31 August, 2011

Review: LFD Zero Integrated Mk III LE, Vienna Acoustics Hadyn Grand SE, Leben RS-28

click pics to enlarge. R, LFD on top of Leben and Kondo.

Review: LFD Zero Integrated Mk III LE

Review: Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand SE
Review: Leben RS-28 preamp Part I

Why integrated amp
Of course I am a die-hard fan of tubes, SET and horns, and that will never change. But I have always had a great interest in integrated amps, enough so that I wrote an overview on integrated amps. I am proud to say that that article is still one of the most read in my Blog.


In particular, I direct you to my opening paragraphs there: "...While an integrated amplifier, especially a budget one, is ostensibly a compromise, it takes real judgment and art to achieve a good design, something surprisingly few manufacturers (especially non-UK ones) have managed to do. Provided your speakers are not too difficult for the limited power on hand, a good design can even outperform the same companies' separates in coherence and musicality, if not in power...I have observed that a lot of audiophiles, including many who think of themselves as old-hands, really cannot handle the variables in matching, and do not even know when the system veers alarmingly from the norm. I'd say even if you don't "need" one, it is essential to have one on hand for testing of musical balance, a sort of reality test for audiophiles who love to delude themselves..." Gee, as I re-read what I wrote, I think the words ring as true as ever, if I may say so.

LFD is not even "just" another British integrated. Before the internet information explosion, information on small UK boutique brands were hard to come by. But, more than a decade ago, through occasional articles in the funky and wonderful HiFi World, even HiFi Choice, I had already known about esoteric brands like LFD, DNM etc. I remember reprimanding myself years ago for not seizing on the opportunity to buy a LFD Mistral which had an underground reputation (a 1999 aritcle on TNT by the reliable veteran Werner Ogiers, and another article here). I still nudge myself whenever something reminds me that I had missed the opportunity to buy a funky DNM preamp. The mysterious aura surrounding these companies had faded quite a lot thanks to word of mouth through the internet, but they remain small and interesting companies, auteurs in the world of hifi, if you will.

There is another reason for this exercise. In my living room, where I house my reference system and most other gears, I have long felt the need to have a high quality casual system that would respond quickly to short-term needs. When I know I only have time for a short session, or when I just want some background (maybe CAS would do), I then would not have to turn on all my separates and wait. Let's see, my reference system comprise the transport, Digital lens, DAC, phonoamp, preamp and amp; that is, 5 to turn on for digital replay, 6 for vinyl. Mission accomplished, as you shall see.

LFD Zero Integrated MkIII LE (LFD website)
In recent years, LFD has been popularized by the successful marketing effort of its US dealer, and recently in particular by the enthusiastic
Stereophile 2008 review of MkIII by Sam Tellig. I am not at a fan of Tellig, though I do read what he writes. But remember LFD I had long known about but never had the opportunity to own or even heard one.

I would also urge you to read up on the older version of this model, in particular the TNT 1997 review (by the excellent Werner Ogiers) of the original Zero Integrated LE.

LFD is only rarely sighted in HK. By chance I picked up one second-hand. I decided on it because it has the built-in MM/MC phono section (which I prefer to outboard phono) and the more desirable (to me) and unusual optional corian faceplate.

Of course I immediately opened it up, took the internal pic above, and did the little soldering required to convert the default MM phono to MC. For each channel I bridged 2 pins (lower left; between the IC's) with a small length of solid copper wire.

Components used are reasonable, but not at all extravagant, or unusual (the brand is touted for its supposedly time-consuming component selections). The volume pot looks like the kind of favored by many Japanese designers (and Bews identify himself with them), that is, nothing "special". But this coincides with my experience: many expensive and fancy pots, including many over-built "high-end" resistor and resistor-ladder types, look awesome but sound underwhelming. I think, a good carbon pot remains the one to beat. As for TVC, I think many are much over-rated too.

This "integrated" is in reality an amplifier with a passive volume pot, and a humble one at that, which makes its excellent performance even more hard earned.

The power transformer is reassuringly robust. If I am not mistaken, the small transformer is dedicated for the phono section's power supply, a good idea (looks like the one in the separate LE phonostage, pic at bottom of article).

