Lamm Industries LL1 Signature Preamplifier
by Marc Mickelson | March 9, 2010
No one has ever accused Vladimir Lamm of designing and manufacturing inexpensive electronics. This became even less likely a few years ago, when he introduced the ML3 Signature amplifiers. These single-ended mono amps use an uncommon output tube -- the large GM70, a Russian export -- to produce 32 watts, and both channels together comprise four chassis. The cost of this configuration is steep -- $139,690 pair -- but if you hear the ML3s, you may swear, as I have, that the cost seems like a keen musical investment. I spent a glorious summer with the ML3s, using them to drive Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 Series 2 speakers, a combination that produced the best sound I've heard in my listening room. This is closely followed by the same amps driving Wilson MAXX 3s -- the pairing that produced easily the best sound I heard at this year's CES.
In that same CES system was the ML3s' natural mate -- the LL1 Signature preamp, which also has four separate units: a line-stage chassis and power supply for each channel. While it debuted at CES, where it was covered as though it were brand new, the LL1 Signature had actually been available for several months, and for equally long it had been a part of my system.
The LL1's circuitry is unique among Lamm preamps. The longstanding L2 is a hybrid design that uses MOSFETs in its signal path and tubes in its power supply, solely for voltage regulation. The LL2.1 is all tube, though its circuit is not nearly as robust as the LL1's. The latter is fully class A and employs a single gain stage, indicating that the LL1 inverts the signal passing through it, so you'll need to compensate somewhere down the line, the easiest place being at the speakers, where you'll want to swap the positive and negative connections. The LL1 also uses no feedback, which made the choice of tubes for its line stage especially important. Vladimir Lamm settled on 6N30P-DR tubes, the Russian military-grade version of the 6H30 that's in fashion for use in all kinds of electronics today. The LL1 uses these tubes in parallel, something that the 6N30P-DR's low internal impedance allows, and this reduces overall noise.
However, the 6N30P-DR tubes, a quad of them, need a great deal of current -- roughly 60 milliamps - and this has a welcome byproduct: the ability to drive any interconnects of any length. For this reason, Vladimir Lamm refers to the LL1 as "a tank, but a very sensitive one." This doesn't mean that the LL1 will reduce the differences among interconnects. Rather, it displays them to an even greater degree. Indeed, I found that with the LL1 in my system, the differences between the Shunyata and AudioQuest interconnects I use as references were more pronounced. If you doubt that lengths of wire make a difference to the sonic outcome, try listening to them through the LL1.
Tubes are also integral in the LL1's power supply, which is similar to that of the LL2.1 but far more robust -- or as Vladimir Lamm put it, "very serious." Its tubes -- a pair of 6X4s -- are used for full-wave rectification: the conversion of AC to DC, the entire input waveform converted to constant polarity at its output. This is a rather complex and expensive way to implement a power supply, but to Vladimir Lamm, "it's sonically better." A look at the LL1's power supply will confirm that it's rife with chokes and capacitors, which are required for the circuit's electrical demands.
The LL1 Signature borrows its parallel-6N30P-DR topology from the ML3. This circuit is the gain stage in the preamp and the driver stage in the amp, and the only difference is a higher plate voltage required for the amplifier, because the circuit must drive the GM70 output tube. The use of the same circuit for the LL1 and ML3 explains why Vladimir Lamm sees the two products as natural mates. He's also working on a matching LP1 Signature phono stage, a three-chassis affair whose price will be in the $25,000 range. Vladimir couldn't say when this will be available, however. Like so many of the people who design audio equipment, he is engaged in his company on every level -- from sales and marketing to product manufacturing and quality control. Vladimir describes his company as "a theater with one actor," and this affects his ability to churn out products on some predefined release schedule. In a perfect world and a better economy, Vladimir would employ people to do much of what he does now, allowing him the time to conceptualize new products and bring them to fruition. Here's to a day when that will be a reality.
Four on the floor
Few issues arise when integrating a preamp into your audio system. Models with attached umbilicals, like the Convergent Audio SL1 Legend, take some grunt work to place on your rack, and sometimes you encounter a preamp whose voltage gain doesn't match optimally with your amp's own gain or input sensitivity. That's basically it in terms of headaches. But the LL1 Signature brings with it a completely new set of challenges, due to its four chassis. Your first instinct will be to stack them in some way, but you'll feel the hot admonition of Vladimir Lamm if you do. He'll reason, correctly in my opinion, that you're defeating the purpose of separating the mono channels and power supplies by putting the chassis one atop another, where a slurry of EMI and RFI will contaminate them all.
