August 2009

Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe Preamplifier

Reviewers' Choice LogoFrom 1999 to the expected release of Windows 7 in 2009, Microsoft will have issued six major versions of their Windows operating system -- Windows 98 Second Edition, Millennium Edition, Windows 2000, XP, and Vista -- as well as shifted from 16 to 32 to 64 bits, and sent along countless Service Packs and almost daily security patches and bug fixes. In that decade, how many millions of people have spent how many hours messing around, trying to get Windows to work?

Had we spent a tenth of that time defenestrated from our computers and listening to music played through Lamm electronics, well, I daresay the world might be a better place. In that same decade, Vladimir Lamm has updated his original LL2 tube preamplifier exactly once; in March 2009, Lamm Industries introduced the LL2.1.

What it is

The LL2.1 is a single-box, tubed line stage with a gain of 18dB and operating in pure class-A. Like the LL2, the LL2.1 weighs 20 pounds and measures 19"W x 4.5"H x 15.25"D (including rack-mount handles).

As befits a ".1" upgrade, the new model is not radically different from the old. New are a switch for on/off control of Lamm amplifiers connected via an umbilical, and a switch to attenuate the gain by -15dB. This makes the preamp more flexible for use in systems with high-voltage-gain amps or high-efficiency speakers. Cosmetically, the volume controls get new knobs. Otherwise, there are only "slight changes in schematic design." I scrutinized the electrical specifications of the current and previous models -- Vladimir Lamm provides comprehensive documentation for all his electronics -- and detected no changes there.

Around back are two sets of outputs, three inputs, and a tape loop. All connectors are gold-plated, single-ended RCAs from Vampire Wire. One input, labeled Direct, goes straight into the volume pots, bypassing the line and tape-input switches. There are also a ground post and a port for the remote-amp on/off cable. An IEC power-cord connector feeds into an internal RFI power-line filter, where the AC voltage is filtered "intensively," per Lamm.

The front-panel controls include chrome toggle switches for input selection, choice of gain, remote on/off, muting, and power on/off. The left and right channels have their own volume controls, which are lightly detented and operated smoothly. There is no remote control; its absence holds down cost and doesn’t compromise the sound quality.

On initial power-up, the LL2.1’s electronic protection circuit mutes all outputs while the unit stabilizes itself. An LED power indicator blinks for about 40 seconds, then glows steadily. With an audible click, the mute relay engages and the preamp is ready for action.

Lamm has indicated that his goal for the LL2.1 was, as for the LL2 before it, to bring a more affordable Lamm product to market while maintaining the core characteristics of all Lamm gear. Top-quality parts are used throughout the Lamm line, and the LL2.1 is no exception. When I popped the hood, I saw Vishay/Roederstein and Electrocube film capacitors, Cornell Dubilier electrolytic capacitors, a Hammond filter choke, and milspec Dale resistors. All components are hand-selected and carefully matched.

The power supply features a custom-built Plitron toroidal transformer that feeds a full-wave vacuum tube (6X4) voltage rectifier for conversion to DC. This is followed by a choke-and-caps smoothing filter. The left and right signal channels each incorporate two twin-triode tubes, a 12AU7 and a 6DJ8. Output impedance is a low 250 ohms, and Lamm claims that the preamp can "drive any cable and any reasonable real-world load." He recommends using the LL2.1 with amplifiers having an input impedance of 10k ohms or higher. The preamp does not invert phase.

The LL2.1 is available in two editions, Standard ($5690 USD) and Deluxe ($5990). The Deluxe version: a) adds two electrolytic capacitors that nearly double the energy storage of the power supply, and b) parallels the Vishay film caps with top-quality Electrocube polystyrenes in sonically critical signal paths. This review is of the LL2.1 Deluxe.

Review system, break-in, and use

I still get that Christmas Eve excitement when a spanking-new piece of gear shows up for review. Sure enough, the old anticipation bubbled up when a sturdy wooden shipping crate arrived from Brooklyn, inside it a newly minted Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe. It’s good to be an audiophile.

