Leak Stereo 130 Integrated Amplifier and CDT CD Transport Review

Beatles at the front, Taylor Swift at the back

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

16

Recommended
Leak Stereo 130 Integrated Amplifier and CDT CD Transport Review
SRP: £799.00

Introduction - what are the Stereo 130 and CDT?

The Leak Stereo 130 and CDT are a matching integrated amplifier and CD Transport. Behind this innocuous little sentence is a world of additional subtext that anyone looking at the pictures will have already begun to get a hint of. This is not a ‘normal’ duo of components. They have been added to the IAG portfolio to perform a specific role rather than to replace anything that they already make. To do this, IAG has ventured into the past and resurrected a name from the very primordial soup (a phrase I have long wanted to have to cause to use in an audio review) of the development of home audio.

Leak Audio is a name that is synonymous with the first generation of British audio equipment. Together with Wharfedale, Tannoy, Quad, Radford and Garrard, they helped to set the ground work for how home audio equipment was to look and behave and some of those refinements are still part of how we put systems together. Among other things, Leak gave us the first low distortion (less than 0.1%) amp, the first truly pistonic dynamic driver and an FM tuner that can still do surprising things over half a century after it started production.

Another development was one of the very first solid state amplifiers. The 1963 Stereo 30 used transistors instead of valves and was a genuine revolution at the time. As the name suggests, the Stereo 130 is both a homage and a development of that classic model. This is 2021 though where amplifiers are not merely devices for gain. Can these two striking looking boxes provide the synergy between the past and the present? Time to find out.

Specification and Design 

Leak Stereo 130
The Stereo 130 closely apes its classic ancestor... from the front at least.

Let’s cut to the chase right at the start and make one thing clear. The Stereo 30 and Stereo 130 don’t share a single component in common. This is not a straightforward reproduction (and there are a host of excellent reasons for this, so this statement should not be inferred as a criticism) but is instead a ‘loving homage.’ This means that the Stereo 130 boosts output from the 15 watts of the original (the ‘30’ reflected the combined output of both channels) to a more robust 45 into each channel into 8 ohms and 65 into 4 (which is presumably where the 130 figure comes from).

Furthermore, there are many other differences too. The original Stereo 30 was sufficiently early in the life of solid state that it predated silicone transistors and used germanium ones instead which, in the same way I wouldn’t want to commute in an Austin A35, are not something I’d use through choice now. The Stereo 130 does in fact seem to take a fair amount of its underpinnings from the Quad Vena II (which we have looked at in ‘Play’ form). Again, this is far from a bad thing. The Vena II sounds excellent and makes a logical point from which to perform a little platform sharing. There are differences though. The Leak has bypassable tone controls which are not present on other products.

This also means that the Stereo 130 has a very useful feature set as well as those 45 watts. There are two RCA line inputs and a moving magnet phono stage that uses a JFET based circuit, as well as an RCA stereo preout and a 6.35mm headphone socket. This is joined by a complete digital section that is built around an ESS 9018 K2M Sabre DAC - a device that is an absolute lynchpin of IAG’s product range. This is connected to a digital board comprising two optical, one coaxial and a single USB input. There is additionally a pair of digital outputs (an addition I find genuinely fascinating) and aptX Bluetooth. The Leak therefore has the decidedly un-sixties ability to decode PCM to 24/384kHz and DSD256 via the USB input (as you might expect the other inputs can’t quite match this but are far from unimpressive in their own right). It also means that the Stereo 130 needs little in the way of supporting equipment to do what it does.

Leak Stereo 130
The rear is rather more up to date however

In some ways, this makes the existence of the CDT even more of a surprise. This is a stylistic match for the Stereo 130 but in technical terms, it’s rather more leftfield. The CDT is a CD transport; a device that is able to read a CD and extract the digital data from it but, instead of decoding it, it simply passes it to an external DAC to decode. The CD transport is a fascinating example of a product category returning from extinction because the circumstances in which you might use it changed. Originally, it was to separate the mechanical playback of the disc itself from the decoding in the pursuit of less interference (and, as decoding systems of the time, were sensitive to jitter, the development of low jitter hardware became a thing too. As the mechanics of one box CD replay improved and CD itself declined, this became less and less common.

