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LFD NCSE Mk. 3 Integrated Amplifier | REVIEW











The LFD NCSE Mk. 3 integrated amplifier (website) has no remote control. Nor does it have XLR inputs or outputs, a home theater bypass switch, 12V trigger operation, a built-in DAC, a wide range of connectivity options nor any of the standard features we usually find in a modern integrated that costs $7,350.

I’ve reviewed plenty of integrated amplifiers that cost far less than that, and they have features such as inboard phono stages and headphone amplifiers and more. Heck, the LFD NCSE doesn’t even have a grounding lug on the back panel for the phono stage. In nearly every way, the LFD is a classic Brit-Fi integrated from twenty or thirty years ago: 70 watts per channel, about the size and weight of your average one-chassis preamp, a simple black box. (Or in this case, dark gray.) Three knobs on front—volume, selector, tape monitoring. A simple toggle switch serves as the power button and there’s only one very small LED on the faceplate that tells you the NCSE is on.

I was raised on simple British integrated amplifiers like this–the British Fidelity A1 and Synthesis, Naim NAIT 2, Rega Brio3 and, most notably, the LFD Mistral. The Mistral was perhaps my favorite of all, an unassuming little 50wpc integrated that sounded utterly fantastic. I once had a high-end audio manufacturer stop by my house to drop off a review product and he stopped in his tracks when he heard the Mistral-based system playing in my listening room.

“What a lovely, pastel sound that amplifier has,” he remarked. He asked me later where I got it, and how he could arrange an at-home audition. I think he was serious. I still don’t quite know what he meant by pastel, but I don’t think he was wrong.

That’s sort of the secret of the LFD NCSE Mk. 3 integrated amplifier. It’s quiet and unassuming and modest in every aspect, except for the sound. It’s almost Zen-like in its commitment to that one thing. It may be an old-fashioned thing, but it’s important to many of us music lovers, the ones who still believe in putting all the effort into the inside of a hi-fi component and not extravagant cosmetics.

LFD amplifiers, to my ears, have always sounded just about perfect for my audio tastes. For many years, my “getting off the merry-go-round” system involved an NCSE and a pair of Harbeth 40.1s. It’s been a few years since I’ve held an LFD amp in my loving arms, so it was time to find out if I should still keep a candle lit in my audiophile window.

My Life with LFD

Wanna hear a really stupid reason for upgrading a component in a high-end audio system? Consider this: I owned the original LFD Mistral integrated amplifier for many years. For a long time, I felt that I was perfectly happy with this $1095 amp. (At the time, I also bought the basic phono stage from LFD, which cost just $600 and was my very first outboard phono preamplifier.) Over the years my system started growing around the Mistral, and one day I noticed that my analog rig—turntable, arm and cartridge—retailed for almost $15,000.

“Should I really be using only $1700 worth of amplification to listen to this rig?” I asked the sky, and then the next thing you know I had separates that were much more expensive. Shortly afterward, I went in a different direction and bought something else. And something else. The problem was simple—I never should’ve traded in the Mistral. It took a long time to find another integrated to truly replace it. I spent a lot more than $1095 to accomplish that, too.

As I mentioned, I always imagined that I’d get another LFD integrated one day, something like the Zero LE Integrated line or, if I focused hard and brown-bagged it for a year, the top-of-the-line NCSE (which stands for New Chassis, Special Edition). In fact, many years ago I reviewed both the Zero LE and the first version of the NCSE, and I quickly realized that every amp made by LFD is very simple and based upon an equally simple but very well-respected circuit from the British team of Omar Hawksford and Richard Bews. (Bews, of course, is still in charge at LFD, building and wiring every amp by hand.)

That’s the essence of the evolution and hierarchy in LFD’s line. “It’s the same basic amplifier, but with small improvements and improved parts quality justifying the higher prices.” The NCSE line, when it first appeared, was basically the Zero LE with a beefier, more substantial chassis and upgraded parts. The Zero LE, of course, was a Mistral with better parts as well. When I asked about the new LFD NCSE Mk. 3, and how it was changed from the NCSE Mk. 2, I was informed that better parts, once again, was the reason for the upgrade.

As Richard Bews states:

“NCSE III has PSU capacitor upgrade and different speaker wiring (the earth wiring for the speaker uses a large silver conductor and copper). This produces a more powerful sound compared to the Mark II, but I still wanted to preserve the ‘nice’ sound of the Mark II within the new Mark III.”

The NCSE Mk. 3 looks identical to the first NCSE I reviewed more than a dozen years ago. But that beautiful, simple amplifier circuit remains largely unchanged. It’s such a great circuit that when you mention it to other manufacturers, they sigh and say, “Man, that’s such a great circuit.” I’ve seen it happen.

Inside the LFD NCSE Mk. 3

So what’s so special about that LFD NCSE Mk. 3 circuit, as well as the rest of the amp?

