poor value. On the whole, competence really is a prerequisite to play in this game.
Even worse, it seems that in the $3k-$4k price range, there is a surfeit of preamp competence, even excellence. Its hardly Vladimir Shushurins fault that Jud Barber at Joule-Electra makes the LA100 Mk III and sells it for $3495. Or that Bob Hovland makes the HP-100 and sells his creation for $4495. Or that Messers Conrad and Johnson have just introduced the new Premier 17LS (an affordable Premier 16LS, itself an affordable ART, the C-J $14,995 statement preamp) and are retailing it for $4295. Or that Emmanuel Go makes the First Sound Presence Deluxe Mk II and gives it to you for $3795. Here are five preamps in a $1000 range, three of which I have already reviewed, and the other two are here right now awaiting that same fate, and each one offers sound quality that 10 years ago was unattainable at any price.
Of the three that I have reviewed so far, I can describe these differences. The Joule-Electra unit is the most studiously accurate of the bunch. While it wont take your ears off for errors elsewhere in the system, neither will it sugarcoat those errors. Besides plenty of inputs and outputs, the LA100 Mk III also has a remote control that is implemented with absolutely no sonic degradation. And while its the cheapest of all five preamps listed above, in my estimation only the Hovland looks better, and then just.
Speaking of which, the Hovland also offers a slug of inputs and outputs, and is the only one of all these preamps that offers a built-in phono stage (MM only). It is a tad more forward than either the Joule, and especially the Lamm, and with that also comes a very vivid presentation. Not aggressive, just vivid. It is a real music-maker as well, although it also asks that you raise your energy level to meet it. And as I said earlier, its a stunner to look at.
In the third corner, the Lamm is the most laid-back of these preamps -- not at all soft or rolled off, but with that bass power and emphasis, as well as a stage that sets slightly back of the speaker plane. The LL2 invites you in to the music rather than laying a snare for you in the middle of the listening room. It is also the most consistently "musical" of the three. On the other hand, it has basic controls and no luxury touches at all. And while not ugly, it has a face that perhaps only Vladimir Shushurin loves. Of course, when your eyes are closed in rapture, looks don't matter.
Moving up a step and comparing the LL2 to the recently reviewed Sonic Frontiers Line 3 is also interesting. The Line 3 does an obviously better job at describing the process of the recording session and the skills of the source equipment. This is not to say that the LL2 fails at this, because it doesnt. It has true, near-state-of-the-art sonic abilities, but the Line 3 is the state of the art. And the Line 3 really is as neutral a component as Ive heard in my house. But where the Line 3 sets the sonic standard, the Lamm LL2 is the most musically transparent preamp I know of. Which one of these two products is right for you probably depends on whether you are more involved with the process or purpose of an audio system.
The complete package
In his reviews, Marc Mickelson has commented that Lamm gear sounds completely natural to him. Hes right, of course. But I hear something slightly different with the LL2. If forced to use a single word to describe the LL2, I would choose organic. By this I mean that not only is the sound natural, unforced and non-electronic, but it has the complete and total feel of life. When and where it errs, for example with a slightly accentuated midbass, it sounds like hall boost rather than component error. Where the occasional minute detail is covered, it sounds as if you are sitting slightly back from the stage rather than listening through opacity. Everything about the LL2 is subordinate to the music, and everything it does has this organic, live, flowing feel.
In the end then, the LL2 speaks to me more as a musical instrument than as a piece of gear, which is the highest praise I can offer. Its not a perfect preamp in audio terms, and Marc is in a better position to tell you if and how the L1 betters it. But in musical terms, so naturally, so organically does it work, and so effectively as well, that it turns our focus from process to purpose, and in doing so restores, at least for me, the very reason for investing in high-end audio.
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