Disclaimer- this is not only my first post in Head-fi, but also my first equiment review. Plus I am just an audio aficionado- no sound engineering nor musical credentials. As such, my listening impressions only represent my personal views, although I hope they can be of help to other Head-fiers
Stock LF; Leben CS-300X(S) with Mullard NOS valves
Source: Computer, Ipod + Onkyo NSD-1
DAC: W4S 2, Ava Audio Fet Valve DAC
Headphones: LCD-2 v1 with ALO cable; HD800
Other equipment owned: Burson 160D. Not worth including in the comparison- it would be the equivalent of comparing a (nice) family car with two Ferraris. I’d also prefer not to get into the “value for money” debate (if value for money was the key decision issue, there would not be high-end audio)
Leben + HD800 = permanent buzz, clearly audible when music is not playing or is very quiet (such as the first bars of Rossini’s Stabat Mater). This has been verified with 2 different Leben amps (my first CS300Xs was replaced by another from a different batch due to the buzzing issue), and different HD800 headphones, sources, DACs, valves and power units. This might refer to only 220V CS300s, or more recent units, as there appears to be quite a few users that have not experienced it, but HD800 owners should consider it carefully when making a purchasing decision. The buzz disappears with the LCD-2 and is louder with T1s, so might be impedance related
Imaging & soundstage
The Liquid Fire provides a better soundstage presentation vs the Leben- music is more to the front (vs the sides) while simultaneously, the soundstage is more tri-dimensional (deeper), with wonderful layering and separation between instruments- the “blackness” of the LF background also extends to the space between instruments. The Liquid Fire also provides a better feeling of music being “out of your head”- it is the closest experience to speakers I have heard, regardless of the headphones it’s used with.
The paradoxical downside of this is that the LF creates significant differences across recordings: once you have heard a great recording on the LF, an average one will seem pretty dull by comparison. Something similar occurs with complex, multi-layered tunes vs simpler “wall of sound” music. This is an amp that will make great music shine. The Leben is also differentiating, but helps compensate across recording quality.
In terms of tonal quality, the Liquid Fire provides an extremely neutral sound- you get the impression of hearing music “as is”, completely pure. The Leben has flavor- music has a degree of lushness and a more “tubey” character. Thus, each amp might be suited to different personal preferences and types of music.
- While LF would fit those looking for musical neutrality, Leben would be more attractive to those who like a touch of color (of course, the type of color provided has to be to your taste)
- LF seems better with pop, rock and electronic music, probably benefitting from the solid state element; both are great with jazz, vocal and acoustic. With classical music, the Leben background hum hurts the listening experience.
Both amplifiers provide outstanding detail retrieval, although slightly better in the LF; the LF once again benefits from its completely dark background. Bass is “rounder” (softer?) on the Leben; more controlled on LF. Notes linger for an instant more on the Leben, which in some cases provides slightly more texture; the downside is that it blurs a bit the transitions between notes. The LF sounds closer to a solid state amp, providing precise attack and precise decay- it’s more assertive while the Leben is more suggestive.
In the end, both are musical in slightly different ways. The Leben is musical because it makes the music sound great. The LF not only makes music sound great but provides both an impression of the music being more realistic and of you being there.
What I find interesting is that the LF + AVA Fet Valve DAC are making a difference with my HD800s. Up till now, I used the LCD-2 to listen to everything but classical- that is quickly changing. While I still consider the HD800 a tad too light for rock & techno (too much treble), the airiness and imaging capabilities of the LF and the Sennheisers add up to create a unique listening experience with most other music types.
As several others, I started my audiophile trip on the most innocent way by buying headphones for my computer a few years ago. Since then, I have spent more money than initially expected, have moved from loudspeakers to headphones, have discovered the subjective quality of reviews -in particular those of top level equipment-, and have had hours of fun trying to make informed decisions about equipment with no chance to listen to most alternatives. I have also found two great sounding amps, both of which are extremely satisfying in slightly different ways: at this level, differences are marginal and “better” may easily mean “more to my taste”. However, it’s only after getting the LF that I don’t see any need for more tests or upgrades. This, for me is the ultimate compliment: there might be better amps out there (stats?), but for me, the LF is good enough that I am no longer willing to look for them.