October 2013

Interview with Vladimir Lamm in Italian magazine Fidelta del Suono (October 2013, issue 214)

May/June 2012

The Absolute Sound’s “Amplifier Design Roundtable” (TAS, May/June 2012)

June 2012

Vladimir Lamm featured in the Italian “Guide of FDS” magazine (June 2012)

January 2011

Vladimir Lamm interviewed by AVHub.com.au, Australian audio publication, at CES’2011

September 2008

Vladimir Lamm interviewed by Nikolay Efremov, editor of the Russian audio magazine “Salon A/V” (www.salonav.com).  (September, 2008, Issue 8) (in Russian);
click here for pdf file

January 2004

LAMM INDUSTRIES UPGRADES M1.1/M2.1 POWER AMPLIFIERS AFTER TEN SUCCESSFUL YEARS

You’ve come out with two new products – hybrid power amplifiers model M1.2 Reference and M2.2. Describe them briefly.

The coming out of these models, and especially the Reference model, marks the 10th year anniversary of its predecessor, model M1.1. The M1.1 was originally introduced at the Summer CES’1993 in Chicago, IL where it had received the Innovation’93 award, followed by a score of highly positive reviews over the years. The amplifier’s unique topology is a result of years of research in the fields of psycho-acoustics and audio electronics. It had made this handcrafted product unparalleled among similar products in any price category.

The M1.1/M2.1 (the more powerful version of the M1.1) had been in production for 10 years without any changes, modifications, and upgrades which is quite unusual in the high-end audio industry. In general, these amps could have hardly been improved; however, the recent availability of better quality parts and components, and the performance data we’d collected in 10 years had warranted the upgrade. As a result, we’ve achieved even more refined sound reproduction characteristics, with added reliability and durability.

Both the M1.2/M2.2 are on display in our exhibit at the Alexis Park Hotel, Room 1912.

As a small company in the high-end audio industry, it is not easy to make a mark and continuously justify that mark year after year. How do you do that?

This year also marks the 10th year anniversary of our company. We are proud to be in production of 7 different models that represent the pinnacle in their respective categories. No small fit for a company that had appeared on the US market “out of the blue”. This did not happen by chance or luck. As I mentioned earlier, extensive R&D stands behind each of our products.

High-end audio is a relatively small segment of audio industry, and in its ideal should represent the marriage of science and art in an attempt to bring the concert hall to the listener. This comes at a price, of course, and sometimes quite a steep one. Unfortunately, the top prices do not always guarantee top performance. High-end audio is about the music, and the search for that ultimate audio system that will bring the miracle of real live music into the home. Many of our customers are those who had spent years chasing that dream, and we believe that Lamm has made this dream possible for many music lovers all over the world.

There are many who believe that 2-channel audio is a thing of the past. Your view on this?

In recent years, multi-channel audio has become popular in home theater and some other audio applications. However, two-channel systems still do the job best when it comes to proper sound recreation in listening rooms, as long as all the components in the audio chain are of the appropriate level – and I don’t see why this would change in the future.

Technology encourages the tendency towards reduction in production costs and, as a result, the retail prices. How does this trend affect your production?

This trend is more applicable to mass-production market. Consumers should keep in mind that there will always exist certain types of goods requiring serious production investments — in other words, goods whose cost is quite high. The employment of various innovations, special technological solutions, etc. might somewhat regulate the cost of finished products (in high-end electronics, in particular); however, it will not lead to significant cost reductions, especially in light of continuous tendency toward price increase for premium parts and components specifically used in high-end audio. And there is nothing to be done about it.

My position on this is quite straightforward – I consider my designs a symbiosis of engineering and art. For this type of product, the high quality of built has to be sustained by utilizing the best available parts, materials, craftsmanship, etc. We continuously conduct R&D that leads toward implementation of new designs, finding better quality components and materials, employing even more advanced technical solutions, and maintaining the already high level of assembly and hand-work involved in manufacture of each and every Lamm product.

June 2003

Vladimir Lamm interviewed by Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity during Home Entertainment 2003 show in San Francisco, CA.  Click here for an interview.  (If you are having difficulties accessing the link above, click here and locate the link to the interview from the main page)

 

February 2002

Steve Guttenberg from Chesky Audio interviews Vladimir Lamm for Chesky’s Web TV (February, 2002).

2001

VLADIMIR SHUSHURIN INTERVIEW by DANKO SUVAR

Vladimir Shushurin is currently one of the most experienced and intriguing high-end audio designers in the industry. His company, LAMM Industries, or LAMM Audio, rose very quickly from anonymity to worldwide acceptance as a company that makes exquisitely natural-sounding amplifiers (equipment). Already at the first CES appearance in Las Vegas in 1994, the company stood out for its original approach to design and the resulting natural, clean sound. Since then, LAMM continues to expand its product lines with new original designs that do not change once they have been brought to market. This is not necessary because each LAMM design is fully developed and optimized prior to launch. At every CES and Stereophile hi-fi show that I have attended, the rooms with LAMM equipment were consistently among the best at the show. Regardless of loudspeakers used in the demonstration, the sound of LAMM amplifiers and pre-amplifiers was always consistently clean and natural, transparent, spacious, neutral and completely devoid of the characteristic coloration typically associated with tube and solid state equipment.

LAMM Industries manufactures two types of amplifiers, tube-based and hybrid solid-state products. The tube-based line consists of the ML1, a 90W push-pull monoblock operating in class A and using 6C33C output tubes ($19,980 per pair), ML2 single-ended monoblocks with 18W of output power using one 6C33C tube per channel ($29,290per pair), and LL2, a tube based pre-amplifier ($3,990). The solid state hybrid line consists of M1.1, a 100W monoblock design operating in class A ($15,990 per pair), the M2.1, a 200W monoblock operating in class A/AB ($15,190 per pair), L1 a hybrid design pre-amplifier ($6,990), and L2 Reference, also a hybrid design top of the line pre-amplifier ($13,690). >
Vladimir Shushurin believes that his equipment is reasonably priced given its sound quality, the quality of materials and workmanship, and the sheer quantity of engineering that goes into each product. In order to achieve these goals it was not possible to price the equipment lower. He says that his amplifiers are a one-time investment and in the long run will actually be more cost-effective for audiophiles that normally upgrade their equipment in search of better sound. I spoke with Vladimir at his headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. Our conversation was mostly informal and my translation attempts to preserve the spontaneity and the essence of Vladimir’s style of expression.
Can you describe the essence of your approach to designing hi-fi equipment?

I am a scientist, not only an engineer. I developed electro-mechanical models which describe the hearing mechanism of the human ear. I use these models when I design equipment. I never do listening tests because I already know how it will sound.

When you choose the parts that will be incorporated in your equipment do you conduct listening tests for different resistors, transistors, capacitors, cables, etc.?

When we started working with the guys at Madison Fielding, I ordered hundreds of different part samples, all kinds of things, then we did the listening tests and now I know which parts work for me. Forget it, I don’t participate in the silly games where you play around with expensive parts and exotic materials.

Does that mean there is no difference (in sound)?

I can simply tell you that once I tried using a very expensive type of wire in my amplifiers, silver with teflon insulation at the request of some customers who were brainwashed by the manufacturer of that wire. I used the silver wire only to connect the potentiometer and the sound became so sharp and rough that it was impossible to bear. I usually use normal Belden wire, not too inexpensive of course (Belden wire is a standard wire with solid industrial quality – large American manufacturer – description by author). And that’s that. If a component is designed properly it doesn’t need those kinds of fixes. You can then use the component as test equipment and test any type of wire.
I assume you no longer use silver wire?

I only did it for a few customers because they asked. After about a week they returned the equipment and asked me to put the original wire back in.

Who manufactures your circuit boards?

A Canadian company. They are very good at it (points to a circuit board). And these are great capacitors (points), American company, the best capacitors, very reliable up to 150 kHz, not like the usual garbage where no one knows what happens above 2 kHz. We test every circuit board before installation. This is for M1.1; this is the test equipment where they remain for 72 hours in continuous operation, followed by final testing and measurements. Of course, the output transistors are matched to within 1% on every circuit board.

How many are rejected?

For each production cycle I have to order three times the number of parts than are actually used, but still, with time I end up using them all. Here is something unusual, can you picture a solid state pre-amplifier with a 350V input section and no negative feedback?

With pre-amplifiers, isn’t it unusual to have a solid state signal path combined with a power supply where voltage regulation is actually done with tubes?

In general, all pre-amplifiers that use solid state technology don’t sound right. It’s something connected to the actual topology. It took many years to develop my topology. With my topology it absolutely makes no difference if you use MOS-FET or tubes, you can get the same sound, almost completely neutral. This here is the output tube testing machine. We can test two tubes at the same time and achieve the same precision as with output transistors. I employ methods similar to those used in equipment production for military purposes. It is exactly the same procedure and quality control but still at times something goes wrong – after all that is electronics. Here in the next room is my laboratory. I am currently working on a couple of new projects. This here is a less expensive, stereo version of the ML2, also single-ended, the same topology but simplified. It will cost somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000, that’s the bottom, the lowest price. Soon I will begin work on a phono stage. This is the prototype.I still don’t have the right power supply figured out. I am currently using several different transformers.

Tubes or transistors?

Western Electric 417, that tube is not prone to vibration, no popcorn noise. It’s a very quiet tube.

Moving magnet or moving coil?

5842 or 417A tube on the left and right.

Does anyone else use those tubes?

Some audiophiles, do-it-yourselfers, but not audio firms. This is an extremely quiet, high current, high-frequency triode.

How did you solve the equalization issue?

Passive equalization.

What kind of amplifier is this, the one with the massive tube?

This is the prototype for ML3, top of the line, 32W single-ended amplifier. This is one serious tube. This tube is better than any existing Western Electric direct-heated triode, better than the 845, 211, or anything else. Here you have 125W of heat dissipation in the tube itself. This is the Russian triode GM-70.

Have you been working on this design a long time?

Yes, but I can’t work on all the projects at the same time.

What was the original application for the GM-70?

It’s a direct-heated triode used for modulators, low-powered transmitters, but in reality, it can be applied to general purposes. It is designed like an audio device but it can operate even without biasing, with negative biasing for audio and as a transmitter with zero biasing. Of course, I don’t use it in that way.

How long has the GM-70 been around?

It was designed in 1946 or 1947. The Russians had been making it since that time but stopped production in 1982.

Where do you get them?

Russia still holds a huge inventory and I already bought two or three thousand.

Did you ever listen to your prototype?

No. I built the first prototype a long time ago in Russia, but since then it has been completely redesigned to conform to the results of my research. In fact, there are two versions of the input section but they are not finished yet, but you can see here the output transformer for 32W of output power (large). This is an extremely linear tube.

Your designs, even the single-ended, don’t have increases in distortion with increases in frequency. How did you achieve that performance?

Also the damping factor is very linear as a function of frequency. That is very hard to do. In general, you can use small quantities of feedback, but of course, everything has to be chosen in advance, especially the point at which you apply negative feedback. If we are talking about amplifiers – can you imagine a 100W pure class A amplifier with 3.5 amperes idle current, no servo, no negative feedback — and the system is absolutely stable, as is the case with the M1.1 power amps. This solid-state amp (which, by the way, is capable of continuously delivering 770W of brutal power into 1-Ohm load) can double up as a welding machine! I’ll demonstrate it for you (D.S.: I confirm that the M1.1 really emitted sparks like a welding machine).

