Lamm ML2.1 monoblock power amplifier Page 2

Sir Adrian Boult's 1976 recording of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (LP, EMI SLS 987) is arguably one of the finest records ever made, in every sense. There is abundant, realistic texture in the sounds of the strings; singing voices have just the right scale; all the instruments and voices have plenty of color; there is believable depth and just the right amount of "air" in the sound; and, above all, it's a superb, transcendent, landmark performance, one that builds from a mystical, Parsifal-like introduction to a moving three-hankie finish. One might ask: How could such a thing not sound good?

With the Lamm ML2.1 amplifiers driving my Quad ESL-989 loudspeakers, I learned that there's good—and then there's magnificent. During the Prelude, just a moment or two before the entrance of tenor Nicolai Gedda ("Jesu Maria..."), the sound of the massed violas and clarinets was so colorful and present that their beauty all but overwhelmed me. (It's probably just as well I've never heard Gerontius performed live: I might not be up to it.) Gedda's voice was itself similarly tactile and real. And the fortes in his opening soliloquy ("this natural force, by which I come to be...") gave no hint of amplifier strain. Yes, before the piece was over I heard a few instances of compression—the very loud passage just prior to Gedda's last solo, for example, was cut off at the waist—but it was a subtle effect, and never accompanied by gross distortion.

Let's pause for a moment and think about that: I drove a full-range electrostatic loudspeaker—one with an electrical sensitivity of 86dB and a moderate impedance—with an 18W amplifier, and the combination exhibited no coarsening, hardening, or thinning of the sound of a forceful singing voice. This was in a room of only moderate size (about 230 square feet), and at a volume level selected by someone who is neither deaf nor insane (me). I can't predict whether you or anyone else will enjoy the same success with this combination, but I couldn't help but be very impressed.

Back to Gerontius: The natural decay—the slight amount of performance-hall sound—that's overlaid on Gedda's voice just prior to the choir's first entrance reminded me that, with the finest reproduction gear, it's often the subtlest details that impress and startle the most. That effect was artistically right, and very convincing. The same can be said of the choir's many pianissimos in Part Two: With the Lamm amplifiers in the equation, each was more convincing, and more crucial to the overall effect, than I've heard before.

Georges Prêtre's 1961 recording of Poulenc's Gloria (LP, Angel S35953), while not as good-sounding as the Elgar—it lacks midrange richness and texture, and gets a little grainy in the louder parts—is a similarly committed performance of great 20th-century music, and it, too, was brought to new heights by the Lamms. Even when compared to my beautiful-sounding EAR 890 amplifier, the ML2.1s made the voices sound more human, the flow of the notes more natural and convincing. By contrast, other amps sounded mechanical on the jaunty Laudamus Te, with the notable exception of the Fi 2A3 Stereo SET (and that won't come close to driving Quads). And nothing that I've heard apart from the Lamms—nothing at all—catches the detail and the sheer tactile feel of the oboe trills in that piece.

I played the Borodin Quartet's fine recording of their namesake's String Quartet 2 in D (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 6036), and marveled not so much at the presence of this or the neutrality of that as at the sheer intense believability of the music. More than ever before, I got the sense not of pretty or even musically involving sounds that were disconnected from reality, but of something that was connected to its own progeny—ie, it felt more like music that had been made by humans. The intensity of the players—the touch of the players—was much more evident. The Lamms, I would come to realize, could do this with most good recordings—and more so as the evening wore on. The longer they warmed up, the better they played music.

While reviewing the Lamms, I received a copy of Cisco Music's exceptionally good LP reissue of Ian and Sylvia's Four Strong Winds (Vanguard VSD-2149)—which, like the above-mentioned Elgar, would probably sound wonderful through almost any amp. The two voices in the title song, which are panned straight to the two speakers in the stereo mix (there's no center fill other than a bit of the guitar backing), sound startlingly real. With the Lamms, they were almost frightening: the most uncanny reproduction of a singing voice I've ever heard. Had I stripped my Quads of their protective film, the experience would have probably given me a heart attack.

Louder music
So far, I had limited my Lamm time to the Quads—and while I couldn't help being surprised by how well the combination worked, I would have been remiss not to try the 18Wpc ML2.1s with my SET-friendly Lowther horns.

