I am at best a purposeful shopper and at worst a disinterested one. When I go to the grocery store or the mall, I know exactly what I'm going there for, I get it, then I get out. I know shopping is a hobby for some people, but for me it's a matter of necessity for only the period of time I need to do it. It's not that I think I'm too busy for shopping or it's beneath me. I just don't enjoy it as so many other people do.
Given all of this, it's no surprise that I've used Lamm electronics in my reference system for over five years. I don't shop for audio electronics either, preferring to find something I like and stick with it. In the case of the Lamm amps and preamps I've owned, the choice has been easy to make. To my ears, Lamm electronics get so much right musically, and while other products have certainly seduced me, none has turned my head enough to make me want to switch. Call it sonic loyalty.
So when the ML1.1 mono amplifier, the updated version of the ML1 that I reviewed a long while back, was released, I was curious to find out what had changed and if the Lamm sound had evolved in some meaningful way.
Just the facts
Most audiophiles know Vladimir Lamm's story, so I won't recount it here. I will say, however, that it's a rare occurrence when his products are changed or upgraded in any substantial way. Lamm believes in designing things right the first time, and he uses only the best parts he can find. So what is there to change? Well, parts get better and limitations of original designs show themselves as the products get into the field. In the case of the ML1.1, the changes are not earth shaking, but they did warrant a new model designation.
The push-pull ML1.1 features a significantly simplified procedure for adjusting the idle current and balance of the output-stage tubes, which remain the now-common 6C33C tubes of Russian origin. In addition, there are two more user-friendly fuse holders -- one accommodating the mains fuse and located on the rear, and another for the plate fuse and located on top of the chassis right below the meters. The plate-fuse holder in particular is noteworthy as replacing that fuse on the ML1 required removing the amp's bottom cover. The power transformer is new and upgraded to accommodate 230V mains operation (in addition to the already existing 100/120/220/240V operation). There are also two new handles on the rear of the amp, presumably to make it easier to move the amp. This is theory only -- the handles are so small that it's impossible to loop more than two fingers through them. But the handles do protect the rear of the amplifier some. Finally, Lamm has found better parts to use, and perhaps the most outwardly obvious of these is the speaker binding posts, which are all metal now, replacing the plastic-capped posts of the ML1. The ML1.1 retains the dimensions and weight of the ML1: 8 1/4"H x 16"W x 20 3/8"D and 70 pounds.
The monetary effect of these upgrades is that the ML1.1s now cost a hefty $22,990 USD per pair, an increase of $3000 over the ML1s. The power output, a claimed 80 watts into 8 ohms at 2% distortion, stays the same, as does the tube complement: two 6C33Cs and a single 12AX7 and 12BH7A per amp. Adjusting the bias and idle current doesn't require flipping top-mounted switches (which were prone to break off in shipping), but the retro-looking meters on the top deck of the amps remain. The on/off switch is now around back along with the aforementioned fuse holder, the IEC power-cord receptacle, a grounding post, and three sets of speaker outputs: for 2-, 4-, and 8-ohm loads. Input is via RCA and XLR connectors that are located on the side and near the front of the amp. You'll need an extra half meter of interconnect to reach them.
It's debatable whether the ML1.1s, or any Lamm products, are good-looking. I like their austere black finish and simple aesthetic design; others will undoubtedly think they look plain. To each his own.
I used the Lamm ML1.1 amps to drive Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7 speakers. Preamps were the Lamm L2 Reference and Audio Research Reference Two Mk II. Source components were Mark Levinson No.39 and No.390S CD players and a Teac/Esoteric DV-50 universal audio/video player. At certain times the No.39 was used as a transport to feed a Bel Canto DAC2 digital-to-analog processor. Interconnects and speaker cables were primarily Stereovox SEI-600 and LSP-600 or Shunyata Research Aries and Lyra, with the newer Shunyata Andromeda seeing use at the tail end of the review period. Power cords were from Shunyata Research, with a pair of Anaconda Vx cords sounding best with the ML1.1s. The Lamm amps and preamp sat on Silent Running Audio VR 3.0 isoBase platforms. The amp platforms were custom made for Lamm ML2 amps, but given that the ML1.1 has the same dimensions and weight as the ML2, I was confident that the platforms were helping to wring the very most out of the amps. The digital players sat on a single Bright Star Audio Big Rock base and a Townsend Seismic sink. Everything was plugged into either a Shunyata Hydra or Sound Applications XE-12S power conditioner. The Sound Applications unit was fed by a 20A Elrod Power Systems power cord.
