Lamm Industries LL2 Deluxe preamplifier Page 2
All the parts in the Lamm LL2 appear to be of extremely high quality, their expense made more acute by what the designer describes as an arduous process of hand-selection and hand-matching. Noble film potentiometers (with mechanically detented controls); Dale resistors; Roederstein, Electrocube, and Cornell-Dubilier capacitors; and new-old stock Sylvania tubes abound, and the alloy chassis is exceptionally solid. As hinted above, there are no provisions for remote control—which is utterly fine with me—although concessions to easy living do include a front-mounted mute switch and two pairs of output jacks, for use with a subwoofer or other such luxury.
Setup and listening
Using the one-box Lamm in my system was a snap. As with the same company's power amplifiers, flipping the power switch activates the LL2's protection circuit, so its output is muted while the tube filaments begin to heat and the power-supply capacitors charge. That carries on for about a half a minute, during which time the power indicator light flashes on and off. When the circuits have stabilized, the light stops flashing and the amplified signal is available at both pairs of output jacks. Also as with the Lamm amplifiers, the designer recommends a 45-minute warmup before peak performance is reached. I followed that recommendation to a T throughout the time I had the LL2 in my system.
After letting the Lamm LL2 run in for a few hours with some nameless disc, the first thing I gave my attention to was Peter Schreier and András Schiff's 1989 recording of Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin (London 430 414-2). The performance was nothing short of hypnotic through the Lamm. In contrast with the way I've heard lesser electronics handle this disc, the piano sounded not like a small, quiet instrument, but like a large, dynamic one that just happened to be recorded from a greater distance than the singing voice. Musical flow and apparent pitch accuracy were both first-rate, and Schreier's voice had peerless sonic presence and emotional expressiveness.
Peerless except for one, that is: my Fi preamp, which also uses 6DJ8 tubes, and which sold for $5000 a decade or so ago. In fact, the two products were close enough in performance—both were tuneful, uncolored, and remarkably big-sounding—that I doubt I could reliably tell them apart in a blind listening test.
With smaller-scale music in particular, such as well-recorded contemporary bluegrass, I could hear almost no difference between my reference and the Lamm. On the fine Tim Stafford song "Find Me Out on a Mountain Top," from Blue Highway's Midnight Storm (CD, Rebel REB-CD-1746), both the Lamm and the Fi gave the lead vocal excellent presence and wholeness, and the song flowed well, with good snap and no dragging. Was the Fi the very tiniest bit richer on the string bass? Might've been—but for all intents and purposes, the two ca-$5k preamps sounded the same on that one.
The above-mentioned Dvorák LP benefited greatly from the Lamm preamp. The LL2 not only sounded very slightly more open than the Fi on that one, but allowed the music-making to sound more human, and more like something was happening in front of me, not just being retold. I remember in particular thinking that the staccato notes at the beginning of the third movement had a great deal more force—I could feel them—with the Lamm LL2 in the system, so much so that I shut the system down, reinstalled my Fi preamp, warmed it back up, and listened again for confirmation. I was right: The Lamm gave the sounds of the notes more body, more feel, and especially more movement.
As to the difference between the Direct and Line inputs: If it's audible, it's excruciatingly subtle. Did the acoustic guitar solo in the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band," from Workingman's Dead (CD, Warner Bros. 1869-2), sound a little more forceful through the Direct inputs? I don't know—but the difference was so small as to barely show up on my radar. By comparison, the difference between, say, correct and inverted absolute phase is a great deal more noticeable.
This may be a hard position to defend, but I have the feeling that the LL2's cleanness—its lack of murk and mud, while at the same time not lacking in color, texture, or body—had to do at least partly with its speed, which is not a quality people always associate with tube electronics. I don't mean speed in the rhythm-and-pacing sense, although that performance aspect was also superb in the Lamm, but rather the thing's ability to respond to an input signal, amplify it with great faithfulness, then get the hell out of the way.
It was while auditioning LPs through the LL2, with the help of a Linn Linto phono preamp, that I put my finger on another quality that made this preamp—and, I think, the Lamm ML2.1 amplifier as well—so uniquely musical: Through them, each note had a realistic sustain, followed by a similarly realistic decay—and after that there was real space, real noiseless nothing, until the attack component of the next note. With most electronics that space is filled up with noise or overlong note decays, which not only diminish the sense of rhythm and pacing in recorded music, but make the artistry of the performers less dramatic and more homogenized by filling in and smoothing over all of the pores, so to speak. I've heard other preamps that were as free of overhang, of between-note distortion as the Lamm LL2; but in virtually every such instance, it seemed the notes themselves had also been scrubbed clean of much of their harmonic character.
I'd been hearing that effect through the Lamm amplifiers for months, but I first noticed it while listening to the recording of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata made in 1960 by Henryk Szeryng and Artur Rubinstein (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2377). The same thing carried over to full orchestral music: On my favorite recording of Wagner overtures, with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Munich Philharmonic (LP, Westminster/Speakers Corner WST-17032), the way in which Knappertsbusch shaped the lines in the Tannhäuser overture—more so toward the end of the piece—was more obvious and affecting with the Lamm preamp in the system. With the best qualities of the Lamm amplifiers now apparently compounded by those of the Lamm preamp, I heard a real gain in expressiveness, and in my own feeling of involvement with the music, as compared with my reference.
A side note before moving on: You'll have noticed from the heading that this equipment report is about something called the LL2 Deluxe—which implies that there's also an LL2 non-Deluxe. And there is. For the sum of $4690, which is $300 less than the price of the model reviewed here, you can buy the same thing, except that is has only half the power-supply capacitance as this one. Also, in the non-Deluxe version, none of the Vishay film capacitors in the signal path are bypassed with Electrocube polystyrene capacitors—as they are here. Everything else is exactly the same, so much so that an LL2 bought in non-Deluxe dress can be upgraded somewhere down The Road. But Vladimir Lamm points out that, since the time of the LL2's introduction, sales of the less expensive version have gone from approximately 15% of the total—itself not a terribly high percentage—down to almost nothing. You may read into that whatever you like, but I take it as evidence that, once a person has decided to spend over $4000 on a stereo preamplifier, spending an additional $300 is not such a big deal.
Which raises the always-interesting question of value—and which brings to mind an irony: In terms of its musical and sonic performance, the Lamm LL2 preamplifier doesn't tower over the other high-quality line-level preamplifiers in quite the same way that the Lamm ML2.1 power amplifier seems to tower over its competition. On the other hand, the LL2 is arguably a much better value for money: In relative terms, I've heard more expensive preamps than this, but I've never heard one that performs better; in absolute terms, judged for its musicality, the quality of its parts and construction, and its sheer design ingenuity, the Lamm LL2 is worth every penny they're asking for it.
To say it more plainly: $4990 is not at all unreasonable for a preamp this good.
More so than other hi-fi components, a preamp is a personal choice: It will probably be your primary way of interacting with the system as a whole, and its selection depends a great deal on finding the balance you want between ergonomics and performance. Taken as such, the Lamm LL2 is not for the audio enthusiast who demands home-theater–like luxury from his music system, or who wants at his fingertips various adjustments—phase inversion, mono blending, channel reversal, even bass and treble lift. Even the LL2's volume-control setup is distinctively purist: You'll either prefer it to everything else—as I do—or you'll want something else. No sense spending this kind of money if the latter is the case.
But if you want a smartly engineered and apparently rugged piece of equipment that plays music at least as well as anything else I've heard, you really should go out of your way to give it a listen. Like the ML2.1 amplifier, the Lamm LL2 Deluxe is one of those rare preamps that you buy not just because it sounds good, but because it makes more music.