Marc Mickelson

Authorized LAMM Dealer

November 1997

The Real Thing: The LAMM L1 Linestage

The relationship that all audio publications have with their readers and the manufacturers that submit equipment for review is a delicate one. The publication must solicit equipment about which its readers will want to, uh, read. But at the same time, it must also take into consideration the general relationship it creates with manufacturers, being sure to impart a sense of fairness to all, no matter what their prestige, gross sales or advertising budget.

This scenario is directly applicable to my review of the LAMM L1 linestage. First of all, I reviewed the LAMM M1.1 amplifiers just a scant two months ago, and we don't want to bore you all with too much equipment by the same manufacturer. By the same token, LAMM's Vladimir Shushurin thought it best that I hear the M1.1s along with the L1, for reasons of synergy, so it seemed only fair to accept his offer of an L1. (I didn't tell him that no right-thinking audiophile would turn down the opportunity to hear a top-of-the-line $6300 linestage, although maybe he already knew this.) But the fact that LAMM, or any other manufacturer, sends us something doesn't mean that it's instantly a review product. It has to make the cut, and the LAMM L1 does so with flying colors. Like the M1.1 amplifiers, the L1 is an outstanding piece of high-end equipment and more than competitive with other products that have designs on the title "The Best There Is."

What's Inside?

[LAMM L1 INSIDE]Like the M1.1 amplifiers, the L1 is a hybrid, employing both tubes and solid-state devices in its circuitry. In a slight twist, however, the tubes are used in the power supply's sophisticated voltage regulation stage, while the MOSFET output devices are used in the line-stage circuitry. The front panel sports a plethora of knobs and switches. Probably the most noteworthy of these are the right and left gain controls, which allow you to adjust channel balance independently, and the master gain control, which is used to adjust the L1's overall signal volume. Together, these three pots (each a very expensive Alps Black Beauty) allow you to fine tune the L1 so that you can get further into the rotation of them all for better sound. There are sets of single-ended and balanced outputs that you can use in tandem for bi-amping and a convenient switch that allows you to turn on and off a properly connected pair of LAMM M1.1 or M2.1 amplifiers. All of the L1's inherent flexibility makes it a very easy and enjoyable linestage to use.

What Else?

I used the L1 in my reference system: ProAc Response 4s, Quicksilver M135 or LAMM M1.1 amplifiers, Timbre TT-1 DAC, and Wadia 20 transport. Interconnects and speaker cables are by JPS Labs -- except for the wonderful Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect. Power cords and digital cables are by JPS Labs, Audio Magic, API and Marigo. For comparison purposes, I used my reference CAT SL-1 Signature and briefly a Joule-Electra LA 100 Mk II (review in the works) -- as well as the many, many high-quality linestages and full-function preamps that I've heard over the past few years (email me for details). The amplifiers, preamps, and DAC go straight into the wall, while the Tubed Interconnect and transport are plugged into a Marigo RMX Reference AC Distribution center, which includes very neutral power conditioning provided by its captive RMX Reference Ultra power cord.

What's it Sound Like?

I've never bought into the straight-wire-with-gain argument trotted out for reviews of linestages. First, as with all such lines of reasoning, I wonder what this ideal device sounds like. How do you describe nothing? (In English, not Audiospeak.) It's, uh, invisible, has no sound--I mean...ahhhh. But let's keep things in perspective: we all know that no matter how impressive an audio system sounds, it's not the real thing. There are limitations in dynamics, resolution, loudness--the list is enormous--but somehow none of these things stop us from laying down long green to build a system that we enjoy. The recorded performance is too precious to waste on bad sound, and besides, when was the last time you heard, for example, The Beatles perform Sgt. Pepper's in its entirety? Only at home. Like it or not, we're stuck with what we have, which is pretty darn good anyway.

So I reject the prevailing way of evaluating a high-end linestage. How then did I go about discerning the LAMM L1's sonic characteristics? Well, there are a number of things that define the sound of live music--for me at least. You'll probably have to go back and reread my reviews to figure them all out (maybe I should too), but perhaps the one at the top of my list is a lack of the types of tonal effects that instantly kill the illusion: hardness, glare, grain, and electronic haze. I hate to listen to equipment that's tipped up in order to emphasize anything--especially the treble. Such gear just doesn't draw me into the music. Flatness and linearity rule, but only when they're applied properly to preserve the intrinsic resolution of the music. And I'm happy to report that the LAMM L1 does just this. It's the most effortless- and natural-sounding linestage that I've ever heard, never excessive (or reduced) in any way. It scales the top of my sonic wish list.

A story to help clarify my point. The organization I work for has no parking close by, so each day I have to walk three long blocks to work and then back to my car. Near the lot where I park are two houses that two different bands use for practice space. (I live in a college town, so bands are rather ubiquitous.) One of the bands is good--a sort of alternative/fusion crew--while the other is not. I listen to music wherever I encounter it, so on the days that one or the other band--or both--is practicing, I open my ears to discover how they're progressing.

