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Sony Playstation 1
Certainly the most unconventional part of this system has to be the Sony Playstation 1 used as a digital source. The PlayStation 1 was launched in Japan on December 3, 1994 and about a year later in the rest of the world. There is only one model worth considering - the SCPH-100x. The 'x' depends on where in the world you live. In the US and Canada it's a SCPH-1001, in Japan the last digit is 0, in Europe its 2 and its 3 in Asia. None of the other Playstation models sound good I'm told so stick with the SCPH-100x versions. The underground buzz says the newer versions of the Playstation suck for music but I haven't checked 'em out myself. There's a lot of technology and computing power in that cheap looking little grey plastic box that no high-end audio firm could ever afford to pay the development costs for but Sony knew they had a couple of hundred million or so parents that would make the intense R&D pay off in a big way. It did too and Sony sold over a 100 million units, meaning there are plenty of them around for us HiFi nuts. I was able to pick up one locally in mint condition for $25.

There are a number of audio insiders that use the Playstation as a reference but they don't admit to it. They're too embarrassed! Check your local used computer gaming store and it's likely they'll have number of them in stock ready for you to purchase. Make sure it has the RCA jacks on the back for audio. Until you actually try it, itl'l seem ridiculous that you could get this kind of audio performance from what is essentially an inexpensive child's toy but it's the truth. A PS1 SCPH-1001 will hold you over in grand style until I get a chance to survey the latest crop of one-box players and other interesting digital devices for you. In fact, the PS1 is so good that it wouldn't surprise me at all if you never felt the need for something else. Really!

There is a bit of a quirk to the Playstation that you should know about in case you encounter it with your own: it can overheat if not placed in a well-ventilated area due to poorly placed vents in its chassis. Apparently the plastic moldings inside the player can warp slightly, causing the laser mechanism to skip if it gets too hot. If you have trouble with overheating and skipping, I am told the solution is to put them up on tip toes so there is plenty of airflow underneath or to leave them on top of a cabinet where they get plenty of cool air.

You'll want to leave your PS1 on all the time and it will take it about a week to come up to its considerable performance potential. A cold Playstation merely sounds okay but after a week, you'll be treated to perhaps the best digital you've ever heard. The PS1 does a wonderful job with tone color and has a very analog quality that no other digital source I've yet heard can match. It really excels in the linearity of micro to macro dynamics much like the Miyabi 47 phono cartridge does. The PS1 comes with a controller that plugs into the chassis which is a bit of a nuisance to use if you're used to a wireless remote. I've got a Logitech wireless controller on order which I'm assuming will correct that little inconvenience.

You might think it a bit looney to use a $950 Shindo silver interconnect for a used $25 Playstation. Until you hear it that is. Then you'll get it. If it makes you feel better, you can pretend that the Playstation costs $6000, which is what I'm guessing it would cost to get a one-box CD player that could outperform it musically and sonically.

Recommended System Listening Impressions
I absolutely love the performance of Camille Saint-Saens' Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, with Artur Rubinstein on piano that was recorded at the Manhattan Center in New York City for RCA Living Stereo in 1958. It is a sublime performance that gives me goose bumps all over every time I hear it on this system. Harbeths are known for being very adept at classical music and the Leben really brings out the best in them in this regard. If you're a classical music lover, I think you'll feel like you've died and gone to heaven. The tonal beauty of the music is really extraordinary, so deeply hued, so harmonically complex and emotive. The music engaged me in a totally natural and effortless way that allowed me to deeply relax into a reverie of musical enjoyment. The system is transparent in a way that is completely consonant with live music, with lots of musically natural detail over a wide and deep soundstage. It is never ever bright, etched or edgy. Quite the contrary actually. It is liquid, timbre correct, harmonically rich and possessed of a linearity of dynamics that is reminiscent of the superb Miyabi 47. I never have once felt buffeted or assaulted by the music when listening but always caressed, seduced and drawn into the performance.

Rubinstein's piano tone comes through as stupifyingly beautiful with the full impact of his marvelous playing intact. Tempos flow in a very realistic fashion, with a sense of speed that can add excitement or slowly for a relaxed feel - or whatever the music calls for to give the maximum emotive wallop. There's just too much to describe about this brilliantly recorded performance to fit into a paragraph or two so I'll leave it to you to go give it a listen. One listen through this system and you'll know in an instant why these RCA Living Stereo recordings are so revered. Positively awesome!

