I’ve been very pleased to read how various Stereophile writers (Stephen Mejias, John Atkinson, Robert Deutsch, John Marks, and Art Dudley, if I remember correctly) have praised the Leben CS300 and CS600 integrated amplifier based Hi-Fi systems featured at the Salon and Image Show in Toronto over the last few years.

The common thread in those successful showings is Jonathan Halpern (Tone Imports) who imports Leben, EMT, Shindo, Auditorium 23, and other audio exotica to the US.

Jonathan has great ears and great taste in putting together winning combinations of Hi-Fi gear that punch WAY ABOVE their weight, often winning ‘best sound of show’ over competitors with Hi-Fi systems that are 10 to 100 times more expensive. No doubt about it, that’s impressive results, and you might be wondering what those systems had in common other than Jonathan’s exquisite taste in music and gear – I sure was.

So I asked Jonathan for some more information about his Golden Ear recipe for show winning combinations, and what I found out will encourage music lovers everywhere because it is surprisingly achievable and affordable.

Jonathan combines a decent entry level turntable & arm combo with an EMT phono cartridge and an Auditorium 23 step-up transformer, plus a Leben vacuum tube integrated amplifier & phono stage, plus decent entry level speakers, plus a few well chosen accessories, plus careful setup, plus some good music, which results in a winning combination. Here’s some more details:

Electronics: Each show system was based on either the Leben CS-300XS or CS-600 vacuum tube integrated amplifiers from Japan, along with the Leben RS-30EQ vacuum tube phono stage. When Jonathan used the CS-300XS he used JJ EL84 vacuum tubes, and he used EL34 vacuum tubes in the CS-600.

Speakers: Entry level ProAc or deVore loudspeakers were used depending on the year.

Source: an entry level turntable & arm combination, which differed depending on the year of the show (Brinkman or Clearaudio). The important common element was EMT phono cartridges (an EMT TSD15N with the CS-300XS or an EMT JSD6 with the CS-600) combined with the Auditorium 23 ’103′ style step-up transformer.

Cables: Interconnects and speaker cables were Auditorium 23. I’m using the A23 speaker cables on my Tannoy Westminster Royal Special Edition loudspeakers and they are an exquisite match. I haven’t had a chance to try the A23 interconnects yet.

Accessories: a Shindo Mr. T power conditioner and a Box Furniture Company equipment rack.

That’s it on the equipment front, but Jonathan did tell me that “I believe careful set up is a key part of our success.”

So there you have it: a simple, well chosen group of equipment, careful setup, some good music, and you have a winning combination without breaking the bank.

How cool is that!


11 Responses to “Winning Combinations”

  1. Ket says:

    Hi Jeff

    Did you try the Leben RS-30 RIAA with other amps than Leben ?

    • Jeff says:

      Hi Ket,

      I’ve tried the Leben RS-30EQ with the Wright 2A3 mono amps, the deHavilland 50A Signature mono amplifiers, the Transcendent OTL single ended mono amps, the Master Sound Caesar 300B integrated amplifier, and of course my three Leben amps (CS660P, CS600, CS300X). Seems to be an amp friendly phono stage.

      Best,

      Jeff

  2. [...] really good example of this approach is in the Winning Combinations post I made a while back, where I described how Jonathan Halpern used the very simple formula of [...]

  3. Courtney says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I enjoyed this post. I use a Leben CS300 with a MHDT Paradisea DAC, Devore Gibbon 3 speakers, and Auditorium 23 interconnects and speaker wire. It has certainly been a winning combination for me. Many thanks to you and a good, reputable dealer in putting the system together.

    As a CS300 owner, I’m interested in your experience tube rolling the EL84′s in this little amp. You mention the JJ EL84′s above. Clearly the NOS Mullards are good (I believe you have them in your CS300x). Any other ideas?

  4. Jeff says:

    Howdy Courtney,

    Glad you liked it, and thanks for letting me know, mucho appreciated.

    That’s a great system you’ve put together, I’ll bet you’ve really been enjoying it.

    Ah yes, tube rolling can be a lot of fun. I really haven’t run anything but the Mullards in my CS300X. One of these days I plan to get back to a little tube rolling, but the Mullards have been sounding so good I haven’t been very motivated.

    In my Almarro amp I tried a bunch of different EL84 tubes, and it was hard to beat the Mullards, but they’re getting impossible to find. I did try a number of the EL84 cryo variants that Watford Valve in the UK sells in the Almarro, and you can read through the results at this link: http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews/almarro4/mk2_2.html

    I’ve also wanted to try the new Genalex Gold Lion N709/EL84 reissues as I’ve been hearing good things about them, and I notice Jim McShane has them in stock. http://pages.prodigy.net/jimmcshane/tubes.htm

    If you get a chance send me a photo of your system, I’d like to see it!