But just where do you put four separate full-sized chassis? In terms of equipment racks, the most logical one I know of is a Silent Running four-shelf, double-wide Craz 8 Reference isoRack plus. This has room for eight separate components on its four shelves, with enough space between to allow for separation, so EMI and RFI won't migrate. I have no such equipment condo, so I was forced to place all four of the LL1's chassis on the carpeted floor in front of my rack. I used either Corian shelves or large ceramic tiles underneath -- they're all I had on hand for such duty -- because putting any equipment directly on carpet will compromise airflow and possibly cause overheating. My solution certainly wasn't perfect, because it meant running interconnects from every source on the rack to the preamp on the floor and then from the preamp back to the amps, but it's the only one I devised.
I am convinced that the LL1 Signature's completely unreasonable physical configuration will turn off some potential owners, and that's a shame. I said a few choice words while I was figuring out where the &%$#@* everything would go. Thankfully, there is no such issue actually using the LL1 Signature -- unless you place the two mono line-stage chassis more than arm's length away from each other. You'll need to get in the habit of counting the clicks of the top-line TKD volume controls in order to ensure proper channel balance. It quickly becomes second nature.
One welcome feature is a gain-reduction switch, which will lessen background hiss if you use the LL1 with a high-gain amplifier. With another switch, you can turn on the preamp and a pair of Lamm amps all at once. The LL1's inputs are via RCA connectors only, while its outputs are both RCA and XLR. The LL1 is not fully balanced, so the XLR outputs are pseudo-balanced. As with other Lamm preamps, input selection is via a series of toggle switches, a configuration that Vladimir believes simply sounds best. The passive parts used for the LL1 -- including Dale metal-film resistors, Cornell Dubilier and United Chemi-Con electrolytic caps, and Electrocube, Elcon and Roederstein film caps -- are also the best according to Vladimir.
The line stages and power supplies connect via detachable six-pin umbilicals, which is a good thing because each channel of the LL1 Signature weighs 57 pounds and the chassis are easier to lug around separately. The LL1 Signature isn't as eye-catching as some other preamps, especially those clad in chrome, but it is in keeping with the established Lamm aesthetic: your choice of charcoal, cinder or basic-black finish. I like the LL1's lack of ostentation -- those four chassis notwithstanding.
Evolution is overrated
Over the nearly fifteen years I've been writing about high-end audio and music, I've witnessed countless rollouts of new products, and I've paid especially close attention to those that touted new-and-improved versions of amplifiers or speakers I wrote about in positive terms. In general, when new products replace old, there is further evolution of the core design, which nearly always leads to sonic improvement in some way or other, and sometimes a change in character that removes most remnants of the previous paradigm. Not so with Lamm equipment, which is updated very infrequently. Before he emigrated to the US, Vladimir developed a mathematical model of human hearing that related to the design of audio equipment. Out of this came what he calls the "absolute linearity of a system" (ALS), which, he explained to me a number of years ago, is a byproduct of measurable parameters. The idea here is that one can design audio electronics strictly by theory and measurements, which Vladimir Lamm has done with each of his products, eschewing listening.
This has led to fully formed products, not works-in-progress. Vladimir designs his circuits and then lets them be, improving them at glacial speed -- introducing better passive parts and perhaps improved circuit-board layout but not radically changing his products. Thus, the Lamm product line has been rather stable and benefits from a similar base sonic signature, one that I and others in the audio press have described as "organic" and "natural." These terms encapsulate a sense of realism about each product, one that refrains from sonic showiness in favor of a calmer and more realistic portrayal. To some listeners, Lamm equipment sounds dark, while to my ears so many competing products are brighter than reality. I consider the spectral balance of each Lamm product -- amp to preamp to phono stage -- to be about as ideal as audio equipment gets. For this reason, I've been using Lamm electronics in my system for the nearly fifteen years I've been writing about high-end audio and music.
