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Recordings used during this review
: Assemblage 23, Compass, Accession Records 10-1674, CD; Chet Baker, Strollin’, Enja/Warld, TKCW-32191, CD; Chris Connor, I Miss You, Atlantic Records/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-25172, CD; Frank Sinatra, Nice’N’Easy, Capitol Records/Mobile Fidelity, UDCD 790, gold CD; Frank Sinatra, The Voice, Columbia/Speakers Corner, CL 743, Quiex SV-P, 180g LP; J. S. Bach The Works of Johann Sebastian Bach. IX. Research Period, Archive Production, ARC 3162, LP; Queen A Night At The Opera, Parlophone/EMI Records, 66585, 180g LP; Queen Innuendo, Parlophone/EMI Records, 67988, 180g LP; The Montgomery Brothers, Groove Yard, Riverside/JVC, JVCXR-0018-2, XRCD; Tori Amos Abnormally Attracted To Sin, Universal Republic Records, B0012906-01, 2 x 180g LP.

My first go at connecting a CD player with variable outputs wasn’t the lost case prior experience would have predicted. With speakers of moderate sensitivity (86dB +) in a mid-size room of maximally 25m², the player’s standard 2V max output voltage collaborated well with the Leben’s lowish 1.5V input sensitivity. By itself, this would usually only mean that sufficient levels were achieved, not that sonics were satisfactory. But I must confess that this performance really had me at hello. As those who read my reviews know, I’m a big proponent of active preamplifiers and consider them essential system ingredients. Save for rare cases where a designer deliberately builds a superior preamp stage into a CD player (Ancient Audio in Poland comes to mind), most such combinations suffer mismatches to really warrant a high-quality preamp. I was thus surprised when the Leben collaborated so well with my Ancient Audio Lektor Air. The sound was rich, bass well extended and dynamics high. In short all the usual earmarks of a quality preamp were present. I was quite certain that my Ayon Audio preamp would alter my perspective but at this juncture, I already had a sound I really could live with.

If I were to compare this Leben sound to a competitor, I’d probably pick the McIntosh Mc275 Anniversary Edition which I previously reviewed. It just so happened that a day prior to my first Leben audition, I visited a friend and fellow member of our Cracow Sonic Society to hear his new Dynaudio Sapphire speakers. The main reason for our meeting was yet another ingenious power cable from Acrolink, the Mexcel 7N-PC9300. But my friend also runs the McIntosh Mc275 (his is the version IV). This Dynaudio/McIntosh setup made quite similar sound to my Harpia/Leben combo. The overlap was mostly about timbres which were rich, a bit warm and slightly accentuated on the mid-bass to inject some kick and create larger virtual images. All this the Leben handled quite accurately and without crossing the line into serious editorializing. Even so, it was undoubtedly a bit on the warm side. This I confirmed with a variety of material.

Jazz was fabulous. Chet Baker's Strollin’ with the fantastic Philippe Catherine on guitar sounded simply amazing, with plenty of air and great depth and dynamics. Those dynamics were confirmed again on the Compass electronica by German Dark Wave group Assemblage 23. Whoa! If you enjoy Depeche Mode, Jean-Michel Jarré and similar, the Leben delivers as you haven't heard them before. Dynamics were unbelievable and the low bass was as juicy as only the mighty ASR Emitter II had managed before. Still, the sound wasn’t perfectly linear. It had a slight elevation somewhere in the transition between upper bass and lower midrange. Besides the already described virtues of this voicing, there were also side effects which not everyone will appreciate when this deviation conflicts with the application. For example, certain non-musical events were more audible than usual, say piano pedal action or a plosive ‘p’ in a Julie London vocal on I Miss You So. It sure sounded great but purists would been right to point at this as not being quite real and neutral. The treble was somewhat gentle, not rolled off but somewhat mellow on transients. To me this appears to in fact be a characteristic of quite a few Japanese amps. They seem to prefer music makers over analytical tools.

Leben + preamplifier
: OMG. After a few days of listening to another system, I returned to the Leben’s incredibly involving and satisfying presentation. This wasn’t a perfect sound but one so filled with emotion that it made for a musical enjoyment rarely equaled. It’s no wonder that prior 6moons contributor Jeff Day chose this amp for his system and bestowed a 2008 Best-of-Year distinction upon it. But I’m supposed to mention how the Leben worked for me with a preamp. This became a very rare occasion where I had actual doubts. Which would be best, CD direct or via a preamp? I’m deliberately avoiding a comparison between controlling volume on the CDP vs. the Leben. It’s not that by design you can’t make superior sound going direct but the inclusion of a preamp makes more sense to me particularly with rooms above 25m². Otherwise there’s a loss of bass control and proper sizing. On the plus side, direct drive produced higher resolution even over Ayon’s Polaris II preamp and certainly over Leben’s own CS-28RX. The differences weren’t huge but fans of ultimate resolution and transparency would actually favor direct drive with a quality CD player.

Meanwhile preamp inclusion added other elements that were equally hard to resist. The first of those was better bass control. To my mind searching for the right preamp makes this issue a prime focus because the Leben’s bass is already quite punchy, rich and colorful as is. A friend visiting to check out the Black Stork turntable from Lithuania running into the CS-600P found the bass very energetic but also somewhat pumped up, plump and stronger than real.  He was right. The Leben does sound bassy. Regardless of whether we listen to less potent acoustic bass or very powerful and low electronic infrasonics, we’ll always end up with a fulsome foundation. To some extent, this diminishes differentiation power in the low band. There’ll always be ample bass. It’s instrumental to state then that this quantity of amplitude never turned boomy or tubby to interfere with my listening in those areas. I simply recognized a somewhat richer-than-live balance and acknowledged the designer’s deliberate choice.