Leema's least expensive phono stage may be small but it's capable of very big things when attached to a tip top turntable. Jason Kennedy finds out just how essential it really is for a vinyl lover.
Leema started out in loudspeakers but quickly established a good foothold on the hard fought turf of the British audio electronics scene. It now has ranges at pretty much all the sensible price points for serious hardware and the Essentials Phono is its entry level stage, a neat little extruded aluminium case with all the facilities you need to make the most of your turntable’s output. Phono stages have a tricky job, they have to equalise and amplify the tiny signal produced by the stylus or cartridge on a record player. This job is often done by a phono stage that’s built into the amplifier but the nature of the beast means that it’s better to keep the two things separate. Primarily this is because the power supplies in amplifiers produce strong electromagnetic fields which can pollute the relatively miniscule signal coming from a cartridge, and if that cartridge is a moving coil type (MC) with an even lower output the problem increases. In most instances an outboard phono stage is only used with MC cartridges, while they do benefit moving magnets (MM) the price tends to mitigate against their use. I did once put a megabucks valve phono stage from Audio Note Japan with a £50 Audio Technica MM on an old Thorens deck and it sounded superb, but that created what has become known as a ‘mullet system’, eg one that is clearly unbalanced.
This phono stage offers two levels of gain for MM or MC cartridges and has a fixed input impedance for each, 90 Ohms in the case of MCs which is so close to the 100 Ohms standard found in most stages as to make no difference. It also has a rumble filter, a rare feature nowadays but useful for cutting out the very lowest frequencies produced by record warps which tend to modulate bass cones.
I used the Essentials with a Rega Apheta moving coil aboard a Rega RP8 turntable and contrasted it with a Dynavector P75 Mk3 phono stage which costs about the same amount. The latter has more gain, that is it can produce a higher output for a given input, than the Leema but does not have quite such a tight, fast sound. The Leema is unusually good at revealing the immediacy that this record player delivers and while it’s at the expense of bass power it makes for a thrilling experience, and one that most digital systems struggle to emulate.
This means that you can hear all the texture of a double bass and the fingers on the strings but not the full body of the instrument. Bass extends well though and with a fuller sounding turntable you would undoubtedly get a more bodacious result. The Dynavector’s extra gain gives it a more powerful presentation with a drier, less fluid midrange. With piano music the Leema sounds more stately, reflecting the tempo of the music with great accuracy, it pulls out shine on trumpets and the finesse of bowed strings. What also impresses is that it has clean smooth highs as well as the ability to deliver a fast, involving sound. Other stages can end up sounding a little coarse in the treble if they lean too hard on the leading edges. It does a great job with reverb too, pulling out the cavernous nature of Leo Kottke’s piece Nothin’ Works (Great Big Boy, Private Music), the kick drum could go deeper but no bigger. With the heavy vibes of Burnt Friedman’s Just Landed (Nonplace) it delivered the many effects used in monstrous fashion and the control in the bass meant that this very heavy music was actually more palatable than average.
With a Transfiguration Phoenix S cartridge on an SME Model 20/3A turntable the result is bigger, fatter and juicier as you’d expect from the hardware. There was just about enough gain for this cartridge (0.4mV output) and the Leema managed to reveal fabulous voices, meaty bass lines and a large scale image that was taut if not exactly fast. The fabulous Chasing the Dragon direct to disc cut of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons didn’t have all of its verve and dynamics but string tone was well preserved as was the clatter of the antique harpsichord.
In an attempt at a real world set up I tried a Rega RP3 with an Exact MM catridge via the MM input, again gain was a little low but the pace, focus and precision of the result could not be faulted. The Essentials phono stage proved to be more than able to reveal the remarkable thrill power that this modest turntable is capable of delivering. Going back to the SME turntable but this time with the remarkable Rigid Float tonearm (of which more soon) and a Rega Apheta MC connected via Vertere Pulse C interconnect. This resulted in a sound that had break neck speed but was a bit short on body, suspecting that the cable might be tipping too far in the direction of pace I changed to something more even handed and brought back the scale without too much loss of excitement. By comparison a Rega Aria phono stage (£798) with variable gain and impedance settings extracted more body and a better sense of life from the music. This made the Leema sound forward and highly detailed which adds excitement and brings the voice into focus. But it’s a sound that’s a little bit thin with lesser recordings.
The Leema Essentials is a remarkably revealing phono stage, it has less gain than average, which can undermine dynamics, but its transparency to pace and detail is top notch. It would suit turntables like the Linn LP12, many of the better Pro-Ject models, a Michell or any turntable that has finesse but needs a bit of extra vitality. If you want to add engagement and hear more of the inner detail from the groove the Essential is a class act at a competitive price.