Lamm Industries ML3 Signature monoblock power amplifier Page 2

The album I always played for visitors was a spectacular reissue of Aaron Neville's 1991 breakout solo album, Warm Your Heart (2 45rpm LPs, A&M/ORG 141), coproduced by Linda Ronstadt and George Massenburg. The reaction to "Everybody Plays the Fool," even from hardened audiophiles, was always visceral and accompanied by "Oh wow!"s as the amps produced a soundstage limitless in width and depth, on which three-dimensional instruments, both acoustical and synthetic, appeared out of pitch blackness. Neville's voice—vividly drawn, free of artifacts, and 3D—hovered in space well in front of the plane described by the speaker baffles.

From the sidelines, I watched as listeners' eyes widened in surprise, their heads responding to the array of instruments-liquid and solid, airy and dense, cool and warm-spread across the wide, deep expanse. Larry Klein's bass may have been written a touch too large, but a "touch" is more than a worthwhile trade-off for the Lamms' bass liquidity and effortless textural density.

And I'll throw in a plug for the Wilson Alexandria XLFs. Drivers plastered to a baffle, even an angled one, don't, in my experience, produce the kind of seamless, three-dimensional, "baffle-free" presentation managed by the XLFs, even when I sat less than 10' from them. If other speakers manage that, I'm still waiting to hear it.

Yes, obvious choices produced the expected sonic glories through the ML3s: an original shaded dog of Schubert's String Quartet 14, "Death and the Maiden," with the Juilliard Quartet (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2378); Johanna Martzy's performances of J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin (EMI/Electric Recording Co.); an original pressing of Elgar's Cello Concerto with Jacqueline Du PrÇ, John Barbirolli, and the London Symphony (LP, EMI ASD 655); and a superb reissue of Nick Drake's Pink Moon (LP, Island/UMG). But so did unlikely ones, such as the Rolling Stones' Tattoo You (LP), in which Keith Richards's rhythm guitar chimed and shimmered—almost as well as it did a few days later, when I saw them live in Philadelphia.

Of course, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley sounded amazingly lifelike, as did Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, but Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (LP)? Yes. No problem. The Clash's London Calling (UK LP, Columbia)? All the guitar bite you could want, reasonably taut bass lines, and dynamics sufficient to sell the package. The solo acoustic guitars of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch? The ridiculously fast Lamms produced lifelike transients, but not at the expense of nuanced attacks.


Nor did the ML3s shy away from large-scale symphonic works. Mahler's Symphony 2, with Andrew Litton conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (CD, Delos 3237), produced enormous and, more important, realistic dynamic swings. A disc of Beethoven overtures, with Colin Davis conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (SACD/CD, Columbia Masterworks/TEAC Esoteric), was both dynamically assured at both ends of the scale and tonally rich, the horns sounding particularly full-bodied and the spatial contours of Munich's Herkulessaal expressed so convincingly that I thought the 2x4s framing my room might snap (okay, I'm exaggerating).

Rough Mix
When John Atkinson dropped by to pick up the Lamms for measurement, he brought with him a rough mix of two tracks he'd recorded of Bob Reina's group, Attention Screen, performing in a Queens church. I attended that concert, and wrote about it in this issue's "Analog Corner" column. We played the 24-bit/88.2kHz files through the recently arrived dCS stack of Vivaldi DAC, upsampler, and word clock, and the ML3s well reproduced the church's moderately sized sanctuary and the music's wide dynamic swings. I felt almost as if I were back in the room.

One piece, a Pat Metheny-like composition by bassist Chris Jones, features a most delicate bell-like, percussive chime produced by one of the refurbished organ's stops, along with a delicate organ fill by Bob, and trumpeter Liam Sillery, whose part carried the melancholy melody.

The chimes sounded remarkably lifelike—as I heard them that day in a mid-church pew—while Jones's double bass was slightly less solid and less well controlled than I remember it sounding live, with the instrument and the reverberant space more blended and less well-separated.

The Lamms gone, I reconnected the big darTZeel NHB-458 monoblocks ($144,500/pair) and, after letting them warm up for a day, played the track again. Through the solid-state amps, the sprinkly chime was still fast and precise but somewhat more harmonically reserved, and less three-dimensional and lifelike. But the double bass was definitely more like what I'd heard live, with greater control and authority, a tighter physical presence, and better delineation of the instrument from the reverberant space. All of which was also true of the trumpet: a bit less bloat, but a slightly drier sound. The hall and the instruments in it were also pushed somewhat farther back from the listening position than they were through the Lamms.

A strong case could be made for the verisimilitude of the sound from either of these pairs of similarly priced amplifiers, but the award for mesmerizingly hypnotic sound must go to the Lamm ML3 Signature. Whatever your system, this Attention Screen concert is going to make a great CD that I hope will also be available as a high-resolution download.


