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What’s not to like? Leak’s Stereo 130 integrated + CDT player

  • Vintage hi-fi has a certain appeal to a certain kind of person. While some may claim this appeal is tainted with nostalgia, others would argue that some classic designs still reign supreme.

    Leak Audio, originally called H. J. LEAK & CO Ltd when it was founded by Harold Joseph Leak in 1934 in London, was responsible for manufacturing a number of well-loved classics, most notably two tube-based amplifiers from 1958 — the Stereo 20 and Stereo 50. The Stereo 20 used a quad of EL84’s in the output stage for 10 Watts per channel of output power, while the Stereo 50 employed a quad of EL34s for 25 Watts per channel.

    The LEAK Stereo 30 integrated amplifier pumped out, you guessed it, 30 Watts of output power and was introduced in 1963 and represented the company’s first foray into solid-state amplification. H.J. Leak retired in 1969 and sold his brand to the Rank Organization. This new incarnation lasted but 10 years when the Leak brand was discontinued in 1979.

    The International Audio Group (IAG), who owns a number of classic hi-fi brands including Wharfdale and Quad, re-launched Leak Audio in 2020 with the solid-state Stereo 130 integrated amplifier and matching CDT CD transport. I have a hunch – mind you, it’s just a guess – that those people who feel some classic designs still reign supreme would have greeted the rebooted Leak Audio brand with more enthusiasm if its first product had been a tube-based amplifier.

    The Leak Stereo 130 is what I like to call a full-function integrated amplifier as it includes a Moving Magnet (MM) phono input, a DAC, and a headphone amplifier. Digital to analog conversion comes courtesy of the ESS Sabre32 Reference ES9018K2M DAC which can handle PCM resolutions up to 24bit/384kHz and DSD to DSD256 via USB. The three S/PDIF digital inputs (1x Toslink, 2x Coax) are PCM-only and max out at 24bit/192kHz. Users can also connect to the Stereo 130 via Bluetooth using the aptX or AAC codecs. 2V Triggers are included for tethering the Stereo 130 to the matching CDT player so you can control both units with the same included remote.

    There’s a pre-amplifier output for those wishing to use their own outboard power amplifier, as well as two digital outputs (Toslink and Coax) for sending your bits down the line, perhaps to a different hi-fi. A single pair of loudspeaker binding posts, power toggle switch, and IEC receptacle complete the rear panel’s ins and outs.

    Around the front, we find three small knobs for tone control (bass and treble) and balance and a small rectangular button to bypass these functions and engage Direct mode, which are flanked by two large knobs on either of the unit’s sides for input selection and volume control. Another power push button sits in the lower right corner next to the Stereo 130’s 1/4” headphone jack. The front panel is silver with a black band at the bottom, echoing the look of the original Stereo 30 integrated amplifier. The company logo is also painted on in an art deco script, matching the logo found on the original Stereo 20 and Stereo 50 amplifiers.

    Of course, I saved the most visually retro bit for last as the Stereo 130 is wrapped in a lovely walnut case, just like the old days. Let’s face it, nothing says retro like a wood case and I have to admit that upon first seeing the Leak Stereo 130, I checked my mental “want” button.

    I am an unrepentant lover of vintage hi-fi. I recently began a trip down memory lane with FlashBack-Fi, a new feature on Twittering Machines where I spend time with and write about some classic hi-fi. I also own a lovely early 1970s-era Sansui AU-555A solid-state integrated amplifier. Here’s one thing I can tell about vintage hi-fi: if you think vintage hi-fi has a “vintage sound” then you haven’t spent much time listening to vintage hi-fi.

    The Class A/B Stereo 130 breaks with Leak’s naming tradition as it offers 45 Watts per channel into 8 Ohms (sticking with convention, that would have made this the Stereo 90), and 64 Watts into 4 Ohms. The Stereo 130’s size is a retro-friendly 12.83″ x 5.74″ x 10.86” and weighs in at a reassuring 18.29lbs. Overall I find the fit and finish to be rather exceptional and fully in keeping with the Stereo 130’s US$1195 asking price. If you’re thinking along the lines of what I thought, “Hmm — so much money went into the looks, I wonder if they short-changed the sound?”, let’s get down to it.