Now, going back to the ML3. It is unprecedented that a 32W single-ended power amplifier utilizes no negative feedback and has distortions of less than 2% at full power in the 20Hz-20kHz frequency range. Can you picture how linear that tube (GM-70) is?

So, all these projects will begin in the near future — first, the phono stage (which is almost finished); then, ML3 and DL1. After that I will begin working on a serious pre-amplifier that will partner with the ML3. In six boxes we will have two monoblocks, two power supplies for each monoblocks (one power supply for the phono section and one for the line stage). Just to give you an idea, the current going through the output tube of the line stage will be about 65 mA.

Why is the GM-70 not better known if it has such superior specifications?

Probably, because no one knows about it and you can’t get it any more.

You, however, have access to additional supply?

I know that I can purchase 10,000 or 100,000, or whatever quantity I need, but I will not produce these amplifiers in large quantities as the retail price will be set around $120,000. That is a total of four boxes, two monoblocks and two power supplies. It has no electrolytic capacitors.

Do you already have buyers?

This will be my hottest product. It is the kind of product my customers want. This is my market.

Which features of your design are most important?

You have to understand that all parameters — THD, slew rate, rise time, whatever else — are only a part of a more complex system of parameters. If the amplifier is designed properly, then these parameters can be used to truly describe the performance of the amplifier.But if you have this other foolishness, there are other amplifiers much more expensive than the M1.1 but they all use very similar topologies. I’m not sure that these designers really understand the correlation between the topologies they are using and sound quality resulting from implementation of such topologies. If you could see the schematic for the M1.1 you would see that it goes against the usual topology designs. Each amplifier that I design is a model that represents not only our ears but also our hearing mechanism. This is the model, based on topology, for every amplifier that I make. This is the topology for this amplifier. It is not something I got from books or anywhere else. Now, when a component is near or far from that topology, that reference topology, and some other factors, I can immediately tell how that amplifier will sound. Also every topology has its limitations with the exception of single-ended. Single-ended has no limitations, only price points.

For example, of course taking into consideration the situation with parts and other factors, I am talking about the rest of the industry, but even if we ignore all that, solid state topology is limited when it comes to correct reproduction of sound. For example, let’s say this is the theoretical limit, let’s say 100% (draws lines on paper). This is of course a simplification if we are talking about solid state topology design, or any other topology including mine. It has its limitations in a general sense according to its definition. So, if this is, for example, the theoretical limit of solid state design, you can’t overcome it. It’s like not being able to go faster than the speed of light; you can’t go faster because it is against natural laws of our universe. It’s similar with transistors; one can’t overcome the inherent limitations. I have almost reached the theoretical limit.

For example, let’s say that you are a designer and you have designed many amplifiers, and you have improved the quality of sound, but as a designer you are not aware that solid state amplifiers and solid state technology have their limitations. And you don’t know why. Tube technology, for example, if we consider push-pull designs, can overcome these limitations. If this is, for example, 50% or 60% (of the theoretical limit), the best one can do with solid state, the difference between the best solid state “push-pull” amplifiers, even in class A and without negative feedback, and the best tube “push-pull” amplifiers, is at most 10-15%. They have no limitations. By using single-ended designs one can almost reach that final upper limit but of course we will never reach perfection, that is like trying to approach the speed of light – one can come close but one will never reach it.

Of course, with single-ended topologies incorporating tube output and triodes, I can explain the theory behind its lack of limitation but it is a very complex subject. If one tried to describe it, how can one explain it, for example, it is like… Let’s say you reside in this universe, and what do you need, you need four variables, x, y, z, and time. Of course, time is the big question mark. If we wanted to describe a certain behavior (in this universe) to make our lives simpler we have to use analysis and mathematics that can describe multi-dimensional space. If you know the behavior of such a system you can make your life considerably easier. For example, if your amplifier, or any device, can be described to have a flat THD response as a function of increase in frequency and a flat response as a function of increase in power represented by a double logarithmic scale, then it is important to understand that there exist different methods for measuring inter-modular distortion. We can employ the method of using two frequencies close to each other and then analyze the output frequency spectrum (as done in Stereophile). This method gives us absolutely nothing. This method is very good for analyzing transmitter devices. But let’s forget about the numbers for now. When you use this (other) method, the SMPTE method, and when you get this type of curve (flat distortion as a function of frequency and a linear increase in distortion as a function of power) with all output impedances or with all workable loads, then you know that the design has satisfied some very serious requirements. That means, if we compare this device to a car, that you have designed one with very regular and perfectly round wheels.

Are these measurement characteristics your idea of ideal amplifier behavior?

This is the result of my theories. If a system satisfies these requirements, namely that characteristic distortion is always the same, and that the shape of distortion is always the same at all frequencies, then it automatically implies that it is not necessary to solve a system of differential equations with seven unknowns, as outlined in my theory of audio design. When we simplify it this way, then parameters like THD, inter-modular distortion, frequency response, slew rate, etc. will mean a lot and acquire a specific definition.

On the other hand, when you see this silliness, like 0.001% or 1% distortion specs for some amplifiers, it means absolutely nothing. These parameters, like THD or whatever else, are meaningless all by themselves because they have no connection with reality. You know, all these parameters, all these types of measurements, come from the beginning of the audio era when designers knew nothing about negative feedback. They used direct-heated triodes, very linear tubes. In those early days, designers did their jobs the way they were supposed to. Without understanding they made good devices.

Not all these parameters are independent. For example, the standard way of measuring dynamic range is the ratio of maximum and minimum power, limited by noise. This is wrong. It’s not even close. That would mean that if we increase power we get more dynamic range. For example, this 18W single-ended amplifier, ML2, has the largest dynamic range that one can imagine. It has nothing to do with power. There exists a more complex measurement and it is not an independent parameter because dynamic range is a function of at least five variables.

Still, there must be some conventional wisdom in your design philosophy?

OK, let us please not mix apples and oranges. When I design my equipment, naturally I employ some standard topologies as building blocks, but what is important is how they are used and in what combinations. For example, we know that scientists still use analog computers to model certain processes. The analog computer is made of parts like a buffer, integrator, differentiator, etc. One is not concerned with the topology of these parts but with the functionality of the computer based on which one builds the model. Now we need to consider the designer’s experience because everything needs to be optimized. In the same way I use the standard blocks to realize my designs.

In an unusual way?

In a natural way. Let’s consider an amplifier. In essence, we have two modules, something that amplifies voltage and something that amplifies current. This is the standard topology (draws block diagram) but of course each module can have more stages. If we consider the M1.1, the topology has a very small and carefully chosen level of negative feedback at the input, only about 6dB. It is necessary to equalize the output impedances versus frequency. Following that, there is one capacitor, and then the output stage. The capacitor is there to prevent DC voltage at the output, because other solutions like servo and various integrators degrade sound.

Can you see the output stage, you know, the load switch that actually acts like an output transformer? If we consider tube designs, the Q-point stays the same at any speaker load because we have a transformer with varying number of windings. The M1.1 behaves the same, into 8 ohms I have voltage of V2 with 2.5 A of idling current. Into 4 ohms (when load switch is changed) I have V2 volts minus V1 volts and idling current of 3.5 A. That’s the same! That means 100W of pure class A into 8 ohms and 100W of pure class A into 4 ohms. The amplifier does not double its power into 4 ohms. In this case the doubling of power occurs only at 2 ohms. The harmonic structure is not the same because all amplifiers that double their power when the load is halved do not operate the way they should.

So by using the load switch your amplifiers stay in class A longer into 4 ohms?

My amplifiers are designed to operate that way. I can show you, for example, that we have 100W of pure class A into 8 ohms. If you were to change the load to 4 ohms and leave the load switch set at 8 ohms, you would get 200W, just like with conventional high-end amplifier designs. However, this way, you would only get 50W in class A. Also if you changed the load to 2 ohms you would get 400W but only 12.5W in class A. The amplifier doubles the power but I don’t need that. My load switch is equivalent to output transformers in tube amplifiers. Have you read Ken Kessler’s review of M1.1 (Hi-Fi News and Records Review) where he states that he felt as if someone were sitting inside the amplifier and doing something. You can hear the difference immediately if you use 8 ohm speakers and flip the load switch to 4 ohms. The effect can be heard immediately because you have changed the Q-point.

The most important issue is that with my amplifiers the M1.1, ML1 and ML2, this concept represents the simplified (solvable) model of the topology that describes the human hearing mechanism. But there are other factors; for example, I told you that it is all right to use negative feedback provided that its magnitude and everything else is properly determined. Now, let’s look at negative feedback with tube amplifiers. Theoretically, if one uses tubes and of course if one does everything else properly, this cannot be simulated with a tube design. That would be like “open loop” gain, completely skewed to higher tones. Commercial solid state designs use 60-70 dB of negative feedback. Can you imagine what the “open loop” gain would look like? When you use negative feedback there is a time delay but there are also other issues to consider. Also with this design the output transformer is an absolute must.

See, the thing is, we are created a certain way. One can argue that our ears or your nose are not optimally designed, that they could be better, but that is how we are created. One can’t dispute that. One can’t change nature. The same argument holds with output transformers. You can love it or hate it but it would be the same to say that you don’t like the way your hand looks. But that’s the hand you have and you can’t change that. Again, it’s the same with the transformer. It does something. Why do you think I put a capacitor into my topology between the input and output stages? In order to improve the quality of bass, to make it natural. Remember that today we have industrial standards, something like standard topologies used by the industry. Direct-coupled amplifiers without capacitors are destroyers of good sound.

But everyone uses them…

So what! The majority is not always right. The majority can be aggressive about their beliefs but that does not mean they are right. And that’s that. It almost sounds too simplistic for the majority of engineers – in order to improve the quality of bass you have to use a coupling capacitor. Of course, there is no need to put the capacitor at the output. If you do that, to maintain quality, you need a very large capacitor. You have to use an electrolytic capacitor but that is not good. On the other hand, you can insert it anywhere, and for me between the input and output stage was the best place for it. I did it so that I can test the input and the output stages separately. There is no direct connection. They exist as two completely different sections of the amplifier. This is the separate power supply and this is the second (power?) supply – no negative feedback, nothing.

Only local negative feedback?

No. We have three different sections, input, output and buffer. I am using global negative feedback but very little and very carefully selected. To illustrate it better for you, “open loop” gain is more than 50 kHz, and the 6 dB of negative feedback is something like… Let’s say you are a painter and this is a shadow. You would like to improve something in the shadow, create a somewhat different feeling; so you change the intensity of the shadow a little, but it’s still the same shadow. This is only polishing. I need it only to make the output impedance linear.

So you think that having linear output impedance is very important?

This is the reason why many speaker designers like to use my components in their design process. Because my equipment is sonically neutral. One of the important points, when discussing the M1.1, is that the output impedance vs. frequency, is almost active. Reactance is only a few degrees – that is negligible. Since it is only a few degrees, especially in a complex output system, you can forget about reactance. The speaker crossover sees the amplifier as a generator, an active component, on all frequencies. Most amplifiers, solid state or tube, have a complex output stage, a strong Z component. So, can you picture its interaction with a speaker?