Feedback and Taps
Whatever JA's measurements reveal, I found that the ML3's 4 ohm taps produced the greatest dynamics and effective speaker coupling. I also experimented with the two feedback switches designed to lower the output impedance. Theoretically, they should tighten the bass and produce somewhat more linear performance, but I found that while both feedback settings did somewhat tighten the bottom end, they also reduced the ML3's most attractive spatial and textural qualities, at the same time diminishing overall purity.

The Epitome of Tube Sound?
The only other assault on the state of the art of tubes that I've heard at home was the big, four-box, WAVAC SH-833, which I reviewed in the July 2004 Stereophile. The ML3s are easily within reach of anyone who'd buy the WAVACs (they cost $350,000/pair at the time), with plenty of change left over to pick up Ferrari's least expensive model. I reread my review to refresh my memories of the SH-833's sound.

Despite the SH-833's rated "effective" output of 150W, it put out 2W or less at Stereophile's definition of clipping: 1% THD+noise. That's pants-down performance! Lamm claims 0.3% THD at 1W into 4, 8, or 16 ohms—or 32W at 3% THD, which is three times our definition of clipping. If the ML3s can produce 12W at 1% THD, that's probably more than twice as much power as is needed to drive the Alexandria XLFs to very high SPLs in my room. Which is how it sounded.

I heard excessive warmth from the WAVACs, and JA was able to measure and explain why. The ML3s sounded far more linear overall, especially at the bottom, though not as linear or as well controlled as the darTZeels, but it was close enough to call it a trade-off: the tube amp provided greater textural and harmonic detail and, especially, a more fully fleshed out midband; the solid-state amp provided greater bass control and dynamic thrust, and a bit more extension.

No doubt the Lamms will measure less well than the darTZeels but much better than most other SET amps. That said, the darTZeels didn't measure as well as some other solid-state amps, but they sure sounded a hell of a lot better than most I've heard.

Cost and value for money aside, the Lamm Industries ML3 Signature is among a handful of the most pleasurable-sounding amplifiers I've ever heard. They produced magic with every listen, without glossing over or homogenizing the faults of poor recordings. While sounding as good as they probably ever will, those recordings still sounded bad-but great recordings were flat-out overwhelming.

The ML3s produced the most glorious, palpable, airy, detailed midrange I've ever heard from reproduced music. That part is easy. They pushed that performance envelope without going all greasy and congealed over time, as some tube amps do after the initial appeal of warmth wears off.

The ML3's standout features were its natural re-creation of instrumental attacks, generous sustain, and lifelike decay—all as close to live as I've heard, if nowhere near the real thing. It was quiet, fast, detailed, dynamic without reservation, transparent, airy, and extended on top. No sharp edges unless the recording had them, and no boredom-inducing global softening. The pair of them produced an enormous sense of space when that was appropriate, and, within that space, images of exceptional delicacy, three-dimensionality, and body.

The ML3's sonic consistency from top to bottom of the audioband and in every performance parameter, and its freedom from obvious sonic artifice, helped produce an illusion of live music as have few amplifiers in my listening experience. Nonetheless, the gulf between solid-state and tube amplification remains, along with the trade-offs unavoidable with either technology, though those are diminishing over time. If you want full weight and articulation on bottom, especially if you listen to a lot of electronic and/or amplified music, you'll probably be on the solid-state side of that gulf. But Lamm's ML3 Signature makes the case for tubes better than any other amplifier I've ever heard.

popluhv's picture

For some reason these amps really piqued my interest when they came out (always been a fan of the laboratory aesthetic), but I could find little in the way of a review other than show reports.  What really made my day was to find Jansch and Renbourn were used for the review; always nice to match the calibre of the music with the system! 

MVBC's picture

$140,000 in order to get stock metal boxes, no significantly special rare component, basic cabling inside, that ultimately will bring "more-than-adequate" bass and yet will be able to ruthlessly discriminate between  speakers cables, speed light % or whatever.

And we're warned it's nowhere near the real thing... despite its muscular 32w feeding $200,000 average 92dB/w/m sensitivity speakers! Who would have guessed?

At this rate, it'll be cheaper to buy a lifetime of live concert tickets and live forever after with the memory of these performances! crying

John Atkinson's picture

MVBC wrote:
And we're warned it's nowhere near the real thing... despite its muscular 32w feeding $200,000 average 92dB/w/m sensitivity speakers! Who would have guessed?

It's all too easy for someone to carp from the sidelines, and yes, these amplifiers are silly-priced. But until you have actually listened to them driving the Wilson speakers, as Michael and I have done, your opinion is meaningless.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

MVBC's picture

these amplifiers are silly-priced

You said it. So why don't you provide information such as the real cost of designing and building one unit and a thorough investigation to what should be the price as a result since you acknowledge the present price is silly?

Nothing in this open chassis suggests anything special in manufacturing or parts. A set of bulbs at about $120 is rather mundane... That this amp would sound good is the least this stuff can do!

But what is also too easy is to flog outrageous priced product and what amounts to a large slack on the technical level (euphemism such as more-than-adequate, in spite of bloomier, less than that attacks etc... when elsewhere you are counting the 0.0001%) given to this product as an argument of authority. Information over promote.

