What is the Leema Acoustics Pulse IV?
The Leema Pulse IV is an integrated amplifier. As the name suggests, it is not the first iteration of the Pulse either. It has been a fixture in the Leema range for almost as long as the company has been in business and it has been evolving throughout that time. Not all of those evolutions have been as consistent a step forward as others; the Pulse III managed to have an excellent spec but made some… interesting… styling decisions but, in microcosm, the amp has reflected the requirements of integrated amps at this price point and how that has changed.
This means that the Pulse IV arrives with a firmly ‘Post AV’ specification that means it needs very little supporting equipment to form the basis of a complete system. It also doesn’t add a digital input here or there either - as we shall cover, you could connect a very significant clutch of kit to the Leema without an issue. This puts it in a different category to devices like the Naim Nait XS3 and Rega Aethos, which are fine amps but need supporting source equipment. Ultimately though, an amp needs, first and foremost to be an amp, so can the Leema keep its simpler rivals honest and then make good on the more extensive specification? Read on to find out.
Specification and Design
Like a few integrated amps we’ve looked at in recent years, the Pulse IV hovers at the boundary where ‘integrated amp’ ends and ‘all in one’ begins. Technically, the Pulse IV needs some form of source - even if it is mobile phone - to work, so the amp description is accurate. The amp section of the Leema is also something that is relatively traditional. While the company has some experience making (very good) class D devices, the Pulse IV has a Class AB output stage that generates a wholly reasonable 80 watts into 8 ohms. There are amps that produce more than this for the same money but equally, I cannot think of any equivalently priced speaker that can’t be driven adequately on 80 watts.
This amplification is made available to a truly wide spread of inputs. There are four RCA line inputs and a phono stage that can be switched between moving magnet and moving coil. These are joined by two sets of preouts (so, technically, you could have a power amp and a pair of subwoofers at the same time if you were feeling keen), and a fixed tape out. These are joined by no less than seven digital inputs, three optical, three coaxial and a single USB. Not enough? OK, there’s Bluetooth too. All digital decoding is undertaken by a member of the ESS Sabre family - model unspecified.
Now, it is possible to argue that, from the perspective of AVForums at least, there’s a quality over quantity argument. Would I sacrifice two of those coax inputs for an HDMI ARC input? Yes, I would but that is purely from a convenience (ie, synced volume) perspective. Anything coming out of a TV is going to be 48kHz PCM, which is well within the remit of what optical can handle and it doesn’t seem an immediate likelihood that TV manufacturers are going to stop fitting such a connection. The USB input is entirely up to snuff as regards formats both real and imaginary with support for PCM up to 24/384 and DSD128. The optical inputs are 96kHz capable and the coax inputs good for 192kHz so there’s not a huge amount that the Leema can’t handle in this regard. The specification is rounded off nicely by a headphone socket on a 3.5mm connection.
As such, the Leema doesn’t need a great deal to become a fully-fledged system (a Raspbery Pi server or SOtM SMS-200 Neo would do it) but, conversely can handle a truly sprawling set of components if you need it to. There are some areas of ‘give’ to this process. Input access is cyclical - there’s no direct selection on either the amp or the remote and the display has to limit itself to showing input and volume and that’s your lot - there’s no means of determining incoming sample rate or the like. The remote handset is a smaller type. It’s smaller than some rivals and has some operational issues. The input selection buttons are two vertically arrayed buttons in a group of six. The volume buttons are two vertically arrayed buttons arranged in the same group of six and in the time it has been here, I have changed the inputs when I wanted the volume control a great deal, thanks for asking.
Otherwise, the news is much better. The Leema is a clean, handsome piece of kit. The decision to shrink the front panel controls down to an input selection and volume control makes for an uncluttered and attractive looking device. Functionality isn’t impinged either as both controllers have push access functions that gives you mute and standby controls as well as a settings menu that allows you to change the phono stage settings or whether you want a dB or straight counter for your volume level and other details. It’s a tidy control interface and it helps to create to a tidy amplifier as a result.
It is also extremely well made. I don’t think I’ve encountered a piece of Leema gear that isn’t well made but the decision to move back to a more conventional style for the IV over the III helps to show this level of fit and finish off better. The Rega Aethos feels a little more substantial still (but it is £600 more and requires rather more in the way of supporting equipment to do anything) but I cannot see many people unboxing the Leema and thinking it was anything other than very well made. Black and silver finishes are available too which is something that a great many rivals have abandoned of late.
The Leema is a clean, handsome piece of kit.
How was the Pulse IV tested?
