Vladimir Shushurin is currently one of the most experienced and intriguing high-end audio designers in the industry. His company, LAMM Industries, or LAMM Audio, rose very quickly from anonymity to worldwide acceptance as a company that makes exquisitely natural-sounding amplifiers (equipment). Already at the first CES appearance in Las Vegas in 1994, the company stood out for its original approach to design and the resulting natural, clean sound. Since then, LAMM continues to expand its product lines with new original designs that do not change once they have been brought to market. This is not necessary because each LAMM design is fully developed and optimized prior to launch. At every CES and Stereophile hi-fi show that I have attended, the rooms with LAMM equipment were consistently among the best at the show. Regardless of loudspeakers used in the demonstration, the sound of LAMM amplifiers and pre-amplifiers was always consistently clean and natural, transparent, spacious, neutral and completely devoid of the characteristic coloration typically associated with tube and solid state equipment.
LAMM Industries manufactures two types of amplifiers, tube-based and hybrid solid-state products. The tube-based line consists of the ML1, a 90W push-pull monoblock operating in class A and using 6C33C output tubes ($19,980 per pair), ML2 single-ended monoblocks with 18W of output power using one 6C33C tube per channel ($29,290per pair), and LL2, a tube based pre-amplifier ($3,990). The solid state hybrid line consists of M1.1, a 100W monoblock design operating in class A ($15,990 per pair), the M2.1, a 200W monoblock operating in class A/AB ($15,190 per pair), L1 a hybrid design pre-amplifier ($6,990), and L2 Reference, also a hybrid design top of the line pre-amplifier ($13,690).
Vladimir Shushurin believes that his equipment is reasonably priced given its sound quality, the quality of materials and workmanship, and the sheer quantity of engineering that goes into each product. In order to achieve these goals it was not possible to price the equipment lower. He says that his amplifiers are a one-time investment and in the long run will actually be more cost-effective for audiophiles that normally upgrade their equipment in search of better sound. I spoke with Vladimir at his headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. Our conversation was mostly informal and my translation attempts to preserve the spontaneity and the essence of Vladimir’s style of expression.
Can you describe the essence of your approach to designing hi-fi equipment?
I am a scientist, not only an engineer. I developed electro-mechanical models which describe the hearing mechanism of the human ear. I use these models when I design equipment. I never do listening tests because I already know how it will sound.
When you choose the parts that will be incorporated in your equipment do you conduct listening tests for different resistors, transistors, capacitors, cables, etc.?
When we started working with the guys at Madison Fielding, I ordered hundreds of different part samples, all kinds of things, then we did the listening tests and now I know which parts work for me. Forget it, I don’t participate in the silly games where you play around with expensive parts and exotic materials.
Does that mean there is no difference (in sound)?
I can simply tell you that once I tried using a very expensive type of wire in my amplifiers, silver with teflon insulation at the request of some customers who were brainwashed by the manufacturer of that wire. I used the silver wire only to connect the potentiometer and the sound became so sharp and rough that it was impossible to bear. I usually use normal Belden wire, not too inexpensive of course (Belden wire is a standard wire with solid industrial quality – large American manufacturer – description by author). And that’s that. If a component is designed properly it doesn’t need those kinds of fixes. You can then use the component as test equipment and test any type of wire.
I assume you no longer use silver wire?
I only did it for a few customers because they asked. After about a week they returned the equipment and asked me to put the original wire back in.
Who manufactures your circuit boards?
A Canadian company. They are very good at it (points to a circuit board). And these are great capacitors (points), American company, the best capacitors, very reliable up to 150 kHz, not like the usual garbage where no one knows what happens above 2 kHz. We test every circuit board before installation. This is for M1.1; this is the test equipment where they remain for 72 hours in continuous operation, followed by final testing and measurements. Of course, the output transistors are matched to within 1% on every circuit board.
How many are rejected?
For each production cycle I have to order three times the number of parts than are actually used, but still, with time I end up using them all. Here is something unusual, can you picture a solid state pre-amplifier with a 350V input section and no negative feedback?
With pre-amplifiers, isn’t it unusual to have a solid state signal path combined with a power supply where voltage regulation is actually done with tubes?
