“Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.”
I would like do not shape this article as a review: I do not write “reviews” religiously and I have many reasons why. I would like more to shape this writing as my personal dairy or as a collection of semi-random thoughts that cover a period of time while I was searching for an adequate line-level solution. Should my “light in the end of a tunnel” be called a buffer or a preamp? I would live this question not answered, perhaps intentionally. Anyhow, to move further I have to say that there is no agenda in this article. This article is juts my personal journal brought public, like anything else you would face within this site.
PREDISPOSITION: OBSESSION, MANIA, FIXATION.
I think that the regular observants of my site have read my semi-paranoiac yelling about my almost-psychotic craving to have a line-level buffer (or whatever it might be called) that would be able to drive my amps, but at the same time would not interfere in any way with sound of my sources. Also, I did not want my line-level devise to introduce any annoyances to the “Melquiades Sound” ™ (look at the end of the article for a definition of a term ”Melquiadanization”). Today I might report that the “mission has accomplished” (do I sound like our Moron-President?), the buffer-candidate was found, evaluated and eventually, it had been planted into my system.
A few months ago when I discovered about a capability of the “Melquiades Sound” and about the L2 disability to handle sound at level that Melquiadanization requires I decided that I couldn’t live with Lamm L2 preamplifier anymore and I begun to look at the alternative options. There were multiple reasons that made me to look at L2 differently then before: L2’s multiple design shortcomings; multiple sonic disadvantages and the lack of transparency. I mean it is transparent enough within a limited scope of Lamm understanding of Sound but we are not in Kansas anymore and not even in Brooklyn… However, despite of all “L2 misery” that preamp offers something that put it heads and shoulder above anything else out there, namely the X-factor that I described in the following article: Preamplifiers: keys to mystery.
Over 5 years I kept using the L2; hating it for many bad things it did to sound, but was quite enslaved (and I have to say gratefully enslaved) by L2’s magnificent and absolutely unmatched ability to do what I described in the abovementioned article.
FURTHER PREDISPOSITION: ABOUT THE STRAW AND THE CAMEL’S BACK
Then, a few month back the Melquiades amps came and brought to the table the Melquiadanization effect ***. The Melquiades quite dramatically changed the rules of the game. First of all Melquiades is so more superior then the power amps I used before (ML2) that now L2 literally was not able to facilitate the Melquiades’ sonic demands. As the result my line-stage got converted into the weakest element of my playback. Secondary, some of the things the Melquiades did PARTIALLY took care of some aspect of the X-factor. I would like to note the I use the world PARTIALLY as the some very interesting things still exist in the L2’s sound and the Melquiades dose not cover them. From a different prospective the “Melquiades Sound” imply certain contribution where the L2 did not go. So it was a choice…
Eventually, the disadvantages of living with L2 were too great and I decided to look somewhere else. I am intimately familiar with a great number of preamps that I evaluated before L2/L1 and my familiarity with them encouraged me to not event to attempt to approach them. I thought to try a new thing. I thought to let Melquiades to do its Melquiadanization job and to introduce instead of L2’s amassing X-factor a completely transparent (sonically and politically) line-level unit. (I would LOVE to have a line-level unit with the L2’s X-factor capacity but without any sonic degradation… unfortunately it dose not exist). Furthermore, considering that I have 5-6 sources and that I can’t switch the cables I begin to visualize what my new line-stage might be.
My initial idea was to have passive switchbox and a volume control sitting right at the grid of the Melquiades. Then I asked myself if it would be possible to have a completely none auditable buffer that would sit next to my switchbox that would be able to drive my amps? The idea sound fascination and I begin to think.
First of all I needed a volume control. I do not really care about a remote control option, in fact I hate it and I consider that a presents of a remote control indicate a corruption of listening culture. The best step-attenuators were not attractive to me as they slightly compress dynamic (TKD and others) and the best step-switches that I tried were problematic as well. The only know to me attenuator that I did try in past and that I had a great respect was Guy Hammel’s attenuator. The problem with this and any another voltage devider is that it can’t drive anything. The guys with passive preamp who sing odes to passive preamps are juts the guy with dynamically compressed and LF–disabled loudspeakers.
A MEMORY LANE
I know Guy Hammel from end of 90s and I use his passive attenuator for some kind of crazy project where his attenuator managed my LF section. The attenuator worked wonderful at that time and there was something more to it. I remember that I was constantly kept requesting some new requirements form my attenuator. Against my expectation instead to sending me to hell Guy agreed to make all alternations to his attenuator. Furthermore each time I send him the attenuator (4 times) Guy returned it modified next day FedExing me the init overnight. The fun part (for me) was that he refused to take money for the shipments even when I begin to feel guilty and proposed him to reimburse his expenses (trust me: if a Jewish guy like me begun to feel shame that it means that I REALLY abused him). When I proposed to Guy the last time to take money for the shipmen and the modifications he replied that it was a part of his game… It was more then attracted to Guy attitude and the only similar level of support I have seen form the Balance Audio Technology’s early years of operation - those guys were amassing then.
