LEAK AUDIO STEREO 130 integrated amplifier / CDT transport
+ Well built, looks great (if you like retro styling) and sounds excellent.
– The need to put in elbow grease to oil the wooden sleeve periodically; no tape loop for analogue recording/monitoring?
+Very good sound and build, runs silent mechanically, distinctive looks for a CD transport.
– Won’t match a whole lot of other gear visually if acquired on its own; the need to put in elbow grease to oil the wooden sleeve periodically.
CAN one relaunch and revivify a classic brand from decades ago based on the strength of retro aesthetics? International Audio Group, owner of several classic British marques, must think so and have relaunched the LEAK brand with a thoroughly modern integrated amplifier, the Stereo 130, complete with MM phono, onboard DAC and wireless Bluetooth capability, with the styling of its 1960s forebear. And while there was never a walnut-encased CD transport from that era, the amp is accompanied by the visually matching Leak CDT CD transport (there being no internal DAC in the unit).
Placed beside each other on a sympathetically-toned wooden sideboard with similar looking loudspeakers (such as the retro-looking Wharfedales, also part of IAG’s British brands portfolio) as seen from online fotos, the visual result is simply fabulous if that is the look one is going for. I felt the same with the older and more bijou Tivoli Audio gear. But this is an audiofool website, not a lifestyle or interior design one, so what level of sonic performance can we expect to flow from these LEAKs? Let’s find out.
The Stereo 130 and CDT have similar dimensions of 326 x 146cm for width and height, the transport being slightly deeper at 283mm to the amp’s 267mm, both more compact than ‘standard width’ components with the amp being heavier at 8.30kg to the CDT’s 6.9kg.
It may not have full streaming capabilities but in terms of connectivity, the amp pretty much fulfils all one could ask for from a performance-oriented “traditional” integrated amplifier at this price point – it has two line-level inputs, a JFET-based MM phono stage, and on the digital side, two Toslink optical, and one each of coaxial and asynchronous USB digital inputs (B type). One may stream music from a phone, tablet or other capable hardware wirelessly over aptX Bluetooth.
In terms of topology, the Stereo 130 is an old-school Class AB amplifier (2 x 45W into 8ohms, 2 x 65 into 4ohms) and Leak specifies that it uses a 200VA toroidal transformer which is followed by 2x15000uF reservoir capacity.
On the analogue output side, a 6.5mm headphone jack (via a dedicated amplifier circuit with current-feedback technology) aims to please more discerning cans users, while a pair of pre outs allow connection to a subwoofer or an external power amp if one intends to use the Stereo 130 as a pre-amplifier. The speaker binding posts cater for a single pair of loudpeakers, feel solid, and accommodate banana plugs too if those are your chosen connectors.
Digital outputs (optical and coaxial) are also provided for, though a fossil such as I can’t see how I would be using these.
In terms of specs, the DAC module within the amp utilises the ES9018 Sabre32 Reference chip with ESS Technology’s 32-bit HyperStream architecture and Time Domain Jitter Eliminator, and can process digital audio files in PCM (up to 32-bit/384kHz) and DSD (up to 11.2MHz/DSD256).
I like the fact that is has tone and balance controls, which I did use on occasion, especially when analogue cassette tapes (yes, still in regular use here) and FM radio were the source, but the sound is cleaner when the “direct” button is engaged.
There is not much to mention on the CDT. The mechanism is a slot-loader which tugs your disc in before reading its contents – it’s not the fastest of mechanisms to reach playability, but it’s no worse than your multi-format player. It was quiet during use but if you desperately want to hear whirring noises, just put your ear against the faceplate. Connections are by way of RCA coaxial and Toslink optical. A USB slot on the front panel allows the CDT to facilitate playback of FAT16/FAT32 formatted USB devices and accommodates WAV, AAC, WMA and the inevitably mandatory MP3 files.
If I am not mentioning any remote controllers and experience using them, it’s because the local dealers who generously supplied the review units decided that whichever reviewer got the gig, that fella needed the exercise walking up to the units and using the fascia controls. Another useful “green” feature is each has automated power down, which sends the units into standby mode if idling for a period of time.
I’ve never heard the original LEAK Stereo 30 or its other solid state offerings, and obviously there has not been any vintage Leak digital hardware, so I can’t offer any views on whether this modern pairing carries on any house sound traditions.
What I can say is the sound is thoroughly modern and nowhere like, say, old-school Sansui sound (the only “vintage” reference I had on hand). The amp was able to drive Apogee Centaurus Minors without much challenge in a smallish room, but it did not exhibit the sense of ease a higher current amp, such as the Austrian Crayon Audio CIA-1 which was used for comparison could. It was more comfortable with my old Triangle Ikotos and I suspect would pair best with warmer, slightly more laidback loudpeakers. Nonetheless, once I felt I had the right cable combination (avoid thinner sounding peripherals), the amp’s performance struck me as having a neutral to slightly forward balance, with a big open acoustic picture, conveying detail with ease and did impress against the more expensive comparison in-house units.
