I circled around the hero of this test for a long time, very long time – I mean it was almost within reach, but the environment was more or less hostile. Either a competing magazine took the demo unit, or everything was sold, or a new model was introduced and we needed to wait. So I waited, and waited… for about ten years, since I first saw this beautifully looking, old-school designed (a homage to 70 and 80-ties design), small integrated amplifier Leben CS-300. Soon it turned out, that this audio-gem from Japan, using the very popular tubes EL-84 from Sovtek, became an object of desire not only for me, but for many audiophiles all over the world.
On the outside everything looks the same, but… there are some changes in the details. To date the golden front and back plate had only one green accent on the front, a strip with the model name, and the unit had wooden plates on the sides varnished with a satin lacquer. It looks the same now, but when compared with the predecessors the “F” has some different touches. For example the power switch. In the previous version it was only a simple round button with a built in green LED, and a red LED on top of it. I am not aware, if anybody complained about its design, although many people have this unit or at least tested it. But probably Mr. Hyodo wanted to have some unification of all items on the fascia. First of all he got rid of the hexagonal screw holding the headphone socket, it was replaced with a round collar, which is almost on the level of the front panel. Secondly the main power switch got a form corresponding with the form of the switches for tape loop activation and output selector (or mode selector if you want – switching between amp/headphone amp mode). Finally the red operation LED was replaced with a blue one, which should match the color of the PCB, but which intensity drove me mad. So while I concur with 2/3 of the changes, the first thing I would do with this eye-scorching LED, if I would buy it, would be to open the cabinet and cover it with a thick layer of blue nail polish. This would drastically reduce the amount of light emitted, what would soothe my nerves.
But well, I uttered my frustration, allowed my far reaching nastiness to surface, so now we can turn our attention to the important things.
The front panel houses three small and one bigger knob. Looking from the left you have the input selector, volume controller, balance regulator and something as often encountered in audiophile gear, as a honest politician in the parliament, a three setting bass booster, which allows to increase the lower frequencies by 3 or 5 dB. The whole is amended with three rectangular switches, responsible for activating the tape loop, switching between loudspeakers and headphones, and finally switching the main power on and off.
The back plate, due to the quite small available area, half of which is taken by the ventilation holes, is very neat and ergonomic. To the left we have the fuse housing on top and a solid IEC power socket below it, then, near the bottom plate, there are single loudspeaker terminals, with an impedance selector above them. Tape loop output and a grounding terminal finish the lower level. All the RCA inputs, six pairs, were placed near the right side of the cabinet. They are quite solid, but owners of heavy interconnects with massive plugs, can have a hard time. In extreme cases I recommend to use cable supports (for example the Gregitek RG1) which relieve the load from the sockets.
Now for the top cover. In the early CS-300 it was beige-grey-gold, and frankly speaking not very attractive, so that many users removed it, to be able to look at the glowing tubes. However already in the XS version, a more daring (and very nice) pearl-berry color was used, which contrasts with the golden front and becomes a very nice design touch.
Finishing the description part, not related to the sonic capabilities, I have some thoughts of economic nature. During the last ten years, the price of the 300 did almost not change. The first units that came to Poland in 2006 had a price tag of around 10000 zlotys (2250 euro), and it stayed the same almost till today – the newest “F” version is priced at 10900 zlotys. If somebody thinks, that 9% is much, them please check first the price lists of the competitors, the Japanese ones (Air Tight) or the American (Manley). And that would be it, in terms of non-listening part of the test. So let us start with the listening.