The Lamm preamp fitted easily into my reference system. My preamp is an Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk.III with built-in phono section. Amps are monoblock Atma-Sphere MA-1 Mk.IIIs, whose 100k ohm single-ended input impedance mated well with the LL2.1. I linked the fully balanced amp and preamp with XLR-terminated Shunyata Research Antares and Aries interconnects. Using the Lamm LL2.1 meant switching to the same model cables in their single-ended versions. Taipan Helix power cords feed the amps from a dedicated Shunyata Hydra Model-8 power conditioner drawing wall juice via a Shunyata Python Helix Alpha AC cord. Speakers are Audio Physic Avanti Centurys with Shunyata Orion cabling. Sometimes I insert a Speltz autoformer between each amp and speaker to show the amp an 8-ohm load.

Two digital players were on hand: the Audio Research CD5 and the Ayre C-5xe multiformat player. Part way through the review period Ayre upgraded my C-5xe to C-5xeMP status; the MP stands for their new 16x-oversampling Minimum Phase digital filter, which aims to eliminate transient pre-ringing and reduce post-ringing to a bare minimum. To my ears, the effects of this digital whizbangery were increased harmonic nuance and overall better articulation. I heard more detail from recordings of large orchestral and choral works, with vocalists and instruments better differentiated from each other. If you ask me, this is a no-brainer of an upgrade.

My vinyl rig includes a cocobolo Teres 320 turntable with Verus rim drive and SME V tonearm wielding a Transfiguration Orpheus moving-coil cartridge. Balanced and single-ended Silver Breeze tonearm cables came from Silver Audio to connect to either the Atma-Sphere MP-1’s native phono section or an Audio Research PH7 phono stage. I connected the PH7 to the Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe with either Shunyata Research Antares or FMS Zero interconnects.

Shunyata Research Python Helix power cords connect preamps and source components to a Shunyata Hydra V-Ray power conditioner, using a Shunyata Anaconda VX power cord into the wall. RealTraps acoustic absorbers, including large corner bass traps, are plentiful throughout my 21’L x 18’W x 8.5’H listening room. These room treatments pay big dividends.

Lamm Industries runs in each LL2.1 for 72 hours prior to shipment, and recommends a minimum of 200 hours of burn-in after delivery. Across the review period, the review sample never changed its fundamental character from what I heard early on. Unlike with some gear, no new revelations or great blossoming occurred after a certain number of hours. Instead, a steady, subtle refinement took place, especially through the upper midrange and treble, where at first strings and brass had a teeny touch of sheen, and metal percussion, such as xylophones and bells, sounded with a slightly glassy harmonic. By the time I’d put 400 hours or so on the LL2.1, this character had dissolved into some of the most natural instrumental tonality I’ve ever heard.

Throughout my time with it, the LL2.1 Deluxe was straightforward to use and functioned flawlessly. The auto-muting worked to perfection, and the control switches never emitted clicks, pops, or other electrical transients. The Lamm’s internal power conditioning let me run it straight from the wall with no sense of grain or hash. I heard no transformer noise, and the LL2.1 drove 9’ interconnects with ease. I found that the Lamm reached optimal performance after a 45-minute warmup.

What about the Line and Direct inputs? I didn’t expect to hear a difference, but I did, though I wouldn’t bet the farm on detecting one from the other in a double-blind test. Across all frequencies, music through the Direct inputs was faintly clearer and more neutral in tone. Draw your own conclusions here.

The sound of music

I’ve owned a variety of preamps over the decades and have listened to many more. Memorable favorites include Conrad-Johnson’s 16LS and ACT2, the solid-state Esoteric C-03, and my current pre, the Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk.III. Straight from the box, first LP, first CD, the Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe delivered an immediate connection to my music, rivaling the best I’ve heard in terms of listening enjoyment. Was it perfect? No -- and I’ll talk about some of that. Were musicians in the room with me? No. Rather, the LL2.1 was both disarming and engaging; it connected my heart and my brain through my ear. On first hearing, I let out an audible Ahhh . . . I knew it and felt it: This one was very right.

