Living with the Lamms

Photo: Jim Austin

Although I've never tried one, I think "lifestyle" audio systems are a bit of a joke. My in-laws' decade-old Bose Wave Radio sounds good for what it is, although its obvious flaws—boomy, undefined lower mids masquerading as bass, a frustrating lack of sonic and musical resolution, etc.—become grating fairly quickly. These days, there are far more accomplished and expensive lifestyle systems out there, but because I haven't tried them I won't comment on them, except to say that I'm not really interested.

Yet my aversion to lifestyle systems masks a serious consideration, one that has become much more important to me over the years: I want the things in my life—the things I care about, including cameras, cars, music players, and so on—to work well for me and the way I live. I don't want them to just perform: I want them to feel good and right.

I thought of this recently when John Atkinson loaned me a pair of Lamm Industries M1.2 monoblocks (footnote 1). At $27,390/pair these are the single (double?) most expensive components I've had in my system. They're nearly three times what I spent a while back on my most expensive audio purchase ever: the very nice Balanced Audio Technologies VK-52SE line-level preamplifier. The Lamms are awesome music machines. My main loudspeakers—DeVore Fidelity Nines—are so efficient and so easy to drive that you might not expect them to benefit much from a powerful solid-state amplifier—but they do. With the Lamms in my system, I hear more bass from the Nines than I've ever heard before, and that bass is more taut and authoritative than ever. The Lamms didn't bring out every tiny nuance—a surprise, as I expect amps costing this much to do everything perfectly—but boy, are they musical! In that way, they deviate from the stereotype of a big-boy amp: You expect such things to sound impressive and precise, but if you want musicality, aren't you supposed to turn to some flea-watt amp, maybe made in some Japanese boutique?

*******

This is not a conventional review; it is, instead, a heartfelt commentary on a rarely mentioned aspect of playback gear: how our audio systems fit into our lives, or fail to. It matters.

Unlike some, I don't have a problem with spousal acceptance of my passion for very good gear. I'm happily married, my stereo system is in our living room, and my wife is understanding. She hasn't said a word about the two big black boxes sitting on the rug between the two big speakers, except to comment—once—that they sounded good. The problem is with me, not her.

We audiophiles are supposed to be willing to put up with anything for the best possible sound. I'm not. The Lamms sound great, but they literally do not fit into my life. I've managed to move them mostly out of the way (thanks, Vladimir Lamm, for the hefty handles front and back: couldn't have done it without them), but when I approach my system to change a record, I still have to be careful not to trip or stub my toe. My New York City apartment has no air conditioning, and although the Lamms themselves don't get terribly hot, that's only because they have the most massive heatsinks I've ever seen, and those sinks do put out a lot of heat. On the hottest days this past summer I often chose not to listen to music at all—I didn't want the Lamms to heat up the house. (For similar reasons, I ordered out for dinner.) Once, when critical listening for a review forced me to close the windows and turn off the fans to minimize noise, I had to drape a towel over my listening chair's leather seat to soak up the sweat. This wasn't entirely the Lamms' fault—probably, they made me sweat only a bit more than I would have otherwise on that hot day. Still, I found myself fantasizing about cool-running class-D amps. And if I forget to turn off the Lamms at the end of a listening session, my electric bill takes a hit: they cost me about a buck a day to run—at idle.

Years ago, for another publication, I wrote an essay about the importance of a bag I kept hung in my closet. I was living in a small place, and the bag was great to stuff dirty shirts in and thus keep them off the floor. This little thing made my life work that little bit better. Such little things add up. I want my stuff to work with me, to complement the way I like to live.

Practicalities matter a lot—but I'm not talking only about practicalities. Values are no less crucial. For example: I very much like the M1.2 References' understated industrial design—no big investment in fancy faceplates—yet their size and price alone make them ostentatious. A day may come when I can feel good about a system based on a $28,000 pair of monoblocks, but that day will come only after my son is out of college, any loans are paid back, and maybe only after I've inherited a nice chunk of money from a rich uncle I don't yet know about.