Like a good music lover, I'm going to completely switch gears now and listen to something at the opposite end of the musical spectrum - the Buddy Guy & Junior Wells' Alone and Acoustic album that I've been enjoying a lot lately. When I describe how natural and effortless the combination of Leben and Harbeth is, I worry a little that you'll think it to mean that the Leben is overtly warm and romantic but that's not the case. It manages to be consummately musical and natural, harmonically rich and expressive without ever for a moment sounding colored or unnaturally warm. It's quite a feat really. For example, it sounds flesh and blood correct with the Buddy & Juniors vocals and their guitar and harmonica playing sound like the real thing - always natural and realistic in the most musically convincing way you can imagine. You can tell Hyodo San knows what live acoustic music sounds and feels like. It comes through in spades with the performance of the Leben CS600. While the Leben's sonics are really exceptional, it sounds so natural that it never drew my attention to itself and the sonics and away from the music. Its superb sound is in complete service to the music. Harmonicas, like muted trumpets, can be tricky for a system to reproduce correctly. They have a tendency to become shrill and aggressively unpleasant. Not with this system. Junior's harmonica comes through as rich, harmonically complex and brilliantly lifelike. It's a music lover's paradise of realistically naturally sound.

Let's take a look at a poorly recorded pop album from the MTV Unplugged series. MTV took pop and rock icons and recorded them before a live audience playing acoustic instruments instead of their usual electronic axes to show off their "acoustic versatility". It surprised me how good some of these musicians really were acoustically, making it apparent that their prodigious talent was usually being masked by overproduction and the electronic environment they normally work in. Great music and lousy recordings make for a great music lover's test. Can the system let the music come through as enjoyable and engaging is spite of the poor production and recording quality?

The Paul McCartney Unplugged CD is an excellent example of such an album. McCartney is a consummate musician, terrific entertainer and performer whose music on this album covers Blues, nice old Beatles tunes, some old rock tunes, and some of his own post-Beatles work. The CD is hindered by a peaky, sibilant sound that was recorded at a low level compared to most albums, meaning you have to crank it way up to hear it properly, which just compounds the sonic problems. Besides sibilant vocals, strings sound lean and metallic, cymbals sound like breaking glass and there is harsh feedback from their monitors on occasion. But the performance is McCartney at his most lovable and funny and is lots of fun to listen to; plus the band of Linda McCartney, Paul Wickens, Blair Cunningham, Hamish Stuart and Robbie McIntosh are in superb form. This is great music and a notable performance hindered by marginal production and dicey sound quality.

The good news is that this system pulls it all together in fine fashion and makes McCartney Unplugged a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. And guess what? It actually sounds pretty good too! Certainly better than I've ever heard it sound. I kid you not, there's magic in this system. McCartney Unplugged does bring to light one caveat that you need to know about. The low recorded level of the disc meant I had to crank up the sound on the Leben to the maximum to get a sound pressure level that this kind of music deserves. The Leben CS600 doesn't have as much oomph as I would have expected for an amplifier putting out 32 watts. If you like to listen really, really loud, I could see the Leben running out of power. I actually was able to listen to everything I wanted as loud as I wanted and while I had it cranked all the way on a rare couple of discs, most of the time I had the volume control at below the halfway point.

The bass output of the Harbeth Super HL5 is tipped up a bit like all Harbeths, which can make them somewhat tricky to match with rooms and electronics to get a really seamless and balanced sound. However, the Leben CS600 is so brilliantly balanced in the low end (deep, taut, transparent and harmonically rich) that it seems to compensate somehow for the Harbeth's marginally overblown bass to create the best overall balance of highs, mids and lows that I've ever heard from my Harbeths. This combination results in the most musically natural in-room response I've heard. The bass doesn't draw attention to it and instead shifts the focus to the music like it should. Importantly with albums like McCartney Unplugged, the Harbeths do a beautiful job of making the beat come alive. If you're a rock fan I think you'll love the way this system handles the beat, melody and rhythm. It really makes the most of the performance.

Sonically this system's actually quite impressive but I never really find myself focusing in on its sonic strengths because it's so musically engaging. Imaging is first rate with a lot of body and flesh and blood' feel. It's not at all unnaturally etched or spotlighted like it is in a lot of high-'end systems, making it feel like you've got real musicians in your room with you. I have the speakers 11 feet apart (center to center) and 36 inches out from the wall. I have them angled into the listening position so that only the front face is visible. This positioning gives the Harbeth Super HL5s a huge 3-D soundstage and combined with solid and natural imaging, the music takes on a very 'live' feel.

Time for a little jazz session. Basie Jam is a great album with an all-star lineup of Basie on piano and organ, Louie Bellson on drums, Ray Brown on bass, Irving Ashby on guitar, J.J. Johnson on trombone, Harry Edison on trumpet and Eddie Davis and Zoot Sims on tenor saxes. Hearing Count Basie on the Hammond organ is an all too rare treat. The Hammond is an amazing instrument and I find myself totally blown away every time I listen to one. They're very complex harmonically and they are powerfully emotive with someone like the Count at the helm. They are also powerful in that they can put out some serious sound pressure levels and some wide dynamic swings, which this system reproduces with aplomb. Had a Hammond in your listening room lately? Here's your chance. Harry Edison's muted trumpet is a real test for any system and if a system's balance is off, a muted trumpet can take your ears off. This system sails through it with flying colors. A trombone is not something I get to hear very often anymore so it's great to hear J.J.'s styling on his. In fact this particular album with its variety of musicians and instruments is a superb demonstration of this system's ability to portray the unique timbre of their instruments and superb musicianship in an utterly natural, unforced and relaxed fashion. This is another album that amazes me as I can hear so deeply and transparently into the music, and yet it never ever takes on that dreaded etched or analytical sound. It always just sounds like real living and breathing music through this system.

