"You gotta hear the LAMMs." It was Ted Lindblad, the energetic owner of The Audible Difference in Connecticut. Ted's a guy who loves music and equipment--oh, and he also owns an audio shop. The Audible Difference carries ProAc, and because Ted knew that I own a pair of ProAc Response 4s, he recommended the LAMMs as the perfect amps for them. "I'll talk with Vladimir at LAMM and see if we can somehow get you a pair for review." What a guy!
And then one day several months later the email message came: "The LAMMs are ready. When do you want them?" Little did I know what a back-breaking experience I was in for: two bulky amps in wooden crates marked "Heavy Package" to be carried into my basement. Luckily, I was excited about reviewing the amps--I had heard so much about them from Ted--and the extra adrenaline gave me the strength of ten audiophiles. I wrestled the crates downstairs in record time. Such is the appeal of high-end gear.
The all-digital playback stream begins at the Wadia 20 transport, which sits atop a Bright Star Big Rock base and Townsend Seismic Sink, all of which is topped off with a Bright Star Little Rock. Digital cables were the mah-velous Marigo Apparition Reference Series 3A and Audio Magic Illusion coaxial jobs. Only one DAC need apply: the Timbre TT-1. Spoiled audioguy that I am, I used CAT SL-1 Signature, Joule-Electra LA-100 Mk II and LAMM L1 linestages (reviews of the latter two in the works). Amps for direct comparison were my beloved Quicksilver M135s, Clayton M-70s, and the Mesa Baron--as well as all of the amps I've lived with up to this point. Interconnects and speaker cables were JPS Superconductors and the fab Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect serving as pipeline between DAC and linestage. Power cords were a combination of the API Power Links, JPS Labs Digital AC, and Audio Magic Sorcerer. The M1.1s sat on a pair of Bright Star Big Rocks--which had to be turned sideways to accommodate the extra length. I also used a Marigo RMX Reference AC Distribution Center to deliver the power to the amps and transport. The preamps and DAC went straight into the wall. If that's not everything, it should be--whew!
I mentioned in last month's sneak peek that the LAMM M1.1s are rather simple in appearance. I must say, however, that this simplicity is exactly what makes them appealing. They're obviously big and heavy, but their front panel has an unadorned elegance about it--just the company name and model number in white lettering, two study handles (there are two more handles in back) and an LED to indicate that the amps are on. There isn't even a power switch. And let me tell you, two of the amps sitting near each other on the floor can definitely start a conversation.
There are a great many things about the M1.1s that are unique, and I discovered the first of these after I uncrated the amps and began looking through the accompanying documentation. Along with a very comprehensive owner's manual came "Proof of Performance" reports that outline the tests made to each amp before they left the LAMM factory as well as a listing of their measured parameters. I mentioned seeing the reports to designer Vladimir Shushurin, and he confessed that he doesn't include every piece of documentation along with the amps when they're shipped. He then sent me a full set of paperwork on the review pair of amps, an inspiring packet. It's as extensive as an inspection report for a house, breaking the quality-assurance process down to the examination of workmanship and even the measurements made on individual parts. So it's obvious that the M1.1s are precision-manufactured instruments; LAMM's zealous attention to detail should be the rule for expensive high-end gear.
The M1.1s operate in class A, delivering 100 watts into 8 or 4 ohms, 200 watts into 2 ohms and 300 watts into 1 ohm. These ratings are all the more impressive because of the engineering behind them. Whereas other class-A designs double their power into 4-ohm loads, resulting in one-fourth of their power being in class A and the rest in class AB, the M1.1s have a special bias/voltage switch that ensures pure class A operation when the amps are matched with a speaker load of 8 or 4 ohms. Additionally, the M1.1s have a low output impedance (0.17 ohm) and benign input sensitivity (0.725 volts), making them the perfect dance partners for a wide variety of speakers and preamplifiers. Matching components is the real achievement of building a great high-end system, and thus the superb electrical qualities of LAMM M1.1s won't add to your list of audio worries.
If you've read any of my reviews up to this point--or perused the list of reference equipment I use--you'll quickly discover that I'm a tube guy. I have Quicksilver M135s and a CAT SL-1 Signature linestage, and both of these wear their tubes proudly. Although I've owned a solid-state amp or two during my time as an audiophile and listened to high-quality examples from just about every major and not-so-major company, I've never found a solid-state amp that satisfies my listening hunger in the way that a good tube amp can. This is not to say that I haven't longed for the superior drive capabilities and control--especially in the bass--of solid-state amps. I just haven't been willing to trade these for the most obvious tube virtues: naturalness, ease, clarity, space, beauty of tone--the list could go on and on. And yes, many tube amps have good bass and can drive just about any speaker with ease, so why fight city hall?
Thus, I came to my review of the LAMMs with a healthy bit of skepticism. Although the M1.1s are sophisticated hybrids, they're more solid state than not (one military-grade 6992 does not a tube amp make) and therefore something I was almost predisposed to dislike. But as I quickly found out, the LAMM M1.1s defy labels and forethought. They are, by a wide margin, the finest amps I've ever heard. Hell, they're perhaps the most impressive pieces of audio equipment I've ever used, so utterly lifelike and beguiling is their sound.
