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Leema Acoustics Element DAC & Preamp Review

Rate this DAC & Pre-amp

  • 1. Poor (headless panther)

    Votes: 17 11.1%
  • 2. Not terrible (postman panther)

    Votes: 51 33.3%
  • 3. Fine (happy panther)

    Votes: 78 51.0%
  • 4. Great (golfing panther)

    Votes: 7 4.6%

  • Total voters
    153

AudioSceptic

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First of all , thanx to Amir for doing the review. The device was mine, and although Amir had it for a while and I originally didn't put any urgency on its return, but recently, I found a buyer for it and asked for it back, thinking it is too old anyway, so Amir must have reservations for doing the review. Perhaps, Amir didn't have the time to do a full review, I am guessing.
Also, it should be noted it first came out over 10 years ago! so it is a blast from the past, just educational to see how far DACs and preamps have come (or haven't!!).
Leema were two ex-BBC engineers (yes, again :)) that started off making near-field speakers for pro industry, then moved on to other things. The industrial, pro, tank-like design reflects that.
There were two silent versions, this unit, was originally the early version, then updated by Leema for FREE, after warranty had ran out (Thanx Leema).
The early version had a different USB input board and susceptible to noise etc, Leema quietly upgraded the input board to add galvanic isolation to the USB. This is way before most manufacturers started worrying about such things.
The PSU is doing a stellar job, and the whole device (forget about the list price) is very comparable with modern DACs, using latest chips. They certainly had paid particular attention to details, these days we take for granted, hence their assertion The devil is in the details.
The DAC uses four chips, and is of balanced nature, hence the reduced 2nd harmonic and increased third. The analogue is not, hence the minute prevailing 2nd (the extra third is only on one channel, could be a fluke).
To me, subjectively, it has always sounded wonderful. And I have modern day DACs to compare it with.

The analogue input was put there originally (back in 2011) for compatibility with older equipments, and Leema also makes Phono input stages.
It is a purely analogue path, but the device can output it in balanced mode too.
For those interested in opamp rollings, this unit uses the 5532! just take a look at analogue performance.

The $2195 List Price, is historical information, I doubt it is still in production, though some dealers may still have stock. At the time, I believe I paid £999.

Most DACs use digital volume control, to add analogue input, means either using an ADC or analogue volume control. That's where the extra cost and complexity is.
And to do it right, to do justice to the digital section.

That is correct, the encoder is digital, the volume control is analogue, even for the digital section.
It is a digitally controlled resistor ladder chip (4 channel). It controls all volume controls, and has memory. Meaning, it remembers last setting on individual inputs.
You can see small discrepancies on channel volume balancing.
On the website this looks like it's a current product, one of the Elements range.
 

AudioSceptic

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How about the owner attaching a note telling Amir that it's coming from the UK and requires 230v ? The hand written magic marker "230 VAC" doesn't exactly jump out at the user.
It's close to the power socket, hand-written or not. In fact, being hand-written would make it *more* likely that I would read it. :)
 

anmpr1

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As others mentioned, for about the same price, the Benchmark is more flexible. In my setup I use both both RCA analog inputs (in addition to the balanced), so that's important. I rarely use the headphone output--one mutes all other outputs (for headphone listening), while the other doesn't. I'm not sure what the purpose of that function is--that is, why one would want to have their loudspeaker live when they are wearing headphones. But it's there if you need it.

The Leema remote appears to work in combination with their CD player, so if you had a complete Leema system you'd have more remote functionality. The Leema It looks like a typical plastic TV or VCR remote. The Benchmark is solid metal, yet shaped so that you can't tell which position it's in just by feel. If I was advising them I'd suggest they square either the top or bottom, to make it easier to 'feel' which end is up.

The Benchmark front panel has been criticized for it's 'complicated' multi LED display, but once you get used to how it works, it is both easy and quick to understand and interpret. My guess is that it is more intuitive to manipulate than the Leema.

dac3.jpg

Untitled.jpg
 

fatface

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Whats is the "lips" input? Never seen a input labeled with that.
The Leema LIPS system allows Leema to maximise dynamic range and minimise potential noise pollution. When the 3.5 mm LIPS control connection is made between the Tucana II integrated amplifier and the Hydra II power amp the signal at the Pre-amp output is always at full level and the LIPS system activates a volume control inside the Hydra (under control of the Tucana’s own volume control).. Running a robust full level signal between the two units allows for a significant step in performance. The system can also be deployed between the Pyxis II Pre-amp to Hydra or Libra DAC/Pre to Hydra II. Multiple Hydra II power amps can be controlled.
 