In general, all pre-amplifiers that use solid state technology don’t sound right. It’s something connected to the actual topology. It took many years to develop my topology. With my topology it absolutely makes no difference if you use MOS-FET or tubes, you can get the same sound, almost completely neutral. This here is the output tube testing machine. We can test two tubes at the same time and achieve the same precision as with output transistors. I employ methods similar to those used in equipment production for military purposes. It is exactly the same procedure and quality control but still at times something goes wrong – after all that is electronics. Here in the next room is my laboratory. I am currently working on a couple of new projects. This here is a less expensive, stereo version of the ML2, also single-ended, the same topology but simplified. It will cost somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000, that’s the bottom, the lowest price. Soon I will begin work on a phono stage. This is the prototype.I still don’t have the right power supply figured out. I am currently using several different transformers.
Tubes or transistors?
Western Electric 417, that tube is not prone to vibration, no popcorn noise. It’s a very quiet tube.
Moving magnet or moving coil?
5842 or 417A tube on the left and right.
Does anyone else use those tubes?
Some audiophiles, do-it-yourselfers, but not audio firms. This is an extremely quiet, high current, high-frequency triode.
How did you solve the equalization issue?
What kind of amplifier is this, the one with the massive tube?
This is the prototype for ML3, top of the line, 32W single-ended amplifier. This is one serious tube. This tube is better than any existing Western Electric direct-heated triode, better than the 845, 211, or anything else. Here you have 125W of heat dissipation in the tube itself. This is the Russian triode GM-70.
Have you been working on this design a long time?
Yes, but I can’t work on all the projects at the same time.
What was the original application for the GM-70?
It’s a direct-heated triode used for modulators, low-powered transmitters, but in reality, it can be applied to general purposes. It is designed like an audio device but it can operate even without biasing, with negative biasing for audio and as a transmitter with zero biasing. Of course, I don’t use it in that way.
How long has the GM-70 been around?
It was designed in 1946 or 1947. The Russians had been making it since that time but stopped production in 1982.
Where do you get them?
Russia still holds a huge inventory and I already bought two or three thousand.
Did you ever listen to your prototype?
No. I built the first prototype a long time ago in Russia, but since then it has been completely redesigned to conform to the results of my research. In fact, there are two versions of the input section but they are not finished yet, but you can see here the output transformer for 32W of output power (large). This is an extremely linear tube.
Your designs, even the single-ended, don’t have increases in distortion with increases in frequency. How did you achieve that performance?
Also the damping factor is very linear as a function of frequency. That is very hard to do. In general, you can use small quantities of feedback, but of course, everything has to be chosen in advance, especially the point at which you apply negative feedback. If we are talking about amplifiers – can you imagine a 100W pure class A amplifier with 3.5 amperes idle current, no servo, no negative feedback — and the system is absolutely stable, as is the case with the M1.1 power amps. This solid-state amp (which, by the way, is capable of continuously delivering 770W of brutal power into 1-Ohm load) can double up as a welding machine! I’ll demonstrate it for you (D.S.: I confirm that the M1.1 really emitted sparks like a welding machine).
Now, going back to the ML3. It is unprecedented that a 32W single-ended power amplifier utilizes no negative feedback and has distortions of less than 2% at full power in the 20Hz-20kHz frequency range. Can you picture how linear that tube (GM-70) is?
So, all these projects will begin in the near future — first, the phono stage (which is almost finished); then, ML3 and DL1. After that I will begin working on a serious pre-amplifier that will partner with the ML3. In six boxes we will have two monoblocks, two power supplies for each monoblocks (one power supply for the phono section and one for the line stage). Just to give you an idea, the current going through the output tube of the line stage will be about 65 mA.
Why is the GM-70 not better known if it has such superior specifications?
Probably, because no one knows about it and you can’t get it any more.
You, however, have access to additional supply?
I know that I can purchase 10,000 or 100,000, or whatever quantity I need, but I will not produce these amplifiers in large quantities as the retail price will be set around $120,000. That is a total of four boxes, two monoblocks and two power supplies. It has no electrolytic capacitors.
Do you already have buyers?
This will be my hottest product. It is the kind of product my customers want. This is my market.
Which features of your design are most important?
You have to understand that all parameters — THD, slew rate, rise time, whatever else — are only a part of a more complex system of parameters. If the amplifier is designed properly, then these parameters can be used to truly describe the performance of the amplifier.But if you have this other foolishness, there are other amplifiers much more expensive than the M1.1 but they all use very similar topologies. I’m not sure that these designers really understand the correlation between the topologies they are using and sound quality resulting from implementation of such topologies. If you could see the schematic for the M1.1 you would see that it goes against the usual topology designs. Each amplifier that I design is a model that represents not only our ears but also our hearing mechanism. This is the model, based on topology, for every amplifier that I make. This is the topology for this amplifier. It is not something I got from books or anywhere else. Now, when a component is near or far from that topology, that reference topology, and some other factors, I can immediately tell how that amplifier will sound. Also every topology has its limitations with the exception of single-ended. Single-ended has no limitations, only price points.