Unpredictable?

It is predictable. You have to create the equivalent of the amplifier’s output impedance. That can be measured. Add the crossover and when you put it all together, what happens with these complicated interactions turns into hell (chaos?). But at least, when the speaker crossover is not ideal, the amplifier can help because it is active. A straight line.

Do you think all these power filtration devices are necessary?

It seems that a whole industry has emerged around this issue. It is necessary. The power grid is dirty and it needs to be cleaned up, but that is a so-called necessary evil. All my amplifiers and pre-amplifiers are equipped with quality filtering networks. Industrial quality. Yes, I do it, but not because I like it, but because I think it is necessary. In big cities the power grid is so dirty, so many bad things…

So, you don’t recommend the use of additional filtering devices?

With my equipment it is not necessary. All my amplifiers have quality filters and it is not necessary to double up.

In your opinion, what is the most important factor influencing an amplifier’s sound quality – topology, parts, power supply, or something else? Which affects the sound the most?

I already mentioned this. What I do is not black magic. I don’t belong to that group of audio designers that create designs through experimentation and tweaks, or listening tests for that matter. I am an engineer. I use the laws of physics and I know what I am doing. Of course, even if my amplifiers satisfy my requirements and are properly designed, if I used inferior parts, or inferior power supplies, there is no sound. They wouldn’t sound as good as they could.

So you choose specific parts? And transistors?

That is not necessary. If we are talking about active components, for me, it is enough to see the specifications. Of course, some parts have to be heard.

Capacitors?

No, no, active components. Sometimes it is complicated, but passive components like resistors, film resistors, wire resistors and capacitors, have been ordered and tested in the very beginning when I came to America. I use Dale resistors, military specifications. They are very expensive. Now they are owned by Vishay. Also I use Electrocube film capacitors, Roederstein film capacitors, and PRC (Precision Resistor Components) wire resistors. This company is in Florida; very sophisticated.

What happened with your 300B tube prototype from a few years ago?

At this moment, the tubes that are available, the equivalents of the original 300B, don’t satisfy my requirements. Western Electric tubes, 300B or CTS 4300, at this moment don’t have a reliable supply in the market place.

So you are giving up on the 300B?

No, I’m not giving up. You can say that I am in a stand-by mode for now.

Also, you have announced less expensive versions of the M1.1?

That’s almost ready but I am waiting to move to a new location. At this moment the demand will be great and I don’t want to take any chances because I may not be able to meet the dealer demand.

Which is your best selling amplifier?

ML2, even though I sell more M1.1s. If you are looking at that price point, meaning the best selling single-ended amplifier – that is a very special market. And in this category I sell enough to be able to say that the ML2 is a best seller.

Did the tube used in the ML1 and ML2, the 6C33C, really originate with MiG fighter planes?

Yes, this tube was originally designed as a serious high-performance tube used in voltage regulators. This is why it has such low internal impedance. Can you picture internal impedance of only 80 ohms? But, this tube is excellent for audio; in fact, I am the inventor of incorporating this tube in audio applications. While I worked in Russia, for the military, that was a part of my job. I designed a line of solid state, hybrid and tube-based voltage regulators for the military. One of these designs incorporated the 6C33C. Of course, there is also the 6C19P, its little brother. It conforms to the same philosophy of design. I used that tube for the L1 and L2 pre-amplifiers. That tube is less powerful and I used it in the L2 voltage regulator.

In 1973, I started playing with these tubes and using them as output tubes for audio amplifiers. That is when I made my first OTL design (no output transformer), as these tubes are ideal for OTL amplifiers. After some experimentation I realized, however, that the OTL topology is not good for audio.

Why?

It’s a long story. I began using these tubes in the push-pull configuration and later in single-ended designs.

Can you give us a brief overview of the history of LAMM Audio and LAMM Industries? I understand you have two companies, one for solid state and the other for tube equipment.

Originally, there were two companies. Initially, I decided to have two companies, one for solid state and the other, LAMM Industries, for tube gear. Later I realized that this arrangement is too expensive and I combined the two companies. I still use LAMM Audio but the parent company is LAMM Industries. There is also LAMM Audio Laboratory. This is also a proprietary name.

You have an engineering degree from the Ukraine?

I graduated from the Lvov Polytechnic University with a degree in physics with emphasis on solid-state electronics. I started there in 1963 and finished in 1968. Following that, I had two years of punishment, I am referring to mandatory army service. That was Russia then, I had no choice in the matter. I was an engineer. Then I started working for the military. The name of the commercial arm of the company was Electron. In reality, this company was an umbrella-company for a large military industrial complex. Later I became the chief designer for a new company, which was part of the push by the then president Kosygin to reform Russian industry by expanding the breadth of commercial products. It was a large company focused on commercial electronics and I was in charge of the design process. At that time I was somewhat famous in Russia for my audio designs because it was my hobby and I wrote a lot of articles… blah, blah, blah, and all the rest that comes with it. All this was happening around 1976. I can show you some pictures of the products I was designing at that time under the brand name Amphiton. This line was the first audio line in Russia that was profitable. Russian industry was making my equipment in large quantities, for instance, amplifiers numbered about 150,000 per year.

At that time did you design with sound quality in mind or was it strictly profit oriented?

Strictly commercial. In Russia, when considering that system and everything else that came with it, it was impossible to design things. Of course, that equipment still sounded better than other Russian products. At the same time I carried on my research privately.

So, you utilized their research laboratory for your own research?

I had a well-equipped laboratory and I conducted many psycho-acoustic experiments. That was part of my job for the military. When I became the head designer for the audio company we focused on commercial products but at the same time we carried on research for the future. I was deeply involved with psycho-acoustic experimentation.

How did you go about that? Did you do blind listening tests? What was the methodology?

The majority of my research on the human hearing mechanism was conducted while I was the chief designer at the audio company, but it was done privately. My engineers had no idea what they were involved in. It was a huge undertaking; it was the Soviet system after all, a lot of equipment, a lot of people. I was in charge of about 400 employees.

Did you utilize them in listening tests?

No, as robots, ha, ha, ha… You know, now that I am telling you all this it sound so easy but, in reality, I went through hell. I had no idea how to get started but I did understand that there was something seriously wrong with current audio design.

At that time?

At that time. I did hundreds of experiments. And then, after analyzing the results, I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Did you try different topologies with listening tests?

Listening to all kinds of different designs. What did I really do – I listened. I did listening tests of different topologies.

Is that when you formed the foundation for your theories? 1976?

Yes, when I worked for the military I accomplished a lot of it. But I started working on it a lot earlier. I started thinking that something was wrong around 1974.

What led you to believe that something is not right?

When I worked for the military in the early 1970s, we did a lot of groundbreaking research. I am referring to high definition television, HDTV. Already then in the seventies for the military.

Before the Japanese?

Yes. We started in 1971. A part of my job, a very important part of my job, was designing high frequency video amplifiers, 20 MHz, 60 MHz etc. I couldn’t use traditional methods for designing video amplifiers because of the high frequency response requirement. So I developed alternate methods.

How does one design such an amplifier?

It was almost intuitive, my intuition.

Did you just guess right, something like an educated guess?

Yes. I then applied some of these techniques to audio design and got interesting results. These methods were so different than the standard used by audio engineers that it started me thinking. And then I started my first experiments.

Did you have access to quality loud speakers at that time?

Yes, I had access to anything you can imagine.

In your research facility?

Yes, but especially after I became the chief designer for that big company. A part of my job was analyzing the world market for audio equipment and procuring samples. I could order anything I wanted from any country even before I was in charge. After I became a designer for the military I had access, legally, to anything I wanted.

Did you have a good audio system at home?

I can tell you that my listening room was properly designed. I designed it. It was one of the best listening rooms in Europe.

What were your favorite speakers at that time?

I used Klipschorn, Tannoy Autograph (folded horn) and JBL, models 4343 and 4345, and I also made some speakers myself. In the research laboratory, for the military, we tried everything.

And amplifiers?

In fact, we mostly used my amplifiers, my personal amplifiers, made privately. We also used a McIntosh 275 but that amplifier did not meet my requirements. We also used the big McIntosh, solid state stereo, model 225 or something like that.

Marantz?

I had a Marantz Model 8 but it also did not meet my requirements. I also used a Quad 405 but only for comparison purposes.

What about Quad loudspeakers? Did you like them?

We used them as well but I only liked them after I replaced the crossovers with my own. We also used a Leak tube amplifier but I forgot the model number. That was relatively OK.

What did you use as sources, LPs or tape decks?

Mainly, reel-to-reel decks. We used Teac, Tandberg and Revox B77. We used a turntable of my design, the one you saw upstairs in the listening room. We also use the EMT 930 and 927 turntable, of German manufacture, one of the best.

Which cartridges?

Ortofon and EMT. I also used a Denon MC and when it became available (affordable?) the expensive Denon 1000 with a step-up transformer. At home, I used, of course after I modified it, an old Telefunken tape deck. The original circuit section was bad but the mechanism was good. I am sorry I couldn’t bring it with me to the United States. It was a little gem – that tape deck.

At that time did you analyze Japanese consumer electronics?

That was a large part of my job because the Russian industry was interested in copying those devices. And all that Japanese gear was equally bad. Of course, I used some of their technological advances to realize cost savings in the production process – installing interesting cooling systems or more optimal construction methods. Clearly it is only possible if we are talking about a very large market. But their electronics is another story. If you analyze the design of Japanese amplifiers and pre-amplifiers, nothing has changed from the seventies to today. They change some parts or alter the circuit schematic here and there but the topology is essentially the same.

Do they then sound the same?

If you try to listen to a Japanese amplifier from the early eighties it is essentially the same sound (as today).

Did your audio line sound better?

Much, much better.

Did you mainly have solid state or tube designs?

Solid state. Can you imagine, Russia being “the place” for tubes, and it was practically impossible to produce tube designs there. (Vladimir shows a photo album with photos of the equipment designed in Russia. There are various amplifiers, pre-amplifiers, with or without tone controls, all similar to other commercially available products in the seventies. There are equalizers, tape decks with Lenco mechanisms, imitation Revox turntables with a tangential tone arm – he was forced to make it, speakers, electrostatic headphones and numerous personal projects. It was an unbelievable photo collection, a true testament to the wealth of experience of this designer.) I see you often designed your own speakers. Do you have a preference for a particular design philosophy, for example, bass reflex, box (sealed enclosure), horns?

Generally speaking, a natural approach to reproduction of sound is using horn designs. They, however, have to be properly designed. Another natural approach involves using infinite baffle designs but for that you really need a large room, practically a castle. At some point I had access to Siemens Eurodyne speakers. The sub-woofer, the mid-range and the horn tweeter were imbedded into a piece of metal. That is attached to a wooden board (4 x 4 m) – infinite baffle principle – and you are in heaven. It sounded fantastic but you can’t get them any more. I also used the excellent English Goodman’s Axiom 80 speakers. These are 6W wide-band speakers, 20 Hz to 20 kHz. This was the best 6W of (sinusoidal power???) with a 12 W maximum. They had the best drivers that I ever heard. The speakers were huge and are no longer practical because you need a large (sealed box???) in order to reproduce bass. Otherwise, fantastic speakers.

Let’s move ahead a little. What happened when you came to the United States?

