Leema Tucana Vs Stello Ai500

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Leema Tucana Vs Stello Ai500
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From Hi-Fi World - November 2009 issue


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Poles Apart


One comes from South Korea, the other from North Wales, so April Music’s Stello Ai500 and Leema Acousticss Tucana ll couldn’t be culturally more dissimilar, but these two ‘super integrateds’ prove to have fascinating parallels, Tony Bolton finds...


Ah, the ‘super integrated’ amplifier! It’s a concept that’s newer than some might think. In the old days, as recently as the nineteen seventies, if you were to drop the equivalent of £3,500 in today’s money on an amplifier, the chances are it would come in two boxes (or more), rather than just in one. The integrated amplifier was always the poor relation of the pre-power, and never as sexy. But by the mid-eighties, companies such as Naim, Exposure and NVA were making premium priced one box designs, claimed to offer all the allure of your old twin boxer in half the space.

These days, the average chunk of change expended on an integrated amplifier is rarely more than £1,500 (if Hi-Fi World’s letters pages are to be believed), but still manufacturers keep coming back with lavishly priced, expensively built one boxers. Just like household utility bills, no matter how much you ignore them, they just don’t go away!

In the UK, Leema Acoustics has made a name for itself largely off the back of the Tucana, which was an excellent integrated that’s neatly filled a niche in this country. A kind of hi-fi ‘one stop shop’, it had power, facilities and polish in equal measure, and now it’s just been replaced by the new mark II version, more of which in a moment...

Some ten thousand miles or more away, a company called April Music has been making high quality, affordably priced audiophile gear for over a decade now. We’ve dipped in and out of the April Music portfolio over the years, and never failed to be impressed. Designed and built in Seoul, South Korea, they’re a tantalising taste of what we used to call 'Japanese high end', inasmuch as they share the same values. Build quality is superlative, and the sound isn’t so dissimilar. You could even say the Stello brand is almost the Far Eastern equivalent of Leema...

As such, we thought we’d put the two tribes up against one another, and appropriately enough, bring in Hi-Fi World’s stalwart reference, the Sugden IA4. Normally resident in DP’s system, he grudgingly delivered it to my door for the purposes of putting these two new pretenders to its throne through their paces. It’s a striking sounding bit of kit, its full Class A circuitry doing things that rivals simply can’t. To my ears it’s not all good though, but for shining an unflattering light on price rivals it is surely superb.

Moving to the Britisher first, and the new Leema Acoustics Tucana II maintains the swish, stylised looks of the original, but adds a flourish on the front panel. Opinion’s divided on the styling; DP wasn’t so keen on it compared to the old model, but I like the new ‘un. The volume control remains on the left surrounded by blue LEDs, but the source selection is now by button rather than knob, on the right hand side, and in the centre are a row of four more buttons for gain, balance, mute and the tape loop. Located on the far left are mini-jack sockets for MP3 input and headphones output.


At the back are the relevant sockets for balanced input (XLR) and rows of gold plated phono sockets for the six analogue line level inputs and the tape loop. Speaker binding posts are at each end of the back panel, and mains input is in the centre. The casework measures 440x110x320mm, weighs in at 18kg and is available in either black, or the silver finish on the review sample.

Mallory Nicholls, co-founder of Leema, informed me that in the preamp section the circuitry remained the same as that in the original Tucana but the software functions had been taken from the Pyxis preamp, which forms part of Leema’s Reference range (the Tucana coming from the middle ranking Constellation series).

The power amp section features new Thermal Tracking Output Devices which feature five pins instead of the three normally found on transistors. These extra two pins feed a close coupled thermal tracking element which measures, and reacts to, the temperature of the device in real time. This enables the amp to be configured with a lower output impedance which improves bottom end control, Leema says. Power for all of this comes from three large toroidal transformers, one for each channel and one for the preamp.

Hailing from South Korea, April Music are now in their eleventh year. The Stello Ai500 is the company’s new flagship product. The gentle curves of the sides of the amplifier disguise its substantial 460x86x400mm footprint. It is a very deep unit and with access for the cabling may be a tight fit on some racks. It weighs 16kg. The fascia is populated by a red display, which shows the source selected and the current volume level (on a scale of 0 to 99). set by a Cirrus Logic CS3310 digital volume control, actioned by a large knob on the right hand side. Running across the centre are push buttons for source selection for the four unbalanced and one balanced connection, as well as the four digital inputs to the DAC. These comprise S/PDIF, coaxial, USB and iPod USB.

All the appropriate sockets are on the back panel along with the mains input and speaker terminals. Internally, there are separate power supplies for the preamp and DAC circuits, while juice for the power amplifier comes from a 800VA toroidal transformer and a 90,000 microFarad capacitor bank. The output stage employs matched Hitachi MOSFET power transistors. The casework seems to act as a heatsink, becoming noticeably warm in use, but the manual advises that this is normal. The remote control is as weighty as it is comprehensive, containing separate sections for CD player, iPod and amplifier control. It proved somewhat fussy about aim and sometimes took a couple of presses before the amp responded.



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