It is not everyday I'm asked
to review components by a company I've not run across before. So my interest was
piqued when Jay Rein of Bluebird Music suggested I give two components from the
Leema Acoustics Elements range the
once over. Elements is the half
width stainless steel bodied entry level range, with the full width aluminum
bodied Constellation being their
much more expensive reference range. Either way, you get hand built components,
designed and made in Wales, using as far as possible, components from Europe.
Later this year look out for new state of the art components – the Libra
DAC and two Hydra monoblocks
Lee Taylor and Mallory Nicholls, two ex BBC engineers and fanatical audiophiles, founded Leema in 1998. The company's first products were small high class monitor speakers, followed in 2006 by a range of electronics. The company says its DACs perform close to the limits of what is possible, producing a warm, detailed, musical and natural sound. Let's see if they live up to this claim. Leema amps feature very short signal paths and a very robust construction. Dual mono quad-differential power supplies are said to provide very high current with massive dynamic headroom and the ability to drive very difficult loads.
On the surface, here we have two quite conventional units, the first a DAC / preamp ($2195), the second a 55wpc stereo power amplifier ($2395). The combination (as tested) sells for $4590. The power amp can be bridged to act as a 210 Watt monoblock. For $6690 will get you the DAC and two such monoblocks to power inefficient speakers. They complete the Elements range which begins with a CD player ($2195), an integrated amp ($2895) and the new Ultra phono stage. The Precision DAC is really a combination DAC and preamp. It comes with a remote control and has all the usual controls, including of course, volume. In a conventional pairing, the volume control would reduce the output voltage from the preamp to the power amp, and of course the Leema units can work this way. But they don't have to. By connecting the two together with a special LIPS (Leema Intelligent Protocol System) system connector and choosing the appropriate menu option, you can have the volume control on the preamp (or on the preamp's remote control) make the volume adjustments within the input stage of the power amplifier itself, allowing the full output from the preamp to flow down the analog interconnects, either unbalanced or balanced. This has significant advantages because it allows multiple Leema units to be controlled by one component, but also it sounds better because signal losses across the interconnect cables are kept to a bare minimum. The LIPS connector is a flexible narrow diameter cable which looks the same at each end except for the color of the plug (red – signal in / black – signal out). It looks very much like a 3.5mm headphone jack, except that it has four paths rather than the usual three. You plug the red jack into the component controlling the system, in this case the Elements DAC / Preamplifier and the black lead into the next component, in this case the Elements Power Amplifier. You can daisy chain as many units as you need, since each unit has two LIPS sockets. I set the preamp to the LIPS Fixed output and the power amplifier to LIPS Variable mode.
The Precision DAC has a 3.5mm headphone socket on
the front panel. If you plug in headphones then the analog output is turned off
and the volume setting is applied to the headphone output, even if you have set
the unit to LIPS fixed output. They thought of everything! This unit is a very
flexible device offering a range of digital inputs including an asynchronous and
galvanically isolated USB input plus 3 optical and 3 coaxial digital inputs,
along with a set of analog unbalanced inputs at the rear and a 3.5mm analog
input on the front panel. Both unbalanced and balanced outputs are offered.
Lee Taylor answered my questions about the
headphone circuitry and the choice of a 3.5mm socket. The headphone output comes
from an NE5532 chip, also used in the Benchmark DAC and many high end designs.
It's a high quality bipolar device fed by a 15V power supply. Mini jack
connectors were selected because the majority of headphones are now supplied
with mini jacks and include an adaptor, so there's a convenience factor. Also
DAC purchasers are often younger than traditional audiophiles and more likely to
have invested in high quality IEM style phones which they use for both mobile
and home use. Finally, and most obviously, there's a stylistic match with the
front panel minijack analog input.
The front panel has a large volume control that
doubles as a selector for the menu system (press in once to switch modes or
select), a menu button and a mute button on the right of the central display
panel matching the power button to the left. These controls are easy use and
have a nice feel to them.
If you are using a conventional preamp with the Elements
Power Amplifier, or you use a Leema Preamp in variable output mode then no
adjustment is made to the volume within the power amp. But if you are using the
LIPS system then a microprocessor controls a precision attenuator at the input
stage. The power amp also has preamp out connections, which are fed the
attenuated signal (for a subwoofer or an amp in another room.
Besides the LIPS switch on the back of the power
amp you will also find a channel switch to tell the unit if it is being used in
normal stereo mode or as a bridged mono amp. The Mode switch can reduce gain by
6dB for mono use (you'll need the extra Elements Amp for this). There is a
switch to select either unbalanced or balanced inputs, but the unit must be
turned off first and you'll need something like a toothpick to make the change.
