Lamm Industries L2.1 Reference preamplifier Page 2

The L2.1 Reference is turned on with the Power switch on the front panel of its power supply; that switch flipped, a red LED next to it flashes steadily, indicating that the Lamm's various components are charging up, warming up, and altogether settling in. Just over 45 seconds later, a relay emits a soft click, the light glows steadily, and the L2.1 is ready to use. The exceptionally thorough manual suggests that the preamp sounds its best after 25–30 minutes of additional warmup—which my listening confirmed. During its time in my system, the L2.1's overall sound quality seemed to change very slightly, this change most noticeable as a slight increase in bass extension; the degree of change was modest compared with most perfectionist-quality preamps and amps of my experience—so modest that I doubt I could reliably distinguish between a run-in L2.1 and one fresh from the factory.

I know it's gauche to quote oneself. I'm going to do it anyway.

In the October 2004 issue I wrote, in my review of Lamm's ML2.1 monoblock power amplifier: "To listen to the ML2.1s was to imagine . . . that I was hearing music's original complex wave stripped of more garbage than ever before: Notes were more distinct, as were the relationships between them."3 As I think I also made clear, the Lamm monoblocks did this while preserving the natural timbral richness and roundness of every one of those notes, from every instrument and voice. The musical cleanness and clarity of the Lamm amp gave lie to the notion that sonic richness and color in an audio component are always additives—in a word, distortions. Each distinct note, every reproduced sound, was clean and rich.


So it was with the L2.1 preamplifier, which nailed the tone and texture of the bassoon's sustained note that bridges the first and second movements of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in e, with soloist Jascha Heifetz and Charles Munch leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra (CD, RCA/JVC JMCXR-0010). And that's to say nothing of Heifetz's violin tone through this preamp: supple, limber, delicately colored and textured, and with every iota of his legendary intonation in clear, full measure.

With the Lamm in my system, I was also impressed by the sounds of the pizzicato double-stops in the final movement of that concerto, which made me smile and laugh out loud with their realistic sense of touch. Beautifully reproduced pizzicati were also heard in the clever string arrangement for "Emily," from Joanna Newsom's Ys (CD, Drag City DC303CD), and of course from her own Lyon & Healy concert harp. The L2.1 preserved Newsom's vocal idiosyncrasies—eg, her squeaky note attacks in "Cosmia"—without dulling or edginess. Spatially, Newsom's voice had superb presence and substance with the Lamm in my system. And soloist Julie Price's bassoon—again with the bassoons!—in Elgar's Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, with Paul Goodwin conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (CD, Harmonia Mundi HMU 907258), emerged from the mix with clearly realistic tone and a fine sense of touch on the keys and force of breath.

Also well served by the Lamm were unnatural—or at least non-acoustic—tones, such as the gloriously raw sound of Roy Buchanan's electric guitar in "Pete's Blue," from his Sweet Dreams: The Anthology (2 CDs, Polydor 314 517 086-2). Through the L2.1, that guitar screeched and scraped and sang long, overdrive-sustained notes for the first three minutes of the song, until Buchanan briefly switched to his rhythm pickup, at which point it took on that bottom-of-a-deep-pool sound that Telecaster enthusiasts know from a block away. The very clear, open-sounding Lamm also suggested that the reverb in the guitar's sound came from the studio, not the amp. Similarly, the L2.1 preserved the wonderful sound of an electric guitar played through an amp with the reverb and tremolo turned up high, as in the intro to "Make It Good to Me," by the late Sharon Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, from the sampler Daptone Gold (CD, Daptone DAP-018). On that number, the Lamm also impressed with the believable and just-right amount of bass depth and power it allowed the electric bass, and its good sense of rhythmic drive.


As longtime readers know, I am not a soundstaging freak. That said, one evening, while listening to the recording of Mendelssohn's Octet for Strings made by the Chamber Ensemble of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields (LP, Argo ZRG 569), I couldn't help being impressed by the convincing illusion of some players being farther than others from the microphones, and the corporeality conferred to the sounds of their instruments. Of course, none of that would have meant a damn if not for the fact that the Lamm preamp also conveyed a tremendous sense of drive and momentum in this music, and reproduced the sounds of bowed and plucked strings alike with color, texture, and humanness. And in reproducing the pizzicato cello notes in the Andante, the Lamm provided the perfect amounts of weight and depth—not too heavy, not too lean.

The Lamm L2.1 ranked with the very best preamps I've heard in its ability to convey musical drive and propulsion, and to decode the sheer exhilaration hidden in some recordings—such as the Bill Evans Trio's At Shelly's Manne-Hole, Hollywood, California (CD, Riverside/JVC JVCXR-0036-2). In the up-tempo "Swedish Pastry," Larry Bunker's snare drum sounded remarkably, realistically tight and snappy, despite the drum kit's apparent distance from the mikes, and Chuck Israels's bass, in addition to providing a great deal of said drive, had body, (large) scale, and good color and texture. Evans's piano in "Isn't It Romantic" sounded meaty and right, and the Lamm captured how, just 30 seconds into this track, the very deliberate timing of Evans's chording strains again the beat laid down by the double bass—and how, one minute after that, Evans shifts to long, fluid runs that had me on the edge of my seat.


From recording to recording, the L2.1 Reference was a knockout. Before its arrival, I'd been listening to CDs through my Shindo Masseto, itself a magnificent preamp. Switching over to the Lamm was like replacing a romantically engaging conductor such as Furtwängler with the more modern von Karajan: suddenly, in orchestral music, lines were clearer, as were musical and spatial distinctions between the different instrument groups. And although the Lamm didn't exceed the Shindo's sense of melodic momentum and forward thrust, or equal its ability to sound huge when called for, it was no less beautiful or engaging.

During its time in my system, the Lamm L2.1 Reference was the rare product that swept the question of tubes vs solid-state into insignificance, focusing my attention on the music, and on an arguably more important variable in the making of good playback gear: the designer. Over the years, I've gained a sense that there are only a relatively few builders who, owing to their imagination and skill and training—not to mention the sheer force of their personalities—have a hold on one or more pieces of the playback puzzle. Vladimir Lamm is among that small group's most distinguished members.

The L2.1 Reference isn't cheap, and while it's extremely well made and contains some of the finest and most expensive parts available, other perfectionist-quality preamps can be considered as offering greater value for the dollar. That said, I can't imagine the music enthusiast who would be disappointed with the Lamm's uniformly superb sound and musicality. To paraphrase the 13-year-younger me, also from my review of Lamm's ML2.1 monoblock: A good preamp. A damn good preamp.

Lamm Industries, Inc.
2513 E. 21st Street
Brooklyn, NY 11235
(718) 368-0181

Glotz's picture

Solid state device in the power supply were used? Or is it just less linear? I get the no neg feedback as the higher voltages allowed for greater linearity, but I assume that tubes just do zero feedback designs better?

Really cool product and a very well-conveyed review!

mrkaic's picture

Too inaccurate for a preamp and priced way too high. Compare this to Benchmark's DAC3 and weep.

Hummer189's picture

Hi Art, I know you occasionally use a Croft amplifier, are you aware that Croft has a 2 Box preamp (separate power supply) similar to the Lamm and has been building these for years and as you know Croft uses separate volume controls for each channel. A few similarities which Croft has been doing for years. The 2 box Croft RS preamp is a fraction of the price of the Lamm and I would wager sounds equally as good. Maybe you ought to get to listen to one, if not try the Croft 25R preamp which is all valve regulated and sounds almost as stunning.Would be interesting to know how these compare at different ends of the price spectrum!