For example, of course taking into consideration the situation with parts and other factors, I am talking about the rest of the industry, but even if we ignore all that, solid state topology is limited when it comes to correct reproduction of sound. For example, let’s say this is the theoretical limit, let’s say 100% (draws lines on paper). This is of course a simplification if we are talking about solid state topology design, or any other topology including mine. It has its limitations in a general sense according to its definition. So, if this is, for example, the theoretical limit of solid state design, you can’t overcome it. It’s like not being able to go faster than the speed of light; you can’t go faster because it is against natural laws of our universe. It’s similar with transistors; one can’t overcome the inherent limitations. I have almost reached the theoretical limit.
For example, let’s say that you are a designer and you have designed many amplifiers, and you have improved the quality of sound, but as a designer you are not aware that solid state amplifiers and solid state technology have their limitations. And you don’t know why. Tube technology, for example, if we consider push-pull designs, can overcome these limitations. If this is, for example, 50% or 60% (of the theoretical limit), the best one can do with solid state, the difference between the best solid state “push-pull” amplifiers, even in class A and without negative feedback, and the best tube “push-pull” amplifiers, is at most 10-15%. They have no limitations. By using single-ended designs one can almost reach that final upper limit but of course we will never reach perfection, that is like trying to approach the speed of light – one can come close but one will never reach it.
Of course, with single-ended topologies incorporating tube output and triodes, I can explain the theory behind its lack of limitation but it is a very complex subject. If one tried to describe it, how can one explain it, for example, it is like… Let’s say you reside in this universe, and what do you need, you need four variables, x, y, z, and time. Of course, time is the big question mark. If we wanted to describe a certain behavior (in this universe) to make our lives simpler we have to use analysis and mathematics that can describe multi-dimensional space. If you know the behavior of such a system you can make your life considerably easier. For example, if your amplifier, or any device, can be described to have a flat THD response as a function of increase in frequency and a flat response as a function of increase in power represented by a double logarithmic scale, then it is important to understand that there exist different methods for measuring inter-modular distortion. We can employ the method of using two frequencies close to each other and then analyze the output frequency spectrum (as done in Stereophile). This method gives us absolutely nothing. This method is very good for analyzing transmitter devices. But let’s forget about the numbers for now. When you use this (other) method, the SMPTE method, and when you get this type of curve (flat distortion as a function of frequency and a linear increase in distortion as a function of power) with all output impedances or with all workable loads, then you know that the design has satisfied some very serious requirements. That means, if we compare this device to a car, that you have designed one with very regular and perfectly round wheels.
Are these measurement characteristics your idea of ideal amplifier behavior?
This is the result of my theories. If a system satisfies these requirements, namely that characteristic distortion is always the same, and that the shape of distortion is always the same at all frequencies, then it automatically implies that it is not necessary to solve a system of differential equations with seven unknowns, as outlined in my theory of audio design. When we simplify it this way, then parameters like THD, inter-modular distortion, frequency response, slew rate, etc. will mean a lot and acquire a specific definition.
On the other hand, when you see this silliness, like 0.001% or 1% distortion specs for some amplifiers, it means absolutely nothing. These parameters, like THD or whatever else, are meaningless all by themselves because they have no connection with reality. You know, all these parameters, all these types of measurements, come from the beginning of the audio era when designers knew nothing about negative feedback. They used direct-heated triodes, very linear tubes. In those early days, designers did their jobs the way they were supposed to. Without understanding they made good devices.
Not all these parameters are independent. For example, the standard way of measuring dynamic range is the ratio of maximum and minimum power, limited by noise. This is wrong. It’s not even close. That would mean that if we increase power we get more dynamic range. For example, this 18W single-ended amplifier, ML2, has the largest dynamic range that one can imagine. It has nothing to do with power. There exists a more complex measurement and it is not an independent parameter because dynamic range is a function of at least five variables.
Still, there must be some conventional wisdom in your design philosophy?
