Design and technology
Wales isn’t well known for its audio manufacturers, but Leema Acoustics and subwoofer specialist REL Acoustics are doing their best to change all that. Leema can trace its origins back to 1998, when its two founders, ex-BBC engineers Lee Taylor and Mallory Nicholls, came together to design their first loudspeaker, the Xen. This project took four years of intensive and innovative development, resulting in a small loudspeaker that—the company claims—can outperform speaker systems many times its size. The Xen was squarely aimed at the professional audio market for mixing and related applications, but the firm soon realized it had a product that hi-fi enthusiasts desired, too.
After the success of the Xen, Taylor and Nicholls turned to audio electronics, releasing the Tucana integrated amplifier in 2006 to rapturous reviews. In 2007, the firm announced its first CD player, the Antila, and has since expanded its model range to encompass streamers, amplifiers, DACs, phono stages, and a full line of cables.
I have been impressed whenever I have heard Leema products at audio shows. They look attractive, and seem to offer exceptional value for money. Few companies can offer a UK-built audiophile CD player for £1400 (all prices in UK pounds) or a 150Wpc pre/power amplifier combination for just £2800. These are the kind of prices one associates with offshore manufacturing, not a product lovingly crafted in the United Kingdom. Leema’s range extends from the budget Essentials line through Elements and Stellar, before topping out with the flagship Constellation series. The Tucana II Anniversary Edition is the firm’s flagship integrated amplifier in the elite Constellation series.
The Tucana comes in two variants: The base model Tucana II and the Anniversary Edition tested here, which costs £6044 (US pricing unavailable at time of publication). Developed to celebrate 10 years of the legendary Tucana II, the Anniversary Edition offers an impressive set of enhancements to the basic design.
The Tucana AE is housed in an attractive aluminum case with an aluminum front panel and top plate, in black or a natural satin finish. The case measures 17″W × 12.5″D × 4.3″H and features oversized black heatsinks running the entire length of each side. The front panel can be distinguished from the standard model by a chrome-plated Leema Delta logo machined from a solid billet of aluminum and a matching name badge, inscribed ANNIVERSARY EDITION. The top plate has a distinctive design touch—the ventilation holes are cut in the pattern of Leema’s Delta logo. The whole unit has a pleasingly substantial build quality, weighing in at just under 40 pounds.
Aesthetically, the front panel design is excellent; it’s attractive, intuitive, and ergonomically well thought out. On the left is a 3.5mm headphone jack, and below it, a second 3.5mm stereo jack for connecting a portable media player. I would have much preferred to see a full-size, 6.35mm headphone jack on an amplifier of this quality, but I suspect Leema chose the smaller format to maintain visual continuity with the auxiliary input. The large rotary volume control uses stepped attenuators. The blue LEDs surrounding the beautifully weighted volume knob illuminate to display the selected level. This is a brilliant system that allows the volume level to be clearly seen from across the room when switching sources. When the unit is powered on, the blue LEDs flash in unison around the perimeter for a few seconds until the volume fades up to a default low level.
Blue LEDs frame the volume dial
In the center of the front panel beneath the main logo are four pushbuttons controlling gain, balance, muting, and tape-monitor functions. These illuminate when selected and provide some nice functionality. The gain button enables the volume of sources to be adjusted by up to 10dB to equalize volume levels between them. Leema suggests that the CD input be used as a benchmark level for the other inputs. This means you don’t get deafened when switching from vinyl to CD—unlike with my resident Naim amplifiers! The balance pushbutton is rather nifty, too; when pressed, the volume control LEDs light up at the 12 o’clock position and the volume knob then operates as the balance control. The LEDs indicate the selected balance position; pressing the balance button again returns the volume control to normal operation. Finally, on the right of the fascia is an arc of seven input selection buttons that illuminate in blue when pressed. I was a little surprised that none of them are labeled “Vinyl,” given how popular the format has become. Most likely this is because there’s no onboard phono preamp, but that’s no surprise. In my opinion, anybody serious enough about audio to be spending over six grand on an integrated amplifier should be using an external phono stage. Leema markets several phono stages, but for this review I used my Trichord Dino Mk3 with its flagship power supply.
There are extensive revisions to the standard Tucana II on the inside. All printed circuit boards have double-weight copper tracks to reduce resistance and improve power delivery. All capacitors in the signal path have been upgraded to high-quality Nichicon Muse devices. The wiring from PCB to speaker terminal has been upgraded to Leema’s flagship Reference 2 loudspeaker cable, which has 16 woven cores of silver-plated high-purity copper. Like the standard Tucana II, all transistors are hand-selected and matched in amplifier sets to provide optimal performance and minimum distortion. The power amplifier transformers are unique to the Tucana AE; they are extremely high-grade (and expensive) Noratel Xtra Quiet units that ensure high power delivery, low hum, and minimal heat generation.