    If you don’t believe in break-in you can skip this paragraph and get back to other forms of denial. When played fresh out of the box, the Leak Stereo 130 sounded rather anaemic. Dynamics were soft, impact was subdued, and the prevailing tone color was sepia-tinged. Before I got too worked up, I employed my normal routine of letting the Stereo 130 play background music 24/7 before entering review-mode. As a matter of fact, I’d say it took about a week of 24/7 time before I sat down and started to give the Stereo 130 a serious listen. If I’d written anything about its sound prior to that, it would not have been pretty.

    Sources for the review period included a Bluesound Node 2i as a streamer going out via coax into the Leak, my Rega P3 (2002) sporting the budget-friendly Nagaoka MP-110 MM cartridge, and the Leak CDT as transport connected to the Stereo 130 via Toslink.

    Would you drink red wine while eating vanilla ice cream? Put chocolate sauce on salmon? Pair caviar with Monster Energy? While someone out there may have thought, “Sure!” to one or more of these scenarios, the point I’m making is we take care when mixing and matching things we eat just as we need to take care when mating an amplifier with speakers. Of course, there’s an ideal out there for some listeners where an amplifier has no sound at all — which makes perfect sense if you plan on connecting it to a unicorn. Otherwise, the speaker/amplifier pairing is a matter of finding the combination that appeals most to our sonic preferences. The more character a given amplification component has, the more finicky it will be in terms of finding the perfect loudspeaker mate.

    The Leak Stereo 130 has a character which I would categorize as being on the incisive and leaner side of the sonic spectrum. When I initially started listening, I had the Leak driving the DeVore O/93s because I am very familiar with these speakers even though I doubt anyone buying the Leak would consider using it with a pair of US$8000+ loudspeakers. That being said, to get a gauge on the Stereo 130’s overall sound signature, the DeVore’s acted as a very telling partner. This combination offered a presentation that placed the focus on rhythmic energy and drive. This character held whether streaming from the Bluesound Node 2i, playing records, or spinning CDs on the Leak CDT. I would describe the overall sound as being a bit bleached, where elements like body, tone, and texture were more shelved down then I’m used to and a bit too lean for my sonic predilections.

    Moving to a more sensible mate in terms of price, the Dali Oberon 3 stand-mount speakers (US$899/pair) are themselves a fast-sounding transducer, with an emphasis on dynamics and pace. As such, the Leak / Dali pairing moved my focus to music’s rhythmic movement with a clarity that nicely highlighted vocals and lead instruments, separating them out from the mix in a very distinct manner. This focus played well with singer-songwriter music allowing Dylan, Beth Orton, and Adrianne Lenker to hover in-between and out-in-front of the Oberon 3s for closer inspection. The overall sound image reached well beyond the Oberon’s physical placement, extending in every dimension with a clear and present sense of the space of the recording. This combination also displayed taught and well-formed bass response – albeit on the lighter side – adding to a greater focus on music’s speed and dexterity.

    I would not call the Leak / Dali combination rich. Music’s timbral density and varied voices were somewhat played down in the general sense, as opposed to a comparative sense. If you crave a rich, warm, full-bodied sound, this is not the combination for you.

    My favorite Leak partner – and by a significant margin – was the Golden Ear BRX stand-mount speakers ($1598/pair). The Golden Ear are wonderfully rich and full-bodied regardless of the amplifier, allowing such strengths to mate perfectly with the Leak’s leaner, faster personality. Here, I felt I was once again reunited with music’s fuller voice as tone and texture moved to the fore of the presentation. In my experience, tone, texture, and nuance are largely responsible for conveying music’s emotive qualities and I find myself craving this aspect of reproduction. So while I enjoyed listening through the Leak / Dali pairing, I settled into Golden Ear / Leak-land with greater comfort and involvement and began to hone in on the message contained in the music and away from the parts that make up the whole.

    I also preferred using the Stereo 130 in its Direct mode, one that bypasses its tone and balance controls — music sounded more immediate and crisp. With these controls engaged, I heard a subtle softening of the presentation, moving my level of engagement a few notches in the wrong direction. While I could juice up the bass response in the hope of locating a richer sound signature, I found doing so only overly emphasized the bass response. In Direct Mode, I found the Stereo 130 offered a more balanced and (dare I say) direct presentation.

    The Stereo 130’s sonic character remained fairly consistent across all sources. The only notable exception was the Rega / Nagaoaka combination’s sweeter handling of the uppermost frequencies. While I would not call the Leak’s digital side sharp or glassy, it does lean toward an etched presentation, shifting focus away from tone and texture toward incisiveness and cleanly drawn player outlines.

