Lamm ML3 Signature amplifiers (pair).
Lamm LL1 Signature line-level preamplifier (pair).
Lamm LP2 phono preamplifier, deluxe.
The rest of the system includes: Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 speakers (pair), NeoDio NR22T transport, NeoDio NR22D DAC, da Vinci AAS Gabriel turntable, Critical Mass Systems MAXXUM rack system, Custom-made 3-tier rack for AAS Gabriel Turntable.
Lamm ML2.2 single-ended amplifier (two pairs used in a bi-amping mode).
Lamm LL1 Signature line-level preamplifier (pair).
Lamm LP2 phono preamplifier, deluxe.
The rest of the system includes: Verity Audio Lohengrin II speakers (pair), NeoDio NR22T transport, NeoDio NR22D DAC, Redpoint XX turntable, Graham Phantom II tonearm.
Same room, different year, same result — sort of. At CES 2010, Lamm Industries, Wilson Audio, Critical Mass Systems, NeoDio and Kubala-Sosna combined forces to compile an audio system that was truly memorable. A year later, they’ve topped it.
Remaining part of the system are the Lamm ML3 Signature mono amps ($139,290/pair), the LL1 Signature preamp ($42,690), and a pair of LP2 Deluxe phono stages ($7590 each); the NeoDio NR22T CD transport ($13,000) and NR22D digital-to-analog converter ($12,000); and the Kubala-Sosna Elation interconnects ($6000/meter pair), speaker cables ($7800/eight-foot pair) and power cords ($2300/two-meter length). New are the all-da Vinci analog rig ($109,204 total), the Critical Mass MAXXUM racks ($33,990 each) and platforms ($5650 each), and, last but not least, the Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 Series 2 speakers ($158,000/pair).
The single-ended Lamm amps possess enough power to drive a wide array of speakers, but the Alexandrias — with their 96dB sensitivity and truly full-range sound — are an ideal match. While it would be possible to string together clauses of flowery adjectives to describe this system, we’ll stick with a simple fact in describing what it accomplished: all of the diverse music we played sounded distinct and distinctly realistic in important ways. There was appropriate scale, copious detail, wide bandwidth and, for lack of a better term, lifelike exuberance. Recordings transcended themselves.
I spent opening day at CES 2011 in the company of Marc Mickelson, who wanted to visit a few rooms with systems that promised to be both unique and sonically impressive. Off we headed to the first of the Lamm rooms -– yes, there were two. The system featured the CES debut of the Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2s ($158,000/pair) driven by Lamm ML3 Signature power amps ($139,290/pair). The sound was big, dynamic, clean, utterly natural and unfailingly musical. Listening to some tracks from Marc’s demo CD-R, we were treated to a presentation that demonstrated what is truly possible in audio reproduction.
Next door, Lamm was using Verity Audio’s top-of-the-line Lohengrin IIs ($95,995/pair) along with their new ML2.2 amps ($37,190/pair) — two pairs, that is. Again, listening to Marc’s CD-R, we heard sound that was full and continuous, with deep bass and smooth, clean highs. Two different speakers used with two different amps (albeit from the same maker): both systems created the feeling of listening to live music. That all this was accomplished under show conditions was surprising and impressive.
Vladimir Lamm somehow found a way to top his best-of-CES 2010 presentation by upgrading speakers from the Wilson MAXX Series 3 to the never-before-exhibited-at-CES WilsonAlexandria Series 2 ($158,000/pair). Partnered with the Alexandrias were Lamm’s own ML3 Signature amplifiers ($139,290/pair), LL1 Signature four-box dual-mono preamp ($42,690) and a pair of LP2 Deluxe phono stages ($7590 each). Digital playback was courtesy of the NeoDioNR22T CD transport ($13,000) and NR22D digital-to-analog converter ($12,000), with an all-da Vinci analog rig ($109,204 total) providing LP sound. Kubala-Sosna Elation interconnects ($6000/meter pair), speaker cables ($7800/eight-foot pair) and power cords ($2300/two-meter length) were in use, as were Critical Mass Systems MAXXUM racks ($33,990 each) and platforms ($5650 each).
Through some fortuity granted to me by the Audio Gods, I was quite literally given the run of this system — by myself, for more than an hour and a half. It was Saturday night in Las Vegas. I had arranged with Vladimir for some after-hours listening. This in and of itself would have been something special, though not out of the ordinary. Last year I spent an hour with Vladimir, his wife Elina and NeoDio’s Jean-François Fronton in the same room with much the same system. This time, I popped into the room at six; Jean-François was playing LPs and CDs of classical music and vintage jazz, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself for the better part of an hour.
