Part 2: Lamm ML3 amplifiers – Review of the Stereophile Review

[continued…]

5. Only big [solid-state] amps need apply

Next he mentions that the ML3s …

“must be paired with a sensitive speaker with a relatively benign impedance curve”.

This statement is so laden with solid-state amp falsisms that it is really misleading and even insulting. First, ALL amps, solid-state and both large and small tube amps, sound better paired with ‘sensitive speaker[s] with a relatively benign impedance curve[s]’. Second, speakers that are harder to drive ALWAYS [in my experience] have problems with the amp not being able to drive them well. Even hugemongous amps will have problems with these kinds of speakers. Yes, smaller amps have MORE problems, everything else being equal. But everything else is not equal; smaller amps almost always have a better sounding midrange. I.E., depending on your preferences, you might prefer a little less electronic drum-like slam and a little more Stradivarius-violin-like charm and use a smaller amp instead of a larger amp.

So perhaps one might say: “when choosing speaker / amp pairings one should chose a more efficient speaker in direct proportion to your desire for electronic-bass-like slamm and overall SPL, realizing that the specifics for any given speaker’s impedance curve, and the way each amplifier design seems to interact with these curves differently, makes it hard to predict, just from the efficiency of the speaker alone, just how any specific model of speaker / amp combo will perform.”

Mr. Fremer says he heard “two ML3s driving Wilson… MAXX 3 speakers in a large hotel room at …CES”.

Actually, there were two Lamm ML2.2 amps driving the Verity Lohengrin speakers in a small room at CES [we have a guy who really enjoys these speakers with one pair of the ML3 amps] and next door to this room at CES there was just *ONE* pair of ML3 amps driving the MAXX 3 speakers.

Mr. Fremer says he found the sound “anemic and lacked dynamic drive and slam” and … “though tonally it was mesmerizingly lush and smooth”.

My impressions were different.

First, Vladimir and Elina Lamm go for the ‘musical oasis’ sound at shows as opposed to the in-your-face let’s impress the silly boys who like to get pummeled by their music sound [ :-) I exaggerate a little bit… but, since I AM a boy, and sometimes as silly as the next guy, check out our write-up of the Luxman amps on the Magico Q5 a few CES’s ago – lots of wild dynamic drive and slam for us boys; and which did not seem to do anything particularly horribly (if you can ignore the near absence of micro-dynamics and texture) which, unfortunately, is rather extremely rare with these boy toy type systems. This sound, which neither component seems to be able to achieve by itself, is one which other boy toy systems should be very envious of].

Second, the cabling and equipment rack that were used in the Lamm ML3 / MAXX 3 system are ones that will typically reduce dynamics [often desirable in certain systems and arguably very useful at shows where the average showgoer’s ears are so bloodied that an little extra smoothness is like a ice cold beer on Vulcan].

Third, it is a BIG room.

Fourth, lush? LUSH? OMG. This was not lush. Calling it ‘lush’ sounds like just another solid-state fanboy trying to make a strength out of the weakness that plagues solid-state amps: i.e. that they are dry and scratchy in comparison to the harmonics of real music.

Realize that music is ALL about harmonics [voice, strings, woodwinds, keyboards] and that real instruments are so full of harmonics that they make, in comparison, the typical stereo system sound like sandpaper on a chalkboard…. Dynamics are fun, required for percussive sounds, and help us determine where the notes harmonics start. But that is all they are.

I am somewhat fond of this particular system because I spent a lot of time in this room. We had the Marten Coltrane Supreme speakers up for sale. We weren’t about to buy another pair of these $350K speakers or anything near its price. Certainly not until we finally sell our home here in the foothills above Boulder Colorado [hint, hint]. So listening… listening… All the while thinking about what system we would be able to live with. About what the criteria was [to enjoy many kinds of music, to have no bad behavior that distracted from the music experience, etc.]. Neli disagrees with me [she much prefers the Alexandrias – as do I, but I think they are just an improvement on the MAXX 3 ‘in kind’ (in the same vein)].

So, anyway, I tried hard to poke holes in the quality of this sound in this room, and in my opinion it was decently balanced. I felt that the distance between the sound in that room and the one I wanted in our room was one that I could achieve by using the standard tricks of the trade [and bringing the speakers closer together for more solidity] and careful [but not THAT careful, for goodness sake, people] component / cable choices.

OK… back to the review of the review.

5. Summing up #1

We talked above about measurements and who cares if solid-state amps measure better given the fact that what we are all measuring here has only theoretical connection to what we are hearing [and how we are processing what we hearing]. In fact the evidence from the last 50 years of transistor-based gear and digital playback is that there is often an inverse relationship between how well something measures and the quality of the perceived sound. So measurements are fun for us geeks, but it is like measuring the quality of the suspension on a car – it is so much easier to just drive the darn thing.

Given a relaxed view of Mr. Fremer’s definition for some of our woefully under-defined audiophile terms I can agree with most of the benefits of solid-state described in the following paragraphs except ‘superior bass… control’. I do not think solid-state amps control the bass at all well. They throw watts at the lower frequencies, they ‘punch the speaker drivers’, but this is not control. There is a tremendous amount of information in the bass that solid-state amps walk all over that many good tube amps do not. In fact, solid-state amps try to ‘power through’ most dynamics and in so doing over-power [get it? :-) I know. Stupid pun.] the other information present at those time-slots – and this occurs at ALL frequencies.