I suppose I could go on and on about album after album and tell you every aspect of how wonderful this system is with the music -- and it is -- but this review is getting too long as it is. I've listened to so many albums I've lost count. This system never disappoints. It is always a refreshing, enjoyable and completely edifying musical experience. It plays classical, jazz, rock, folk, pop and anything else I throw at it with equal ease. It suffers poor recordings and makes them sound better than they have any right to - and always like music. Good recordings are positively mesmerizing.

The significant sonic and musical abilities of the Leben CS600 [Leben break-in rack above] are so self-effacing that I didn't immediately pick up on how great this amplifier is. The more I listened to it and the more I tried it with different loudspeakers, the more impressed I became. It is truly one of the greatest amplifier designs I have ever come across. The Leben CS600 is utterly natural and yet extremely transparent, detailed and nuanced. I have found those attributes only rarely combined successfully in one device. Natural sound and the ability to play music usually don't go together in HiFi products that are very transparent. Here they do. Tonal acuity is spot o, as are timbral textures and the way it portrays melody, rhythm and beat is utterly right. Music through the Leben CS600 always comes across in a natural and effortless way. It always caresses this listener with music and draws me deeply into the performance, but never assaults my ears with inhospitable sonic aberrations. It's harmonically rich and portrays timbre superbly. The Leben CS600 offers deep and rich tonal colors that make me feel full of wonder at their beauty. It has tight, deep, and tuneful bass that always comes across as perfectly balanced. Its highs are extended, silky and completely natural. It portrays the subtle aspects of musicianship remarkably well, those cues that differentiate the great from the good.

I continually find myself saying "Listen to the way they did that!" when I hear some new little wondrous aspect of the musicians engaging in their craft. The Leben CS600 is built beautifully and I love its classy and tasteful retro look. I had to buy it. I couldn't have let it go back to Jonathan. It's just too good in the way it brings the best out in everything it's matched with. Its loss would have left a big hole in my listening pleasure. It takes the Harbeth Super HL5s to heights that are astonishing, more so than any other electronics I've tried with them. At some future point I'm going to indulge my geeky audio side and do a bunch of tube rolling just for fun but right now I'm just sitting back and getting lost in the music.

So what's it like to listen to loudspeaker like the Harbeth Super HL5 that has all of the formidable insights of the BBC R&D giants and thirty years of continual refinement and improvement built into it? There are no two ways about it, the Harbeth Super HL5 is a brilliant speaker that plays music fantastically well. Anybody who doesn't think so is a dork. Oops,I got a little carried away there. It also sounds terrific in the usual HiFi sense of imaging, soundstaging, dynamicsetc. but as a significant plus, its natural style of sonics never interferes with the music's message. Instead the Super HL5's sonic prowess always adds to the feeling that there are real musicians playing for your enjoyment. As a bonus it has the ability to make even marginal recordings come to life and sound better than they have any right to. The Harbeth Super HL5 is my benchmark Music Lovers loudspeaker and it puts to shame many high-end loudspeakers that cost multiples of its very fair price. Way to go Harbeth!

There's a lot of synergy going on with this assemblage of components. When you put all the pieces together, it is freaky, scary, wildly, musically fantastic! It's not quite perfect however. The Leben, the Harbeths and Skylan stands, the Shindo and Auditorium 23 wire, are a perfect
music lover's combination, at least for my tastes. But the Sony PS1 comes up short in flexibility and build quality even though its sound quality and ability to play music are superb. I will continue to look for a digital source that sounds as good or better than the PS1 but has better build quality and plays all the digital formats (including DVD video so I can enjoy videos of musical performances too). The other thing lacking in the system is a matching phono stage.

Quibbles about the lack of a matching phono stage and flexible digital front end aside, this is an awesome music lovers system. While not cheap, at a total system cost of $11,854, this entire system is less expensive than many high-end amplifiers or loudspeakers by themselves, which in my book makes it a music lover's bargain. It is a system I could easily live with in total musical rhapsody for the rest of my days on planet Earth. I can listen to all kinds of music recorded both well and not so well for hours on end in perfect bliss and at the end of the day feel relaxed and refreshed. Wildly and enthusiastically recommended to music lovers and grownups everywhere! Save the music, save your world!

PS: We're informed that Leben has a standalone phono stage in the final stages of release, to be called the CS-30EQ. The RS-28C has been upgraded to the RS-28CX without any price increase.
Fidelis AV website [for Harbeth]
Tone Imports website [for Auditorium 23, Leben and Shindo]