By around 6:40, most of the crowd had left, with only myself and three other guests remaining. Between tracks, Vladimir came over to me and asked if I would “like to close the room,” as he, Elina and Jean-François had a dinner reservation with a distributor. Flabbergasted, I agreed. Vladimir gave me simple and specific directions: “When you are done, put in a CD, turn the volume down to low, make sure the door is securely locked.” The three gents who were in the room with me played a track, then headed off for their own dinner reservation, and I was left alone.
I dove into my CD wallet. As I’d already played the Auger/Driscoll “Light My Fire” and Hiromi’s “Green Tea Farm,” two of my main test tracks at this CES, I was able to experiment with some of the other music I brought along. First up was “Each Small Candle” from Roger Waters’ In the Flesh. The sound of this disc is immense on any full-range high-end system (sorry, minimonitors and less-than-full-range floorstanders need not apply here), incredibly concert-lifelike and tonally luscious. The ambience of the recording venues had imposed itself on a number of good rooms at the show, but this was a different breed of cat altogether. The LL1/ML3/Alexandria 2 system hung a soundscape of astonishing size in the large room, with every image more dense and touchable than on any system I have ever heard. Closing my eyes, I was taken directly back to the sound of Waters’ recent live The Wall 30th Anniversary show, which I saw in St. Paul in late October. It was that convincing. No suspension of disbelief was required. “Candle” falls within the general musical territory staked out by Waters’ Pink Floyd days, and is big and dynamic as all get out, not to mention that it is an emotionally harrowing but ultimately optimistic and uplifting piece of music. The band is large, the mix complex, but this system sailed through it with complete, effortless control. It all soared, and the last line, spoken by Waters, was chillingly there.
The crushingly ominous quality of the main theme from the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Mesoundtrack [Warner Bros. 26316] was a physical presence, but the Harmon-muted trumpet stood out as a precise and densely imaged point. The vibes that run through “Moving Through Time” had a verisimilitude and genuine fidelity that were beyond spooky. The delicate and touching sweetness and sheer heartache in “Laura Palmer’s Theme” and the ethereal beauty of “Falling” from the “Montage From Twin Peaks” was emotionally overwhelming. Angelo Badalameni’s music is all about moods, impressions and things not clearly seen. This system intensified and distilled all of that into the headiest and most intoxicating of brews, and did so with the greatest of ease.
One of the most disconcerting things that this system was able to do was scale images and recordings as close to perfectly as the current state of the art allows. It did not blow up the size of the vibes or acoustic bass on “Moving Through Time” from the Lynch soundtrack, or any voice or other solo instrument. Nor did it turn the Waters track into something that was huge but amorphous and ill-defined. Everything I heard, including Peter McGrath’s beyond-superb live classical recordings, had life-sized images of lifelike density existing in the exact space in which they were recorded. It was fascinating and bewitching.
It must be admitted that the cost of this astonishing system is gasp-inducing and will draw hoots of derision from the uninitiated. But I have heard even more costly systems that cannot touch what I heard here, and I suspect that even more (!) might be there to be had with Nordost Odin cabling, which I use as a reference with my Lamm M1.2 amps and Wilson Sasha W/P speakers. The Odin meshes beautifully with both Lamm and Wilson products and exceeds the overall performance of any cables I have heard.
The big question: are the Scaena speakers better than the Wilson Alexandria 2s? To be brutally truthful, no. Different, yes, but equally compelling in many of the same ways. It isn’t exactly a fair comparison, as I have heard more of the Alexandria 2s, and have heard them in situations where they were quite literally perfectly set up. Conversely, I have heard the Scaenas only twice — both times in the exact same room at CES.
But something is clearly happening here, though what it is ain’t exactly clear. These two loudspeakers stand by themselves in terms of sheer convincingness, though they have different styles. Oh, to have the time, space and money to spend several months deciding which I prefer. And then keep them both.
The Lamm ML2.2 mono power amplifier is the successor to the now-discontinued ML2.1. Priced at $37,190 per pair, the ML2.2 outputs 18Wpc into 8 ohms and uses 6C33C tubes in the output stage and power supply. Upgrades over the older ML2.1 include new transformers and an increased number of filter chokes.
I heard quite a number of outstanding systems at this show. My contenders for Best Sound include Sonus faber’s $250k flagship loudspeaker (called simply the “Sonus faber”) driven by Audio Research 610t amplifiers. The sound was wonderful, combining a warm and lush rendering of timbre with high resolution of recorded detail. Another great sound was the new King E from Hansen. This is a ground-up effort with new enclosure material, drivers, and crossovers. The $97k King E sounded every bit as good as the phenomenal $250k Hansen Grand Master that so impressed me last year.