I decided to leave Russia in 1979. I immediately lost my job and almost everything else. I had no rights, nothing. I don’t like to recall those years.

Maybe just briefly, chronologically?

I submitted an application for a visa seven or eight times but the answer was always no, no, no. At the end of 1987, I remember, Reagan forced Russia to withdraw its missiles from Europe, and one of the requirements of that agreement was allowing people to leave Russia. By then I was a long-term refugee, and managed to leave Russia in 1987.

First I came to Vienna and then went to Italy where I waited for my visa to go to the United States. While there I played table tennis professionally and managed to damage the ligaments in my knee. So I came to America with a damaged knee and without any health insurance. I had to wait awhile for a surgical procedure, which ended up not being successful. I lost two years because I couldn’t walk.

Was it at this time that you joined Madison Fielding?

That happened, I think, in 1990. I looked for a job with many audio companies but they all wanted technicians, not designers because they already had their design philosophy. Mostly they needed technicians but sometimes they would ask me to represent them in Russia. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t want to go back. And then, I hooked up with the guys at Madison Fielding and soon became a partner in the company. I left the company in August 1993, and started my own company in October 1993. In January 1994, I was already attending the CES in Las Vegas under the name LAMM Audio.

Do you ever compare your products to the competition?

Of course, I tested not only my equipment but other equipment made by serious players in the industry.

Do you have to buy this equipment?

No, I have access to everything. I can get what I want. I also did measurements. I have complete measurement reports for all serious amplifiers on the market.

Did the results influence your designs in any way?

No, no, ha, ha….

Do you respect some competitors more than others? Which companies, in your opinion, have the best products in high-end audio?

No, we and the other high-end companies, we are all in the same boat. I don’t want to discuss that. It’s a question of ethics. Well maybe just a little if you promise not to print it (I didn’t).

Which parts of an audio system affect sound quality the most, source components, amplifiers or speakers? Which side of that endless debate are you on?

Everything is important. Each part of an audio system must be properly designed because even a small less important part of the system can destroy the entire presentation.

What do you think about the explosive popularity of home theater? What does this mean for home audio?

Generally, it doesn’t mean anything provided high-end audio is a healthy industry and the products are properly designed. Then, there is no dilemma. There are, however, many companies that call themselves “high-end” but have nothing in common with what high-end is about. This is the reason that home theater, a part of the audio business, is so successful. Also, all of it is the same kind of fun, good fun, and I have nothing against home theater.

But you believe it’s not high-end audio?

It has nothing in common with high-end audio even if you use the best source components, amplifiers and speakers for home theater. Just by introducing the processors you immediately destroy everything. I have a lot of customers who use the whole system as a home theater. I have one customer who uses the Grand Utopias (JM Lab speakers) for main speakers, Utopias for center and surrounds, and five ML1 – L1 combinations. It’s an impressive system. When he uses the system in two-channel mode, two Grand Utopias and two ML1-L1 combinations, the sound is very good, very serious. When he uses the system for home theater – nothing. It is still the standard bad home theater sound. Of course, it is better that standard sound. I have a few other customers in Russia. They use five M1.1 and L1 combinations, also with Grand Utopias and Utopias. In two-channel mode it provides good sound but as soon as they turn on the processor the sound quality is destroyed.

Do you think that 90% of high-end companies are not really high-end?

Yes, sir.

Have you heard the new formats, SACD and DVD-Audio?

I don’t want to discuss it. I prefer using regular CDs. That doesn’t mean that I don’t see certain advantages but I can’t hear these advantages. In the end, I still prefer analog LPs. That is the only real source. This can be theoretically proven. That is the fundamental question. I can see that the laws of nature are analog and not digital.

What are the goals for LAMM Audio in the next few years and where do you see yourself in ten years?

I will soon move to a larger space and then I will introduce a few less expensive products. In general, I would like to stay on top. I would like to continue doing what I’m doing because I can do things that no one else can. Why then should I lower my standards?

You will finish the ML3?

I will introduce the ML3, the phono stage, and DL1, a less expensive stereo version of the ML2. Also I will introduce a less expensive stereo version of M1.1 and I will add an M1.2 Reference.

Are you planning to expand your product line to include CD players or D/A converters?

No, there is no chance. I don’t want to commit suicide. I know what I am doing, so why should I then change my tune. I don’t need that and I don’t like it. This is my company, and of course, I need to make money to survive. We don’t live forever and I would like to realize my potential. If one wants to do that, and if one can make things no one else can, then one should stick with it.

What audio gear do you use in your own system?

I use Kharma Studio Critique speakers, the best model, Purist Audio Design cables, Sony DVD player used as a transport, and a Museatex D/A converter. I used to have a very expensive digital front end, a transport and a D/A converter, an excellent digital source. But after a few friends suggested that I try this combination (Sony and Museatex) I realized that it sounded better. This is a very well known designer, Ed Meitner. His D/A converter is fantastic for only $2000. It has excellent sound. I was so surprised by this performance that I sold my other expensive digital front end right away. There was nothing wrong with it but here I had at least as good a performance for much less money.

Of course, I use my own amplifiers and pre-amplifiers depending on the situation. I also use some equipment stands from various manufacturers.

Do isolation platforms improve the sound?

I think it makes the sound a little better.

Do you believe in blind listening tests?

Only in blind listening tests, especially double blind listening tests. It’s not a matter of belief. In the industry we use blind listening tests exclusively for professional testing of components, and not with just one tester. In reality, we use several groups of testers. That’s the only right way.

Thank you very much for this comprehensive interview. I am certain that our readers will find this conversation of particular interest.

You are welcome. And now let’s go listen to some music. After all, all this is here because of my love for music.

Click here to view the original article as a pdf.

October 2000

1. Back in Russia you had a significant academic career that included, as far as we know, some very interesting research in mechanisms of the human hearing. This “science-hifi” mix is a very rare combination. So, it’s very intriguing to ask: How close, after all, is/or must be a Hi-End design to real human hearing needs, and how difficult is to design real state of the art equipment without sacrificing the academic design approach to the marketing hype?

If we are talking about the audio equipment that should truly belong to hi-end category, it must be designed as close as possible to the real human hearing needs. Designing the equipment of such level is, indeed, a lofty and complicated task. Some aspects of it are disclosed in my answer to question #2. I just must add that it is quite difficult to maintain the balance between laying claims to designing the real state-of-the-art equipment and not sacrificing the academic design approach to the marketing hype. It is difficult from the viewpoint of ensuring commercial success of such equipment.

On the one hand, the designer operates with the sword of Damocles over his head, which is the cost of building. On the other hand, there is a desire to create the most perfect product, which unavoidably leads to increases (sometimes, quite significant one) in the cost of building. The next step is to resolve purely technical tasks related to reliability and longevity of the product, its “maintenability”, etc. which, in turn, demand the utilization of very reliable components expected to perform flawlessly over long periods of time. I’m not even discussing the issues of testing and selecting components suitable – based on the lack of their own sonic signature — for using in the hi-end equipment; this also adds to the cost of building. (Naturally, the handling of these issues largely depends of the designer’s experience, but the most important traits from my point of view are the readiness of the decision-maker not to compromise and also such “trivialility” as his understanding of how to design the audio equipment properly.

2. It is a fact that you know a lot about how the human brain senses the sound. In what degree this knowledge affects your design process and the final design itself? Listening tests and measurements were always slightly competing methods to evaluate a design. Do you feel that listening tests must have a bigger role in the final evaluation?

My total accumulated knowledge had led me to an understanding that there exist a very limited number of topologies suitable for creating truly high quality audio equipment. In my opinion, utilization of these methods sets very high standards in equipment design and, in turn (as was mentioned earlier), leads to the increase in production costs that determines a correspondingly high retail price. At the same time, we are able to immediately hear the difference between the system based on my design principles and other systems.

What follows is an oversimplified description of the work I have done. Based on the results of mathematical modeling of the human hearing mechanism and its underlying processes, I had developed a corresponding electro-mechanical model in accordance to which it is possible to build –with a very close approximation — an electronic amplifier utilizing a specific topology. All subsequent efforts were focused on detailed research of the qualities of such topology and establishing the correlation between the discovered qualities of the topology and sound reproduction characteristics of the amplifier utilizing such topology.

Having gathered this information, I had proceeded to conduct a stringent analysis of the main types of circuits utilized in designing the sound reproduction devices and then to determine the basic aspects of compliance (or non-compliance) of the specific parameters in these devices with the requirements dictated by the theoretical model.

Based on the above, it generally follows that when the design of a sound amplification device is conducted PROPERLY* and CONSCIOUSLY*, its measurement results, if interpreted properly, will provide a complete picture of the sound quality.

Time and practice have proven the almost complete correlation between the research results and sound quality of the equipment designed in accordance with my methods.

Therefore, in summary, I could answer your question by stating that I do not conduct listening tests. In my case, the listening tests play no role in either the designing process or the final evaluation of the product.

[* the capitalized words presuppose that the choice of topology and design processes are made in accordance with research results of the theoretical model]

3. America has always been the hardcore of the Hi-End consumer electronics world. But, to our opinion, Russia and former USSR must not be underestimated on terms of scientific and cultural offering. So, the interaction between you as a Russian scientist/designer and Americans as colleagues and market people must be an interesting experience. Please talk to us about that experience.

America has always been and, I hope, still is the hardcore of the hi-end consumer electronics world. I had a chance to confirm that upon my immigration to this country and in the beginning of my work in this area in the United States.

My personal experience of contacts with the American colleagues is fairly standard. Shortly after the immigration, I began working with Madison Fielding, Inc. and soon became one of the partners. I was there for about three years. I had not really encountered any personal or professional problems. There was a number of funny incidents related to my poor English, though; however, all of those were taken by both sides with a good dose of humor. Later on, when I finished the design of the M1 and M2 power amplifiers it turned out that the company either could not or did not (which did not make any difference to me) want to start the production of my designs. We parted our ways after this (around August 1993) and I established my own company. Afterwards, my contacts with the American audio engineers have been happening on a regular basis. Among them, I have a number of good friends and acquaintances.

Contacts with marketing people and dealers was a different story in the beginning. I am an engineer with a very pronounced research inclination; and so, I had no experience whatsoever dealing in these new, for me, areas of business – marketing and sales. Therefore, there were various misunderstandings (and often total lack of understanding) between the dealers and myself. However, I had been learning and still am, and at present I have no specific problems in these areas.

4. Do you feel that (a) there are some differences between Europeans and Americans in terms of designing and listening? (b) Did you have difficulties to function as a designer in America? (c) Do you believe that you had a “strong point” as a Russian there and what was that?

The answer to this question will, of course, be based on my own experience – personal as well as that of a designer.

(a) No doubt, the differences are quite significant; however, they exist not between the American and European designers as such, but rather between the individual designers with different levels of culture, attitudes, taste in music, and financial capabilities.

If we are talking about electronic equipment in general, the designing processes are fairly standardized (or ‘internationalized” so to speak). The end result will largely depend on the amount of money invested into the R&D, technical expertise of the designer(s), proper performance of the management team – basically, quite down-to-earth factors. However, if we are talking about designing hi-end audio equipment, the differences have to do with different schools of teaching and approaches to designing the audio equipment, rather than with the fact that the designers live on different continents.