Note the stylish ventilation holes in the shape of the Leema logo
Whilst we are on the subject of transformers, it’s worth mentioning that this amplifier actually has three toroidal transformers. Two of them power the amplification circuits, as this is a fully dual-mono design. The third is a discrete transformer powering the illumination and control circuitry. Leema hasn’t skimped on power, either. The Tucana AE is specified to output 150Wpc into 8 ohms and nearly doubles this into a 4-ohm load before hitting 520Wpc into 2 ohms. It’s capable of delivering 50A of instantaneous current to the loudspeakers, so it should have no difficulty driving any loudspeaker you are realistically likely to partner it with. I enjoy my music at high levels sometimes, and it’s not unheard-of for my venerable Naim Audio NAP 250 amplifier to go into thermal shutdown. With the Leema, I never even turned the volume dial past 12 o’clock, and there was absolutely no sense of strain driving my ATC speakers at any time.
The Tucana AE is supplied with Leema’s brand-new, luxurious, all-metal remote control. This is a fully featured unit capable of controlling multiple components in the Leema range and is so solidly built it could double as a weapon! It has a very nice feel in the hand and is laid out in keeping with the front panel, in an equally logical manner. My only complaint is that it isn’t quite as effective off-axis as my Naim remotes or indeed the remote supplied with my Emotiva MR1 A/V amplifier. I’m probably unusual in that my equipment racks are arranged beside me along the back wall, so inevitably I’m hugely off-axis when pointing remotes at my gear. I have learned to value the ability of Naim’s and Emotiva’s remotes to operate effectively at highly oblique angles. I found I had to get out of my seat to be sure that signals were received reliably by the Tucana AE. This isn’t an issue for anyone who sites their gear within their line of sight, though.
The stunningly solid remote control
On the rear panel there are high-quality banana plug sockets for a single set of loudspeakers; seven RCA inputs, including facility for a tape deck/loop; and a set of RCA preamplifier outputs for connection to an outboard power amplifier or for biamping. The Tucana AE also offers a single set of XLR balanced inputs and two LIPS (Leema Intelligent Protocol System) link connections to permit the unit to communicate with other components in a Leema audio system. So, for example, the Tucana AE could control other power amplifiers in a 7.2 surround system. Key information—including volume level, input selection, and power control—passes through the LIPS bus, enabling the other units to operate in synchronization. If a two-channel source is selected, such as CD, the additional surround amplifiers automatically power down. LIPS can also be interfaced to other RS232-based system integration and home automation systems such as Crestron and Pro Control.
I installed the Leema in place of my usual Naim NAC 82 / NAP 250 pre-power combination. Sources included my Naim CDI CD player, Naim NDX streamer, and Michell GyroDec turntable equipped with SME Series IV tonearm and Vertere Mystic moving-coil cartridge. Interconnects were supplied by the Chord Company, including Chord SignatureX Tuned ARAY DIN-RCA, Chord SignatureX RCA-XLR, and Chord EpicX ARAY RCA.
Rear cabling from Chord Company and Naim Audio
I also used the pre-out function on my Emotiva MR1 A/V receiver to enable the Leema to drive the front two channels in my home-cinema installation. The Tucana AE is eminently suitable for A/V, with a dedicated unity-gain function. When A/V is selected, the volume LEDs default to a low level and then pan upwards to the 12 o’clock position, ensuring that you don’t suddenly start blasting out a movie soundtrack. It’s yet another example of the thought that has gone into making operation of the Tucana AE an absolute delight.
With any new component, it’s always exciting to cue up a first record to see how it presents music. Having been so impressed with the design, execution, and build of this amplifier, I was hoping that the sound would be equally impressive. I needn’t have worried. First up on the platter was a spectacular recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade from audiophile-label Chasing the Dragon (LP, Chasing the Dragon VALLP016). This performance by the superb National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Inglis, was recorded at the Henry Wood Hall in London, England, and was half-speed mastered at Air Studios on a modified Neumann VMS-80 cutting lathe. It might just be the finest-sounding slab of vinyl in my collection, and the whole package is accompanied by a lavish booklet detailing the recording process, the rare vintage microphones used, and a whole raft of technical details which will prove fascinating to any audio connoisseur.
Chasing the Dragon’s magnificent Scheherazade LP
Within a few bars, it was evident that the Tucana AE is an amplifier of rare sonic finesse. No, let me go further—this amplifier is so good it seriously challenges established reference pre-and-power designs that cost two or three times as much. There’s an immediacy to the sound that Naim owners would instantly recognize—that ability to render a musical note without blurring its envelope of attack, sustain, decay, and release. A live trumpet blast can hit 110dB in a fraction of a second and many amplifiers simply don’t respond to a dynamic peak like that quickly enough. The Tucana AE did.
