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Leema Libra DAC Review
Companies that produce digital products, very crudely break down into three categories. There are those that buy the chipset of their choice and implement it in an off the shelf configuration. Then there are those that take stock chipsets but alter the surrounding hardware- DSPs, filters etc- to augment and alter its operation. Finally there are companies that, for want of a better term, ‘freestyle’ their digital decoding using their own software on ‘blank slate’ devices like FPGAs. The last category is a rare one. Put simply, the performance of many off the shelf components is so good, you have to be very confident indeed of doing a better job.
One brand that has taken the plunge is Leema Acoustics. While some of their earlier products took the multi DAC route, more recent products are built around what Leema refers to as the ‘Quattro Infinity’ module. This is an FPGA based DAC that offers the promise of ‘future proofing’ (a term so elastic in meaning as to warrant those quote marks) thanks to then being completely swappable. The latest product to feature this technology is the Libra DAC- a product that is both ambitious and- depending on how you look at it- not exactly a DAC.
This is because although it has plenty of digital inputs- and believe me, as we’ll cover in a bit, it has bloody loads of them- the Libra also has a healthy collection of analogue connections too and all of these have a volume control at their disposal. As such, the Libra makes a fairly strong case to be something a little different to rivals and if it genuinely does the things it is supposed to, it could be a very interesting piece of equipment indeed so without further ado, we need to plough through that considerable specification. Sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
The Libra is the result of Leema’s own Lee Taylor and Mallory Nicholls going back to basics in the business of digital to analogue conversion and addressing the areas that they believe are most important to the process. To this end, the Quattro Infinity is intended to fully balance the signal the Libra handles at every point including the management of the digital stream. The Libra is equipped with two DACs that are on completely separate paths. The digital stream is then further processed to produce a plus phase and a minus phase which is passed through the two sides of each DAC chip so that any common noise is cancelled on reintegration .The Infinity bit refers to the channel separation of this arrangement being infinite.
The Quattro Infinity arrangement is extremely clever but is designed to handle LPCM. As you can’t sell digital products that don’t do DSD these days (even though the catalogue of DSD material remains pretty niche), an additional Cirrus Logic CS4392 DAC is attached to each channel to allow for DSD64 and 128 to be handled as well as DXD. Interestingly, the Libra also supports DSD over coax, although I’ve no idea what sort of device can send this sort of signal.
The most widely accepted means of getting DSD to a product of this nature will be USB and here Leema has used their M1 USB module for this purpose. They claim that this is the only fully galvanically isolated USB module in use in the audio category. This is intended to completely eliminate the risk of noise from a computer making into the DAC and onwards into the audio stream. The module works with Windows, OSX and Linux and the relevant software is on the company’s website.
This processing horsepower is made available to a serious collection of inputs. The Libra supports ten digital inputs; three optical, three coaxial, one USB, two AES and an I2S connection (which can configured for different pin wiring arrangements to maximise its usefulness). Additionally, the Libra also supports bluetooth as a useful convenience connection.
Where the Libra goes a bit off piste in DAC terms is that it additionally supports three analogue inputs- all of which have the option of connecting via XLR or RCA connections. These connections are not digitised and instead run parallel with the digital ones- and naturally, if you connect via XLR, they are also fully balanced. All connections can be output over XLR or RCA analogue connection and additionally, the Leema can be switched in to operate as a preamp. To do this, a 248 step volume control is fitted. This can be switched out of the circuit or indeed employed in full drunken protection mode to massively reduce the volume when the input is changed, presumably to prevent you from putting a drivers in space.
The final connection is a Leema specific one. Like almost all members of the Leema family, the Libra is equipped with connections for the company’s LIPS connection system. This is a control bus that links Leema products together in a cohesive and logical way. Up to fifteen products can be connected in this way and the system can also be used to get a Leema system talking to a home integration system.
As you might expect, with thirteen inputs to be handled, the Libra is a fairly hefty piece of equipment. The DAC uses the same chassis as the rest of the Constellation Series and this includes the visible heatsinks on the sides of the chassis which the Libra probably doesn’t need but does give it a sense of purpose. The matt finish front panel is smart and understated and the controls are well weighted and thought out. Equally weighty is the hefty, all metal remote that comes as standard and feels wonderfully solid in the hand as well as being a doddle to use. This is a fairly expensive bit of kit but the build, features and general design are all in keeping with rivals even before the performance of that custom decoding is tested.