This is a solid-state integrated that uses a single pair of MOSFETs, a design that emphasizes as few parts as possible. In fact, I’ve been treated to the sight of an opened LFD chassis once or twice, and I’m always surprised by the simplicity inside, as well as some notably vacant real estate. That’s not important, of course. What is important is that Richard Bews scours the earth for the best possible parts so he can push the sonic performance of this little integrated to further heights.

Sam Tellig, who used to review LFD products in Stereophile and wound up buying a couple, once got Richard Bews to say that he didn’t think this circuit was the best amplifier circuit out there, but it was the one he chose to develop. As a supposedly seasoned and experienced reviewer, I shouldn’t rush to an overly enthusiastic response such as “Oh yes it is!” (I think the first time I ever read about MOSFETs in amplifiers, it was Sam’s original review of the Mistral. Anyone remember “MOSFET Mist”?) I’ve heard enough amplification to know there’s more than one way to achieve your ideal sound in high-end audio through basic amplifier design. LFD’s way is, in my opinion, always an excellent choice.

LFD Cabling

Gene Rubin and Walter Swanbon of Fidelis AV are the main experts on all things LFD in the US—Walter is the importer/distributor and Gene was the dealer who originally talked Walter into taking it on many years ago. Whenever I see Gene or Walter, I always bring up LFD. Over the twenty or so years I’ve known this British brand, they sometimes slip into the background and get quiet. I worry that Richard Bews finally decided to stop making amplifiers. But the answer from Walter and Gene is always no, LFD is up and running and just as awesome as always. Want one?

“Let me know the second LFD comes out with a new product,” I always say. A few weeks ago, Gene informed me of the new LFD NCSE Mk. 3. I think I responded to his email within five minutes.

When Gene Rubin shipped the LFD NCSE Mk. 3 to me, he asked if he could include the matching LFD speaker cables and an LFD power cord. This wasn’t like Gene selling me Naim gear back in the day, when you had to use Naim-approved cabling. I paid attention, because Gene was never one of those high-end audio dealers who would push expensive cables and accessories. I do know, however, that many amplifier manufacturers have distinct preferences for specific brands of cables. Those reasons alone suggest that most of us are hearing differences in cables. I talked about this extensively in my Raven Audio Soniquil review last year.

Gene just told me that he thought these were excellent products, and he liked the sound of LFD amps better with their power cable and their speaker cables. The speaker cable, known as LFD Hybrid, sells for $960 for a three meter pair and the power cord sells for $549. Completely reasonable, I think.

During this period, I had lots of power conditioning (AudioQuest Niagara 3000) and grounding units (Nordost QKORE) and other beneficial noise-reduction products (Furutech NCF). The noise floor of my system was so low that even minute changes in the entire system became clearly audible. And son of a gun, that LFD power cord did make a difference. The sound, from top to bottom, was simply fuller. It had more authority. Yes, Virginia, a single power cord can make a difference. I usually say it can’t.

I noticed a similar improvement with the LFD speaker cables, but not quite as obvious as the power cord. Usually, it’s the other way around, amirite? But as long as the LFD NCSE Mk. 3 was in my system, the LFD power cord and speaker cables were there as well. I trusted Gene’s recommendation, something I have done for decades.

Sound

When I first heard that Mistral so many years ago, I was amazed with its ability to “stand aside and let the music through.” That might have been the first time I heard that phrase when discussing high-end audio. (Gene, for the record, first said it to me and I adopted it.) When I reviewed that Zero LE a few years later, I hooked up a pair of Harbeth 40.1s to them and instantly fell in love with the warm, deep presentation that still offered plenty of inner detail. When I reviewed the first NCSE a couple of years later, I found it delivered a subtle improvement over the Zero LE in nearly every respect, but at close to twice the price. The NCSE was spectacular, but at the time I felt the Zero was a better fit for my tastes—not to mention my finances.

Almost a dozen years later, I once again have an LFD amplifier in my reference system. The system I have now and the system I had back then have almost nothing in common, so I can’t tell you how the LFD NCSE Mk. 3 compares to the Mk. 1, or the Zero, or the Mistral. But I can tell you that the NCSE Mk. 3 was paired with some might fine loudspeakers such as the Vimberg Amea, Volti Audio Razz, Marten Oscar Duo and the Acora Acoustics SRB. The LFD allowed me to burrow deep into the nature of these speakers and how they differed from each other. Not once was this diminutive British integrated limited in its ability to tell me stories about the other components in the chain.

As I spent time with the LFD, I felt more of that seductive warmth and texture these amplifiers offer, and I started wondering if there was a bit of coloration afoot. I’ve gone on the record many times stating I do like some coloration, especially when it comes to warmth. I crave that romantic and lush delivery, that Henry Mancini “Lujan” vibe.

But the LFD NCSE Mk. 3 isn’t what I’d call a warm amplifier, at least overly so, and that’s because I constantly heard such a wealth of inner detail being revealed from some of my favorite recordings. For me, warmth can be a great equalizer, something that makes all music sound pretty darned good. But that’s not quite the same as having a component in the system and “not once did you hear anything that could be described as strident or bright or the least bit annoying.” In addition, if I wanted everything to sound good no matter what, I would have bought that old McIntosh 275 so many years ago. I need the glow of inner detail in addition to garden-variety glow washing over everything.