OK, let us please not mix apples and oranges. When I design my equipment, naturally I employ some standard topologies as building blocks, but what is important is how they are used and in what combinations. For example, we know that scientists still use analog computers to model certain processes. The analog computer is made of parts like a buffer, integrator, differentiator, etc. One is not concerned with the topology of these parts but with the functionality of the computer based on which one builds the model. Now we need to consider the designer’s experience because everything needs to be optimized. In the same way I use the standard blocks to realize my designs.
In an unusual way?
In a natural way. Let’s consider an amplifier. In essence, we have two modules, something that amplifies voltage and something that amplifies current. This is the standard topology (draws block diagram) but of course each module can have more stages. If we consider the M1.1, the topology has a very small and carefully chosen level of negative feedback at the input, only about 6dB. It is necessary to equalize the output impedances versus frequency. Following that, there is one capacitor, and then the output stage. The capacitor is there to prevent DC voltage at the output, because other solutions like servo and various integrators degrade sound.
Can you see the output stage, you know, the load switch that actually acts like an output transformer? If we consider tube designs, the Q-point stays the same at any speaker load because we have a transformer with varying number of windings. The M1.1 behaves the same, into 8 ohms I have voltage of V2 with 2.5 A of idling current. Into 4 ohms (when load switch is changed) I have V2 volts minus V1 volts and idling current of 3.5 A. That’s the same! That means 100W of pure class A into 8 ohms and 100W of pure class A into 4 ohms. The amplifier does not double its power into 4 ohms. In this case the doubling of power occurs only at 2 ohms. The harmonic structure is not the same because all amplifiers that double their power when the load is halved do not operate the way they should.
So by using the load switch your amplifiers stay in class A longer into 4 ohms?
My amplifiers are designed to operate that way. I can show you, for example, that we have 100W of pure class A into 8 ohms. If you were to change the load to 4 ohms and leave the load switch set at 8 ohms, you would get 200W, just like with conventional high-end amplifier designs. However, this way, you would only get 50W in class A. Also if you changed the load to 2 ohms you would get 400W but only 12.5W in class A. The amplifier doubles the power but I don’t need that. My load switch is equivalent to output transformers in tube amplifiers. Have you read Ken Kessler’s review of M1.1 (Hi-Fi News and Records Review) where he states that he felt as if someone were sitting inside the amplifier and doing something. You can hear the difference immediately if you use 8 ohm speakers and flip the load switch to 4 ohms. The effect can be heard immediately because you have changed the Q-point.
The most important issue is that with my amplifiers the M1.1, ML1 and ML2, this concept represents the simplified (solvable) model of the topology that describes the human hearing mechanism. But there are other factors; for example, I told you that it is all right to use negative feedback provided that its magnitude and everything else is properly determined. Now, let’s look at negative feedback with tube amplifiers. Theoretically, if one uses tubes and of course if one does everything else properly, this cannot be simulated with a tube design. That would be like “open loop” gain, completely skewed to higher tones. Commercial solid state designs use 60-70 dB of negative feedback. Can you imagine what the “open loop” gain would look like? When you use negative feedback there is a time delay but there are also other issues to consider. Also with this design the output transformer is an absolute must.
See, the thing is, we are created a certain way. One can argue that our ears or your nose are not optimally designed, that they could be better, but that is how we are created. One can’t dispute that. One can’t change nature. The same argument holds with output transformers. You can love it or hate it but it would be the same to say that you don’t like the way your hand looks. But that’s the hand you have and you can’t change that. Again, it’s the same with the transformer. It does something. Why do you think I put a capacitor into my topology between the input and output stages? In order to improve the quality of bass, to make it natural. Remember that today we have industrial standards, something like standard topologies used by the industry. Direct-coupled amplifiers without capacitors are destroyers of good sound.
But everyone uses them…
So what! The majority is not always right. The majority can be aggressive about their beliefs but that does not mean they are right. And that’s that. It almost sounds too simplistic for the majority of engineers – in order to improve the quality of bass you have to use a coupling capacitor. Of course, there is no need to put the capacitor at the output. If you do that, to maintain quality, you need a very large capacitor. You have to use an electrolytic capacitor but that is not good. On the other hand, you can insert it anywhere, and for me between the input and output stage was the best place for it. I did it so that I can test the input and the output stages separately. There is no direct connection. They exist as two completely different sections of the amplifier. This is the separate power supply and this is the second (power?) supply – no negative feedback, nothing.
Only local negative feedback?