Once they'd worked themselves back in—I'd been enjoying the ML2.1s on the Quads longer than I'd thought—my Lowthers sounded superb with the Lamms. Aimee Mann's "This Is How It Goes," from Lost in Space (in a fine new LP reissue, Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-278), fairly leaped from the system in the best and most engaging way possible, with much tighter bass than I'd ever heard from my horns: Great though it is, the Fi 2A3 Stereo amp can't seem to coax as much bass out of the anemic horn-loaded Lowthers.

The stacked synthesizers—Arps, I think—in the title track of Procol Harum's Broken Barricades (LP, A&M SP 4294) sounded thick and appropriately analogish. And in the following track, "Memorial Drive," although the low F-sharp on the electric bass didn't have near the whomp through the Lowthers as it had through the Quads, the Lamms made the gap smaller than in the past. I heard more body, timbral richness, and impact from bass notes with the Lamms driving my Lowthers than with any other SET I've tried.

Yet while stretching the Lowthers' performance envelope, the Lamms helped them maintain the strengths that made me buy them in the first place: their sensuously textured midrange, and the almost eerie presence with which they reproduce voices and solo instruments. The vocal color and bounce of Josephine Veasey's Dido and Helen Donath's Belinda in the Colin Davis recording of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (LP, Philips 6500 131) made listening an almost physical experience with the Lamm-Lowther combination. And the realness of the stereo imaging—the solidity of the voices, as well as their placement—added to my enjoyment.

With record after record, the Lamms sounded superior to other amps in the way that an exceptional musical instrument sounds superior to one that is merely good. Ron Thomason, the great musician and storyteller, once let me strum a chord on his 1924 Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin (there are precious few in existence): that mandolin against my chest felt like a living, breathing thing. That's the key word, I think: It wasn't just responsive, it was alive. The Lamms excelled in much the same way.

To listen to the ML2.1s was to imagine—that's the most certainty anyone can apply to such a thing—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. Sounds were true, and the presence of the performers in my room, though always little more than a suggestion, was surer and more engaging.

Chris Henderson: don't read this part
At one point during the review period, I was walking to the far end of my listening room to open a window when I stubbed my toe on one of the Lamm amplifiers: This was no minor toe-stubbing, but one of those really spectacular, bloody events that would have sent me to the emergency room if such a remedy didn't also require an explanation. I reacted in the usual way, swearing lustily at the thing on which I'd stubbed my toe—but with one additional curse: "For $30,000, you ought to pick yourself up and get the f**k out of my way when you see me coming!" A foolish remark, I know, but, just like Dick Cheney, I don't regret for a second having made it.

Does it get any better than this?

I've learned my lesson: the answer is, sure.

For one thing, there are dozens of amps out there that I haven't heard, and that seem to stand a chance of also being very good at playing music. For another, although Vladimir Lamm has observed elsewhere that he cannot improve on the ML2.1 (actually, he said that about this amp's predecessor, the ML2), he also said to me that he could, except that he added "We have to be realistic: That's too expensive." My thinking is that, once you're at the point where you can consider spending $30,000 on a pair of amps, what's another few thou? Realism be damned, Vladimir: Do it.

For another thing, one can almost imagine a near-ML2.1 level of performance for less than half the price: Mr. Lamm says he has finished designing a 13Wpc stereo version of the amp that would retail for $12,000 to $14,000. The only catch is finding a way to produce it: "To make a less expensive model, you have to produce in quantity," Lamm says. "To do that means you have to invest a lot of money. Right now I'm doing things that nobody else can do: Why should I change and do what everybody else is doing?" Add that to the folder labeled "Good questions for which I have no answer."

I'm afraid that's where you'll also have to file the issue of value. It's my professional responsibility to tell you that I just plain don't see anywhere near $15,000 worth of parts inside one of these chassis, no matter how much the trannies cost. Are they that difficult and time-consuming to build? Maybe.

Then again, Vladimir Lamm has been building amplifiers for 45 years, and he's poured everything he knows about music reproduction into this product. To buy the ML2.1s is to buy a piece of his life's work: The only person who can say whether or not that's worth the asking price is the person signing the check. All I can say is that, if this guy made fly rods the way he makes amps, there would be no safe trout within the sound of my voice.

Reviewers often speak of wanting to keep certain review samples indefinitely. (Unfortunately, some reviewers do more than speak of it.) Toward the end of the review, I rushed things a little. I couldn't wait to get the ML2.1s the hell out of my house—if only because I dreaded seeing them go and I wanted to get it over with.

A good amp. A damn good amp.

2621 E. 24th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11235
(718) 368-0181