But the system that gets my vote for Best Sound was the Wilson Alexandria X-2 driven by the Lamm ML3 Signature power amplifiers, LL1 Signature preamp, LP2 phonostage, da Vinci AAS Gabriel turntable with a da Vinci Grand Reference Grandezza tonearm and Grand Reference Grandezza cartridge. The digital front end included the NeoDio NR22T transport and NR22D DAC. Cables were Kubala-Sosna’s top-of-the-line Elation Series, and the racks were from Critical Mass Systems. I’ve heard the X-2 quite a number of times (and lived with a pair for 18 months), but I’ve never experienced anything like what I heard in Las Vegas. The system simply didn’t sound like hi-fi. The immediacy of the music was palpable, the expression laid bare with seemingly no electronics or speakers between me and the musicians. On a sonic basis, the soundstage was enormous when called for (Peter McGrath’s recording of Handel’s Messiah, for example) but became intimate and properly scaled on solo voice. This was one of the best systems I’ve heard at any show. It was also signfiicantly better in every way compared to the sound in my previous room.
The Wilson Alexandria X-2 driven by Lamm electronics, Da Vinci analog front end, NeoDio digital, Critical Mass Systems racks, and Kubala-Sosna cables. This system transcended hi-fi.
The Wilson Alexandria X-2s tethered to a pair of Lamm ML3 signature amplifiers playing Peter McGrath’s recording of Leonard Shure’s rendition of Beethoven’s Op. 109 was so beautiful that it brought me in tears.
As previously noted, Lamm introduced its replacement for the ML2.1 (my favorite low-powered amplifier), the new ML2.2. For the launch, Lamm paired two pairs of the ML2.2s with Verity Audio’s $96k flagship, the Lohengrin II. Here again was a sound that came very close to what I hear at home on the discs that I brought to the show. The Satie, the Julie London, the Prokofiev—all were reproduced with outstanding transparency and a high degree of realism and even a strong taste of the freestanding “Scaena effect” (about which you will read in a moment). Bass was deep and fast, with none of the group-delay blur and phasiness of many ported speakers (and none of that bunched-up midbass, either). The best Verity speaker I’ve heard at a trade show and a CES 2011. Best of Show finalist.
Since I began my annual trek on the top floor, with the Big Boys in the outsized 35th floor suites, it chanced that the very first speakers I heard—and I think I’ve only heard them being actively exhibited once before—were Wilson Audio’s $158k flagship Alexandria X-2 being driven by the TAS Amplifier of the Year Award-winning Lamm Industries ML3s and sourced, at least on the analog side, by the latest version of the AAS Gabriel/DaVinci turntable with DaVinci’s 12-inch Grandezza arm and Grandezza cartridge. (It was, BTW, an absolute joy to see Peter Brem and Jolanda Costa, the authors of DaVinci’s gear, at this year’s CES; I hope to review their new record player in the near future.) All of these treasures (save for the speakers) were sitting on Critical Mass stands and platforms. (This was a very good show for Critical Mass, which was also doing its job of taming floorborne and airborne resonances in other very-high-end exhibits).
Given that this was one of the highest of high-end rooms, I’d anticipated a very very good sound, but on the first hour of the first day of the show—with so much still being worked out—the presentation was not good. It was overly sweet and soft. Though rich in timbre and amazingly ambient, the sound lacked dynamic bite, as if transient attacks were being swallowed up in a superabundance of mid-to-upper bass. Thus, Heifetz’s Guarnerius (on the great RCA recording of the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto) and Eden and Tamir’s pianos on Satie’s incredibly delightful Trois Morceaux en forme de poire (on a truly great Decca LP) were swamped by reverberation, losing some of their sparkle and articulation on loud passages.
However, when I returned on the last day of the show, Sunday afternoon, most of these kinks had been worked out and the sound was much more neutral and competitive. Though still a little soft on the very top, making Heiftez’s fiddle sound slightly more recessed (less spotlit) and more velvety in timbre and texture—and his performance a bit less sensationally dynamic—than it should have, the presentation was now exceptionally natural and detailed in the midband and the bass. (I returned to the Wilson room one final time—at Peter McGrath’s behest—to listen to one of his marvelous master tapes, a superb recording of Leonard Shure playing Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, Opus 109. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, now: For classical music lovers McGrath is a national treasure.)
Lamm Industries introduced the ML2.2 single-ended monoblock power amp ($37,190/pair), which replaces the ML2.1. There’s a new output transformer and beefed up power supply, but the main reason for the upgrade was designer Vladimir Lamm’s desire to include features of the ML3 Signature in the ML2.1 design, in particular the input-stage topology. The 6C33C-B power triode is used in both the output stage and as a voltage regulator in the power supply. Power output is rated at 18 watts into 4, 8, and 16 ohms. The loudspeaker load was the mighty Verity Audio Lohengrin II ($95,995/pair).