No. We have three different sections, input, output and buffer. I am using global negative feedback but very little and very carefully selected. To illustrate it better for you, “open loop” gain is more than 50 kHz, and the 6 dB of negative feedback is something like… Let’s say you are a painter and this is a shadow. You would like to improve something in the shadow, create a somewhat different feeling; so you change the intensity of the shadow a little, but it’s still the same shadow. This is only polishing. I need it only to make the output impedance linear.
So you think that having linear output impedance is very important?
This is the reason why many speaker designers like to use my components in their design process. Because my equipment is sonically neutral. One of the important points, when discussing the M1.1, is that the output impedance vs. frequency, is almost active. Reactance is only a few degrees – that is negligible. Since it is only a few degrees, especially in a complex output system, you can forget about reactance. The speaker crossover sees the amplifier as a generator, an active component, on all frequencies. Most amplifiers, solid state or tube, have a complex output stage, a strong Z component. So, can you picture its interaction with a speaker?
It is predictable. You have to create the equivalent of the amplifier’s output impedance. That can be measured. Add the crossover and when you put it all together, what happens with these complicated interactions turns into hell (chaos?). But at least, when the speaker crossover is not ideal, the amplifier can help because it is active. A straight line.
Do you think all these power filtration devices are necessary?
It seems that a whole industry has emerged around this issue. It is necessary. The power grid is dirty and it needs to be cleaned up, but that is a so-called necessary evil. All my amplifiers and pre-amplifiers are equipped with quality filtering networks. Industrial quality. Yes, I do it, but not because I like it, but because I think it is necessary. In big cities the power grid is so dirty, so many bad things…
So, you don’t recommend the use of additional filtering devices?
With my equipment it is not necessary. All my amplifiers have quality filters and it is not necessary to double up.
In your opinion, what is the most important factor influencing an amplifier’s sound quality – topology, parts, power supply, or something else? Which affects the sound the most?
I already mentioned this. What I do is not black magic. I don’t belong to that group of audio designers that create designs through experimentation and tweaks, or listening tests for that matter. I am an engineer. I use the laws of physics and I know what I am doing. Of course, even if my amplifiers satisfy my requirements and are properly designed, if I used inferior parts, or inferior power supplies, there is no sound. They wouldn’t sound as good as they could.
So you choose specific parts? And transistors?
That is not necessary. If we are talking about active components, for me, it is enough to see the specifications. Of course, some parts have to be heard.
No, no, active components. Sometimes it is complicated, but passive components like resistors, film resistors, wire resistors and capacitors, have been ordered and tested in the very beginning when I came to America. I use Dale resistors, military specifications. They are very expensive. Now they are owned by Vishay. Also I use Electrocube film capacitors, Roederstein film capacitors, and PRC (Precision Resistor Components) wire resistors. This company is in Florida; very sophisticated.
What happened with your 300B tube prototype from a few years ago?
At this moment, the tubes that are available, the equivalents of the original 300B, don’t satisfy my requirements. Western Electric tubes, 300B or CTS 4300, at this moment don’t have a reliable supply in the market place.
So you are giving up on the 300B?
No, I’m not giving up. You can say that I am in a stand-by mode for now.
Also, you have announced less expensive versions of the M1.1?
That’s almost ready but I am waiting to move to a new location. At this moment the demand will be great and I don’t want to take any chances because I may not be able to meet the dealer demand.
Which is your best selling amplifier?
ML2, even though I sell more M1.1s. If you are looking at that price point, meaning the best selling single-ended amplifier – that is a very special market. And in this category I sell enough to be able to say that the ML2 is a best seller.
Did the tube used in the ML1 and ML2, the 6C33C, really originate with MiG fighter planes?
Yes, this tube was originally designed as a serious high-performance tube used in voltage regulators. This is why it has such low internal impedance. Can you picture internal impedance of only 80 ohms? But, this tube is excellent for audio; in fact, I am the inventor of incorporating this tube in audio applications. While I worked in Russia, for the military, that was a part of my job. I designed a line of solid state, hybrid and tube-based voltage regulators for the military. One of these designs incorporated the 6C33C. Of course, there is also the 6C19P, its little brother. It conforms to the same philosophy of design. I used that tube for the L1 and L2 pre-amplifiers. That tube is less powerful and I used it in the L2 voltage regulator.
In 1973, I started playing with these tubes and using them as output tubes for audio amplifiers. That is when I made my first OTL design (no output transformer), as these tubes are ideal for OTL amplifiers. After some experimentation I realized, however, that the OTL topology is not good for audio.
It’s a long story. I began using these tubes in the push-pull configuration and later in single-ended designs.
