Lamm Industries LL2 Deluxe preamplifier LL2.1 Deluxe, September 2009
Change comes slowly if at all to a Lamm amplifier, which seems the product of such deliberation that change is little needed. But parts suppliers change their parts, consumers change what they wish to consumeand Vladimir Lamm, who designs all of the circuits for all of his amplifiers, responds by drawing his products a little bit differently. In doing so, he often finds a way to make them sound better.
So it was this spring: In addition to the LL1 Signature ($42,690), a four-chassis assault on the state of the preamplifier art, Lamm Industries announced a new version of the LL2 line-level preamplifier, which I reviewed in Stereophile's September 2005 issue). Now it's something called the Lamm LL2.1 ($5690 in standard trim, $5990 for the Deluxe version with added bypass capacitors).
Lamm says he received a number of requests for a line preamp with less gain than the LL2, mostly from people who rely on digital music sources: The healthy outputs of most CD players and D/A converters prevented users from turning their volume controls much past 9 o'clock, and otherwise made it difficult to match sound levels between various other source components. Lamm responded by redesigning his circuit to incorporate 15dB of switchable attenuation.
Switchable attenuation required an extra switchI suppose that's the sort of insight you'd expect from a hi-fi reviewerand an extra switch required a revised front panel. Thus the Lamm LL2.1 looks a little different from its predecessor, with much larger volume knobs. (Happily, the new Lamm preamp retains its predecessor's approach to such things, with separate potentiometers for each channel: Balance can be adjusted, as it often needs to be, without having an extra pot in the path.)
On the subject of clean paths: The Lamm LL2.1 retains the LL2's source-selection scheme, which is also excellent. Going on the assumption that every listener has one preferred source, which he or she uses more often than all others, Lamm designed his preamp with one pair of direct inputs and two pairs of standard inputs: The former pair goes straight from the input jacks to a high-quality two-position switch, then on to the volume controls and gain stages. The latter goes from that first switch to another high-quality switch, allowing the choice between Line 1 and Line 2, and then to yet another, for tape-loop switching. Thus the signals from all three input pairs are subject to much less degradation than with the typical rotary switch, and those from the direct inputs are subject to even less than that. It makes sense.
The above-mentioned gain stages are built around four well-loved tubes: a pair each of 6189/12AU7 dual triodes and 6DJ82 dual triodes, the two halves of the latter wired together in shunt-regulated push-pull mode. (Remember: The term push-pull doesn't refer to the Lamm LL2.1's amplification topology, which is single-ended and thus fully class-A.) In the power supply of the LL2.1, rectification comes courtesy of a 6X4 tube and two rugged-looking diodes, and smoothing is done with a pi filter of the usual sort, built around a small Hammond choke. Filament voltages are maintained with a large, nonswitching regulator.
Build quality is superb, with sturdy metalwork and a clean circuit board that incorporates numerous test points for easy servicing: a very professional touch. Parts include pale blue Dale resistors, French blue CDM electrolytics, and sky-blue Vishay film caps and Takamishawa relays: As Lenny Bruce once said in a very different context, I've never seen so much blue in my life. (But in this, the Deluxe version of the LL2.1 preamp, some of those blue caps are bypassed with yellow Electrocube polystyrene caps. The effect is tres Provençal.) The LL2.1's input impedance is specified as 50k ohms and its output 250 ohms, the latter suggesting good compatibility with a variety of power amplifiers.
Lamm's recent introduction of the LL2.1 brought with it the opportunity for Stereophile to listen once again to the company's analog stalwart, the LP2 Deluxe phono preamplifier, which Mikey Fremer wrote about in his December 2002 "Analog Corner" column. The LP2 Deluxe is itself unchanged, although the price has gone up: from $6690 in 2002 to $7290 in 2009. (As with the LL2.1, Lamm's phono preamp is also available in a non-Deluxe version, for a few hundred dollars less.)
Apart from the LP2's need for a sturdier-than-usual shelf, installation of both products was straightforward, and neither gave me even a hint of trouble. The LP2 and LL2.1 both became moderately warm during use, but not alarmingly so, and both sounded better after being used for at least half an hour, after which their performance remained stable. Neither appeared to invert signal polarity, and both were, indeed, as free from hum and noise as any product I've heard. As to ancillary gear, my phono cartridges included an Ortofon SPU 90th Anniversary, EMT OFD 25, and Grace F-9E; the digital source was a Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player; interconnects were Shindo and Audio Note silver; speaker cables were Auditorium 23 copper; the amp of choice was my Shindo Haut-Brion (input impedance: approximately 100k ohms); and speakers were Audio Note AN-E SPe H/E and Quad ESL. Regrettably, I did not have an original LL2 on hand for direct comparison.
Listening to the LL2.1 Deluxe with digital sources did nothing but reinforce my earlier impression of the LL2: Vladimir Lamm's designs are the utterly cleanest-sounding tube electronics I've heardclean, that is, while still maintaining the organic flow I associate with the best tubed components, and without the steely, mechanical, or overetched qualities I associate with the worst.
Throughout David Crosby's nicely done boxed set, Voyage (CDs, Atlantic/Rhino R2 77628), the LL2.1 sounded more open than my Shindo Masseto, with voices pulled farther from the mix and presented with a greater sense of wholeness and body. The Lamm was, quite simply, cleaner. For its part, the Shindo sounded more like a tube component: warmer and more sonically opaque. Less ambiguous was the Shindo's stronger bottom octave, with the electric bass in the intro to "Long Time Gone" pressurizing my room more realistically.
Orchestral music, such as Sir John Barbirolli and the New Philharmonia Orchestra's 1967 recording of Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande (CD, EMI 3 71492 2), was consistently well played by the Lamm, whose superior openness helped to unravel the dense scoring, and to make clearer the identities of the darker woodwind and brass instruments that Schoenberg favored in his tone poems.
In other words, I daresay no one who has spent time with an LL2 would be surprised at the sound of an LL2.1but I imagine he or she would be delighted.
And so it went for a number of weeks: the Lamm combination being consistently a bit more open and explicit and truthful, the Shindo being thicker and more romantic and a little more human, and both doing a lovely job of things. I wish the former had the latter's mono capabilities (albeit on phono only) and compact prettiness, and that the latter had the former's Mute switch and balance-control capabilities. (Interesting that the Lamm combination sells for $13,280, the Shindo for $11,500.)
More to the point, I really wish the Shindo had the switchable attenuation of the new Lamm LL2.1, especially since I have yet to hear any volume pot, on any piece of gear, that tracks as well at low settings as it does on high. And if I already owned an LL2, I'm certain I'd feel the same degree of revision-envy.
A couple of years ago, when I owned a pair of Lamm's magnificent and almost peerlessly nuanced ML2.1 mono amplifiers, I came within a clam's whisker of buying a Lamm LL2 preamplifier: It was that good. As it turned out, I changed direction (again!) and went with Shindo separates: differently beautiful animals. Delighted as I remain with my choice, the Lamm LL2.1, especially in tandem with the Lamm LP2 phono preamp, is the rare thing that makes me look back wistfully. What a combination!
Though the price increase, as with all such things, is a drag, it isn't enough to choke my enthusiasm. And I can saywhile acknowledging that most of the playback products I own are best described as things that appeal to special tastesthat the Lamms' kind of neutrality, their soundless sound, is the closest I've heard to a level of performance that would truly and thoroughly satisfy any enthusiast. Myself included.Art Dudley