Price (in Poland): 10 900 zł
Manufacturer: Leben Stereo Hi-Fi Company
Yoshi Hontai 2-36-29 ǀ Nishi-Koya
Amagasaki City ǀ Hyougo 661-0047 ǀ Japan
Manufacturer’s website: lebenhifi.com
Polish website: www.leben.pl
Country of origin: Japan
Text: Wojciech Pacuła | Photos: Wojciech Pacuła
Translation: Andrzej Dziadowiec
Published: 4. June 2013, No. 109
I am emotionally involved with Leben. Although I have never met its owner and founder, Mr. Taku Hyodo, on some level I feel I am a kind of his “follower”. For years, I have been using his devices, first the CS300 amplifier, then the CS300X, followed by the custom CS300X specially modified for me, which bears his dedication on the back. These are actually not the only Leben components I used, because for a long time the basis of my system had been the RS28CX preamplifier, very warmly remembered by me. As a matter of fact, I have never seen a Leben product that I would not like or would not understand. Naturally, I have my favorites, with my CS300X [Custom Version] leading the pack, however, the CS600P and the CS1000P power amplifiers were so interesting that were it not for space constraints, I would have bought one of them for myself. Leben is a small company. New products from that manufacturer appear relatively rare. The last to have reached us was the CS1000P power amplifier. Until now, that is. Behold, Mr. Hyodo decided to replace his biggest hit so far – the CS300XS, introducing in its place the CS300F.
From the outside, it is hardly different from its predecessor: it is still a small device, measuring 360 x 270 x 140 mm and weighing just over 10 kg, with a small power pentode based push-pull output stage. However, while previously they were EL84 (Mullard [Version X] or Sovtek [Version XS]), now they are replaced by long-life General Electric JAN-6197 (6CL6), with low microphonics and very low distortion, designed primarily for use in computers. These particular models were manufactured for the U.S. Army (JAN = Joint Army Navy U.S.). It is a power pentode with 9-pin octal base. In a push-pull class AB, the tubes push 15 watts at 0.7% distortion. Input tubes are also different: in place of NOS General Electric 5751, Leben now employs no less unique 17EW8 (HCC85 equivalent) dual triodes from Hi-Fi, a Japanese company. Therefore, it seems true what we read on the Polish distributor website, that it's really a completely different device, sharing with its predecessor only the general idea and the enclosure.
Since I use the CS300X [Custom Version] every day, the most important comparison concerned that model. An obvious problem at the outset is that my custom version is completely different from the stock model. It has been specially designed for the 6R-P15 pentodes from Toshiba, which results in the output power of about 8 W (the "regular" version is rated at 15 W), and it features different coupling capacitors (the V-Cap CuTF); its feet were changed for the CeraBall from Finite Elemente and its fuse for one from Create Audio (see HERE). Finally, Mr. Eugeniusz Czyżewski, owner of Linear Audio Research, made a modification improving the symmetry of the output stage (see HERE). In order to remain “on the ground”, I briefly borrowed a classic version of the CS300XS.
A selection of recording used during auditions
Auditioning products from manufacturers that are particularly close to our heart is marked by certain ambiguity. On the one hand, it is savoring the familiar company ethos, its visual design, sound, and the joy of seeing the next product bearing the logo we care about – all that confirming our earlier choice. However, there is also anxiety, inner trembling, a not fully articulated question about what is left of the glory and honor remembered by us – and that introduces into our joy an element of uncertainty or fear. Surely, not everyone reacts so emotionally to audio devices, certainly not to all of them. In the case of Leben and me, it is exactly like that.
CS300F vs. reference system
One enters the world proposed by Mr. Hyodo gradually. We do not jump straight into the deep end, or get immersed right to the top of our head, or go mad. The closest term to describe what happens to us is "to get soaked in". I think that is, first of all, because the sound of this device seems slightly dark. There is no cascade of sounds and super-selectivity. We get “connective tissue” between the speakers, a saturated sound of which we need to "fish out" the details. Upper treble is realized in such a way that although on the type of recordings like Billy Jean by Michael Jackson, Useless by Depeche Mode from their maxi-single by the same title, or Arriving Somewhere by Porcupine Tree the cymbals were clear and had a proper attack, it was their slight rounding, somewhere at the edge of perception, that gave them greater vividness and protected them from being garish or aggressive. Such problems, resulting in the music losing its meaning and becoming just a collection of sounds, will never occur with the Leben.
One of the main features of the Japanese amplifier is its excellent resolution and, hence, its ability to differentiate. Both have their limitations. But they also take precedence over everything else; even when we get the amplifier to the point of “giving up”, it doesn’t do it abruptly and get unpleasant. We “accompany” it in this problem, as if it was someone close to us – such is the power of persuasion of its designer’s idea.
