Leben CS300 integrated amplifier Page 2

From the start, the Leben CS300 distinguished itself as a punchy and realistically textured amp with an especially deep, tight bottom end. Most stereo recordings sounded pleasantly large through the Leben, with instruments and voices maintaining good physical presence. The Leben was tonally well balanced overall, and although it had the sort of warmth and humanness I associate with tube amplification in general, it was free from egregious timbral colorations.

Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, Op.34, from Analogue Productions' recent 45rpm remastering of the recording by Donald Johanos and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Vox Turnabout TV 34145S), sounded lovely through the Leben, with sweet, delicate string tone and perfectly colorful woodwinds. Internote silences were reasonably "black," though not nearly as stygian as with the best Shindo and Lamm electronics of my acquaintance. String tone, especially in the double basses, was also fine while playing through the Leben electronics a 1960 recording of Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals, with Beatrice Lillie, Skitch Henderson, and the London Symphony Orchestra (LP, Decca SXL 2218). The performance was sufficiently present that my dog expressed a keen interest in the various animal sounds therein (recorded for the occasion at the London Zoo).

The Leben didn't have all the color and physicality of the Shindo separates when playing the curiously titled "Old Danger Field," from Bill Monroe's 1981 studio album Master of Bluegrass (LP, MCA 5214), but it was on the same page: enough to make the listening experience enjoyable as more than just hi-fi, if you know what I mean. Monroe's mandolin didn't leap from the mix, and the imaginary stage was spatially a bit flat overall—but it was rather wide and tall in comparison to that of the other amps, with a convincing sense of scale. Bass impact was excellent, as was the timing of the notes played by the upright bass. In the midrange and trebles, things clucked that ought to have clucked.

The Leben was the only one of the three integrated amps under review in this issue that captured all the instrumental texture in the brilliantly recorded Mysteriensonaten of Heinrich Ignaz Biber, as performed by Affetti Musicali (CD, Winter & Winter 910 029-2)—especially the unique sound of Marianne Ronez's baroque violin. By comparison, the Quad II Classic integrated and, to a lesser extent, the Luxman SQ-38u smoothed over the textural furrows and pores of the sound. The distinction between the Leben and the others in this regard was striking.

The Leben also got across the deepest bass—and the largest sense of scale—from R.E.M.'s "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," from New Adventures in Hi-Fi (LP, Warner Bros. 9362-46320-1). The same was true when I listened to the dB's' "Happenstance" and "Living a Lie," from their sophomore album, Repercussion (LP, Albion ALLP 400032J): The Leben endowed the electric bass with exceptional richness without temporal distortion, the drums with impact, and the voices with presence and solidity.

Speaking of scale, the Leben allowed the rightly famous recording, by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (LP, RCA LSC-2446) to sound as stunningly big as it should. (Stokowski's late-in-life London Phase 4 recording of the well-loved symphonic suite is capable of sounding even bigger but isn't nearly as well played; Monteux's 1958 recording of it with the LSO is the musical equal of Reiner's, but it sounds small and distant.)

I wondered if the Leben's goodness was all in its phono preamp, but I soon discovered that line-level sources sounded every bit as rich, punchy, and nuanced through the CS300. The electric bass on "Take Me to the Pilot," from the HDtracks hi-rez download of Elton John's US debut album (UNI 73090), was downright subterranean—subterranean, I tell you!—yet all of the natural detail of the song unfolded before me, open and uncolored.

Driving the Quad ESLs, the Leben didn't exert too strong a grip on bass notes, which were a bit overblown on otherwise good-sounding pop fare. The songs on Lee Feldman's brilliant I've Forgotten Everything (CD, Urban Myth UM-114-2) were a good example, as was "öberlin," from R.E.M.'s recent Collapse Into Now (CD, Warner Bros. 525611-2). Digital recordings in general also seemed to exhibit a greater-than-usual amount of upper-midrange/lower-treble grain with the Leben-Quad pairing—an effect that was completely absent through my dynamic loudspeakers.

Forgive me for expressing my perennial whine with an added keen of surprise: How is it that such a vintage-friendly, well-thought-out product could lack a mono switch? And why should an amp with such generous bottom-octave performance need a bass-boost control? I'd hate to see the latter go, but I wonder if the cost of adding the former could be offset by whacking down the bass boost to a single (+3dB) circuit?

A quick tour through audio's alternative fora uncovers a generous amount of praise for the Leben CS300—to which I can only add my admiration: This exceptionally well-made amp and its companion phono preamp sounded wonderful in my home. They were a pleasure to look at, a pleasure to use, and delightful to hear.

Combined, the retail price of my Shindo separates is approximately $27,500. For less than a quarter of that amount, Leben CS300 integrated and RS-30EQ phono preamp provided a lot more than a quarter of their musical and sonic abilities. They didn't have all of the Shindos' color, presence, internote silence, or magical sense of flow, but the Lebens had their wheels firmly planted on the same road. Unless I wanted to designate the Quad ESLs as my retirement speakers—always a possibility, barring further accidents involving domestic animals—the Lebens would be the best $6090 retirement present I could imagine: superb products, enthusiastically recommended.

Leben Hi-Fi Stereo Company
US distributor: Tone Imports

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