The Leema was powered via an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius power supply and placed on a Quadraspire QAVX equipment rack. It was connected to a Roon Nucleus server via USB, an LG 55B7 OLED via optical and a Rega Planar 10 turntable which ran both Rega Ania Pro moving coil and Gold Note Vasari Gold moving magnet cartridges for test purposes into the phono stage. Speaker duties have largely fallen to the Focal Kanta No1 but the PMC twenty5 21i has also done a stint too. Material used has included FLAC, AIFF, on demand audio services, on demand video services and some vinyl.
Leema Acoustics is the creation of two ex-BBC engineers. This being the case, it is fair to say that there are some philosophies at work in the general presentation that the company products have which are different to some other British brands. With both the Rega Aethos and the brace of Naim amps that have come through, there is unquestionable accuracy but - largely down to certain distinctive design practices on the part of both companies - there’s a character to them too. In the past, coming off the back of a rival amp and going to a Leema could feel a little flat. Dare I say it, it could almost come across as dull.
What you were actually hearing is the musical equivalent of the Ronseal effect - it does what it says on the tin. Leema left ‘character’ to other brands and did what they did. The Pulse IV hasn’t rowed away from these ideals but it might have let the boat drift a little. Listening to the raw fury of Steve Earle’s Devil put the Coal in the Ground on the Pulse IV is tonally magnificent. Earle’s snarling vocals, the supporting guitar and banjo and the stripped down percussion all sound tangibly real and the space the recording possesses is loving recreated.
But, there’s more. Some of the filth and fury this album has in spades is reproduced with that little bit more emphasis than might have been the case before. Without losing the feeling that you’re getting an entirely honest take on the recording, the Pulse IV is a little more engaging with it. It’s the difference between being a spectator and a participant and the effect it has on long term listening is significant. For domestic listening, there are limits to ‘what you see is what you get.’ You’re not remastering the album, just listening to it. That little extra emotional content makes all the difference. When I’m hammering my way through Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm Live, I’d probably still give the Naim Nait XS3 the nod but the Pulse IV gets much closer than its predecessors did.
What’s so likeable about this is that the fundamentals of the Pulse IV have not been impinged upon. Using it for TV work is deeply satisfying because it delivers an unvarnished take on events onscreen. I enjoyed a nostalgic blast through Rambo; First Blood on the Pulse IV and the Leema didn’t put a foot wrong. Dialogue was constantly clear and easy to follow and it creates a real feeling of those brooding North West woods. Nothing I’ve asked it to do in the time it has been here has been anything other than very enjoyable and as an amp being called upon to do both music and AV work, the Pulse IV’s tonal balance is a happier match than the dedicated amp rivals.
The decoding of the Leema is really beautifully judged in the context of the amplification. It adds very little of itself to the basic balance of the amp’s performance. That’s a notable achievement because it means that Leema has kept a handle on the tendency of the ESS to come across a little analytical. Used over USB, the Pulse’s performance gets close to that of a Chord Qutest running alongside. Given the saving it represents, this is where the Leema really starts to shine because it needs so little extra to do what it does, allowing you to select a pair of speakers that suits and allocate the bulk of your remaining budget to that.
Against this, my complaints are limited. The phono stage very definitely does its best work with moving magnet cartridges and can feel a little short of breath and a touch noisy with moving coil designs. If you are a passionate vinyl user, I would budget for an external model (of which Leema makes some fine examples) but it is more than good enough for occasional use. Likewise, the headphone amp is solid rather than spectacular but, again, it is more than up to the job of covering off a bit of closed listening every now and again. All of this has to be judged against splitting off the functionality of the Leema into separate bits and allocating the same budget for it. I’m not saying it would be impossible to cover off but it would be bulkier and rather less elegant while it does it.
That little extra emotional content makes all the difference
- Accurate but entertaining performance
- Superb connectivity
- Very well made
- Some rivals are subjectively more exciting
- Phono stage can lack a little gain
- Remote is a bit of a faff to use
Leema Acoustics Pulse IV Integrated Amp Review
The Leema Pulse IV is the very definition of an all rounder. It delivers a specification that is extremely comprehensive, requiring little in the way of supporting equipment to be a full system, yet comes complete with connectivity sufficient to accommodate a sprawling system should you wish to do so. For a little more than the Naim XS3, it gets usefully close in performance terms as a pure amplifier while being a completely different value proposition to the Naim. If you already have source equipment you are happy with, this is a balance that is nullified but for people looking for a clean sheet system it is hard not to ignore the value on show here. Throw in the excellent build, handsome appearance and healthy power output and you have a very capable amplifier indeed and one that earns our very enthusiastic recommendation.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.