Where to begin? How about the bass, which is deep, tight, and physical--like a Mike Tyson body punch (when he was still hungry for something other than his opponent's ears, that is). The low end doesn't boom or hang around longer than it should--it comes and goes with equal speed--and all of my bass-workout favorites passed with flying colors: Harry Connick's She, Keith Richard's Main Offender, even stalwarts like the Holly Cole Trio's Don't Smoke in Bed took on newfound authority and slam. Nothing I've heard from the first families of solid-state amplification can match the low-end power of the LAMM M1.1s. Only the Symphonic Line RG 4 monoblocks can approach it, but even they fall short.
So the LAMMs have impressive bass, but is this any great surprise? It is when you pair it with the delicacy and sophistication the LAMM M1.1s can summon. In fact, in my experience it's unprecedented that an amplifier can sound so powerful and refined at the same time. The treble of the M1.1s is silky, even sweet when need be, and the midrange has body and dimension, making it the equal of most every tube amp I've heard--and I'm still surprised by this. The one area where no solid-state amp comes close to, say, the Quicksilver M135s or Conrad-Johnson Premier series is the midrange, but in come the LAMMs and out go the old beliefs. I've heard k.d. lang's Ingenue on any number of systems, and the Quicksilver M135s and the LAMM M1.1s really get lang's voice right: a careful combination of beauty, emotion and magic. I expect the Quicksilvers to pull this off, but the LAMMs' ability here is amazing--especially when you couple it with what the amps do in first-rate fashion above and below in the frequency spectrum. A perplexing dichotomy, but a fortuitous combination for those who love music, not equipment.
Soundstaging is very much a function of a component's ability to resolve the most minute bits of detail--spatial cues and ambient information--and here the LAMM M1.1s also shine. I noticed almost immediately after turning on the M1.1s for the first time that they're completely free from the mechanical hum that other amps exhibit to varying degrees--and I do mean completely. Shushurin explained that this is a byproduct of a specific design principle: maximizing the M1.1s' ability to resolve low-level detail. How is this achieved? The high-quality Plitron transformer in each amp is potted in a housing filled with a special encapsulant that deadens vibration and resonance. Although this may seem like a small point, it has its effects mechanically and sonically. You can push the M1.1s to deafening levels without apparent strain, but they hunt down and expose so much intricate detail--even in the bass, where detail is especially hard to excavate--that you just don't need to. Take, for example, Roseanne Cash's Ten Song Demo, a CD that I've always liked but have never been completely satisfied with because Cash's voice is too forward--perhaps even over-recorded. With the LAMMs, I just backed off the volume the smallest bit and then the whole recording just snapped into place, redolent with detail and color, everything presented with tremendous speed but without etch or grain--none. Cash's voice was rock solid between the big ProAcs and three feet back, surrounded by the sonic air of the recording site and, of course, the other musicians. Great music saved by the M1.1s.
One CD that put the M1.1s' many sonic merits into especially high relief was Steve Earle's wonderful I Feel Alright. First, it's diverse in tempo, its 12 songs ranging from countrified stomps to slow blues, with stops in between. It's also a less-than-perfect recording--clear and articulate, but ultimately with a full accompaniment of flaws: grain in the lower treble/upper midrange, a certain amount of soundstage diffuseness, and bass that gets muddy as it extends. The LAMMs don't prettify these maladies, so you'll hear them all like it or not. However, because the M1.1s resolve so much detail with such obvious naturalness, the music easily overcomes the recording's problems. Yes, I Feel Alright has its sonic troubles, but, man, Steve Earle is one great songwriter--with a past that has given him lots of opportunity for introspection and redemption. And the LAMM M1.1s, bless their hearts, make it all possible in my room, revealing I Feel Alright to be exactly what it is: an essential CD.
I hesitate to call any component perfect--there's always something around the corner that could be better--but the LAMM M1.1s come closer to earning this designation than any other amplifier I've heard. The M1.1s look steadfast and serious, as though they're about to cross your border for a little, uh, reorganization. And they have the artillery to do it--with bass weight and depth that seemingly go on forever, tremendous slam, and power aplenty. But even with all of this muscle, the M1.1s never turn aggressive, instead delivering some of the most graceful sound I've ever heard--when the music gives the orders, that is. They're unpretentious amps that impress through their ability to pass the signal without editorializing--no etched highs that pass for transparency, no bloated bass disguised as weight. They let the music tell the story, and what a beautiful story it is. Obviously I have nothing but praise for the LAMM M1.1s--even with their hefty price tag.
Here's a question for you: what's the goal of a piece of high-end equipment? To sound like live music? To be completely faithful to the recording? To make magic? By any criteria I can devise, the LAMM M1.1s are stunning--it's nearly impossible not to be involved with and moved by the music they reproduce. In fact, I'm not even sure I can imagine a better amplifier, although I'm certain that this review will generate an email chorus of "but have you heard...?"--everybody and their brother wanting to challenge my opinions based on the simple fact that I haven't listened to every amplifier in existence. My answer? You gotta hear the LAMMs.
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|LAMM M1.1 Mono Amplifiers
Price: $14,790/pair USD
LAMM Audio Laboratory