Can you give us a brief overview of the history of LAMM Audio and LAMM Industries? I understand you have two companies, one for solid state and the other for tube equipment.
Originally, there were two companies. Initially, I decided to have two companies, one for solid state and the other, LAMM Industries, for tube gear. Later I realized that this arrangement is too expensive and I combined the two companies. I still use LAMM Audio but the parent company is LAMM Industries. There is also LAMM Audio Laboratory. This is also a proprietary name.
You have an engineering degree from the Ukraine?
I graduated from the Lvov Polytechnic University with a degree in physics with emphasis on solid-state electronics. I started there in 1963 and finished in 1968. Following that, I had two years of punishment, I am referring to mandatory army service. That was Russia then, I had no choice in the matter. I was an engineer. Then I started working for the military. The name of the commercial arm of the company was Electron. In reality, this company was an umbrella-company for a large military industrial complex. Later I became the chief designer for a new company, which was part of the push by the then president Kosygin to reform Russian industry by expanding the breadth of commercial products. It was a large company focused on commercial electronics and I was in charge of the design process. At that time I was somewhat famous in Russia for my audio designs because it was my hobby and I wrote a lot of articles… blah, blah, blah, and all the rest that comes with it. All this was happening around 1976. I can show you some pictures of the products I was designing at that time under the brand name Amphiton. This line was the first audio line in Russia that was profitable. Russian industry was making my equipment in large quantities, for instance, amplifiers numbered about 150,000 per year.
At that time did you design with sound quality in mind or was it strictly profit oriented?
Strictly commercial. In Russia, when considering that system and everything else that came with it, it was impossible to design things. Of course, that equipment still sounded better than other Russian products. At the same time I carried on my research privately.
So, you utilized their research laboratory for your own research?
I had a well-equipped laboratory and I conducted many psycho-acoustic experiments. That was part of my job for the military. When I became the head designer for the audio company we focused on commercial products but at the same time we carried on research for the future. I was deeply involved with psycho-acoustic experimentation.
How did you go about that? Did you do blind listening tests? What was the methodology?
The majority of my research on the human hearing mechanism was conducted while I was the chief designer at the audio company, but it was done privately. My engineers had no idea what they were involved in. It was a huge undertaking; it was the Soviet system after all, a lot of equipment, a lot of people. I was in charge of about 400 employees.
Did you utilize them in listening tests?
No, as robots, ha, ha, ha… You know, now that I am telling you all this it sound so easy but, in reality, I went through hell. I had no idea how to get started but I did understand that there was something seriously wrong with current audio design.
At that time?
At that time. I did hundreds of experiments. And then, after analyzing the results, I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Did you try different topologies with listening tests?
Listening to all kinds of different designs. What did I really do – I listened. I did listening tests of different topologies.
Is that when you formed the foundation for your theories? 1976?
Yes, when I worked for the military I accomplished a lot of it. But I started working on it a lot earlier. I started thinking that something was wrong around 1974.
What led you to believe that something is not right?
When I worked for the military in the early 1970s, we did a lot of groundbreaking research. I am referring to high definition television, HDTV. Already then in the seventies for the military.
Before the Japanese?
Yes. We started in 1971. A part of my job, a very important part of my job, was designing high frequency video amplifiers, 20 MHz, 60 MHz etc. I couldn’t use traditional methods for designing video amplifiers because of the high frequency response requirement. So I developed alternate methods.
How does one design such an amplifier?
It was almost intuitive, my intuition.
Did you just guess right, something like an educated guess?
Yes. I then applied some of these techniques to audio design and got interesting results. These methods were so different than the standard used by audio engineers that it started me thinking. And then I started my first experiments.
Did you have access to quality loud speakers at that time?
Yes, I had access to anything you can imagine.
In your research facility?
Yes, but especially after I became the chief designer for that big company. A part of my job was analyzing the world market for audio equipment and procuring samples. I could order anything I wanted from any country even before I was in charge. After I became a designer for the military I had access, legally, to anything I wanted.
Did you have a good audio system at home?
I can tell you that my listening room was properly designed. I designed it. It was one of the best listening rooms in Europe.
What were your favorite speakers at that time?
I used Klipschorn, Tannoy Autograph (folded horn) and JBL, models 4343 and 4345, and I also made some speakers myself. In the research laboratory, for the military, we tried everything.
In fact, we mostly used my amplifiers, my personal amplifiers, made privately. We also used a McIntosh 275 but that amplifier did not meet my requirements. We also used the big McIntosh, solid state stereo, model 225 or something like that.