The speaker outputs are also unusual in being banana only, and in the black
terminals not being tied to ground, due to the unusual circuit design. The front
panel power button is not needed when using the LIPS system.
Since these two units are designed to work
together as a pair, I'm going to review them as such, and not as separates. But
a warning before we go – the two half width units should be placed side by
side or on separate shelves, not one sitting on the other. I used the Leema to
drive YG Acosutic Carmels and also Totem "The One" speakers, both of which were
very comfortable matches.
The USB Digital Input
You've gotta love "Chan Chan" from the Buena
Vista Social Club, especially if you've seen these guys play it live
in Havana's Café Taberna. The
Leema DAC sounds impressively warm and bass rich, with smooth vocals and a
slightly reticent top end. The Rega sounds gentler, with less presence, within
this 96kHz/24-bit download.
"Yellow Car 3" from Patricia Barber's Yellow Café
Blue, albeit only a standard 44.1/16 download, sounds just great
through the Leema. It's intimate, forward, fast paced and it offers a ton of
detail without ever sounding harsh or aggressive. The percussion is amazingly
good for Redbook. The imaging here was pretty strong, but also a little loose
compared to what the EMM Labs XDS1 digs out of the CD. The Leema sound has
considerably more drive and dynamic range than the Rega, which also does very
well with the upper registers but is softer in the bass.
Piano is the big challenge so let's try some
Beethoven – Freddy Kempf on BIS at 88.2Khz/24-bit. The Leema sound is a bit
cold and hard but very revealing with a strong image size and precise location.
Dynamics were excellent. This is a very good result for components in this price
range. The Rega is also a bit hard in the upper registers but does not propel
the image as far forward into the room. Given that neither unit displayed any
evince of a hard edge on other recordings, I'd have to conclude the hardness is
right there in the recording. I've checked some online reviews and that seems to
be the general conclusion, but until I've played the same tracks through my XDS1
(currently being updated) I can't be sure.
So let's turn to a track we can all be sure about
– a 96kHz/24-bit download of "The Girl from Ipanima" in the wonderful Stan
Getz / Astred Gilberto rendition. The Leema is if anything slightly soft here,
especially on the piano part, while the strong imaging is supported by a warm
and very inviting acoustic. I prefer the Leema to the Rega here, although the
Rega does excel in the piano tone and does very well in the higher frequencies
while trailing in bass weight.
The TosLink Digital Input
The Leema DAC was clearly a very strong neutral
performer, with a well resolved treble and good low end punch. It sounded
relaxed at all times, never a moment of strain. Patricia Barber's Modern
Cool [MFSL UDSACD 2003] always gets the best out of equipment and in
this case I especially enjoyed the feeling of everything being located so well
in space. I preferred it to the Meridian's analog output because of its superior
treble which was a little lower in level but more detailed and dimensional.
André Previn's classic performance of
CarminaBurana [HiQXRCD8] presents a much tougher test. "O Fortuna" offers a good
sense of power but also a thinner than idea tone. I found it very involving and
clear. "VerisLetaFacies" has a distant sound – set back but still clear and
involving with strong instrumental color. "Tanz" offers serious dynamics, quick
reflexes and reveals many low level details but best of all is the open treble
and great attack from the brass. "In TabernoQuandoSumus" displays a wonderful
broad bandwidth and full integration. There is no sugar coating here, in fact it
verges on the clinical. "Si Puer Cum Puellula" and "VeniVeniVenias" confirm the
very good horizontal location of all voices and the excellence of articulation
and definition seen earlier, but the depth of the image is not great. The
Meridian's analog output offers more image depth, yet lacks the sheer scale of
the Leema and is less involving overall, lacking the excitement the Leema DAC
brings to the brass and its overall clarity.
Bill Frisell's Have a Little Faith [Elektra Nonesuch 97301-2] presents a good test of dynamics, instrumental color and bass drive. The Leema offers some lovely color and a gentle attack on "Street Scene in a Frontier Town", and an immersive and coherent presentation in "Just Like a Woman". Unlike most other discs, the Leema creates not only a wide spread and believable image size here, but it also manages to portray a strong sense of the image depth. The percussion shows a light touch. "No Moe" has a gorgeous attacking guitar sound and it would be easy to be fooled into thinking you were listening to a much bigger amp. "Washington Post March" comes through really well, strong drive and detail, excellent pace and a big deep image. The sound is also rich and attractive and it seems the Leema has lots of headroom to cover the big dynamic range. On this album I compared the Leema DAC / Leema Amp combo to the Meridian's analog output driving my reference rig of EMM Labs Pre2 and ModWright KWA 150SE to see just how it would hold up. The big rig offers stronger bass and focus, more treble detail, improved dynamics, and a greater ability to follow different musical lines simultaneously. So improvements all round, but not major differences and certainly not proportional to the price differences involved. Switch out the Meridian G08's balanced output for a Rega Saturn-R CD player's unbalanced output and the big rig's advantages are offset by an overall brightness and a touch less resolution. This points out the importance of each element in the chain of reproduction. The best amp in the world will not produce higher resolution than the source component extracts from the software.