We can describe music and its reproduction via a core analysis of dynamics, rhythm, and tonality. But apart from an orchestra conductor’s internal vision, looking at these elements of a score does little to communicate the art of a performance. I found that the LL2.1 revealed its character not through analysis but holistically. Listening through it was like sitting farther back in the hall -- not in terms of image scale or dynamic impact, but in the sense that it seldom pulled my perceptions into tight diagnostic focus. While I never forgot that I was reviewing the Lamm, this awareness seldom took me out of the moment -- in fact, just the opposite. While I heard gobs of musical minutiae, the LL2.1’s personality was of a whole; it delivered music with the completeness of its designer’s vision.

I love components that don’t make me think about them while they do their job. Alas, I must think about them to do mine. Cogitating over what I might call "the Lamm sound" and how to describe it, I concluded that the standard audiophile vocabulary might not do it justice. My anecdotal notes describe the LL2.1 as a "big-picture preamp," a "preamp for musicians," a preamp for folks who enjoy music more than hi-fi bragging rights, a preamp for those not suffering from audiophilic meticulitis. It’s my job to tease out the sonic bits with words, but if you’re like me, you’ll best learn the truth of the LL2.1 Deluxe through your ears. Let’s listen to some music.

Hear the tremolo violins at the start of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, as performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under the thoughtful direction of Karl Bhm (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 419 858-2). The LL2.1 conjured these strings as gossamer delicacies, light as air. Yet they were substantial, possessed of a shifting tonal density of expression that served as the perfect foil for the cellos carving the opening theme. Bruckner paints with a sweeping lyrical brush, and hearing his music through the LL2.1 enhanced my appreciation for this work. The Lamm line stage didn’t emphasize outlined image specificity, although if I concentrated -- breaking the gestalt, as it were -- instrumental images were clear, and the movement of musical lines across sections was easy to follow.

What the LL2.1 did do was deliver performances within a rich, not overly resonant acoustic space, its presentation bereft of etch, glare, or spotlit hyperrealism. Dialogues across interior woodwinds were clear and uncongested. Instruments and performers within that space possessed a near-palpable tonal presence best not described by mapping their coordinates within it. The Lamm was extraordinarily quiet for a tubed preamp, and at idle, near dead-black quiet. At speed, I heard no hash or grain between notes.

Soundstage depth was excellent, its width largely within speaker boundaries, and varying appropriately with the recording. My nearfield Audio Physic speakers do a great job of soundstaging, yet so compelling was the Lamm LL2.1’s sound that it drew me away from thinking about amusical attributes such as layered depth and image placement. It took me away from "listening visually." I had defocused my audiophile instincts and now had to force myself to take notes. Night after night, the LL2.1 consistently drew me in to greater aural engagement with the music itself.

The Lamm really showed off those wonderful pizzicato cellos in the first movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, as performed by Jascha Heifetz with the Chicago Symphony under Walter Hendl (LP, RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSC-2435). Quick and deep, their movement undergirded Heifetz’s solo, imbuing it with zest and life. With the orchestra going full bore, the Lamm easily resolved the interplay between the cellos and double basses toward the end of the movement. Fine-spun dynamics coupled with the Lamm’s excellent rhythmic gradient to make obvious Sibelius’ love of lower strings to propel his music forward. Across the frequencies, leading-edge transients were faintly relaxed but in no way dull; the Lamm never sounded incisive or analytical. Decay was excellent, and contributed to the vibrancy and ambience of acoustic space that placed the performance in the context of the concert hall.