The amplifier offers a strong, low bass and a very nice dynamics. Its moderate output power does not even hint at what can be heard from such large speakers, as the Harbeth M40.1. In fact, its momentum, vividness, strong bass that is not loose closely reminded me what I heard from the Ayre AX-5 amplifier, despite the fact that American integrated is a thoroughbred, powerful, solid state design. The tiny Leben can produce a similar volume of strong, saturated, focused sound as a large solid state amplifier. At a short listening distance, of course. Electronic music, here mainly Depeche Mode, also sounded great. There was groove, oomph and superbly-controlled highs. I’ve already mentioned the latter, but each time I’d make the same observation: excellent vividness and balanced color.
Dynamics is related to the color presentation – a little dark, but very vivid and differentiated. Glen Gould’s piano was exceptionally fast, but also set in the structure of the song, so much that one could hear his playing technique. Pianist’s humming was shown in a separate plane, although in terms of 3D imaging, enveloping the listener in sound, the CS300F does not show anything spectacular. The sounds come to us from between the speakers and from the sides, only rarely from behind us. Even though we know that the sound engineer placed them there. I think this is due to a slightly withdrawn upper midrange and not as large volume of the sound as, e.g., the CS1000P. This is where you can hear a moderate output power of the device. Gould’s piano had great color, dynamics, was credible, but its size was smaller than with the reference system. The same was with Sinatra’s and Jackson’s vocals. Interestingly, Porcupine Tree recordings were large, expansive - but that's because they were so intended. Their warm color helped in pushing the sound forward.
CS300F vs CS300XS [Custom Version]
That, how the CS300F sounds on its own, compared to the reference system, other Leben amplifiers, and devices from other manufacturers, is important. One could even say, basic. I am however convinced that for a large group of the readers, at least for those who own previous versions of this amp, an equally, if not more, important is information about how they compare to each other, apart from the absolute quality of the amplifier.
CS300F as headphone amplifier
I felt very comfortable listening to the new amplifier. It "blended" easily with the Harbeth speakers and I am convinced, or actually I am sure that it was such speakers that it was initially, still a prototype, auditioned with. Anyone who has once heard that pairing (or a combination with speakers from Spendor, the Reference 3A, and with some JBLs) will be enchanted by the sound culture and the capabilities of such a small device. But I cannot deny that for me the Leben CS300 (and all later versions) is primarily a headphone amplifier. I didn’t predestine it for this role, it just came out "in the wash": this is one of the best, if not the best, headphone amplifier I have come across. Sennheiser HD800, AKG K701, Beyerdynamik DT990 Pro (600 Ω) – with the Leben they all show the best they have. The only exception are the planar HE-6 headphones from HiFiMAN, but they need a whole power station to drive them. I will some time return to this subject.
Both amplifiers come from the same father, which can be seen and heard. I have no doubt that he loves them equally. To someone who doesn’t know them, they will seem very similar. However, if we know the older one, the new design will be significantly different. It offers a more focused, deeper sound with an even more saturated upper midrange. Resolution and selectivity is better with the older version. So is imaging, which shows how the device copes with the rendering of space and components in space. They are still, however, the same emotions, depth, dynamics, and "drive". Low bass, while maybe not quite as selective and not as well differentiated as in my version, has more body and with 99% of speakers, except the most expensive designs, will perform better. The sound with the headphones is lighter, with a nod to upper midrange, but it's still a top headphone amplifier. It would be best to have both amplifiers. The F version delights with purity and clarity, even when playing loud.
The amplifier receives the RED FINGERPRINTS award
1970s in audio can be seen not only in the techniques used back then, but first of all in industrial design. Nobody will mistake Luxman from those years for anything else, just as nobody will do that with Accuphase, Mark Levinson, Marantz and many other companies. Leben makes a direct use of those experiences, showing that the years spent by Mr. Hyodo at Luxman left him with good memories and that he considers those years a "golden" period of tube technology. Although his favorite tubes are KT66 and the circuit known from the Quad II amplifier, it is the small EL84 that brought him international fame. In the CS300 it was a military version of Sovtek EL84, with 5757 from General Electric in the input and driver stages. The CS300XS sported in the output stage a rare version of the EL84 from Mullard (NOS), which made it a limited edition, and the CS300S marked a return to Sovtek, retaining modifications, better components, connectors, and controllers first introduced to the CS300XS.
