Lamm ML1 Mono Amplifiers
by Marc Mickelson
No matter how often we reviewers disparage the price of hi-fi equipment, we love to play with and evaluate those products that aim at being the bestand being the best in the high-end arena comes at a high-end cost. And if were really on our game, well be able to relate more than a few of the sonic details of the gear in question and therefore impart some of the sensation of listening to music with it. Its easy to throw around accoladesor raspberriesbut what good are they if theyre not backed up with good ol observation? I find that too many reviewers think of themselves as opinion-makers, in the highest and mightiest sense of the term. They dont spend enough time simply being reporters and conveying the facts, which in the long run help you readers have a better understanding of the subject more than the most flowery of language can.
So maybe Ive now hung myself as I embark on a review of the Lamm ML1 mono amplifiers, which not only cost a bundle (almost $20k per pair) but encourage a river of colorful adjectives. The ML1s are the work of Vladimir Shushurin, the designer of the accomplished Lamm M1.1 and M2.1 monoblocks and the L1 line-level preamp. The ML1s are not as powerful as their hybrid brethren, delivering 80Wpc into 8-ohm loads. Theyre push-pull triode circuits that use the same output tubes as the Joule Electra VZN-80 Mk III amp, the large 6C33Cs, although each ML1 uses only two of the tubes and doesnt run nearly as hot as the Joule Electra amp. Shushurin uses the 6C33C tubes because of their high-current, low-impedance characteristics. This allows for the use of an output transformer with a very low turns ratio, extending the bandwidth of the amplifiers, which are impressively rated at -0.3dB from 20Hz to 20kHzessentially flat through the entire useful frequency range.
Like all Lamm products, the ML1s use the very finest parts that Shushurin can find often in unique implementations. The custom-made power transformers, for example, are suspended in a special encapsulant to absorb the smallest of mechanical vibrations. Inside, the routing of the internal wiring is exceptionally neat, as is the layout of the circuit boards. The ML1s are also quite lovely on the outside, with their pairs of large 6C33C tubes up front and throw-back oval meters. The amps communicate a quick sense of utility to audiophiles and a heapin helping of curiosity to all others. No, the ML1s dont have visual pizzazz. Instead, they opt for a sort of Shaker-like simplicity that I find very appealing.
I used the ML1s to drive both ProAc Response Four and Nova Rendition speakers. Unlike the Lamm M1.1s and M2.1s, which never sound taxed for power, the ML1s do live up to their 80Wpc output. They can play very loudlyobscenely loudlybut they do not belie their power rating. Although they drove both the ProAc and Nova speakers easily, the Response Fours seemed to be a more friendly load for the ML1s, and I suspect that the amps 1-ohm output impedance along with the Renditions 4-ohm nominal impedance may be to blame.
The lineup of ancillary electronics included Lamm L1 and Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III linestages, Timbre TT-1 DAC, Wadia 20 transport, and JPS Labs Superconductor2 interconnects and RC Series speaker cables. Also in the signal path were a Marigo Apparition Reference series 3A digital cable and Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect. I used power cords from Audio Magic, Audio Power Industries and JPS Labs along with a Marigo RMX Reference AC Distribution Center. As for other amplifiers, Ive been lucky enough to have a number of high-quality contenders around for direct comparison, including Clayton M-70 monoblocks, two pairs of the Lamm hybrid monoblocks (M1.1 and M2.1), a Mesa Baron stereo amp, and a Joule Electra VZN-80 Mk III OTL amplifier, which, again, uses the same output tubes as the ML1s.
A couple of in-use issues. I found that the pairs of binding posts on the review set of ML1s made biwiring with spade-terminated speaker cables impossible because the posts wouldnt open far enough to accommodate stacking the spades. Of course, you can easily use speaker cables with spade terminations and banana plugs, which is what I did. Shushurin has told me that hes now using different binding posts that do open more widely and eliminate the problem. Also, please note that the RCA and XLR input jacks on each amp are not on the back panel but rather on the left side and near the front of the amp. This design feature shortens the signal path, but it also means that you need an extra half-meter of interconnect if you want to face the amps forward.
Tubey or not tubey?
Triode amplifiers carry with them a reputation thats well known. Theyre often thought of as the gentlemans tube ampglorious midrange that comes at the price of both top and bottom extension. Much of this reputation comes from the glut of low-power single-ended triode amplifiers available, but some of it is also earned. The Mesa Baron, for instance, sounds more warm and fuzzy when its used in pure triode mode, and other amplifiers that offer triode power sound this way too.
So here is where I reveal that the ML1s either do or dont follow the tradition of triode soundand the verdict is...not guilty. In fact, the ML1s even go a step further, bypassing some of the stereotypical qualities of tube amplifiers altogether. While the ML1s do have an impressive midrange, they are not rolled on the top or bottom, instead offering full extension at both extremes. When I first heard the amps, I was surprised by this breach in etiquette, but not overly so. Vladimir Shushurins mostly solid-state designsthe M1.1s and M2.1sdont sound like typical solid-state amps, so why should his triode tube amp conform to any set of expectations?
What is immediately apparent when you have the ML1s in your system is how good a really good tube amp sounds. The ML1s are one of the most resolving amplifiers Ive ever heard. They get under the skin of a recording, displaying a wealth of musical information in a most relaxed mannera conundrum for those grizzled veterans of the high-end wars who are used to hearing abundant detail at the expense of beauty and grace. The ML1s reveal, but theyre not etched or grainy, hard or unrefined, in the treble in any way. They always remain composed in the high frequencies, but have no overripe sense of sweetness that you might expect from such performanceespecially from a triode tube amplifier.