With so many connections to test, I opted to go first with the pairing’s CD performance. Here, CD sound was excellent – engaging, upbeat and full of life, a highly articulate midband with a nice airy treble. The Leak pairing presented things slightly differently depending on whether the optical or electrical connection was used. The coaxial connection was more balanced overall, slightly warmer and sweeter on top, but with a more compressed picture, the optical connection to the amp’s DAC eliciting a touch better separation and layering with the attack of cymbals and tambourines being clearer and vocalists’ breathing technique being more easily discerned. I felt the horns on a disco track like the Andrea True Connection’s More, More, More sounded, uh, truer.
Trying the CD transport with a separate high-end DAC, then also comparing it with the amp’s own DAC with signal from the optical output of an old DVD player, demonstrated clearly to these ears that a well-designed, and costlier transport is not an extravagance devoid of sonic benefit. The airiness and sense of rhythm and engagement receded when the DVD player as transport was compared to the clearer and more incisive Leak CDT. Cymbals took on a comparatively more smudged quality. The CDT is well worth considering on its own if you are looking for a standalone CD transport.
The MM phono stage gave preferable results with the lusher presentation of a Linn LP12-Ittok-K18ii than with a Denon high output MC on a Roksan-Rega vinyl rig, the phono stage mirroring the overall clarity, but with a warmer presentation with fine bass definition and extension, yet crisper and arguably more attractive and rhythmic sound than the CDT-internal DAC managed. It is difficult to isolate the characteristics of these stages from the contributions (or lack thereof) from the pre and power amp sections, but one is unlikely to be dissatisfied with the overall results.
There were no problems in pairing the Stereo 130 with my Oppo Reno cellphone. Not having a separate streamer or any online music subscription, I could not fully test the Stereo 130’s abilities here. However, the difference between a MacBook Air with a USB reclocker via wired USB and its Bluetooth-streamed equivalent of my favourite Indonesian pop song solo acoustic covers by Felix Irwan on his YouTube channel showed such a gap that I would tend to treat the wireless connection more as a convenience factor.
It also suggests the Stereo 130’s digital inputs do a great job of conditioning the incoming data before conversion, as the USB reclocker’s benefits, while still discernible, was of lesser magnitude than I recall with some other DACs I had used on other occasions.
Assessed as a separate preamp into a pair of Odyssey monoblock power amps showed that the preamp section was quite transparent, the line stages being quiet, and the phono and DAC being able to do a good job if one needed to resort to using more powerful amps for more demanding loudspeakers.
The headphone outputs was particularly satisfying to me, able to drive Sennheiser HD650s with a full-bodied sound to satisfactory levels without sounding pushy, the bass being firm without thickening. To me, it was easily preferable to the old ADL GT40 as a DAC-headphone amp combination.
THE LAST WORD
A strong sonic showing from a pairing which has a lot going for them then, each unit being of good value at their price points. I can enthusiastically recommend both, even on standalone basis.
Put it this way – I can’t think of any obvious options for a retro-looking compact sized CD-amp duo with this kind of ease of use, connectivity and performance level at this price. Yeah, a heftier wallet opens up going for McIntosh gear higher up the ladder for their different brand of retro but, even so, they may not have the aesthetics, connectivity and form factor which do it for you.
This pair gives the LEAK brand a solid (re)start, but where does it go from here? I suppose saying there may be demand for great sounding modernised visual replicas of the classic LEAK TL12 or Stereo 20 tube amplifiers is like saying there “may be” desire to see more of Luke Skywalker in his prime in future Disney+ Star Wars productions. The future looks anything but bleak for LEAK.
Sources: Linn LP12-Ittok-K18ii and Roksan Xerxes-RB251-Denon DL110 for vinyl, Toshiba DVD player as transport, Micromega Stage 3 CD player, Nakamichi Cassette Deck 2, Apple MacBook Air with Wyred4Sound Recovery USB Reclocker, Oppo Reno cellphone / Amplification: Audio Image AIME phono stage, Crayon CIA-1 integrated amp, Sansui QRX7001 receiver, Euphonic Research ATT-600 passive controller into Euphonic Research Amp80 or Odyssey Khartago monoblock power amps / Speakers: Triangle Ikoto, Apogee Centaurus Minor, Mordaunt Short MS10i / Assorted cables including Tara Labs Prism and Western Electric interconnects, XLO Reference Type 1A and diyparadise Whitesnake SPDIF coaxial, Symo LS5-SX, Supra Classic 4.0 speaker cables, various diy wires