- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Saturday, 15 October 2011 01:00
- Written by Doug Schneider
This isn’t the first time that Lamm’s LL2.1 Deluxe preamplifier has been written about in SoundStage! Hi-Fi -- Tim Aucreman reviewed it in August 2009. I’m writing about it now because, in all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never reviewed a Lamm Industries product, despite having known the company’s founder and chief designer, Vladimir Lamm, for almost all that time. His products are universally praised for their sound, and I wanted to hear firsthand what all the fuss was about. I wanted specifically to focus on the LL2.1 Deluxe because I’m more interested in sanely priced products than in cost-no-object fare, and the LL models are Lamm’s “entry-level” preamps. Also, the LL2.1 Deluxe is still current; Lamm keeps his models in production for as long as he feels they’re still competitive. I thought it would be interesting to see if it held up against some of the newer preamps on the market.
Lamm makes an LL2.1 ($5690 USD) and an LL2.1 Deluxe ($5990) preamplifier. The Deluxe has twice the standard model’s power-supply capacitance, and polystyrene capacitors in critical parts of the signal path, but other than that, they’re identical. I don’t really see why the regular LL2.1 exists -- if someone is going to spend close to six grand for a preamp, they’re not likely to cheap out to save $300 -- they’ll just get the Deluxe.
But whether you get an LL2.1 or LL2.1 Deluxe, the look and build are the same. Each measures about 19"W x 4.5"H x 14"D (the front handles add 1.5" to the depth). The styling is like all of Lamm’s products -- a little yesteryear. The LL2.1 Deluxe is basic black, with a kind of military-grade appearance. In some ways the look is fitting, because it reflects Vladimir Lamm himself -- a no-frills, no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point kind of guy. It might not surprise you, then, to learn that the LL2.1 Deluxe doesn’t come with a remote control.
The LL2.1 Deluxe’s build quality isn’t extraordinary in comparison to the beautiful metalwork found on many of today’s products, but I found it excellent overall; the review sample’s all-metal case was rugged, and the connectors, switches, and knobs felt solid.
All of Lamm’s preamps are single-ended, pure-class-A, tube-based designs. The LL2.1 models use 12AU7A and 6DJ8 tubes for, respectively, the first and second amplification stages of each channel, and a 6202 tube as a voltage rectifier. Ask Lamm why he uses tubes and his answer is clear: for the specific sound characteristics he wants to achieve through his unique circuit designs.
You’ll love or hate the volume controls, which are labeled Output Level: one each for the left and right channels. I like dual volume controls -- they give you a balance control without adding an extra knob and circuit. My age-old Blue Circle Audio BC3000 preamp has them, so I’m used to turning both at once. But some users will undoubtedly find two knobs cumbersome, and the lack of a remote more so.
Lamm provides two-position toggle switches for most of the controls. To the left of the Output Level knobs are Power/Off, Remote/Off, and Mute/Operate. Of those, Remote/Off is probably the only one that needs explanation. It’s not for a remote control, but for remote turn-on/off of Lamm’s power amps using a wire that runs from the connector on the rear panel of the preamp to a connector on the associated power amp(s).
To the right of the Output Level knobs are, from left to right, toggles labeled -15dB/Off, Line/Direct, Tape/Source, and Line 1/Line 2. The -15dB toggle, added since the release of the originally LL2 model, attenuates the LL2.1 Deluxe’s output by 15dB in case a source component’s output is quite high, or the power amp you’re driving is very sensitive.
Line/Direct corresponds to the one set of Direct single-ended inputs on the rear panel that bypass some internal switching for a purer signal path. If the switch is in the Direct position, that input is activated; setting it to Line deactivates the Direct input and activates the other two single-ended inputs (the LL2.1 Deluxe has a total of three inputs), controlled by the Line 1/Line 2 toggle. Tape/Source toggles between the single-ended monitor-loop inputs and outputs on the rear panel.
