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Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe Pre-Amplifier Review

by The Review CrewMay 30, 2010

Lamm Industries was founded just over 17 years ago. They are currently located in Brooklyn, New York, one of my old stomping grounds. The lead designer and namesake Vladmir Lamm has a legendary, uncompromising vision. Mr. Lamm has quite a reputation as a very technical designer, but also as a music lover. Lamm offers a family of tubed and hybrid preamplifiers and amplifiers that are all well reviewed, and lusted after by audiophiles world wide lucky enough to afford them. Lamm is known for using very expensive parts, creating unique, clean circuit paths, and for dispensing with anything that could possibly interfere with the purity of the signal.

As a matter of fact, calling Vladamir Lamm a purist would be entirely accurate. His preamplifiers have no remote controls, fancy faceplates, or any feature that he would deem unnecessary and possibly detrimental to sonic performance. You can probably sum up the Lamm design ethos as an unrelenting drive to eliminate distortion from the signal chain that will interfere with musical enjoyment, and finding the simplest, most reliable circuit topology to accomplish this feat.  Much of the information about their circuits, design philosophy, and theories on human hearing can be found on their website.
 
For this review, I took delivery of the Lamm LL2.1 amplifier in its Deluxe version, priced at $5990. There is a standard version available for $300 less.  The deluxe version power supply energy storage is about twice that of the standard version and high quality polystyrene caps parallel the all film capacitors in critical paths.  Besides that, the two versions are identical. On paper, without even an audition, it seems to me the extra $300 is a no brainer.
 
Design Update:
 
The LL2.1 is an update of the LL2 preamplifier. According to Lamm, the improvements and changes have been made are the addition of a trigger switch to power on and off Lamm amplifiers, newer, higher quality knobs, a slight schematic update, various updated parts, and most interestingly, a introduction of the attenuation for gain reduction by 15 dB.  This to me is a potentially very useful feature especially for use with a very high sensitivity amplifier, like the Manley MAHI mono blocks I reviewed last year. I had a hard time finding a comfortable volume setting with my Audio Research preamp with the Manley monos. A flick of this switch and I would have been in heaven.
Some basics about the design. It is an all tube design, with rectification done by a 6X4/6202 tube and amplification duties are handled by 12AU7A (first stage), and 6DJ8 (second stage) tubes for each channel. The component offers single ended connections only, as I’m guessing Lamm considers the extra circuitry needed to create a true balanced design adds more, and undesirable complexity.
 
The front panel is very retro cool. There are a total of seven toggle switches that power on, switch inputs, select gain, and mute. The two big knobs on the front control volume separately for each channel. I guess this is a de facto balance control as well.  The back panel has two main out puts, and three inputs, for Line 1, and Line 2, and most interestingly, a “Direct” input, which, again, staying in form with an obsession with sonic purity, routes the signal more directly to the volume control and gain stages. A Tape input and Record out are also included.
 
Set Up:
 
The LL2.1 was as plug and play as it gets. I set it up on my Symposium RollerBlocks for resonance control, made the connections, then powered up. Lamm strongly recommends powering up the LL2.1 first before any other component with the Mute switch engaged. There is a soft start feature that allows the circuitry to stabilize for about 60 seconds, and then you are ready to go. They also recommend powering off the preamplifier last, when all other components have been shut down. They also say the LL2.1 sounds its best after a 45 minute warm up.

Listening:
 
I knew within the first five minutes why Lamm had garnered quite a reputation in high end audio circles.  This was one of the most beautiful sounding preamplifiers I have heard, and recently, I have heard a few good ones. Specifically, the soundstage was the deepest I have heard from a preamp. There was more than enough low level detail, but presented in a very musical way. And it was very, very quiet. It was quieter than my Audio Research SP16 by a good margin.  Working from recent memory, the Manley 300B preamp actually threw a wider soundstage, but the Lamm went deeper. Depth of soundstage is especially important because it allows for the listener to decipher spacial relationships between instruments and also information about the recording space, whether fabricated or real.

I also have recollections of the Ayre K-5xe solid state Preamplifier (approx $3500) that I had on loan last year. I remember it being hyper detailed, definitely more detailed than the Lamm, but fatiguing, and very analytical sounding. I found it difficult to listen for long periods. The Lamm, by contrast, is a music making machine. My listening periods were long, and late into the evening. What I really noticed was how well the Lamm unraveled complicated musical passages without breaking a sweat. There was plenty of low level detail retrieval, but with an utterly perfect amount of tube magic thrown in.  By tube magic, I don’t mean smoothed over transients or some sort of velvety padding. I mean a harmonic “rightness”. This characteristic comes through when listening to recordings with acoustic instruments, as most music lovers will know when a human voice, an acoustic guitar, or a piano is being reproduced with realistic and accurate timbres.
Spinning my usual random CD picks I tried to touch on as my many genres as possible to see what the Lamm was capable of.  I started off with the Robert Plant and Allison Krauss disc Raising Sand. I have always liked most of T Bone Burnett’s productions, and this may be one of his best. I have actually never heard the mix sound so coherent. On other systems the album can sound thick, and a bit dark. The LL2.1 put me deeper inside the mix, and revealed a lot more shades then I knew were there. The bass was big and round, the guitars fuzzy, the cymbals crisp, and the harmonized vocals in a space exactly where they should have been.

