Leben, Leben... This is not a run-of-the-mill brand. I had the firs opportunity of meeting it while preparing the “Japanese” issue (No 29, September 2006). Mr. Yoshi Hontai, Leben agent (Japanese companies almost always act through agents, and not directly) sent us without hesitation the amplifier CS-300. He did this basing his opinion on Polish version of our magazine – the English version started only in September 2006. And I want to remind you, that most of the Japanese brands presented did not have a Polish distributor. The amplifier turned out to be brilliant – I fell in love with it and it did not return to Japan. It ended also in the Product of the Year award 2006. I was not sure what I value most in it – the way it handles loudspeakers, or the grace it has while powering headphones. Both tasks were handled – and still are – splendidly. And still, the company waited one and a half years until somebody in Poland became interested enough to take on the distribution. I am not sure where the problem was, this had probably nothing to do with the sound, but more with the specific aesthetics. Leben devices, at least the integrated ones, and the preamplifiers look similar to the Luxman from the 70., and in further perspective like Mark Levinson. golden fronts, knobs that were copied in Poland by Radmor, wooden side panels, etc. – all this sends us to the years the transistor was triumphant and when it seemed, that tubes left the field for the new technology. And not everybody likes that.
And this is probably not a coincidence, as the owner of Leben, and its “brain”, Mr. Taku Hyodo worked for Luxman, where he was responsible for tube designs. The official version of Leben history says that leaving Luxman in 1979 he did that due to Alpine buying out Luxman and transferring it to another part of Japan. This was probably a valid reason, but more important was the change of the profile of Luxman and resignation from new ambitious tube based products. And this was probably unbearable for a constructor like Mr. Hyodo. And I think that it is good that this happened. After surviving the 70-ties and 80-ties, the worst era for the tubes, we deal now with a renaissance of this technology, and tubes now regained their place. This is a success measured against the size of the company, and Leben, and similar companies, will never go beyond the stage of a small manufacture, if they want to keep their personality. But this is a double success in this case – a financial and a prestigious one. Because Leben is not just a tube, it is a very high level tube.
Like I mentioned before, the distribution in Poland could not start. Fortunately this stage is now over. The Krakow based Nautilus Hi-End, a distributor of Accuphase, started to built a Japanese wing of distribution, taking Leben and Oyaide under its wings. This explains two test in short time – first the “tuned” version CS-300(X) and the preamplifier RS-28CX. The fist device will appear in a test of Japanese amplifiers in “Audio”, the second one you are reading now.
The Leben preamplifier was placed in my system just after the BAT preamplifier, so it was natural for me to compare them directly, even more, that the American colleague is not much more expensive than the Japanese. Two things were clear from the beginning: BAT works much better in balanced mode than over RCA and I will compare the Leben with this. The latter is not balanced, so I need to use that mode. Plugging in the Leben changed many things, but one thing remained – it can be clearly heard, that it was not hi-fi here, but music. I am not talking about “musicality” in the sense of “sounding tubey”, meaning sacrificing the detail to show the full picture (although some of that will be here), but about the fact, that Leben starts working immediately, rebuilding the idea, that we deal with a live event, that there is more to the sound, than we usually attribute to the hi-end. Listening to discs we forget for long time, about the critical approach to the equipment and we start to think critically about the recording and the music. I say it right from the beginning, because this is a whole with what I already stated, the RS-28CX is not a device without flaws – it’s far from that. But from its weaker points, idiosyncrasy, it makes its strength, what places it high in the audio equipment hierarchy. Those elements are woven together so tight, they coexist in so many planes, that it is difficult to describe them separately, vivisect them, while not loosing sight of that what is most important – music.
