Lamm ML3 Signature amplifiers (pair) Lamm ML2.2 amplifiers (pair).
Lamm LL1.1 Signature line-level preamplifier (pair: two mono preamps + two separate power supplies).
Lamm LP1 Signature phono preamplifier (set: dual-mono preamp + two power supplies).
Lamm LP2.1 phono preamplifier, deluxe.
Rest of system: Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand (with F-Driver) speakers EMT 927 turntable (not in production), SME 3012 tonearm (not in production), ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge and Omega Premium cartridge, EMM Labs TSDX CD/SACD Transport DAC2X Stereo D/A Converter
Lamm M1.2 Reference amplifiers (pair).
Lamm LL1.1 Signature line-level preamplifier (pair: two mono preamps + two separate power supplies).
Lamm LP2.1 phono preamplifier, deluxe.
Rest of system: Kharma Exquisite Classique (with F-driver) speakers Amazon Grand REFERENZ turntable
Moerch DP8 tonearm, ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge and Omega Premium cartridge, EMM Labs XDS1 V2 Integrated CD/SACD Player and DAC.
As a long and puzzling existence nears an end, I realize that my life has been an ordeal of criticism more than a passage of joy. Instead of absorbing a moment’s pleasures, I have often asked whether the food is too bland, the drinks too watery, the girl I love too . . . whatever. As a result I have missed out on a robust enjoyment of life around me. In hi-fi matters, four decades of buying, analyzing, and selling off stereo equipment has not been a panacea for whatever ails me.
About a year ago, I decided to embrace the day with an open heart rather than observe it with critical eye. As a consequence, I now greet the commonplace with equanimity. My car horn, formerly a road-rage weapon, barely feels a weekly tap. Hi-fi systems that I and others own all sound reasonably captivating — honest. The Roving Critic has received a complete makeover. On most days, I actually say to myself, “I feel happy!”
This new openness went with me to the CES. Instead of parsing the sound of every system, I let the senses rule. Upon detecting artistry, I felt happy. If not, I felt impatient. In rooms with silent displays, I let the old bond trader in me sniff value for money. Most importantly, I did not let outrageous price tags arouse my animosity. I simply applied the Saxon Happiness Index (SHI) and all was well.
In certain quarters — for example, my home — the SHI has become the gold standard by which experiences are judged. The SHI takes its inspiration from social media, where beautiful girls ask viewers to rate their photos. On a scale of 1-100 (higher is better), a negative score is not even contemplated. In real life, however, our activities encompass a broad spectrum of pleasure and pain. A hot cup of Joe at 6:00 AM might be worth 40 SHI points; a glass of strychnine, minus 60. Giddier experiences, such as driving a Ferrari or falling off a cliff, would tend to push the scores further in either direction.
In adapting the SHI for use at the CES 2016, I am pleased to say the scores of only a few unfamiliar exhibitors went negative. All established manufacturers were at least better than zero. Moreover, a number of product displays made me Happy, others had me clapping (as in Happy-Happy) and a few elevated me to utter Euphoria. The following is a recap of those moments.
Euphoria (SHI range 91 to 100)
The Best Full-Range Loudspeaker at the Show was the Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand ($225,000/pair) so bountifully employed in the Lamm Industries room. Of course, the price is outrageous, but these awards are about happiness, not penny-pinching. Besides, I love the weird use of the French word “midi,” which I take to mean “midday” as in, “Honey, bring me my midday speakers.” Nevertheless, the Kharma EMG performs better than any box speaker I’ve ever heard. The openness and dimensionality rival that of Nola’s open-baffle bipolar designs. Center imaging is pinpoint like that of a minimonitor but tall and meaty. Apparently, the key to the EMG is the new Omega F-Driver, four of which grace the loudspeaker’s baffle. This dismisses iron from the magnet motor system, which raises the question, what’s a magnet without iron? Eliminating Eddy currents from the voice coil allows the driver to move freely in response to the signal, unhindered by a magnetic counterforce. The result is increased transient speed, lower distortion and less coloration. The result is a spectacular sense of realism. Driven by Lamm electronics, the Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand was like listening to no speaker at all.