Preparing for the test of the Leben, and knowing it has only moderate power at its disposal (15 W), I arranged to have at my disposal the equally small and beautiful bookshelf speakers Trenner & Friedl Art. As a result I had a costly, high quality 2/3 of a workroom-bedroom system (there was no sound source). Of course putting it in such category is very simplified, or maybe even unfair, but it has a hidden message in it, that you should not try to use it in a room with the size of over 20-30 square meters. Or at least the size of the Japanese integrated amp and the provided technical data suggested that. Due to that I enjoyed listening to a system, where the most expensive element were the loudspeaker cables Signal Projects Hydra. Regardless of the prices of the individual components the final sonic effect was exceptionally satisfying. The sound was engaging, it did not allow to be indifferent, and due to this not even the smallest pieces of the musical spectacle escaped. Despite the fact, that the main role was played by the space and incredible precision of localization of virtual sources, the sound remained on the sweeter and smoother side, and at the same time it was incredibly musical. In addition the momentum and scale of the sound was absolutely inadequate to the size of the amplifier and the loudspeakers. I will not hide, that the natural repertoire, the native environment, where the Leben and the Art feels like a fish in the water, is jazz and small chamber ensembles. But if someone would expect thinning or anemic lower frequencies, for example on the captivating album “Faithful” MWT (Marcin Wasilewski Trio), or on “La Tarantella – Antidotum Tarantulae” L’Arpeggiata. Well, maybe baroque music does have much to tell about bass, but the piece opening the disc “Faithful” called “An den kleinen Radioapparat” has enough bass, or even an excess of it. On the Japanese-Austrian combo it remained springy, readable and incredibly differentiated, which maybe did not massage our inner organs, but was a splendid example, how sometimes it is worth to favor quality over quantity. And if there are people, who really cannot live without booming bass, then the magic Bass Boost knob, increasing the lower octaves by 3 or 5 dB, will be a cure. Interesting enough, its function does not influence the other parts of the sound spectrum. To balance the part dedicated to bass lovers, I can mention, that for a long time I did not hear from a conventional tweeter (I am spoiled till the bone by the sound of the AMT and the diamond jewelry of the top Gauder) such illuminated, vibrating, ethereal and at the same time palpable and resolved cymbals. Adding to that the precision, with which the moment of attack was reproduced, and the blaze of timbres and nuances that followed it, allowed for long hours of forgetfulness during exploration of the owned disc library.
Not once and not twice I had the opportunity to get convinced, that theory is one thing, and real life another. That was the case when I was listening to the Leben. When I was burning-in the amplifier with the Austrian speakers, one day I had to unplug them to make a photo session. Because I do not like to work in silence, and did not want to, I connected the Leben to my Gauder loudspeakers. I figured, that for background music it will be fine. So I changed the loudspeakers and … the new configuration stayed for the rest of the test. Not that I need to be sad about that, or explain it to myself, or to the readers, in contrary. It just happened, that something, what would not be recommended by anyone, turned out to be a perfect match. The signature of the previous configuration, big sound from small speakers, evolved into something more natural, a sound adequate to the size of the loudspeakers, not looking at the small size of the amplifier itself. The disc “Love Over Gold” Dire Straits that was spinning on the two-motor Transrotor ZET3 just pushed me in the listening chair and the photo session needed to be rescheduled. Seemingly simple and lush sounds enchanted with multiple layers of the sound, attracted attention to the individual instruments and the guitar sounding at the end of the fourth minute surprised with aggressiveness, foreshadowing the short, but energetic drums entrance. And this all with only 15 W! Now, when it sounded nice with disobliging rock, I decided to raise the threshold and took “Now What?!” Deep Purple. That what came out of the speakers surpassed my wildest imagination. Energetic, boiling with adrenaline and juicy sound was splendid, delightful, regardless of the price level we are on. This was a clear example, that sometimes you can find a real pearl, or diamond, on a price level we would not expect it. Of course there is no rose without thorns. The lower frequencies, gaining a few Hz in the frequency spectrum reproduced by the Gauder lost some of the discipline they had with the bookshelves, but still compared to what was offered by the earlier incarnations of the 300, this can only be described as a huge progress. Of course I know, that for some readers even the slightest rounding will be a departure from the ideal, the dreamed master, but let us be frank – this is the cheapest amplifier opening the catalog offered by this Japanese manufacturer, and if somebody wants to reach the sky, I recommend to explore the higher models.