For direct comparison, I used my Lamm ML2 SET amps, which are the closest amps on the planet to the ML1.1 in terms of circuitry and sound. It's been so long since I reviewed the original ML1 that I didn't feel I could make comparisons to it with any accuracy.
I've been able to hear and write about some of the best tube amplifiers made, a group to which the Lamm ML1.1s now belong. What makes the ML1.1s so noteworthy is not so much a list of obvious hi-fi attributes, but rather the utterly realistic way in which the amps reproduce music. There are amplifiers that will better the ML1.1s in one sonic attribute or another, but none outside of the Lamm ML2s convey the sense of actual instruments and voices the way the ML1.1s do.
What is responsible for this? I've used the word natural to describe various pieces of Lamm equipment, and it fits to the extreme with the ML1.1s. Natural sound is a matter of consummate balance -- the various sonic regions portrayed in an even-handed manner, with highlighting kept to a minimum -- and high proficiency across the spectrum. The ML1.1s are like the ultimate sonic smorgasbord: Everything is good, and you can have as much of it as you want.
Starting in the treble, there is extension and refinement for sure, but these are joined by a sense of solidity and verisimilitude. Cymbals have more "ting," more of the sound of the stick hitting them, while brass has bite and presence -- on recordings such as Parker's Mood [Verve 314 527 907-2], Roy Hargrove's playing on the title track fills the room, and his presence is almost felt. But it's with recordings like Keith Richards' Main Offender [Virgin 86499 2] that the ML1.1s really strut their stuff. As I've mentioned in the past, Main Offender is the most live-sounding rock recording I know of. Via the ML1.1s, the cymbals and searing guitar work on "Runnin' Too Deep" help make the recording all the more convincing. One of the signatures of this recording is its acoustic space -- a large recording hall with a somewhat springy, and probably wooden, floor. The ML1.1s reproduce the space and slap of the kick drum in such a way as to make it obvious where the cuts were recorded.
In the lower treble and through the midrange, the ML1.1s preserve their ability to provide images that are sometimes startling in their solidity and presence, yet they don't tip over into an overly warm or even tubey presentation. Aimee Mann's flinty voice can be very hard to reproduce, especially if an amp, or entire system, is lean through the midrange, in which case Mann's voice sounds almost emaciated. The ML1.1s portray Mann as quite a bit more rosy cheeked, her voice redolent with nuance and color. Mann's latest recording, Lost in Space [Superego Records SE-007], is a treat from beginning to end. I put "It's Not" on my CES demo disc and was able to hear the cut on so many systems in Las Vegas that you would think I was sick of it. The Lamm/Wilson system in Las Vegas did well with the cut, and the Lamm/Wilson system in my listening room did even better, perhaps because I'm more familiar with it or perhaps because my room isn't as large as that in Las Vegas. Whatever the reason, Mann had in both instances a presence that's addictive once you've experienced it. The ML1.1s do vocals proud.
What the Lamm ML2s, and now the ML1.1s, have always done well is bass -- not in any showy way, but rather through a fine balance of weight and depth. The bass unfolds and isn't forced -- I had to live with the amps for a while and remove them from my system a time or two to get a good understanding of how well they portray the lowest frequencies. The low-end grunt of "Worlds of Wonder," again from Keith Richards' Main Offender, is preserved, although it does not have the sheer slam of, for example, the solid-state Mark Levinson No.434 monoblocks. But the ML1.1s' bass doesn't display the showiness of the No.434s' either, being more about palpability and flow than pyrotechnics. Upright bass, in particular, displays what the Lamms do best down low, and in this regard, "Red Cross" from Parker's Mood is a treat. It's solo bass -- 100% Christian McBride, who strums and plucks his way through the tune. McBride's playing resonates, the notes overhanging in certain spots, as they are meant to. The Lamms reproduce it with no strain at all, giving McBride's bass a sense of humanness that the Mark Levinson amps just can't match.