In an unprecedented development, Lamm Industries swept the award cupboard bare. Their big room hosted the Best Full-Range Speaker (Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand) and launched the world premiere of the four-chassis Lamm LL1.1Signature line-level preamplifier ($45,390, including two separate power supplies). The LL1.1 debut couldn’t have been more impressive. Mated with Lamm’s award-winning LP1 Signature phono stage ($35,690 for three-box set) and driving the ML3 Signature single-ended triode 32-watt mono amplifiers ($139,490/pair), the new preamp was, despite the name, virtually without signature. The perfect answer to the question “How did it sound?” is “Couldn’t hear it.” The Best Preamp at the Show, by far, was the Lamm LL1.1 Signature.
Playback source in the big room was an out-of-production EMT turntable ($50,000) and SME 3012 tonearm ($3000) along with an in-production ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge ($14,495). Toss in Kubala-Sosna cables valued at $130,000 and it’s easy to see why the total cost of Lamm’s big-room system pencils out at $733,880. (Note: Their small-room equipment tipped in at $658,106!) Was it worth it?
When I first entered the big room, a bit of boring, bombastic demo music, typical CES fare, was playing. I was contemplating lunch when I overheard Lamm’s guiding light, Vladimir Lamm, say (ironically), “Single-ended triode amplifiers can’t do bass.” This understatement perked my attention. We all know SET amps are underpowered at 30 watts or so max. How on earth did the “little” Lamms control such big speakers? That’s when I decided to stick around and learn something.
With unhurried fingers, Mr. Lamm removed a record from the sleeve and cued up the needle. It was opera, not my favorite genre, but the power of the music was overwhelming. It was like witnessing Fourth of July fireworks from an unsafe distance. I was transfixed. Repeating the cueing up ritual with another record, Mr. Lamm sensed it was time for a showstopper. The next selection was José Carreras’s “vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliaci. I’d never heard a tenor sound so real, so drenched in pathos. When the legend launched into the famous lyric “Laugh clown at your broken love, laugh at the grief that poisons your heart,” I became dismayed. My mind’s eye caught the image from The Untouchables where Robert DeNiro wipes away crocodile tears as Sean Connery is gunned down in his apartment. I was filled with anger, a need for revenge! Every hair on my hirsute body stood on end.
Now, that is how a stereo system should evoke emotion. Subsequent tracks had a more cerebral effect on me, but the damage had been done. Lamm Industries sews up the 2016 Jimmy Award for Best Sound at the Show.
Anyone who has had the chance to hear an über-expensive audio system knows that the experience can sometimes be disappointing. Expectations are understandably high, while, at the same time, one’s sense of skepticism is on red alert. Given this particular degree of difficulty for show presenters, what Lamm Industries accomplished with its flagship system was truly remarkable, exemplifying the very best of high-end audio.
Walking into the large luxury suite on the 35th floor of the Venetian was a bit like entering a church. At the edges of the altar were two massive Kharma Exquisite Midi Grande speakers ($225,950/pair, with F-Driver), in the middle were Lamm ML3 Signature amplifiers ($139,490/pair), and to the right were an LL1.1 Signature four-chassis preamplifier ($45,390/pair), an LP1 Signature phono stage ($35,690), and an LP2.1 phono stage ($8990). Vinyl was spun on an EMT 927 turntable ($50,000, but not a current product) with two SME 3012 tonearms ($3000 each, also not in production), a ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge ($14,495) and a ZYX Omega Premium cartridge ($6995). Digital tracks were delivered by an EMM Labs TSDX CD/SACD transport ($17,000) and DAC2X stereo D/A converter ($15,000). Both units were equipped with the latest firmware and the just-released MDAT2 DSP. Interconnects, speaker cables and power cords were Kubala-Sosna Elation ($130,600). All of that brought the system’s total retail cost to $733,880.
So how good can a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar audio system sound? Based upon two lengthy listening sessions, the answer can be summed up in one word: amazing. Hearing Louis Armstrong’s band perform “St. James Infirmary” from Satchmo Sings King Oliver was like being transported to the 1959 recording session. Armstrong’s chortles and gravel-laden inflections induced goose bumps, and his bandmates’ instruments and vocals were strategically placed in three-dimensional space around the room, just as they would have been in the studio. When Elina Lamm played “Il cammello e il dromedario” from Musica Nuda’s Live à Fip CD, we could hear the subterranean depths and wooden resonance of Ferruccio Spinetti’s bowed bass lines and vocalist Petra Magoni move energetically around the stage during this thrilling performance.
