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As usual, I played a wide variety of music including the warm and languid bossa nova of Celso Fonseca's Rive Gauche Rio [Six Degrees 657036-1113-2] and Rimsky-Korsakoff's equally exotic Scheherazade [BMG 82876-66377-2]. Richard Wagner saw action via Daniel Barenboim's exquisitely played yet vocally uneven account of Tannhäuser [Teldec 8573-88064-2]. However, the reissue of Claudio Abbado's traversal through Bizet's Carmen [DG 477-534]) was artistically entirely satisfying. I must have listened to it at least a dozen times in the past few months.

Another recording that garnered plenty of airtime was Krushevo [M.A Recordings M044A], a fascinating disc of hauntingly beautiful Macedonian folk music performed by guitarists Vlatko Stefanovski and Miroslav Tadic. Krushevo proves that the Blues is not solely an African-American idiom. A desert island disc for sure. Vinyl discs included Classic Records terrific pressings of Neil Young's Greatest Hits [Classic Records/Reprise 48935-1], jazz pianist Horace Silver's 6 Pieces of Silver [Classic Records/Blue Note 1539] and sax slinger Johnny Griffin's Congregation [Classic Records/Blue Note 1580].

Other stax o' wax included the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique [Grand Royal GR065] and an old favorite chestnut from the mid eighties, Bikini Red by the Screaming Blue Messiahs [WEA 24-22121]. Yeah! If you are expecting the retro-chic Leben to exhibit the lush and warm tube sound of yore, you won't find it here. The CS-300X certainly offers the familiar valve characteristics - a sense of liquidity, smoothness and a palpable presence that some call glow. However, it was also surprisingly clean, airy and transparent. There was additionally a beguiling sense of delicacy and tonal refinement that made it easier to peer deeper into a performance. The attack, body and decay of notes were completely believable and captivating. Bass performance was tuneful, fluid and without bloat or sluggishness. Acoustic bass was exceptionally well rendered and Ray Brown's throbbing lines on Live at the Loa [Concord 1027-6] were thoroughly involving. The wee 'Life" was relatively quick, agile and possessed of good rhythmic acuity and drive.

So we've explored the up side. What about the down side? First off, the CS-300X will not satisfy head bangers. At 15 watts, it was a little underpowered and lacking in bottom-end grip for Metallica and Motorhead. Neither did it possess the turn-on-a-dime precision and tautness that solid-state can offer nor the slam and weight of more powerful amps glass or sand. A more copasetic speaker load such as the 101dB Zu Cable Druids would no doubt allow the Leben to kick out the jams with less distress than via my 91dB Callistos. Ultimately, it is probably more suited to modest playback levels in small apartments or rooms. Besides, why would anyone want to abuse a cute little amp like the Leben? While the Leben wasn't a powerhouse with gobs of slam and bass power, it did possess that near ineffable communicative magic that can be so elusive these days.

When I compared the CS-300X to my Manley Labs Stingray, I was surprised how alike they were sonically. They both have the same open, airy sparkle in the highs, punchy fluid bass and smooth midrange. I suspect these are traits of the EL84 pentode as the two or three other EL84 amps I have heard also sounded similar. The Leben was perhaps a little softer and less dynamic. The Stingray with its octet of EL84s and resultant higher power output exhibited greater weight and slam and was thus more suited to higher listening levels. Rhythm and propulsion are indeed the Stingray's forte yet the little Leben was not too far behind. On the other hand, the Leben had a lovely intoxicating, golden sweetness allied to a slightly greater delineation of detail. The Leben simply offered a more delicate and nuanced presentation. Subtle musical details were more apparent.

I thought the stock NOS Mullard tubes might be partially responsible so I swapped them out for quartets of new production EI, JJ and Electro-Harmonix tubes I had on hand. Let's just say the reputation for the Mullard is well- earned. They were indeed instrumental in the CS-300Xs pleasantness and superior degree of information retrieval. Unfortunately I didn't have a second quad of Mullards to experiment with on the 'octal' Stinger. Considering how eight NOS Mullard EL84s go for nearly a grand, it's not an endeavor I'll be attempting anytime soon. Still, I thought both amps were roughly comparable and choosing between the two would come down to one's listening preferences: pace and thrust vs. eloquence and tonal verisimilitude. Then again, the Leben had such a seductive way with vocals and strings, I'd be hard pressed to pass it by.

