Leema Pulse/Stream £1095
19th Apr 2008 | 13:21
Leema's new affordable CD player and amp are the stuff of legend
To accompany its latest CD player, the Stream, Leema has built a more affordable version of its Tucana integrated amplifier.
Called 'Pulse', it produces 80 watts, rather than the 150 offered by the Tucana, but the build comparison is to the same standard (albeit, without the fancy logo perforations on the top or the heat sinking down the flanks).
There are also blue lights that indicate coarse and fine volume; those under the knob representing small increments and those around it, large ones.
A plethora of features
Features are also pretty comprehensive with a phono stage that accepts moving coil and MM cartridges separately, a tape loop and preamp out. Next to these are more contemporary facilities, like a minijack for your MP3 player and another for headphones.
Those who need to integrate both stereo and home cinema set ups, will be pleased to see the AV direct sockets that allow the power amp section of the Pulse to be driven with an external multichannel processor.
This means that the stereo speakers can be integrated into a surround system without compromising two channel performance.
The Stream is an unusually clean-looking CD player, thanks to the compact size of the display and the fact that there is only one knob and one power button.
Leema calls this knob L-Drive, with the distinct possibility that 'L' stands for learner, because that's what you are until you can work out how to use it!
A challenging CD player
We thought that the Cairn players were a little challenging to operate, but the Stream takes things further. Opening the drawer requires a three second push, while getting it to play only requires one.
The tendency for the novice, however, is to press it again, once the drawer closes and this instigates 'pause'. The two-digit display doesn't help either, because it has to resort to abbreviations to tell you what it's doing - it's no BMW!
Inside the box, Stream follows the theme established by the Antila, with multiple DACs. This time there are eight, rather than ten pairs, but this is still more than the majority of players.
These are top notch 24-bit/192kHz delta-sigma devices, whose output is fully balanced thanks to the differential arrangement that having two or more pairs per channel allows.
The actual output on the player is only single ended - one way in which Leema could reduce costs without too much compromise. It also makes sense in the context of like-priced amplifiers, which rarely have balanced inputs.
The other differences to the Antila include conventional casework. The front is billet aluminium, but the rest is steel rather than stainless aluminium. The L-Drive is also a
cost saver because it removes the need for numerous buttons and LEDs.
What Leema has seemingly succeeded in doing is retaining the key elements of the Antila, while reducing the cost of the surrounding architecture.
Both Stream and Pulse are equipped with LIPS (Leema Intelligent Protocol System), which allows components to talk to one another and significantly increases ease of use.
The CD players are able to act as a master through LIPS, which means that the amp can be out of site and you can command it completely through the player, the display showing input selection and volume level.
Another neat feature is the way the amp always drops the volume to a low preset level with an input change, so that there's no danger of damaging loudspeakers when switching between sources.
In order to get an idea of their individual characteristics, we tried these two components on their own prior to combining them. First up was the Stream, which we played through a Classé pre/power combo and Bowers & Wilkins 802D loudspeakers.
Far from suffering from the exposure that this set up undoubtedly offers, the Stream seems to revel in the resolution, delivering one of the most toe- tapping results we've encountered in a CD player for quite a while.
It gets straight into the groove in such a convincing manner that you wonder if it's cheating by leaving something out. Although, to be honest, we couldn't find anything missing on well-played discs like the legendary Eva Taylor on the Opus 3 label.
The Keith Jarrett Trio's Live at Montreux is also highly revealing in this respect, but the Stream has no trouble getting to grips with the less than obvious rhythm of Green Dolphin Street, a tune that can often seem to meander with other players, but which really picks up its feet with the Stream treatment.
A comparison with the less expensive, but reigning sub- thousand pound champ (Cambridge's Azur 840C) reveals nothing amiss in terms of detail.
The Cambridge is laid back by comparison, the soundstage literally moving backwards when it takes over, which makes the Leema relatively forward, but not so that it's in your face.
The Cairn Tornado, for instance, is a more forward and edge-of-the-seat player, which puts the Stream in the middle-ground.
Perhaps the most striking comparison, came with Barb Jungr's Trouble in Mind, which has a full-bodied double bass providing the beat, which the Stream delivers in timely fashion, making the 840C seem leaden and ploddy.
It's not just a tempo thing either, dynamics are also well catered for, which means that if there is life on the disc it will be sent to the amplifier in no uncertain terms.
Even with relatively restrained discs like José Gonzalez's Veneer, where there's rarely more than a voice and a guitar, the Stream finds the energy and vitality that was laid down in the studio.
Stream's timing talents with the Pulse amplifier are not quite as revealing as nine grand's worth of pre/power, but we think that this can be forgiven under the circumstances.
What is most impressive about it, is that it doesn't make us keep thinking 'I wonder what this album would sound like through the bigger amps?'
Imaging could, perhaps, be more precise and voices, though centrally placed, are not always as clear as they might be. But, the inflections and subtleties on display can still be appreciated.
Better than pricier competition
With Keith Jarrett for instance, it reveals the tape hiss and an awful lot of the incidental foot-tapping, alongside a very real and solid sounding piano.
It can deliver something very close to palpable realism with the aid of the Bowers & Wilkins' 802D loudspeakers, which is very impressive given the asking price.
We've heard plenty of more expensive amps struggle with the load offered by this speaker, let alone deliver top musical results through them.
And, while it may not be quite so transparent to timing, it lets enough through for you to know that the source is delivering the rhythmical goods. Tunes do indeed chug when the material calls for it - the Blues number; When The Levee Breaks, for instance.
The degree of tangibility it brings to well-recorded pieces does a lot to help suspend the disbelief that is the raison d'etre of a sound system.
More detailed sound
As with the Stream, we used a Cambridge Azur component as a reference for the Pulse, this time the 840A amplifier. A design that has significantly more features, but costs £400 less.
You'd expect the Pulse to cream it and you'd be right, but the 840A has upset previous pretenders, so this is not an easy task.
Essentially the Leema amplifier delivers more detail and you can hear the resonance of the double bass strings and the timbre or tonal depth of voices rather more clearly, too.
The difference is great enough to warrant an upgrade from Cambridge to Leema which, given that you usually have to spend a bit more to make it worthwhile, is a good sign.
A confident CD player
The Leema has one feature not to be found on the Cambridge, a phono stage. When connected to the output of a van den Hul Frog MC, sited in an SME IV arm on a DPS2 turntable, the Pulse produces a wideband, dynamic result that is more than a match for the charms of any digital source.
The bass is particularly tuneful, with good depth to boot, continuing the tactile theme encountered with the Stream and doing so in a highly engaging fashion.
Leema has managed to deliver a confident and inspiring sound from its latest and most affordable components.
The Stream times like few other CD players can, while the Pulse has power and transparency that should have the likes of Arcam and Cyrus more than a little concerned.