Leema Tucana Vs Stello Ai500 - Sound Quality

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Leema Tucana Vs Stello Ai500
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Regular readers will know that I use a Leema Tucana as one of my reference amplifiers, so you can imagine the zeal with which I unboxed the Tucana ll. Anyone used to the original would instantly recognise the company sound. Fast and quite richly toned, my attention was immediately drawn to the bass where I found a whole new degree of speed and accuracy, as well as depth, compared to the oldie. I was impressed by the separation of detail and the speed at which sounds stopped and started. By comparison the bass from my early model Tucana sounded a bit soft and wallowy. Moving up the frequency scale and I found greater space around sounds and a more defined shape to them.

Digging into my jazz collection, I put on Chris barber’s Bandbox Vol.3. This 1960 mono Columbia recording was made as the British Trad Jazz movement was beginning to fade away. Barber was one of the driving forces of the music from its roots in late 1940s Soho, and this LP showcases re-recordings of some of his classic tracks with vocals provided, as ever, by Ottilie Patterson. The Tucana ll relayed the sound in a very engaging and energising manner, producing a sonic image that occupied about three quarters of the space between the speakers. Stage depth was aided by the feeling that the sound extended forwards as well as behind the speakers.

Rhythm driven music seemed to suit the Tucana ll’s somewhat vivacious nature. Moving to stereo with “Latin Jazz Dance Classics Vol. 2”, and I found Cal Tjader’s track ‘Manuel Deeghit’ slinking out of the speakers with all of the hip-swinging groove that you would expect from a master of South American sounds. It was elegant, poised and seductive.

Later in the evening I had slowed things down a little and was listening to Rubenstein playing Chopin Nocturnes. Here the Tucana ll displayed a more considered and thoughtful side to things. The delicate touch of the fingers caressing the sounds from the piano was absorbing listening. The last LP I played on the Tucana ll was ‘The Orb Live ’93’, so it was the first on when the Stello Ai500 took over, and I was initially rather surprised at the closeness in sound between the two units.  Both had a similar sense of pace, and a similar tonality when presented with electronica, but began to define themselves when more conventional sounds took over...

The Stello Ai500 played the Chopin beautifully, possibly in a more thoughtful way than the Tucana ll. I felt that I was focusing on different aspects of the performance, perhaps less on the tonal colours of the music and more on the shape of it.  Moving back to the jazz and the difference in the presentation of the soundstage became apparent with the Chris Barber LP. The mono image was a little wider, nearly coming to the inner edges of the speakers, but stayed behind the line of the cabinets, extending to a moderate depth. Stereo had a similar presentation, this time extending sideways beyond the speakers further than the Tucana ll managed, but lacking the latter’s depth projection abilities.

Playing Cal Tjader confirmed a feeling that I had begun to have while listening to the Chris Barber tracks. I felt that the Stello was a little more straight laced when it came to the beat of music. The presentation seemed to lack a certain sinuous sensuality, seeming to lose a certain element of the passion that fuels good dance music, be it latin, trad, swing or whatever.

As computer-based music becomes more commonplace more amplifiers are being produced with onboard digital to analogue convertors. These allow a USB lead to link your computer’s hard-drive into the amp’s DAC, rather than using the often poor quality soundcard and headphone socket fitted to most computers. The Stello’s DAC proved to be a very good performer when fed from my MacBook via the USB input. In certain aspects it seemed to have the edge over my Cambridge Audio DacMagic 3, despite the latter’s upsampling capabilities. The sound was smooth, slightly rounded, nicely detailed and shown in a satisfying way.

An interesting pair of integrateds then, with subtle but nevertheless marked contrasts. How then do they stack up in the great scheme of things? Well, at this point the Sugden IA4 was duly heaved in. Actually, it stands as a testament to the quality of the Leema and Stello amplifiers, both running in Class AB, that they managed to stand their ground against a pure Class A design. I’d concede that the Sugden had a slight advantage in the smoothness of the sound, being seemingly seamless from bottom to top, but it still showed a little forwardness in the upper midrange when provoked by female operatic voices and trumpets. If not shrill, it is certainly ‘well lit’.

Both the Leema and the Stello exhibited better control in the bass arena when volume levels rose. The Sugden didn’t have quite so finely tuned handling in this area. But where the reference Sudgen won hands down was in the size, shape and openness of the soundstage. I can honestly say that it filled the room. The usual parameters by which I judge such things were completely recalibrated; moving back to the Class AB amps and the sound retreated to its conventional boundaries.

After readjusting my ears to the more restrained scale and presentation of the Ai500 and Tucana ll (rather like swapping from a V8 engined car to a straight 6) I ransacked my record collection trying to pinpoint the subtle differences in the way these two amps made music. Apart from the more upright timing of the Stello, they both seemed pretty impervious to musical genre, but displayed the sound slightly differently. If you can imagine the subtle hue differences between the same picture taken with Agfa film and with Kodak. The former gives a slightly cooler, bluer tint to things (the Stello), where as the Kodak version shows off the vividness of gold, reds and yellows (the Tucana ll).



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