The Japanese company Leben is known to everybody, who is interested in tube technology a little more than from a stones throw distance. In part, this is the result of positive reviews in many global magazines, but most of all this is due to the man behind the company, Mr Taku Hyodo. Responsible for the design and manufacturing of the most renowned tube amplifiers in the company Luxman, after its takeover by Alpine and transfer of production to northern Japan, he started his own company Kouri Denki Co. (KDC) in 1979 (being 30 years old at that time), producing PCB's and electronic components. It is hard to forget about one's nature, so it could be foreseen, that his hands will start to itch, and that the tubes will start to glow for him again. He started small, a bit "on the side", putting together amplifiers for cafeterias, clubs, and similar -this time under the brand name KHF. Slowly, he returned fully to business in 1991 with the construction of the first commercial amplifier Triode 33 equipped with 3C33 tubes. The company Leben came to life one year later. Mr Hyodo, besides being an engineer and a musician, is also a collector of rare electron tubes. That is why Leben amplifiers can be being equipped with rare NOS tubes on demand. A sufficient amount of those is being kept in store (as replacement) for every sold amplifier.
The owner of Leben is one of the most known persons in the tube world. In 2004 the magazine "Analog"published a list of eight most famous audio engineers in Japan and companies they are tied with. They were (in alphabetical order of the companies):
The device surpassed all my expectations with its appearance. The photo's don't reveal even a small part of its charm and magic. Small, a CD high and two CDs wide, perfectly manufactured, has everything in the right place and its every element was ten times re-thought, tried and accepted. The whole has a special taste and chic, that only Japanese, truly Japanese devices have, even though the front panel shines and glitters with gold. With the wooden panels on the sides and the gold broken with green, it does not hinder, it even boosts our well-being. Talking about gold, it must be said, that there must be something in that color, that the Japanese use it often in audio equipment, just to mention Accuphase, Luxman, STAX, Marantz and others, also the "champagne" Denon. Besides those connotations, the next one is related to another legend of American high-end, the mentioned company Marantz. I am talking about "American", even though the company is Japanese (Ken Ishiwata told in Berlin during the IFA 2006, I just returned from, that D&M is situated now in Japan and not in Hong-Kong), because we are talking about design, which was characteristic for this company during the times of its founder, Saul Marantz and later, under the reign of Intersope, when the stars and stripes flag waived over Marantz. Even though, from that time, a few dozen years came by, it can be said, that that design did not grew old by a hair, and due to a few changes, was refreshed by Leben.
CS-300 is one of the cheapest Leben products, and however the price of about 2250 Euro to pay for such a small amplifier, based on such "un-audiophile" tubes like the EL84 seems high, the Japanese companies could not forgive Mr Hyodo, long time after he entered the market, that he set the prizes so low for his amplifiers, when he could have been charging twice, trice or even four times more, and still have them sell very well. Leben amplifiers do not have remote controls, but have a recording output, headphone output, together with a selector allowing to switch off the speakers or the headphones, a balance knob and "booster", that amplifies the bass by 3 or 6 dB, used mostly for full-band speakers, where the bass is always lacking. The tubes used are based on the buyers preference. If the buyer is unknown, in the CS-300 Sovtek pentodes EL84M are used in the output stage and American General Electric 5757 in the preamp and driver -a beefed up version of the low power double triode 12AX7A. Additional help is received from the impedance selector on the back panel: 4-6-8 Ω. It allows to avoid many speaker terminals and simplifies the exploration of all the settings.
The Leben amplifier costs in Europe about 2250 Euro, so almost the same as my Avantgarde Acoustic Model 5 while having half the power, because after pumping-up his muscles it offers 2 x 12 W in class A push-pull. From the beginning of the comparisons showed that we deal with something extraordinary. Short listening session with the TRI TRV-300SE (test HERE) confirmed, that in general, Leben is better, and even though it does not keep the unique harmonic coherence at very low levels, it offers better dynamics and resolution. But the TRI is 500 Euro cheaper and charms with other composition of assets.
So the main reference point in the 2500 Euro range remained the Model 5. Switching from the German to the Japanese machine, it was evident, that the sound of the latter is a bit bigger and served nearer. Drawing natural dimensions of the instruments, palpable in their depth and a feeling of "agreement" between all frequency ranges were phenomenal in the "300". But only after a week of listening the beast awakened, most probably the amp was splinter new and had to play-in. CS-300 is able to play with an incredibly dynamic sound and with the full spectrum -from the bass to the upper treble. The lower bass is a bit softer than in the Model 5, but this softness is calculated in the whole sound, it would not be possible to show the midrange so harmonically expanded, without a sign of harshness and a quick, short bass just besides it. Such things happen if we pay 25000 Euro for an amplifier. Usually, the classical recordings are most difficult for the devices, because they require very good microdynamics, and also the dynamics in the macro scale must also be up to par. And -the tonal balance. One of such demanding recordings is the "Mandala Symphony" of the Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi (Naxos 8.557093, CD), superbly played and recorded. Excellent sound resolution could be heard from the very beginning, the instruments did not fall together in large spots, but rather conveyed in moving, flexible groups playing together at given time. There is something special in those small devices with a large heart, because they can reproduce emotion, without suggesting that we deal with something mechanical.