In just about every sonic way, the LL1 Signature fits right in among the accomplished members of the Lamm family, complementing the sound of the ML3 Signature and M1.2 Reference amplifiers, not necessarily duplicating it from top to bottom. There is an obvious forcefulness to the LL1's performance, which gives transients throughout the sonic spectrum, and especially in the upper midrange and into the treble, a quick-paced punchiness. A raucous rock recording like Keith Richards' Main Offender [Virgin V2-86499] absolutely launches from the speakers, especially the reggae-beat drum strikes of "Words of Wonder." At high levels, the short, sharp kick drum hits like a punch to the chest, and the down-and-dirty growl of the guitars slices through the air. This certainly isn't possible with a lesser recording, but it all plays into the propulsive way the LL1 Signature sends musical energy into the room. With a classical recording, like Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony's LP of Stravinsky's The Firebird Suite [Telarc DG-10039], the strings sound slightly more vigorous and alive than with other preamps, better delineated too. This music is leagues more subtle than what's captured on Main Offender, yet they both make powerful musical statements through the LL1.
This power extends to the LL1's bass as well, which is agile and ideally ripe -- supple and just a touch warm. It emphasizes quick-paced athleticism over ultimate weight and heft, a particularly worthwhile tradeoff when the LL1 is paired with Lamm mono amplifiers.
Whenever I listen to Jakob Dylan, erstwhile member of the Wallflowers and now a solo act, I wonder what it must be like to have music as the business you've chosen and arguably the most important songwriter in history as your father. The son has followed somewhat in the father's footsteps, signing with his dad's label, Columbia, and turning out an album of interesting folk-pop, Seeing Things [Columbia 88697 02328 2], which was produced by Rick Rubin, an audiophile in his own right. The CD's sonic balance is unusual: inherent warmth combined with snappy transients and a pellucid midrange. Here, the LL1 Signature's low-end agility pays off in important ways, delineating the rich bass lines throughout the recording, and lending real muscularity where it's needed. Seeing Things, like some of the CDs Rubin produced for Johnny Cash, has demo-quality sound, and the songwriting is interesting too, even if the lyrics are not densely poetic enough to earn the "Dylanesque" label.
The LL1's midrange is direct and free from artifice -- displaying neither tubey warmth nor solid-state dryness. It is also highly animated, like that of the ML3, able to track challenging vocal runs while conveying even the most minute glints of color and texture. In the grand scheme of all things audio, the LL1 leans slightly to the rounded, sweet side of the equation, but only slightly, and this is offset by a peculiarity in the upper-midrange/lower-treble region, which seems highlighted to a degree. Depending on your perspective (and partnering equipment), this will either enliven each recording, illuminating everything that passes through that region, or tip the balance of your system over, not necessarily into full-on brightness but certainly toward an upper-frequency accentuation.
Sibilance seemed especially prominent, and this puzzled me. It was out of character for Lamm electronics, and there was nothing in Lamm's own measurements, a full battery of which are included with the LL1, to indicate its presence. So I did something I've never done before -- I consulted a product owner, asking if he had heard the same thing with his LL1. He had and he recommended a couple of ways to address it, which I immediately tried. First, I gave the LL1 Signature a lot of warm-up time -- an hour at the very least and more if possible -- which smoothed out the region almost completely. Next, switching to the power cords that came with the LL1 Signature (I had been using Shunyata and Essential Sound Products cords) took care of the rest. In between, I tried plugging the LL1 directly into the wall, bypassing the power conditioners I use, and this had no effect.
I listened very closely to the system Lamm assembled at CES this year, and while the power cords weren't the throw-ins that come with the LL1 (they were from Kubala-Sosna), the system was kept on for the duration of the show. It displayed no trace of this highlighting, eclipsing every show system I have heard to date. So I was satisfied that while this peculiarity was present, it was something that could be addressed. And perhaps when the LL1 is used along with the ML3s, it's an asset.
But the LL1 Signature should not be considered a preamp only for use with Lamm amps. Its forceful, energetic sound will refresh many systems -- and breathe life into all types of music in the process. You just need to be sure to give it ample warm-up, and while trying your luxe aftermarket power cords is worthwhile, the best cords for use with the LL1 may be in the crates.
The Zanden Audio Model 3000 ($17,250), which I reviewed a couple of months ago, is particularly stiff competition for the Lamm LL1 Signature, as both are top preamps from well-established artisanal makers. As with all Lamm products, everything that comes out of Zanden Audio is designed by one person -- Kazutoshi Yamada, who, just like Vladimir Lamm, is the brain and backbone of his company. Both the Model 3000 and LL1 Signature are all-tube line-stage-only preamps with separate tube-rectified power supplies. However, their physical configurations are completely different, with the two-chassis Model 3000 being the easier to place -- by far. The Lamm preamp uses dual volume controls, while the Zanden has just one top-of-the-line ALPS RK50. They both avoid standard multipole switches for input selection; the Model 3000's front-panel rotary switch actually engages high-quality relays with silver contacts. Both preamps feature XLR outputs, but only the Model 3000 has XLR inputs (it's also fully balanced). Remote control is not an option with either preamp.