Where other amps like the big Audio Research VTM200 monoblocks (and Lamm's own M1.1 and M2.1 hybrids) will better the ML1.1s is in terms of large-scale dynamics, and I think this is more a matter of power output than anything else. Powerful amps like the VTM200s have reserves that the ML1.1s don't have and therefore go from soft to loud to very loud with ease. But this doesn't mean the ML1.1s are deficient in this regard. Give them a dynamic challenge and they will rise to it as best they can. When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner lets go on Beethoven's Seventh [Victor JMCXR-0005], the ML1.1s keep up, but they don't have the sense of nearly limitless power of the big ARC monoblocks. Still, the orchestra is arrayed in a seamless manner, and the mass of sound has a sense of life all its own. The ML1.1s are as panoramic as any amps I've heard, creating a full-scale rendition of an orchestra with uncommon acuity.
You can buy amps that sound faster and more detailed than the ML1.1s. You can also buy amps that will slam bass home with seismic force. And there are amps that offer greater power and dynamic reserves. But the ML1.1s offer more than a taste of these attributes while portraying music in ways that will draw you in and make high-end audio a truly participatory experience. Call it involvement or what you will -- it's hard to pin down with words but easy to hear when it's there. Perhaps the best way to convey the special musical nature of these amps is to say that I listened to a very wide array of recordings with them, and in every known digital format except MP3. Everything I threw at the ML1.1s was engaging though not made overly friendly, detailed but not in a mechanical way, and utterly human. These amps were wonderful mates for the Wilson WATT/Puppy 7 speakers, which themselves offer a very diverse and enjoyable sonic palette. If I were Wilson shopping, I would also be Lamm shopping.
Enter the ML2
Physically and functionally, the Lamm ML2 and ML1.1 are near twins, but while the ML1.1 is a push-pull design, the ML2 is single ended, which means lower power, in this case a claimed 18 watts for the ML2 versus 80 watts for the ML1.1. Sonically, the two amps are very similar as well -- virtually identical on some music, in fact.
However, as I listened more to the ML1.1 and began to compare it to the ML2, which has been my reference for over three years, some contrasts began to emerge. While both amps display the characteristic Lamm naturalness, the ML2s were slightly more resolving, and in meaningful ways. Low-level sounds emerged with a bit more relief, and the treble is a touch more easy -- perhaps refined is a better term. In the bass, the ML2 is slightly better at resolving shifts in loudness -- giving the bass a sense of dynamics it can call its own. Voices are just as present via the ML2s, but they're also a touch more transparent. The air around them is a bit more obvious as well.
A bit, a touch, a tad, a little: These are the words that sum up a comparison of the ML2 and the ML1.1, always in the ML2's favor except for one area: power output. You need to pair the SET amp with a speaker like the WATT/Puppy 7 and its 92.5dB sensitivity, while the push-pull Lamm will drive speakers in middle-80dB range. Of course, there's also the issue of greater headroom and dynamics that come with the increase in power, although with the WATT/Puppy 7s, this is a wash as I rarely reach the limits of the ML2s.
Bottom line: If you can afford either amp (the ML2s cost almost $30,000 per pair) and have a speaker suitable for the ML2, go for it. If you long for the ML2's magic but have a speaker that's a tougher load, the ML1.1 is practically no concession.
The Lamm ML1.1 is one of the great amplifiers you can buy, and an amplifier that will help audiophiles and civilians alike understand what high-end audio is about: the ability to be absorbed by the act of listening to music. The ML1.1s sound palpable and alive from the treble to the bass, with no region being highlighted. This imparts a sense of naturalness that few amplifiers can duplicate in one or two ways, let alone all of the ways the Lamms are able to reproduce the music. Their power output is great enough to drive a wide range of speakers, something that cannot be said about the slightly more refined Lamm ML2 SET amps, and their design is sure to stay current for a long while to come, as that is Vladimir Lamm's way.
But, of course, the ML1.1's level of performance comes at a hefty price -- new-car territory. I doubt many owners of ML1.1s drive Yugos, but it's hard for most people to get their minds around the cost of these amps when there are so many other things they can buy with such money. No matter -- the ML1.1s are for the select few who can identify and own the best of the best.
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