We wrote in January 2005 that it seems like
almost all tube amplifiers these days are made in China. All ?
No, here is a Japanese company that manufactures handcrafted amplifiers with
so much better build and construction. Being named Leben, which means
"live" in German, we were naturally curious.
The former Luxman
designer Mr. Hyodo, with his background and product experience, brought back
his own line of tube amplifiers to manufacturing capacity in the year 2004
in the market.
This covers the two integrated amplifiers CS300 and CS300X,
one preamp with phono stage, and two power amplifiers with different tube
In the same year 2004, the CS300 integrated amplifier was honored
with the "Audio Excellence Award" in Japan, and is also tested here.
The First Impression
A smile • it is
small ! The Leben CS300 has external dimensions of 35cm x 14cm x 23cm. It
really looks dainty and not like the usual suspects on the tube amplifier
market. Embarrassingly, an attempt to position the tiny amplifier on the
rack with two fingers failed, and the grin on my face was wiped away. It
was clear that the small exterior was not in proportion to its weight. The
Leben brings a hefty weight of ten kilograms on the scale, and indicated
that Leben definitely did not compromise on materials.
The CS300 is an
integrated amplifier of classical design in a proper housing and good
components. At the sides are parallel sets of beautiful Japanese genuine
wood. The front plate is golden anodized with green stripes adorning its
top and bottom. From left to right are the decent
aluminum controls for source
selection, a larger one for volume control, balance control and the
two-stage bass boost. There are toggles for
Tape monitor (!),
and headphone/loudspeaker selector - switches made of black plastic. In
the center of the front plate is the headphone input, and over the power
switch a light indicating operational status.
Retro looks are
similar to early McIntosh, Marantz or Harman Kardon equipment. However, I
have the impression that one or two of the design elements could have been
omitted in favor of a calmer visual appearance. The volume potentiometer
would be better if it had more steps, the plastic switches could be better.
The rear panel
holds the mains fuse, and five inputs, a power cord input and and four solid
connecting terminals for a pair of loudspeakers. These loudspeaker
terminals can take rather thin bare wire, spades ,and banana plugs. One
can•t say the unit has missing connection types. More importantly for a
tube amplifier, it has 3 impedance settings that can be used with different
loudspeakers having four, six, or eight ohms impedance.
The interior of the Leben is
ventilated by a slit cover, and the floor plates sufficiently reveals a
lightning-clean and very cleared up structure with a sheet metal chassis, which
could originate easily from one of the devices of the classical tube era.
are two General Electric 5751 tubes and the two pairs of Sovtek EL84 in
marked bases. The transformers are made by Leben, and make a very solid
impression. The complete circuit is altogether is really a
"No-nonsense-Design": solid construction units without Voodoo.
And if one values the importance
of even more quality, there is no thriftiness with the structure of its sister
model CS300X, to a surcharge of EUR 1000 more. Here, more significant and
closely selected parts are used, in addition, output transformers
are even better.
The circuit does not
offer new revealing technology, but those with tube amplifiers for some decades
don•t expect any anyway - 5751 tubes with two EL84 in a "single Push Pull"
circuit per channel with a power output of nominal 12 Watts.
results show these values as actually ten Watts per channel, with which it works
already very properly however. Well, not suitable in a professional public
address system, however for all home purposes it is completely sufficient -
assuming one•s loudspeakers have a at least average efficiency and good
impedance, which do not drive each amplifier into heat death.
engineers have done their homework, and the CS300 is an achievement monster.
The speakers used are small
broadband boxes of my own design, named
These have an average efficiency of 85db. The listening environment is quite a
conducive one for the CS300, 15 square meters. A small music room of a HiFi
enthusiast, who would like to install a fine system with little space
requirement on smallest area. On test, even with full impact of the volume
control, hardly any noise or humming came out of the speakers. So far, so
At first, worry and
doubts were in mind, but finally a pleasant astonishment: The Leben, despite
the aged circuit concept, sounds only a bit like a tube amp, the sound is so
expanded in its high frequency response. This is not with brightness that
make the sound unbalanced, but is one that offers additional information, which
I do not find with most otherwise well-known tube amplifiers. Crystal clear and
never irritating highs supplement the sound perfectly. I would have considered
it as never possible that the marvelous spatial illustration of my speakers
could ever be improved • but the Leben CS300 does it easily, as heard on the
individual guitar of Eric Clapton•s "Cocaine• from the marvelous LP "Slowhand.
The percussion comes strongly and precisely, each impact of the snaredrum drum
stops precisely and without trailing resonance. It is a lot of fun, and
the high hats cymbal strikes are so finely resolved, never irritating.
Only the bass • the
lower bass range in relation to the higher frequencies is less, which is due
however more to the physical size of the very small speakers. A tweak is to use
the bass boost controller at + 3dB, and it solves the problem to the fullest
satisfaction, with the tonal balance now properly tuned, and the small amplifier
and the small speakers play even louder.
The listening area was
then changed to a listening area over 20 square meters, and a pair of big but
more efficient transmission line speakers were used,. With output impedance set
to 4 ohms, and bass boost control at "0•, the Leben CS300 is unleashed. The
expression "Live In The Room• comes to a new meaning. The fine
resolution of the highs, already obtained before, attains new dimensions with
the new speakers' better tweeters. With the larger speakers, the correct tonal
balance is also obtained. Mark Knopfler•s voice, on his last solo LP "Shangri
La" was caught as very present, and the guitar associates perfectly with the
intimate atmosphere heard on the recording.
The CS300 also can go without a murmur at harder
pace music. The first piece on Elvis Costello•s latest album, "The Delivery
Man", gives a hard test. The Leben delivers the fine tendencies and angry sound
of Elvis Costello and his band completely authentically. In this track the
percussionist hammers whining bass and has screeching guitar, but within all the
sound chaos nothing sinks into a sonic mess or muddiness, instrument separation
remains free. This title song of the album shows again the marvelous
discipline of the Leben, without sacrificing the atmosphere and expression in
Only with an album
such as John Cougar MeIlencamp•s "Lonesome Jubilee", in which the recording is
quite unbalanced and too bright, can the tonal balance go over to unpleasant.
But this applies to all good systems where bad recordings are exposed.
Listening to samples
of classical music and jazz confirm the above described impressions. Larger
ochestras are brimming in detail in depth and width, with individual instruments
clearly outlined. Solo voices and instruments are represented prominently, but
never overemphasized. The impression of missing substance within the bass range
never arose with the larger speakers, the CS300 not only reproduces highs
perfectly, but also has dynamic and power in the bass, and gorgeous in the
middle, well-balanced without particularly being overemphasized in any of the
The tubes were then
changed to the highly-praised JJ EL84 tubes, and this brought a somewhat darker
presentation to the sound. This results in a more typical tube sound and is
quite pleasant. Personally, however, I felt some of the highs were curtailed,
and the music seemd to move more to the center of the soundstage. However, this
impression may have been because of the fact that the JJ EL84 spare tubes were
not yet burned-in compared to the Sovtek EL84.
One tiny fine integrated amplifier. One can easily hide the
amplifier if needed, but it highlights all the leading strengths of
tube technology, and the weaknesses left behind. The only one
little restriction in the recommendation, the Leben CS300 should be
partnered with the right higher-efficiency speakers, and it
will unfold its sound beautifully, and
give true meaning to the
phrase "Live In The Room".