Anyhow, I use the Guy Hammel’s attenuator and then, in a couple years when I lost opportunity to have the attenuators sitting right at inputs I stopped to use them. I was tying to use it full range and it was fine. Then Guy sent me to try his fully active unit (same attenuators + no gain buffer). I tried it and confirmed that the active unit was WAY better, I meant the order of magnitude (!!!) better, more transparent and hugely more dynamic then his passive attenuators, even the passive attenuators did not drive anything (5” cable)… However, at that time the X-factor of L1 (the ancestor of L2, that BTW was way better preamp from many perspective then L2 – the fact the I keep pitching since day #1 of my L2 ownership) was a dominating force of my playback and I decided to live with Lamm’s L1
So, remembering all of it, I contacted Guy Hammel and told him that I would like to bult my own preamp and I would like to use his attenuators in it. Guy agree to allow me to use his attenuators and agree to build them in into my chassis, living me juts a pair of contacts for my own output stage. So he did.
THE FIRST BLOOD
After I got from Guy my preamps with his 42K attenuators built-in at inputs during the next few months, on and off, I experimented with different output stages trying to make an absolutely transparent buffer using various tubes topologies and various power supplies. All of then were not successful and you might see my frustration in the following thread: HELP: I’m a line-level looser. All buffers that I bult were better or worth and they performed not well: all them were too devastating to Sound. I was kind of disappointed and in my desperation I called to Guy Hammel dumping all my experiences to him. Guy asked me why don’t I want to try his buffers. He explained that what I was going was what he went over years ago and that his current SS buffer was that answer to his quest. So, I trashed all my buffers and sent the preamp to him asking him to bult in his output stage after the attenuator.
Well, surprise, surprise…. it actually worked well. Guy Hammel’s buffer was not only the more transparent and neutral then all my tube buffers but it turned out to be absolutely (a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y) non-auditable compare to a setting when I drive my Melquiades with 47R direct couple source.
Nope, the Guy’s buffer unfortunately DOES NO DO the smart phase rearrangement, the intelligent sonic harmonization, or any other kinkiness that would manifest the Lamm L2’s X-factor. However the Guy’s buffer “doing nothing” and allows the Melquiades to do with Sound whatever Melquiades dose. That was exactly my NEW DEMAND to a preamp and it was the exactly that Hammel’s buffer had delivered. In fact I have no preamp anymore but juts a switch-box (it is nice to have all 6 inputs to sonically identically - the luxury I never had) and a unity-gain direct-coupled buffer with 10R-output impedance. And of course…. having all of this the most important thing that this line-level gismo DOES NOT LOOSE or ADD ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING in context of my installation.
For instance when I tried my buffers of any other preamps I always was loosing the lowest bass. No mater how good parts, assembling, the topology of the buffers I made the buffers always screw the lowest octave: change harmonic structure, roll-off, added coloration to the tones. The Hammel’s buffer turns out to be absolutely invisible in there. Once I armed one of my Melquiades (the amp that produces the best know to me bass) with an output transformer that I prepared for a LF channel of Super Melquiades. It is 450mA monster that useless above 1000 cycles but the go down to 7Hz at full Melquiades’ power: The single-ended bass this transformer does is absolutely insulating and it really has no references in audio semantics. I was interested to see if in context of THAT LF challenger the Hammel’s buffer will hold its face. Well, I have to tell you that the bass after the Hammel’s buffer was kind of more dynamic then without it. Certainly the driving ability of Hammel’s buffer is way more superior then my sources when I drive the amps directly. I was playing a very first “one piece pressing” of Janos Starker’ Kodaly’s 8th sonata from 50s – the peace with such a phenomenal complexity at lower octaves that practically all know to me audio chock to handle THAT tone. My L2 convert that “dry & yellow scratching” of Starker’s 1667 “Davidoff” into juts a testerone-loaded violoncello form Berkley School of Music. Tonally L2 was perfectly fine but it was not able to handle that abrasiveness and explosiveness of Starker playing his Strad. With Hammel’s buffer everything went where it should be and it become very clear why some freaks pay for a first pressing of this record $600