I had a Marantz Model 8 but it also did not meet my requirements. I also used a Quad 405 but only for comparison purposes.
What about Quad loudspeakers? Did you like them?
We used them as well but I only liked them after I replaced the crossovers with my own. We also used a Leak tube amplifier but I forgot the model number. That was relatively OK.
What did you use as sources, LPs or tape decks?
Mainly, reel-to-reel decks. We used Teac, Tandberg and Revox B77. We used a turntable of my design, the one you saw upstairs in the listening room. We also use the EMT 930 and 927 turntable, of German manufacture, one of the best.
Ortofon and EMT. I also used a Denon MC and when it became available (affordable?) the expensive Denon 1000 with a step-up transformer. At home, I used, of course after I modified it, an old Telefunken tape deck. The original circuit section was bad but the mechanism was good. I am sorry I couldn’t bring it with me to the United States. It was a little gem – that tape deck.
At that time did you analyze Japanese consumer electronics?
That was a large part of my job because the Russian industry was interested in copying those devices. And all that Japanese gear was equally bad. Of course, I used some of their technological advances to realize cost savings in the production process – installing interesting cooling systems or more optimal construction methods. Clearly it is only possible if we are talking about a very large market. But their electronics is another story. If you analyze the design of Japanese amplifiers and pre-amplifiers, nothing has changed from the seventies to today. They change some parts or alter the circuit schematic here and there but the topology is essentially the same.
Do they then sound the same?
If you try to listen to a Japanese amplifier from the early eighties it is essentially the same sound (as today).
Did your audio line sound better?
Much, much better.
Did you mainly have solid state or tube designs?
Solid state. Can you imagine, Russia being “the place” for tubes, and it was practically impossible to produce tube designs there. (Vladimir shows a photo album with photos of the equipment designed in Russia. There are various amplifiers, pre-amplifiers, with or without tone controls, all similar to other commercially available products in the seventies. There are equalizers, tape decks with Lenco mechanisms, imitation Revox turntables with a tangential tone arm – he was forced to make it, speakers, electrostatic headphones and numerous personal projects. It was an unbelievable photo collection, a true testament to the wealth of experience of this designer.) I see you often designed your own speakers. Do you have a preference for a particular design philosophy, for example, bass reflex, box (sealed enclosure), horns?
Generally speaking, a natural approach to reproduction of sound is using horn designs. They, however, have to be properly designed. Another natural approach involves using infinite baffle designs but for that you really need a large room, practically a castle. At some point I had access to Siemens Eurodyne speakers. The sub-woofer, the mid-range and the horn tweeter were imbedded into a piece of metal. That is attached to a wooden board (4 x 4 m) – infinite baffle principle – and you are in heaven. It sounded fantastic but you can’t get them any more. I also used the excellent English Goodman’s Axiom 80 speakers. These are 6W wide-band speakers, 20 Hz to 20 kHz. This was the best 6W of (sinusoidal power???) with a 12 W maximum. They had the best drivers that I ever heard. The speakers were huge and are no longer practical because you need a large (sealed box???) in order to reproduce bass. Otherwise, fantastic speakers.
Let’s move ahead a little. What happened when you came to the United States?
I decided to leave Russia in 1979. I immediately lost my job and almost everything else. I had no rights, nothing. I don’t like to recall those years.
Maybe just briefly, chronologically?
I submitted an application for a visa seven or eight times but the answer was always no, no, no. At the end of 1987, I remember, Reagan forced Russia to withdraw its missiles from Europe, and one of the requirements of that agreement was allowing people to leave Russia. By then I was a long-term refugee, and managed to leave Russia in 1987.
First I came to Vienna and then went to Italy where I waited for my visa to go to the United States. While there I played table tennis professionally and managed to damage the ligaments in my knee. So I came to America with a damaged knee and without any health insurance. I had to wait awhile for a surgical procedure, which ended up not being successful. I lost two years because I couldn’t walk.
Was it at this time that you joined Madison Fielding?
That happened, I think, in 1990. I looked for a job with many audio companies but they all wanted technicians, not designers because they already had their design philosophy. Mostly they needed technicians but sometimes they would ask me to represent them in Russia. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t want to go back. And then, I hooked up with the guys at Madison Fielding and soon became a partner in the company. I left the company in August 1993, and started my own company in October 1993. In January 1994, I was already attending the CES in Las Vegas under the name LAMM Audio.