In no way am I criticizing anyone who routinely spends such sums on audio gear, any more than I'm criticizing these excellent amps. This isn't about you or them. I'm predisposed to modesty and value in material goods. You'll never find me driving a Lamborghini convertible down the Pacific Coast Highway, even if, some day, I can afford to. That doesn't make me a better or worse person than someone who does. It's just a difference.

I don't think I'm a hopeless cheapskate. I don't rule out some day falling so hard for an amp or preamp or pair of speakers that I decide to spend big money on them. But I'd first need to really fall in love. I think it will happen someday.

This goes beyond even values and ethics, to a personal, relational aesthetic. Another category of things I love is cameras—and here, too, I tend to spend cautiously: I don't own a Leica M because I've never managed to justify the cost to myself. Still, every photographer knows that his or her relationship with a camera is personal. It's about the experience of using it, of how it feels in the hand. No matter how good a camera might be, you can't really love it unless it feels good. Similarly, a fine Swiss watch should feel right on your wrist, a hat should feel good on your head. It's a matter of mutual compatibility.

In audio, then, what good feeling am I looking for? Where are all these practical, ethical, and aesthetic considerations leading me? I'm not sure. I'm still figuring it out. I tend to make things hard on myself, to paint myself into corners. For example: I love boutique and handmade stuff, but I worry that too much of that romance is slick and subtle marketing. Similarly, I'm drawn to things that have rich heritages, especially if I feel some connection to them—like the Thorens TD 124 turntable I own, which was previously owned by a guy who ran a movie theater near the Alabama town where I spent my first few years. But I also believe in science, and respect the engineers who set aside all that mystical nonsense to do good, careful work. I worry that old-school technologies give up too much in real, meaningful technical performance. At heart, I'm a deep subjectivist with objectivist, classicist, scientific tendencies. In reviewer terms, you might say I have equal reverence for Art Dudley and for John Atkinson.

Balanced on that razor's edge is a tough place to live. I'm eager to see where it takes me.—Jim Austin



Footnote 1: John Atkinson reviewed the Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference monoblock (then $23,890/pair) in April 2012. Lamm Industries Inc., 2513 E. 21st Street, Brooklyn, NY 11235. Tel: (718) 368-0181. Fax: (718) 368-0140. Web: www.lammindustries.com.

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

Thanks for adding the pic, as well.

JimAustin's picture

You're welcome. Taken with a Nikon, not a Leica M. Good Nikon though: D810. Maybe a better camera than the Leica overall, but not as sexy.

Cheers,
Jim

ChrisS's picture

Now you've gone and un-done it...! You'll have to spend some time with a Leica (preferably an analogue M) to see how misguided you are!

Nikon better than a Leica! Well, I never...

JimAustin's picture

Well my thinking was, if you compare on technical merit, the Nikon gets the edge in many ways. That's the scientist side of me talking. The subjectivist side very much wants to hang out with an M for a while.

Cheers.

ChrisS's picture
JimAustin's picture

Fascinating. "Feel" makes a huge difference, especially when you're MAKING art, but also when consuming it. I'm interested that you use Burroughs as an example of how technical doesn't matter; I'm not sure how he felt about cameras, but for a photojournalist he certainly was on the technical side.

I had an interesting experience this past summer. I tried out a Nikon D750 and then a D810. Everyone says pixel resolution doesn't matter, but to me, when I used good technique, the difference was night and day. Except in low light, the D810 is technically better. With good glass (I can't afford Zeiss but I use good alternatives from Nikon and Sigma, depending on the focal length), the higher-resolution camera made memorable photos. Which shows that sometimes technical DOES matter. So both things are true, which I guess is the whole point of this essay, or the last part at least.

Best
jca

ChrisS's picture

We all choose the tool or whatever item it takes to get the job done. We also choose whatever suits us.

Whether you are standing in the kitchen hacking away at an orange with a plastic disposable knife or Eric Clapton playing the solo parts of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with George Harrison's Gibson Les Paul, we can choose to use the "best" and achieve "art", or you can do like this guy...

http://petapixel.com/2012/04/13/miroslav-tichys-homemade-camera/

Burrows came to mind first when I thought about commenting on a comparison between Nikon and Leica. He was often portrayed with multiple Leica's and Nikon's hanging around his neck. Looking at Burrow's images from the Vietnam War, you realize how unimportant that comparison is.