Broad sonic similarities -- such as an overall sense of speed and liveliness -- aside, the Lamm LL1 has the more recognizable sound of these two titans. This would be the case with just about any preamp, as neutrality, the lack of identifiable characteristics, dominates the Model 3000's performance. Whereas the LL1 sounds quick on transients and forceful down low, the Model 3000 remains evenhanded throughout the sonic spectrum, a very slight reticence in the midbass, its only sonic dimple, reducing its rhythmic drive a touch. The two preamps portray voices with eerie realism, capturing chest and throat with equal alacrity. Jakob Dylan on Seeing Things was locked in unwavering fashion between the speakers with both preamps, though he had a little more in-the-room presence via the LL1 Signature. The same is true of the CD's heavy bass lines, although both preamps resolved them well and conveyed dynamic gradations in the bass region with ease.
On classical music, like the Carl Orff-authorized version of Carmina Burana on DG LP [Deutsche Grammophon SLPM 139362], the Lamm preamp sounded more resolute, the voices bounding out of the speakers, and displayed slightly better large-scale dynamics, which served this grand music well. The Zanden preamp captured the hall's sound better, while I couldn't say either preamp placed instruments and singers in space better than the other.
I used both preamps with Lamm M1.2 amps, and not surprisingly the nod went to the LL1 Signature, whose powerful sound mated well with the amps. It also mated very well with the sweeter Zanden Model 9600 monoblocks, though the sheer neutrality of the Model 3000 let more of the amps' unique sonic signature shine through. With an Audio Research Reference 110, the choice will come down to the preference of the listener: energy and force with the Lamm or utter neutrality with the Zanden. Both preamps mated well with any of the amps I've mentioned, but "well" is not something for which potential buyers of either preamp would settle.
For the cost of a Lamm LL1 Signature, you can buy a very good complete audio system, underscoring the fact that the market segment the LL1 inhabits isn't one that's bursting with potential owners. It's a best-of-the-best design, which is exactly the place it occupies in the Lamm product line, and in this arena, cost becomes a non-issue after a certain point, as well-heeled customers will likely be able to afford whatever they want. Owners of Lamm ML3 Signature monoblocks -- very lucky owners, let me say -- will want to investigate the LL1 Signature without delay, for no reason other than its adjacent spot in the Lamm product line. And it's certainly a worthy sonic match, its robust, agile sound allowing music of all kinds to come alive -- dance around in its bones (to paraphrase the Edgar Leslie/Walter Donaldson classic). The LL1 Signature should also be on the radar of owners of other extreme amps, as its resolute power brings music to immediate life without sonic penalty -- provided there is ample warm-up time and proper attention paid to power delivery, that is.
His position in the forefront of high-end audio assured, Vladimir Lamm is certainly not resting on his deep bed of laurels, the ambition of the LL1 Signature providing proof of this. I have begun fantasizing about pairing the ML3 Signature amps with the LL1 Signature, and pondering just where all those black chassis might go.
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Analog: TW-Acustic Raven AC, VPI Classic turntables and Purevox PV-i turntables, Graham B-44 Phantom, Tri-Planar Mk VII U2 and Purevox Series VII tonearms, Dynavector XV-1s (stereo and mono) and Audio-Technica AT33EV cartridges, AudioQuest LeoPard phono cable, Lamm Industries LP2 and Audio Research PH7 phono stages.
Digital: Audio Research Reference CD8 CD player, Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP universal player, Zanden Audio Model 2000P CD transport and Model 5000S digital-to-analog converter.
Preamplifiers: Convergent Audio Technology SL1 Legend with phono stage, Zanden Model 3000.
Power amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 110 stereo amp, Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference and Zanden Model 9600 monoblocks.
Loudspeakers: Vivid Audio G1 Giya, Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX Series 3.
Interconnects: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research Aeros Aurora-IC.
Speaker cables: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research Aeros Aurora-SP.
Power conditioners: Shunyata Research Hydra V-Ray Version II, Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference.
Power cords: Shunyata Research Anaconda Helix CX and Python Helix CX, Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Zanden Audio power cords.
Equipment rack and platforms: Silent Running Audio Craz 4 Reference isoRack plus and Ohio Class XL Plus2 platforms (under Lamm M1.2 amps), Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation bases under digital gear.