[LAMM L1]Of course, because I'm an audiophile what always strikes me is the sound: powerful, dynamic as hell, loud but without strain or glare or grit--the sorts of things that plague marginal high-end components, a group to which the LAMM L1 doesn't belong. With the L1 in your system, you turn up the music and it just gets louder, to the point where it can approach the pit-of-the-stomach power of a live concert (the M1.1 amps also help in this regard). The L1 measures flat from top to bottom and extends as well as any linestage I've heard, so I'm not talking here about blunted or rolled-off highs. Instead, the L1 offers the kind of sensation I used to feel as I stood in front of the stage at the Union, beer in hand and head bobbing to the beat. So the LAMM L1 has the valuable quality of transporting recorded music closer to the sound of the real thing--much closer. There's no higher praise I can give a piece of audio equipment.

But the L1's merits don't stop here. Its soundstage is huge and especially layered; picking out individual instruments and where they reside is an easy task. I've mentioned the band Television and their self-titled CD, which marks their return to the studio after a several-year hiatus, many times in my reviews. Television, the CD, is a great evaluative tool and some of the most fascinating music I know of. With the L1 in place, the soundstage is precisely portrayed, and the air around the performers is present--listen to the CD and you'll know what I mean. The L1's ability to reconstruct the varied effects on the CD--the cryptic lyrics, the delicate instrumental interplay, the graceful precision of Tom Verlaine's guitar work--makes the music especially involving.

The L1 has a midrange that rivals or betters that of many high-quality (and high-priced) linestages, and I still wonder how designer Vladimir Shushurin has accomplished this with MOSFETs. Vocals have wonderful presence and dimension--neither too much nor too little--and I'm especially impressed with the way the L1 portrays the female voice. Michelle Shocked's latest, Kind Hearted Woman, is a bit of a departure for her, having more of an electrified, alternative twist to it than a reliance on the spareness of the folk milieu. Through the LAMM L1, Shocked's voice has great expressiveness as she croons, whispers, and shrieks through the 10 songs. She also shows herself to be a pretty good guitarist, and it's details like this that the L1, and the way it engages the listener, helps to showcase.

CAT Fight

As many of you have noticed and contacted me about, I own a CAT SL-1 Signature, which I can confidently characterize as one of the finest preamps available at any price. The CAT's strengths are legendary: tremendous resolution, a clear yet palpable midrange, a certain magic that few preamps can muster. I've pushed my CAT far past its stock litter mates by using NOS Telefunken, French Mazda, and Sylvania tubes; a pair of Ensemble Tubesox; and a trio of Black Diamond Racing cones underneath its hulking weight. I've compared my SL-1 Signature Mk I unit head to head with a Mk II relative and found mine, tweaked to the hilt, to be the Mk II's equal in every way -- and to better it in some. Diligence does pay off in audio as in life.

So how does the L1 stack up? Very well indeed -- I prefer it over the CAT in almost every way. Although the LAMM L1 doesn't have that last oomph of air that the CAT can conjure, it also doesn't have the slight wispiness of the CAT's treble, which shows up only in comparison to the suave L1. I wouldn't chide anyone for buying a CAT (I did), but I like the L1 better for all that it does to pull me into the music, especially when paired with the magnificent LAMM M1.1 amps. It's sound to die for.

Bass Notes

Everyone who reads up on high-end gear knows that seldom is a product covered by only a single audio publication, and so savvy buyers will often seek out all reviews available on a certain component to get various points of view. On the writing end, however, there's an unwritten rule that reviewers should ignore coverage in other magazines while they evaluate the same product. Although in theory this is done so there is no collusion, or collision, of ideas, it's also part of an unwillingness for one publication to draw attention to another--and I suspect that ego is involved as well. We reviewers aren't known for our ability to compromise, and so we all think we're right--especially when we agree, in which case we're even MORE right.

Now I'm not about to tell you that I haven't read the two reviews of the LAMM L1 that precede this one (in the August 1997 issue of Stereophile and the December 1996 issue of Fi). In fact, I encourage you to seek out both of them if you're interested in understanding more about the L1 and how two other writers describe its sonic character. I do, however, want to address an area of the L1's performance that the other two reviewers diametrically disagree about: its bass.

In Fi, Dick Olsher praised the L1's low end, finding it especially tuneful and powerful, while Stereophile's Wes Phillips found the L1's midbass to be overblown and its lowest bass to be attenuated (I paraphrase the words of both reviewers). Well, I'm not going to make it easy for you and agree with one position or the other. I find the L1's bass to be like the rest of its sound: integrated and unforced. I don't find that it's especially noticeable -- and this is a compliment -- nor do I find it to be bloated, colored or reduced. It's simply there, like the music the L1 reproduces, and doesn't call attention to itself. About the most I can say is that in comparison to the bass of the L1, I've found the bass of other linestages to be unduly apparent or overripe -- in a small way, the bass of the CAT SL-1 Signature fits this description. But there's no way I would say that there's anything especially noteworthy about the L1's bass, except that it's as it should be: neutral and thus true to the music.