(b) Yes, I did – but only for a certain time after I immigrated to the U.S. The difficulties had to do with my very poor English and lack of knowledge of the specifics of this country. After I had established my company, this “issue” became a “non-issue” (supposing that I were to ever consider this as an issue). In the end, I have reached my goal – to work independently without looking over my shoulder at anyone and anything, and to implement all my accumulated knowledge into the finished product.

(c) You know, my work schedule is very tight, therefore, I simply have no free time for pondering about things such as these.

5. L1 Linestage was a “hybrid” design. Until now, we knew that hybrids were circuits with mixed stages (solid state and vacuum tubes) in the signal path. But L1 uses vacuum tubes in the power supply. Please make for us a comparison between the classic hybrid circuit and your approach. What are the differences? Also please explain, if you wish, the differences between your approach to the power supply design and the traditional solid state regulated supplies.

Usually, the classic hybrid topologies use both vacuum tubes and solid-state components in the circuitries located in the signal pass; such approach, if implemented properly from an engineering standpoint, cannot raise any significant objections. I was able to create quite an interesting (in my view) topology without involving the vacuum tubes and utilizing very linear high-voltage MOS-FETs only.

Power supply is a different story. It is common knowledge that power supply is not an entity separate from the amplifier but is an integral part of the signal path, with all accompanying consequences. One such consequence is the necessity to ensure the constancy of its output impedance versus frequency at least within the audio band. If one also considers that the L1 sports a very high supply voltage of +350V, the conclusion is obvious: it is preferable to use the vacuum tubes in the voltage regulator circuitry. And here is the last point (which refers more to equipment reliability issues): traditional solid-state voltage regulators meant to stabilize high voltages for ensuring the high level of reliability of the product, demand the incorporation of sufficiently serious circuitries that offer protection from overloads and short circuits. This, in turn, significantly increases the overall number of parts used in the product, and its cost. In case of vacuum tube voltage regulators, it is enough to introduce the fuse at the regulator’ s output.

6. During the review of L1 we discovered two interesting details: First, you don’t have a RIAA stage (nor a RIAA pre- option as a plug in board, as far as we know). Second, you have adopted one elaborated volume control system (2 gains, one master). The first question is: (a) What about a customer who needs a RIAA? Do you have any plans about design one and what are your design thoughts about these circuits (which are, probably the most difficult blocks in the preamp design)? The second question is: (b) What are you thoughts about volume control? Do you feel that requires much attention so to spend the cost of 3 “Black Beauties” to this point?

(a) The L1 itself is a relatively complex design and the space inside is quite filled up, which formally did not allow me to allocate the space for plugging in the phono-board. In reality, I wasn’t very keen on doing it anyway since the methods I use in designing the high quality sound reproduction equipment are not aimed at significant micro-minimization of circuitry blocks or units. Therefore, I will most likely use an additional enclosure similar to the L1’s in designing the phono-preamplifier. Sometime in March-April of 2001 we plan to start the production of a full functioning preamplifier (pure tube) with the MC phono stage.

(b) Even the most impeccable sounding preamplifier may be degraded to a very ordinary level simply by utilizing the potentiometers of low or medium quality. Therefore, in this issue I don’t consider any compromises – and you had ample opportunity to be witness it examining the ALPS potentiometers used in the L1.

Moreover, in the next couple of months we are beginning the production of a new model of preamplifier: L2 (see our website and brief description in answer #7). The L2 will utilize even better (and of course more expensive) potentiometers than those used in the L1.

7. You have three power amplifier designs, but one preamplifier. Does this mean that L1 is an “all around” preamp or we must assume that something is “around the corner”?

At present, we manufacture two models of line-stage preamplifiers:

LL2, pure tube line-stage and L1, hybrid design.

Approximately by mid-September of this year, we will begin the production of another preamplifier: L2-Reference. It is a line-level dual-mono hybrid preamp with a separate power supply; tube rectifier, choke contained filter, vacuum tube regulator; TKD stepped potentiometers for volume control — the best available on today’s market; built-in remote on/off for LAMM AUDIO LABORATORY® amplifiers.

Sometime in March-April of 2001 we plan to start the production of a full functioning preamplifier (pure tube) with the MC phono stage.

8. Designing Hi-End products usually means that the cost is not an issue, or at least not the issue. Please comment on the consequences the “cost” factor can play in a good design. What, to your opinion, is the best allocation of the cost between design/components quality/aesthetics/quality control and marketing costs?

This is not a simple question. The allocation of expenses (within the product cost) among the various constituents you mention in a specific design is very often a result of personal tastes, preferences, mental and intellectual background (outlook, point of view, attitude) of the designer, manufacturing capabilities of the company, and so forth.

Let me describe my vision of this issue.

Design – in order to develop a product that conforms to my sound quality standards, I spend as much money and resources as necessary. Besides, it is necessary to take into consideration the fact that this product will have to be manufactured in quantity, be technological, not require any future upgrades or modifications, and ensure the level of reliability specified at the development stage.
Component quality – I choose the highest quality components that not only ensure the reliability of our products but also have optimal characteristics from the standpoint of transmitting the sound (in other words, components that have minimal sonic signature).

Aesthetics – It is my firm conviction that the end product in Hi-End audio is the sound itself, whereas all those boxes into which the electronics are packed are a “necessary evil.” Based on this principle, I try to create the equipment that is visually as little noticeable as possible, and that attracts minimal attention of the listener. Speaking more plainly, I prefer the “form follows function” approach that works with the established tradition of designing the “pro-audio” equipment. I also partially utilize the concepts suggested by W. Morris at one point, along with certain principles of W. Gropius (“Bauhaus”).

Quality Control – This issue receives our most serious attention. At the conception of each design, we carefully consider its break-down into functional blocks or units in such a way that would allow us to check each block independently. Simultaneously with the development of a new product we design the test-stand specifically for testing of this product. Therefore, the quality control process of each product includes the following steps:

1 after the assembly, each block or unit (in the simplest case, the pc-board) is tested for functionality;
1 having worked for at least two hours, the block or unit is measured, and measurements are recorded in the production report maintained for each piece of equipment that leaves our facility;
1 we also test ALL vacuum tubes before their installation, as well as some semiconductor devices. Where necessary, we match the vacuum tubes (especially, the output tubes) and semiconductor devices. Out matching is done with the precision of 1% tolerance or better.
1 upon final assembly of the product, it is turned on, adjusted and measured again. The parameters are again recorded in the production report;
1 then, the product undergoes a 72-hour burn-in test; the measurements of all parameters are again taken and, if necessary, the adjustments are made (again, the measurement results are recorded in the production report);
1 after the 72-hour burn-in test, each product is tested in the reference sound system for at least two hours.

All of this gives a fairly good impression of the costs involved in quality control.

Marketing Cost – the product cost includes a fixed amount allocated to marketing expenses. Of course, the actual amounts that we can invest into marketing venue directly depends on the cash flow in the company.

9. During the last years two new digital audio formats were introduced. What is your opinion about the future of DVD Audio and DSD/SACD formats? Do you feel that a “super” format will introduce some new requirements from amplifier designers and manufacturers, (since there are already rumours about power stages with severe problems in very high frequencies)?

I would rather not get involved in discussions regarding different digital audio formats – more than enough paper has been used up on this issue. Regarding “some new requirements…” to power amplifiers that work with “super” audio players, I can say that, first of all, the problems you indicate may arise with certain types of very powerful solid-state amplifiers utilizing a large amount of global negative feedback. From the technical standpoint, such problems are very likely associated with methods of implementation of certain circutries, as well as with the designer’s ability to properly ensure the stability of the amplifier in high frequencies region (phase margin, poles, zeros, etc.). In general the proper engineering solution of these issues can be learned from any university’s “Automatic Control Systems” course. If such problems are exhibited in the finished product, they can be partially remedied by installing the filters with appropriate bandwidth at the amplifier input.

10. Multichannel sound is a hot issue, especially in the USA, but in Europe too. What is your position as a Hi-End brand in respect with Dolby Digital “cinema” sound? Taking into account the high density formats which can carry up to 6 channels of high definition sound, do you feel that Hi-End could be in the future multichannel?

The systems you mention were designed for wide-screen cinema and include multi-channel amplification — including separate channel(s) for special sound effect — for high quality sound reproduction in movie theaters of large size. These principles in a slightly modified and simplified manner are used in so-called ‘home theater’ system, and quite successfully, too.

However, when we talk about such systems it is necessary to remember that they were generally designed as an integral part of a more sophisticated audio-visual system, and all possible aspects of its interaction with the man differs significantly from the interaction within the system “two-channel-stereo – man in the listening room.”

But if we are talking about the serious modern two-channel hi-end audio systems with properly chosen components (synergism) then it is possible to encounter a fairly faithful sound reproduction. I think that the priority should be given to improving the system components and characteristics of listening rooms, rather than increasing the number of channels.

11. In the end of this interview we want you talk to us about the near future plans of LAMM Industries. Does your strategies include products in different categories, like speakers or digital sources? Are you planning products in lower prices? How do you see the future of LAMM?

First of all, I don’t have plans to significantly expand the company because it inevitably leads to a certain loss of control over quality in design and production, which in turn leads to a decrease in sound quality. Moreover, the expansion brings with it the shift of emphasis toward the mass production – and that I’d prefer not to do. That is why, among other reasons, we don’t plan to design and manufacture the relatively inexpensive products, as well as products in different categories such as speakers and digital sources.

Regarding the products in a lower price range – at the end of last year we already began the production of a pure vacuum tube line-stage preamplifier LL2 (http://www.lammindustries.com/products/ll2descr.html). In the next 6-8 months we plan to start a stereo version of the ML2 amplifiers. It will be a single-ended amplifier with the output power of about 14 Watts/channels. There is also work on implementing into production a hybrid dual-mono amplifier designed on the basis on power amplifiers M2.1.

The future of LAMM – we will continue in the direction of making two lines of equipment: hybrid (mostly solid-state) and vacuum tube. Here is the breakdown of price ranges:

Power amplifiers – from US$ 9-10,000 to 70-100,000

Preamplifiers – from US $3-3,500 to 30-40,000

March 2000

Sound man

Vladimir Shushurin, age 54, sits in his basement in Sheepshead Bay, a section of Brooklyn dominated by Russian immigrants, building what the top hi-fi magazines consider to be the best amplifiers in the world. He doesn’t sell many of these amps. They are expensive, ranging from $16,000 for the cheapest model to $30,000 for his top-of-the-line product. “I could build cheaper amps, worse amps,” he says with a shrug. “I know how to do that. But why should I? I didn’t leave the Soviet Union and come all the way here to compromise.”

Shushurin is far from the only obsessive out there, scaling the heights of perfectionist sound. “High-end audio,” they call the expedition, and the common aim is to piece together a tangle of wires, switches, capacitors, circuit boards, and other electronic contraptions in such a way that the resulting package reproduces the tones, timbres, and dynamics – the you-are-there thrill – of live music.

The art and science of attaining this paradise, unfortunately, requires prodigious research, ingenious engineering, and expensive parts – “stupidly expensive parts,” as Shushurin puts it. Which is why, in this rarefied realm, it is not unusual to see the denizens hawking, and their best-heeled customers buying, $5,000 CD players or turntables, $10,000 preamplifiers, $20,000 amplifiers, $30,000 speakers, and $1,000-per-meter cable to hook all the components into a system.

Two remarkable things about this alternative universe: First, nearly all high-end companies – the ones that have been around the longest include Audio Research, Krell, conrad-johnson, Classe, VPI, Magnepan, Martin Logan, Wadia, Theta, Spectral – are based in the United States or Canada. A few more are in England, Scotland, West Germany, France but almost none are made in the Asian countries known to produce mass-market stereos. The second thing is, this stuff really does make a difference, and, faced with a properly set up system, anybody can hear it; there’s nothing subtle about it.

I remember my own first exposure 15 years ago, in a store just outside Washington, D.C. The owner put on a good symphonic recording, and my jaw dropped. The whole orchestra was spread out across the back wall, violins on the left, cellos and basses on the right, winds in between – with layers of depth, the sounds of percussion and brass coming from way, way in the back. There was that silky bloom of the string section, the metal and air of a flute, the woodiness of a clarinet, the snap of a drum, the golden crash of cymbals, the ambient echo of the concert hall itself, and, when a singer stepped in front of all this, you could sense the heaving chest, the smacking lips, and the air that pushes a human voice out into the ether. With a smaller-scale recording – a jazz combo, a pop group, a string quartet – the players seemed to be right there in the room, 3-D and palpable.

Going from my name-brand stereo back home to this esoterica was like switching from grocery-store swill to Chateau Petrus, like tossing out the 14-inch black-and-white TV for wide-screen surround-sound. Or, as Shushurin puts it, after his young wife, Elena, flees the room, laughing with embarrassment, knowing what he’s about to say, “It’s like the difference between a doll from a sex shop and sex.”

Shushurin got into hi-fi while growing up in Lvov, an industrial town in the Ukraine. He built his first amplifier, as a hobby, when he was 12. Later, he studied electronic engineering and physics at the Lvov Polytechnic University, then went to work for the Soviet military-aerospace complex, designing the monitors for optically guided bombs and simulator-training systems for the Apollo-Soyuz space project.

In the mid-1970s, Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin ordered the military industries to diversify and start producing consumer goods. Shushurin was appointed chief designer of the audio sector, which employed 400 workers, churning out a half-million units a year, most of them pretty terrible.

At night, though, he worked on his own theories of sound, which he knew he could never implement in the Soviet Union – partly due to the lack of a market for really sophisticated products, partly due to the lack of decent parts. In 1979, he applied for an emigration visa and, as a result, lost his job and underwent nearly a decade of harassment by the KGB. Finally, he was given permission to leave in late 1987, at the start of Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of perestroika. He moved to New York, studied English intensively, and chased his dream.

Shushurin’s basement – the production site of his high-end company, Lamm Industries Inc. – has something of the feel of Edison’s lab, a weird juxtaposition of crammed whimsy and high-tech wonder. Desks are spilling over with blueprints, circuit boards, and metal chassis. Drawers are stuffed with screws, capacitors, tools, and vacuum tubes. (All of his amps, like many high-end products, use vacuum tubes for at least some of their power.) Components and finished products are plugged into oscilloscopes that display perfect sine waves. Three workers, also Russian emigres, assemble the parts. Shushurin tests the finished products, making minute adjustments. Elina, who works at New York University, does the books in their apartment upstairs.

The conventional wisdom, in the mass-market world, is that all amplifiers sound pretty much the same, as long as they have the same number of watts and the same levels of “total harmonic distortion” (THD). But Shushurin, like everybody else who has wandered into the high end, realized very early that this just wasn’t true.

“For example,” he says, “you can look at the ratings for a Japanese amp – the THD is 0.0001 percent – but you listen to it, and the sound is just terrible. It was hard for me to accept this, as an engineer, but the conventional measurements have nothing to do with what we hear.”

Shushurin’s ultimate aim, like that of many in the high end, is to build equipment that has no sound at all, that brings the listener as close as possible to the musicians and singers in the studio – or at least to what they laid down on the tape – with minimal interference from all the electronics in between.

This is harder than it may seem, because all electronics impose some sound, some distortion, some barrier. Take capacitors. These are the circuits that the musical signal travels through on its electronic journey through an amplifier. The more circuits along the way, the more degraded the signal becomes. (This is why most high-end preamps do not have bass and treble controls; they’re just two more circuits that, if the thing is properly designed in the first place, aren’t needed, anyway.) Capacitors have memories. When a signal passes through lousy capacitors, it lingers for a while, overlaps with the signal passing through a nanosecond later. As a result, the music you hear sounds smeared; it’s missing a lot of the subtlety. When a signal hits excellent capacitors, it sails right through, with virtually no overlap. The music you hear sounds crisp, detailed, lifelike.

The problem is, excellent capacitors cost lots of money. So, cheap amps unavoidably use lousy capacitors, while excellent capacitors are found only in expensive amps. The same holds true for every part in a piece of hi-fi gear. At a place like Lamm Industries, each amp or preamp is a handmade product. It takes a full day to solder a circuit board, another two days to assemble the rest of the amp, a half-day to do the testing for quality control, three days of playing it on the stereo system in Shushurin’s living room (to let the circuitry “burn in”), then another few hours of double checks, to make sure all the parts are still up to snuff.

“I match all the tubes in an amp to within 1 percent of their performance specifications,” Shushurin says. “So, for every 100 tubes that I need, I have to buy 500 or 600. That costs money.”

His amplifiers also employ “Class A power,” which, most audiophiles know, is a particularly pure form of power, but it also makes an amp run very hot. “You have to use parts that can work in a very hot environment,” he says, “and these parts are very expensive, too.”

His costliest product, the $30,000 ML-2 vacuum-tube amp, uses “single-ended” circuitry – a type of design known to be seductively gorgeous in the middle octaves of music but a bit thin in the highs and limp in the bass. The ML-2 has the lushness of most single-ended amps but also sweet, strong highs and staggeringly deep bass, because Shushurin designed a special transformer that keeps all the frequencies at the same level. “`There is no transformer like this,” he says. “This transformer alone costs more than most whole amplifiers.

“All of this is a pain,” he moans. “It takes a lot of time, a lot of trouble, it’s expensive for me, it’s expensive for consumers. But what else am I supposed to do?”

High-end audio has a trade exhibition every January in Las Vegas, as an obscure subset of the Consumer Electronics Show. While multibillion-dollar empires like Sony and Microsoft unveil their latest advances in television and Internet technology in the vast caverns of the Convention Center, the cottage industries of the high end get together in a maze of small hotel rooms to display how well their new wares play music.

In January, Shushurin shared one of these rooms with Kharma Loudspeaker, a company from Maryland, plugging his L1 preamp and ML-2 amplifier into Kharma’s $65,000 Exquisite Reference speakers. (Kharma holds the distinction of having built the most expensive speakers in the world – a $1 million-per-pair model, commissioned by a tycoon in Belgium.)

Generally, though, this one-of-a-kind extravagance aside, Kharma, like Lamm, is not alone in the stratosphere. Dave Wilson, head of Wilson Audio, has been making loudspeakers in the high-five-figure price range for many years. The Wilson X-1 Grand Slamms, at $79,000 a pair, move out of his factory in Provo, Utah, at the rate of six a month. The pair he had on display in Las Vegas was serial-marked Number 507. Steve Jobs of Apple Computer owns a pair. Jim Clark of Netscape has two pairs. A lot of New York stockbrokers spend their bonuses on X-1s. “I sell more of these in New York than I do in any country,” Wilson says.

A former recording engineer with his own (now defunct) small label, Wilson, somewhat like Shushurin, started building equipment in his garage. That was in 1973. Now, at age 55, he employs 57 workers, supplies dealers in 42 countries, and builds four models of loudspeakers, of which, incidentally, the X-1 Grand Slamms are not the most expensive. (A pair of Wilson Wamm VIIs goes for $225,000.)

Still, the idea behind the enterprise, the fanatical pursuit of perfection, hasn’t altered a bit. Ask Wilson how it could be – and why, to what end – that speakers can be so expensive, and he’ll show you. “The major goal of designing a speaker,” he starts off, “is to make the enclosure” – the cabinet that holds the thing together – “vibrate as little as possible.” Most speaker boxes vibrate at certain frequencies, matching musical notes and harmonies. “If you’re playing a record, and it hits that note, you hear that vibration as a lack of purity in the music.”

So Wilson makes his cabinets from composite materials, tested in brutal fashion. He takes a piece of the material being considered, hits it with a pendulum carrying a 2-pound steel ball, then measures the vibration with sophisticated laboratory gear. After much experimenting, he settled on high-density phenolic, a plastic with a fiberglass matrix that happens to cost 15 times as much as the medium-density fiberboard used in most high-end speaker cabinets. Each X-1’s cabinet contains 270 pounds of the stuff. The speaker cones – the tweeter, woofer, and midrange drivers that produce the actual sounds (all of them custom-built) – are encased in a machined, concrete-filled baffle that weighs 48 pounds. Various ceramic materials are also employed here and there to dampen any extraneous vibrations. “The only vibrations should be those of the musical instruments,” Wilson insists.

Most high-end manufacturers aim for more “affordable” products – a term-of-art roughly defined as anything with a four-figure price tag. Paul Hales, who owns the Hales Design Group in Huntington Beach, California, makes speakers that cost between $2,000 and $10,000 per pair, but his aims and principles aren’t so different from Wilson’s.

“The two big things for me,” says Hales, who is 34, “are timbre and dynamics” – the tonal colors and textures of an instrument, and how they change in sound when they’re played louder or softer. “That’s what brings music to life.” The trick to getting there, in Paul Hales’s case, is better parts, thickly braced cabinets, smooth curves, and sculpted baffles – to eliminate unwanted vibrations, to make for a smooth, open sound.

Every designer has his own methods. (“His” is used deliberately here; the high-end industry is noticeably lacking in “hers.”) Anthony Gallo, of Anthony Gallo Acoustics in Brooklyn – only a few miles from Shushurin – encloses his speakers in spheres, the most vibrationless shape in the universe. Craig Oxford, of Nearfield Acoustics in Brentwood, Tennessee, makes PipeDreams – tall, thin speakers, each with 35 cones, all lined in a vertical array for the ultimate in dynamic ease and a tangible sense that the speakers have vanished and the musicians are standing there, playing right before your eyes.

Back in New York, a month after the Las Vegas show, Vladimir Shushurin is both pleased and nervous. …On the other hand, business in general is not great. And why should it be? Even in these flush times, not many people are in the market for $30,000 amplifiers. Lamm Industries has just seven dealers in the United States – one of them in New England (Goodwin’s High End in Waltham) – and another seven abroad; one of them, ironically, is in Russia, the land that treated Shushurin so miserably in his youth but now gives him as many orders as any place else.

Many high-end companies started out just like Lamm Industries – one-man operations working out of a basement or garage. But all the others began heir journeys with equally modest goals, carving out a niche in the high-end market with relatively inexpensive equipment. Then, once they acquired some dealers, capital, and a good reputation, they could afford to expand their production lines and build riskier, costlier gear that reflected the outer reaches of their ambitions and talents.

