Lamm LP2 Deluxe phono preamplifier Art Dudley
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.)
The rear panel of the Lamm LP2 features two pairs of input jacks: one pair each for moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges. Individual left- and right-channel toggle switches allow the user to choose between them, since keeping an unused pair in-circuit would be an engraved invitation to noise. The MM jacks lead straight to the first gain stage, but the MC jacks lead to a pair of Jensen step-up transformers with a 10:1 turns ratio. Thus low-output MC cartridges see not only an additional 19.75dB of gain but also a set of loading characteristics that are, in my opinion, altogether better than those offered by the typical active device sans transformer.
Each channel of the LP2 uses two 5842 miniature triodes: a distinctively sensitive tube made by Raytheon as a replacement for the even older Western Electric 417A. I wondered why Vladimir Lamm didn't go all out and equip his phono preamp with NOS Western tubes; as it turns out, owing to the fact that microphonic samples of the 417A and 5842 are fairly common, he's forced to buy in large quantities and hand-select the tubes that his customers will getan approach that would render the WE version unaffordable in a production item such as this. But Lamm suggests that LP2 owners fortunate enough to find 417A samples they can afford are free to experiment.
In contrast with the LL2.1 preamplifier, the supply rails of the LP2 are fully dual-mono downstream from the rectifier tubeanother 6X4with twin pi filters built with beefier chokes and reservoir capacitors. The filament supply, on the other hand, is more or less identical to the one Lamm uses in his line preamp, with the same solid-state regulator.
Lamm's phono preamp is also strikingly well made: I've never seen a battleship from up close, yet I'm certain that the Lamm LP2 is built like one. In addition to the same construction techniques used in the LL2.1, there's a hefty internal wall in the LP2, presumably to keep the power-supply bits from interfering with the very sensitive signal-path bits. Also, rather than trust such a task to the circuit-board traces, the DC-filtered output signal is carried from the final 5842 stage to the output jacks by a pair of shielded cables. Nice.
It was impossible not to notice the LP2's extraordinary heft: At first, I wondered if the two shipping crates I'd received from Lamm had had their labels transposed, given that the one labeled "LP2" was more than 20 lbs heavier than the one labeled "LL2.1." Yet that, too, proved a function of my review sample's Deluxe status: A thick, heavy damping block was attached to the bottom of its chassis, in an effort to isolate the preamp from various resonances and thus maximize its signal/noise ratio. (The LP2 Deluxe also includes the same sorts of capacitor upgrades as the LL2.1 Deluxe.)
The Lamm LP2's output impedance is specified as 3.5k ohms: a little on the high side, but nonetheless suggestive of good performance with any well-designed line stage. Input impedances are stated as 47k ohms for MM cartridges and 40 ohms for MCsbut keep in mind that a 40-ohm transformer impedance is not directly comparable with a 40-ohm active stage impedance. (If, for whatever reason, you've come to expect a certain kind of performance from an active device with an impedance number in that neighborhood, you'd be very much mistaken to expect the same thing from a transformer.)
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.
Adding the Lamm LP2 phono preamp to the mix brought categorically similar changes to the sound of my system. Again, the Lamm was apparently more neutral than the phono section of my Shindo Masseto preamp, with instrumental and vocal timbres sounding clean and rightyet not mechanical or overly dry. Following through with my recent, inexplicable David Crosby kick, I spent a lot of time with his beautifully recorded if musically variable album If I Could Only Remember My Name . . . (LP, Atlantic/Classic SD-7203). On "Laughing," the lead vocal is buried too deep in the mix for even the Lamm LP2 to drag Crosby kicking and screaming (and resisting arrest) to the fore, but the LP2 phono preamp did make it clearer than the phono section of the Shindo.
Very much on a par with the Shindo Masseto, the Lamm LP2 consistently drew my attention to details of music rather than to mere sound. The way it helped my system play the well-loved version of Elgar's song cycle Sea Pictureswith mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker, Barbirolli, and the London Symphony (LP, EMI ASD 655)was wonderful. In the second verse of "Sea-Slumber Song," it caught perfectly well the lovely moment when the French horn doubles the voice, resolving softly away to allow the flutes to swoop upward, seabird-like: sweet. And throughout that number, with its ironic hints of a storm just below the surface, the Lamm made it especially easy to envision the calm presence, the sheer physical reality, of Dame Janet's voice; with the Shindo preamp, the stage was flatter, spatially. My only regret was that the Lamm didn't do as good a job retrieving the subtle and menacing bass-drum accents throughout: The Shindo was much more responsive to very low sounds.
An interesting aside: As I recently mentioned in these pages, the Shindo Masseto's MC performance can be improved by forgoing its internal step-up transformers in favor of the Hommage T1 transformer ($4695) from Auditorium 23. The Hommage also improved the sound of the Lamm LP2, but by a narrower margin, indicating that the Jensen transformer specified by Lamm is a very good component, and is expertly matched to its surroundings.
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.)
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