If you wanted to visualise the quintessential vintage British amplifier, you’d probably come up with something like the Leak Stereo 30. Launched almost 60 years back, complete with its wooden sleeve, it rapidly established itself as a firm favourite, gaining worldwide recognition – and not just with the stereotypical classical listener in a cardigan, puffing on a pipe in an Ercol armchair. Legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix had one in his flat in London’s Mayfair, next door to where the composer Handel lived more than 200 years before. And if you visit the recreation of the flat, which is now part of the Handel House Museum, you’ll find there’s still a Leak amplifier in the hi-fi system.
Well, actually it’s a Leak Stereo 130, the modern recreation of the classic from the current owner of the brand – the same company now responsible for the likes of Audiolab, Mission, Quad and Wharfedale. Re-imagined for the 21st Century, the Stereo 130 still has the style of the original, and you can either opt for a clean 1960s-modern look or go for the real walnut veneer sleeve. And although the electronic design follows some of the thinking of the past, it features modern additions such as onboard digital-to-analogue conversion, so you can connect it directly to a computer to let you stream from your phone or tablet. It’s fair to say that even Hendrix wouldn’t have imagined all that, and neither would he have recognised the accompanying CDT, a CD transport designed to plug straight into the Stereo 130’s digital inputs.
This is not a complete player, but rather a dedicated CD device outputting digital data from discs slipped into it via the slot-loading mechanism in its front panel. Hendrix used his Leak with a turntable to play records, and with more than a nod to that and the current vinyl resurgence the new model features a high-quality moving magnet phono input. There are also two line inputs for adding other hi-fi sources – connect the Stereo 130 to the CDT, add a turntable, then plug in your computer and a pair of speakers and you have a complete system able to play music formats old and new, from LPs and singles all the way through to ultra-high-resolution DSD files.
In addition to its increased flexibility, the Stereo 130 is rather more powerful than its ancestor of six decades ago. The old Stereo 30 peaked at 15W per channel, while the modern version is capable of 45W per side, meaning it’ll drive a huge range of modern speakers. It’s easy to use, too, thanks to a remote control able to ‘drive’ both it and the CDT.
This amp is packed with up to date technology but the Stereo 130 retains a simple rotary selector to choose between inputs, plus traditional bass, treble and balance controls and a ‘direct’ button to bypass them for the cleanest sound. Signs of modern technology include the Bluetooth antenna attached to the rear panel – you don’t have to fit it if you want the classic look and don’t need to stream from your phone – a USB port for firmware updates, and a programmable auto-standby function to save power.
While the musical presentation is warm and generous, conforming to the archetype of the classic British sound, there’s no shortage of power or definition. The Stereo 130/CDT combination is equally at home cranking out some punchy rock as it is crooning its way through smoky jazz vocals. And for all the generosity of its bass, it drives low frequencies along smartly, while keeping the focus on lead instruments and voices, which have excellent character and clarity. Yes, it’s a shade soft in the high treble, meaning the delivery doesn’t have quite as much space and air as it might with more upfront hi-fi components – so you miss a little of the ambience of music recorded in reverberant spaces such as churches – but this pays off in a balance that flatters speakers with a ‘light and bright’ sound, and ensures what’s being played never sounds abrasive, even at high volume. Like the styling of the duo, the performance is a well-judged combination of the old and the new, and this compact combination is more than just an exercise in nostalgia.
This won’t look its best on a conventional metal and glass hi-fi rack – the enjoy the full retro experience it should be placed on a sideboard at least, and paired with suitably retro-looking speakers. The walnut veneer of the Wharfedale Denton 85th Anniversary bookshelf model matches the Leaks’ wooden sleeves perfectly – after all, they’re made in the same factory – and so does that of the larger Linton Heritage, which has a matching stand just the right size to store your LPs.
The Leak amplifier looks like something out of hi-fi’s past but that’s entirely intentional. However, the combination of up-to-date technology and the hand finished veneering makes this a charming alternative to the ubiquitous black or silver, without sacrificing any performance. Beautifully made and with modern convenience, these are real statement designs to show you take your music as seriously as the hi-fi enthusiasts of past generations – even if you’re streaming it from your phone.
Jimi Hendrix Crosstown Traffic
Well, it had to be done – and right from that outrageous panned opening, the track powers out from the speakers, showing there’s more to the 21st Century Leak sound than just lush smoothness: yes, there’s plenty of weight, but also bags of detail in the simple but effective stereo mix
Handel I Know That My Redeemer Liveth (Susan Hamilton/Dunedin Consort/John Butt)
One from the neighbours – in this case the admirable ‘small scale’ recording of Handel’s Messiah, beautifully played by the Dunedin Consort. The soprano voice sounds lovely, while the orchestral accompaniment is perfectly judged, and well served by the Leaks’ warmth and clarity
John Williams Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra
The venerable movie composer puts the Berlin Philharmonic through its rhythmic paces in this cue from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, allowing the Leak system to show it can do big slams as well as it handles skittering strings and woodwind, while the brass section sounds ripe and rich, too
Hi-fi with real style, and a long way from the over-technical look of so much current equipment. This isn’t just the revival of a famous name from the past, but the reinvention of a whole listening experience from decades ago, spiced up with the latest technology – and with a sound to please modern music enthusiasts.