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BOUND-FOR-SOUND, May' 2000
H. Richard Weiner
 

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Vladimir Lamm and the Goldilocks Preamp
Or,
The Perils of Moderation

O’ it offends me to the soul to hear a …fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise.
                                                                     Hamlet III, ii

The Sad State of the Art

Just as it is becoming pleasant to listen to digital sources, we are loosing the preamps to play it through.  The majority of manufacturers are cranking out preamplifiers that manage to sound both shrill and anemic.  In an effort to turn away from the overly lush sound of early (1950-60) tube units, companies do everything possible to remove the “tube” signature their preamps impose upon the signal.  The result has been an overreaction in the opposite direction—bland, unmusical, somewhat dry preamps are everywhere.

You can’t entirely blame the designers for the situation.  Reviewers reward “neutral” sound – that is, components that don’t get in the way of evaluating other gear – and punish units that are, well, ah, er…enjoyable.  There.  I’ve said it.  Now that you are primed to my priorities, we can proceed.

Intermission: Lamentations, Missteps and Blunders

Of course, it’s all an illusion: Jimi Hendrix is dead, as are Wilhelm Furtwaengler and Janis Joplin.  When we sit enthralled at performances by these artists, we pretend that we are somewhere else, at another time.  The closer we can get to this make-believe experience, the better we account the equipment.

We suspend more than we disbelieve; we also tell ourselves that value – the sensible exchange of currency for a product – exists in this hobby.  This particular illusion, the value one, suffers substantial harm when the #@%^$* stuff doesn’t work.  Since I started on this survey of preamps I have experienced the following equipment failures: A remote control sensor that didn’t sense (especially troubling because it was the only way to control the volume; a defective control that put the left channel about ten dB lower than the right; a battery charger that we couldn’t tell if it were working or not; and a line stage whose wretched performance was blamed on the ill effects of a contact cleaner.  Tube eating contact cleaner!  Be it known from the beginning, the Lamm preamp under review worked properly from the moment it was plugged in.  There were no failures of any kind.  It’s the type of behavior that one ought to expect from a high-end component.  This is what one pays for.

The Third Way

This preamp has more facilities than anything I’ve had in my home since Tomlinson Holman’s APT preamp (circa 1980).  You can go from stereo to reversed channels; to L+R; all left or all right; you can switch on Lamm amps; dub in various directions, and vary the overall gain with separate channel potentiometers.  All of these features operated perfectly throughout the entire test period. This wealth of choices was my first indication that the designer was attempting something more elaborate than a volume control in a box.  My next clue of civility came in the form of an intelligently written, and extremely thorough documentation and owner’s manual.  The Lamm is a hybrid preamp, and the manual explains why.  The idea of using the different virtues of solid state and tubes to achieve a sonic goal is not a new one, and is seen fairly often in power amplifiers.  The Joule Electra VAMP is an example.  Usually, when the two principles are combined in a preamp, transistors are used in critical low noise applications, e.g., magnifying the very low output of a moving coil cartridge.  In this case, the circuit is MOS-FET, while the power regulation is tube.  Why?  I refer you to Lamm’s web site for the rationale.  If nothing else, you will come away convinced that serious and original thought goes into these products.

Goldilock’s Preamplifier

In the past, we have had preamps that sounded to some as being too warm (the Marantz 7C, the McIntosh 20 and 22, and the ARC 3A), and we have had preamps that were too cold (I’ll pick on the Dyna ST-4, the Harman Kardon Citation 11 and the Crown IC-150), since they are old and unloved).  The Lamm L1 strikes me as a modern day compromise, a middle ground where the music can live.

My notes begin with remarks about the substantial, authoritative bass: “No doubts, who’s in charge here,” I wrote the first night.  Quad electrostatics are not bass shy, they produce tight, articulate low frequencies down to the 45 Hz range (Dual Quads at less than loud levels – Ed.).  The Lamm preamp brought out the best in the bottom octave of the Quads; though, if dinosaur stomps are your thing, you might look elsewhere speaker-wise (but, hang onto the preamp, it does bass).

The bass frequencies lay a foundation for the rhythm and drive to thrive, this is the life of the music. That quality, and a clear, precise midrange made the Lamm more than an accurate reproducer, it made it fun, it made it enjoyable to listen to.

Above the midrange, I found the Lamm’s control and clarity – the solid-state aspect of the sound – to overpower the bloom and air that I seek.  As I’ll explain in a moment, this sonic attribute in the upper ranges is very likely the result of careful deliberation.  I suspect that the Lamm is a less colored reporter of the true musical event than my own preamp, and will most likely satisfy more listeners.  This is a matter of sensible choices in sonic emphasis and equipment compatibility.

I speculate that this unusual but clever circuit topology came about from Lamm’s desire to find a compromise between the clear virtues of two different sounds.  There are advantages to solid state you simply forego where you buy a tube preamp, and vice versa: Lamm, I suspect, has found a way to extract some of the better aspects of both.

Years ago, Vladimir Lamm experimented with shaping the sound of electronic circuits.  He found that he could impress some of the listeners immediately with some circuits, but the charm wore off after a while.  The most discerning listeners – the target audience for his designs – preferred a sound that required some time to appreciate.  The groundlings in Shakespeare’s time were taken by easily accessible, very showy performances.  Hamlet, the educated, knowledgeable man wanted a more considered rendition.  The L1 line-stage is for the refined listener who comes to judgment slowly, and who, therefore, doesn’t want to switch preamps every time a magazine shrieks the praises of yet another new electronic darling.

If you’re seeking a preamp that will carry you through the next decade, and through several more digital formats, the Lamm is a terrific choice.  This company is demonstrating integrity, even courage, in bringing out a preamp that is notable different in construction, build, layout, configuration and sound.  This unit is capable of exciting performance: a sound like live music.  Vladimir has also won my admiration for producing a unit that’s liable to last longer than I am.

Is this the last preamp you will need to purchase?  That would depend on your system which, in turn, reflects your taste.  I am confident that long after a lot of lesser units have found their way onto dealer consignment shelves, some thoughtful listeners will still have the Lamm at the heart of their systems.

 

reprinted with permission

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