Ken Tajalli

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As others mentioned, for about the same price, the Benchmark is more flexible. In my setup I use both both RCA analog inputs (in addition to the balanced), so that's important. I rarely use the headphone output--one mutes all other outputs (for headphone listening), while the other doesn't. I'm not sure what the purpose of that function is--that is, why one would want to have their loudspeaker live when they are wearing headphones. But it's there if you need it.
Dac3, if I am not mistaken, came out in 2017, that is 6 years after.
This device is between DAC1 and DAC2 if memory serves. There was a DAC1-pre which did have an analogue input.
Frankly at the time, I had this unit, the DAC1 (not pre version), the original M-DAC (audiolab) and another from PS Audio (can't remember) on loan for a week! I chose the Leema at the end, using my ears only. DAC1 would have been my second choice, M-DAC my third.
And I am glad I did, never gave me any issues, support from Leema was excellent, and the sound quality served me well for years.
 

PeteL

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I rarely use the headphone output--one mutes all other outputs (for headphone listening), while the other doesn't. I'm not sure what the purpose of that function is--that is, why one would want to have their loudspeaker live when they are wearing headphones. But it's there if you need it.
I think that Benchmark also have a foot in the pro world. Line outs are not only for loudspeakers, it can be feeding many different things, a live broadcast, a recording, a mix with other analog sources, etc.
 

AudioSceptic

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Dac3, if I am not mistaken, came out in 2017, that is 6 years after.
This device is between DAC1 and DAC2 if memory serves. There was a DAC1-pre which did have an analogue input.
Frankly at the time, I had this unit, the DAC1 (not pre version), the original M-DAC (audiolab) and another from PS Audio (can't remember) on loan for a week! I chose the leema, at the end, using my ears only. DAC1 would have been my second choice, M-DAC my third.
And I am glad I did, never gave me any issues, support from Leema was excellent, and the sound quality served me well for years.
So, the DAC1 has been replaced by the DAC2 and the DAC2 by the DAC3 since the Leema came out. As the Leema is still current, wouldn't you expect it to have been upgraded by now, to at least Mk 2 status?
 

Ken Tajalli

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So, the DAC1 has been replaced by the DAC2 and the DAC2 by the DAC3 since the Leema came out. As the Leema is still current, wouldn't you expect it to have been upgraded by now, to at least Mk 2 status?
Ask Leema, I am not their rep.
I suppose. Culture may have something to do with it.
Most smaller British manufacturers rather take their time and design for longevity and not bring out a mk2 as such, as it might irk their customers. We like things to last forever!
US and specially far-east manufacturers have the opposite attitude. My assumption.
 

DonR

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First of all , thanx to Amir for doing the review. The device was mine, and although Amir had it for a while and I originally didn't put any urgency on its return, but recently, I found a buyer for it and asked for it back, thinking it is too old anyway, so Amir must have reservations for doing the review. Perhaps, Amir didn't have the time to do a full review, I am guessing.
Also, it should be noted it first came out over 10 years ago! so it is a blast from the past, just educational to see how far DACs and preamps have come (or haven't!!).
Leema were two ex-BBC engineers (yes, again :)) that started off making near-field speakers for pro industry, then moved on to other things. The industrial, pro, tank-like design reflects that.
There were two silent versions, this unit, was originally the early version, then updated by Leema for FREE, after warranty had ran out (Thanx Leema).
The early version had a different USB input board and susceptible to noise etc, Leema quietly upgraded the input board to add galvanic isolation to the USB. This is way before most manufacturers started worrying about such things.
The PSU is doing a stellar job, and the whole device (forget about the list price) is very comparable with modern DACs, using latest chips. They certainly had paid particular attention to details, these days we take for granted, hence their assertion The devil is in the details.
The DAC uses four chips (edit: two stereo DAC chips equalling four), and is of balanced nature, hence the reduced 2nd harmonic and increased third. The analogue is not, hence the minute prevailing 2nd (the extra third is only on one channel, could be a fluke).
To me, subjectively, it has always sounded wonderful. And I have modern day DACs to compare it with.

The analogue input was put there originally (back in 2011) for compatibility with older equipments, and Leema also makes Phono input stages.
It is a purely analogue path, but the device can output it in balanced mode too.
For those interested in opamp rollings, this unit uses the 5532! just take a look at analogue performance.

The $2195 List Price, is historical information, I doubt it is still in production, though some dealers may still have stock. At the time, I believe I paid £999.

Most DACs use digital volume control, to add analogue input, means either using an ADC or analogue volume control. That's where the extra cost and complexity is.
And to do it right, to do justice to the digital section.

That is correct, the encoder is digital, the volume control is analogue, even for the digital section.
It is a digitally controlled resistor ladder chip (4 channel). It controls all volume controls, and has memory. Meaning, it remembers last setting on individual inputs.
You can see small discrepancies on channel volume balancing.
Thanks for sending it in Ken. Interesting that you paid under £1000 pounds for it. 10 years ago that would have been very reasonable given performance/features. Once again, the lowly 5532 is vindicated.
 

AudioSceptic

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Ask Leema, I am not their rep.
I suppose. Culture may have something to do with it.
Most smaller British manufacturers rather take their time and design for longevity and not bring out a mk2 as such, as it might irk their customers. We like things to last forever!
US and specially far-east manufacturers have the opposite attitude. My assumption.
I agree that things should be made to last (think of the "real" Quad, for instance), but when something falls behind isn't it time for a new version? I doubt that Benchmark is a huge company but they do it when they feel it's required.