    Bluetooth really is the icing on this retro-modern cake. I streamed Les Filles de Illighadad’s album of the same name from my iPhone, using the Tidal app, sending this deceptively simple acoustic music to the Leak in CD-quality and found myself very happy to hear it reproduced with everything that counts. The sole acoustic guitar had a nice sense of body and string sparkle, and the vocals were intimate and stirring. While this same album sounded even more present when streamed from the Bluesound Node 2i with a greater sense of the space of the recording and richer tone and texture, my view of Bluetooth is it’s a great feature that allows other people to easily connect to and enjoy someone else’s stereo system. Here’s to the day when we can have house parties again so we get to use Bluetooth for its inclusivity!

    The Leak’s internal headphone amplifier, when paired with the AudioQuest NightOwl headphones, tips music to the darker side. While I can enjoy, and love, an amplifier with lots of character, in this case, with the NightOwls, I found that hand to be a bit too heavy as it imparted a sonic homogeneity to music that would otherwise offer variation and delight. As anyone who has read my reviews knows, I do not typically listen through headphones and the NightOwls are the only headphones I have on hand, so consider my take on the Leak’s headphone performance limited to this pairing and without the benefit of broad experience in this department.

    The NAD C 338 streaming integrated amplifier (US$699, review here), which I reviewed a few months ago, offers an interesting point of comparison. In the NAD review I described its sound as being “fat, fit and fun” — descriptors that I would not attach to the Leak. The NAD shifts music’s focus to a richer and more full-bodied midrange and away from the Leak’s more incisive, fleeter sound. The NAD also presents a smaller and more tightly packed sound image as compared to the Leak, making it more difficult to distinguish the parts that make up the whole with more complex music. With the NAD in play, Dylan, Orton, and Lenker had more body and emotive impact while stepping a few paces back in the mix and in the room. I described the NAD as presenting a ”big ball of energy” in that review, a presentation unlike the Leak’s where music’s elements become more distinct mainly in terms of physical location. I would also give the nod to the Leak in terms of upper-frequency extension and dynamic impact.

    Moving up the price ladder to the Hegel H95 (US$2000), I found what I consider to be a more balanced and overall more convincing presentation in every area of sound reproduction. While costing a multiple of the NAD’s asking price and US$800 more than the Stereo 130, the Hegel offers a more neutral presentation where attention isn’t drawn away from music’s meaning by shifting the focus to the distinct elements that form the whole. The Hegel draws you into music’s heart and soul with a full-bodied, textured, and nuanced sound.

    The Leak CDT Transport has an interesting feature — the ability to play music stored on a USB drive from its front-mounted USB input. While I would not give the CDT the upper hand in terms of sound quality as compared to the Stereo 130’s digital inputs, I know some people are still attached to spinning discs and some (many?) of these same people tend to shy away from streaming, preferring ownership and collecting physical media to a monthly music lease. As a CD Transport I found nothing to criticize with the Leak and we cannot ignore the fact that if you like the look of the Leak Stereo 130, you’ll love the look of these new Leak components sitting side-by-side.

    At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, IAG spent a fair share of their investment dollars reviving the Leak brand because of the company’s pedigree and a lineage that is decidedly vintage in its appeal. I am certain, because I count myself among this group, that some people will simply see the new Leak Stereo 130 and matching CDT and think, Cool! I could live with that! And while I doubt any admirers of the Stereo 130 would disregard sound quality, few would be on the hunt for a straight wire with gain in a walnut-wrapped chassis.

    The Leak Stereo 130 has a character that extends beyond its looks and when mated with a complimentary speaker like the Golden Ear BRX, it offers many strengths that will neatly complement any music you care to play through it. If we add up all of the Stereo 130’s pluses which include a very good sounding DAC, an equally-well-sorted MM phono stage, eminently enjoyable Bluetooth connectivity and a headphone amplifier, all wrapped in a vintage-inspired aesthetic and at a price that won’t obliterate the bank, the only question remaining is: what’s not to like?

    Further information: Leak Audio

    Michael Lavorgna

    Written by Michael Lavorgna

    Michael Lavorgna was born in Paterson, NJ into an audiophile’s home. He’s been listening to music on the hi-fi since the ‘60s and has been writing about this experience for some 15 years. Michael has contributed to 6moons and Stereophile and was the editor of (the recently-disappeared) AudioStream from its inception in 2010 until 2018. Michael's new home is TwitteringMachines.com.

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