Even more. I like harpsichord music, if it is properly played than harpsichord might be an extraordinary complex and powerful expressive tool. Is anything might be more beautiful then Raphael Puyana playing 17-18 century peaces or Trevor Pinnock playing Bach’s concertos for the multiple harpsichords and strings? The problem with harpsichords that after 10 minutes of listening harpsichords recordings we get exsosted. The harpsichords begin to sound in our head as tonal booleans and as a result, we loss our ability to recognize each tone as different notes. The best solution for harpsichords do not listen it on hi-fi playback and go for a “table radio” (I’m a not kidding) as the long trim listening harpsichord on hi-fi is dangers. This dulling of listing response never happens with “live” harpsichord, no mater how long you would listen it. I observe the effect of “harpsichord revolt” on countless hi-fi systems and here is where the audio ignorance of audio people bits them up. The real key for reproduction of harpsichords is an ability of a playback to operate at ultra low octaves. The better your playback does at sub-sonic frequencies the less listening problems you will have with harpsichord. Interesting that harpsichord is even better test for hi-fi then any ultra low frequency spectral analyzer combine with a distortions analyzer. Here is how: volume up (very-very-very loud) a good performance of harpsichord piece and if after 5 minutes of VERY loud playing you did not start experience semi-painful sensations then your playback does the lowers octaves very fine. So, in my case with Hammel’s unity-gain buffer I maxed out the volume of my system (15W into 110dB sensitively) and still it sounded volume-vise menacing but …quite relaxed. In fact it sounded way more relaxed and calmer then when I drove the amp directly from my sources. My very subjective assessment would be that with Hummel’s buffer I was able to experience the same threshold of “harpsichord pain” at 3-4dB more volume than with an anything else
All the way form top to bottom, no mater how complex and how suspicious, demanding and prejudges I was trying to be I was not able to detect any signs where the Hammel’s would slip. There is an ingenious performance out there that I enjoy tremendously. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE – is my favorite contemporary orchestra) recorded in 1987-88 the collection of all Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. This is a performance-marvel that not only stunningly played (like anything else the those guys do), but also wonderfully and very smart recorded. (I have it on “Musical Heritage Society” MHS 522498M). The OAE does not sound like any other orchestra out there and they play music in a very different way using this different sound. Half of time it feels that the orchestra is actual not tuned properly at least for my contemporary taste. You are listening it and it forces you almost to suffer. Suddenly some very alien and totally unheard colorations pop-up in the Brandenburg Concertos here and there and you listening and asking yourself: “Wow, wow, wow… where THIS it going to!?” However, the fanny part that it is not really only the “vintage tune” but also the way how wonderfully and superbly tasteful the OAE “abuse “ it. The musicians from OAE actually USE that “vintage tune” and they tease hearing with the very minute fluctuations of that “off-tune”. They never go too far or too off the balance and thier ability to operate at the threshold of the “de-tonal nuances” is extraordinary. Audio mostly screws it up: all those “chromatic notes”, the winds-flopping of those valveless instruments, the “strangely none-fancy” and “none-sophisticated” violin group with their anorexic tone…. all of it usually bleached out buy audio and we hear it on recording more intellectually then actual. All buffers/preamps that I’ve herd juts shadow-out those nuances. Lamm’s SS preamps does this tonal rollercoaster wonderful but ONLY if it has the tubes in PS no older then 2-3 weeks old and only during 10-20 days out of year when electricity is favorable. I always was trying to listen this peace bypassing the Lamm, and although I was loosing the benefits of X-factor but what OAE did was too “big” to kill it. The Hammel’s buffer “swallowed” this music phenomenally!
I have to explain the paragraph above. Thomas Mann in his letters about his objectives regarding the “Josef and his Brothers” said that everyone knows the story and it is not a big deal to tell it in a fictional manner. However Mann’s objectives were not juts to illustrate the story but to make a reader to become the ACTUAL WITNESS of the story. So, Mann use many “special” methods to accomplish it, so he did. The story with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Brandenburg Concertos is very similar. We all know intellectually what is going on in there and we all, no mater how bad playback would be, will be able to extrapolate the OAE affords. However, better audio allows do not use awareness while we listening this music and do not utilize any predeterminations, imagination, contemplations, reckoning, extrapolation, visualization and juts become a "witness of music as is” and anable us to let musicality to "handle" us as violent as it could without our own brain involvement. Do you remember when that last time you had sex without stimulation your mind with any external influences and when you were completely preoccupied by a subject of your lovemaking? Here it was!
Nope, I’m not saying that the Hammel’s buffer helped to facilitate that “as is perception" of those Brandenburg Concertos but it DID NOT PREVENT to do it and it was EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED.