Having said that, the Leema is better than needed for Red Book so perhaps I'm just talking rubbish!
 

Keened

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dsnyder0cnn

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I was looking for something that still had analog inputs. Ended up buying a Schiit Saga S just to be able to switch them.
I ended up going a similar route with the Gustard X16 DAC + Topping Pre90/Ext90. About $1,350 for the combo, but all of the digital inputs I could want, four pairs of analog XLR inputs, two RCA, and better performance across the board.
 

12Many

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Good info. Having analog input is less common then not and if you have an analog source, it is not to have that included. Good to know of more options. As others have mentioned, another DAC at this price point, with analog inputs, is the Benchmark DAC3. It seems to test better.
 

AudioSceptic

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Good info. Having analog input is less common then not and if you have an analog source, it is not to have that included. Good to know of more options. As others have mentioned, another DAC at this price point, with analog inputs, is the Benchmark DAC3. It seems to test better.
The Benchmark has 2 analogue inputs, and you have the choice of an HP amp or not.
 

LTig

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Another current alternative is the RME ADI-2 PRO fs. It has one of each digital inputs USB, AES, SPDIF Coax and Toslink and one analog input (XLR) which is digitized and hence all the gimmics (EQ, tone controls, crossfeed, loudness, ...) can be used similar to the digital inputs.
 

Cars-N-Cans

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A visual inspection before plugging it in would show it's 230V.

You would think visual inspection and a little shake to listen to any rattling would be a good idea before plugging it in when people are sending equipment to him?
Perhaps. But I don't know what ratio of equipment sent is normally 120V, or what his workload is. I'd imagine the usual work flow is to do a quick visual for damage, and then plug it in to make sure it powers up. For a dedicated 240V device its easier to miss as there are no stern warnings next to a switch, which is what we normally see here in the states, and its rare now to get equipment that is only one voltage. Here I suspect it has a toroidal transformer with separate taps, which is something you normally see in large linear amps, but some DACs do use them. If he was in a 240V country then yes, it would be mandatory as its catastrophic failure.
 

sarumbear

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Amirm, It concerns me that you didn't even bother checking it was 230V before plugging it in......... and it took you half an hour to figure it out.

No comment
CF8817D3-A44F-4EEC-98B0-C9033867F262.jpeg
 

pvehling

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96khz is the max for older class hardware (UAC1?) I think.. Until UAC2 came out at least. It's allegedly the reason Audioquest Dragonflies limit to 96khz.
 

Ken Tajalli

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96khz is the max for older class hardware (UAC1?) I think.. Until UAC2 came out at least. It's allegedly the reason Audioquest Dragonflies limit to 96khz.
I think Amir said it didn't show anything below 96kHz.
With a Windows driver (available from site) it happily goes to 192kHz on ASIO and/or WASAPI, with adjustable buffer sizes.
Never had any issues.
 

pvehling

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I think Amir said it didn't show anything below 96kHz.
With a Windows driver (available from site) it happily goes to 192kHz on ASIO and/or WASAPI, with adjustable buffer sizes.
Never had any issues.
Ah strange. For reference, here is the old USB standard as opposed to newer UAC2:

USB Audio Class 1 standard (1998)
This standard allows for 24 bits/96 kHz max.
The standard itself doesn't impose any limitation on sample rate.
Class 1 is tied to USB 1 Full Speed = 12 MHz

Every millisecond a package is send.
Maximum package size is 1024 bytes.
2 channel * 24 bit * 96000 Hz sample rate= 4608000 bits/s or 576 Byte/ms

This fits in the 1024 byte limit.

Any higher popular sample rate e.g. 176 kHz needs 1056 bytes so in excess of the maximum package size.

All popular operating systems support USB Audio Class 1 natively. 
This means you don’t need to install drivers, it is plug&play.

All support 2 channel audio with 24 bit words and 96 kHz sample rate
USB Audio Class 2 standard (2009)
USB Audio Class 2 additionally supports 32 bit and all common sample rates > 96 kHz
Class 2 uses High Speed (480 MHz). This requires USB 2 or 3.
As the data rate of High Speed is 40 X Full speed, recording a 60 channel using 24 bits at 96 kHz (132 Mbit/s) is not a problem.
Using High Speed USB for playback there are no limits in resolution.
It is downwards compatible with class 1.

From mid-2010 on USB audio class 2 drivers are available in OSX 10.6.4 and Linux.
Both support sample rates up to 384 kHz.
Companies like Thesycon or Centrance have developed a USB Class 2 Audio driver for Windows.
This was necessary because Microsoft simply didn’t support UAC2.
In April 2017, an update of Win10 finally brought native mode drivers.
If you use older versions of Win, you still need a third party driver.

Source
Microsoft Notes
 
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