The music was loud.
It was coming through a door to our right, and it sounded really good.
Although we’re two grown men, we must have looked like a pair of crazy owls as we gawked through the glass door; mouths agape, big querulous eyes topped with arched brows and our heads rotating slowly in unison as Mike Quinn hustled over and let us into PDX Hi-fi‘s secret audiophile sanctum that had a shit-ton of gorgeous kit casually strewn about the room as only truly high-end gear can be.
The place almost felt like it should have one of those old-time movie, back-alley doors with the eye slot that is opened with disdain by a suspicious doorman demanding a password to get in, and if you’re wrong he slams the slot and tells you to piss off.
My father and I had driven from our rented house in the city”s South East district that morning after I had secured a listening session a couple weeks before with PDX Hi-fi owner Dale Shephard.
I had emailed Dale because my family and I were heading to glorious Portland, Oregon for a week and I’d heard from a Shindo-loving friend that PDX Hifi was where I needed to be if tubes and high-efficiency speakers were my jam, which my friend damn well knew was true.
I was pretty hyped about the possibility of hearing a Leben integrated amplifier paired with some DeVore speakers as I have a pair of the O/96s at home for a long-term review, but no Leben dealer in Vancouver, B.C. where I’m from.
Dale came through in spades for me with a Leben CS600 integrated ($6,495), a Well Tempered GTA Amadeus turntable ($3,850), with an EMT JSD6 cartridge ($3,295), and an Acoustic Plan Phono Master SE ($4,495 with built-in step up) juicing some DeVore O/93s ($8,400 US) and O/96s (which I didn’t ask to be hooked up).
Cables and interconnects were all Auditorium 23 (RCA $795 per 1.0 meter pair (three pair used in system) Speaker cables $980 per 2.5 meter pair (6.0 meter set $2,380).
The whole system was on a gorgeous Box Furniture Double Wide Rack in Anigre finish ($4,600).
My hype regarding the Leben wasn’t misplaced, and it only grew as Mike spun a mix of vinyl on the GTA and CDs on a Line Magnetic 515 player.
Mike also spun some incredible stories of his life and music experiences, sharing many laugh-filled tales of his adventures in hifi and Italian cooking.
Having the O/96s for the past couple months helped me recognize the familiar sonic signature of the O/93s (Read: completely transparent, timbrally accurate, with incredible texture and speed, deep, authoritative bass, hypnotic midrange and sweet, non-fatiguing treble), so it was easy to hear what the ‘table, cart, phono stage and amp were bringing to the party.
The Leben really threw a BIG sound stage, and with 28 watts of push-pull EL34-supplied power on tap (32 watts if you swap-in some 6L6GCs) , transients and attack on instruments – particularly piano and guitar – were incredibly fast and tightly controlled.
Everything Mike played felt effortless and dynamic with gobs of headroom.
I must say though, the CS600’s sound to my ears was closer to another integrated amplifier I’m familiar with and have on long-term review, the Air Tight AM-201h (25 watts, EL84 push-pull integrated), than to my (mid-priced) reference integrated, the Audio Note Oto Line SE, which sounds emotional and moody by comparison (which I unabashedly love).
The CS600 sound is very clean and transparent to source, and while that rich, creamy decay on notes is there – and is what you’d expect from a tube amp – there is a punch and heft, a slam, to the underlying power signature which I’ve come to associate with the best solid state amplifiers, much like the Technical Brain TB-Zero integrated amplifier, which at $26,800 US is more than four times the Leben’s price.
So basically what I’m saying is the Leben sounds fantastic for its price, and could slide into play with much higher-priced kit and not blink an eye or break a sweat.
The Well Tempered ‘table is a work of art, and while some may balk at the lack of an arm lift, its ability to transmit every nuance of the grooves that the EMT cartridge was feeding it wasn’t lost on me.
The setup had a real synergy to it, with every component in the chain speaking the others language; no translation needed; the A23 cabling no doubt helping moving those subtle electrons along.
One of the things that helped this system sound so great in my estimation was the unique (to me) acoustic treatment the room had.
I spoke with Mike about it, and later got a more detailed response from Dale, here’s his reply:
Thanks for asking and glad you noticed. The wood panels made a sizable difference in the sound of the room. I am thrilled with the project and glad we went forward with it.
For room acoustics, the biggest problem is the sheet rock. The wood panels in the listening zone give a better surface for sound.
The panels are 3/4″ plywood. Douglas Fir core (no MDF) with a sanded Cypress face. Cypress is a soft wood as is the Douglas Fir. I looked all over for the right plywood but everything I found that was soft wood was aesthetically challenged. All of the beautiful plywood was hardwood faced which is not as desirable for this type of project (too reflective).
I tried Mr. Plywood in Portland as a last ditch effort and fortunately they had these panels. They were one-off, limited to stock on hand. Not sure where they got them, but I loved the wood grain and when I found out they were Cypress/Douglas Fir, I knew this was our best shot. Panels were around $60 each. I bought 12 to make sure, and we ended up using 10 of them in the room. Panels are attached with stainless steel wood screws and washers, attached directly through the drywall into the studs. No rubber washers.
Most room treatments are absorption panels which have an effect, but which also can take away the liveliness of the sound. It’s a tradeoff. I have to give credit to John DeVore and Jonathan Halpern for the idea and advice on wood types, thickness, placement etc. In the end it worked wonders.
Rugs and drapes only get you so far. After that ya gotta get the drywall covered up. It’s the worst for sound.
Plaster is great for sound, but its hard to find a modern room with plaster. Wood has always been, and will always be the best for sound.”
I plan on implementing this treatment in my own listening room before Christmas, so look for further thoughts once I’ve done it. In the meantime, I think we can all take the advice of Dale, Mike, John DeVore and Jonathan Halpern to the bank.
My thanks once again to Dale and especially Mike for being hosts with the most.
I can’t recommend PDX Hi-fi enough to anyone in the Pacific Northwest. If you have listening needs, please see Dale and Mike, they carry an extensive line of incredible high-end gear other what I’ve already mentioned including Auralic, Dynavector and van den Hul.