Allen Fant's picture

Nice piece- JA.
what cabling did you use during your listening session?

JimAustin's picture

Thanks. Various. Brands include Auditorium 23 (awkward because of the bananas), Chord UK (not the digital audio company) and Monster--the first cables I ever owned that weren't sold by the foot. The Monsters have the advantage of high-quality connectors that attach well to the amps.

TC
Jim

ChrisS's picture

Even to mention Leica M makes this an ace article!

JimAustin's picture

Thanks! For me, maybe someday.

cgh's picture

Given their footprint of circa 1.5sqft each, that's like $4k of NY real estate.

JimAustin's picture

Like. LOL.

volvic's picture

This is a mantra I have followed for many years; the gear cannot take over my life and living quarters. I too have always shied away from electronics or gear that was heavy or had a huge footprint. Here in NYC I will not even consider anything as large as Lamm's or heavy Krell amps, no matter how good they sound. This is why I always loved the LK Linn gear and older Naim electronics, by today's standards those Mission or Rega electronics would be something I would be gravitating towards. Same applies with speakers, why more manufacturers don't make speakers that can be placed right up against the well a la Linn, Naim and Rega is surprising. Was wondering what table that was, guess the TD-124 is mounted on an OMA slate plinth.

Osiris25's picture

All speakers do better with at least a couple feet of space from walls -- including front or side firing speakers. Rear firing speakers need at least 3 feet. But the front firing ones should still get at least 15 inches away from the wall. It's not that huge a difference except if you have a really tiny room like 12' x 12' feet + or - where you really feel those 15 inches. And front and side firing designs have their own potential pitfalls. If not done 100% right they can sound boomy and often need a foam bung shoved inside their port to address that extra bass you hear from the front. This is especially true when you place them in same said small rooms.

volvic's picture

Linn Keltik speakers and my Linn Kan's are designed with their stands to be close to the wall with 4" to 12" between them, and at least 18” from any corner. It is important that they are equally spaced from the back wall. So says the manufacturer. On another note, I would recommend a look at Audio Physic's instructions on speaker placement - different from the Linn school - but still very informative.

JimAustin's picture

You nailed it--that's the TD-124 I mentioned in the article. The guy who ran the movie theater in Dothan, Alabama, near where I was born, was an audiophile. He owned two TD-124s. He died quite a while ago, but his wife kept the listening room just the way he left it; it stayed that way until his wife died a decade or so later. At that point, the son decided to keep one table and sell the other; I was the lucky buyer. It was in great shape except for some wiring in the tonearm (Ortofon RMG-212), which I was able to repair myself. I've since sent it off to Schopper in Switzerlnd for reconditioning, and I bought a new outer platter. Still stock otherwise (except for the plinth, which is a prototype I bought when OMA was just starting to make them. The original plinth, which is not top-quality--I understand some of them were made by furniture companies, which sold the turntables--is in my closet.)

I'm an enthusiastic LP listener, but, in contrast to some of my respected colleagues, to me there's no point in vinyl if the whole experience doesn't feel genuine. LP sounds great, but the good feeling it evokes (along with a good Bourbon) is key to the experience.

Best,
Jim

volvic's picture

Regretted it soon after, just too many turntables (Linn, VPI & Technics) in a small NYC apt, but the Schopper upgrades are the way to go, so well made. Other owners of Garrards and TD-124's claim the slate kills the music of idlers, I disagree, does a great job of making the table quieter and anything by OMA makes me look twice and the beauty of all their products - not enough words. Happy listening look forward to more posts and articles. Oh and nothing like Blackfly bourbon whiskey from upstate New York to make the evening even more enjoyable.

JimAustin's picture

Well obviously I agree about the plinth. OTOH, if I were to gain access to a high-quality traditional plinth, just to try it out, I would do so; I've never done a direct comparison, except with my original The original--and I am assured it was original--looks like something I would have made in my garage when I was 12, right down to the drippy shellac. Quite possilbe it was refinished at some point, without much skill.