SOME THOUGHTS AFTER THE “OOPS”
I intentionally do not call this unit as preamplifiers. First of all because it does not amplifies and second because it dose not perform the functionality that Lamm L2 did – namely to repossess sound and to converts a dual mono sound into stereo (read my article “Preamplifiers: keys to mystery”). However, behind this absolute transparency and further Melquiadanization of sound there is something else: I still DO find that there was SOME virtue in that audio-illiberal “political” contribution that Lamm L2 did to Sound. The problem was for me that after I heard the none-contaminated Melquiades-effect then there was no way back behind the shades of L2’s sonic ego. I would love-love-love-love to have a preamp that would be able to introduce the Lamm’s X-factor but still to be transparent up to the level of the Guy Hammel’s buffer. I heard the Lamm will be trying sometime in future better preamp then L2 but I have serious doubts about Lamm prospective venture and there are 3 reasons why: 1) Lamm electronic does not operate at the level of Melquiades – Melquiades and the Lamms present very different way of thinking, 2) The new preamp will be based upon the different topology then L1/L2 and there ARE some evidences that the X-Factor is a fortunate but accidental outcome of the L1/L2 SS design, 3) Lamm Industries pretty much quitted a few years ago to make any attempts to make sound-producing equipment and nowadays they are just a hi-fi McDonalds with thier reference objectives targeted to Robb Report Magazine.
It is all very unfortunate as if an L2-like X-factor producing preamp that would not have any sonic degradation would be an absolutely ultimate preamp. But as I said: you can’t plug your fantasy or somebody else’s deceitfulness, hypocrisy or ignorance into your playback system… Furthermore, a local audio guy asked me another day: “Romy, are any your sure that you do not overestimate the validity of the X-factor?” This question made me to think. The next paragraph perhaps would be beneficial to read in order to answer this question.
When I begin to use the Hammel’s buffer my playback did not sound well: the positioning of the loudspeakers and the way in which my system imaged before did not work out with it. I have seen before again and again that when I bypassed L1/L2 the sound went to toilet and become extremely amusical. However, I never worked hard on playback system after I removed the L1/L2. I mean I moved speakers and worked with room but I never did it with the level of determination as I did it this time. This time I did it for 2-3 weeks, iand n the end I did find a quite interesting positioning that to my surprise turned out to be remarkable close to what I had … but this time it was way more precisely and demanding timing-wise (and the system’s sensitively to absolute phase become almost painful). I would say that I have ~70% of the total imaging that I had with L2. However, I'm having quite few other image-related qualities that I did not have with L1/L2. I would not speculate witch result is better. As said: there was some merit in L1/L2 contributions. The New Sound and “new presentation” are quite different BUT they are absolutely otheres than "having a well performing playback with L1/L2 and then juts to remover the L1/L2 from the system". The current imaging of my playback is more self-contained value and has no relation to what I has with L1/L2. Yes, the buffer positions the interments and joint the notes similar to L1/L2 but it dose it completely differently, though the final result is more then acceptable. It means not the system dose itself without using ahelp from apreamp.
So, how to estimate the validity of the X-factor? I do not know. The X-factor IS wonderful but how much of other problems I am wiling to tolerate for it?
THE EPILOGUE AND THE FURTHER QUESTIONS.
Anyhow, Guy Hammel from Placette Audio deserves to be congratulated, so do I. My search for an ultimately transparent buffer is over. I am not saying that there are no other options out there and that it is imposable to accomplish the same level of transparency with a tubes stage. I juts personally was not able to do it. If someone would challenge the Hammel’s result with a tube buffer then I would be greatly interested…but then…. listening what Guy’s buffer does today I’m asking myself: “Do I really need to be interested. Do I have now any specific shortcomings that I might name and that I would like to improve in this line-level buffer? Nope. I do not.
I would love to be wrong about my assessment of Lamm capacity and would love to see him (or somebody else) dose a preamp with the Hammel’s transparency and with L1/L2 sound processing intelligence but something suggests me that it would never happen…
Time will show how it would go along further. The Melquiadanization GREATLY reduced my interest and dependency for the X-factor and introduce a LOT of new things what did not exist in the X-factor driver presentation. How would it affect my long–term vision about the ways in which music should be reproduced? Is any place for X-factor in “Further Audio”? Is something beyond it the X-factor? Would the Melquiadanization be an answer and should I take it further to cast the X-factor as a heretic accident? I do not know now. I would need to live with it for a while to discover it. I know that today the Guy Hammel’s unit enable me to do EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED – to have an absolutely none-intrusive buffer and I fully appreciate for the opportunity to have it.
Romy the Cat
*** Melquiadanization - is a semantic derivation of English Romynizms. Melquiadanization implies a conversion of sound coming to amplifier to the “Melquiades Sound” via processing it in Melquiades input stage. The Melquiades Reality Reconstruction Amplifier is very much dynamically-none-linear amplifier, from an ordinary (constrained and restricted) point of view. Melquiades’s first stage imposes specific re-processing of sound and introduces certain dynamic modulations-inconsistencies to input signal. Those dynamic modulations-inconsistencies are primary responsible to the process of Sonic Reality Reconstruction. So, the Melquiadanization is a conversation of Just Amplified Sound into Sonic Reality Reconstruction process.
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche