These are strange times for the digital to analogue converter. Having come back from the edge of extinction, it is no longer sufficient for a DAC to be simply a means of turning your ones and zeroes into an analogue signal. First came USB; initially as a convenience feature, but now as an all-singing, all-dancing high resolution connection. Then came volume controls; first doing unpleasant things like bit reduction to get the levels up and down, but later morphing into sophisticated noise shaping devices that can challenge analogue designs.
Now, Leema Acoustics has decided that even acting as a digital preamp is not enough. The Libra is either an extremely ambitious DAC or the start of a new evolution in product categories. Quite whether this is in response to a clearly stated demand for such a thing or a gamble to try and find some clear air in a congested category is unclear, but it is fair to say that the Libra doesn’t sit entirely in either the DAC or preamp category. This is a DAC that also happens to have most of the trimmings of an analogue preamp at the same time.
First, however, the decoding side. Leema is in the small group of companies that has an entirely bespoke decoding solution for its products rather than relying on an off-the-shelf DAC. Leema instead uses a system called Quattro Infinity which is designed to avoid the issues of crosstalk (see boxout). With a pair of these modules lurking under a pair of heatsinks on the main board, the Libra is effectively a fully balanced design across both the digital and analogue sections of the circuit.
A bespoke converter is not the whole story of the Libra’s decoding. Clever though they may be, the Quattro Infinity modules only support S/PDIF and PCM. As the Libra supports DSD64 and 128 as well as DXD – a tickbox requirement of any digital product at this price point despite the continued absence of any killer material in these formats. Libra uses an additional Cirrus Logic CS4392 DAC is attached to each channel to allow for DSD to be decoded. Interestingly, the Libra can receive DSD via the optical and coaxial inputs as well as the USB connection through the DoP (DSD over PCM) open standard.
As USB remains key to how these DACs will be used, the Libra makes use of Leema’s own M1 USB interface. This is fully galvanically isolated and is intended to isolate the Libra from any nastiness that might be passed from the USB source and this should mean that the Libra is entirely agnostic about what you connect to it. This is further aided by Leema supplying drivers for Mac, OSX, and Linux meaning that no operating system should be off limits. Finishing off the digital side of things is a Bluetooth input that supports aptX and allows for a quick and simple convenience connection to suitably equipped devices.
Joining the USB connection are no less than nine other digital inputs. Leema has fitted the Libra with three coax, three optical, two AES inputs, and – like PS Audio before it – the under-utilised I2S connection in addition to the USB input. This means that the Libra should be able to handle even the most sprawling systems without breaking sweat. However, it is what else that lurks on the back panel that really puts the Libra into a different bracket from its rivals.
The Libra has three analogue inputs that feature both XLR and RCA inputs. These are fitted with their own analogue circuitry and their access to the volume control does not involve any flirtations with the digital side. The Libra outputs via either XLR or RCA connections and these can be either given a fixed value or linked to the volume control. This is a 248 step system that can also be used to mute when switching inputs if your levels are somewhat imbalanced. As you might expect from such a device in 2016, the volume ramp is absolutely linear and the performance of the Libra doesn’t change at any increment. As such, the Libra – while undoubtedly a DAC – is also unquestionably a preamp, too. It is perfectly possible to use it as a line-level device but this does rather knock out a big chunk of what the Leema has been designed to do.
All this cleverness is then encased in the Constellation casework used on other flagship Leema devices. This is a very hefty piece of metalwork indeed, although the heatsinks on the side are somewhat superfluous on a device that has barely exceeded room temperature in the time it has been in situ. Everything feels solid and well finished though and the matt finish silver front panel is understated and handsome. The controls are pretty logical too. The larger of the two circular controls handles volume while the smaller one handles inputs and menu navigation with a push-to-select function.
The Leema has the facility to adjust filter and phase settings via this menu and you can also alter the pin wiring of the I2S connection should your source happen to have a different one to that supplied by Leema. More specific is the adjustment for LIPS (Leema Intelligent Protocol System), which allows for Leema equipment to be chained together to operate from a single remote and to interact with RS232 and home control systems. The only slight fly in this ointment is that the display that handles this information is a little basic and inelegant. It is fairly easy to read and use, but on a product that costs £6,000 it feels a bit on the crude side. Happily, what Leema takes with one hand it gives with the other, and the remote is a hefty and well crafted device that has all the functions and controls you need, and excellent range and off axis performance.
With a Melco N1A supplying a USB signal, a Naim ND5XS a coaxial one, and a Cyrus Phono Signature doing the honours for an analogue feed, the Leema is simplicity itself to get up and running. Like a number of preamp devices being used at fixed level, it pays not to simply wind the volume output to maximum as you’ll find the output levels a little on the high side. In addition, I found the differences between the filter settings are fairly subtle but I have marginally preferred the ‘wide’ setting.
Firstly and perhaps most importantly, there is no immediate sign of any of that considerable processing horsepower making itself obviously apparent in the audio performance of the Libra. Nothing leaps out of the sonic performance as being overly processed or manipulated. It is abundantly clear after a performance of the 24/96kHz download of Bowie’s Blackstar [Columbia] that the Leema has not been imbued with the Quattro Infinity hardware with attention-seeking, demonstration-winning properties that ultimately fade faster than a boy band’s career.
