Headroom: Lumley, Cremonese Cloth

One has to admire Raymond Lumley for plugging away with his eponymous valve amplifiers because, on the surface, his company looks just as quivery as the next. Yet despite a split with his original partner (Roy Grant, when the company was called Grant-Lumley), a dearth of dealers and a recent fire at the factory, Lumley continues to produce world-class valve amps which make all of the right literal and metaphorical noises.

Ordinarily, I’m leery of any company smaller than, say, ICI, but Raymond Lumley Valve Amplifiers have been around for most of this decade and Ray can supply the goods. What you get are hand-crafted, monster valve amplifiers which perform to world class standards and will not be seen in too many households – if the latter quality is important to you. And while it may seem that the high end valve amp market belongs to the (relative) giants like Audio Research and Conrad-Johnson, there are still enough fringe customers who’d rather take the road less travelled.

The Lumleys (and the still-available Grants) continue to bask in the glow of reviews earned years ago in an American underground magazine. And although the amps which built the reputation are a few generations back, the latest M-150 monoblocks can trade on the earlier reputation because they are true descendants of the Grant-Lumley units. The styling has changed – Lumley has found an incredible gloss, granite-y finish which will have any fey interior designer in a dither – and the amps now drive loads as ornery as 2 ohms, but we’re still looking at classic, tried-and-tested amps rather than exotic hybrids.

Brute force seems to be their forte, but not at the expense of delicacy. Rated at 150W each, the Lumley M-150 monoblocks – once the transformer taps were changed – drove the 3 ohm Apogee Divas in a 7×7.5m room with no problems whatsoever. Each derives its power from four computer-matched 6550s, Lumley having tired of the inconsistency and increasing rarity of KT88s. (If I can ever get to the bottom of it, I’ll one day report on the abysmal Chinese ’88s masquerading as UK-made Gold Lions…)

The midband was uncannily close to the elderly M-100s I had to hand, but the M-150 now yields bass somewhere in-between that of an EAR 509 and an Audio Research of current vintage. I’m convinced that the high-end shopper can now line up a selection of current valve amplifiers according to bass intensity, choosing the one for his or her system by degrees of ‘dryness’. (And, no, I don’t want to see oenophile terminology used in audio scribbling, nor would I welcome a spec sheet labelling something ‘triple sec’.)

Above all, the Lumley sounds rich (oops…) and warm, with none of the lean, squeaky clean solid-state characteristics found in the mid and treble regions of many up-to-the-minute tube units. On the other hand, it isn’t quite the blast from the past I found with the Air-Tight system last month. What the M-150 brings to the high end market circa 1989 is a powerhouse of contemporary proportions with enough lingering traces of the Golden Age to make life wonderful for the schizophrenic anachrophile.

But the Lumleys are rare and expensive (but still cheaper than the imports) and are accompanied by waiting lists and bursts of ‘Whassthat?’ when seen by those who don’t read ‘Headroom’. So what you get for your £3450 per pair are two serious,
hard-working power amplifiers with luscious sonic characteristics, as well as a certain amount of snob value such as can only be imparted by rarity. Remember: these make Jadis and C-J Premier and even Futtermans look common.

Tweak Of The Month: No, not Jean-Pierre Farkas this time but Saburou Egawa, a Japanese hi-fi journalist and consultant I met last month. Tim de Paravicini of EAR, as regular readers will know, spent four years in Japan working for Lux; while there he struck up a friendship with Egawa, the man responsible for ‘discovering’ the sounds of cables before [Jean] Hiraga in France. He’s also said to be responsible for popularising the concept of high-mass turntables as first seen in the big Japanese thread drives and now in such beauties as the Basis and Goldmund Reference. Anyway, Tim though it would be nice if we got together and we did … and I learned more from Egawa in an afternoon than I dreamed possible.

Among the goodies in his briefcase were a few sheets of a new miracle cloth called Cremonese, from a Japanese manufacturer with the unfortunate name of Kuraray Co Ltd. The fabric is made from polyester/nylon fibres which are 1/10th the size of natural silk fibres and was produced for cleaning and polishing fine musical instruments (hence the name in honour of the birthplace of the finest violins). I immediately recognized it as similar to the revolutionary new lens cleaning cloth from Canon. So let me backtrack for a minute.

The Canon cloth, in the shops since around February, is simply the best lens cleaner I’ve ever used. It leaves the lenses smear- and streak-free and doesn’t require the use of any cleaning solutions. It’s washable and doesn’t lose its miraculous properties; price is under a fiver.

Egawa produced two sheets of different sizes and the prices he quoted were similar to that for the Canon cloth. This also suggested that Cremonese and the Canon cloth might be the same thing but I haven’t A-B’ed ’em, so this is simply educated guessing on my part. As it turns out, Egawa has been using the cloths to clean speaker cabinets, styli, LPs and even speaker cones. First, he cut a small hole in a cloth and placed it over the turntable spindle. He then lowered the styli straight on to
the cloth and let it ‘play’ for a few revolutions. It left the stylus immaculately clean.

I repeated this a couple of weeks later with a bunch of cartridges, electronic cleaners and a Point Of View magnifier, and received visual as well as aural confirmation of the success. That would be enough to justify purchase of the cloth, but it was nothing compared to his cleaning of the drivers in the Sonus Faber Electa Amators.

All he did was remove the grilles and gently polish the cone material. With witnesses, I heard improvements in bass reproduction and overall precision. It’s worrying. For the time being, I’m too confused to comment any further. Those of you who are fetishist photographers and are already in possession of the Canon cloth: try it on your speakers and get back to me.

[Farkas update: A number of readers have forwarded their findings on the three-point LP raising tweak and so far the voting is unequivocally pro Farkas. I’ll leave it a couple more months to give the rest of you a chance to contribute.]

(Hi-Fi News, September 1989)