On well mastered electronic repertoire, like the “Exile” Hurts, or even “Reise, Reise” Rammstein, the scale of the sound did not become controversial in any way. A wide soundstage, reaching far beyond the boundaries of the loudspeaker setup, was also very deep, losing nothing from its stability and resolution. The further planes enchanted with selectiveness, and as long as the engineer of a given recording did not cover them with a cloth of impressionistic veil, there were absolutely no problems in following the individual instruments. Especially charming were the German ballads “Ohne Dich” and “Amour”, where beside the German edginess a lyrical, tube “shell” appeared, and a slightly boosted “company” midrange. But I am not talking about the stereotypical favoring of the midrange against both ends of the spectrum, typically associated with the EL84/EL34 tubes, but about a precise increase of saturation and color temperature, while keeping full balance and a resolved, incredibly vividly illuminated treble and a slightly rounded, yet keeping up with even the most neck breaking bass passages. All those characteristics show clearly the supremacy of the CS-300F over its predecessors, which theoretically fared acceptably well, but the more brute became the sound, or when the instrumentation became more complicated, the better the borders of their capabilities became audible. There are no such issues with the tested version. Regardless of the volume level set and chosen repertoire, the sound remained coherent and homogenous. One more thing – the Leben offers full resolution already at very low volume levels. This should be very good news for those of you, who like late evening – night listening sessions, and to date were forced to used headphones, or have to endure the painful compromise of losing lots of information by amplifiers designed to shout and not to whisper. Now as we came to the conclusion, I need to mention another fact. To date, buying the 300 we had to take into account, that the amplifier is not noiseless, and this will be audible. Because usually, there was a mains noise present, absolutely negligible while playing music, but in silent moments it was there. This time, there was absolute silence. I do not know, what modifications were introduced by the Mr. Taku Hyodo, but the effect was indisputably positive.
My first audiophile associations, which I had during listening to this charming integrated, were constructions similarly compact to the Leben, the Air Tight ATM-1s and … Kondo Souga. You must confess, that this company is absolutely ennobling, and that all the mentioned amplifiers are from Japan, well … I would not call this a coincidence, but rather a proof, that certain aspects of the environment, philosophy of living, you grow in, can be found in what you do later. In Japan, there is a micro-climate to make unique, beautiful things, that make the music coming out from the loudspeakers become above average passionate, as you can see from the example above, and the synergy between the design, advanced, well thought through construction and incredible musicality becomes a trademark. Returning to my initial chase for the Leben – the current version CS-300F is not only a fulfillment of all hopes I had in this amplifier, but becomes a trophy, which is an ornament of the listening room, and maybe not a reason to be proud, as it sounds too triumphant, but a reason to be in a good mood for a long, long time. It is only a pity, that I had to pack the 300 and pass it on (fortunately not far, because now Jacek took it). But in time, in due time…
Distributor: Eter Audio / Leben.pl
Price: 10 900 PLN
Valves: JAN-6197 (GE) X 4; 17EW8(Hi-Fi) x 2
Output Power: 2 x 15 W
Frequency Response: 15 Hz – 100 kHz (-2 dB)
Distortion: 0,7 % (10 W)
Input Sensitivity: 600 mV
Input Impedance: 100KΩ
Output Impedance: kolumny: 4/6/8 Ω (Selectable)
Output Impedance (Headphone): 300 Ω
Power Consumption: 82 W
Dimensions: 360 x 270 x 140 mm
Weight: 10,5 kg
System used in this test:
- CD/DAC: Ayon 1sc
- Digital source selector: Audio Authority 1177
- Network Music Player: Olive O2M; notebook Dell Inspiron 1764 + JRiver Media Center
- Turntable: Double synchronous motor Transrotor ZET 3 + 12"SME + Transrotor MC Merlo Reference + external power supply Transrotor Konstant M-1 Reference
- Phonostage: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC
- Integrated Amplifier: Electrocompaniet ECI 5; Accuphase E600
- Speakers: Gauder Akustik Arcona 80 + spike extenders; Trenner&Friedl ART
- IC RCA: Antipodes Audio Katipo
- IC XLR: LessLoss Anchorwave; Organic Audio
- Digital IC: Fadel art DigiLitz; Harmonic Technology Cyberlink Copper; Apogee Wyde Eye; Monster Cable Interlink LightSpeed 200
- USB Cable: Wireworld Starlight; Goldenote Firenze Silver
- Speaker Cables: Organic Audio; Signal Projects Hydra
- Power Cables: Furutech FP-3TS762 / FI-28R / FI-E38R; Organic Audio Power
- Power distribution board: GigaWatt PF-2 + Furutech FP-3TS762 / FI-28R / FI-E38R
- Table: Rogoz Audio 4SM3
- Ethernet cables: Neyton CAT7+
- Accessories: Sevenrods Dust-caps; Furutech CF-080 Damping Ring; HighEndNovum PMR Premium; Albat Revolution Loudspeaker Chips; Acoustic Revive RAF-48H; Audio Philar Double Model