Shushurin is unusual, perhaps unique, in trying to leap into the business with his ultimate creation – the best he can produce, cost-no-object, and nothing-but – right out of the box. When I note that he might attract more dealers if he offered a line of products – including, maybe, a $1,000 preamp or a $2,000 amp, as a starter unit, something to bring in a broader base of potential customers, to get his name more widely known – he looks at me as if I’ve suggested sending his daughter into prostitution.

Then he shrugs and lifts his eyebrows a bit. “I am working on a cheaper version of the ML-2,” he allows. “It will cost $10,000, maybe $12,000, instead of $30,000. But for me, this is the bottom line.” Shushurin will play with “the bass a little bit and a few other things,” he says, “but I will not compromise the high frequencies. I cannot create a $3,000 or $4,000 amp and still have serious sound.”

May 1996

Click here for the Russian original version.


AM: In Russia, you are known to many by your articles in “Radio” magazine; you were also known as a Chief Designer of the Lvov Radio-Electronics Co. where “Amphiton” amplifiers, in particular, had been designed by you. Many know that you had emigrated to the U.S….

VS: For me, things had not turned out quite favorably. While waiting for the U.S. entry visa in Italy, I broke my ligament playing tennis (I was a professional table tennis player). A knee operation in America, where I arrived shortly afterwards, was not successful; two following years had not been too productive for me. But, as they say, there won’t be fortune if not for misfortune: during that time I had been working on my English and began sending resumes to high-end audio companies. However, I discovered that those companies needed mostly technicians, as their own design philosophy had already been formed and crystallized. Eventually, I found one company, “Madison Fielding, Inc.”
Originally, they invited me to work on simple designs but I offered to contribute high-end designs; they accepted. As a result, I became a partner in the company. My first implemented designs were power amplifiers model M1 and M2 which were exhibited for the first time at the Summer CES in Chicago, IL in 1993. For us, it was quite a sensational presentation (M1s were drivingWilson WATT/Puppy2); the tandem was labelled “the best sound at the Show” (you probably have this information from the materials I sent you).

However, my partners at Madison Fielding, Inc. were not the “high-end” material; in other words, they did not fully grasp what this business entailed. It was only after that Show that I realized that the company had no intention of starting production. Although I had practically no resources for doing so, I left “Madison Fielding, Inc.” to establish my own company which began its operation two months afterwards.

That was in October, 1993. Now, this is my sixth Show. During the past three years I had completed and implemented into production a line-level preamplifier model L1 with a fully balanced circuitry. It is a very interesting model — I use superlinear high voltage MOSFET transistors in the front end and +350V vacuum tube voltage regulator. Right now, I have a couple more preamplifier designs (not implemented into production yet) which are less expensive than the L1…

AM: What technical solutions characterize LAMM designs?

VS: I had been working for a long time on the question of why one piece of equipment makes good sound and the other does not. This question is as old as the world itself. I took the path of psychoacoustics and developed a number of mathematical models which manifested a more or less close approximation to reality (fortunately, back in Russia, I had a whole R&D department at my disposal). Those mathematical models were described by differential equations; specific correlation systems were developed. Using this information I obtained the electronic models of processes.

AM: In other words, you created something akin to the analog computer?

VS: Correct. As a result, I ended up with a very limited number of topologies which can be used in audio applications. Now I make audio equipment using those results. As a rule, I do not go through listening tests of the designs I create: when design is finished I make one listening test for control purposes…

AM: Simply speaking, you know the results beforehand?

VS: I do. Each model is designed absolutely deliberately with predetermined and predictable characteristics.

AM: Let’s say, a Japanese reviewer N. comes to you and says that everything is great but he would like to have a deeper soundstage. Do you know what you will be doing?

VS: Yes, I know what I will be doing: making a soundstage deeper (laughing). I set certain requirements for each of my designs and implement them — it is confimed by practice. In particular, the amplifier we are looking at — model M1.1 — is our flagship design in a solid-state line. It operates in pure class A mode and its topology features no feedback. We use high speed power MOSFET transistors.

I had spent a lot of time figuring out how to make the output stage work properly. It had been difficult because I use no feedback. As a result, even no servo system is employed and my amplifiers are thermally absolutely stable: output DC offset is no more than 10-15 mV in the temperature range between 10-45°C ambient–this is a very good result.

AM: Is there anything at the output, for instance, inductor?

VS: No inductors. The output impedance of an amplifier is about 0.18-0.2 Ohms, linear from 20Hz to 25KHz; in other words, the active component is overwhelmingly dominant in the output impedance. That is one of the reasons why the amplifier behaves as a magnifying glass with many types of speakers, making clear what is going on in a system as a whole because the amplifier is practically neutral itself. Besides, these amps can be used as welding machines (in other words, the amps can function even under short-circuit conditions). The input current is limited only by a line fuse, the value of which had been calculated to activate it, should the output power exceed about 400-500 Watts.

The front end topology is quite interesting–if I were to simplify its description I would say that the input is a cascode differential long-tail pair utilizing matched p-channel FET transistors and the high voltage p-channel bipolar transistors; the so-called Wilson current mirror is used as a current source; 6922/ECC88 vacuum tube is used in the second stage; the third stage is a single-ended high-current buffer on n-p-n bipolar transistors utilizing a current source. At a first glance, it is quite simple; however, as I mentioned before, these circuitries have been developed according to the electronic models I had already created. Here I use a quite simple, from my point of view, biasing circuitry that also provides an excellent thermal stability of quiescent current of the output transistors. I do not know who else utilizes such circuitry. I had spent a lot of time solving this issue; of course, there exist standard solutions for resolving this problem, but these types of solutions are quite costly and not always very effective. Besides, my amplifier is expensive as it is.

Other features that add to the proper functioning of amplifiers include a soft-start circuitry. For the first 2.5 seconds voltage is not applied to the filter capacitors since the big caps would blow any power supply while in a transition mode (which leads to a short circuit); therefore, a soft-start circuitry is used; next, time relays kick into operation.

AM: Through the resistors?

VS: Three power resistors connected in parallel are, in turn, in series with the mains. I use a very serious protection circuitry, with the delay time of one minute, to allow the initial warm up of the amp. Should something go wrong inside, the amp turns off and waits to see what happens next. If nothing happens, it turns back on. Let me demonstrate how the delay works (demonstrates).

As has already been admitted by the experts in the U.S., England and Japan, these amplifiers, beside other qualities, have an absolutely unique capability to reproduce natural bass, although these are not the DC amplifiers: there are coupling capacitors between the front end and output stage…

AM: Which stage of your Soviet biography do you remember today from the position of a high-end American designer and LAMM President and Director of Engineering?

VS: In 1963, I got admitted to the Lvov Polytechnic University, Department of Electrophysics, where I majored in solid-state physics, semiconductors, etc. Graduated in 1968 with a research profession of an engineer/electrophysicist and designer of semiconductor devices. Conducted fieldwork and was working on an M.S. thesis at the Kiev Institute of Semiconductor Devices of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian S.S.R. Did research on electro-luminescence and was involved in making electro-luminescent devices utilizing silicon carbide (SiC). Completed a write-up of an M.S. thesis about 4-5 months prior to the scheduled defense and was assured of a position at the Institute upon defending.

I had already started sorting out ideas about my future Ph.D. dissertation, but in 1968 I got drafted to the Army and this process was interrupted. (Having been born in a miserable year of 1945, I belonged to a generation that was turned into a kind of an experimental scapegoat on which various social structures were being tested: first a 7-year primary schooling, then an 8-year schooling, special polytechnic education, 11-year primary schooling…When I was still in college, the Army service was not required for college graduates–upon receiving a degree, the graduates were also conferred a military officer rank which eliminated the need for them to serve in the Army. Then, just prior to my graduation, a newly implemented idiotic Soviet “law” went into effect making serving in the Army compulsory for all young graduates…)

When I came back to Kiev after a two-year military service I learned that the position I had been promised before my military service was already filled. I then returned to Lvov and started working at the Lvov TV factory “Electron”. In reality, this factory was a major defense organization. My primary work there was concerned with closed-circuit TV systems. Later on we started working on high-definition TVs–have you ever watched on TV the Center for Space Flight Control in the town of Podlipky, seen all those desks with monitors? That was our design. We also worked on electronic equipment used for instruction and training of military and civil pilots and astronauts.
At one time the factory got a hold of a foreign TV-system with image scaling that was performed via optical methods utilizing highly complex optics. We had been assigned a task of creating the same system but with a scaling factor of 40 which had to be maintained on the display to keep up with changing of the television raster and with the characteristics that had to remain constant. I started checking around…

AM: This was also a military order?

VS: Yes. …I had visited the Central Aero and Hydrodynamics Institute where the research was being conducted on a similar topic. The researchers there explained to me that such issues could not be resolved by electronic means (the computers had been a rarity in those days), only by optical ones. In the Moscow Television Research Institute, similar systems had been implemented with scaling of only 5 times, and I needed a 40-times scaling. I took on this task, maybe because I was too young and did not realize what was involved in it, but I finally solved this problem. I quit “Electron” a couple of years afterwards, just when various R&D companies for consumer electronics (and especially audio electronics) started opening up throughout the USSR. I turned to the topic I was most interested in–audio.

Worked in the position of a Chief Design Engineer at the R&D Department of a large electronics company in the city of Lvov; The Department was involved in design of consumer electronics. Some of the projects I oversaw and participated in were: design and implementation of various power amplifiers, control and phono preamplifiers and equalizers for consumer and professional use; investigation and analysis of the world audio market; prognosis and formation of the promising avenues in the development of consumer audio equipment. “Amphiton” amplifiers that I had designed and implemented into production are just an external part of my job–it is of no interest. At the same time I had been “making myself” or, in other words, kept asking myself questions. When I was unable to answer them, I would embark on a learning crusade. Learning is a life-long process for me.

First, I kept asking the so-called simple and naive questions. For instance, we have three amplifiers: one with a 1-2% distortion, another with a 0.1% distortion and yet another with a 0.001% distortion. All three are heard through a speaker with, let’s say, about 5% of its own distortion. Theoretically, we shouldn’t hear the difference, just a “signature” of the speaker. But the paradox is that we hear the difference between these three amplifiers perfectly. The answer to this question is not that easy: it took me a few years to understand the nature of this effect. There is no place where you can learn how to make the sound–you can confirm this with any serious audio designer, or just any designer who has been able to create a reasonably wellsounding system. I repeat again that I have been learning all my life. I had an opportunity to conduct an enormous number of experiments or, in other words, check my theoretical hypotheses and calculations and narrow the number of topologies capable of producing good sound until I obtained the desired results.

As strange as it may sound, a big help in getting the results was my eight-year-long wait in the Ukraine for an exit visa, although this period was full of problems related to my status of a “refusenik” (persecution by the police and other problems). I had time to sort out a lot of ideas and results. Based on the electronic modeling of a human hearing mechanism and having arrived at a limited number of electronic topologies that describe our hearing perception to a greater or lesser degree, I created a number of working prototypes. I purposefully created various systems: solid-state, hybrid, and vacuum tube ones. In the end, I came to certain conclusions which I have been able to implement only here, in the U.S. Of course, it would be impossible for me to do anything here without years of previous thorough research–R&D is very expensive here. There are no grants available for this type of research, the government is not involved, various financial groups that sponsor research are not interested in this type of venture–financially, this is not the kind of business they would be investing in. I was able to realize my ideas with the least amount of expenditures only because back in Russia I had tremendous experience in implementing my own designs into production and their maintenance. I am familiar with an entire cycle: from an idea to a finished product. (By the way, back in Russia I was in charge of a number of very serious research projects and my job involved finding specific solutions to a range of problems, from research ideas to their implementation.) Here, in the U.S., I do everything myself.