Leben is a preamplifier that sounds with a dense, full sound, with a slightly warmed treble and a powerful bass. The device draws the musical spectacle in one take, without analyzing the individual aspects. It is not about lack of detail, as there are surprisingly many of them, but about the lack of the separation of the details from their context. Comparing the midrange and treble of the Leben and BAT we can even say that the BAT is more closed in the treble range and its spectrum is not that worked out above the main tones. The Leben sounds with a more relaxed, meaning despite the intensity of the timbre, not so contoured sound. The bass of the preamplifier is even lower than in the VK-3iX, but it seems that the American device controls its medium subrange better, triggering some kind accurateness in terms of timing, something, that immediately attracts attention. The golden preamplifier does not slow down the bass, because when we listen to the track opening the album The Art of Creating Confusing Spirits, of the playing post-Depeche electronics German group Diorama (Accession-Records, EFA 23450-2, CD), to the hits of the bass drum, we will see how direct, with what energy, the loudspeakers sound. This was also the case when I listened to the singles from the Depeche Mode album Exciter, almost without exceptions saturated with strong, low bass. Listening to jazz, it will turn out, that the lower bass is really strong and agile. The contrabass sounds like a contrabass, without cutting its lower part and artificial contouring of its upper part.
As it could have been expected from the Leben, the vocals are phenomenal. To appreciate that we have to apply the long forgotten law: everything jumps into its proper place at a specific volume level. One has to regulate the volume led by the vocals, and the instruments will find their place. When we adjust based on the instruments the vocals will be too quiet in most cases, as if the sound engineer would cut them by 1-1.5dB. I am not mentioning the sound engineering by pure chance, as the recordings and mixes are made at a certain reference volume level. This why a good studio needs certificates, that is why the THX certificate was so popular, that although relating to movie sound, was in fact aiming to achieve the same goal – that the music is played at the same level it was recorded. Most systems does not catch that small discrepancy, because it has problems with dynamics, and compresses sound significantly (this is mostly the fault of the loudspeakers). The Harpia Acoustics Dobermann, I used to test the Leben, are incredibly open and do not have any problems with that, and allowed to show this relationship. I’ll just add, that I heard this in my system only once more, with the Krell system.
Now the Leben is, and will remain a device with its own character. It will always sound in a way making the recording carry a secret, that promoted discs having some kind of a message, directed in some way, like the The Final Cut Pink Floyd (EMI Records/Toshiba-EMI, TOCP-67407, CD; this is one of the “Dutch Japanese”, directly from Uden, where the disc was pressed. Despite this it sounds splendid…) or In The Court Of The Crimson King King Crimson (Universal, UICE-9051, HDCD). And the early digital recordings from Peter Gabriel from the disc Security (Geffen, 2011-2, CD; not remastered version) sounded in a very intreaguing, deep way. But every time I missed the strong treble, as from the Ancient Audio system, to be fully satisfied. Here one can see the not so high price of this classy equipment. I think that only a switch to the VK-52SE or others in that price level can better that aspect. And I need to repeat this again – it is not about the withdrawal of the treble in the Leben, but about the saturation of the midrange that makes the treble retreat. There is still much information, especially with good XRCD discs, but it can be done better. It is also worth to take a look at the bass. There is a lot of it and it goes far down. It happened for the first time, that I felt the need to plug one of the bass-reflex ports of the Harpias, because my room turned out to be too small for this all. I remember well the brilliant bass of the Krell, that went down just as far. With the American system it was so brilliantly controlled, that even full power in some – I do not now which, but I just report what I heard – way did not require combinations with the loudspeakers. There is some “guilt” of the Harpia in this, because the speakers go far down without any compression, and one should be very careful with their application.
