leak stereo 230 integrated amplifier Test

leak stereo 230 integrated amplifier Test

leak stereo 230 integrated amplifier Test

Amplifiers are becoming more and more easily integrated into systems with modern digital sources—and performing better in them.

In 2020, we felt the first whiffs of fresh wind from the past: the famous British brand Leak, after half a century of vacation, introduced a couple of new components - the Stereo 130 integrated unit and the CDT CD transport. These blows turned into a whole storm, because the developers got right into the trend.

Vintage-style design, traditional sound, plus a pinch of sought-after digital architecture in the scheme - even from the description, the story promised to be interesting. And the tandem of Leak components and Wharfedale Linton acoustics has become an example of what a modern retro-style stereo system should look like.

It cannot be said that the storm has subsided, because every time a glance at this beauty causes a certain excitement. But more than two years have passed, and there is silence from Leak. It was even somehow offensive: was the fresh wind really a fleeting draft? But no! Munich, end of 2022, one of the most important trade fairs in the world - and the Leak Stereo 230 is presented

Authenticity and logic

Curious why the designers didn’t change anything? After all, externally, Leak Stereo 230 is a complete copy of its predecessor with index 130. Place them side by side, panel to panel, and you can play the game “find 5 differences.” The same aluminum front panel framed in walnut veneer, the same input and volume controls, a similar tone block with a Direct button.

Of course, a careful eye will notice that there are significantly more inscriptions near the selection of inputs. And the inattentive will note that the Stereo 230 has significantly increased its depth in dimensions: now it is almost 42 cm versus 28 for its predecessor.

Of course, we have our own theory about this, which is based solely on spatial reflections. You can, for example, explain the lack of changes in appearance purely from an aesthetic point of view. After all, the design basis for the new Leak equipment was their legendary amplifier from the 70s - Leak Stereo 30, on which Jimi Hendrix himself listened to his records. And you can’t change anything, otherwise all the authenticity will be lost.

The second option also concerns aesthetics, but from a slightly different side: it was necessary to maintain visual compatibility of the new Stereo 230 and the CDT transport. This is a very logical scheme, because many people bought a set of amplifier and CD transport at once. And many will want to upgrade their 130 to a 230, so a new design amp would be a dealbreaker. But the brand is only accelerating.

And thirdly, try to answer the question yourself, only honestly: what needs to be changed in Leak’s design to make it even better? Add indicator arrows? Paint it in new colors? Leak's appearance remains self-sufficient and recognizable. In addition, for Stereo 230 they retained both housing options, as in previous models: with and without walnut veneer. Traditionally, you will have to pay a little extra for veneer, but even taking this into account, the 230 will remain in a reasonable price range.

More powerful, bigger, more modern

The focus on design came into play two years ago, this is obvious. This appearance will not become outdated or boring. But if in this area Leak were going to play another game with the same cards, then there was only one direction left for development - circuitry.

Here the engineers decided to have a blast. Perhaps they took the initiative not to change anything in the exterior of the Stereo 230 in order to expand the scope of what is permitted by saving on designers.

First: due to the modernization of the circuit, the power was almost doubled. Now the torus is rated at 270 VA, and at the output we have 115 W/4 Ohm or 75 W/8 Ohm in class AB. The rest of the changes in the analogue part are not so drastic, but they are still there. For example, attention was paid to the headphone amplifier - it received current feedback. The phono preamplifier is built on low-noise JFETs and remains within the MM framework; for other analog sources, two inputs on RCA connectors and an output from the preamplifier were left.

The following radical changes affected the DAC: they didn’t do anything fancy, but simply replaced it with a higher-quality ES9038Q2M, which can already process PCM up to 32 bit/768 kHz, and DSD up to 22.58 MHz (DSD512). To receive a digital signal there are optics, coaxial, USB Type B and another connector that is mandatory in our time, without which not a single multifunctional amplifier can do without, no matter how much it flirts with retro styling - HDMI ARC. 

But there is also the MQA format, which every self-respecting device should support. They didn’t skimp on this issue: Leak Stereo 230 is compatible with MQA at the hardware level and on all digital inputs except HDMI. The official certification from Roon put an end to this issue. Moreover, the changes have even affected the Bluetooth module: it is now standard 5.0 and supports the modern aptX LL protocol.