Richard X. Heymans Living Room!! (Cypress 71335) is like a lot of the CDs in my collection: a less-than-perfect recording of vital, involving music. Heyman is a pop master who was responsible for essentially all of the instrumentation (including drums) and vocals recorded on Living Room!!, so the actual setting to tape of the songs surely required some studio wizardry. The ML1s bring the disc to life, retrieving detail and nuance buried deep in the intricate mix. Same for XTCs Nonsuch (Geffen GEFD-24474), which is a better recording than Living Room!! but has so much going on throughout that lesser amps tend the mush it all together. The ML1s are sort of like a new pair of glasses: You can see further and discern detail without having to tryeverything is more there than it used to be. And as with a new pair of glasses, anything else seems distorting.
Along with this high level of resolution comes speed. The ML1s track the signal like radar, producing individual sounds with greater immediacy. Transients have more snap, and individual sounds materialize more quickly than with other amps, even the Joule Electra VZN-80 Mk III, which was very impressive in this regard. Attack and decay are heightenedalthough, once again, textural liquidity reigns supreme. Robin Holcombs eponymous debut CD (Electra 9 60983-2) has some hauntingly beautiful music that takes a back seat to Holcombs poetic lyrics. "The American Rhine" opens slowly with some interesting synthesizer work and bongos, and then Holcombs voice emerges in a flash from far in the background. Same with the singing on the dirge-like "Waltz," which I always think must have started as a poem and was later set to music. The ML1s portray these tunes, and the others on the CD, more perfectly than Ive ever heard them, allowing all of the seemingly buried nuance to shine through with a realistic sense of speed.
The tonality of the ML1s is dead on and enhanced by the amplifiers attack and decay characteristics. Voices sound distinctly individual; guitars sound like guitars, drums like drumsbut more so with the ML1s than with other amps. The cello that opens "Cry Baby Cry" on Richard Barones little-known live CD Cool Blue Halo (Passport PBCD 6058) is very resonant, the notes projecting with the sound of the instruments body intact. Barones voice is rather flatas its been on every rig Ive heard the CD onbut very clear. Even the clapping after the song ends sounds exceptionally right. (God help meIm now using applause to judge audio equipment.)
The bass of the ML1s is remarkable, especially for a tube amplifier. No, it doesnt have the crushing weight and slam as that of the M1.1s or M2.1s, but it goes as deep to my ears (and stomach) and is exceptionally articulate and expressive. "Joe Slam and the Spaceship," an instrumental track on Harry Connicks She (Columbia CK64376) begins with some LOW bass tones that pressurize my listening room, causing the walls to rumble. This is an accomplishment given that the tones are not very loud and the floor of my room is carpet over concrete, so its not carrying any vibration to the walls. The ML1s reproduce the tones with poweras much power as the Lamm M1.1s. Overall, the bass of the ML1s is very deep, but it doesnt stand out. Its natural, never sounding overly prominent or attention-grabbing.
Lamm vs. Lamm
A comparison between the Lamm ML1s and the M1.1s/M2.1s (the latter two models sound essentially identical) is educational for understanding what the three pairs of expensive amps sound like. First and foremost, the ML1s sound less traditionally tubey than the M1.1s/M2.1s. They tend more toward linearity and dont impart the added fullness in the lower midrange that many tube amps do. Their midrange is also not quite as lushalthough it is more tonally right in my opinionand the bass is not as weighty. They also dont approach the sense of limitless power that the hybrid Lamms impart. Overall, though, the ML1s are more resolving and faster than the M1.1s/M2.1s, and in these respects they are without peer among the many amps Ive heard, but theyre just as smooth and devoid of electronic artifacts, and this also puts them in exclusive company.
All of the pieces of Lamm equipment that Ive reviewed (which is all of the Lamm equipment made except for the new ML2 single-ended monoblocks) share the same easily recognizable family traits that, in my opinion, all high-end gear should aspire to: extension up and down the frequency spectrum with none of the harshness or mechanical tinge that instantly kill the illusion. Lamm products are surely on a very short list of the finest electronics currently made.
The lines between the general categories of high-end components can be drawn in a number of waysincluding by price, technology in use, and overall performance. Within these larger groupings are a number of smaller qualitative divisions: detailed, sweet, smooth, musical, revealingthe list could go on. The extent to which a piece of equipment lives within its category determines its niche in the equipment hierarchy, but whether a piece of equipment crosses boundaries often determines how well received it will be by reviewers and savvy buyers alike.
The Lamm ML1s wipe away all sonic borders, and leave only the barrier between the very best reproduction and an affordable price intact. The ML1s are a no-compromise package. You get speed, resolution, ease and naturalness along with a complete lack of grain and glareas well as bass depth and realistic tonality. One amp or other may better the ML1s in some specific way, but I seriously doubt that youll find any amplifier that will equal the ML1s overall list of sonic virtuesor even approach them.
The Lamm ML1s are a real achievement, especially in light of the performance of the Lamm M1.1s and M2.1s. I know of no designer who has excelled with both tubes and solid-state devices the way Vladimir Shushurin has. His designs are touched by genius, and the Lamm ML1s are crowning proof. Treat yourself and hear a pair.
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