Besides the single-ended inputs and remote connector already mentioned, the rear panel has only two more connectors: Earth (ground) and an IEC-compatible power-cord inlet. The fuse chart silkscreened on the rear panel makes it clear that the LL2.1 Deluxe is designed to be used with any voltage worldwide. According to Lamm’s literature, the input voltage setting can be changed using switches inside the case.
The LL2.1 Deluxe sounded best after at least 30 minutes of warm-up/play.
Unlike with most other components I review, from the beginning of my listening to the LL2.1 Deluxe, I found myself not focusing on discrete aspects of performance -- bass, midrange, highs, imaging, etc. -- but, instead, on the music as a whole. I felt no urgency to dissect the sounds of reference recordings, as I usually do -- I just wanted to listen for a long, long time. When I did, the main thing I noticed was that I found nothing objectionable about what I heard -- only incredibly enticing sound. The LL2.1 Deluxe simply drew me in emotionally and held me there, inviting me to drop my analytic guard. The LL2.1 Deluxe seemed to engage the right side of my brain as much as the left, if not more.
For example: I’ve used Ennio Morricone’s predominantly choral soundtrack score for The Mission (CD, Virgin 90567-2) for as long as I’ve been reviewing. When I do, I mostly focus on how natural the voices and instruments sound, and on whether I can distinctly hear each voice in the dense chorus, and how accurately each voice is placed on the stage -- there’s a lot going on in this recording. While I could tell that the LL2.1 Deluxe got the timbres correct and that the stage was sufficiently wide and deep, with good delineation, clarity, and specificity, I was most impressed with how, once I’d assessed those aspects, the LL2.1 Deluxe so easily let me forget my audiophile checklist, seeming to almost force me to listen to the wonderful soundfield before me. The result: I was entirely drawn into the music. I’m so used to popping The Mission in and out, evaluating this and that, then moving on to another selection -- but this time, without thinking twice, I listened to all 20 tracks. I found this no mere good thing but something almost uncanny -- few products, let alone preamps, so engage me in the music. The LL2.1 Deluxe proved easier on the ears than almost any other preamp I’ve heard. This wasn’t because it sounded rolled off, veiled, or masked details; rather, the LL2.1 sounded extremely natural, and thoroughly involving in the way it presented the music. It connected with my ears and mind in ways that were almost magical.
Similar to my experience with The Mission was my listening to Ani DiFranco’s Up Up Up Up Up Up (CD, Righteous Babe RBR-013D). I normally listen to track 7, “Everest,” to assess image placement, which the LL2.1 Deluxe got exactly right -- DiFranco’s voice hovered in space in the left part of the stage, just behind the plane described by the speakers’ front baffles, and everything else was where it should be. I also listen for the sound of her voice, which was startlingly realistic through the Lamm, with subtly more presence than I hear through, say, a typical solid-state preamp. But after assessing those parameters I again lost track of what I was doing, so caught up in the sound that I listened to the next three tracks as well. Why the LL2.1 Deluxe had this effect on me is something I can’t easily put into words. Was it the exceedingly natural sound? The across-the-board high level of performance? I don’t know. The one thing I do know is that I enjoyed listening to my system with this preamp in it for a lot longer than I usually do with a review product, all the while feeling no desire to dissect the music’s details.
But despite my telling you how engaging the LL2.1 sounded, describing a component as having a natural sound and across-the-board high performance can be misunderstood as my saying that it sounded bland, that it had no significant distinguishing sonic characteristics of its own. That was hardly the case with the LL2.1 Deluxe -- while it drew me in and let me forget my audiophile checklist, when I really concentrated I could hear some distinguishing characteristics.
The midrange drew just a touch of attention to itself, but only because of how smooth and silky it sounded. It had a touch of tube flavoring, most noticeable in the lower through the upper mids, which had a little more presence than the typical solid-state preamp does in my system. Male and female voices had the kind of realistic presence that made them sound alive and real. I’ve heard Mariza in concert a few times, and each time, she has sung one song unamplified. It was startling to play one of her albums in my room through the LL2.1 and hear almost exactly the same sound.