The second best sound of the show (and it was a very close second) was in the Lamm room, where Charles van Oosterum’s $225k Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand Signature three-ways (two 1″ concave diamond tweeters, two 7″ carbon midranges, and two 11″ Omega F woofers in an WMTTMW configuration) were being driven by Vladimir Lamm’s incomparably lovely sounding ML-3 Signature single-ended-triode amplifiers, his new LL1.1 Signature four-box mono preamplifiers, and his LP1 Signature phono preamplifier with LP2.1 step-up transformer. Sourced by an ancient EMT 927 turntable (with SME 3012 ’arm and ZYX UNIverse cart) and cabled with Kubla-Sosna Elation wire, the Kharma/Lamm system produced one of the most purely beautiful sounds I’ve heard in better than twenty years of CESes—incredibly rich, luscious, and finely detailed, though quite dark in overall balance. Was it also a realistic sound? Not really. More like a dream of the real thing than the thing itself, but so breathtakingly gorgeous who cared? For musicality-first listeners this was a system to die for.
One of the rarer events at CES was the premier of Lamm Industries’ LL1.1 Signature line stage ($45,390), which replaces a model that debuted just five years ago. This represents a very short upgrade interval for Lamm Industries, considering founder and designer Vladimir Lamm’s famously careful and meticulous pace. In the picture above, the four-piece LL1.1 Signature’s audio chassis are on both of the top shelves, while the power supplies are below, on the right-hand rack.
With the LL1.1, Vladimir Lamm says he has increased the amount of energy storage in the power supply, increased immunity to RF interference propagated via both radiation and conduction over signal lines and AC power systems and improved signal-to-noise ratio.
It utilizes new PC boards with gold-plated traces and through-holes and better parts in key places that weren’t available when the LL1 was debuted. The LL1.1 Signature also features specially selected high-transconductance dual-triode 6N30P/6H30 tubes in the signal path and the best TKD stepped potentiometers available.
A few photos from the Lamm, Kharma, EMT room. Took photos of floors 30 and 35 yesterday before my camera batteries died. Hope to finish today…This is one of the more spectacular rooms this show so far…More descriptions later. Neli is telling me to ‘get a move on’ … so we get to the show before it closes
Kharma brought their Grand Exquisite Midi speakers for this room.
One pair of Lamm ML3 amplifiers drove these speakers effortlessly in this very large room.
LAMM Signature electronics with Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand loudspeakers
Vladimir Lamm continues his decades-long tradition of creating some of the finest and most musical-sounding tube electronics anywhere, as demo’d in his flagship room at CES (Suite 35-307), where he presented the world premier of the LL1.1 Signature line-level preamplifier ($45,390/pr., two mono preamps and two separate power supplies). Also in this superb playback chain were the Lamm LP2.1phono preamp ($8990), LP1 Signature phono preamp ($35,690), ML2.2 amps ($37,390/pr.), andML3 Signature amps ($139,490/pr.), rated at 32 Watts into 4, 8, or 16 ohms, driving Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand loudspeakers ($225,000)—and lending them an almost omnidirectional quality. All wires were from the Kubala-Sosna Elation series. The source was a heavy-duty vintage EMT 927turntable with an SME 3012 tonearm and a ZYX UNIverse Premium cartridge ($14,495). For all the many components in the playback chain, this setup succeeded in pulling off that rare and amazing high-end magic trick of all but vanishing—so spacious, realistic, and dimensional was the sound. From the incredible imaging, detail, and wide-open soundstaging to the slightly-warmer-than-the-real-thing timbre, the sound was full of bloom and simply gorgeous on Ella Fitzgerald’s honey-coated vocals, Ben Webster’s sensual reedy saxophone breathiness, and, well, on every track we played.
In my opinion was the Lamm room shown above. The speakers were the Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand, which cost $225,000/pr, driven by the Lamm ML3 Signature amplifiers costing $139,490/pr. The analog “front end” was an enormous vintage EMT 927 turntable valued at $50,000 fitted with an SME 3012 (out of production). The cartridge was the ZYX UNIverse Premium costing $14,495, which fed Lamm’s three chassis LP 1 Signature phono preamp which sells for $35,690. Cabling was by Kubala-Sosna— $130K’s worth.
The total system cost including EMM Labs digital gear was $733,880. That sum doesn’t guarantee great sound—I’ve heard super expensive systems that sounded terrible—but in this case it was exceptionally fine. The Magda Tagliaferro solo piano record reported on elsewhere in CES coverage sounded as if the piano was in the room.