I have really taken a liking to Elvis Costello’s cable show Spectacle, and I decided to honor the man by pulling out his collaboration with legendary New Orleans songwriter, arranger, and producer Allen Touissant, The River in Reverse. It’s an old school record with live instruments, funky grooves, ballads, and great sound. This was another album I planned on listening to the first few cuts on, then, before I knew it, the CD was on the last track. The LL2.1 just made it a breeze to sit through album after album with out any sense of urgency or the need to change program material.
 
Getting a bit more obscure, I checked out a few Tim Hardin CDs. Hardin was one of the most celebrated songwriters of his era, the late 60’s. His best known compositions, “Reason to Believe” and especially “If I Were a Carpenter”, are some of the most covered songs from that period. His own records were bluesy, psychedelic folk.
His voice was throaty and expressive, beautifully recorded by the engineers at the legendary Verve label. In sampling tracks from Hang on to a Dream: The Verve Recordings, I was struck by how much older Hardin sounded than someone in their mid twenties. The Lamm did a superb job of presenting the details of the mixes…the reverbs used, the microphone distortion, and interesting, “buried in the mix” details. But this was not at the expense of musical enjoyment. I also put on Tim Hardin 3: In Concert, an incredibly intimate performance recorded in 1968. For the first time, after having owned this on LP, I heard tape saturation, hall echo, and the proper relationship between the musicians on stage that night.
I wanted to hear more acoustic music, so I spun …Till Then by the brilliant jazz pianist Danilo Perez. It is a beautifully recorded and the playing displays restrained virtuosity.  A superb band and some great material add to the mix. As an added treat, one of my favorite vocalists, Lizz Wright appears on two tracks. I really enjoyed how the LL2.1 seductively laid out the arrangements. The piano, voice, sax, bass, and drums, by the supremely talented Brian Blade, all retained their natural timbres.

Conclusion:

The Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe preamplifier is Lamm Industries least expensive component. They produce a 4 chassis $42,000 preamplifier, and $139,000 mono block tube power amplifiers.  No, that was not a misprint. Founder Vladamir Lamm seems hell bent on pushing the envelope on the state of the art, and he apparently refuses to compromise on parts quality, circuit development, and overall musicality.  The company has been in business for 17 years and that to me indicates that the Lamm sound is has stood the test of time, as I promise you mediocre sounding, expensive, and unmusical sounding gear would be a door shutting proposal. While certainly not inexpensive at $5990, the LL2.1 is a very fairly priced preamp. And one can only know this if you have sampled the competition.  It did the “Where is the preamp” trick similar to the Manley 300B, but in its own distinct way.

For this particular review, the operative word is refined. To me that sums up the sound of this component. I never found myself listening to it with furrowed brow, in reviewer mode. I found myself listening just to enjoy the music.  Its overall transparency and superb sound staging really leave little to quibble about. Interestingly, the lack of remote was a non issue for me. The precision volume knobs for each channel made it is a cinch “set it and forget it” for each particular CD. There were plenty of detents to find the sweet spot. I also had a bunch of cables here that I will be reviewing in the coming months and the Lamm let me hear the differences between these cables as I gave them each a quick preliminary audition. The Lamm also nicely responded to important tweaks like isolation devices, and power cords. But I sure you the core sound of the LL2.1 is world class without any aftermarket expenditures. But such things can be used to extract the very last bits.

If refined is the operative word for this review, there are a few I could have picked as my second choices. The LL2.1 is rich sounding, it is elegant, and it stays out of the way of the music, probably what Vladamir Lamm had in mind. It is quiet, dependable, and comes with a 5 year warranty when purchased through an authorized dealer.  Lamm says they have a rigorous process for selecting their tubes, and all are tested for microphony and quality. I should note, on two occasions I did hear evidence of a microphonic tube. I happen to know that the review sample has crossed the country and has been in a few reviewers’ systems. I alerted Lamm and they offered to replace the tube, but the microphony did not appear again, however, I am pretty sure the tube in question will have to be replaced soon. That aside, the unit worked flawlessly.

If you are auditioning preamplifiers in the $5000-$6000 range, and you can live without a remote control, the LL2.1 should absolutely be on your list. I would love to have heard it with Lamm amplifiers, but alas, I don’t have that kind of spare change. But it sounded wonderful with my Audio Research amp, and there is nothing in the design or any weird specifications that would preclude it performing with any number of other manufacturers gear. I loved the retro look, and the purist approach.  Lastly, the build quality is superb, as befits a component of this caliber. Highly recommended, without reservation.
Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe  Preamplifier Specifications:

•MSRP: $5990
•Manufacturers Website: www.Lammindustries.com
•Inputs: 3 Single-ended gold plated single-ended RCA connectors
•Input Impedance: 50 KOhms + 10%.
•Outputs: 2 Single-ended gold plated single-ended RCA connectors.
•Corrected Output Impedance typically 250 Ohms.
•Dimensions:  4.5 inches high x 19 inches wide x 13.875 deep .
•Unit weight: 20 Lbs (9.1 Kg).

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.

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