The output devices are just connected to the chassis underside (feet are not tall either) for heat dissipation; no massive heat-sinks here. A little hard-wiring is used. What caught my eyes the most is the solid-core cable (not usually my favorites) used to deliver power to the +ve speaker binding post (different from the cable used for the -ve/ground).

pic: Note the Haydn Grand SE perched on top of the JBL4312A
Sound
First, list of ancillary equipment used this round:

Digital: Revox C221 or Pioneer T-07A or Primare C20
Analogue: Garrard 301 with Ortofon RS-212S and Denon DL-103; stock Ortofon phono cable
Loudspeakers: JBL 4312A or Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand SE

I should not mine words, this is the best integrated amp I have had. The sound is big and bold, confident in its stride (I think I hear a bit of the solid-core cabling here), and masterly in its rhythm and pace. Sound is neither warm nor cool, just right. Although there is plenty of treble air, and the absence of treble haze and roughness of solid state go some way towards the descriptive term "tube-like" used in reviews, the Zero III LE does not quite have the "luxurious" top end that top tube gears do, but it gets close. Considering I am using top-of-the-line preamps from Leben, not to mention Kondo M7, and considering I am using SET amps usually, that is the highest accolade.

The amp runs warm; but you can always spread out your palm on it. It would not need much ventilation or shelf space.

At first I used my other (borrowed) pair of 4312A, not the one shown in the pic. They were placed further upfront, more free-standing than my regular gig shown. As before, in this position, and without aid of a sub woofer, the treble was just a shade prominent. Switching to my pair perched horizontally (a la studio use) the sound became warmer, more textured and listenable. All that is due to speaker placement, not the amp of course.

Now, a detour before more details on the sound.

Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand SE
A couple of years ago, after I read about the second generation Haydn Grand , I was taken by the good looks (especially in rosewood) and intrigued by the placement of the tweeter across the front port (capsular TAS review), so much so that I expressly set out to audition it in NYC. I heard it placed close to the front wall, sub-optimally matched with an NAD integrated, but I could tell that the sound was bold and confident, a little dark on that occasion.

A bit later, the third-generation Symphony Edition (SE) came out, featuring the company's transparent Spider Cone (technology previously used in top models only; see link to brochure above). It is a limited edition, and the wood finish is among the very best I have ever seen. How elegant!

Eventually, later in HK, I got a pair of SE (one of 500 pairs in the world). I had them upfront and freestanding. The sound was incredibly open from day one, but I missed the richness and presence I heard in NYC.

This time, I perched them further back, on top of my 4312A, in the same place as my Tannoy, a higher placement than usual. They were tilted downwards slightly.



The LFD drives the Haydn Grand SE effortlessly. First digital playback. The period performance of Bach had just the right amount of zing to it, but is neither shrill nor "white". The Bavarian orchestra is galvanizing under the great conductor Kubelik, playing with great tonal splendor. The Haydn Grand SE conveys the massive big brass sonority as well as tympani strokes or massed strings, sounding much like larger speakers indeed. Every nuance in Nils Lofgren's guitar can be heard.

Compared to the 4312A, the Haydn Grand SE is more open and carves out a larger sound field and conveys more minutiae, including the live performance clues of the hall and the audience. Surprisingly, the bass performance is superb: the Haydn Grand not only goes as deep as the 12" woofers of the JBL but sounds almost equally weighty in the mid-bass.

Although placed rather high up, the images are not shifted up by that much, attesting to the excellent dispersion of the tweeters. The musicians remain grounded and the feeling of venue and live concert are preserved. When I stand up, the soundstage feels a little more like normal placement, but in terms of tonality and music there would not be much change. In short, the height does not affect sound unduly and it feels real. Mind you, this is the tried-and-true position where I previously placed the Airtight Bonsai to great satisfaction.
Incidentally, the Haydn Grand SE is efficient enough to be used with SET amps! With a 300B amp it ably covers all grounds. Late in this session, I drove them with 2 wpc Elekit 8230 2A3 amp, and they still made great music, though with just a little less impact than 300B in my 200 ft room.

Ultimately, for the LFD, I much preferred the match with Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand SE. The JBL4312A would need even more sophisticated equipment, including a tube preamp, to bring out their best.

LFD as power amp
I connected the same CDP (Primare in this instance) to my Leben RS-28 preamp, which was then connected to the line section of LFD with the regular Gotham GAC-4 that I use for connection to my SET amps. The volume of the LFD was set at maximum.