Probably everybody knows, how important is the external looks in the marketing process, so every manufacturer of audio gear tries to surprise the targeted client with something. Some try to use design, others use sound, again others use both items at the same time, but only few succeed. Everybody has different masters of beauty and perception of the quality of music, but some standards are undisputed. Of course there will be some orthodox listeners, who will place the sound above the looks and manufacturing quality of the device generating that sound, accepting even “garage” like products, but most people at least try to have the newly bought device not scaring their wives. Theoretically I am also more for the sound, but fortunately on the price and quality level represented by my system, the design quality is rarely far away from the sound quality. Despite having a quite nicely looking system, I can endure much in terms of looks, when pursuing my dream sound and if I would have enough free cash I would probably test my endurance with a set from the Japanese company Audio Tekne, which I heard during the last Audio Show. Citing a title from a thriller – it was the “Nightmare from Elm Street” when judged by the visuals, but the musical spectacle it created allowed to look past that. If you are interested in what I am trying to describe here, please look at my report from the Warsaw Audio Show – part 4.
(Un)fortunately my financial plan is set for the coming five years, and during the negotiations with my wife, I could not put the bullet point “Audio Tekne” on the spending list, not even on the reserve one. So I will have to stay with what I have, but I will not regret that for even a split second. Putting aside my thinking of what I do have and what I might have, I will let you know, what is my dream for a long time.
Every, or almost every, listener, testing some audio components, found his Holy Grail in terms of external design, which would find a nice home on our audio rack, even if not sounding too good. Such love at first sight is being put for later, and time passes. I have such an effect myself, but I know also, that when some conditions were met (the right loudspeakers were used) it also enchanted me with its sonics. This product of human imagination is a colorful one (wooden side panels, golden front with green motives, purple on top, in the latest version, bearing also a blue LED, just to kill me completely), but it went so easily under my skin, that I cannot find anything in it, that would discredit it in my sense of esthetics. Probably most of you, the readers, know already what is bugging me (in the positive sense of the word), so I proudly announce that now I will be testing exactly this device, the integrated amplifier Leben CS-300 in the newest version F (with unusual, rarely used tubes) distributed in Poland by Eter Audio from Krakow.
I thought for a long time, how to start the description of the external design. I had the same stress as when approaching an imagined woman, not knowing how to talk to her, to not to scare her off. But finally I have the word, that describes my soul state when being in the same room with it, namely “candy”. Yes, this amplifier reminds me of candies, maybe a bit too sweet for some people, but for me this is a true ideal. I do not know when I buy it, even if not for the main system, then to use it as a headphone amplifier, because this old-fashioned Japanese amplifier, has one built in, and most importantly – I will check it myself – it seems to be very good, I heard. Like I mentioned earlier, this colorful volcano, ideally fits into my esthetics. And it looks exactly like this: patinated gold on the front and back (yes, yes, they did not save on such small things, that are so important for many people), wooden side panels, bottom and top covers in purple color with lots of ventilation holes, to allow for gravitational cooling, finished on the front and back with black molders, and silver, large diameter feet supporting the whole. But the Japanese would not be the Japanese, if they would not heat the whole up. How? Duly reporting: the main part of this tube integrated – the fascia – received four (the volume one being a bit bigger) massive knobs, in a slightly different shade of gold, what makes them nicely stand out. Besides the mentioned volume, they control input selection, balance and bass boost by 3 or 5 dB. Consistently mixing colors we have also three black switches, one selecting between headphones or loudspeakers, the second activating the tape loop, while the third is the power switch. There is also a blue LED (oh boy!), a headphone socket and the most interested thing, in my opinion, are the two green strips with the company name and the model, located on the top and the bottom of the front. This is how the fascia looks. The back is much less colorful (it is just golden) and houses exclusive loudspeaker terminals, an IEC socket, a grounding screw, a loudspeaker impedance selector (4, 6, 8), a row of line inputs, one recording output and a fuse housing. All those elements are of high quality. Now I think it is enough bragging about those extravagant external design items, so I come down to earth and will try to show you, what the constructor from Japan proposed in the most important realm – the sound.
