27 Dec 2015

Red Shark Review: Leema Acoustics Elements Amplifier

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Elemental acoustics... Elemental acoustics... Leema Acoustics

RedShark's 12 Days of Christmas Replays: Got money for Xmas? One of these would be nice...Leema Acoustics was founded by two audio experts - a film dubbing mixer and a designer of equipment for dubbing theatres. What they've made is a top end system with sensible prices.  We've tested it and we like it. 

Leema’s Elements line has been around for a few years now, but unboxing the amp still leads to a frisson of surprise when you realise exactly how small — and how heavy and therefore dense by extrapolation — its half-size chassis is. All in all, considering that we tested the Elements amp alongside Leema’s even more diminutive Xen speakers — the company boasts that the front baffle is the same size as an A5 paperback, and they’re not wrong — that means we have got a hell of a lot of hi-fi in an impressively small space.

Of course, the price is not that small, the amp and the speakers together running in at around £2,000, though there are deals available if you shop around. But you do get a lot of sound for all that money… plus the added expense of realising that all the iTunes and Amazon downloads you’ve been purchasing recently instead of CDs will have to be replaced (though spending the extra £300 for the optional integrated DAC might help with that).

Analogue inputs are catered for by a balanced input via XLR connectors, with a further three stereo inputs available via RCA phono (Cinch) connectors and a mini jack input on the front panel. Add the optional digital input board and you gain three optical inputs, a co-axial input and a USB interface. The latter is fully asynchronous, allowing the amplifier to regulate the rate of data transfer from any connected computer, dramatically reducing jitter.

The unit looks good and feels good. The display is perhaps a little on the small side and Leema’s shot at an Apple-esque minimal interface for changing settings and navigating the menu is possibly more frustrating than successful, but the only real black mark you can put in the ledger here is against the remote control which is, for a £1300 or so unit, somewhat underwhelming.

Happily the sound more than makes up for it. Two channels of 56W doesn’t sound enormous, but couple the unit with the impressive Xens and you can comfortably push the audio up into a range normally associated with speaker cabinets at the front of metal gigs and keep clarity. The speakers were originally designed as near field monitors for recording studios and OBs and feature a frequency response of -6dB at 57Hz in the bass end, running all the way up to 25kHz.

All this makes listening to something recently released and high budget, such as Pink Floyd’s ‘The Endless River’, something akin to a religious experience. The sound is astonishingly deep and lush, while retaining a crisp responsiveness right across the spectrum. Swap it for something rather busier, Rush’s ‘Clockwork Angels’ in this case, and the unit keeps up admirably with everything that’s going through it, Neil Peart's drums in particular being picked out with precision.

This is the case even on older, remastered material. Same group and playing ‘Xanadu’ off of the remastered version of ‘Exit… Stage Left’ makes you think you could almost be sitting behind the kit itself (especially if you do the old RH drummer’s trick of swapping left and right channels round so that the fills progress the right way round the kit), which is something of a save considering how ghastly the original 1981 mix was. Equally, Phil Collins and Bill Bruford’s work on the exquisite 2009 remastered version of ‘Cinema Show’ from Genesis’ 1977 live outing ‘Seconds Out’ is spell-binding, with the cymbal tones in particular coming through almost wilfully crisp and clear.

But if the amp sounds good with drums, what it can do with vocals is astonishing. Anything operatic is impressively expressive, while it provides Robert Plant’s vocals on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ with so many added dimensions that it almost sounds like a different piece of music. Peter Gabriel’s ‘Scratch My Back’ is given enough empty sonic space surrounding the orchestrations to make the old stager’s vox even more memorable than usual, and it even manages to pull a level of detail out of the Frozen soundtrack vocals (a bribe to four year old Freya for hogging the living room) that were previously hidden in what is all of a sudden revealed to be a rather limited and hollow-sounding production.

And here is the downside, if any: a lot of stuff now does seem limited. Even above and beyond some genre limitations, the difference between a CD version of a track and one streamed via AppleTV, for instance, is palpable once you really sit down and listen to the music. That, of course is what you spend £1300 on an amplifier for: to listen to music rather than simply let it rumble along as aural wallpaper in the background. And the Elements amp (and the Xen speakers) let you do that superbly.


Andy Stout

Andy has spent over two decades writing about all aspects of the broadcast and film industries for a variety of high-profile industry publications on both sides of the Atlantic. During that time the industry has moved from 4:3 SD to 16:9 SD to HD and now on to 4K HDR. He's getting kind of curious to see where it goes next.

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