The reason why the transport has lurched back into life is because a subset of people are still using CD and, if you’ve gone to the effort of building a full decoding board into your amp, why would you double it up? The CDT therefore is designed to make use of one of the inputs on the Stereo 130, giving you the classic amp and CD combo only one that splits responsibilities a little differently. In the same way that the Stereo 130 has elements of other IAG products in it, the CDT seems to be closely related to the Audiolab 6000CDT. The mechanism is an inhaler type drive with a shielded power supply and high quality oscillator. It outputs over optical and coaxial outputs and can additionally read WAV, AAC, WMA and MP3 via a USB stick if you wish.

More: Audio Formats

Leak Stereo 130
The CDT is a standalone transport

So, we’ve covered off the specs and established why they exist. We can’t go any further before talking about the looks of the Leak duo. The Stereo 130 is a fairly accurate recreation of the original and it’s going to fall to your personal tastes as to whether you want this. I suspect that the wood is the most divisive aspect and here it is important to stress that you can order both the Stereo 130 and the CDT without the wood for £100 less. Without the wood, they have a more seventies than sixties feel and I rather like the effect.

With the wood, I have to say I’m still quite fond of the result. Some care has been taken to ensure that there’s an element of ‘period correct’ to the units, with the use of red and orange LEDs and period knobs (another magnificent set of words there). They don’t ‘feel’ old… but they don’t feel new either. I like that after me berating IAG for years about their Bluetooth aerials, the Stereo 130 doesn’t have one and if you are one of those people with a lovely collection of Ipcress File era furniture, they will genuinely blend in a treat. It also goes without saying that the build quality is entirely in keeping with recent IAG equipment and that means that they are immaculate.

Leak Stereo 130
George Smiley didn't own a Hi-Fi system, but if he did...
 

They don’t ‘feel’ old… but they don’t feel new either

How were the Stereo 130 and CDT tested?

The duo were both connected to an Isotek Evo3 Sigmas mains conditioner and linked together via coaxial digital. The Stereo 130 has also been connected to an LG 55B7 OLED via optical and an SOtM SMS 200 Neo running as a Roon endpoint via USB. An AVID Ingenium Twin with SME M2-9 arm and Goldring 2500 cartridge has been used to test the phono stage and an Oppo Find X2 Neo has been used for limited Bluetooth testing. Speakers used have been the Sonus faber Lumina I and Q Acoustics 3030i. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Qobuz, Tidal, on demand TV and vinyl.

Performance

Leak Stereo 130
The rear of the CDT is correspondingly simple

Having the Leak duo installed and ready to go, the temptation is to regard them as period performers as well as period pieces. This meant that I initially thought about feeding them something entirely of their notional moment like Forever Changes by Love. Then, I realised that this is a strange position to take. As such, I let the CDT to one side to start with and sent the Stereo 130, the 24/48kHz Qobuz stream of Late Night Final’s A Wonderful Hope instead.

This was instructive because it made something very clear from the off. If you close your eyes and listen to the Stereo 130 running into the boisterously joyous Lumina I, you do not hear a piece of vintage equipment. There’s none of the sagging at the frequency extremes or the bloomy quality that sometimes comes with older transistor amps (although, in fairness to them, this is because they are for the most part, full of old transistors). This is a lively and rhythmically engaging amplifier that delivers this soaring, majestic piece of ambient electronica with real panache.

Quite a bit of this stems from the know how and experience that IAG has at making their digital and analogue sections work in a thoroughly harmonious way. Taking a feed from the SOtM, the Leak is effortlessly neutral in the way it goes about making music but it serves to remind people that ‘neutral’ is not a polite word for dull. The warmth and optimism of Slow Release is captured perfectly. Change tack to the utterly gorgeous Riverside by Agnes Obel and the Leak is able to capture the ephemeral quality of her voice and the exceptional production of the track shines through from the moment you start playing.