Like I mentioned before, one of the previous incarnations of the CS-300 surprised me nicely some time ago. This was not an ideal marriage with the loudspeakers I had that time, but it was so positive, that I have much esteem for this model of Leben, especially in terms size vs capabilities. This test would even be more difficult, because now it will need to prove itself on a much higher level, but I had a lot of confidence in it, and I was quite sure, it will not squander it. After becoming acquainted with the technical data, I knew that it will not be a giant in terms of amount and control of the bass, so for the beginning I prepared material lighter on the lower frequencies, but very demanding in terms of midrange and treble, the disc “Lontano” Tomasz Stanko. I am very sensitive to the quality of the reproduced cymbals in jazz ensembles, I listen to it often, and as often I can hear the resolution limits of the tested gear. In addition this disc allows to assess the way the soundstage is reproduced. The ECM label, who mastered this disc, always went great lengths in terms of quality of the recording and the way the stage is setup between the speakers. Theoretically the most important aspect of a recording is the emotional content, but for an audiophile equally important (and sometimes most important – but then it becomes unjust to the music) is the work done by the sound engineer. Those two elements add to another – music and recording quality – making the listener willing to leave a substantial sum in the audio salon for a device, that brings him or her closer to a live even, even knowing, that this is an utopian dream. I did that, and I do not regret the money spent, as life is too short for half-measures, and we should enjoy it as much as we can. Returning to the Tomasz Stanko disc, recorded together with the Marcin Wasilewski Trio, I can say, that it was played back very well, and the cymbals were proper too.
A brush of the cymbals coming out of the silence, combined with the matte sound of the trumpet of the frontman, set off against the rest of the instruments, allows to drown completely in the phrases, long as a rainy day, according to some people. And all this without any “slowdown”, what allows to give only positive notes to the tested Japanese amplifier. Every artist stood in the place reserved while listening to the reference system (Reimyo), and none of them was covered by his neighbor. Each instrument was readable and became an element of the whole event as planned by the sound engineer, and when, as often in jazz, the moment came for a solo performance, every, even the smallest, element associated with a given instrument was heard. Regardless if it was the sound of the air leaving the trumpet, the vividness, or dullness if needed, of the piano, airiness and resolution of the cymbals, or a vibrating string of the contrabass, everything was cut to shape with one, small, but fully understandable minus. I am talking about the lowest frequencies, which were not able to reach hellish depths with full control of their contours, as this was not possible with the low power of the tested amplifier and my loudspeakers. This was for sure no setback, because bass was still absolutely a fully fledged part of the sound. So if someone will draw conclusions about the shortcoming of this small amplifier, based only on this, quite random, encounter, then this person for sure does not know, what this game is about. We can experiment, or even should, but the conclusions drawn should be adequate, and we should take into account what we are listening to. To have this Asian integrated (coming from a country regarded as origin of audiophilism) show its full potential, we have to connect it to appropriately chosen loudspeakers. And after this confrontation, I think it can be quite easy to do. I regard my adventure with the small Japanese as positive, because I have many experiences with more powerful devices, and I yielded lesser results. Bravo! But when I described the externals, I mentioned a bass boost knob. I know, that a genuine audiophile despises such tricks – me theoretically too – but when we have something like that installed, we can try how it works. Such negation of “improvers” is an audiophile law, but not written in stone, so I think no harm will be done. Nobody forces you to do anything, you can even deny using it, when caught listening, but if you will be surprised, even a bit – like I was, then you will realize, how many discs you have in your library, vinyl and CDs, that really benefit from this move. Try it, and you will learn I am right. Now I can confess – I used this knob a dozen times, and I am much closer to thanking the constructor, than to telling him, that he implemented an useless feature. Such are often perceived as harmful. Of course you should not assume, that such artificial addition will be equal to using a more powerful amplifier. This move will add us lower octaves, but at the same time they would lose some sharpness. The sound will get more color, going a bit in the direction of playing with sound blurs, but at least in my case it did not turn into a pulp. Sometimes it is better to lose some sharpness for extra homogeneity, adding to the better assimilation of the material. Sometimes absolute orthodoxy brings more harm than good, and slight loosening of the principles may be beneficial. In my opinion there is nothing to think about. With the Leben CS-300F you have the chance to verify, how far you can depart from the truths you were proclaiming, and how this will influence you further perception. The rest of the test with the Japanese amplifier went down in a similar way. Without bigger departures from my expectations. I will just add, that listening with the controls set to “zero” is absolutely sufficient, and the tests with the boost knob were done only due to my duty – but I do regret that. Of course, like a typical tube amplifier, the timbre, smoothness and sweetness of the sound were typical for a representative of this breed, however the openness and vividness of the sound was still there, I am mentioning that because it is not always the case, so I found it worth mentioning.
