Leema Acoustics Elements Integrated Amplifier Review
Very interesting introduction to the company
The review of the Leema Acoustics Elements integrated amplifier marks my first exposure to the companies products and its been a very interesting introduction. For the last 18 months I have had one big box and high powered amplifier after another and all have brought something new and exciting to the table. When I was offered the opportunity to review a product from Leema I assumed they would send me their biggest and most accomplished product and was surprised, maybe even a little disappointed that they chose to send one of their smaller products. I am now very glad they did because I really love having my preconceptions proved wrong and especially when a product shows me a new way as happened here
Function and a nice form
I found unpacking the Leema Elements amplifier a very interesting experience, one worthy of writing about. I was hugely impressed with the flexible foam protective packaging which has integrated handles built into it, what a wonderful idea.
One of the big visual and likely main selling features of the Leema Acoustics Elements range is its physical dimensions, being only half width puts in into a specific category with rival companies like Cyrus and Bel Canto being very prevalent. The Leema Elements integrated is very slim and generates no heat allowing a lot of flexibility when it comes to placement.
The contrasting silver face plate and black body works well but the style is distinguished by the blue display and white text. The display is limited in overall size as is expected with such a slim line product, the graphical display took a bit of getting used to. As you increase the volume there is a numerical display but its very small and is supported by a series of squares that increase in number with the volume. Over time I think I would learn to recognise the volume by the squares but I do wonder why Leema didn’t chose to have a larger numerical display instead.
The interaction with the controls on the front of the Elements integrated is a nice experience, there is a reassuring clunk when turning the amplifier on and off and a nice resistance when turning the volume dial. Both fill you with confidence of quality manufacturing and parts used. The remote control is a very plastic affair, but worked perfectly and is more than adequate at the price point.
There is a big surprise here or two or more
If you took a quick glance at the rear of the Leema Elements integrated you would see a plethora of connections both digital and analogue, including balanced inputs but you could easily miss the speaker binding posts. Instead of the usual screw type connections Leema have used a circular slot system designed for a banana plug to be inserted only, very important to consider if your current speaker cables have spades.
The Elements integrated amplifier has a built in DAC module which can be used or bypassed, its capable of handling files up to 192Khz / 24 bit with three Optical inputs, one USB and one SPDIF Coax. The modest specs of the amplifier are interesting because there is a claimed 8 ohm power rating of 56 watts, 110 watts at 4 ohms, even 2 ohm loads can be driven by the Elements
The second surprise to me was the amplifier being a Class D design, had someone asked me based purely on sound quality what class of amplifier it was I would have adamantly said class A/B. The Leema Elements integrated does not sound like a stereotypical class D amplifier, but it does have the benefits of efficiency and lack of heat generation. I asked Leema how they had engineered this and they kindly responded with some very interesting details.
Leema uses a special chip from NXP which Mallory Nicolls (Leema co-founder) and Lee Taylor (the ‘Lee’ in Leema! were involved in developing/voicing, so they know the technology and sound quality intimately. They worked very hard to ensure a fundamentally ‘analogue’ type of sound without the usual Class D brightness; but using Class D allowed Leema to achieve the power output from such a compact case.
Leema also uses over-spec output inductors to avoid saturation on large transients; a shortcoming on many designs. Volume is controlled in the analogue domain using a precision resistor ladder-type device, the same devices as used in the award-winning (and range-topping) Constellation series.
Internal source selection is via miniature gold palladium relays which add no distortion and in addition, Leema uses a conventional analogue supply with a ridiculously oversized transformer. I always love and appreciate this level of attentions to detail and it really pays off in the end product
Given the nick name “Mighty Mouse”
While I am mentioning surprises, no one could be more surprised with the performance of the Elements integrated as an amplifier. I started the review by giving the Leema a great platform to work from, I was feeding it a balanced analogue signal from the outstanding Chord Electronics DAVE DAC and on to the excellent Bowers and Wlkins 603 speakers via Tellurium Q Silver Diamond analogue cabling, it was also being powered using a Tellurium Q Statement Power cable. From this platform came a sound that I was not expecting, a sound with a clarity and poise obviously indicative of an amplifier with complete control over the drive units of the speakers. There was fantastic transient and overall clarity from the treble right down into the bass.
The Bowers 603 strengths of their mid range openness and treble bite were there in abundance and a joy to listen to. The 603’s don’t have a huge bass output but their bass is extremely tight and articulate and their extension smooth. The Leema drove the 603’s to a volume and quality level with the amplifier’s power rating of 56 watts at 8 ohms seeming insignificant.
In the song demonstration video below of the Aristocrats Bad Asteroid you will hear a great example of the Leema Elements control and leading edge clarity with the Bowers and Wilkins 603
Lets challenge the Leema
During the review I had to return the Chord Electronics DAVE and Bowers and Wilkins 603 review samples. This opened the door for some serious testing of the Leema Elements credentials. I installed the Chord Electronics Qutest as my DAC which meant a change in cabling was necessary as well as speakers.
Next in for review was the Monitor Audio Platinum PL100 MkII speakers and at three times the asking price of the Bowers 603 and being bookshelf designs these would clearly present a different challenge to the Leema. I wanted to go one stage further and decided to change speaker cabling to the Tellurium Q Ultra Blue. The Ultra Blue speaker cables sit just above the entry level of cables in the Tellurium Q matrix and are designed to have warmer sound. How would the Leema cope when the platform around it is not quite so high quality?
