Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference monoblock amplifier
While Lamm Industries has labeled preamplifiers and phono preamplifiers "Reference," it immediately struck me that the M1.2 is the first power amp to which Vladimir Lamm has applied the term. Despite the existence of the more expensive ML1.1 and ML2.1 tube amplifiers, this told me one thing: the M1.2 Reference is the best amplifier Lamm knows how to build. Lamm's press release describes it as "a pinnacle of its designer's professional career—a result of years of intensive research directed at attaining the most accurate reproduction of recorded music." Given that my past experience with Lamm amplifiers has taught me that they are consistently among the very best that can be had, this seemed to be a claim both audacious and plausible.
The main thing
The M1.1 was in production for more than 10 years with no changes, updates, or revisions. If that's not a record for a high-end amplifier, I don't know what is. Vladimir Lamm changes his products only when he feels he can offer a meaningful improvement in performance, not when it seems expedient to introduce a new model or variant. According to Lamm, the only reasons the M1.1 has been updated are that better parts are now available, and that 10 years of collecting performance data justified a redesign.
Lamm's website states that the M1.2 features "totally redesigned high and low voltage power supplies for the front end" as well as replacement of "some critical parts . . . with higher quality ones which have appeared on the market recently." The output stage has been revised, and the quality of the main printed-circuit board has been substantially improved. The M1.2 is rated at 110W of pure class-A power into 8 or 4 ohms, up 10% from the M1.1. Lastly, a 230V tap has been installed on the power transformer.
What hasn't changed much about the M1.2 is its external appearance—it's still as straightforward, businesslike, and sensible (footnote 1) as ever. As usual, all of the external hardware and switchgear is of impeccable quality. Unfortunately, it's not possible to update an M1.1 to M1.2 Reference status, as this "would require replacement of all key elements, with the exception of the left and right metal sides, heatsinks, and top and bottom covers."
The M1.2 is hefty at nearly 70 lbs, but it's not a pumped-up, immovable monster—it's built as heavily and stoutly as it needs to be. Nor is it styled or packaged to appeal to those who select components with their eyes rather than their ears. Look inside—everything is neatly organized and exquisitely built, bespeaking careful attention to every detail. The physical experience of a Lamm product is a manifestation of the Einsteinian dictum: Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.
The M1.2s proved themselves bulletproof in everyday use. Even pounding the stuffing out of them driving the Innersound Kayas' electrostatic panels (a wildly difficult load—see John Atkinson's measurements in the December 2004 issue) at very loud volumes with techno-pop and electronica caused them no difficulties (footnote 2).
Flesh and blood
It would be an exercise in futility to try to describe the sound of the Lamm M1.2 Reference by running through a checklist of sonic characteristics—its effect on me couldn't be categorized or quantified that way. I shall do my best to explain what the pair of them did in my listening room.
The M1.2's defining character trait was unflinching honesty in conveying the true nature of the music that passed through it. It did not strip away veils so much as it seemed to eliminate most of the intermediate steps that lay between the original performance and its reproduction. Try as I might, I could not hear the M1.2 adding anything. And while I can't be certain that it subtracted anything, it let as much—if not more—through to the speakers as I have heard from any other amplifier.
Dynamic and transient responsiveness were ideal and seamless. Many a well-engineered amplifier can show with a clear sense of contrast the differences between piano and mezzo-piano, between forte and mezzo-forte. But if dynamics could be measured on a 1–100 scale, the Lamm was just as good at making clear the difference between 35 and 36 or 81 and 82 as it was at contrasting 40 and 60. The wallop factor was plainly demonstrated with "Kung Fu World Champion," from the dazzling young pianist Hiromi's Brain (SACD, Telarc SACD-63600). The deep, commanding synth bass and drum thunderbolts had whiplash-inducing force and clarity, an immediacy and liveness that fully engaged not only the ears but the mind and heart. A few tracks later, on "Green Tea Farm," Hiromi paints a lovely, Bill Evans–like picture of the part of Japan where she grew up. Everything about it is delicacy and nuance, but even as the Lamm corralled every intricacy, it perfectly articulated Hiromi's remarkable pianistic technique.
In terms of timbre, the Lamm was something of a walking contradiction—or, perhaps, more of a perfect Hegelian synthesis of seemingly contradictory characteristics. It was bogglingly transparent and had state-of-the-art resolving capabilities, but that was only half the story. That resolution and transparency were combined with a harmonic completeness, timbral richness, and glow reminiscent of Conrad-Johnson electronics from the mid- to late 1980s, only without the slowness and caramel coloration.
Footnote 1: Why, oh why, do so few manufacturers of heavy, solid-state amplifiers not follow Lamm and Plinius in putting handles on the front and rear panels?