That’s how I felt about the LFD NCSE, and it’s the same quality I’ve recognized in other great amplification. I get my warm, lush and fuzzy feels and at the same time I hear deeper into the music than ever before. For me, that sound has become my recipe for happiness. That describes the LFD sonic signature to a tee. Think about that description, coupled with the openness and transparency this circuit design already brings to the table.

Listening

To test that warmth + detail hypothesis, I listened to some of my favorite LP reissues that excel in capturing a perfectly clear window in time. That meant such trustworthy recordings such as the Analogue Productions 45rpm reissues of Nina Simone’s Little Girl Blue, Billie Holiday’s Songs for Distingue Lovers and Ella Fitzgerald’s Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie. Three more recent purchases worked their way into the rotation—including the 45rpm Analogue Productions reissue of Masterpieces of Ellington, the MoFi Monk’s Dream and Legrand Jazz. I talked about these LPs in my latest Vinyl Anachronist column over at Perfect Sound Forever.

The LFD NCSE Mk. 3 excelled with these astonishingly natural older recordings—the warmth of the LFD really cleaned up that historical window, the one that lets you see everything perfectly while reminding you, in an almost heart-stopping way, that you’re hearing sounds created a long time ago—perhaps before you were born.

If you’re as obsessed with these beautiful audiophile LP reissues as I am, you may find that the LFD is your soulmate in this hobby. At the same time the NCSE could sound big and bold, shockingly for an amplifier so physically diminutive, that you’ll appreciate how hard this integrated works when it comes to giving you modern thrills and chills.

Recordings with regular excursions into the land of frequency extremes are fully fleshed out with the NCSE. If you think small British integrateds can’t sound powerful and commanding, I’d like to introduce you to LFD, friend. When I paired the LFD NCSE Mk. 3 with the powerful horn-loaded Volti Audio Razz loudspeakers, I heard deep, bone-shaking bass in recording after recording: Todd Mosby’s Aerial Views, Julian Gerstin’s Littoral Zone and Florian Arbenz’s Reflection of the Eternal Line.

When it came to delicacy and fine detail, especially in the higher freqencies, the LFD was essential in my understanding of the three thorny yet intelligent Japanese avant-garde jazz releases I’ve reviewed recently—Ikue Mori’s Prickly Pear Cactus, Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura’s Penta and Futari’s Beyond. These three CDs, which all feature pianist Fujii, are a challenge when it comes to organizing structures and deciphering odd sounds, but the LFD was exquisite and rendering this music to a state more willing to be examined and scrutinized.

In between? The LFD NCSE Mk. 3 is a classic British integrated, especially in its ability to project so much humanity through the midrange frequencies. That’s almost a given. We’re talking about a very coherent overall sound with all types of recordings.

Conclusion

I really wish the LFD NCSE Mk. 3 had remote control operation. I read a couple of old LFD reviews from Sam, and he chastises people for whining about the lack of remote and how it would only mess up that LFD purity. Get up off your lazy audiophile butts, he seems to be suggesting. I tend to agree whole-heartedly.

I certainly would love one, though, especially in 2021. And yup, that’s pretty much it. That’s my only complaint about this spectacular integrated amplifier, which has become one of my all-time favorites. I do appreciate the convenience of making adjustments from the listening position. I’m always adjusting the volume from album to album, even track to track. It’s far from a deal-killer, but it also sounds like something that could be done through 12V triggers so as not to impact this pure and simple circuitry.

It’s like finding your soulmate, someone who is beautiful and intelligent and loves you unconditionally. The only problem is that your new squeeze doesn’t have a car, so you have to do all the driving. If the reward is great enough, you deal with it, and I’d be more than willing to toss the remote for this level of sound any day. But as the years roll on, I see remote functions as more of a necessity and less of a luxury—especially when all the affordable mid-fi integrated amps have one. But they don’t sound anywhere near this good.

As far as digital connectivity goes, I found that I was able to explore the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3 music server and the BorderPatrol DAC SE-i just fine with the LFD NCSE Mk. 3 integrated amplifier acting as the engine of the system. I’m also not convinced that I have to have XLR connections at all—especially when the circuitry of the amplifier is this simple. (My Pureaudio amplifiers also eschew XLRs because they require the amp circuit to perform more of the work—not ideal for short signal paths and fewer parts.)

The remote control, I slowly discovered, doesn’t matter as much as it did when I first unboxed this amp. Once I plugged the LFD NCSE Mk. 3 into the reference system, it didn’t come out until it was time to send it back even though there were other more expensive amps waiting in line. I simply didn’t want to be without it. Those rich musical textures were too addictive, and the NCSE was strong enough to make some very fine and expensive gear sound its very best.

Highly, highly recommended.

 











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