Leema Acoustics Essentials phono preamplifier
When that observation was offered during a recent phone conversation, I wrote it down word for wordnot just because I agree with it, but because it was so remarkable: The audio-industry veteran who offered it owns a digital front end worth tens of thousands of dollars, and hasn't owned a turntable for at least a dozen years. Nevertheless, as became clear during the remainder of our conversation, he understands the dynamic that keeps vinyl at the top: a confluence of marketing psychology and genuine sonic goodness. The latter is evident to all whose listening priorities stress a colorful and tactile sound, and who realize the aptness, perhaps unique, of a physical medium in achieving a physical sound; the former is key to the choice one makes in transitioning from a market of intangibles to that of solid media a hobbyist can actually own, collect, and love.
But whether one chooses physical media or ether, and whether one buys into my or someone else's idea of involving sound, one axiom holds sway: We all like a bargainespecially younger people, many of whom reel from the one-two punch of usurious college loans and a still-less-than-snappy labor market. It is for themand for schoolteachers, laborers, pensioners, and other thoroughly normal peoplethat Leema Acoustics makes their Essentials phono preamplifier ($749).
Here are the two least-surprising things about the Welsh-made Leema Essentials phono preamp: It is built into a small (4.3" wide by 2" high by 3.9" deep) case of extruded aluminum, and it's powered by a wall wart.
The contents of wall warts, like the contents of frankfurters and international trade bills, are secrets. But the contents of the Essentials' extruded case proved more accessible, requiring the ministrations of only a T10 Torx-head ("star") screwdriver. Except for two pairs of RCA jacks and a TO-126-style voltage regulator, all mounted on the rear panel, the Essentials' component parts are mounted on a single circuit board. Perhaps the most conspicuous parts are two latching push switches, each addressed via a small opening on the rear panelone for selecting between low (moving-magnet) and high (moving-coil) gain, the other offering a selectable "rumble" filter with selections labeled FLAT and CUT, both switches supplemented with corresponding Axicom relays. The real stars of the show are complementary pairs of FZT653 (NPN) and FZT753 (PNP) surface-mount bipolar transistors.
And that's about it. The quality of the parts seemed decent enough, insofar as one can tell with a product as small as this, and the construction quality was similarly competent. As with most electronics of its size and price categories, the Leema's extruded case appears rather generic, yet both it and the fasteners used in its assembly are of slightly above-average quality. The packaging is also decent enough, and the single-sheet instructions acceptably helpful.
Installation and setup
The extremity poles of my audio-setup experience are, at one end, Linn's Majik Ethernet-based network music player and, at the other, the VPI Magic Brick. Happily, the Leema Essentials phono preamp was closer to the latter in degree of challenge. Installation was a simple matter of plugging my tonearm-output cables into the Leema's input jacks, and running an extra interconnect pair from the Leema's output jacks to a pair of line-input jacks of my Shindo Masseto preamp. I plugged the wall wart's cable into the appropriate jack on the back of the Leema, connected said wart to the AC line, et voilà: an LED on the front of the power-switch-less Leema told me all was well.
Or was it? One day, earlyish in the listening period, I set about playing a recorda stereo record, remarkablyand noticed that one channel was silent. There followed the usual cable-swapping jiggery-pokery (pace Scalia) until I was satisfied that the fault was in the star-screwed Leema. I then got in touch with Leema's US distributor, Bluebird Music, who immediately dispatched a new unit. It is on the uninterrupted performance of that second sample that my listening observations are based.
At times during my listening, I connected the Leema's input jacks to the output jacks of my Hommage T2 step-up transformer, during which I moved the gain switch on the back of the Essentials to its low-gain (MM) position; I also left the Leema in low-gain mode for use with my high-output (5.75mV!) EMT OFD 25 pickup head (see below). Otherwise, I kept the Essentials in its high-gain (MC) mode. Use of the Leema's rumble filter, which performs as advertised, never seemed necessary: My observations are based solely on the Essentials' unfiltered musical utterances.
Strange that one of the best-known titles from EMI's rightly loved ASD stereo LPsa series known for classic performances in exceptional soundfalls short on one of those two counts.
Yehudi Menuhin's 1966 recording, with Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra, of Elgar's Violin Concerto (EMI ASD 2259), itself the hotly anticipated follow-up to Menuhin's 1932 recording of the work (as a teenager! with Elgar conducting!), is hobbled by sound that is, as John Cleese would say, downright mediocre. Through even moderately good playback gear, the first thing one hears from it is a big, quacky, rosiny murk over toward the left, where orchestral violins ought to be. (Oddly, it gets better after that, as if a technician had reached for an equalization knob just a few seconds too lateand then it gets worse again, then better again, and so on.)
I don't in the least exaggerate when I say that the (relatively) inexpensive little Leema made better sense of the recording than 90% of the other phono preamps I've heard in recent years, whether freestanding components or phono stages integral to full-function preamplifiers. That the massed instruments in question were identifiable as violins is true praise enough for someyet I also heard tangled skeins of sound resolve into flutes, clarinets, a bassoon, a contrabassoon, and an oboe, all sparingly and ingeniously employed in the most Elgarian of ways. And when Menuhin's violin entered . . . well, it was deeply saturated velvet. Which is pretty much all one needs to know.
That was with my Denon 103D cartridge going straight into the Leema, the latter set for high gain. The sound and music making were remarkably goodso, of course, I did what any audiophile would do: I changed things, just to see what would happen. (But I did it here at home, not in Reno.) Specifically, I switched the Leema down to low gain, and preceded it with the Hommage T2 step-up transformer. And then . . .