Interesting test, that didn't change my mind
This was an interesting week of testing largely occupied by many hours of playback just to run the Ultra Blue cables in, an essential process with all Tellurium Q cables, patience is needed. The sonic presentation from the Monitor Audio PL100, Leema and Tellurium Q Blue couldn't have been anymore chalk and cheese to the Leema, Chord DAVE, Bowers 603, Tellurium Q Silver Diamond before it but one thing remained, the control.
I know the Monitor Audio PL100's very well, I owned them for several years and know how rich their presentation is and it was present in abundance assisted by the "warm" flavour of the Tellurium Q Ultra Blue. The presentation was far less specific and clinically accurate in its nature and for some audiophiles it would be a more organic presentation thanks to that warmth. A warm presentation is nice to listen to as long as there is a good amount of detail but more importantly control.
The Leema Elements Integrated did an incredible job of driving the Monitor Audio PL100's with them producing a bass quantity exceeding what some floorstanders would do. Monitor Audio Platinum are 4 ohms speakers, so the extra oomph from the Leema's 110 watts is now a lot of power and showed its capable of driving the right speakers at their higher price point. Serious kudos to the Leema, what a great little amplifier.
How does the Leema DAC compare to the beasts from Chord
More changes were necessary to ensure the Leema's internal DAC had the strongest platform to sound its best. I decided to change from Tellurium Q Ultra Blue speaker cables to Tellurium Q Silver II speaker cables. Having spent a lot of time with the Silver Diamond cable range I know they are a clear and open path to whatever is on either end of them and they take no prisoners either. I made sure to put as many hours playback on them and the Leema Elements internal DAC before doing any serious listening.
The step down in quality from the Chord DAVE to the Chord Qutest was a substantial one and a difficult one to re adjust to, going down in quality is always more obvious than up and more painful. Moving over from the Qutest to using the internal DAC of the Leema I was expecting an equal drop in quality as I had experienced coming from the DAVE. To my pleasant surprise this was not the case.
The internal DAC on the Leema is very good, it sounds smooth, sweet and detailed with an excellent sound stage clarity and overall a very enjoyable presentation. It did change the sonic character of the Leema which lost the bold and dynamic presence that either of the Chord DAC's added and I missed this, but as trade off the internal DAC had a smidgen more refinement which others could prefer. The more relaxed and subtle nature of the Leema DAC could work especially well if you have a bass heavy seating position or speakers.
There had to be one chink in the armour and I am glad its the headphone amplifier. I wont go into too much detail here because I don't think many buyers will chose the Leema because it has a headphone amplifier, but the headphone amplification falls very short of the high bar set by the main amplification.
Bass is a very interesting one
My initial reaction to the 603 bass output was of there not being enough of it, the speakers were delivering a leaner presentation than I am accustomed to and like. The speakers were brand new and I had given them some time to get going before doing the review. I tried 2 amplifiers the first being the Unison Research Unico 150 that has huge amounts of power, ruling out amplifier power as the cause. There is a stereotype among audiophiles being Bowers & Wilkins speakers require huge amplification to sound good. I discovered this is not the case with the 603 as 56 watts at 8 ohms from the Leema Acoustics Elements Integrated Amplifier, the second amplifier I used with the speakers drove them lovely.
Over time and the more I listened to the 603 I came to appreciate the bass quality from the speakers and realised the Bowers & Wilkins engineers have chosen quality over quantity with their bass output. The bass similar to the mid range is tight, focused and clean with good and smooth extension, leaving space for a subwoofer to reinforce their bottom end. A subwoofer is not essential with them but could be employed to great effect to add more foundation to the overall presentation, it would need to be a fast one.
The leaner but more articulate bass allows for a more precise transient on drums with no excess or boom being added. I think the intention here goes a little further accounting for the likely placement of the 603 speakers in users homes. There is a good chance the speakers will be used in small to moderate sized rooms, with the listener and speakers being placed near or on the boundary increasing the bass output from the speakers and room modal problems. In this instance a leaner but tighter bass will work better for 99% of users and 99% of music. There is enough bass to balance the sound from the slightly forward mid range and sharpness of treble which creates an overall nicely balanced presentation that's exciting to listen to, never boring
The song demonstration video below of Christine and the Queens Goya Soda shows how the bass from the 603 is very tight and extends fantastically smooth until the speakers roll off.
I will admit I started the review with a low expectation due to the size of the case and the on paper power rating, call it Audiophile snobbery, I am guilty. I am finishing the review full of admiration for the Leema Elements and now an apt phrase for my preconception is Audiophile foolishness, I wont make that mistake again. The Leema Acoustics Elements integrated amplifier is a quality product.
I like how it looks, I like how you interact with it, I like how flexible it is, I don't mind the unusual speaker cable terminals and the slimline display that can be a little difficult to read. I don't mind the price. I have no complaints with the user interface, well maybe one. When you turn off the amplifiers display and then adjust the volume or input it doesn't automatically turn the display on to visually show the change, there are display dimming options but I think it would be better if it did, very small critique.
The form factor of the Elements is certainly appealing and goes a long way to fixing a problem a lot of Audiophiles have, where do I put all these huge boxes? On that note I am conscientious of a specific use case ideal for the Leema Elements products, when space is at a premium such as in a flat or apartment, where a huge amplifier in physical size or in power is not ideal, but performance quality is still critical here is a wonderful answer. One that can easily scale up in room size and is capable of producing a big sound if desired. Its hard not to be impressed by the drive and control the Leema amplifier has on a pair of speakers, control being the operative word.
The Leema Acoustics Elements is very difficult to fault, as an overall product it strikes a lovely balance of just about everything and has to be on your demo short list.
A Special Performer Award is Pursuit Perfect Systems highest accolade and is in recognition of exceptional product performance regardless of price