Only a few amplifiers are truly great with speakers and headphones alike. Cary SLI-80-series and the Leben CS300-series are.
In this comparative review, I will do a side by side listening test. I use a Cary SLI-Signature and a Leben CS300XS. I have had both for years, and know them well. Since both are tube amplifiers, the sound to some extent depends on the tubes that are used, but to my experience, the main character of the amp retains the same.
The Cary also has an interesting feature: By the flick of a switch, you can select “Triode” or “Ultra-Linear mode”. This can be changed during operation and does affect the sound quite a bit, depending on the headphone you use. I will comment on how both modes of operation compares to the Leben. The Leben has got a “Bass Boost”-function, but for headphones I always prefer to leave it off. The headphones used in this review are AKG Q701, Shure SRH1840, Hifiman HE-500 and Audeze LCD-3.
Track by track comparison
Hilary Hahn, Jennifer Higdon – “1726”
Q701 Differences are not big, and the tonality of these two amps are quite similar with the Q701. However, there are some minor differences. The Leben brings of the overtones better on the bells and strings here. There is slightly more body to the strings as well. Wind instruments have more sense of power.
SRH1840 Although the Cary does a good job, the violin of Hilary Kahn is rendered warmer and with a small dose more bite with the Leben. Both renders the complex passages in a splendid way.
HE-500 On the Leben, this track is warm, yet detailed and open sounding. The violin has that really full body to it, without losing texture. Going to the Cary, there is a noticeable difference. It gives a more neutral experience. It feels more polite. Both present a similarly detailed soundscape.
LCD-3 The nuanced beauty of how the LCD-3 renders the strings is truly brought to justice on the Cary. Once you adapt to the LCD-3 way, it really is special, and the Cary indeed brings this out, and it handles the complex passages very well. The Leben is great too in a different way. It has more “bite” – a more forward presentation. But on this track, the laid back, yet detailed and layered way of the Cary/LCD-3 is just awesome.
Olga Konkova “As Before”
Q701 There is something special in the way the Cary renders the female vocals here, and although the Leben is slightly crisper on the piano, it falls a tad short to the delightful smoothness of the Cary on the vocals.
SRH1840 This track is really beautiful on the Cary – in a toned down way. The female vocals are raspier, the piano clings harder on the Leben. I guess the Leben might be more real sounding, closer to a live performance, and it also have the edge on detail, but there is just something so very pleasing with the way the Cary paints this tune.
HE-500 Even though the Cary is great, the Leben has that extra punch in the bass and a general vividness that makes it really groove, while still portraying the vocals in a pleasing warmish way.
LCD-3 The texture in the female vocals become more apparent on the Leben. I feel the bass from the cajón gets equal punch from both. The Cary has a smooth cohesiveness that is appealing, but the piano is clinging in a more clinging way with the Leben, the percussion is snappier and the positioning of instruments and image depth feels better.
Morrisey “Irish blood English heart”
Q701 The Leben makes the bass pulse in a way the Cary simply cannot match, and it has that extra “zing” up in the top registries too. There is an extra presence in the vocals. All this makes this song a more toe tapping experience with the Leben.
SRH1840 The Leben feels snappier, more open and punchy. Morrisey’s vocals are more pronounced and there is more drive in the bass guitar. My dear Cary is nice, just not as engaging in comparison with the Shure. But it sure is a pleasant listen.
HE-500 Both amplifiers plays very nice. The Leben has more zing up top and more punch downstairs, but the Cary is very nice, though more polite.
LCD-3 I really like both amps here. Again, the Cary is the “smoother operator”, whilst the Leben has more zing and separation, the bass lines are a tad more defined, and the tophats a bit sharper.
Thomas Dybdahl “This love is here to stay”
Q701 The sound signature of both amps is pretty close. However, the Leben is slightly clearer sounding, the male vocals feels slightly better focused and there is a small dose of extra clarity in the treble.
SRH1840 The smoother and more relaxed sounding Cary offers a less intrusive experience han the Leben, which in turn gives you a more vivid sound, with sharper cut edges and a more obvious feel of detail and separation. The bass in the beginning has more texture on the Leben, and you get a better sense of resonance on some of the percussive elements.
HE-500 There is more space, the room feels bigger and deeper on the Leben. Vocals are more upfront and pinpointed. Yet, the Cary has a very appealing smooth and coherent feeling to it.
LCD-3 The Leben is more upfront – the male vocals quite a bit closer. All is sharper cut, image depth is easier to sense. Though – while the Leben is more impressive, I really do enjoy the more polished presentation of the Cary, it makes me wanna lean back.
Q701 I felt both did quite well with the Q701, but the Leben might be the favorite. Using the Triode mode on the Cary made it sound a bit muffled, but the Ultra Linear mode brought the 701 closer to the clarity and vividness of the Leben.
SRH1840 The Leben is snappier, punchier and clearer sounding, and generally the preferred one, but the smoother and less intrusive presentation of the Cary has lots of charm. I always preferred the Triode mode on the Cary.
HE-500 The Leben and HE-500 is one of my all time favorites. I always enjoyed the Cary with the HE-500 too, though. But in direct comparison, the Leben just is the better one. There is more of everything with the Leben, more punch, more detail, more space. Some might like the more polite tonality of the Cary, it being less in your face, but that’d be a minority. I was always preferring the UltraLinear mode on the Cary.
LCD-3 Before doing this round, I really thought the Leben was my favorite amp with the LCD-3. Now I am less single minded. The Leben has an advantage when it comes to image depth and separation. It feels more “realistic” and alive. These descriptions should already make it a clear winner. But still – the with the Cary playing the LCD-3 – I really just want to lean back and enjoy the effortless and lean presentation…
Concluding on the conclusion
These amps are both delicious. The Leben mostly had better separation and imaging capabilities. It was more up front, and the treble had more presence, in a nice and liquid way, making the Cary sometimes feel a bit flat. However, depending on the track and the headphone, the Cary offered a smoother and often more enjoyable listening in a leaner way. Leben is more impressive and feels very alive, the Cary is more toned down, relaxed and smooth in its own charming way.
Tubes in the SLI-80: First I tried stock tubes, All Electro Harmonix, except the 6SN7 which are new stock Tung-Sol. My notes are based on what I heard with the stock tubes in. I tried other tubes and did new listening test, but even though the better tubes improved the Cary’s performance in terms of detail retrieval, the basic traits of the amp remained the same, and so did the differences between the Leben and the Cary.
Tubes in the Leben CS300XS: Golden Lion EL84 and RCA Wurlitzer Black PLate 12AX7 (neither original).
Both amplifiers are silent through the headphones used, no audible hiss or hum.
My Leben CS300XS is the version with 1W output power, the standard version has different resistors making the output power a bit less, but also reduces hum. I have a problem with trafo-like hum from my CS300XS with high impedance and some very sensitive headphones only.