Anyway, I am buying this idea of sounding (here the “buying” is in parentheses) as well as the Leben itself (here the buying is in its literal sense). I know it has its flaws, but for the money they are just nothing. Probably I will exchange it for something else sometimes, but first I will have to save some money. And if there would be a remote…
The Leben preamplifier consists of two elements: the main unit with the preamplifier circuitry and the power supply. Both elements are made identically, so they can be placed next to each other, or better somewhat separated, but the power supply does not have to be hidden. The main unit is small, the width is even smaller than that of my Prime. The visual design is typical for this manufacturer, we have a golden front panel with green stripes on the top and bottom, gold plated knobs and wooden side panels. This description is valid also for the power supply. Unlike the CS-300 amplifier, the preamp has a thick front panel – this is an extra layer of aluminum. The chassis is screwed together from thick aluminum profiles, with the side panels being screwed to those. In the front we have four knobs and a switch. Looking from left we have the input selector – we can choose from four line inputs and one MM turntable input; the tape loop selector, allowing to monitor the recording on a three head tape deck, a large volume knob and a balance knob. To the right is a red lit power switch, with two LEDs (one red above it, and one green above the volume knob). The first one, while blinking, indicates that the device is still powering up, the output being muted and the anode voltage off. When it stops blinking and switches off the green LED lights up, showing the device is ready. Two words – I think that it would be more logical to make the power switch in the shape of a knob and place both LEDs next to it.
And in the back a very beautiful sight! Let us say about the sockets. Those are superb, extremely durable sockets from Canare RJ-RU with gold plated pins made from beryllium and copper. They look quite different than standard sockets and probably their shape was taken from Neutrik sockets, that uses them for years – the sockets are mounted in rigid montage elements and intruded in the back plate. Let us just mention, that sockets like this are used by the American company Boulder. We have four line inputs, a tape loop, MM gramophone input and two power amplifier outputs – one directly from the output tubes, and the other variable, there is an open Alps potentiometer, allowing to adjust the output volume level to match two different power amplifiers. Next to the MM input there is a turntable grounding post, and in the edge there is a socket for the power supply cable. That cable is reasonable, but without exaggeration, however the socket and plug are very solid and writhed.
The whole circuit is soldered point to point. A large metal plate is the mounting base, placed on elastic elements, susceptible to pressure, uncoupling it from the enclosure. The elements of the circuitry are on both sides of the plate. Below we have capacitors – metallized polypropylenes, among other from Nichicon – and the mesh resistors, on the top side tubes, cathode resistors and capacitors, very nice Elnas, finally rectifying the supplying voltage. The resistors in this section and the cathode resistors are interesting – they are very big and look like NOS. But I might be mistaken. The output capacitors are wrapped in metallized tape to additionally shield them. The tubes are enclosed in shields. In line setting two double triodes 6CG7 are employed, of General Electric make (NOS) in the SRPP (Series Regulated Push-Pull) setting, where the cathode of one tube and anode of the second one replace the resistors normally used in that place. This circuit has a very big gain, that was happily used. Classic tube preamplifiers like the BAT offer 40V on output, and the Leben goes up to 80V! This allows to parallel drive every thinkable power amplifier. But there are also drawbacks of this solution – the noise on the output is much higher than usual and with most amplifiers the volume regulation will happen in the first part of the potentiometer. The solution for the problem might be the usage of the variable output. To the side we see the tubes of the gramophone preamplifier – two 12AT7 General Electric, certified by J.A.N. (Joint Army & Navy). The company materials describe, that this circuit is special, because instead of a typical one, where the RIAA curve is shaped in the feedback setting, we have a CR circuit here, completely without feedback (it was used in amplifiers like the Harman/Kardon Citation IV). The choice of elements and tubes allowed to prepare a preamplifier with the RIAA curve precision below 3%.
The power supply is built around a big transformer made from classic transformer plates. The rectification of the anode voltage is done by the 5Y3 WGTA (NOS) tube, and for the glow voltage by a classic rectification bridge. There is also a bank of Elna capacitors. Unfortunately the feet of both devices are not very good – those are plastic discs with a layer of felt. I already have the Ceraball Finite Elemente to replace them, but I will have to drill bigger holes for the screws. And finally a very important thing – the preamplifier does not have a remote control. Yes, I know all pros and cons of a remote, but I must say, that this is a substantial drawback, and the best preamplifiers I ever heard, like the VK-52SE from BAT have a remote and it does not make them any problems.
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