What is slightly less brilliant is the display. This is a white on blue effort that shows a fair amount of information on what the Libra is up to at any one time and it can of course also be switched off. It doesn’t- for me at least- feel completely convincing at this price point though. In a world of high contrast OLED and the like, it just feels a little old fashioned. Of course, Leema has some very deep pro roots and this display is perfect in that regard- plenty of information logically (ish) laid out but it’s not exactly a work of aesthetic brilliance. This being said, the Libra is easy to get setup and configured. The display combined with the rotary jog dial is self explanatory to use and covers the extensive setup options well.
The Libra has largely been tested connected to a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp and Neat Momentum 4i speakers. digital sources have included a Naim ND5XS streamer, Melco N1A NAS drive (via the USB connection) and a Sky HD box. Both the Libra and attendant equipment have been connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Sigmas mains conditioner. Material used has included 16/44.1kHz FLAC and higher resolutions, DSD and Tidal have also been used as well as 2.0 LPCM from the Sky box.
There’s an acid test that I find myself putting all these state of the art digital products through almost on a subconscious level. Once everything is in and running as is should, I will cue up an album that I’ve been listening to for its musical worth rather than because it fulfils some reviewing requirement. What needs to happen with any product of this nature is that if I find myself listening to the equipment and not enjoying the album, all that processing horsepower isn’t doing its job. If all that cleverness is sufficiently distracting that you’re listening for that and not the music, the point has been missed somewhat.
Happily, the Libra does a very good job at not being the story. In fact, the Libra makes strong efforts to avoid being the centre of attention at all times. What the Libra does is avoid any of the obvious calling cards of some high end digital rivals. Above everything else, it keeps the recording sounding like it did when the studio signed off on it. Revisiting the early 90s curio that is Boss Drum by The Shamen, the Libra doesn’t interfere with the hastily recorded live version of Comin’ On (a track only included because the studio version wasn’t ready). It still has the curious slight echo to it and irregular balance to the relationship between vocals and instrumental.
If this doesn’t sound terribly appealing, at the same time, the Libra extracts detail and information from the piece that has largely eluded my attention in the twenty three years since I first heard it. The brilliant balancing act is that the Libra makes the best of any given recording without ever stepping over into drastically altering it or putting its own spin on things. Furthermore, the performance of the Libra is impressively forgiving for something with the decoding power that this DAC has.
Of course, if you stop messing around with early nineties dance albums and feed it something rather more intense- the 24/96kHz download of Blackstar for example, the Libra is simply superb. Once again, it decodes the material with the lightest of light touches and aside from the tremendous detail retrieval, it simply sounds natural, effortlessly balanced and decidedly real. There is very little I’ve listened to recently that manages to be so honest and at the same time so able to overlook the flaws in less well recorded material. Some tests with DSD material over USB doesn’t show any change in tonality or behaviour despite the involvement of those additional DACs.
Criticising the Libra for being so calmly self-effacing is a somewhat pointless exercise as this is clearly what Leema has intended to do with it. Compared to the Naim ND5XS, the Leema can seem a little relaxed with faster and more high impact material but when you listen to something that has no need of this propulsive force, the advantages of the Libra’s wonderfully open and honest presentation come to the fore. If you have a varied collection of material that spans different genres, tempos and styles, the Libra is the device you need to make it all sound good rather than the perfectly honed tool for a single job.
The other area where the Libra makes a strong case for itself is the consistency with which it performs across the inputs. I would not wish to gamble any of my own money on telling the difference on material played via USB directly from a Melco N1A and via the ND5XS (also using the Melco) via coax. If you do have a number of digital sources to collate, this is a truly well sorted means of doing so. A brief experiment with the Libra switched to preamp mode also suggests that it is effortlessly linear in gain terms and totally consistent in its characteristics at all volume levels. An equally quick check with a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage connected via XLR into the analogue inputs leaves the characteristics of the Cyrus completely intact. All the Libra does in comparison to a direct connection to the Supernait is fractionally open out the soundstage of most recordings- an area where Naim has never really placed huge credence. The preamp functionality of the Libra is far from an afterthought and implemented with the same care as the decoding section.
In terms of its place in the market, the Libra is a slightly strange fish. It is far from unusual for a DAC to sport a volume control in 2016 but for it to have assumed the role of an analogue preamp at the same time is rather bolder. What is truly impressive is that the Libra has managed to balance all of this functionality with the effortlessness of the scales of its namesake. It simply delivers music with an honesty, accuracy and refinement that gives it tremendous all round ability. This is a specialised area of the market but the Libra does so much right, it deserves to be on anyone’s audition list for a DAC- or indeed a preamp at this price point.
Contact; Leema Acoustics
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