Finally, despite the fact, that I am not a headphone guy, I decided to try, what the CS-300F integrated offers compared to a stationary, small headphone amplifier from Pro-Ject I own. The Austrian-Czech amplifier is an inexpensive, but interesting unit, while in the Leben this is an addition increasing functionality. Anyway, the fame of this integrated being a very good headphone amplifier is following it wherever it goes, so I needed to take it on and try for myself. I dusted long not used Sennheiser HD600, put it on my head and started the, not fully legitimate (due to me being a casual headphone listener) test, trying to bust the myth. I did not search for a disc that would become a hurdle for it, I just wanted to taste the sound nirvana. So I chose a well recorded disc, with jazz arrangements of Monteverdi performed by Michel Godard. This disc, recorded in one take in an old monastery always shows, where is the place of gear, that does not handle the sound well enough. Now it was the demise for my small Pro-Ject, which was good enough for me in the beginning of my game with audio. Now my standards are much higher, and the poor thing had nothing to say compared to such renowned competition. The HD600 are very resolving and the timbre together with the impeccable resolution of the Leben just “killed” the amplifier from the south of Europe. Of course there is no shame for the Austrian-Czech device, as it is hi-fi from the 500 zlotys level and was purchased as a sporadic alternative for the loudspeaker based system, when night quietness is required. Now I have no problems with that, I often wait for the night to come, as the background noise gets quieter, and the headphone system is unused. Due to the low usage frequency of headphones I will not give you a full analysis, but the positive experience only increased my desire for the tested 300.
Finishing the description of the performance of the Leben CS-300F, I will remind you about the most important aspects, that are in favor of this device. Extraordinary external design (maybe not everybody will like it – I fell in love with it), functionality – theoretically no one needs them, but in practice the knobs are useful, a very good headphone amplifier and overall good performance with less than easy loudspeakers. This was my second look at the device, and again, I am enchanted with it, deploring because it is not on the purchase list, which I agreed with my wife. A little effort, and I repeat, a little, when choosing loudspeakers, and it will repay you with years of high music quality and give you a bonus of extraordinary looks. I encourage you to try this device in your system, and I will not be surprised, if it will not return to the distributor, proudly exhibited on the rack of its buyer. I can only describe the time spent together with the Japanese amplifier quoting a child: “I want it”.
The system used in the test, a complete set of Combak Corporation.
- Separate DAC + CD player: CDT - 777 + DAP - 999 EX
- Tube preamp: CAT - 777 MK II
- Solid state power amp: KAP - 777
Speakers: Bravo Consequence +
Power cables: Harmonix X-DC-350M2R Improved Version
Speaker Cables: Harmonix HS 101-EXQ (mid-high section); Harmonix HS-101 SLC (bass section)
IC RCA Harmonix HS 101-GP
Digital IC: Harmonix HS 102
Table: Rogoz Audio
Accessories: Antivibration stand for the power amp by Harmonix TU-505EX MK2; Harmonix Enacom improved for AC 100-240V; Harmonix Tuning Room Mini Disk RFA-80i; Acoustic Revive RST-38H; Audio Philar Double Model
drive: Dr. Feickert Analogue "Twin"
arm: SME V
cartridge: Dynavector XX-2 MK II; London AEC C91E “POD”
- Phonostage: RCM „THERIAA”
Headphones: Sennheiser HD 600
Head-amp: Pro Ject Head Box