LEAK Stereo 130 Amplifier & CDT CD Transport Review
Stereo 130 Amplifier (AUD $1,995 RRP)
CDT CD Transport (AUD $1395 RRP)
The iconic Leak brand is back. A name that's indelibly stamped into the annals of hi-fi history, it was responsible for some important milestones in audio. Valve fans know it as the purveyor of great classic tube amplifiers like the Point One (1945), with its exceptionally low quoted total harmonic distortion of 0.1%. Then there was arguably the world's best-sounding analogue radio tuner, the Trough-Line (1955), and latterly the lovely and surprisingly modern-sounding Stereo 20 power amplifier (1958). Last but not least was Leak's technically advanced Sandwich loudspeaker (1961), with its advanced aluminium foil and polystyrene cone drive units.
Now, International Audio Group – which also owns the Audiolab, Luxman, Mission, Quad and Wharfedale marques– has resurrected Leak, and we're all being invited to swim around in a sea of nostalgia. Let's be clear here; the new Stereo 130 integrated amplifier and CDT CD transport reviewed have absolutely nothing to do with the company that Harold Leak founded in 1934. These two bits of kit are exercises in badge engineering, made in IAG's Shenzhen factory in China with some platform sharing from Audiolab. There's no Leak DNA, aside from the aforementioned company's legal right to use the name.
So hi-fi purists may disapprove of the re-use of an iconic and hitherto moribund marque. But think of it another way – these two hi-fi separates are affordable, feature-packed and look rather nice in a retro sort of way. Indeed they're cute and have sunny personalities in the way that many bland silver and black boxes do not – so what's wrong with that? What harm can come of making eye-catching kit with an interesting backstory that might get people not previously into separates hi-fi, to part with the hard-earned cash? That's my take on it.
Under the skin, there's nothing olde worlde about Leak's new Stereo 130 integrated amplifier and CDT CD transport. The amp may be styled to look like the company's first transistor amplifier – the Stereo 30 of 1963 – but is achingly modern inside. Under the hood of this amp, you won't find any EF86 or ECC81 tubes in the gain stages, or GZ34s doing the rectification. Instead, it's a conventional solid-state product that's claimed to put out a modest 2x 45W RMS of Class AB power into 8 ohms and 2x 65W RMS into 4. Indeed much of it is based on the popular Quad Vena II integrated, I am reliably informed.
In some markets, the amp is available with or without an optional wood sleeve; the former variant tested here measures 326x146x267mm. Fitted as standard is an aptX Bluetooth module and a built-in ES9018K2M Sabre32 Reference DAC, offering playback of hi-res PCM (up to 32-bit/384kHz) and DSD (up to 11.2MHz/DSD256) via optical, coaxial or USB digital inputs around the back. Also included is a JFET-based MM phono stage and a dedicated headphone amplifier, complete with current-feedback circuitry. The power supply comprises a 200VA toroidal transformer, followed by 2x15000uF reservoir capacity, with independent power supplies feeding all critical stages.
In terms of features, that heavily stylised front fascia offers bass and treble controls together with a tone defeat switch in the middle, plus a motorised ALPS volume potentiometer. The input selector is a modern relay switched type and sometimes takes a while to unmute itself while moving between sources. With its wooden sleeve, the Leak feels a rather classy thing – although the plastic knobs aren't particularly nice to the touch. The supplied remote is a let down – it's a low rent plastic affair that's pretty generic; perhaps IAG could offer an optional wood-cased version, to match the sleeve?
Under its skin, the matching Leak CDT transport is pure twenty-first century – it's basically an Audiolab 6000CDT in drag, plus a front-mounted port for USB drives. That's no bad thing by the way, as the slot-loading mechanism is nice to use and the backlit LC display is crisp and readable. It comes in its own electromagnetically shielded enclosure with a dedicated power supply; the master clock is controlled by a temperature-compensated crystal oscillator, and has vanishingly low levels of jitter, claims Leak. The coaxial output is fed from a differential line driver to ensure a flawless digital signal reaches the accompanying DAC.
The Stereo 130 has a fundamentally clean and smooth sound with plenty of life and a fair degree of power, allied to a slightly warm and soft bass that's enjoyably bouncy. It serves up plenty of information about the recording you're playing and constructs a wide soundstage into which everything is fitted. Considering its modest cost, it delivers a decent sound for the money, but here the story ends. It's no giant killer and its Leak heritage – real or imagined – doesn't really count for much in sonic terms.
Fed from the CDT transport directly into its built-in DAC's coaxial digital input, this Leak combo offers an enjoyable and engaging sound, but rivals such as the Cyrus One HD offer a bigger, more three-dimensional performance with greater insight and refinement. The Leak Stereo 130 is cheap and cheerful with a happy, upbeat sort of nature, but it won't keep audiophiles interested for long. I found its handling of Japan's Swing to be a bit ponderous. I enjoyed the largish soundstage and the slightly fuller than usual upper bass, but the midband was too opaque to really keep my attention. Treble was quite mechanical sounding, with a slightly cold and over-etched quality to hi-hat cymbals for example, that didn't charm as much as I'd hoped.
Siouxsie and the Banshees' Swimming Horses proved enjoyable enough for a budget system, with a fair degree of life and emotion coming from this classic eighties indie rock epic. The Leak combo seemed well able to fix upon certain elements in the mix and let the listener zoom in on them, and follow them through the duration of the song. Yet these tended to be the more forward parts, leaving the subtle low-level detail behind just a bit out of focus. This made for a slightly insubstantial listen that didn't really get to the heart and soul of the music. It was fine for general use, but is certainly no hot-rodded audiophile special like Rotel's A11 Tribute integrated amplifier.
Give this Leak combo a nice, simple, relatively uncluttered mix, and it's at it best. It made a good fist of Randy Crawford's You Might Need Somebody, where it got into a groove fairly well and kept the music flowing. Yet it's not something that can really inspire you to listen harder and deeper, and this is partly down to its somewhat curtailed dynamics. It's more limited in outright power than some rivals and lacks that last one-tenth of push-and-shove that turns a workmanlike performance into a passionate one. Overall then, this Leak combo works well up to a point, but when you go past it, you're left wishing you had more power and/or current driving ability.
I found the Stereo 130 sounded a bit more three dimensional via its line inputs, fed by my reference Cyrus CD Xt Signature CD transport and Chord Hugo TT2 DAC. Of course, these are substantially more high end than the ancillaries the Leak amplifier will generally find itself being used with. Still, it showed that the Stereo 130 was good enough to let me enjoy the superior signal. Kraftwerk's Tour de France Soundtracks was a respectable listen and sounded more spacious, with superior depth perspective compared to the built-in DAC. It made for an interesting few minutes, yet still, I wasn't quite transported away into a dream-like trance…
The essence of the Stereo 130/CDT combination is its pleasing and characterful retro style. It's not an out-and-out performance option at the price, but rather it attempts to be a jack-of-all-trades, and master of none. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as in today's fickle world of consumer culture, the Leak combo rather strikes a chord. It looks good and sounds decent – way better than many so-called 'lifestyle' systems that are bought on the strength of styling alone. The latter often have tissue-thin bass and/or screechy high frequencies, a combination that's enough to put you off listening to music altogether.
Thumbs aloft then, for this quirky retro-styled integrated amplifier and CD transport combination. I can see what the people behind the resurrected Leak brand are trying to do, and good luck to them. It's just that dyed-in-the-grain audiophiles should look elsewhere – either to the equivalent Audiolabs, or the aforementioned new Rotel CD11/A11 Tribute series.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.