It’s only fair to point out that there are limitations here. The 45 watts of power is cleanly and evenly delivered and should be quite sufficient for most requirements in a UK lounge but you can buy burlier, more powerful and more forceful amplifiers for the same price (although this is usually at the expense of some of the considerable features that the Stereo 130 offers). This is not the amp you buy to drive demanding speakers to volume levels you feel as much as hear. For most people in most rooms though, it is likely you’ll be fine.

Leak Stereo 130
Without the wood surround, the aesthetic is different but rather likeable

TV material also sounds good. I entrusted both the Masterchef the Professionals final and the season finale of The Mandalorian to the Leak and it delivered both with the same easy going even handedness combined with enough oomph to ensure that the on screen events of both were delivered in an entirely satisfying way. I’m not sure if the Leak will see as much use as the ‘normal’ IAG amps when it comes to this sort of work; there’s something about being interested in this aesthetic that might not dovetail perfectly with the presence of a TV, but the Stereo 130 is more than up to the job if you want it to be.

Of course, if you are invested in a retro aesthetic, you will be pleased to know that the JFET phono stage is every bit as effective here as it was in the Quad Vena II Play. Air’s Moon Safari is delivered with a rich, easy going flow that works perfectly with the material. Ask for more dynamics such as Sturgill Simpson’s Sound & Fury and, while there are more dynamic options at the price, this is still a head nodding, foot tapping experience. The on board phono stage certainly never feels like an afterthought and would match up with a suitable retro themed turntable very well indeed.

I’ve saved talking about the CDT until last for two, slightly contradictory it has to be said, reasons. The first is that, as you would expect, the CDT adopts the performance characteristics of the Stereo 130. The ESS DAC in the digital section of the Stereo 130 can deal with enormous amounts of jitter and the entirely competent design work that has done into the CDT doesn’t get anywhere near that. If you like the presentation of the Stereo 130, the CDT will do nothing to change it.

Having delivered the news that the CDT effectively has no sonic character of its own, I’m then going to go on to say that I feel its appeal is wider than you might expect. If you’ve assembled a system set up for streaming (which almost inevitably has digital inputs) and you aren’t quite ready to drop CD, it’s a fine addition. What’s more, the advantage it has over the mechanically identical and cheaper Audiolab 6000CDT is that slight sense of theatre that comes from the aesthetic. I spent a very enjoyable evening with the CDT connected to my Chord Hugo Mscaler and TT2 duo, listening to some of the CDs I still haven’t ripped and the results were tremendously entertaining. It’s a product that makes far more sense after a little time with it than the bare spec might suggest.

Leak Stereo 130
Period without the drama 
 

If you close your eyes and listen to the Stereo 130 running into the boisterously joyous Lumina I, you do not hear a piece of vintage equipment

Verdict

Pros

  • Usefully comprehensive specification
  • Sound consistently good individually and as a pair
  • Unique but well implemented looks

Cons

  • Not the last word in power output
  • Wood surround is £100 extra and a matter of personal taste

Leak Stereo 130 Integrated Amplifier and CDT CD Transport Review

The Leak Stereo 130 and CDT are a curious pairing in some ways. At a basic level, they are largely beautified versions of existing products for which you will pay a price premium. What my time with them has shown though is that the result is a very likeable duo indeed. They are pleasant to use, good to look at and deliver a genuinely invigorating performance. As an addition to the options available at the price, they are a very welcome one and if you’re looking for modern features and talented sonics wrapped in something that’s a little different, they are well worth seeking out and for this reason they earn our enthusiastic Recommendation.  

Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
9

Connectivity

.
.
8

Ease of use

.
.
8

Features

.
9

Audio quality

.
.
8

Value for money

.
.
8

Overall

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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