In the opening movement, “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” the first few bars unleash powerful orchestral forces. The Tucana AE responded immediately, showing exceptional dynamic delivery. There’s very little sense of compression on this recording. Soon, the ebullient opening gives way to an incredibly delicate theme played by the flute, oboe, and bassoon, before violin soloist Katerina Nazarova takes center stage. There’s huge space on this recording; a really expansive sense of being in a larger acoustic, and the Leema amp immersed me in it beautifully. In terms of soundstage width and depth, the presentation was much more three-dimensional than my resident Naim combination. The Tucana AE could play very loudly with exceptional clarity and control, and then, when called upon, capture textural detail of timbre and bowing technique of solo violin with superb finesse. Listening through the entire album, I realized that the Tucana AE’s presentation wasn’t just a facsimile of the recording; as with all the very best audio components, it felt far closer to being in the room at a live performance. When you have a system and recording of this caliber, the musical rewards are almost transcendental.
Scheherazade is a reference recording if ever there was one. But how does the Tucana AE perform when faced with averagely recorded pop or rock records? I fired up Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” from the original version of her fifth album, 1989 (CD, Big Machine Records 0602547071668). The heavily processed snare and kick drum sounds in the opening came punching out of the speakers with such violence I started to question the integrity of my plasterwork. There’s serious bass impact to this track, and the Tucana AE seemed to be hitting as fast and taut as my Naim amplifiers do, but with even deeper bass and more gravitas. The sheer solidity of the drum beats made the air in the room jolt. I didn’t just hear them, I could feel them in my guts, too. Fabulous!
The quality of machining on the casework, including the heatsinks, is exemplary
When Swift enters on vocals, she sounded incredibly transparent. She has fantastic delivery on this song. At times her voice is smooth but as she moves into the chorus and the pitch rises, her vocals become thinner. It reminded me of that glorious, sparkling, and yet slightly strident quality that Agnetha and Frida sang with on some of the most famous Abba choruses of songs like “The Name of the Game.” I’ve said it before and I will say it again: the magic of high-end audio is that truly great systems highlight these distinctions and reveal the nuances of an artist’s performance and the production decisions made during recording. There was a lot of detail being revealed and I could clearly hear Swift’s intakes of breath on quieter sections, such subtleties all serving to make the record seem more live and more real.
You couldn’t really find two more different recordings, but the Tucana AE had deeply impressed me with both. Next, I turned to Chris Stapleton’s “Death Row” from his seminal From a Room: Volume 1 (16/44.1 FLAC, Mercury Nashville / Tidal). Through the Leema amp, Stapleton’s emotive voice had all the gravel and grit of a life spent on the road, sinking bourbon in late-night bars. It was rich and expressive; honey-dripped and warm, yet incisive. His jabbing, bluesy electric-guitar licks sounded startling in the room—as if he was sitting there on his 1962 Fender Princeton amp, Jazzmaster in hand. There’s tremendous warmth to his guitar tone on this track and the Leema conveyed it beautifully, projecting the sound deep into the room in three dimensions. Meanwhile, the insistent rim shot snare that punctuates the track had superb snap.
Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” from his 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony Music / Tidal) has a beautifully warm mid-1970s analog sound. I don’t know what it is about recordings of that era, but to me, so many of those albums represent a high-water mark sonically: the Eagles’ Desperado, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Steely Dan’s Aja, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here—the list of sonic masterpieces goes on and on. I guess engineers had perfected analog by then and hadn’t yet started compressing the life out of everything, as they did some years later. No matter, via the Tucana AE, the bouncing sticks on the opening snare rhythm had superb delineation, while Simon’s voice was beautifully rendered with all its distinctive fluidity and timbre intact. In the chorus, the track bounced along with tremendous verve. The bass guitar had enveloping warmth, solidly underpinning the track in a most enjoyable manner. Most importantly, each note was portrayed as a distinct frequency—too many audio systems render the instrument with “one-note bass,” but there was no such issue here.
The Leema Tucana AE is an amplifier that makes you want to keep digging out records you haven’t played for ages, just for the sheer joy of it. One of its greatest strengths was its even-handedness, irrespective of the source material. It didn’t matter whether I played rock, classical, singer-songwriter, or jazz via CD, streaming, or vinyl—the Tucana AE rendered them all enjoyably. It reproduced whatever source I fed into it in an incredibly neutral manner. Perhaps that’s evidence of the designers’ BBC engineering heritage.
