The Fifth Element #60 Page 3

The Leben's treble is not more extended that the ATC amplifier's—if anything, the reverse. With Media Vita, the English vocal group Stile Antico's excellent new disc of liturgical music by John Sheppard (SACD/CD, Harmonia Mundi HMU807509), the ATC allowed every bit of sibilance through, while the Leben was more diplomatic. Almost paradoxically, though, the Leben gave a subjective impression of conveying a greater amount of treble, though this is noticeably sweeter. The Leben resembled my longtime-favorite power amp, the darTZeel NHB-108, not only more than a bit in essential sound, but also in showing up to a frustrating degree the ultimate inadequacy of words to describe musical and acoustical phenomena with any worthwhile amount of "transportable" precision.

As for the Leben CS600 vs the ATC SIA2, I think many listeners will decide that one amp is a worthy contender, the other a no-brainer. But which is which will be a personal decision largely influenced by loudspeaker choices and listening-room acoustics.

ProAc Response D Two loudspeaker
ProAc's Response D Two is a stand-mounted, two-way, ported loudspeaker with a a proprietary 1" silk-dome tweeter and woofer using a proprietary 6.5" cone of glass-fiber with a copper phase plug. At 17" high by 8" wide by 10.25" deep, the cabinet is taller and narrower than usual, owing to the fact that the port is centered below its mid/woofer.

The D Two is built in mirror-imaged pairs, with the tweeters offset to the inside edges. The cabinet is claimed to be made of thin-wall birch plywood with rigid damping. The speaker is available in standard real-wood veneers of black ash, mahogany, cherry, or maple for $3500/pair—or, for extra, bird's-eye maple or ebony (my review pair). Woodwork and build quality in general are excellent. The speaker is built at ProAc's plant in Brackley, Northamptonshire, England. Black stretch-fabric grilles were provided that attach with the usual front-panel grommets, but I didn't use them. A small fillet or shelf of wood at the bottom of the front panel gives the speaker slightly more visual interest with the grilles on. The rear has a recessed connections panel with two pairs of non–EC-compliant, rhodium-plated binding posts, and a jumper for single-wiring.

ProAc states a nominal impedance of 8 ohms, a sensitivity of 88.5dB, a frequency response of 30Hz–30kHz (no range of error specified), and recommends that the speaker be used with an amplifier providing 30–150Wpc.

I've commented above on the sound of the Response D Two (as did Robert Deutsch and John Atkinson) driven by the Leben CS600. Both in Montreal and in my listening room, the Leben-ProAc pairing had a finely balanced combination of transparency and clarity that coexisted with musical weight and warmth—not an easy trick to pull off.

Switching from Harbeth's excellent P3ESR to the larger Response D Twos, it quickly became apparent that the ProAcs did not have the classic "nearfield monitor" sound, with an exaggerated upper bass. I ended up positioning the D Twos about 3' farther back from me in my listening room from where the small Harbeths had been. From that position, the tonal balance was better and the speakers did a better job of filling the room. The Response D Two's tonal balance remained consistent regardless of whether I sat or stood.

With Mirror Canon, Tor Espen Aspaas's recital disc of mostly solo works for piano by Beethoven, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (SACD/CD, 2L 49SACD), which I recommended in my December 2009 column, the predominant impression was one of great clarity. There was a satisfying sense of heft, but only when that heft was actually in the music. Hand in hand with the clarity went speed. The Response D Twos did not flatter the music by making things sound richer than they were. However, in order to prevent this virtue from turning into a vice, the source components and amplification need to be of excellent quality.

Playing Mirror Canon in Luxman's DU-50 universal player with the Leben CS600 tube amp, the left-hand chords were a bit plummy, the right-hand lines punchy. Switching over to Luxman's solid-state, 100Wpc L-505u integrated amplifier, which at $3500 is $2395 less expensive than the Leben, there was a "bigger" sound, with more of a sense of sustain in the held-down notes of the left-hand chords, and a sound that did not give up all that much in refinement. I heard the same results when I switched from Leben to Luxman with Nathaniel Rosen's recording of J.S. Bach's Solo Cello Suite 4 (CD, John Marks JMR 6/7)—a noticeably larger if not quite as refined sound, though by no means whatsoever shabby. But regardless of the amplifier, the Response D Two never gave the impression that there just wasn't enough bass.

I found similar results in experimenting with sources. I borrowed an Oppo BDP-83SE universal Blu-ray player (Kalman Rubinson wrote about it in his column in the March issue). My first impression was that it was shockingly close in sound to Luxman's far more expensive DU-50. However, extensive listening, mostly to "Red Book" CDs vs "Red Book" CDs, but also to some SACDs, showed that the Luxman had greater weight in the bass and a slightly more cohesive sound. Interestingly enough, what clarified this for me was one of my rare listen-from-another-room experiences. While I was busy in the kitchen, a friend went from playing the Salonen Gurrelieder in the Oppo to playing it in the Luxman, both through the Response D Twos: the voice of Soile Isokoski, as Tove, became noticeably more agreeable.

This is no knock to the Oppo BDP-83SE, which is an amazing player—and a bargain—at $899. As of now, it has become my default recommendation in affordable digital gear. Assuming nothing more revelatory shows up in the next few months, it should get my vote for Budget Component of the Year. However, this comparison might actually tell us a little more about the ProAcs.

With the Oppo BDP-83SE feeding the Leben CS600 driving the Harbeth P3ESRs and listening to Live at Newport 1960 (CD, Omega OCD 3025), a recording of Gerry Mulligan's pianoless big band playing at the Newport Jazz Festival, the sound was simply wonderful. I was thinking, It doesn't get much better than this.

Switching over to the ProAc Response D Twos, there was immediately a sense of greater frequency extension and detail, and a taller, wider soundstage, but also a feeling that the sound had gone to the fat farm and came back thinner through the middle. I then substituted the Luxman DU-50 for the Oppo BDP-83SE. The Luxman had even more resolution—things like babbling voices in the crowd noise were more clearly rendered. There was more weight in the bass and midrange, and the sound was smoother all around. The center image on lead sax was a little better delineated.

There was no question in my mind that I was hearing more of the music with the Luxman, and with a character I think would bear up better over the long term. The question is whether there is $4000 more worth of music.

I'm a bit reluctant to state a general proposition, but based on this particular listening session and these components, it seems that the Harbeth P3ESR is perhaps the more forgiving speaker, and the ProAc Response D Two is a more revealing or even picky speaker. I liked the ProAcs a lot more when using the $5000 Luxman DU-50 than the $899 Oppo BDP-83SE (as I liked the ProAcs more with the Leben CS600 than with the Luxman or ATC solid-state amps). For whatever that's worth, and your mileage may vary.

I end where I began. Combined with a high-quality source, Leben's CS600 integrated amplifier and ProAc's Response D Two loudspeakers are a magically synergistic combination—a marriage made in heaven. And on their own, too, each is well worth your audition.