Do you ever compare your products to the competition?
Of course, I tested not only my equipment but other equipment made by serious players in the industry.
Do you have to buy this equipment?
No, I have access to everything. I can get what I want. I also did measurements. I have complete measurement reports for all serious amplifiers on the market.
Did the results influence your designs in any way?
No, no, ha, ha….
Do you respect some competitors more than others? Which companies, in your opinion, have the best products in high-end audio?
No, we and the other high-end companies, we are all in the same boat. I don’t want to discuss that. It’s a question of ethics. Well maybe just a little if you promise not to print it (I didn’t).
Which parts of an audio system affect sound quality the most, source components, amplifiers or speakers? Which side of that endless debate are you on?
Everything is important. Each part of an audio system must be properly designed because even a small less important part of the system can destroy the entire presentation.
What do you think about the explosive popularity of home theater? What does this mean for home audio?
Generally, it doesn’t mean anything provided high-end audio is a healthy industry and the products are properly designed. Then, there is no dilemma. There are, however, many companies that call themselves “high-end” but have nothing in common with what high-end is about. This is the reason that home theater, a part of the audio business, is so successful. Also, all of it is the same kind of fun, good fun, and I have nothing against home theater.
But you believe it’s not high-end audio?
It has nothing in common with high-end audio even if you use the best source components, amplifiers and speakers for home theater. Just by introducing the processors you immediately destroy everything. I have a lot of customers who use the whole system as a home theater. I have one customer who uses the Grand Utopias (JM Lab speakers) for main speakers, Utopias for center and surrounds, and five ML1 – L1 combinations. It’s an impressive system. When he uses the system in two-channel mode, two Grand Utopias and two ML1-L1 combinations, the sound is very good, very serious. When he uses the system for home theater – nothing. It is still the standard bad home theater sound. Of course, it is better that standard sound. I have a few other customers in Russia. They use five M1.1 and L1 combinations, also with Grand Utopias and Utopias. In two-channel mode it provides good sound but as soon as they turn on the processor the sound quality is destroyed.
Do you think that 90% of high-end companies are not really high-end?
Have you heard the new formats, SACD and DVD-Audio?
I don’t want to discuss it. I prefer using regular CDs. That doesn’t mean that I don’t see certain advantages but I can’t hear these advantages. In the end, I still prefer analog LPs. That is the only real source. This can be theoretically proven. That is the fundamental question. I can see that the laws of nature are analog and not digital.
What are the goals for LAMM Audio in the next few years and where do you see yourself in ten years?
I will soon move to a larger space and then I will introduce a few less expensive products. In general, I would like to stay on top. I would like to continue doing what I’m doing because I can do things that no one else can. Why then should I lower my standards?
You will finish the ML3?
I will introduce the ML3, the phono stage, and DL1, a less expensive stereo version of the ML2. Also I will introduce a less expensive stereo version of M1.1 and I will add an M1.2 Reference.
Are you planning to expand your product line to include CD players or D/A converters?
No, there is no chance. I don’t want to commit suicide. I know what I am doing, so why should I then change my tune. I don’t need that and I don’t like it. This is my company, and of course, I need to make money to survive. We don’t live forever and I would like to realize my potential. If one wants to do that, and if one can make things no one else can, then one should stick with it.
What audio gear do you use in your own system?
I use Kharma Studio Critique speakers, the best model, Purist Audio Design cables, Sony DVD player used as a transport, and a Museatex D/A converter. I used to have a very expensive digital front end, a transport and a D/A converter, an excellent digital source. But after a few friends suggested that I try this combination (Sony and Museatex) I realized that it sounded better. This is a very well known designer, Ed Meitner. His D/A converter is fantastic for only $2000. It has excellent sound. I was so surprised by this performance that I sold my other expensive digital front end right away. There was nothing wrong with it but here I had at least as good a performance for much less money.
Of course, I use my own amplifiers and pre-amplifiers depending on the situation. I also use some equipment stands from various manufacturers.
Do isolation platforms improve the sound?
I think it makes the sound a little better.
Do you believe in blind listening tests?
Only in blind listening tests, especially double blind listening tests. It’s not a matter of belief. In the industry we use blind listening tests exclusively for professional testing of components, and not with just one tester. In reality, we use several groups of testers. That’s the only right way.
Thank you very much for this comprehensive interview. I am certain that our readers will find this conversation of particular interest.
You are welcome. And now let’s go listen to some music. After all, all this is here because of my love for music.