Summary and conclusions
The Leema Tucana Anniversary Edition is the finest integrated amplifier to have ever graced my system. Its grip on timing information was astounding, so buyers who regard this as one of the fundamental building blocks of music should be amply rewarded. Music was portrayed with dynamics intact due to ample power reserves and high current delivery. It ran extremely quietly, thanks to high-quality transformers and transistors, and produced deep, black silences between notes even at high levels. The Tucana AE was exceedingly transparent, delivering superb low-level detail, such as the ambience of recording venues. Thermally, it remained unconditionally stable, even when pushed to high levels for prolonged periods during some unexpectedly warm summer weather here in the UK. In terms of soundstage quality, it was right up there with class leaders I have heard—the music was presented with superb depth, scale, and width.
Sonically, the Tucana AE is a giant-slayer by any measure. Just bear in mind that to get the very best out of it, you’re going to need to feed it with high-quality sources and use excellent loudspeakers. In my view, it is comparable to amplifiers at two or three times the price, so it will accommodate components far above its price class.
I’m not actually sure how Leema Acoustics manages to build something this exceptional and sell it for what amounts to a mere bagatelle in high-end terms. I raised this subject over lunch with their PR representative, Dan George. He explained that Leema has joined forces with Davlec, a firm that specializes in developing and building electronics for everything from milking machines to traffic lights. Working under the same roof gives Leema access to expensive PCB fabrication and design capability at a far lower cost than if they had to subcontract such work to a specialized third party. Rather like SME, Leema reduces its costs by machining the cases, heatsinks, and fascia panels in-house. The factory’s sophisticated metal-cutting and machining capabilities also enable execution of design flourishes like the arrangement of the ventilation holes on the top plate of the amplifier, and the fabrication of the stunning all-metal remote control.
In terms of design, execution, and user interface, this is a very carefully engineered product. Operation of the Tucana AE is sublimely intuitive, and the unit is quietly handsome. If anything, its visual subtlety doesn’t prepare you for just how good it sounds. As a result, I fed back three comments to the firm.
Firstly, for some cool wow factor, I would like to see the brand name below the logo on the front panel backlit in blue; similar to the way that Gryphon and Naim Audio components have illuminated logos. Secondly, I would like to see a full-size headphone jack on this amplifier; it’s just too good for anything less. Finally, for a product of this caliber, I am unimpressed by the two-year warranty. I would expect Leema to offer a minimum of five years, as Chord Electronics and Naim Audio do. Nevertheless, there are some impressive touches; for example, each amplifier comes with an individual passport, with each stage of assembly signed off by the production operative responsible. A copy of the production testing and measurement documentation, signed off by the test engineer, is also included—nice.
Leema’s Tucana AE now joins the ATC SCM40, Rega Planar 10, and Michell GyroDec on my list of high-end bargains. In an age of inflated pricing and a trend towards ludicrous uber-fi, it’s reassuring to find some firms still building beautifully engineered, affordable audio equipment here in the UK. It’s also comforting to realize that there’s no need to outsource all our manufacturing capability to the Far East. We can build things economically in Europe or North America if we apply manufacturing synergy and intelligence to the challenge. Frankly, it does matter to me where products are built, for all sorts of reasons. I like it when I see “Manufactured by SME Ltd, Steyning, Sussex, England” on a tonearm box, or “Minnetonka, Minnesota” and “Made in U.S.A.” on the rear panel of an Audio Research amplifier. For me, there’s a line in the sand with respect to high-end audio, and I’m drawing it!
The UK, the rest of Europe, the US, and Canada have proud audio-engineering heritages, and as consumers we need to be mindful of our purchasing decisions if we want to preserve them. I had begun to fear that in another ten years, the only brands actually still making audio electronics in the West would be those with the highest price tags, but I think that Leema Acoustics, Rega, ATC, and a few others are really pointing the way forward here.
The Leema Acoustics Tucana II Anniversary Edition might well be an endgame amplifier for even the most discerning of audiophiles. In a word, it’s magnificent.
. . . Jonathan Gorse
- Turntable: Michell GyroDec turntable with SME Series IV tonearm, and Vertere Mystic MC cartridge.
- Phono preamplifier: Trichord Research Dino Mk 3 with Never Connected Dino+ power supply; PS Audio Stellar.
- Preamplifier: Naim Audio NAC 82, Chord Electronics Ultima Pre 3.
- Power amplifier: Naim NAP 250.
- Power supply: Naim HiCap.
- Loudspeakers: ATC SCM40.
- Cabling: Chord Company Sarum T loudspeaker cables, Naim NAC A5 loudspeaker cables, Naim interconnects on all Naim amplification, Chord Co. Sarum T Super ARAY XLR, Chord Co. SignatureX Tuned ARAY DIN-RCA, Chord Co. SignatureX RCA-XLR, Chord EpicX ARAY RCA. Chord Co. Chameleon interconnects for phono stages, QED interconnects for secondary sources.
Leema Acoustics Tucana II Anniversary Edition Integrated Amplifier
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor (extendable to five years for an additional fee).
Leema Electro Acoustics Ltd.
16 Severn Farm Industrial Estate
Welshpool SY21 7DF