Voices weren’t the only thing to benefit from this subtle tube richness. Fellow writer S. Andrea Sundaram got me to listen to Yo-Yo Ma’s early recording of the Minuet from J.S. Bach’s Suite No.1 for Unaccompanied Cello (CD, CBS Masterworks M2K 37867). It’s a very good-sounding recording; I was enthralled not only by how clear Ma’s cello sounded through the LL2.1 Deluxe, but also by how full-bodied, textured, and realistic it was. The LL2.1 Deluxe didn’t have the over-the-top, dripping-wet richness and presence of some tube preamps, or the largest-scale dynamic swings of the costliest solid-state preamps, but it definitely sounded richer and grander than most solid-state designs, and dynamic enough to make recordings sound all the more real and alive.
The only area where the LL2.1 Deluxe fell back was in the deepest bass, and only with my largest speakers, the Revel Ultima Salon2 and Vivid Audio G2Giya, both of which are capable of producing truly full-range sound -- i.e., in-room bass down to about 20Hz. The bass the Lamm did produce was admirably tight and impactful, and more solid-state than tubey -- drums had real punch. But when I played “Mining for Gold” and “Misguided Angel,” from the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session (CD, RCA 8568-2-R), the very bottom was slightly muted, and not as deep or as forceful as I’ve heard through other preamps, particularly solid-state designs. This limitation wasn’t even noticeable through speakers that can’t reach as low as the Revel and Vivid, such as Vienna Acoustics’ Mozart Grand SE, a modest-size floorstander, or Volent’s Paragon VL-2 Signature, a giant stand-mounted model, both of which reach down only to about 35Hz in my room. Perhaps the LL2.1 Deluxe’s slight bass shyness is one of the reasons Lamm makes some far more expensive preamps.
Overall, the LL2.1 Deluxe’s performance was exceedingly high, and its ability to engage me in long listening sessions was first-rate. Few preamps have ever grabbed my attention like this, or made me want to listen to music for so long. It was when I forced myself to dissect the different aspects of its performance that I began to find areas in which the LL2.1 Deluxe was bettered by other preamps -- and where it bettered them.
The all-tube JE Audio VL10.1 ($5000), which I reviewed in May, is an obvious competitor in price and in other ways: Both it and the Lamm have few features and no remote control, and are designed for tube-loving audiophiles who want a minimalist design and care only about the sound, not convenience. The two models share some of the same tubey magic, particularly in their rich, smooth midranges, and drew me into the music equally well. But that’s where their sonic similarities ended.
The JE VL10.1 had much more of the stereotypical rich, warm, full, voluminous tubey sound that jumps out at the listener in a sort of Technicolor way. Pianos sounded bigger and more present than through the Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe, and the JE’s bass was richer and more extended, making “Mining for Gold” and “Misguided Angel” more weighty and rich. The VL10.1’s highs also seemed a bit more pronounced than the Lamm’s. Overall, the VL10.1 definitely sounded grander and livelier, but it lacked a little bit of control in the bass, despite its seemingly deeper sound; the LL2.1 Deluxe nicely reined in the bass in this range, and its highs seemed ever-so-slightly more refined, and not as pronounced. The JE conjured up tremendous soundstages, with greater transparency within those stages, than did the LL2.1 Deluxe -- but the Lamm countered with slightly tighter image focus and an overall sound that was slightly more visceral than the JE’s.
Functionally, the LL2.1 Deluxe was better in certain ways: quieter in operation (the VL10.1 presents a lot of self-induced hiss), not nearly as microphonic (when I tapped the Lamm’s chassis, no ting was amplified through the speakers, as it is through the JE) -- and it has that handy -15dB switch. On the other hand, the VL10.1 has something that might make a big difference, depending on your system configuration: balanced inputs and outputs. The LL2.1 Deluxe has only single-ended ins and outs. I was able to use the LL2.1 Deluxe with my Bryston 4B SST2 stereo amp, which has both types of inputs, but not with the balanced-only Ayre Acoustics VX-R stereo amp.
The Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe and JE Audio VL10.1 are both excellent but quite different; each has its own sets of sonic and functional strengths and weaknesses, and no doubt each will find those who prefer it -- what probably won’t be a determining factor is the $1000 difference in price. Not everyone gets to live with both, the way a reviewer can; if you’re interested in the sounds of tubed preamps, you really should listen to both to see which you prefer.
The Simaudio Moon 350P solid-state preamp ($2500 base price) painted a slightly different picture in my system. First, I found its drier, thinner sound -- typical of solid-state designs -- a bit boring alongside the JE VL10.1 and Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe. But it countered with much deeper, stronger bass than either the JE or Lamm could muster, its operation was quieter than that of the LL2.1 Deluxe, and it revealed even more detail than the VL10.1. The Moon 350P also has a wealth of features, including remote control, and can be had with decent built-in DAC and phono-stage options for a still-low price. The 350P also has balanced and single-ended inputs and outputs -- and, of course, there are no tubes to replace.
The Simaudio Moon 350P’s combination of features, convenience, flawless operation, and across-the-board good sound make it an overachiever at the price, and for all those reasons I often use it in my reviewing. But when it comes to pure sound quality, I couldn’t care less about convenience -- at those times, I’ll slide in the JE or the Lamm for the kind of magical sound that tubes can provide: the VL10.1 if I want an unbridled, over-the-top lush sound and high transparency; or the LL2.1 Deluxe if I want tube warmth with a touch more refinement and restraint. Even when tubed components sound quite different from one another, there’s just something intoxicating about tube sound. Tubes might seem like an obsolete sound technology, but their sound can still rival the state of the art.
Although the LL2.1 Deluxe is the first Lamm Industries product I’ve reviewed, I’m well acquainted with Vladimir Lamm’s designs. I’ve also read many reviews of earlier Lamm products, and those writers all seem to say the same thing: average looks, good build, great sound. I heard nothing in the sound of the LL2.1 Deluxe that contradicted any of that. The LL2.1 Deluxe likely faces stiffer competition now than when it was first released a few years ago, but it more than held its own against JE Audio’s VL10.1 tubed preamp, new this year, and whose sound I also like a lot.
What I thoroughly enjoyed about listening with the LL2.1 Deluxe was that my attention didn’t dart from one performance parameter to the next, as it does with many audiophile components. Instead, the Lamm presented music so cohesively and convincingly, with so exceptionally natural and thoroughly engaging sound, that I easily lost myself in the music, largely ignoring the nitpicky things that so worry audiophiles -- and especially reviewers. Not many components can do this for me. When I did dissect the LL2.1 Deluxe’s sound, I found things here and there that other preamps do better -- but that missed the point of what the LL2.1 Deluxe did so well: present a realistic and thoroughly engaging sound that was tough to stop listening to.
The Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe was declared a Reviewers’ Choice component in 2009 for what it then offered in terms of price and performance. Despite having perhaps stiffer competition now, it still holds that distinction today.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Speakers -- Revel Ultima Salon2, Vienna Acoustics Mozart Grand SE, Vivid G2Giya, Volent Paragon VL-2 Signature
- Amplifiers -- Bryston 4B SST2 (stereo), Simaudio Moon 400M (mono)
- Preamplifiers -- Simaudio Moon 350P, JE Audio VL10.1
- Digital sources -- Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport, Ayre Acoustics QB-9 USB DAC, Hegel HD10 DAC, Sony Vaio laptop
- Digital converters (USB to S/PDIF) -- Blue Circle Audio USB Tunnel, Stello U3
- Digital interconnects -- AudioQuest Diamond USB, i2Digital X-60 coaxial
- Analog interconnects -- Nirvana S-L, Nordost Quattro Fil
- Speaker cables -- DH Labs Silver Sonic Q-10 Signature, Nirvana S-L, Nordost Valkyrja
Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe Preamplifier
Price: $5990 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor; 60 days on tubes.
Lamm Industries Inc.
2513 E. 21st Street
Brooklyn, NY 11235
Phone: (718) 368-0181
Fax: (718) 368-0140