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Hi-Fi NEWS & RECORD REVIEW, June'2001
Ken Kessler

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LAMM ML2 power amp

 Russian tubes, a Russian designer. 
 
But a distinctly American price tag…


In the five years since I reviewed Lamm’s M1.1 hybrid monoblocks, which were then [Jan’96] without UK distribution, the company has slowly, quietly built up a following of salivating, fanatical proselytisers who place designer Vladimir Shushurin two notches above God.  Guys like my former boss at the late, lamented Fi magazine, Jerry Gladstein, who kvetched and noodged and cajoled until I said, ‘Genug ist genug! [enough is enough] Send it already!’  This time, there was no problem justifying the review of a product without a UK presence: Lamm now has a British distributor from the pro sector: Integrated Engineering Solutions Ltd. of Southampton.

Lamm’s reputation must have a basis in reality, for IES is the sort of firm staffed by people who wet themselves laughing when they read about, say, audiophile cables.  Now they’re selling valveware.  Clearly they’ve done their homework, as the minor hiccups during set-up were dispatched swiftly with an AVO meter and their lab experience, rather than rune stones, chicken bones and bullshit.  They gently suggest that balanced operation is better – the ears confirm it – but then pros always prefer balanced entry via XLR.  They admit to the need for the amps to warm-up, rarely what you hear from those with an unnatural affinity for transistors.  It’s odd, but no more so than a session with Vladimir himself, who knows more about Russian-made valves than anyone this side of the Volga.

Which is why the heart of the ML2 is the military spec, high current, low impedance 6C33C triode, the one tube that almost allows me to forget that the Cossacks hounded my family out of Russia.  (Actually, I’m glad they did, or I wouldn’t be alive…)  It’s the valve with three nipples on top, delivering 18W in single-ended triode mode, which act more like 100W.  The 6C33C is an instant talking point, a valve as distinctive-looking as an admittedly prettier 300B or a tumescent 845, and therefore more immediately arresting than a mere KT88 or EL34.  Sorry, but familiarity does breed contempt.  It looks, as they say, the business, and reeks of ‘seriousness’ on the part of the builder; a 300B merely speaks of a lack of imagination, no appreciation of bass control or transient response, and a desire to emulate Japanese specialists who do a much better job with 300Bs than Westerners.  Or should I say Western Electric.  Each 520 x 210 x 408 mm (hwd) mono chassis weighs in at 64 lb (29 kg), blessed as it is with an overkill, heavily regulated power supply.

If dropping names gives you a buzz, check the litany of brands inside the Lamm, and which help to explain a price tag on the scary side: Dale metal film resistors, Hammond chokes, Electrocube and Roederstein film capacitors, Cornell Dubilier and United Chemi-Con electrolytics, and – yes – proper Neutriks for the XLR connections.  The toroidal in the power supply is custom-made to Lamm’s design, and has ‘no mechanical contact with either the transformer cover or the chassis and is suspended in a special encapsulant which almost completely absorbs even the residual mechanical vibrations.’  The output transformers are custom designs, too, created specifically to cope with the output of valves such as the 6C33C.  Lamm states that the frequency response is a heady 16-100 kHz (-3dB), the slew rate is 10V/us, and the damping factor 10.  It accepts single-ended input via gold-plated phono socket or balanced signals via gilded XLR input, the three speaker terminals for the assorted impedances are stout binding posts, an on/off is positioned at the back, and an LED at the front tells you when it’s ready to roll.  After an interminably long time – two minutes seems like forever when you’re hot to trot – while it warms up, settles down and decides that all systems are ‘go’, the LED stop flashing.  Lamm uses this soft-start method to prolong valve life, and the unit is protected by an array of fuses.

Part of what keeps Lamm from reaching the market which it deserves are looks best described as ‘prosaic’, if not quite down to Croft levels.  Maybe it’s a Russian thing, like their cars and their pre-glasnost women: despite the built quality, it utterly lacks any glamour, any sense of perceived value, any pizzazz, any charm, any visual joy to tell the owner before he or she even switches it on that it’s something special.  Lamm is the antithesis of every other high ticket product, from Jeff Rowland to Mark Levinson, Krell to Wavac, Nagra to Classe.  The Trilogy monoblocks, for example, cost nine big ones more than the Lamms, but they do look like a million bucks.  Aah, I’m wasting my breath: more persuasive voices than mine have harangued Vladimir to no avail.  He’s as stubborn as a mule, and refuses to leave his Russian aesthetic back in Kiev.  You’re left with an amplifier that has to succeed solely on performance – a perilous proposition at such an elevated price point.