Looking at the unit from the outside it's hardly noticeable. The only change seems to be a different power switch and the fact that we now have one blue LED instead of previous two - green and red - indicating that the amplifier is on. I know that blue colored LEDs are extremely popular in audio, but I do not like them and "blue" for me doesn’t go well with the 1970s at all. Red and green on the other hand do that perfectly. After a closer look, however, we can notice a few other details, seen for the first time. A different color (a shade of purple in place of gold) of the top and bottom walls, a slightly different way of mounting of the largest knob, other RCA connectors (not in terms of better quality, which is still not particularly refined, but of a different manufacturer) and feet. Until now, all Leben amps sported plastic feet with golden rim. The new CS300F has the same feet, but they are now double. This way they resemble the Finite Elemente Cerabase Slimline, but they are not!
Wiring, as usually in Leben, is point-to-point without any PCB. High quality resistors and nice, polypropylene coupling capacitors have been used throughout. The cathode capacitors are from Elna (input and driver tubes) and Nichicon Fine Gold (power tubes). Capacitors from the same manufacturer can be found in the anode voltage filter - four capacitors in several serially connected "Pi" filters, and one in the voltage filter. Star grounding is used, and the rectifying diodes (half-wave rectifier) are bypassed with polypropylene capacitors. The whole looks very similar to the previous versions, except that the electrolytic capacitors in the power supply and the rectifier diodes have been changed.
A classic layout, assembly, and beautiful workmanship. The amplifier does not come with a remote control.
Specification (according to manufacturer):
- Turntable: AVID HIFI Acutus SP [Custom Version]
- Cartridges: Miyajima Laboratory KANSUI, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory SHILABE, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory ZERO (mono) | Denon DL-103SA, review HERE
- Phono stage: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC, review HERE
- Compact Disc Player: Ancient Audio AIR V-edition, review HERE
- Multiformat Player: Cambridge Audio Azur 752BD
- Line Preamplifier: Polaris III [Custom Version] + AC Regenerator, regular version review (in Polish) HERE
- Power amplifier: Soulution 710
- Integrated Amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Stand mount Loudspeakers: Harbeth M40.1 Domestic, review HERE
- Stands for Harbeths: Acoustic Revive Custom Series Loudspeaker Stands
- Real-Sound Processor: SPEC RSP-101/GL
- Integrated Amplifier/Headphone amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Headphones: HIFIMAN HE-6, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-300, review HERE | Sennheiser HD800 | AKG K701, review (in Polish) HERE | Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, version 600 - reviews (in Polish): HERE, HERE, HERE
- Headphone Stands: Klutz Design CanCans (x 3), review (in Polish) HERE
- Headphone Cables: Entreq Konstantin 2010/Sennheiser HD800/HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE
- Interconnects: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, review HERE | preamplifier-power amplifier: Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo, review HERE
- Loudspeaker Cables: Tara Labs Omega Onyx, review (in Polish) HERE
- Interconnects: Acoustic Revive RCA-1.0PA | XLR-1.0PA II
- Loudspeaker Cables: Acoustic Revive SPC-PA
- Power Cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300, all system, review HERE
- Power Distributor: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu Ultimate, review HERE
- Power Line: fuse – power cable Oyaide Tunami Nigo (6m) – wall sockets 3 x Furutech FT-SWS (R)
- Power Cables: Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version, review (in Polish) HERE | Oyaide GPX-R (x 4 ), review HERE
- Power Distributor: Oyaide MTS-4e, review HERE
- Portable Player: HIFIMAN HM-801
- USB Cables: Acoustic Revive USB-1.0SP (1 m) | Acoustic Revive USB-5.0PL (5 m), review HERE
- LAN Cables: Acoustic Revive LAN-1.0 PA (kable ) | RLI-1 (filtry), review HERE
- Router: Liksys WAG320N
- NAS: Synology DS410j/8 TB
- Stolik: SolidBase IV Custom, read HERE/all system
- Anti-vibration Platforms: Acoustic Revive RAF-48H, review HERE/digital sources | Pro Audio Bono [Custom Version]/headphone amplifier/integrated amplifier, review HERE | Acoustic Revive RST-38H/loudspeakers under review/stands for loudspeakers under review
- Anti-vibration Feets: Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc/ CD Player/Ayon Polaris II Power Supply /products under review, review HERE | Finite Elemente CeraPuc/ products under review, review HERE | Audio Replas OPT-30HG-SC/PL HR Quartz, review HERE
- Anti-vibration accsories: Audio Replas CNS-7000SZ/power cable, review HERE
- Quartz Isolators: Acoustic Revive RIQ-5010/CP-4
- FM Radio: Tivoli Audio Model One