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Reviewer: Paul Candy
Source: Eastern Electric Minimax CD player with NOS Philips Miniwatt 6DJ8s, Cairn Fog v2.0 24/192 CD player, Pro-Ject 1 Xpression turntable w/Ortofon 540 Mk II cartridge.
Preamp/Integrated: Manley Labs Stingray with NOS RCA Black Plate 12AT7s, Audio Zone AMP-1, Almarro A50125A [in for review], Pro-Ject Tube Box phono stage with RCA Black Plate 12AX7s.
Amp: n/a
Speakers: Green Mountain Audio Callisto, REL Q108 Mk II subwoofer, Almarro M2A [in for review]
Cables: DH Labs Revelation interconnects, Auditorium23 speaker cables [on loan], Audience powerChord AC cables, GutWire Power Clef 2 AC cables, BPT L-9 & L-12 power cables.
Stands: Premier three-tier, filled with sand.
Powerline conditioning: BPT Pure Power Center w/Oyaide SWO-DX outlets, Bybee Quantum Purifiers and ERS cloth; Blue Circle BC86 MkII Power Line Pillow.
Sundry accessories: Grado SR-60 headphones, Pro-Ject Speed Box, Gingko Audio Cloud 11 platform, Grand Prix Audio APEX footers (under rack), Clearaudio Magix magnetic isolators [on loan], Isoclean fuses in all components, Walker Audio SST contact enhancer, Audience Auric Illuminator MkII, GutWire Notepads and SoundPads, Black Diamond Racing Cones, dedicated AC line with Oyaide SWO-DX outlet, homebrew acoustic treatments.
Room size: 13' x17' x 8'.
Review Component Retail: $3295

I love integrated amps. Always have. Always will. They simplify by reducing clutter, cables and usually -- but not always -- cost. They avoid excessive nail biting over which preamp and interconnect to use. Frankly, life is complicated enough without having to worry about such crap. Heck, I know one guy who performs a complex 15-minute cleaning regimen on every LP before playing. That's way too complicated and time consuming for me. Streamlining, simplifying, downsizing, rightsizing - call it what you will, I'm all for the simple life.

No longer considered merely a mid-fi receiver minus a tuner, many integrated amps are now true high-end components. Don't believe me? Take a look-see at the VAC Phi Beta or the Audiomat Recital. These are serious take-no-prisoners SOTA components designed to compete directly against more expensive multi-box

separates. Still, some audiophiles sniff at the notion of integrated amps, which is unfortunate. There are several

fine examples of the breed available today and at all price points. Perhaps the true measure of a firm's engineering expertise is found in the inevitable trade-offs required in smaller, generally less complex designs. Any competent designer can create a cost no object pre/power combo. But to extract similar performance in a combined unit requires some considerable smarts.

Some of the most impressive modestly priced amplifiers I've heard were integrateds: Manley Labs Stingray, Audiomat Arpege, C-J CAV50, Unison Research Unico, Audio Zone AMP-1 and even the venerable NAD 3020. However, there is more to my predilection for one-box solutions than just cost and clutter reduction. The way I see it, the more complex a signal path becomes, the more light, nuance and life disappears from the music. With single-chassis designs, there is reduced potential for noise and hum problems as the entire amplification stage shares a common reference ground. Stick to the KISS principal: Keep It Simple Stupid. Give me a decent integrated, preferably tube or opamp-based à la Audio Zone or 47Labs and I'm a happy camper.

I stumbled upon today's subject purely by chance a few months ago while googling EL84 tubes. I landed on, a cool-looking Singapore-based dealer site featuring a gorgeous retro-styled integrated not unlike a vintage Luxman or Mac - from a firm called Leben. I assumed this was a German marque since Leben translates as life or living. It turns out Leben is a Japanese affair. It's the brainchild of Mr. Taku Hyodo who apparently is considered "one of the best seven tube audio engineers in Japan". I wonder who the other six are. If the CS-300X is any indication, I need to brush up on my Japanese. The Luxman-of-yesteryear vibe was apparently intentional. Hyodo-San once designed amplifiers for that Japanese electronics giant.

Leben is mainly a manufacturer of electrical and electronic parts such as transformers and switches. The amplifier division is essentially a hobby and inspiration for Mr. Hyodo, hence production is limited to a few models. Taku-san has quite a reputation among Japanese audiophiles. There is even a Leben Audio Lovers Club. Currently two integrated amps are available, along with two power amps and preamp. None of them are expensive by North American high-end standards. Coming soon are a phono stage and a CS-600 integrated with switchable choice of EL34 or 6L6 tubes.