Lamm Industries introduced their new ML2.2, which is a Pure Class A tube monoblock power amplifier. They sounded fantastic. The price is $42,690/pair, but you get your money’s worth.
One more system offered what I felt was first-class sound…the Wilson and Lamm room. Wilson speakers are not really my cup of tea since I prefer a slightly warm and romantic presentation. Wilson speakers are extremely revealing and often sound a little too relentless to my ears. Lamm amplifiers, however are a different story. I’ve never heard a Lamm-based system I didn’t love, and this time was no exception. The Wilson Alexandria speakers were utterly captivating with the tubed Lamms, so this was easily the best sound I’ve ever heard from Wilson period.
Joe Lavrencik, owner of Critical Mass Systems, designs all Critical Mass Systems Precision Component Support Systems. All of the company’s products are built in the Chicago area.
The newest Critical Mass product is Maxxum ($5650 per shelf), a precision component-support system. The shelf and rack architecture operate together to mitigate vibration in the floor, the rack, the shelf, and the component at the same time.
“We do more than isolate,” the sleep-deprived designer offered by way of explanation. “We give energy in the air a pathway out of the component so that components are not saturated with vibration from the loudspeakers.”
Lest you think Critical Mass Systems only manufactures high-priced products, prices start at $195 for a set of four MXK spikes, and $195 for a basic shelf. “Even though we’re very expensive, we start very low,” says Lavrencik.
At CES 2011, Critical Mass Systems products were used in the Lamm, Hansen/Tenor, and BAT rooms. In the photo, Lavrencik kneels near his Maxxum amplifier/component stands ($5650/each) and the Lamm ML3 Signature monoblocks ($139,290/pair) being used to drive Wilson Alexandria II speakers.
The Lamm ML3 controlled these large speakers very well – at low to high volumes. The reason I would have given this room one of the Best Of Shows, if I was giving best of shows, which I am not, is that there were few if any other rooms playing challenging music – from a real source (CD or LP) – that generated a large scale presentation with such ease, that had this kind of decent separation and top-to-bottom evenness… and in the end just a calm constant convincability.
It is typically very difficult to reproduce music that is playing in a Lamm room at a show – mostly classical, some Jazz, and some others picked seemingly at random. This makes for a very nice place to just sit and listen. Very civilized and respectful, different from your average room at an average show [many are just about stirring up hype and attracting reviewers. Ours, for better or worse, are seemingly much more of a party atmosphere where people typically talk a lot and share their favorite yet somehow strangely weird and bizarre music by playing it on our system.
The sound was indeed the tiniest bit soft, as has been noted elsewhere, because [and this is based on our experience with the ML3 amps as well as with these speakers on an Audio Note Ongaku, Emm Labs XDS1 and Nordost ODIN cabled system]
1) the speakers are slightly forgiving
2) the cables are slightly more forgiving
3) these equipment racks have unpredictable effects in our experience, in this case softening effects I believe based on what I have learned over time about 1) and 2) above
4) the sound in the Lamm rooms are typically setup to be a little soft – that is the way they like to do rooms at shows [more of an oasis effect as opposed to the WWIII effect]
There was a absence of real solidity to the image between the speakers, making me think that the speakers were too far apart. Although Lamm typically does speaker setup at show, including Wilson speaker setup, this time – because of the size and weight and perhaps other reasons – the Wilson factory setup the speakers.
The new Lamm ML2.2 amplifiers driving the Verity Lohengrin II speakers had a polite, almost sweet sound and was quite Enjoyable. Neli was there a lot longer than I was, so if you want to know more details about the sound, you might want to call her.
As for the Lohengrin II, in about 6 weeks we should know a lot more about how the Lamm ML3 (not the ML2.2) sound on these speakers in a much more controlled environment.
As for the new Lamm ML2.2, the replacement for the ML2.1, in this configuration two pairs were used in a bi-amp configuration to drive the speakers [see below]. There was a sense of ease to the sound – which no doubt was aided and abetted by the use of two pairs of amps instead of one.
The sound, as far as I could tell on the somewhat unfamiliar speakers and familiar but not completely understood cables and racks/amps stands – compared to the ML2.1 – is more smooth in the midrange/upper midrange and airy on top. The ML2.1 have a slight tendency to highlight some subtle details, and to be slightly diminished [as opposed to rolled off] in the very tip-top highs, and these amps appeared to have none of that. What I heard seemed to indicate – and it is something I would like to see, so perhaps I am somewhat blinded by desire – that these amps might be a blend of the best from the previous two generations: the Lamm ML2 and ML2.1 amps – along with some nice improvements [like more air on top].