Prior to starting Leema, Lee Taylor was the recipient of BAFTA and Palme d’Or awards for his work in recording and mixing for television, music and film, while Mallory Nichols had previously been involved in the manufacturing of MAGTRAX monitors for recording studios and mastering companies from the early nineties. It was no surprise then, that the two men launched their new company with a loudspeaker. A decade and a half ago, the first Leema Xen mini-monitor cost £1,000, and quickly marked itself out as a class act.
There was definitely a touch of the BBC sound to it, yet it was clearly not just another LS3/5a soundalike. In engineering terms it was bang-up-to-date, using hybrid steel and wood cabinet with metal front baffle, plus high quality modern drive units. The first Xen proved smooth and detailed, yet surprisingly feisty and fun in a way that – at the risk of offending the devotees – BBC mini-monitors traditionally are not. Roll on ten years and the Xen 2 arrived in 2015; it is very closely based on the old model and retains its dinky demeanour. There have been plenty of improvements however, and what we have is a modern looking product into which a lot of thought has obviously gone.
The Xen 2 retains its A5-sized baffle and five litre cabinet capacity, from which the company claims a wide frequency response of 57Hz to 25kHz, surprising for such a small (140x220x202mm) box. What is less of a revelation is the claimed sensitivity, which is 85dB is average for speaker of this size. In fairness, no small speaker can get away with a low powered amplifier, so a reasonably muscular 60W RMS per channel minimum is needed to really start cooking on gas. The cabinet is folded and welded 1.5mm-thick steel, lined with a bitumastic layer, with wool inside the cavity for further damping. The crossover board attached to the terminals directly; it uses Bennic parts and air core inductors where possible, to avoid saturation and compression in the crossover. A 12mm thick steel bar runs across the centre to prevent flex, and the front panel is machined from rigid MDF. There’s a choice of wood veneer or conventional black paint finishes. It feels sturdy and well damped.
A fancy cabinet would go to waste however, if the drive units weren’t up to the job. Whereas the first Xen used a SEAS mid/bass unit, this new one gets a custom-designed 100mm affair specified by Leema. It has been specially designed to,”give a little just at the right frequency”, the company says – so it counters the tendency for small bass/mid drivers to peak across the midrange. It is loaded by two 260mm reflex ports which extend into the cabinet then fold down behind the bass driver; two have been chosen to keep the speed of the air moving through them slower than the speed of sound, which is said to reduce compression port effects. Based on a now-discontinued VIFA design, the new 25mm tweeter is a soft-dome unit with a neodymium magnet and Ferro-fluid-loaded coil, which helps damp resonance and aid cooling.
The Xen 2 gives much of the detail and accuracy of BBC-type monitor speakers, yet has a more full bodied sound and less cerebral nature. It does need a decently powerful amplifier driving it; for the review the 110W Exposure 3010S2-d did the honours admirably. Listening kicked off with Wooden Ships, by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. This is a great late sixties rock song, that’s tonally rich and rhythmically subtle and laid back; it’s not something you’d normally expect a small speaker to handle particularly well. Nevertheless I was surprised by the Leema’s beautiful treatment of this classic tune. It set up a large and spacious recorded acoustic, with instruments accurately located within. It performed that trick that great small speakers do, of dissolving into the room.
In the bass it sounded surprisingly extended, serving up a lovely fat bass guitar that makes this song so special. Feed the Leema a more tortuous piece of music – such as 808 State’s Ancodia – and you’re more aware of its limitations. This is slice of classic early nineties techno, complete with heavy set bass synthesiser, and can bog down some small speakers. The Xen coped admirably, proving remarkably deft even at highish volumes, but still it was clear it was working hard, compressing at very high levels. It’s only mortal, so I wouldn’t expect anything else from a compact two-way.
Boz Scaggs’ Lido Shuffle showed how the Xen 2 gets into the groove with the best of them, bouncing along in a wonderfully supple and carefree way. This is when you really begin to appreciate just how much fun music can be – there’s little like a small speaker with excellent drive units and a stiff cabinet to get the foot tapping. Yet unlike some rivals it doesn’t sound fast due to a peaky treble or midrange forwardness; the Leema has a fine and smooth tonal balance that doesn’t accent any particular part of the frequency spectrum. Instead, it captures attack transients – such as the song’s wonderfully taut snare drum – with great speed.
This speaker offers a wonderful combination of all the good things about properly engineered small speakers (pace, detail, accuracy) without really giving too much ground on the downsides (bass extension, dynamic compression). As a result, it’s a very accessible sounding design that is far less of a ‘marmite’ product than many of its rivals.