In electronic music, even heavy, like on the disk "Violator" Depeche Mode (Mute, DMCD7/584332, Collectors Edition, SACD/CD/DVD-A) the dynamics is much, much worse, but here the perception of the pieces is reigned by the rhythm, and how the equipment handles digital oversteer and errors of the sound engineers. It must be said, that the Leben does not put itself in front of the music. Mastering errors, like the too thin and sharp voice of Gahan, or the not fully homogenous reverbs, were shown clearly. However, it could be heard, that the device tries to (I know, I know, I should not humanize the subject of the study, but don't let us pretend, that we are not emotionally connected to it -it would be an utopia) come into that, what the people in the studio and the musicians wanted. Rhythm? My friends, that listened to the Leben searched for a subwoofer in the listening room. A subwoofer that was not there, of course. Ultra-low effective monitors, Harpia Acoustics (84 dB) played loud and in a hellishly full way. The basedrum from the piece opening the disk sounded forceful and sure, keeping the dense, slightly warmed, really slightly, timbre, even at high volume levels. Also the midrange makes surprises: on one hand we have ingenious harmony, that can be heard from really good devices, on the other the contours, the attack can sound a bit harder. Everything will depend on the recording and the CD player, but it could not be foreseen how the Leben will sound.
We must say a few words about the treble, because it does not act like in a tube amplifier. Having lots of bad will one could say the upper treble is slightly dampened, but I am saying that without conviction. The whole remaining part of it is powerful and clear, even more powerful than in the Model 5, which isn't sweet. If not for the big amount of information and their internal coherence, we could fear the system to become too bright. But together with the strong treble comes, as I already said, its wealth. Listening to the Model 5 one has the feeling, that having a bit more resolution and better built higher frequencies, the treble is slightly thinner and smaller.
What would I choose? I don't know -maybe both of them. Model 5 sounded better at lover volume levels, where the music had a better pulse and "lived". On the other hand -although it actually should have been the other way round -Leben was better at louder playing, a real beast appeared out of it, and when needed, like by the ingenious remaster K2HD of the disk of Sonny Rollins (Contemporary Records/JVC, VICJ-613376, K2HD, CD) a truly lyrical buddy. Frankly speaking, it was not possible to describe the sound character of the Japanese amplifier once and for all, because it surprised every time with a deep, palpable background, or heavy beat, or a juicy midrange.
One of the functionalities of the CS-300 is a headphone output. Because the device has no built-in preamplifier, it has only a potentiometer in the input, the signal to the headphones is taken from the output transformers. A switch enables the choice between speakers and headphones, muting the unused output. And the Leben, as a headphone amp, manifested itself as one of the few devices, that cary this option not only as jewelery, but a full fledged member of the game. The sound had a incredible depth and vividness, it did not exaggerate with the vicinity of the virtual sound sources and was very well separated. One basic condition must be met here: the headphones must be chosen carefully. My preferred Ultrasone PROLine2500 (test HERE) were dropped immediately -too much bass, too little distance to the happenings. Superb were the prepared for testing AKG K701 (incredible construction!) and the aged, but still very good Beyerdynamics DT-990 PRO (test HERE), which showed everything a little closer, in a warmed, but very relaxing way. Even my amplifier, Perreaux SV-1, which is not one of the cheapest, was put on a shelf for the time being. A beautiful, beautifully sounding amplifier for those, that do not like to sleep while listening to music.
We did tell much about the make already, so let's summarize: the device is small, the tubes are locked inside a cabinet made from aluminum sheets, anodized in gold color (front and back) or painted in ivory color with some gold pigment (top). Together with knurled, gold knobs, resembling the 70. and 80. it represents a superbly dense, nice to the eye, product. In the front panel we have a large volume knob, line input switch (five pieces), balance knob and "booster" boosting the bass by 3 or 6 dB. During the test it was not needed, and stayed in the neutral setting 0 dB. Below we have two switches -one activates input six (tape -what an anachronism!) and the other choses between speakers and headphones. In the back -a row of RCA connectors including recording output, speaker terminals (though they don't look too sturdy, I was assured, they are a large bow before the European customer, because Japanese companies usually mount just screws there). They are gold plated. Just to the side of those impedance selectors 4-6-8 Ω are placed. Inside ideal order. The device is split by a metal plate at 1/3 height. All electronic elements are mounted to this plate. On top we have the tubes -two pairs of EL84M Sovtek make, working in the power output stage (class A, push-pull) and two double triodes 5757 General Electric (ECC83). On their side we find nice looking output transformers and the power supply transformer -all are wound by Leben -at least that is stated on the labels. Below we have the circuitry soldered point to point, with nice passive elements, among others non-inductive resistors, Elna capacitors and an Alps potentiometers of the blue-green kind, larger and better than the popular "Blue Velvets" of the same company.
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