Leema Acoustics Essentials phono preamplifier Page 2

The orchestra got bigger—crazy bigger—and the swooping of the woodwinds became more physical, as did the accents in the double basses. But the music making, the playing of notes and beats, the conveyance of intellect and emotion, was essentially the same. I heard, in the same, single moment, why someone would pay $5000 for the Hommage and why most anyone else would be happy just paying their $749 for the Leema.

But one little thing from that last listen got stuck in my mind, so I picked up the needle and started the record again. But this time, before I did, I hustled over to the backs of my Altec Valencia speakers and switched their cables, black for red and red for black. And there it was: Center fill became more center-full, and everything in the recording that should have had a sense of touch—plucked strings, for example—had even more of a sense of touch. I couldn't help wondering if the output-signal polarity for the Leema's low-gain setting is inverted with respect to the output-signal polarity for its high-gain setting; I anxiously await the results of John Atkinson's measurements.

With the Hommage still upstream, I proceeded to that other masterpiece of the Space Age: Lick My Decals Off, Baby, by Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band (Straight/Reprise RS 6420). For ages I've been torn between The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot as my favorite Beefheart albums. But now, playing Decals on my Thorens TD 124 with my Denon cartridge mounted in the brand-new Abis SA-1.2 tonearm (Follow-Up to come) and feeding the Leema Essentials, I realized anew not only the album's boundless creativity—it's the sole Beefheart record in which the dissonance and angularity of Trout Mask Replica are nudged just one degree closer to the mainstream and no further—but also the startlingly good quality of the recording. Through the Leema, the wildly-ahead-of-its-time electric-bass playing of Mark Boston (aka Rockette Morton), in particular, leaped from the groove, with equal parts whip-impact and good timbral color. Awesome!

Those qualities were especially evident in "Peon" and "One Red Rose That I Mean": instrumentals that lean more toward the episodic than the straight-ahead boogie of "The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or the Big Dig)" and "I Love You, You Big Dummy." For their part, the latter songs were served well by the Essentials' essentially good sense of musical timing and momentum. I can't recall a single record rendered boring by this unswervingly direct little box. Also awesome! The Leema had me suffering from awesomnia!

The Leema's appeal wasn't limited to music of size: It did a lovely job with the simple harp-and-voice arrangement of "Esme," from Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me (Drag City DC390): a lyrically complex yet rhythmically straightforward song that unwinds like a spring, with Newsom's singing gaining in focus and strength as the song progresses. Through the Leema, her voice had fine spatial focus, too, sounding present and substantial—not wispy at all. Believable spatial cues were also uncovered from the sound of Newsom's Lyon & Healy harp—especially toward the end of the song, when note decays gave a good sense of the size of the recording space. My only complaint: Through the Leema, that harp didn't have nearly the substance, scale, or purr that I hear through the phono stage of my Shindo Masseto preamp, or through a recently borrowed Shindo Aurieges standalone phono preamp (actually labeled, with typical Japanese charm, an Equalizer Amplifier).

A few words about mono (though I was tempted to write just one): In low-gain mode, the Leema let EMT's OFD 25 and OFD 15 single-channel pickup heads sound very good indeed: colorful, impactful, downright lusty. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's Bird and Diz (Verve/Clef MGV-8006)—a record whose sound varies wildly depending on the pressing—had great drive; ditto my favorite mono Bill Monroe albums, which added to the mix a fine, convincing clatter of banjos and mandos. Interestingly, unlike with either of the Shindo phono sections at my disposal, the Leema was less happy being preceded by both an Hommage T2 transformer and a high-output, single-channel EMT pickup: a crazy-on-paper pairing that, for some unfathomable reason, works brilliantly with a tubed phono stage of high headroom. Reverting to the Leema's high-gain setting, I also tried my Miyajima Premium BE Mono II cartridge, and was reminded at once that the Leema is less a happy lens than a teller of truths: The Miyajima sounded its usual good, tight, very pleasantly substantial self—but, through the Leema even more than through the Shindos, the Miyajima sounded like a skillful but cautious and law-abiding motorist, as compared with the EMT OFD 25's Alfa Romeo 4C navigating the Amalfi coast at sunset.

Shortcomings? Especially when pushed hard, the Leema was a little grainy rather than naturally, wetly smooth. (Then don't push it hard is not the cure I have in mind.) The horns in the climaxes of that Elgar Violin Concerto got on the Leema's bad side and sounded just a little coarser than through my combo of Hommage T2 and Shindo Masseto phono section, and the same was true of Nancy Wilson's voice on Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley (Capitol SM-1657). And, again, with music of virtually every sort, the Essentials didn't have the scale or texture or really deeply saturated colors of Shindo's Aurieges Equalizer Amplifier—which costs about nine times as much as the little box from Wales, making the comparison unfair, if fun. Not unlike fishing.

[The sound of snapping fingers, barely perceived. A slap on the face, followed by a second, harder slap—very much perceived. A shrill voice:]

"Mr. Dudley? Mr. Dudley? Wake up. You've been dreaming. There is no such thing as a schoolteacher or a pensioner who can afford $749 for a phono preamp. They can scarcely afford the $400 or so they'll have to spend on a decent entry-level turntable, tonearm, and cartridge combination. What in God's name were you thinking?"

