A speaker with the brawn to match its beauty

FOR Mus­cu­lar­ity with fi­nesse; fea­tures; ana­logue sec­tion; build AGAINST Sound needs more en­thu­si­asm; poor dis­play

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Contents -

What would the list of fea­tures on What Hi-fi?’s ideal high-end DAC look like? All cur­rent do­mes­tic dig­i­tal con­nec­tions is a given, and it would also be able to ac­cept 24-bit/192khz PCM files, as well as DSD mu­sic streams. Right now, DSD abil­ity might not be par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to us, but we would never want our hi-fi to limit our fu­ture choice of mu­sic.

We’d add Blue­tooth too, be­cause it’s nice to be able to hear the sound of your phone or tablet through the main hi-fi. A vari­able out­put would be good, and why not add a head­phone jack and good ana­logue sec­tion, so there’s no need for a sep­a­rate preamp? Com­plex­ity, cost and cabling are all re­duced, and that’s never a bad thing, even at top-end prices. Oh, and it has to sound re­ally good too. Are we hard to please? Guilty as charged.

Spec heaven

On pa­per, we could be de­scrib­ing Leema’s new Libra DAC. Take a close look at its spec­i­fi­ca­tion and in many ways it goes above and be­yond what we’d wish for. It will play PCM files up to 384khz (if you can find any you ac­tu­ally want to lis­ten to) and DSD 128 record­ings too.

Con­nec­tiv­ity is ex­cel­lent, as the Libra adds AES/EBU along­side a pair of I squared S in­puts to our de­mands. We’ve rarely come across these in do­mes­tic prod­ucts, but you can bet some hi-fi en­thu­si­ast, some­where, will be rub­bing their hands with glee at the news.

There are also three line-level ana­logue in­puts. Each of these can be con­fig­ured for sin­gle-ended or bal­anced XLR use at the press of a but­ton (ac­ces­si­ble through a small hole on the back panel). The Leema’s out­put is avail­able in sin­gle-ended and XLR va­ri­eties too, with the op­tion of leav­ing it fixed (to con­nect to a sep­a­rate preamp) or vari­able, where the Libra can drive the power amp or ac­tive speak­ers di­rectly – which would make for a neat sys­tem.

There’s also a set of con­nec­tions for Leema’s in-house comms sys­tem that al­lows the Libra to com­mu­ni­cate with the com­pany’s other prod­ucts. This re­ally is a well-equipped box.

There’s some­thing com­fort­ably fa­mil­iar about the Libra’s ap­pear­ance. It re­minds us of the com­pany’s mul­ti­ple Award­win­ning Tu­cana am­pli­fier – hardly a sur­prise, given that it looks as though the com­pany has used the same chas­sis. The build is as solid as ever, and nicely fin­ished with it. We doubt whether the DAC pro­duces enough heat to jus­tify the gen­er­ous amount of heat-sink­ing in­cluded, but it looks good all the same.

The Libra is fu­ture-proofed to an ex­tent too. It uses the com­pany’s new, fully bal­anced Qu­at­tro In­fin­ity dual-mono DAC mod­ules. These are želd-re­place­able, and so can be changed as and when im­proved tech­nol­ogy be­comes avail­able. This is a nice touch, and a wel­come safety net on such a pre­mium-priced prod­uct.

The Libra is a bit of a mixed bag to use. On a pos­i­tive note, we like the feel of the two ro­tary con­trols. The large vol­ume dial in par­tic­u­lar is lovely, ex­hibit­ing the per­fect amount of damp­ing and pre­ci­sion while it turns. The in­tu­itive way the on-board soft­ware responds to the vol­ume’s move­ment feels nat­u­ral too. The front-panel but­tons are fairly pre­cise in use, though we don’t like their sharp-edged tex­ture.

Much more of an is­sue is the dis­play. It’s in­for­ma­tive and, viewed from straight ahead, pretty clear. But off-axis it’s aw­ful, with such poor con­trast that at cer­tain an­gles we can’t read any­thing.

But­tons come un­done

We’re not to­tally con­vinced by the re­mote hand­set ei­ther. It’s a nicely shaped me­tal unit, built with a good amount of heft and a sen­si­ble but­ton lay­out. But those but­tons don’t feel great in use and aren’t that well shaped.

This DAC isn’t short of in­puts – we counted 15 in to­tal; three op­ti­cal, three coax, one USB, three-line level ana­logue as well as the two AES/EBU, Blue­tooth and dual I Squared S con­nec­tions. That’s great be­cause we doubt there’s a two-chan­nel sys­tem, no mat­ter how com­plex, the Libra can’t cope with.

As we’d ex­pect, the Libra’s USB con­nec­tion is asyn­chro­nous, the DAC con­trol­ling of the tim­ing of in­for­ma­tion flow rather than the com­puter. Clocks used in au­dio prod­ucts tend to be bet­ter than those in com­put­ers, so the re­sult should be im­proved sound qual­ity. If you run a PC you’ll need to load the ded­i­cated driver soft­ware from Leema’s web­site. Mac own­ers should be good to go.

Our re­view sam­ple isn’t a box-fresh unit, but we give it a few days of use be­fore lis­ten­ing se­ri­ously. The Libra is plumbed into our usual ref­er­ence stereo set-up: the main source com­po­nents are Naim’s NDS/555PS mu­sic streamer, a Macbook Air (loaded with Pure Mu­sic and Audirvana mu­sic soft­ware), a Cyrus CDI CD player and Clea­r­au­dio’s In­no­va­tion Wood turntable.

The Libra doesn’t have a phono stage, so we use Cyrus’s Sig­na­ture Phono with a PSX-R2 out­board power sup­ply in­stead. Gamut’s D3i/d200i pre/power takes care of am­pli­fi­ca­tion du­ties, driv­ing our usual ATC SCM50S.

Sweet Blue­tooth

We start by test­ing the Leema’s Apt X Blue­tooth ca­pa­bil­ity with a Sony Z3 Com­pact and Ap­ple ipad 2. We lis­ten to

Fare­weel Re­gal­ity from The Un­thanks and are pleased with the clar­ity and re­fine­ment on of­fer. There’s a good level of in­sight, fine han­dling of dy­nam­ics and a pleas­ing way with the group’s vo­cals that un­earths the nu­ances while still de­liv­er­ing the big pic­ture with skill. If you think Blue­tooth won’t ever sound good, lis­ten to the Libra. It re­ally does do a fine job.

Put a phys­i­cal link be­tween the Leema and the source and things get even bet­ter. We play a range of mu­sic files through our Macbook from Hans Zim­mer’s The Dark Knight Rises (24-bit/192khz) and Ste­vie Won­der’s

In­nervi­sions (DSD), through to Eminem’s En­core (320kbps), and the Libra takes it all in its stride.

Those fa­mil­iar with the com­pany’s pre­mium prod­ucts will feel right at home lis­ten­ing to this DAC. It has the same full-bod­ied sound, which is im­mensely pow­er­ful but still ca­pable of sub­tlety when re­quired.

The Libra de­liv­ers the Hans Zim­mer set with con­sid­er­able skill. Gotham’s

Reck­on­ing comes through with the right blend of ten­sion and men­ace, with plenty in re­serve for the large-scale dy­nam­ics when they hit.

There’s so much power to the low-end in this record­ing and the Leema responds well, ren­der­ing rich, weighty bass that still has enough in the way of agility and pre­ci­sion to con­vince. Stereo imag­ing is im­pres­sive. It’s ex­pan­sive, nicely lay­ered, yet sta­ble even when things get busy – and that’s pretty of­ten on this record­ing.

Ste­vie Won­der shows off the Libra’s lovely midrange per­for­mance. It may be a mus­cu­lar pre­sen­ta­tion, but there’s also an ap­peal­ingly or­ganic qual­ity to the way this DAC re­pro­duces the midrange. Won­der’s dis­tinc­tive vo­cals come through with clar­ity and pas­sion, the Libra shin­ing a bright light onto the nu­ances of his voice.

Rhyth­mi­cally, the Leema is sure­footed rather than sprightly. It com­mu­ni­cates the hard-charg­ing mo­men­tum of Higher

Ground with con­fi­dence but lacks the en­thu­si­asm to re­ally get our feet tap­ping. It’s this slight ret­i­cence to have fun, cou­pled to a ten­dency to round-off at­tack and sparkle at higher fre­quen­cies that give it the feel of a prod­uct that wants to sound com­fort­able, rather than one that goes all-out to en­ter­tain.

Adapt­able - but a bit ‘safe’

The up­side to such an ap­proach is that it will work well with a wide range of record­ings and usu­ally pro­duce an ac­cept­able sound. The down­side is that your favourite mu­sic doesn’t tug at the heart (or feet) with the in­sis­tence that top-end hi-fi should. This sonic bal­ance stays con­sis­tent re­gard­less of the in­put we try.

Usu­ally the line stages of a prod­uct such as this aren’t as good as the dig­i­tal, but that’s not the case here. The Libra’s ana­logue in­puts sound a touch cleaner and sub­tler than the dig­i­tal al­ter­na­tives, dis­play­ing a pleas­ing nat­u­ral­ness and clar­ity. This is a dig­i­tal prod­uct that takes ana­logue per­for­mance se­ri­ously.

That’s em­pha­sised by the qual­ity of the preamp sec­tion. We spend much of this test us­ing the Libra straight into the Gamut D200i power am­pli­fier. On the whole, the com­bi­na­tion works well, and we don’t feel the need to change back to the Gamut preamp straight away, even though it sounds bet­ter (as it should, cost­ing a few hun­dred pounds more than the Leema and be­ing ana­logue-only).

The head­phone out­put is less suc­cess­ful. With a pair of Bey­er­dy­namic T1s (along with Grado’s PS500S) it lacks the trans­parency and flu­id­ity of the line out­puts. We’d get a ded­i­cated out­board head­phone amp if this were a pri­or­ity.

If you’re look­ing for a well equipped dig­i­tal hub that will also dou­ble as a ca­pable ana­logue preamp, you’re not ex­actly spoiled for choice. De­spite our slight mis­giv­ings about the sound and some er­gonomic as­pects, there’s much to ad­mire in the Libra. It may not be our per­fect DAC, but it’s not that far away.

”We doubt there’s a two-chan­nel sys­tem, no mat­ter how com­plex, the Libra can’t cope with”

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