    Kind regards,

    Jeff

  5. Jean G. says:

    Hi Jeff
    I am in the process of changing all my actual amplification gear( Wright 2a3 mono, Audio research sp3a) As you just mentioned that you own a Wright 2a3 amp like mine I am tempted to ask if you think I can I expect a significant upgrade if I acquire the so praised Leben cs300 to drive my Cornwall ? I already own a pair of Mullard el84 .
    Best Regards
    Jean

  6. Greg D says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I’m very pleased to discover your website here, it’s so different from magazine articles – in a good way!

    I wonder if I could ask your opinion/advice on my situation?

    My system comprises Nagra CDC cd player, Nagra PLP valve preamp with MC/MM input, Nagra MSA Mosfet stereo poweramp and Stirling Broadcast LS3/5A. I like the sound I get, but finances are making it near impossible to afford the high-end turntable and speakers I want. I’m thinking of downsizing the whole system in order to get it all finished.

    Funnily enough, before I got the Nagra poweramp in March 2010, I had a Leben CS300XS for 6 months. I ran this with my previous ProAc Tablette Ref. 8 speakers (ProAc’s smallest). The Leben was only supposed to be temporary until I could get a new Nagra poweramp – which I did. The weird thing was though, that I was gobsmocked by the musicality of the CS300XS and at the time thought I could happily live with it forever. I’d also gradually become fascinated by Harbeth speakers (and continue to be). I was thinking of building a Leben/Harbeth based system and selling the Nagra stuff. But I couldn’t bring myself to stray from my full Nagra system mission at the time. Recently though, I’ve become frustrated at the never-ending saving and magazine-reading. I’ve lost the appetite for saving for ultra-costly gear like SME turnatables and Focal Utopia/Sonus Faber speakers. Then I discovered online plaudits for the Leben/Harbeth combo I’d been considering!

    A friend is buying the CDC from me as I think I’d be just as happy with a less costly CD/SACD player and can put the remaining funds to work elsewhere in the system. I’m 99% certain to get a pair of Harbeth P3ESR speakers soon and I’d like to get a Leben integrated again(!). This would all be affordable, but I’m unsure about which Leben to go for. Does the CS300XS and CS600 need a lot of space above to keep cool enough?

    The harder decision is regarding a vinyl front-end. The obvious solution from reading your posts is the Leben RS30EQ and a decent mid-priced t/table arm MM cartridge combo. But I wonder whether my old favourite the SME Model 10/ series V arm, would be a good, musical choice? I’d start with a MM (perhaps Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood?), and then later save for a EMT/Koetsu MC and step-up transformer. What do you think? I’ve not got hundreds of records, but once I get a good t/table, no doubt I’ll start buying loads!

    So, I’m thinking Harbeth P3ESR, Leben CS300XS/CS600, Leben RS30EQ, CD/SACD, turntable with MM cart.

    Does this sound a good idea to you, or would you recommend keeping the Nagras and soldiering-on? It’s a big decision really – no turning back once I sell the Nagras! But I am so sick of worrying about what to do, like many here, I just want my music back and forget the magazine-led anxiety.

    Sorry about the length of message but I had to get all the detail in. Any help would be 100% appreciated…

    Greg, England.

    • Jeff says:

      Hi Greg,

      Greetings from the equally chilly & snowy Pacific Northwest of the States! The Nagra is very nice gear, so my first recommendation would be to maximize your current system to get the most out of it. I think the best way to do that is using the guidelines in Jim Smith’s book Get Better Sound (Jim just came out with a new DVD that’s supposed to be really good as well). Also, see this post: http://jeffsplace.me/wordpress/?p=662

      But lets say you’ve already maximized everything and the system’s still not to your taste … what then? Well then it is time to do something different, and I can’t think of a better approach than a Leben integrated with the RS30EQ phono preamp for your electronics. As you found from your experience, and as the above post reveals, it is proven combination that delivers the music in spades.

      The Leben gear is really non-finicky about space, and what works well for your Nagra gear should suit the Leben gear as well. I’ve used my Leben integrateds in an equipment cabinet with no problems, but ideally a little air flow for tube amps is a good idea, and in the cold winter weather we’ve got going now you can warm your hands a little over it if it’s out in the open (attempt at humor) – with the RS30EQ it’s not an issue at all.