A very slight emphasis in the lower mids through the midbass may have accounted for the LL2.1’s rich timbral definition. I parsed this as a fleshing-out, a making-whole, a lending body to harmonics and overtones -- but notes never sounded lush or thick. Some ears may hear it as a darker tonality, but the more I listened, the more I was convinced I knew this richness from the concert hall. It was not unlike what I’ve heard from Conrad-Johnson gear, absent that marque’s overt warmth and sometimes caramel coloration. I listened to Mahler’s Second Symphony, from Ivn Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (SACD, Channel Classics SA 23506). From the outset, the Lamm captured the stroke of mallet on taut and tuned timpani skin. Trombones in the Sibelius Violin Concerto offered rich timbre with growly heft. However I try to describe it, the Lamm’s tonal personality was key to its connecting me emotively with the music.

Higher frequencies were smooth and extended. Piccolos and top-end brass cut through the air without glare or coming forward. The pitches of brass instruments sounded as good as I’ve heard. In the Mahler Second, there may not have been the very last bit of harmonic extension to the glockenspiels at the very back of the orchestra. Highs from the LL2.1 were true to its overall character -- upper registers nicely continuous with the mids, and notes never spare or thin. Listen to the harp at the end of the second movement, several octaves above middle C. The Lamm presented it with filigreed finesse, yet marvelously full of body.

Deep bass from the LL2.1 was weighty and muscular -- remarkable for a preamp at any price. Emerging from a black background, the massive gong-drum on "Yulunga," from Dead Can Dance’s Into the Labyrinth (CD, 4AD 45384-2), offered surprising harmonic nuance as it rippled out in concentric waves of low-end energy. Compared to its own midrange, the lowest bass notes didn’t have quite the same level of harmonic resolution or leading-edge articulation, but my ears didn’t seem to mind. As robust as it was, the Lamm’s bass did not subvert the overall balance of its sound.

Occasionally, when I pushed dense symphonic pieces -- such as Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, with Riccardo Muti and the Berlin Philharmonic (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 435 683-2) -- into louder-than-pleasant volumes (+96dB), the bass thickened and came forward. Since no prior component had placed the same low-frequency demand on my system and room, I can’t say if the Lamm LL2.1 was the cause or simply the revealer of those limits. At my typical listening levels (typically, 80-90dB), the LL2.1’s low-end delivery had delicious heft and punch.

From pp to ff, from largo to presto, the LL2.1’s handling of dynamics and tempo was among the best I’ve experienced. It delivered a broad palette of musical texture shaped by amplitude and duration. Adeptly capturing microrhythmic changes in bow speed concurrent with tiny shifts in volume told my ears that real musicians were at work. Whether due to its vacuum-tube rectification, custom Plitron transformer, or doubled-up power-supply caps, the Lamm sounded effortless on big dynamic shifts. It drew from deep reserves to render the magnificently swelling crescendos and cymbal clashes at the end of the Mahler Second.

Vocalists were fleshed out; performers appeared embodied on the soundstage between my speakers. Gorgeous tone and controlled German diction made the presence of soloist Birgit Remmert nearly tangible in the final movements of the Mahler. I loved how the Lamm preamp revealed her steady command of the air moving from her diaphragm, how it told me how her lips shaped each word.

Sopranos and pianos present challenging dynamics -- well recorded together, they can make for an audio-component torture test. The LL2.1 Deluxe portrayed the incredible dynamic range of Linda Ronstadt singing "The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress," from Get Closer (LP, Asylum 60185-1). Despite the singer being in an isolation booth, I heard how the power of her voice forced the producer to subtly dial back its volume on the peaks. Likewise, the LL2.1 offered a full, clear, surprisingly dynamic reproduction of baritone Willie Nelson singing "September Song," from Stardust (LP, Columbia/Classic JC 35305) -- here, the Lamm caught the faintest tremolo in his voice against a piano very closely miked. These performers were not disembodied heads floating in space. Blending rich timbres with tight dynamic control, the Lamm LL2.1 made it easy to suspend disbelief.