The Leben CS-300X was musically involving and able to reproduce music without sounding like HiFi. I spent less time thinking about imaging or colorations and more about how otherworldly wonderful a composition Beethoven's Emperor Concerto truly is or how brilliantly Debashish Bhattacharya's 24-string Hindustani slide guitar playing intermeshed with Bob Brozman's Hawaiian guitar stylings [Riverboat TUGCD1029]. I am sure these sorts of utterly musical concerns were what Mr. Hyodo had in mind when he sat down to create this amplifier.

Have I told you that the Leben even smells great? I'm not kidding. I suspect the varnish used on the transformers was responsible. As the amp heats up, a lovely sweet aroma emerges from the top cover. Just what audiophiles need: an affordable sweet-sounding and -smelling amp. I found the bass boost feature to be useful, particular at late-night volume settings. Only at higher listening levels did it become intrusive and unnecessary. This is a perfect feature for those who live in a small apartment or condo and don't want to annoy the neighbors but still hanker for a fuller bottom-end which is usually nearly impossible to achieve at low listening levels. Also a boon to music lovers living in tight quarters is the Leben's headphone output. I'll just say that while the can output of the Eastern Electric Minimax is all that our Editor stated
in his review, the CS-300X's was significantly superior. The Leben offered a fuller, lusher, more richly romantic sonic picture than the Minimax. It's not difficult to sort out why as the signal travels through the Minimax's mere two 6922 triodes as well as through all the Leben's valves. More glass equals more pleasure!

Along with the Leben, Jonathan Halpern also sent a 2.5m set of Auditorium 23 loudspeaker cable that retails for $880. Rarely do reviewers -- let alone audiophiles -- agree on anything. However, in this instance I am in total agreement with my colleagues. The Auditorium 23 is easily the finest speaker cable I have had in my system yet. Like the CS-300X, no one area stands out as this green cotton-clad cable excels at walking that ever-tricky tightrope between resolution and musicality. The Auditorium 23 is a touch expensive to these cost-conscious ears yet I believe they are worth consideration and have clicked with every amp/speaker combo I've tried to date (and this from a guy who frowns upon mixing and matching different brands of cables).

Overall, what really struck me with the Leben was its balance. Unlike so much of today's high-end audio products which tend to have a tipped-up top-end to give the illusion of enhanced clarity, no one area or trait stuck out. Sure, the Leben is most assuredly not the pinnacle of resolution and frequency extension but it was so evenhanded across the spectrum, I really didn't miss anything nor did I care. I know this sounds like an audiophool reviewer cop-out but blast it, this wee golden jewel from Nippon just played music. The Leben's natural, unforced ease
simply precluded critical analysis by yours truly. There's a complete absence of anything remotely mechanical or electronic about this amp. Simply put, the aptly named "Life" is not for gear heads that swap out equipment every two or three months. Nor is it the sort of amp for clinically exposing every little recorded detail.

The CS-300X is for music lovers who value simplicity, nuance and tonal correctness over huge soundstages, brute power and bottom end grunt. Match it with decent, modestly efficient and proportioned speakers such as the JM Reynaud Twin, the Green Mountain Audio Callisto or possibly John DeVore's Gibbon 8. Toss in a good CD player such as the Minimax or the new CEC belt-drive TL-51XZ and you'd have yourself an ideal small room/apartment music system for less than 8Gs. The Leben will deliver all the essential ingredients for enjoyable and spiritually nourishing music playback. The truism that good things come in small packages is, in this instance, oh so true. Do check out the Leben CS-300X and see whether you don't agree. If I didn't already own the Stingray, I'd get a life and a Leben...
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