      Now, I haven’t actually tried the Harbeth P3ESR, so I can’t offer any specifics on that Harbeth model, but let me offer a general comment on Harbeths based on my experiences with my Harbeth M40.1 and Super HL5 loudspeakers: As long as your listening room is 3 by 4 meters or smaller the Harbeths are an excellent choice, as Harbeths are designed by Alan Shaw to be optimized for the small BBC monitoring room spaces, and in that type of environment they perform brilliantly. My Harbeth Super HL5 speakers are awesome in my small room (system # 2), for example, but put them in a big room (like system #1 is in and the bass gets a bit boomy and is hard to tame).

      If your room is larger than that you’ll want to steer clear of Harbeths though, as the bass gets boomy in larger rooms, and it will eventually drive you to distraction. So if you’ve got a larger room go with ProAcs or DeVore loudspeakers as per the post above (actually, they are great in smaller rooms too, like those used in the Hi-Fi shows). I can also attest that Tannoys with 15-inch drivers work superbly with the Leben gear in larger rooms as well.

      On the vinyl front I’d go with the Virtuoso Wood MM and listen to it for a while … you may not even want anything else after listening to it … it’s really a good choice for music lovers … and you will not have to spend money on a step-up transformer that way (a win-win). I think the SME arm would serve you well.

      Thanks for the kind words on my humble blog, I’m glad you’re finding it useful.

      Cheers,

      Jeff

      • Greg D says:

        Hi Jeff,

        Yes, it is pretty cold and snowy here recently – in fact, the Harbeth factory had to close for a day because no-one except Alan Shaw could get in due to the snow!

        Thanks for the advice and tips about Harbeths.

        I terms of optimising the setup – well, I’m using Kimber/Russ Anrews mains, interconnect, speaker cable and mainsblock with filtering. So it’s all operating in a coherent, synergistic foundation, you could say. These cables get better as you add more and the coherence of a wall-socket to binding posts identical conductor can really be heard. So I’ll be keeping my Kimber stuff definately.

        I’ve seen on the Harbeth User Group people using P3ESR with Leben CS300 and it’s a very nice and affordable match, it would seem…probably worth checking-out Jeff!

        The good news is my room is almost exactly 3m x 4m, so that’s a good tip about the Harbeth’s in a room of this size. Usually bigger/deeper speakers need a ‘bigger’ room too, but Harbeth’s are different, another good tip. My LS3/5As seem quite good in here, that’s why I thought of the P3ESR – same size as each other. However, maybe larger Harbeth’s could be workable too, as you say.

        I think my first step will be to get some Harbeths and see how they get on with the Nagras. I’ll then make a decision regarding the Nagras future. Whether I keep them or go for Leben (probably will!) the SME 10 with V arm and Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood seems a good option – and as you say, I may find no need to go MC with EMT or others. It’s not decided yet though – the VPI Classic does look very cool and tempting! Decisions, decisions!

        Thanks again and I’ll let you know how I get on once the ball gets rolling!

        Greg D.

  7. Courtney says:

    Jeff,

    I tried the Genalex Gold Lion tubes in my CS300. I can’t speak to the “this-is-better-than-that aspects” of these tubes but I enjoy the music more with them vs. the stock tubes that came in the little Leben. Thanks for the suggestion.

    I revisited this “Winning Combinations” article again the other day and did a little math on the recommended analog source components. Pretty pricey. Could you comment on the benefits of the analog approach? For example, what musical benefits would a turntable provide that my MHDT Paradisea DAC/ MacBook combo would not? And if a guy were to take the vinyl plunge, is there a good Music Lovers turntable/arm/cartridge option that’s a bit more affordable than what’s listed in the article above?

    Keep up the good work.

    • Jeff says:

      Digital is convenient, and it certainly has its place in a music system, particularly because not everything is available on vinyl. You are definitely on the right track with your digital rig, and you should just enjoy it for what it is, a good digital front end that is fun to listen to music with.

      It’s true, analog is a considerably more expensive way to go, both in equipment and media. A good vinyl front end as described above is in a different league both musically and sonically than what you are used to. A good vinyl rig just sounds more like music does in life. It is more of a pain in the fanny to accomadate, but I think its well worth the extra trouble as long as the extra cost is not a hardship. If the extra cost is a hardship for you at this point in your life, then I wouldn’t change a thing in your Hi-Fi rig. You’ve got a good system that you enjoy listening to music on, I’d say that’s a win-win on a lot of levels. Hold where you are.

      On saving money: I wrote about those combinations because they have a lot of synergy going for them, I have experience with them, and they win kudos repeatedly at Hi-Fi shows from discriminating listeners because they really deliver the music spectacularly year after year. It probably sounds terrible to say this, but what I’ve written about in ‘Winning Combinations’ *is* the budget approach to getting an extremely high level of performance. Unfortunately there’s probably no way to do it cheaper and get the same stellar results.

      I hope that helps.

      Kind regards,

      Jeff

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