It was destiny: "Even though I have a university degree, I am self-educated. I am still learning--I love to learn. Designing audio equipment is what I do...."
Meet Vladimir Shushurin: graduate of Lvov Polytechnic University, former engineer for the Soviet military (including R&D for the Soviet space program), former symphony percussionist, former professional table tennis player, and current chief designer and president of Brooklyn, NY-based LAMM Audio Laboratory and LAMM Industries, makers of an array of amplifiers and a single (for now) linestage preamplifier. Shushurin is very shu-sure in his ideas on designing audio equipment. He's spent many years and much brain power (of which he appears to have vast reserves) developing an objective method by which he designs his equipment. This is in direct opposition to the many high-end design theories that are based on trial and error (and then selling mistakes to customers).
Shushurin's grand plan is based on an involved series of mathematical equations of his own development that quantify the capabilities of (what else?) our ears. That's right, Shushurin has broken down our "hearing mechanisms" into equations that he then uses for design purposes. He's not willing to go into specifics--and thus give away the store--but he did explain a few of his general postulates, and each of these made sense even to a non-soldering, vacuum-tube-listening, add-on-power-cord-using audioguy like me.
So, in a nutshell, here's what I know. Shushurin's model of human hearing, aside from being controversial, is numeric in nature--and thus an effective base from which to quantify something as seemingly subjective as accurate sound. From this, Shushurin has identified five relative levels of reproduced sound quality. Level 5 can be described as sufficiently acceptable sound, while Level 1 is the pinnacle, the absolute sonic truth. In his work, Shushurin regards both Level 1 and Level 5 with caution. He reasons that Level 1 equipment would be tremendously expensive to design and manufacture and would thus be produced in very limited quantities. It would ultimately be so expensive that few audiophiles would care to afford it--or partner it with like equipment that would allow it to reach its full sonic potential. In the case of Level 5, the reasoning is more direct: Shushurin can design much better gear for only a little more money--and who would object to that?
From all of his theorizing, Shushurin has created a number of highly original circuit topologies. Some, like his designs for the LAMM L1 linestage and the initial version of the LAMM M1.1 amplifiers (produced under the Madison Fielding name) have won awards for their innovative engineering. A list of just Shushurin's pending creations for which he has already finished the brain work is impressive in its scope and illustrates the diversity of his skill: a full-function preamp, an outboard phono stage, and more amps--one model based on the 300B output tube and another on the GM-70 tube, a rather unknown Russian import. Shushurin generally designs with the final cost of the product in mind, but it's ultimately the purity of sound--as identified via his model--that matters most. "We live in the real world," is his terse way of expressing these ideas.
LAMM products are not created with listening--and the wrong turns that go along with it--as a significant part of the design process, although it could be argued that because all of Shushurin's creations are based on formulas that explain human hearing, his designs are created only with listening in mind. In addition, when a LAMM product hits the streets, it's finished. Shushurin confessed that, for example, in the case of the M1.ls, he doesn't know how to make them any better--that he's exhausted the potential of the design. He can make them more powerful and change the cosmetics, but these would not make them sound better in any absolute way. He would rather bring more of his unique topologies to life than keep trying to somehow improve his existing products (which is fruitless anyway).
Like the entire flock of LAMM gear, the M1.1s ($14,790 per pair) look rugged and utilitarian in their all-black cases with simple white lettering--the perfect equipment for Amish audiophiles (no offense to our Amish readers). The M1.1s are zero-feedback hybrids, employing transistors along with a single 6922 tube per amp. Shushurin was adamant: "The tube is used in the spot where it is most critical--a relatively inexpensive addition, but a huge step closer to the ideal." The rear panel of each amp is chocked full of goodies. There are four Esoteric gold-plated binding posts just begging for biwiring, locking switches for power and load impedance, an IEC power-cord receptacle, and three different sets of inputs: both in-phase and out-of-phase singled-ended inputs (the latter of these allowing you to correct a phase inversion elsewhere in your system), and a lone pair of balanced inputs. There's also a copper grounding post, the outward remnant of a sophisticated scheme whereby the circuitry of each amp is floated (not grounded) to minimize ground loops and other related noise, while the chassis itself is grounded so that the chance of shock from touching the amps is removed. Neat, and possibly life-prolonging.
You turn the M1.1s on and off by first pulling the lever for the power switch outward (an important detail) and then flipping it to the desired position. The switch is then locked in this position until you repeat the same process. After the amps have been powered up, you then must wait while their red LEDs flash and the amps come up to speed, so to speak. Simultaneously, the internal protection circuitry performs a number of tests to determine if the amps are working properly. Only after everything checks out do the relays kick in and the speakers get juice. The whole process takes about 60 seconds, but it's all very reassuring given the tremendous current that the M1.1s can offload to your speakers. "They can be used for welding," Shushurin told me. "I've done it. It scares people." And all of that muscle comes at a price: the M1.1s run in class A and consume 300 watts at idle or full output--such are the ways of class A. Along with this, the M1.1s dissipate a lot of heat, raising the temperature in my 22'x13' listening room by 3 degrees over a four-hour period. They're not the most efficient way to heat your audio palace, but at least you get something more than music for all of the watts they devour.
The L1 ($6290) is a bit more straightforward and simple to use. Like the M1.1s, the L1 is a zero-feedback hybrid design. It uses tubes in its voltage-regulation section and MOSFETs elsewhere. Its front panel is loaded with knobs and switches, giving you incredible flexibility if you have a number of source components--or own a pair of LAMM M1.1s (or M2.1s), which you can turn on and off via special cables and a front-panel switch. Oft-neglected phase (0 or 180 degrees) and mode (Stereo, mono, left channel only, etc.) switches are included, but for those of you who prefer simplicity of signal path to frills there's also a direct input that bypasses a number of the niceties. Sets of single-ended and balanced outputs are ready for biamping. The L1's styling is like that of the M1.1s--unadorned but serious.
LAMM also makes other monoblock amps, including the ML1 triode tube amps ($18,690 per pair) that use the now-chic Russian 6C33C tubes, and the M2.1 hybrid monoblocks ($13,990 per pair), the highly biased class A/AB twin brothers of the M1.1s. Coming soon are the ML2 monoblocks ($24,690 per pair), at a touch over 20 watts of pure single-ended power, and the DM1 dual-mono amplifier ($8690), a stereo version of the M2.1 circuit. All LAMM products carry five-year warranties, although they're designed to last two decades or more (and, yes, Shushurin has done the testing). They also use the highest-quality internal parts that their designer can find, from makers such as Alps, Dale, Caddock, Cornell-Dubilier, Electrocube, Plitron, and Roederstein. As Shushurin reasoned, "A painter needs the best materials to do his best work and make it last."
Near the end of one of our conversations, Shushurin did a bit of philosophizing about music, life and audio design: "Music adds personal complexity--opens people up."
I then asked, "What correlation is there between designing audio equipment and being a musician?"
"Well, if I hadn't made music, I would only be an electronic engineer. Audio design is creative, an art. It is not a goal but a calling. I think it is my destiny." Which is where we began....
|LAMM M1.1 Mono Amplifiers
Price: $14,790/pair USD
L-1 Linestage Amplifier
LAMM Audio Laboratory LAMM Industries