The paragraph on problems with tube amps is more or less true for less expensive tube amps [say, less than $5K… there are a lot of these tube amps out there] except for the following extreme generalization: “are generally overripe, richer than life…”. I wish. Most are dull sounding, only slightly better than solid-state amps [mostly because they will NOT bite your ear off, will not give you frequent headaches, and not make people think you (and all audiophiles) are an idiot for spending money on something so aggressively unpleasant. On the other hand, the Ford F150 pickup is the best selling car, so I don’t know, maybe people like living on the edge]. Joule amps are a popular notable exception and richer than life [which is kind of fun, IMHO].

But, guys and gals, real life music is rich. The richness found in harmonics is ignored by so many audiophiles because for the most part we have no choice if we are going to be audiophiles. Our systems are so under-performing in the harmonics department and when you finally realize how bad it is, it is extremely sad and disturbing. You finally realize that dynamics are FUN [and exciting] but harmonics is the MUSIC [yes, I am yelling]. The more accurately we can reproduce harmonics, the more depth and color and resolution and inner-dynamics to the harmonics [yes, harmonics have dynamics] the more we will connect with the music, feel it in our souls, and just spontaneously start emoting over the beauty of life [ok, yes, life, the universe and everything. Can’t forget to stick Douglas Adams’s tongue into the mix when we start getting too serious :-)].

I remember one time in Santa Fe we were on a balcony looking over the city, in an art gallery or something, and then this trumpet player seemingly comes out of nowhere and starts playing jazz about 10 feet from us. The color and harmonics were a-mazing. If you were fortunate enough to have grown up in a school with a band, or music class, remember what the trumpet sounded like there? Or the clarinet? Or flute? I think people get so used to the coldness of solid-state sound reproduction, that even when they hear live music, they are are continually interpreting it through the lens of their comfort zones: perfect-sound-forever and tubes are old-fashioned [it is *safe* to think these things – safe to say these things in public and on forums. That measurements measure how things sound, as opposed to the fact that they are REALLY just measuring some relatively random minuscule slices of something. That we are choosing what to measure, and what measurements to use as the basis for what is good and bad, based on the sole fact that they were easily measurable back-in-the-day.]

Solid-state amps ARE good in some circumstances

Solid-state is good if you do not want to muck with the thing for 5 to 15 years and do not want to have to replace tubes every several or so years [this is me. I’d MUCH prefer solid-state if it didn’t sound so poorly. I do not think tubes are cool (well… a little but) and I think they are a pain to track down and replace. But they sound SO MUCH better! neli likes the whole tube scene much more than I do.] If you have young kids or dogs [cats seem not to get into as much trouble] and you can’t elevate the amps to your top shelf out of reach. If you do not like staring at the light tubes make. If you want something that does not give off much heat (ignoring class A solid-state). If you do not want your neighbors to wonder what the heck is THAT thing with the light bulbs sticking out of it? And they are good if you just want to play with with the darn things for no discernible reason – who cares why.

But to imply that solid-state is inherently BETTER, for reproducing MUSIC? It just ain’t so. In fact they are worse [but getting better]. This whole argument is an analog [sic] to the LP versus CD arguments. Surprised Mr. Fremer is on the wrong side of this one.

Mr. Fremer then goes on to describe the characteristics of the sound of the ML3 based on his mental reference of what ‘real music’ sounds like. Its all really positive, especially coming from a solid-state guy.

6. Uh oh! Associated equipment makes a difference

The review then talks about choosing the right cable and how all cables seemed to reveal the cables weakness, but

“choose the right cable, and it was smooth sailing from top to bottom”.

We’ve heard one of the cables listed in Mr. Fremer’s associated equipment, the Tara Labs Omega Gold ( Zero Gold ), in this exact same system [ML3 on Alexandria XLF] and they are really decent (albeit expensive $22K/speaker $18K/interconnect) cables – a little less dynamic and transparent than Nordost Odin, but a little more compressively solid. For Mr. Fremer’s apparent sonic tastes, I think either cable would be about as good as the other in this system. As far as the other associated equipment goes… the dCS is the best of his digital sources [which is what he uses later in the review]; the analog looks like it would be actually fun to hear [as expected at Mr. Fremer’s digs], hopefully the power conditioners were not in the system [or just on the turntable power-supply], and hopefully, HOPEFULLY the amps were on the SXR amp stands, sitting on their HRS Nimbus spacers/couplers.

You do not need to use top-notch associated equipment with these top-notch amps, but if one is going to criticize, it behooves one to at least use associated equipment that is not going to cause one frustration [i.e. when you drop a new extremely high-quality component into your system – you have to assume, initially, that the component is the perfect component. That all the problems you hear are endemic to other parts of the system, and the previous component being used was compensating for these problems – perhaps exaggerated in some way, perhaps covering up something else, problems that were always there, but were obscured by, or over-powered by, the old component. This is true whenever a new component or cable is dropped into a system. The balancing act of the system is thrown out-of-kilter]. Through complex triangulation, one can explore and determine the weaknesses of a system, and what component’s weakness is balanced by what other component’s strength [or weakness, like when, for example, a bright-sounding amp is balanced by dull-sounding cables].

Can’t tell you how many times we dropped a wonderful component into a system just to have a problem of the system revealed and to have the owner of the system blame the problem on the wonderful component. You hint and nudge the owner into realizing what is happening, all the time wanting to shout: Your precious XYZ component over there is really a POS [in this context]! They no doubt will fall out of love with the XYZ POS soon enough, but it is unfortunately us who are the first to deliver the bad news to the poor guy/gal.

Anyway, it would be interesting to know what cables in his collection he thought was (were) the ‘right’ cable(s). [Oh, Neli points out that Mr. Fremer mentions the Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 7 later on in the review.]

[to be continued…]