Instead, you get Blackstar in all its melancholic weirdness, unvarnished and unembellished. Listen a little longer and what the Libra is up to begins to make itself more apparent. With ‘Girl Loves Me’, the definition to the curious chord sequence in the lower midrange is defined and presented with a clarity and impact that it never seems to have shown up until this point. As a device for retrieving detail the Libra is truly exceptional but it is what it does with this information that really sets it apart. Instead of drawing your attention to this by throwing it at you in a flurry of information, you get a refined and beautifully integrated picture of what is going on. Everything is there but you get to discover it in your own time rather than being left feeling like the guy in the Maxell tape advert.
Of course, if you do ask the Libra to pick up the pace and deliver a bit of impact with proceedings, it draws on what feels like limitless reserves of grip and attacks Leftfield’s ‘Bad Radio’ with real impact. The Libra has truly wonderful bass. It is free from embellishment or the curious affliction that some digital products suffer from where even the lightest piece of percussion is endowed with the impact of a comet striking the earth. Instead, where depth is needed, you unquestionably receive it – an impact felt as much as heard with the precision and accuracy of a metronome. Where a lightness of touch is needed instead, the Libra is not found wanting.
The only area where you might find the Libra wanting is that for all this discrete ability there are times when you do want it to become slightly more involved. With James McMurtry’s splendidly loping ‘How’m Gonna Find You Now’ [Complicated Game, Blue Rose Records], the Libra is undoubtedly completely in control of the piece but it all seems a little straight laced. Just at the point where you want to lose yourself to the music, the Libra is diligently delivering up the material, but perhaps going a little light on the emotive content. It would be wrong to describe it as ‘sterile’ as it was never anything like as pronounced to warrant such a word, but it can be seen to be somewhat detached.
It is however, exceptionally consistent. From the Bluetooth connection to the USB input, the Libra delivers the same refined, discrete, and capable performance. The Bluetooth performance is genuinely listenable and an ideal way of getting Tidal to the unit if not supported in another digital source. What is also genuinely clever is that when replaying DSD material – and hence making use of decoding other than the Quattro Infinity system – the Leema still sounds very much as it does with PCM.
Leaving the digital side of the product and switching to analogue, the Libra does a reasonable job of bordering on viceless. This is still not a device that will impart much character of its own – it seems very clear that Leema has gone to considerable lengths to ensure that this is something it won’t do – but it is transparent enough to allow for the traits of the devices connected to shine through. Connecting a Cyrus Phono Signature via XLR maintains the polished presentation with the infectious sense of pace that marks it out. Likewise, switching my source Naim ND5 XS to an RCA connection rather than a coaxial one sees some of the bite and attack – that the Leema itself tends to refrain from in the digital domain – making its way back into the presentation.
The volume control in both digital and analogue modes is also a well thought out piece of engineering. With 248 steps, it has the necessary fine adjustment to choose the exact level that you want rather than something approximating to it. Like many implementations of such a volume control the ramp when controlled by remote isn’t fast enough to be perfectly responsive but a quick manual swipe of the front panel control (or reaching for mute) is effective in this case.
The Leema Libra pitches into a keenly contested part of the market. Judged as a line-level DAC, it offers plentiful inputs, truck-like build, and a performance that delivers a wide variety of music without any signs of strain or issue. These are attributes that can be pinned to a number of rivals, though: there’s no overriding reason to choose the Libra over a number of equally well thought out competitors. Spend some time with the Libra acting as preamp for a system as well as a DAC however, and it begins to make more and more sense. The phrase ‘multimedia hub’ is something that has rather fallen out of favour of late – it’s overused and usually attached to a product that fails to deliver on the promise of the term – but the Libra can lay realistic claim to being such a device. If you play to the Libra’s strengths, this is a device that can make a radical difference to a number of different systems.
To Infinity… and Beyond!
The Quattro Infinity DAC used in the Libra and other Leema products, takes its name from the cornerstone of Leema’s philosophy in matters of decoding which is the absolute separation of left and right channels; the ‘Infinity’ part of the name refers to the reduction in crosstalk from the system being effectively infinite. 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 process requires a fair amount of decoding horsepower, but Leema is convinced that the process results in worthwhile results.
- Product-type: Digital to analogue converter
- Analogue Inputs: 3 (configurable as Balanced or Un‑Balanced)
- Bluetooth interface: Yes
- Headphone Amplifier: Yes
- S/PDIF Coaxial Inputs: 3 (24 bit 192kHz & DSD64)
- S/PDIF Optical Inputs: 3 (24 bit 192kHz & DSD64)
- I2S Inputs: 2 via RJ45 connectors (24 bit 384kHz, DXD, DSD64 & DSD128)
- One I2S Input has fully programmable pin allocation
- AES/EBU Inputs: 2 via XLR connectors (24 bit 192kHz & DSD64)
- Asynchronous USB: Yes (24 bit 384kHz, DXD, DSD64 & DSD128)
- USB: Yes (fully asynchronous – Windows & Macintosh)
- USB Isolation: Full Galvanic
- Dimensions: 440*320*110mm
- Weight: 15Kg
- Price: £5,995.
Manufactured by: Leema Acoustics
Tel: +44(0)1938 559021