TC

Osiris25's picture

This is why I'm buying a Devialet and am a big fan of class AB amps generally. I don't want an amp that eats $1 a day of electricity at idle and I don't want an amp that dominates the room. And my living room is 700sq feet and not 2000 so I really don't need the power that comes with mono-blocks like this anyway.... These things are for dudes in Texas with gigantic houses. Us New Yorkers...not so much.

JimAustin's picture

Although the "lifestyle system" thing does not, as I said, appeal to me, the Devialet amplifier (or whatever you call it) seems like a serious step forward, a genuinely new and interesting piece of technology. I'd like to know what you think.

Jim

ckharbeth's picture

Thanks for writing this Jim, it doesn't seem like there is enough discussion about the livability of audio equipment when they are reviewed, including the energy consumed and generated. My solution has been a Hegel H160, which I chose over the H360 for a smaller footprint. I also have relatively easy to drive Harbeth SHL5+, so this integrated with DAC feels like an elegant solution. I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all, but count me as one who loves the elegance of relatively compact hifi components that alsot represent good value. We are blessed with so many wonderful options these days for components that can integrate into our homes rather than dominate them.

JimAustin's picture

I agree about being blessed, and your choices seem sensible. I won't comment further because I've had so little experience with it myself; I've heard the Harbeths, but not extensively. I'm very much still experimenting and learning. I probably will continue to forever, but I do, eventually, hope to home in on a preferred system, one that pleases me in every way.

Best,
Jim

dalethorn's picture

I get the feeling that the author would appreciate these amps a lot more if he *needed* the power they can provide.

JimAustin's picture

Totally fair point. Which, for me, probably means I'm likely to limit myself (unless I fall in love, as I wrote) to more efficient speakers. Not that I won't try other things--I will--but that's hurdle they, or I, will have to overcome.

Thanks,
Jim

makarisma's picture

Why no air conditioning in your apartment? NYC can get pretty warm in summer in my experience.

JimAustin's picture

Yeah, it gets hot. Not much sleep for a couple of hot weeks each year. A lot of people in our neighborhood leave the city during that time, but we don't have a country house.

We've been here for less than two years. Maybe we will put in A/C at some point.

One problem is that electricity is very expensive in the city--part of the problem with the Lamms actually. Another is logistics: It's a pre-war apartment so there's no chance of central. Most people use window units although there are some other, more expensive options.

The main reason, though, is that the window in the main living area that the main A/C would need to go into is right behind the stereo; you can see the shade covering the window in the photo. It's a big (for NYC) open area so it would need to be a substantial unit. I'd pay for quiet, but it would still be noisy. I know I can turn it off when I want to, so maybe it does make sense. I guess so far we just haven't pulled the trigger.

Thanks for the note.

Jim

Les's picture

To each his own, I guess, but this is genuinely blowing my mind. No AC in NYC?! Really? (I'm a New Yorker, too.) This is beyond comprehension for me... Wow, good for you. For me, it's god's gift to mankind and I bow to it whenever I use it. Anyway, there are a lot of reasonable solutions to AC at the moment, to meet any requirement. May you find your balanced solution.

JimAustin's picture

I just realized there's a third reason I forgot to mention: My wife dislikes AC. I grew up in the south, so AC is natural for me, but she's a northern California girl. We moved here from Maine, where we got used to not needing it.

We're in a rental, and expect to be for a long time--probably as long as we're in the city. So there probably are some limitations on approaches we can take. And really there's no escaping the noise, some of it in the listening area. Still, it's something we'll consider in the spring.

Thanks.

Jim

cgh's picture

I remember talking with a designer who lives down south (Hint: used to be the EE for Art Audio...) and he used to change amps for the winter.

JimAustin's picture

I know several people who do that, and it makes sense. It's actually kind of nice, assuming you like both (sets of) amps, since it established a ritual and gives you something to look forward to when the seasons change. It's nice though when you've got a nice storage area where you can store the ones not in use; otherwise you end up with at least one extra piece of gear hanging about unplugged.

Cheers,
Jim

Glotz's picture

Loved it! Really HOPED last night you would put this on the website!

Just an excellent 'heartfelt commentary', indeed.

JimAustin's picture

Thank you!

Jim

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