John Atkinson's picture

MVBC wrote:
John Atkinson wrote:
these amplifiers are silly-priced

You said it. So why don't you provide information such as the real cost of designing and building one unit and a thorough investigation to what should be the price as a result since you acknowledge the present price is silly?

I meant "silly" as in super-expensive, not that the price was out of proportion to its manufacturing cost or its sound quality. If you think this amplifier is over-priced, then please, do not buy it.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

MVBC's picture

I perfectly understand, "super-expensive", so please justify why with information instead of cult peddling. Are the transformers made of pure gold, the capacitances in platinum, since you kindly offered that the bulbs are about $120 bucks... Enlighten us


P.S.: For instance, some expensive speaker manufacturer is billeting their enclosures from solid aluminum. I may not buy their product but I indeed appreciate the information and do understand the process would make their product more expensive than particule board kitchen cabinets. Do I make myself clear?  


ChrisS's picture

You know the difference between this power amplifier and a kitchen cabinet, but you're asking someone who's not at all involved with the design, manufacture, and marketing of this product to explain and apologize for its cost?

Does that make sense?

MVBC's picture

No I am asking someone who supposedly offers a critical assessment of these products to offer information instead of arguments of authority. If it's to rehash the manufacturer's website, then what's the point? Where is the value to a potential buyer reading that stuff?

gozoogle's picture

"Are the transformers made of pure gold, the capacitances in platinum"

What's with the obsession over the cost of the components?  Who cares what the cost of the components are?  Are you planning to melt it down for scrap cost?  It's like saying you wouldn't pay more for a camera lens that performs better (because of the optics design) if it wasn't made out of expensive fancy materials.  Or, all chipsets/DSPs are just made out of the same materials, right, so who cares about firmware/software?

The reviewer provided a critical, albeit subjective, review, along with objective measurements of the product performance.  It's up to the buyer to decide whether that level of performance is worth the price.  End of story.  If you think another product is better at a lower price, don't buy it.

John Atkinson's picture

MVBC wrote:
I am asking someone who supposedly offers a critical assessment of these products to offer information instead of arguments of authority.

I think you are reading a different review from what Stereophile published. We described this amplifier, informed readers what it cost, discussed how it sounded, and offered a full set of measurements, along with its specifications and details of the system used to audition it.

No, we didn't condemn it because of its very high price. While that will restict total sales of the Lamm amplifier, that alone should not preclude recommendation.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

MVBC's picture

On the contrary... I never asked you to condemn anything, on price or on whatever else but to explain what in the components, manufacturing etc... can justify such price. I even took an example to make myself clear. Yet, you keep misrepresenting my position. Fine. [flame deleted by John Atkinson]

Doctor Fine's picture

Michael sets up the typical audio ignorant straw man arguement at the outset of the article:  "Unlike Video which has standards such as grey scale, tracking accuracy blah blah blah---Audio has NO standards and is simply whatever the mastering engineer prefers."

Well, no.  Actually this is totally wrong and part of the reason the High End is so full of horse puckey.  Baloney about audio seems to permeate the Domestic "experts" and I for one would like for it stop and for domestic audio to start advancing once again leaving behind the snake oil and mystery which is so easily sold to the misinformed.

There are in fact many standards employed by mastering engineers.  Simply peruse the lastest coffe table marvel from Recording Architecture, a british audio firm which is leading the charge to standardise mix, mastering and post audio playback rooms. 

The list of audio qualities that they enclude in every project is as long as your arm.  It is all designed to avoid the misery of old thinking---where every listening room had a different take on the balance and thus the hapless professional would go mad trying to find consistency in their work from one room to another.  And from one playback type (Pro Audio) to another (Domestic Audio).

Even a superficial investigation of the big shots of the mix world would immediately reveal their dedication to standardising domestic playback results.  The playback accuracy attained by the world renown mix engineers is a direct result of the "correctness" of their studio playback equipment and rooms. It is in fact part of the reason these guys make the big bucks.  Their stuff WORKS.

Please go look on line at this subject.  These guys work their butts off to make consistent standards of excellence which translate across the audio medium.  There is a TON of stuff which audiophiles should be stealing in ideas from the masters in the recording industry.  The pro guys use OUR stuff all the time.  But thats just where they BEGIN.  Their attention to setup is astonishing compared to the slap dash way most domestic audio is built as systems.

Most top pros use better gear the YOU do Michael.  Wilsons are nice but I have seen lots of pro rooms where just the room itself cost twenty times what your entire system costs.

Apparently Michael has also been left out of the loop when it comes to the elaborate reference standards imposed on theater audio by THX.  Mike should visit some of the elaborate designs that this industry builds in the determination to standardise playback fidelity to a high standard of excellence.  Mix rooms may in some cases require the construction of actual movie theaters simply to make no mistake about what the consumer is supposed to hear.

I really do not appreciate this level of mis information coming from a professional audio publication.  Please cut it out.  Michael please go to school and learn what you are talking about.  I love your writing and you have a ton of street level cred and knowledge but this subject has apparently been completely left out of your education with glaring omission.