Lamm M1.2 Reference monoblock power amplifier Jim Austin December 2016

Jim Austin wrote about the Lamm M1.2 Reference monoblocks in December 2016 (Vol.39 No.12):

Although I've never tried one, I think "lifestyle" audio systems are a bit of a joke. My in-laws' decade-old Bose Wave Radio sounds good for what it is, although its obvious flaws—boomy, undefined lower mids masquerading as bass, a frustrating lack of sonic and musical resolution, etc. —become grating fairly quickly. These days, there are far more accomplished and expensive lifestyle systems out there, but because I haven't tried them I won't comment on them, except to say that I'm not really interested.

Yet my aversion to lifestyle systems masks a serious consideration, one that has become much more important to me over the years: I want the things in my life—the things I care about, including cameras, cars, music players, and so on—to work well for me and the way I live. I don't want them to just perform: I want them to feel good and right.

I thought of this recently when John Atkinson loaned me a pair of Lamm Industries M1.2 monoblocks (footnote 1). At $27,390/pair these are the single (double?) most expensive components I've had in my system. They're nearly three times what I spent a while back on my most expensive audio purchase ever: the very nice Balanced Audio Technologies VK-52SE line-level preamplifier. The Lamms are awesome music machines. My main loudspeakers—DeVore Fidelity Nines—are so efficient and so easy to drive that you might not expect them to benefit much from a powerful solid-state amplifier—but they do. With the Lamms in my system, I hear more bass from the Nines than I've ever heard before, and that bass is more taut and authoritative than ever. The Lamms didn't bring out every tiny nuance—a surprise, as I expect amps costing this much to do everything perfectly—but boy, are they musical! In that way, they deviate from the stereotype of a big-boy amp: You expect such things to sound impressive and precise, but if you want musicality, aren't you supposed to turn to some flea-watt amp, maybe made in some Japanese boutique?

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This is not a conventional review; it is, instead, a heartfelt commentary on a rarely mentioned aspect of playback gear: how our audio systems fit into our lives, or fail to. It matters.

Unlike some, I don't have a problem with spousal acceptance of my passion for very good gear. I'm happily married, my stereo system is in our living room, and my wife is understanding. She hasn't said a word about the two big black boxes sitting on the rug between the two big speakers, except to comment—once—that they sounded good. The problem is with me, not her.

We audiophiles are supposed to be willing to put up with anything for the best possible sound. I'm not. The Lamms sound great, but they literally do not fit into my life. I've managed to move them mostly out of the way (thanks, Vladimir Lamm, for the hefty handles front and back: couldn't have done it without them), but when I approach my system to change a record, I still have to be careful not to trip or stub my toe. My New York City apartment has no air conditioning, and although the Lamms themselves don't get terribly hot, that's only because they have the most massive heatsinks I've ever seen, and those sinks do put out a lot of heat. On the hottest days this past summer I often chose not to listen to music at all—I didn't want the Lamms to heat up the house. (For similar reasons, I ordered out for dinner.) Once, when critical listening for a review forced me to close the windows and turn off the fans to minimize noise, I had to drape a towel over my listening chair's leather seat to soak up the sweat. This wasn't entirely the Lamms' fault—probably, they made me sweat only a bit more than I would have otherwise on that hot day. Still, I found myself fantasizing about cool-running class-D amps. And if I forget to turn off the Lamms at the end of a listening session, my electric bill takes a hit: they cost me about a buck a day to run—at idle.

Years ago, for another publication, I wrote an essay about the importance of a bag I kept hung in my closet. I was living in a small place, and the bag was great to stuff dirty shirts in and thus keep them off the floor. This little thing made my life work that little bit better. Such little things add up. I want my stuff to work with me, to complement the way I like to live.

Practicalities matter a lot—but I'm not talking only about practicalities. Values are no less crucial. For example: I very much like the M1.2 References' understated industrial design—no big investment in fancy faceplates—yet their size and price alone make them ostentatious. A day may come when I can feel good about a system based on a $28,000 pair of monoblocks, but that day will come only after my son is out of college, any loans are paid back, and maybe only after I've inherited a nice chunk of money from a rich uncle I don't yet know about.

In no way am I criticizing anyone who routinely spends such sums on audio gear, any more than I'm criticizing these excellent amps. This isn't about you or them. I'm predisposed to modesty and value in material goods. You'll never find me driving a Lamborghini convertible down the Pacific Coast Highway, even if, some day, I can afford to. That doesn't make me a better or worse person than someone who does. It's just a difference.

I don't think I'm a hopeless cheapskate. I don't rule out some day falling so hard for an amp or preamp or pair of speakers that I decide to spend big money on them. But I'd first need to really fall in love. I think it will happen someday.

This goes beyond even values and ethics, to a personal, relational aesthetic. Another category of things I love is cameras—and here, too, I tend to spend cautiously: I don't own a Leica M because I've never managed to justify the cost to myself. Still, every photographer knows that his or her relationship with a camera is personal. It's about the experience of using it, of how it feels in the hand. No matter how good a camera might be, you can't really love it unless it feels good. Similarly, a fine Swiss watch should feel right on your wrist, a hat should feel good on your head. It's a matter of mutual compatibility.

In audio, then, what good feeling am I looking for? Where are all these practical, ethical, and aesthetic considerations leading me? I'm not sure. I'm still figuring it out. I tend to make things hard on myself, to paint myself into corners. For example: I love boutique and handmade stuff, but I worry that too much of that romance is slick and subtle marketing. Similarly, I'm drawn to things that have rich heritages, especially if I feel some connection to them—like the Thorens TD 124 turntable I own, which was previously owned by a guy who ran a movie theater near the Alabama town where I spent my first few years. But I also believe in science, and respect the engineers who set aside all that mystical nonsense to do good, careful work. I worry that old-school technologies give up too much in real, meaningful technical performance. At heart, I'm a deep subjectivist with objectivist, classicist, scientific tendencies. In reviewer terms, you might say I have equal reverence for Art Dudley and for John Atkinson.

Balanced on that razor's edge is a tough place to live. I'm eager to see where it takes me.—Jim Austin


Footnote 1: John Atkinson reviewed the Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference monoblock (then $23,890/pair) in April 2012. Lamm Industries Inc., 2513 E. 21st Street, Brooklyn, NY 11235. Tel: (718) 368-0181. Fax: (718) 368-0140. Web: www.lammindustries.com.
COMPANY INFO
Lamm Industries, Inc.
2513 E. 21st Street
Brooklyn, NY 11235
(718) 368-0181
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