As a result, we get the most universal amplifier with all the necessary functionality that may be needed in a modern audio system. This format has been quite common and popular for several years, but Leak were the first to pack the multimedia universe into a vintage case.

Sound culture

Let's not break traditions. Before us is a new example of a modern stereo system in retro style: Wharfedale Linton and Leak Stereo 230. In principle, we have nothing against the previous model, but progress is inexorable, an upgrade is inevitable. For greater efficiency, let's add a couple of streamers to the system: Cary Audio DMS-500 - through analog inputs, Pro-Ject Stream Box S2 Ultra - through digital ones. And let's get started.

It’s worth noting right away that the increase in power relative to its predecessor clearly benefited the Stereo 230. The Lintons played more cheerfully, more lively, adding dynamics and control in the lower register. And the rest is what happened.

If you evaluate the Leak Stereo 230 through the prism of different sources, then even with your eyes closed you can tell which one is playing at the moment. Of course, the difference between streamers is huge and the amplifier demonstrates it well. However, his own character did not succumb even to Cary's monumental pressure and was easily read throughout the test.

Looking at all this vintage beauty, I want to include something close in spirit to the appearance of the amplifier and acoustics. But let’s hold off on that for now, and let’s start with a breathtaking classic: “Britten: Rejoice In The Lamb, Op.30 - For The Flowers Are Great Blessing.” A magnificent piece performed by the Royal Cambridge Choir with organ accompaniment.

At first glance, there should be no difficulties - unless the bass depth should be sufficient, otherwise the meaning of the accompaniment is lost. The vocalist's tenor cannot be lost in the thick of the reverberation of the hall. And the reverberation of the hall is needed so as not to lose scale. In general, typical tasks for listening to live classical music.

But for some reason, based on experience, fans of such recordings are among the most picky in choosing components for a stereo system. What did Stereo 230 show? This is where his honesty and truthfulness come to the rescue: he correctly conveys tonality, does not mask details, and the potential in terms of design of bass notes is very good.

I would like a little more attention to minor details, which are not lost against the background of the main games, but are slightly masked by the vintage orientation of the system. True, with Leak Stereo 230 you can significantly expand the choice of acoustics, which will have a certain character (the increase in power allows you to do this) - and thus adjust the overall sound of the system. And as a universal option for a variety of genres, the tandem of Leak and Wharfedale is quite appropriate and pleasant to listen to.

Step aside - there is Bjork with “Cosmogony”. I liked it right away. Of course, the track is simple, except that the bass line is not the simplest. But it was still interesting to watch the play of her vocals against the background of the post-apocalyptic absurdity of the motive. One can note the accurate depiction of the scene, quite good, and to some extent even unexpected swing of the bass speakers on the Linton.

Having once heard this track in triphonics, it is difficult to perceive it later, in systems where there is no dedicated bass section. And there were no special hopes, given the difference in the nature of acoustics and genre. But Leak still pulled out this almost tectonic bass from the acoustics, for which it is an honest, frank plus. 

Tests with electronic music passed without incident. Something calm, like Nicolas Viana - “Everything” is delivered rhythmically; There are no problems with the atmosphere and distribution of plans. And on more aggressive tracks, the Lintons' resistance was more aesthetic than technical: the Stereo 230 was in full control of the situation.

Well, in the end, so that the visuals and auditory perception enter into the greatest possible harmony, let’s plunge into retro. Steve Winwood, Tears For Fears, Frank Sinatra, Van Morrison, AC/DC - you can continue the list yourself, because almost all of us have favorites from those times, from that music. Here you can only smile and nod your head to the beat, because the atmosphere achieved through the combined efforts of designers and engineers turned out to be truly fascinating. 

The Stereo 230 was delicate here. His prim British character helped him work correctly with nuances and bass, the construction of the stage did not raise any questions, and from this part of the listening there were only positive impressions, without any “buts”. And if you take into account not only the sound, but also the appearance, then you understand that it is from such components and systems that ordinary listening develops into something more - into a culture of sound.


Can you imagine if Leak had a stylized black and white display on the front panel framed in walnut veneer, an Ethernet connector on the back panel, and the Leak Stream app on your smartphone? This would be a logical continuation for a series of components from the vintage line. But what will the public say? Of course, the Roon certification of the Leak Stereo 230 closes this issue in one fell swoop. But no one forbade us to fantasize.

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