Last Words

The LAMM L1 is a very compelling piece of audio equipment. It's built to exacting standards, employs innovative circuitry, and above all sounds glorious. It's the most lifelike, hyper-neutral linestage I've ever heard, free from the grain signature and electronic artifacts that we've all grown to accept as part of the equipment we love. Don't buy it--literally. The LAMM L1 sets its own standards for the way music is reproduced, and as soon as you have it in your own system, I bet you'll hear what I mean.

So often we audiophiles have to defend our hobby against the ignorance and apathy of non-believers, most of whom do no active listening to music -- that is, listening for its own sake, not in the process of doing something completely unrelated. However, a component like the LAMM L1 (and the LAMM M1.1 amps for that matter) can so immediately communicate the heart and soul of a piece of music via its unsurpassed naturalness that I bet even the uninitiated could quickly recognize what the high end is all about. And such a fact also bodes well for those audiophiles who seek out the most-wonderful LAMM L1 for audition. If you love music, it's your ticket.

...Marc Mickelson

LAMM L1 Linestage
Price: $6,290 USD

LAMM Audio Laboratory
2621 East 24th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11235
Phone: 718-368-0181
Fax: 718-368-0140


LAMM Audio Laboratory Responds:

Re: M1.1 and L1 reviews

When the review on our power amp model M1.1 went online in SoundStage! magazine (September’97), I waited until everybody left the office and it got dark outside. I put a stack of clean paper on my desk, took out my favorite pen and made myself comfortable before starting on the manufacturer’s comments. I waited five, ten minutes -- nothing was moving in my head. I gave it another half-hour -- still nothing. My mind was completely blank. With some regret I left the comfortable chair wondering at myself -- I rarely have any problems putting on paper my thoughts and ideas. My "writing" heritage is quite extensive: an array of audio-related articles published for professionals and amateurs back in Russia, talks and presentations, lectures and reports, you name it.

What was going on? Why couldn’t I gather my thoughts together to write simple manufacturer’s comments? After all, my products are like my children -- I know them inside out, and as a rule am able to respond to any comments about them.

Well, that night I attributed this unlikely effect to a very busy and hectic day and decided to get back to writing the following night. Again, after everybody left the office and it got dark and quiet around, I got into my chair, pushed a stack of paper closer and lifted a pen. My hand froze in mid-air...there was nothing to say. I was looking stupidly on a blank page. This began to interest me. Hmmm...

Going through the same motions every night I finally decided not to waste precious time doing nothing. I could not afford that. My muse had to visit me some day, we have been friends for many years now (after all, it is to a great extent because of my muse that I was and am able to create my designs). My muse never came, maybe she was busy trying to catch some new idea by the tail to deliver to me.

I never sent in my comments on the M1.1.

When Marc Mickelson sent me review proofs on the L1 preamp a week before the review was to go online, I was strongly determined to write the comments -- this time on both the M1.1 and L1. Although my muse is a big help at certain times, at most other times it is the determination and single-mindedness that get things done. Sitting down in my chair I re-read both reviews, analyzed them very carefully and finally understood why I could not write the manufacturer’s comments before.

In a very concise and clear manner, Marc managed to put on paper what he heard, which was precisely what I strive to achieve when creating my designs. That left me with practically nothing to comment on. Well, almost...

The idea behind the L1 (and any of my designs) was to create a piece of equipment as sonically neutral as possible. If I am to briefly describe the most prominent characteristics of the M1.1 and L1, I would say that they efface when introduced into an audio system. Side by side (and as a result of) their self-effacement, another interesting trait manifests itself. It has been witnessed in a variety of set-ups that LAMM gear acts as a magnifying glass for revealing shortcomings or inconsistencies inherent in other components that are part of the system (when such aberrations are, of course, present).

In certain set-ups the sound gets even worse when LAMM equipment replaces the original gear. At first, this might appear incomprehensible but, in fact, is easily explained. As an example, let’s take a system in which electronics provide some kind of masking effect for shortcomings of other components in a system and are likely, in turn, to have their own shortcomings masked by other components. I call it "pseudosynergism." Audiophiles are well aware that certain audio components work well only with certain other audio components. In many cases, such combinations produce pseudosynergism. When the LAMM electronics get introduced into a pseudosynergistic system, the "masking balance" is destroyed and the components start delivering exactly what they are capable of delivering (again, if component aberrations are present).

My approach to a properly set-up system is to make sure that every single component is itself neutral and sonically of high quality; this assures the overall neutrality of the system.

In closing, I would like to thank the SoundStage! crew and Marc Mickelson for objective and "no-nonsense" review, and believe that both reviews are well suited to serve as guiding posts in audiophile search for better sound. We welcome comments on our products and would be happy to answer any questions.

...Vladimir Shushurin (Lamm)
Director of Engineering