Having been schlepped around Manhattan by Jerry to hear systems which just so happen to sport Lamm electronics – not least the Chesky Records studio – I knew what the units could do; I figure I’ve heard at least 10 systems with Lamm amplification.  Back in the UK, feeding Wilson WATT Puppy System 6 and driven by the Krell KPS25sc, in my own room, I was treated to something genuinely revelatory.  Better still, I used the Lamms with various LS3/5As from the forthcoming shoot-out, if not during the shoot-out for reasons of practicality, and the results were equally ear-opening.

Because the first and most vivid characteristic of the Lamm ML2 is its staggering transparency and freedom from grunge, it acts like a true window into the sound.  Thus, it’s a real trooper when it comes to unveiling subtle differences between components.

As it turned out, the Audio Research LS16 [reviewed April issue] arrived just before the Lamms, so I inserted it into the chain and it sounded better than the KPS25sc direct-injected.  Go figure, but that’s what happened.  With witnesses.  The ARC increased the warmth and opened the soundstage, without adding anything one normally attributes to the insertion of an extra amplification stage or more cables.

We find, then, a system which illustrates the entire high-end proposition/philosophy in spades.  Even for jaded listeners, the first dose of Lamm ML2 is something special, like one’s initial exposure to an electrostatic speaker, or a decent m-c cartridge.  The transparency and sheer clarity are as good as it gets, but the ML2’s disappearing act is aided and abetted by one of the widest, deepest soundstages I’ve ever experienced, beyond the Marantz Project T-1 and Denon m-cs.  Whether using the Wilsons, the LS3/5As or (early) Quad ESLs, the Lamms behave more like a conduit for pure sound than any amp I’ve used in recent memory.

Although the 6C33C has far greater mass, control and weight in the lower registers than most other valves used for single-ended triodes, we are still talking about the sort of power which – however deceptively forceful for 18W – is no substitute for sheer grunt.  Given the right speakers and sane listening levels, the ML2 will rarely let its modest power ratings intrude, but it was possible, with forceful works, to detect the amp’s limits…especially through the admittedly difficult Wilsons.  Although none of the Lamm systems I’ve heard used horns, there’s enough here to suggest that horns may be the way to go.  Trouble is, nearly all horns besides Klipschorns and certain Lowthers suck.

Where the Lamm grabbed me most was in the middle, especially when dealing with female vocals.  The amplifier could have been designed for the likes of the Judds, Shelby Lynne or Rory Block, and its way with wholly acoustic, small-scale material – either the Persuasions’ vocals, solo guitar or piano, string quartets – sends chills up and down the spine.  Intimacy seems its forte, though its pedigree demands the grandiose.  And that’s where the scale of the soundstage takes over.  Which is a rather clever substitute for wattage: never mind the current, hear the width.

Now, the bad news.  Or good, depending on your fiscal health.  The ML2 sells for 26,900 pounds per pair in the UK.  However steep this seems, it should be pointed out that other distributors would have made it 1 pound to $1, or 29,290 pounds.  Oh, and the 26,900 pounds also includes VAT, which means IES discovered some magical formula to help fight the Rip-Off-Britain disease.  And it is much less expensive than my current dream, the Trilogy RC211.  The Trilogy, however, offers both perceived value and a feeling of unlimited power which just doesn’t enter the Lamm equation.  What the Lamm does, which no amp – not even the Trilogy – seems to manage is to disappear entirely, and to retrieve low-level detail better than any non-headphone-based listening system I can name.  (And if you wonder why I said it like that, you’ve never heard a top-flight CD player directly feeding a Stax energiser and cans.)

If you have medium-to-high sensitivity speakers, if you value openness and transparency above all other concerns, if you can overlook styling which I find insulting at 26k, and if maximum slam doesn’t apply to your preferred playback levels or musical tastes, then have a word with Vlad.  The Unveiler.    


Technology

Lamm’s ML2 mono amplifier is based on the instantly-recognisable 6C33C tube.  Its 18 watts are specified into 4, 8, or 16 ohms, with pure Class A operation.  But in addition to the 6C33C output tube, a second one is used in the voltage regulation section, along with a 6AK5 and a 5651A; Vladimir likes semi-obscure tubes.  Conversely, the 6C33C in the amplifier section works alongside a 6N6p and a good ol’ 12AX7WA.  On the top plate are two potentiometers and test points to allow the user to adjust and set the plate (anode) current and the plate voltage of the output tube.  


Key features

No-holds barred design and construction

Stunning array of audiophile components  
Open and transparent sound
 

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