With CD playback, the sound was a little different, but not as much as I would have expected. In terms of resolution or balance, they were very close. The passive preamp stage of the LFD is perhaps a little more neutral: in the Bach, the quality of gut strings and period playing are slightly truer; ditto the zing of Nils Lofgren's guitar. On the other hand, the tubed Leben renders harmonics and cabinet resonance just a little more: the violins in the Bach has more body (wood); the tympani strokes reveal more skin sound.

I was happy with this result: 1) unlike most passive preamps, the one in the LFD does not compromise dynamics; 2) even compared to a passive preamp, the tubed Leben is utterly neutral and equally revealing. That's double the bounty for me! :-)

LFD as phonoamp
And now onto the phonostage. Using the LFD's own phono section, the sound is every bit as balanced as digital playback; there is absolutely no difference in tonality. Lola Bobesco's warmer violin stands out from the steelier tutti (this is likely an LP from a digital master). Dylan's band pulsates and gyrates. Encouraged by the wonderful performance of the phono section, I decided to the extra mile. I compared the internal phono section of the LFD with the Leben RS-28 full function preamp (full write up pending) in 2 ways:

1) Using the LFD as power amp: To facilitate this, after listening to the 2 LPs shown here, the LFD was then used as a power amp (as above) with the Leben RS-28 as the preamp. As the Leben is only MM, the signal is stepped up by the top-of-the-line Denon AU-1000 step-up transformer (weighing more than lesser tube amps), which is then connected to the Leben's phono input by the best cable that I have, the Kondo KSL-LPz, which costs more than the LFD second-hand (this is how I regularly use Leben when I am not using Kondo).

2) Using the phono section of the LFD via Tape Out, connected by the same Kondo cable to my current tubed rig: The current rig, which I listen regularly before the LFD sessions, consist of the same analogue source listed above, the Leben RS-28 full function preamp, the 2 wpc Elekit 8230 2A3 SET amp, all driving the Tannoy Canterbury. Considering the rig has recently been matched with ICL and Audio Note Kit phonoamps (write-up later), the LFD has strong competition.

While the LFD phono section has the advantage of a much shorter signal path, the Denon/Leben setup has probably even better impedance matching and tube in the MM stage (my prefernce usually).

The results were close, but easier to tell this time. Like my assessment of the preamp section of the LFD above, in terms of resolution or balance, they were very close. With the Leben, the strings are a little sweeter and the various instruments in Dylan's band have more presence. Overall I'd give the nod to the Leben setup, but the LFD is impressive on its own.

I am also glad for the results. Inevitably the system with Vienna Acoustics sounds smaller and less full bodied, but the balance and tonality of the music are similar enough and close to neutrality in my book.

A few words on the LFD Zero Mk IV LE (pic below from the internet)
The Mk III has recently been replaced by the Mk IV. I don't really know about the sonic differences; no reviewer, certainly not Tellig, is ever going to say the old one is better, right? But, they did say it is largely the same amplifier, now housed in a more robust, but smaller chassis. Oh, the phono option is gone; the IV's smaller chassis has no room. That means you have to buy their separate phonoamp.

I managed to source an internal pic of the Mk IV (below) from a Danish site. If you compare the line section, things are virtually identical, except: 1) 2 of the caps have changed from red (Wima) to blue (?type, I wager still Wima); 2) the short coiled cable run downstream look identical, but are now red; 3) most noticeably, the cables used to connect the output devices to the speaker binding posts have changed: the +ve is now a flat cable of some kind and the -ve became the same solid core used previously for the +ve! I would venture these changes above anything else (not that anything is noticeable) made the sound different. I wager, maybe silver cable for the +ve? It is too bad their website has no pics for their cables!






A few words on the LFD
Phonostage LE (pic below from Stereophile)
The current LFD Phonstage LE was reviewed favorably by Art Dudley in Stereophile. The pic below is from Stereophile, and the LE is shown on the left. If you compare the transformer and the phono board with the pic of the Zero III I took, as well as other pics of the phono section of the earlier Mistral, you shall see that, no matter the generation, the boards are almost identical.

































Conclusion
IMHO, the III, especially with built-in phono, is a best-buy
. You would almost be silly not to opt for the phono version, AND use it.

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