AM: By the way, what do you think about domestic vendors of parts you use in your designs? Was it long before you found vendors? What is the quality of parts?

VS: As I mentioned before, I became a partner at “Madison Fielding, Inc.” and got to know certain vendors over time. People don’t talk much here, no one teaches you: if you got yourself into something you have to handle the consequences on your own. The only thing that I received assistance with was the transfer of literature, catalogs, component data to my home, in order to give me an opportunity to work out of home when necessary. “Madison Fielding, Inc.” was 50 miles away and I did not have a car at the time; I had to do all the commuting by train.


AM: Let’s talk about equipment measurements. There are two points of view on the subject. First is that measurements do not mean anything other than (roughtly speaking) quality of the equipment–we need measurements only to make sure that everything works properly. Second is that, at this point, we don’t even know what to measure. Do we need measurements at all?

VS: Of course. The measurements describe objective processes and phenomena. In a way, I solved this riddle: I achieved the correlation between the quality of sound and formal measurements, or at least those measurements which are formally present in every national standard and which are made public by designers. Of course, when one looks at the measurement results presented in a graphical way, one should have at least a basic understanding of a topology of the measured device and understanding of which formally measured parameters are critical to one or the other specific schematic solution. And it is absolutely necessary to know the types and values of feedback (if any) utilized in a given device. In other words, one should know what to measure. When a person sees formal measurements of a piece of equipment–even if he doesn’t know anything about it–he can say a lot about it by looking at the measurements, as long as he has an understanding of a subject matter. Usually, electronic engineers think that audio electronics is a passing stage between an entry level and professional electronics, although in reality one should get into audio electronics after all other areas of electronics have been mastered.

As a rule (and I don’t know of any exceptions) a person who is involved in design of at least high-end audio equipment either has to be a musician or at least know the sound of a real orchestra. This is a trivial observation but it is true.

AM: Let’s talk about assessment of sound quality. In general, there exist just a few fundamental approaches in this respect. One of them is quite obvious and clear–it is when a person compares the reproduced sound to the one of real instruments in a natural setting. Another is the one popularized by Mr. Qvortrup who claims that we know nothing about a recording process and that the only way to understand anything is to listen to an enormous number of records, one after another, and watch how the difference between them is revealed. If the difference is three-dimensional, then the system is transparent; if it is not, then the system is not.

VS: What if it IS and IS NOT simultaneously, as so often happens in life? What are we to do then? (laughing)

AM: But, still, what is your opinion?

VS: I have already said that a person should either be a musician or listen to live music on a regular basis, and to also remember one thing: that we are the perceivers and that the mystery is beyond us. The only thing we can do (using a servo system for analogy) is to choose a reference point based on live music and compare everything else to this point…Then, this question does not even arise.

This is an old issue, an issue of inner culture and education. We live in this world, we have certain musical instruments, we know certain music by certain composers–and we are limited by this information. Why, then imagine supernatural problems and put a heavy burden on oneself? It is important to accumulate “baggage” first–that is, to know how the real orchestra sounds. The rest is a question of classification and creation of certain hierarchical gradations. The problem of sound quality assessment is almost completely solved in the first 10-15 seconds of listening at the intuitive level. Any experienced listener knows that the first minute of listening is the decisive one, and the rest is simply putting the perceptions of that one minute into words; it becomes a question of terminology and method of communication.
As human beings, we perceive sound on various levels: conscious as well as subconscious (or intuitive). We perceive sound not just with our ears, but with the whole body. I had been seriously involved in sound perception issues and developed a very specific criteria for myself in this regard.

We have to listen only to the music; the equipment should move into the background, disappear. We must listen to the music–I think, this is the only reasonable approach. Right now, I am not talking about the questions of objective knowledge and so forth.
From my point of view, the ideal review is when an audio reviewer has nothing to say. Quite naturally, such reviews do not get published(!), as the reviewers must earn their bread, and the readers must get their entertainment; but the ideal conclusion should be: “I have nothing to say…”

AM: What are your plans for the near future? What new equipment are you working on?

VS: In the of LAMM AUDIO LABORATORY® products (solid-state and hybrid line) I have completed the design of a dual-mono power amplifier model DM1, with a retail price of approx. $9,700. Aesthetically it will look very similar to the M1.1, with a wider front panel (19 inches in width) and two heatsinks on each side. This is a highly biased A/AB design; the topology and physical design are similar to that of the M2.1, with an exception of a tube stage with accompanying elements–filament voltage regulator and so forth that are quite expensive–which will be replaced with a high voltage MOSFET. In other words, the amplifier will be a pure solid-state design. As I said, the design has been completed, a prototype built, and what’s left is to make the PCBs and start production. I might make a small preproduction run at some point in the near future. Based on the DM1, I will have a more affordable stereo amplifier, at about 60 Watts per channel; it will be the size of my preamplifier L1. This stereo amp will also feature high-speed MOSFET transistors in the output stage with no overall feedback, and topology and design philosophy similar to my other designs. It will have the same “recognizable” LAMM sound. This model will retail at approximately $4,000-4,500. I will also have a simplified version of the L1 that will retail at $2,900-3,100. With this, I will draw a line to my solid-state designs for the near future.

I am a “vacuum tube” man by nature. There is no limit to what can be done. I even established a new company LAMM INDUSTRIES, INC. which manufactures vacuum tube equipment. I have practically completed the design of a single-ended 8-Watt amplifier on 300B–this is more or less tribute to the latest fashion. I also have a design of a push-pull amplifier on 300B, operating in class A, but I would rather not start its production just yet, as I plan to start the production of an 18-Watt single-ended amplifier model ML2 shortly. And the crowning touch of all will be a single-ended amplifier on a Russian tube GM-70.

I have practically completed the design of two more models of more affordable power amps on vacuum tube 6550 (which is, by the way, from “Svetlana”); this tube has gained a fairly good reputation, especially its latest modifications. One design is a 70-75-Watt stereo amplifier, with two 6550 in each channel; and the other is a 150-Watt monoblock, with four or six 6550 tubes per channel. I will also have quite an original (probably even unique) model of a vacuum tube preamplifier.

To sum up, I will have three single-ended models: 8-Watt on 300B; 18-Watt model ML2, and 30-35-Watt one on GM-70. Right now, I have completed a design of quite a fascinating preamplifier which, I think, will become the reference (for some time to come) in terms of sound quality. By the way, it will have a Russian tube 6N6P that has certain interesting characteristics.

What I’m showing you now is a photo with a phono preamp–it is practically ready, I’m just working out the details. It will be quite an expensive piece, and there is a relatively limited, although steady, market for such equipment. As strange as it may seem, in spite of the cornucopia of phono stage models available on the market (solid-state as well as vacuum tube ones), serious audiophiles still feel the lack of a real phono stage that would be practically neutral and satisfy all requirements. Many of my customers and dealers keep asking when I would have such a phono stage.

It is very difficult to do everything simultaneously. The key is in increasing our sales. Export is important, including Russia, although up until recently I have been very skeptical about trying that. However, I now begin to think that Russia might become an interesting market in terms of audio. One of my goals is to get to the Russian and Ukrainian markets and other regions which had become independent. It is only a question of time when all this outrageous money and foolishness that are characteristic of today’s Russia transform into respectability. From the children of all those who had at one point been slaughteered, shot, put to prison and destroyed, there will emerge (of course, under a different guise) a new class of people. Natural sorting out always takes place. Equal civil rights do not presuppose equal individual capabilities; each individual is made in a certain way, each individual needs certain things–it has always been like that and will always stay like that.

I’m involved more in technical aspects than in political issues. When one leaves Russia, the unhealthy interest in the so-called politics goes away, and other aspects of existence come to the fore, those aspects which did not even touch our paranoidal mind at the time when all of us had been deprived of our individuality.

Many dealers and designers ask me what I think of digital technology and whether my company will ever go digital. My answer is very simple: this field is not a terra incognita for me but I consider myself quite an ordinary engineer in it. I always conform to my philosophy of not becoming involved in things which many people are able to do. In order for me to achieve a level of art in digital technology I have to live one more life. First of all, it is a little too late to get into this, and, second, my heart is not in a digital domain. I have always tried to do what I can do best and have paid a tremendous price to be left alone in order to do what I love.

I’m an “analog” man by nature and my mind is “analog.” I would not want to exchange the best digital system for the best analog system. Simple listening tests of digital and analog systems of comparable level make clear that there is nothing to talk about (fortunately, there is a great number of high quality LPs, and CD reissues of those LPs that make such tests possible). Digital technology by itself is not so bad; it is convenient in terms of working with recorded material (remote control operation, ease of choosing any track on a CD, choice of various programs and so forth), but if you want to “fly away” and have serious listening, there are no two opinions about it.

The market situation here is very interesting: there are many worthwhile things, along with quite a number of cheap promotional tricks. Take, for instance, an amplifier of class A operation. The fact that the designer decides to create an amplifier operating in pure class A (especially high power class A amp: over 50 Watts) automatically presupposes that it will be fairly expensive just from the standpoint of physical implementation. I leave out the issues of sound quality–everything depends on who and how will be designing such an amplifier. Here, in the States, the fact that the audiophiles-at-large know only that class A is a good thing gets abused: all too often anything slighly warmer than liquid nitrogen is declared class A. Because the consumers know that class A operation is a good thing, certain manufacturers, in order to promote their products, use the term “class A” to describe amplifiers operating in class AB or even B. As a result, a problem arises with price formation for the amplifiers that actually work in class A.

Take, for instance, my ML1 amplifier. Using audiophile terminology, its class of operation can be described as highly biased A/AB. However, I could quite comfortably label it an amplifier operating in pure class A. And, of course, it would be much easier to sell it then. However, this is plain cheating. In reality, should the ML1 be a pure class A amplifier (the same 80-90 watts of the output power with a frequency range of 20-20,000Hz) done honestly and properly, the cost of its building would rise significantly. But in this case, and it would be very, very difficult to sell it, although the jump in sound quality would be significant. And so, we are back at square one.

When a piece of equipment is designed properly, so to speak, then formal technical data describes and characterizes it quite comprehensively. You know, for instance, that single-ended amplifiers (especially those on vacuum triodes) have a weak spot: roll-off at the low and high frequencies because of an output transformer. For the absolute majority of single-ended tube amplifiers, frequency response characteristic is specified at the output power of 1 watt. What’s going on with the frequency response at the nominal power is a “black hole”…– and this is one of the most important parameters of any amplifier, and especially single-ended one. My single-ended amplifier model ML2 maintains a frequency response from approximately 16-20Hz to 60-80KHz (exact values will be specified when production begins) at the nominal power. And I guarantee the constancy of harmonic residue shape at all frequencies in the range of 20Hz-20KHz (again, at the nominal output power!). There hasn’t been anything like that on the market among the single-ended amplifiers.

Images are courtesy of AudioMagazine (The Hi-Fi Journal) of 
St. Petersburg, Russia. email: ampost@comset.net