Contrast and compare

My Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk.III has a built-in phono section, the V-Cap upgrade, and a few well-placed 1952 Sylvania 6SN7 bad-boy tubes. At $12,100, it’s twice the price of the LL2.1, but comparing the two proved insightful.

Vladimir Lamm and Atma-Sphere’s Ralph Karsten are two of high-end audio’s most experienced circuit designers. Their preamps reflect their unique theories about music reproduction, and each has its own personality. The MP-1 Mk.III and LL2.1 are both true class-A tube designs built with top-shelf parts, yet each takes a different path to audio reproduction. The Lamm’s circuit is single-ended, while the Atma-Sphere is a balanced differential amplifier with a single gain stage. A beefy output transformer is integral to the Lamm; the Atma-Sphere has none. Though the MP-1 is perfectly functional as a line stage, Ralph Karsten designed it from the ground up as a phono preamp. The LL2.1 is strictly a line stage that requires a standalone phono stage for vinyl playback.

Listening to large orchestras perform works such as the Bruckner Seventh or the Mahler Second, it was easy to hear differences between these preamps. The Atma-Sphere delivered a straight-on front-of-hall perspective, while the LL2.1’s was farther back and more oblique. The MP-1 presented a wider, more expansive soundstage with larger images, and fleshed out the back corners of the orchestra as clearly as it did performers up close. Triangles and bells in the rear of the orchestra that occasionally sounded faint or distant through LL2.1 were resolved with clarity through the MP-1. I have yet to hear a preamp with the Atma-Sphere’s overall sense of upper-octaves transparency. With subtler harmonics and a crisper attack, it vividly reproduced melodies from orchestral performers. In the high end, so goes the old saw, dollars buy the frequency extremes.

Across the midrange, the LL2.1 Deluxe delivered open, airy, fully developed sonic images. Without drawing them with precise outlines, it placed instruments in a highly realistic acoustic ambience. The Lamm painted the music’s story in palpable tonal colors, and led my ear to perceive the orchestra as an integrated whole rather than as a collection of individuals. Both preamps delivered superior dynamic contrast, and both were very quick, though front waves were crisper through the MP-1. The Atma-Sphere preamp offered more low-frequency harmonic information, with tighter leading edges. The Lamm’s bass was deeper, with a stronger visceral punch, and the way it handled timpani at the end of the first movement of the Bruckner made for an impressive finish that gave me both goose bumps and insight into the composer’s intent.

Each preamp engaged me emotionally in its own way, each honored the music with its insight into performers and performances, and each delivered a high level of listening satisfaction. If preamps were seasons, the Lamm leaned toward the autumnal, the Atma-Sphere toward mid-spring. With my system configured and my reviewer’s hat put aside, I rarely felt compelled to leave one for the other. I’m content with the fully balanced Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk.III, but were I in the market for a preamp at a mid-level price that I could live with for a long time, the Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe would be on my short list.

Wrap it up

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe is to say that, after I came to know it, I didn’t want to review it -- I just wanted to hear music through it. By the end of my listening sessions, the audiophile words tended to fall away. The LL2.1’s expressive flow, stalwart bass, and superb dynamics, combined with a wonderful sense of acoustic presence and harmonic rightness, made me stop thinking about componentry, and drew me in for many a joyful night of musical satisfaction. Its virtue is its guileless blending of these attributes into a unified whole. To my ears, it just felt like home. I described the Lamm’s sound as holistic -- a word that might take on more meaning for you after you’ve heard it. When you have, tell me if you think otherwise. I say "Thank you, Vladimir" -- it’s good to be an audiophile.

. . . Tim Aucremann

Lamm LL2.1 Deluxe Preamplifier
Price: $5990 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Lamm Industries Inc.
2621 E. 24th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11235
Phone: (718) 368-0181
Fax: (718) 368-0140