The CS-300X, today's review piece, is an upgraded version of Leben's entry-level CS-300. It features Mullard NOS EL84s and other internal upgrades over the basic version. While reading through the product information, I reflected on how cool it would be to find a North American distributor so I could satiate my wanton lust. Sure enough, two days later while checking out the Moon Beams news section on 6moons, I was absolutely gob smacked to find Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports bringing Leben into the U.S. Surely this was no coincidence but a matter of destiny? Not one to tempt fate, a quick email found its way to Jonathan. A couple of months later, this lovely diminutive amp landed on my doorstep.

The CS-300X has five inputs, a tape monitor and a headphone output. It delivers 15 watts via a quartet of NOS Mullard EL84 pentodes configured for push-pull operation. The driver stage consists of 2 x NOS G 5751 dual triodes which are DC coupled to eliminate noise. The loudspeaker output also drives the headphone port - cans and speakers receive identical signals. The CS-300X has a unique bass boost control that operates via a simple cap/resistor circuit on the negative feedback loop as opposed to a separate, more complex circuit as commonly used. A 15-kOhm resistor prevents any undue sonic influence of this control on the midrange. The little "Life" is self- biasing via a cathode resistor which supposedly reduces noise and precludes any periodic fiddling with a multi meter and screwdriver. Just plug it in and let the good times roll. Various audiophile goodies litter the innards of the Leben, including metalized polypropylene caps with mesh-shielding, caps from Sanyo and Elna, "RMG-F type" resistors with gold-plated leads and custom transformers. Specs are as follows:
  • Frequency Response: 15Hz-100 kHz (-2dB)
  • Distortion: .7% (10W)
  • Input Sensitivity: 600mV
  • Output Impedance: 4/6/8 Ohms (selectable)
  • Power Consumption: 65W
  • Weight: 10.5 Kg (23 lbs)
  • Dimensions: 360(W) x 270(D) x 140(H) mm (14 x 10.5 x 5.5 in)

As you can see, the CS-300X is cute little thing that you could easily tuck under your arm. Nicely finished solid ash side panels flank the attractive gold and green two-tone aluminum front panel. The controls from left to right are input (for 5 sources), volume, balance and the surprisingly effective bass boost which allows a mild 3dB and 5dB increase for low volume late night listening. Sweet! Beneath the gold-plated aluminum controls are two plastic switches, one for tape monitoring, the other to toggle between speaker and headphone output. Both switches flank the headphone jack. On the far right is the power switch and status indicator, the latter powered by the EL84s' cathode bias instead of a relay switch. Therefore the LED only lights up when the tubes are warmed up, roughly 10 seconds past turn-on.

The rear panel features seven pairs of gold-plated RCA connectors, a ground post, a fuse holder, the IEC power inlet, five-way binding posts and an impedance control (4/6/8 Ohms). For you LS3/5A owners, a special 16-ohm tap is available upon request. As with all tube amps, the Leben gets fairly hot and therefore has ventilation perforations on the top and rear panels. The minimalist interior of the CS-300X appears well laid out - no loose solder balls floating around, no rough edges. In fact, build quality is exemplary. For speaker cables, you will want to use bananas or bare wire. The location of the impedance switch interferes with spade-terminated cabling. Other than that quibble, I encountered no problems during the review period. There were no clicks, thumps or other weird behavior. The Leben was also one of the quietest valve amps I've had in house. I only noted the faintest transformer hum and hiss with the volume cranked and my ears less than a foot away from the speakers. As you can

tell from the photos, the CS-300X exudes a passionate attention to details. In an age of mass-produced electronics and good-enough components, it's a relief that some manufacturers embrace the notion of artisanship. Like my Manley Labs Stingray, the CS-300X has a very distinctive retro appearance that may offend some but not me. I loved it and I'll bet you will, too.

The optimal matching configuration chez Paul saw the Leben paired with the Green Mountain Audio Callistos, REL Q108 sub and Eastern Electric Minimax CD player (a superb value at a mere $900). I plugged everything into a BPT Pure Power Center (w/ Oyaide outlets, Bybee Quantum Purifiers) situated on a pair of Clearaudio Magix isolators. Power cords were BPT L-9 and L-12. Vinyl playback components consisted of my Pro-Ject 1 Xpression, Ortofon 540 MkII cartridge and Pro-Ject Tube Box. I also heard the Leben mated with a pair of JM Reynaud Cantabile floor standers at Applause Audio in Toronto. Those two brands appeared to be a synergistic match as well.