Say “made in Japan” and you automatically think of massive corporate consumer electronics companies – the Sonys and Matsushitas of this world. What few realise however is that, precisely because the Japanese domestic hi-fi market is so big, there’s room to support a very healthy group of specialist manufacturers, doing very different products to your average Yamaha AV receiver…
The Leben Hi-Fi Stereo Company is precisely this. Small, massively specialist and way off on a tangent compared to almost all others, this company is as special as the likes of Ikeda or Koetsu. On the website, Taku Hyodo (founder, designer and owner) is modestly described as being, “ranked as one of the best eight tube audio design engineers in Japan”, no less! The reason for this is that he is ex-Luxman. Lux is another company with a massive reputation for audiophile greatness in Japan, and home of a nifty tube amplifier or two. His biog also notes that he’s a talented musician and previously a professional guitarist. And Leben, just in case you were wondering, means “alive” in German.
He left Luxman aged thirty, back in 1979, and started his own Kouri Denki Company, producing electronic components and parts. This lead to Hyodo-san bringing out his first commercial product in 1991, the KFH Triode 33 (using 3C33 tubes) and then the Leben RS-35a (with 6L6GCs) in 1995, then the RS-28c preamplifier (running E288CCs) in 1998. These are all cult products, so much so that there’s actually a fanclub in Japan (the Leben Audio Lovers’ Club)! Now, the company is making some more affordable designs, such as the CS-250 and CS660P power amps, CS-300 integrated and CS600 preamp.
The CS300X Limited cost £2,400 in 2007, and was a special version of the regular £1,600 CS300 – itself a 12 Watt integrated amplifier using EL84 tubes in a simple point-to-point wired, self-biasing push-pull circuit, with in-house made transformers, presented in a delightfully retro case with wooden side panels. The Limited Edition was basically a cost-no-object build of the stock amp with rare new old stock Mullard EL84s fitted.
If you’re expecting massive high end Denon-style design, forget it – 360x140x270mm the CS300 is quite small, reminding me of a Leak Stereo 70. This is not to say it is light – at 10kg it feels like a gold ingot. The build is quite exquisite – clearly hand made and not mass produced, its finish is still impeccable and the golden anodised fascia switches move with Swiss watch precision. Those chunky control knobs bespeak its Japanese roots – reminding me of ancient seventies Rotel receivers – but the rest of its switchgear is electronics parts catalogue stuff, albeit of unimpeachable quality, while the Canadian white ash wooden side panels are superb.
There are couple of unusual fitments on the fascia – a two-stage bass boost (+3dB and +5dB under 100Hz) and a headphone socket (wired direct from the output transformers). A small ‘Operation’ lamp comes on about twenty seconds after switch on, when the valves are warmed up. Round the back are high quality gold plated phono sockets for five inputs, an IEC mains input and four pairs of speaker binding posts, very nice affairs which take thin bare wire, spades and banana plugs. Then there’s a speaker impedance selector switch with four, six, or eight ohms settings.
Inside, it’s a veritable sight for sore eyes. The gold painted chassis is visible and of superb finish – reminding me of a pristine Leak TL12 – and on it sits four EL84s (NOS Mullards fitted to the CS300X) and two General Electric 5751 (which Leben describes as “a premium version of the 12AX7A, again special for the CS300X). The associated transformers all have Leben engraved on them, and the chunky internal wiring is immaculately done. Top passive components are fitted, including precision industrial grade resistors, Sanyo ‘OS Condensor’ and ELNA Silmic capacitors, 4W high power cathode resistors and Toshiba 3TH41 damping diodes. This little amp runs fairly warm, but not as hot as you might expect.
It’s hard to review the Leben using standard criteria, simply because it is so non-standard. With just 8W RMS per channel it can only drive high sensitivity loudspeakers, and the more the better. In my room I got perfectly acceptable levels from my reference Monitor Audio PL100s (quoted sensitivity 88dB), but for more oomph I moved to my pair of classic Mission 752s (91dB) in my largish listening room, where it sounded relatively unstressed. Indeed, perhaps the word ‘unfettered’ is more accurate, because when you listen to this little box it makes music bounce out of the speakers in a jaunty and carefree way. It’s an exceptionally spontaneous performer, making it sound like all the musicians in the studio really want to be there, bubbling with enthusiasm about the music when they lay down the track.
Such a joyous, upbeat sound is the defining characteristic of the CS300, but not its only standout trait. Another thing that instantly hit me when playing the acoustic jazz funk of Freez’s Caribbean Winter was its superb tonal palette. It certainly doesn’t have the icy clear tonality of something like a Sugden A21SE – it is certainly on the warm and smooth side – but neither does it make every instrument sound universally warm and smooth. As such, pianos have rich resonances, brass has rasp and cymbals have an eerie metallic sheen. This is remarkable, inasmuch as the Leben does it so well that going back to a transistor amp, or even most valve amplifiers, makes the music suddenly sound a lot more one dimensional…
A Deustche Grammophon pressing of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic) was a revelation, the strings of soloist Michel Schwalbe ringing with harmonics where normally what I hear is more like a monochrome photocopy of the same. There was tremendous space to the recording, yet it was highly immediate at the same time. If there was a criticism here, it was a slight lack of body to the cellos, which didn’t have the physical presence I’d have wished for.
Moving on to rock music confirmed this; Suede’s Animal Nitrate was tonally too lightweight for my tastes. The Leben dived into the music, giving its customary gleeful performance, investing the song with a great sense of urgency and momentum, but bass weight came there none. It’s a little warm in the upper bass, making up for its perceived lack of low frequency clout, but when you hear a really low bass note it’s simply not the Leben’s highest priority. You’re never going to get barrel-chested physicality from it.
So one has to take the Leben CS300X on its own terms. This done, you’ll find it to be an exceptional integrated amplifier that betters virtually everything at the price – its unfettered, open and musical character renders the tonality of acoustic instruments so naturally. Yet it’s never going to light up a pair of low sensitivity speakers, nor will it make relatively easy loads sound as loud as a public address system!