I simple cannot get enough of the Jerusalem String Quartet, who both in concert and on disc have impressed me more and more over time. If you want one recommendation, I'd offer the 2CD set of Shostakovich String Quartets on harmonia mundi [HMG 508392.93]. The Leema gives us a delightful experience – the performance is at once aggressive, full bodied, very fast and with strong imaging. Both the string tone and the dynamics are at realistic levels. But on this occasion, the DAC in the Meridian G08 does an even better job, offering a more forward projection and even higher levels of excitement, with a greater depth of image. Both however provide at a startlingly high level of involvement and enjoyment.
The Meridian's DAC adds more meat to the bone
than the Leema DAC in Verdi's Force of
Destiny [DG 474903-2], and the brass fanfares are quite something to
behold. But the LeemaDAC's rendition is still delicious, very musical and much
better than most competitors in this class. It captures some very real menace
and atmosphere. The fully open top is especially kind to the woodwinds. The
louder you play this music, the better it gets. The Leema Amp never seems to
Elsewhere the Leema combo does very well with Ali
FarkaTouré with Ry Cooder on Talking
Timbuktu [HNCD 1381]. Even though the percussion is low in the mix it
is still clean and easy to follow, and the sheer drive and swing of the music is
well preserved. The Meridian's analog output is warmer and shows even greater
detail in the percussion.
Finally some solo piano from the one artist I
would most like to have seen, Thelonious Monk, captured here in 1959 at the peak
of his powers and on an unusually good instrument (for him). Thelonious
Alone in San Francisco [Real Gone Jazz RGJCD 332] can easily sound
strident or thin, or both. But the Leema DAC offers tremendous clarity, attack
and sustain to reveal the mastery only hinted at elsewhere. The Meridian's
internal DAC is even richer harmonically and reveals additional ambient
information, but I'd happily live with either one.
A word or so about the headphone output. It seems to work much better for my canal earphones than for the big inefficient Sennheiser HD800's that I use in my listening room, since on several tracks I couldn't get enough volume out of them, with a very wide disparity between the volume stetting for the speakers (often around 90) and a comfortable setting for the phones (over 200). The UE10Pro's on the other hand sounded very impressive, wide bandwidth, detailed and full bodied. Your success will depend on the match between the Leema and the phones you use.
Leema may be a new face but their engineers have some interesting ideas and are clearly going places. Welcome to the United States market, Leema.
Glad to hear you have enjoyed your time with our
Thank you for your well balanced review of our
Elements DAC. We are just beginning our journey in to the American market and it
is hard for us to get our particular ethos across. We try very hard to produce
products with class leading performance, extensive facilities and "old
fashioned" build quality. We are probably unusual in that the company
founders and designers are both professional sound engineers which means our
expectations and design goals are skewed by our recording experience rather than
HiFi experience and we think this comes across in the products and their
presentation. Many of our products have ended up in recording studios or
re-recording stages because of this
We apply a simple test before products
are launched. Would we buy one ourselves? If yes, then it goes in to production,
if no it's back to the drawing board. We hope this comes through in the
Just a note on image width. We are very hot on
rock solid phase to frequency performance. We once received considerable
criticism for shortcomings in image width when our Antila CD player was compared
with another well known Japanese make.
So we sat down and did our own comparison
The results were very interesting. The Japanese
machine certainly sounded good, but piano in particular sounded over wide (50
foot piano syndrome). This effect is very beguiling if not intoxicating. However
it soon became clear that considerable phase inaccuracy was responsible for the
effect, creating a false soundstage.
We toyed with the idea of including a width control. This is quite simple to achieve using M&S (mid and side) matrix decoding on the stereo output signal. The mono and stereo components are passively separated and fed equally to both left and right outputs. Variable gain could be applied to the remaining Stereo signal before feeding back in to the outputs. This would allow for adjustment of the width component independently of the central mono signal. Not sure how purists would feel about such an idea. It's a technique often used in professional circles to increase width on over narrow recordings.
Our stance has always been to convey the
recording as accurately as possible, it's inherent in our pro audio DNA.
Once again, thank you for such a good start to
Lee Taylor and Mallory Nicholls
Leema Elements Amplifier
Voice: 011 44 1938 559 021
North American Distributor