I guess you're right: That sort of thinking is limited to obsessives such as I. But if we are privileged aesthetes, what do we call the people who spend $2000, or $8000, or $40,000 on a phono preamplifier—other than, perhaps, very privileged aesthetes? I remain comfortable thinking of $749 as relatively affordable.

In conversations in which perfectionist audio requires defending, one of my favorite games is to compare the prices of various consumer goods of the early 1970s to those of today—and then to show, by contrast, the extent to which entry-level perfectionist goods can offer quite reasonable value. For example, in the early 1970s, a brand-new Porsche 914 sold for $3600, the average home for less than $25,000, and a pair of EPI 100 loudspeakers for $200. By contrast, today's cheapest Porsche costs a little over $52,000 and the average house sells for just under $200,000—and most consumers balk at spending more than a few hundred dollars on a complete playback system. (And mainstream "technology" writers advise shoppers against spending $400 on a high-resolution music player because low-resolution players are "good enough.") It's a fun game, and a useful rhetorical device with a high WTF factor.

The problem is, when it comes to phono preamplifiers, there's no basis for comparison. The product category didn't even exist until the mid-1980s, which was when most manufacturers realized they could slack off and sell line-only preamps and integrated amps for line-plus-phono prices: a pretty good scheme, I admit. The problem: To which historical appliance does the audio consumer of 2015 compare an $749 phono section? To a fragment of a receiver or integrated amp that, in 1971, sold for maybe $200? Beats me.

Regarding perceived value and perceived performance, we are left to deal with absolutes. It is with those absolutes in mind that I write this: Although it's a leap to say that I see $749 inside that little black box, I hear that and more in the sound of Leema Acoustics' Essentials phono preamplifier. Recommended.

Leema Acoustics Ltd.
US distributor: Bluebird Music Ltd.
271 Woodward Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14217
(416) 638-8207

fetuso's picture

Mr. Dudley, I get your point about the relativity involved in the price of goods. One thing to remember, however, is that in the 1970's ' there were no monthly expenses on cable/internet, cell phones, streaming services, and numerous other expenses with associated with the "good life." I'm 42, make a six figure income, and I have a mortgage and a young family. No way on God's Green Earth am I spending $749 on a phone preamp. I just bought an $800 integrated and I thought that was plenty.

hifiman1978's picture

Totally agree agree with you. The prices are completely over the top when it comes to this hobby. And then you hear everyone talk about how to engage the younger generation in this hobby. Well they can start by making things affordable first. But I have to add the asking price of $749 is nothing compared to what we usuall see in Hifi magazines. These inflated prices are mainly due to the few people who are willing to pay 10x more for a phono stage. Take leema acoustics top of the line phono stage Agena that costs roughly $5500. How can anyone in their serious mind think of upgrading from a $750 phono to a $5500?. Hence there is no upgrade paths it's just buy what you can afford. Due to the resurgence of Vinyl these companies are just trying to take advantage. The resurgence in Vinyl is mainly because of the 30's something who mainly are in the hobby for its novelty factor. Believe me these people are listening to vinyl on project or rega turntables costing no more than $300-$400 I can't see them buying a leema phono stage. Message to these companies if you want to engage with a younger audience you need to set realistic pricing. Otherwise this fledgling market is going to collapse.

ChrisS's picture

Starting on p.75, there are 5 pages of recommended phono stages... At the end of this list there's the NAD PP4 for $199 and the Bozak Madisson CLK-PH2 for $19.95!!

Go hang out at a record shop to see who's actually buying vinyl.

Also read Michael Fremer's column and website http://www.analogplanet.com/home

You'll have a much better understanding of what's happening with vinyl.

hifiman1978's picture

Just visited the analog planet website. And the first article has Michael Fremer review on a $1600 phone stage that he describes as "Moderately priced".

ChrisS's picture

It's a matter of perspective...

Click on "Reviews" and "Phono Preamps" and you'll find reviews like this http://www.analogplanet.com/content/four-phono-preamps-reviewed#xf6LCSVl7OvPZG0t.97

There's a phono preamp for every budget level.

Do your research.

fetuso's picture

I would like to clarify that I wasn't suggesting that this particular item, or any of the items you mentioned, aren't worth the asking price. My point was that I don't think college students are buying $750 phono amps. They're buying Schiit phonos for $150. Or they're buying the U-Turn Pluto for $89. Stuff like that.

volvic's picture

You say that now but in a few years you may look to upgrade.

fetuso's picture

I'm sure you're right. This hobby is as much about the equipment as it is the music, if not more. I love reading about the gear, and of course I'd like to buy some of it.

volvic's picture

I swore after I sold my Linn and got my VPI and SME IV combo that I was done, yet here I am with a TD-124 now without a tonearm yet (can't decide) and I am already thinking of a third turntable in a few years time. Yes just as much about the gear as the music. It's fun though.

Johnny2Bad's picture

" ... The product category didn't even exist until the mid-1980s ..."

Maybe for some, but I remember owning or auditioning in my home Phono Preamps during the late 1970's, probably '78~79. I remember I had a PS Audio Phono Pre and a battery-powered unit built by Peter Moncrief, both which were available at the local HiFi Store for a few hundred bucks.