The Antila is the first CD player from British brand Leema Acoustics, a company that came to the fore not so long ago with its own take on the compact monitor loudspeaker.
More recently, Leema has expanded its range to include a floor-stander, subwoofer and five electronic components. The last-mentioned feature excellent standards of finish and more than a few have a different take on curing the condition that is 'audiophilia nervosa' - the inability to sit back and just enjoy the music.
Leema's electronics are all named after constellations - these include the Cygnus phono stage, Tucana integrated amp, Hydra power amplifier and Corvus centre amp and stereo sub controller. This last appears to be an alternative way of adding multichannel capability to a stereo set up.
The Antila itself was named after a small constellation in the southern hemisphere, and looks unusual in that it has heat sinking down either flank. This seems a little out of place on a unit that doesn't run particularly warm, as it doesn't do a great deal of amplifying. We suspect that this arrangement suits the rest of the Leema electronics range in production terms as well as keeping the look consistent throughout.
One possible reason for all those fins is the so called MD2 'Active Differenial Multi-DAC'; not for Leema a mere converter per channel, or even per phase of each channel, but rather there are 20 DACs splitting the phase between them. This boils down to 10 stereo DACs, which means that each phase of each channel is converted by five 24-bit/192kHz chips.
Prior to conversion, the bitstream is buffered in Leema's data pipeline, which is a way of reducing jitter in the incoming signal. This is popular with outboard D/A convertors but is novel in a one-box player.
The Antila uses a Philips VAM transport, which is one of the only audio-specific mechanisms still in production. Under such circumstances we can forgive its slightly clunky drawer mechanism, while reminiscing about Japanese-made drawers that seemed to glide on air.
This drawer is at least fast, which is handy as the remote does not include 'eject/open' among its simple array of keys. In fact, there are only the basics on the handset and even these are spelled out rather than symbolised. Consequently, when operating the unit in low light, one tends to stab randomly in the hope of hitting the correct button. This is a learning curve that owners should inevitably scale in the medium term.
As with the rest of Leema's electronics, the Antila includes something called LIPS (Leema Intelligent Protocol System), which acts like a sophisticated bus system that allows connected Leema components to operate with the simplicity of an all-in-one 'stereo'.
The player can either be a 'slave' - remotely controlled by a Tucana amp for, instance - or a 'master', in which case it can be used for input selection and volume adjustment, showing the current settings on its display (useful if you want to keep the amp hidden away).
On the back panel you'll find a pair of LIPS connections alongside analogue outputs of both single-ended and balanced persuasions and digital socketry in electrical and optical flavours. It all looks very professional, which is as it should be but occasionally isn't with small companies and early production samples.
In fact, the only change between final production and this model is a software update that increases the functionality of the front panel controls. At least, that's the only one that Leema admits to. The fact that it seems to work entirely as expected would suggest that there's little to fix.
On the battle front that is the front line of high-end CD players, the Antila puts in a highly convincing and often enthralling performance, giving the competition something to think about with its subtle yet dynamically expressive ability to get into all the musical nooks.
In other words, this is a pretty damn fine player with a breadth of accomplishment that allows the music to shine bright and strong. It doesn't have one particular strongpoint, but an across-the-board transparency that marks it out as neutral in pretty well every sense of the word.
Put on Bill Withers' Who is He What is He To You and the first thing that hits you is the groove; the tight but loose timing that makes the tune irresistible and draws you into the shady undertones of the song itself. There are a number of percussion instruments on this track that could be more precisely defined - you know that there is a tambourine and a shaker but it's not entirely clear what sort.
Further listening suggests that the high frequencies on the Antila are particularly refined, being extended and yet relaxed, so perhaps the limitation is with the recording and the fact that it's on a compilation 'best of' type disc.
Patricia Barber's rendition of Summertime suffers no such obfuscation; her voice rings out in ethereal fashion to fill out the soundstage completely, the player delivering the neck hair-pricking emotional power with little difficulty.
Playing a few more discs, it became apparent that the Antila is very good at showing up the differences between recordings, contrasting the slightly hard edge that sophisticated compression produces with EST's latest offering against a more natural sound from Mina Agossi, for instance.
It became intriguing to play music of similar styles just to hear how each recording had been treated. The player is very sensitive to micro-dynamics and produces the small differences in level between notes with ease. This brings out more of the character in each instrument or voice in the mix.
A necessary evil of reviewing is comparison, as it helps to place the newcomer in context and reveals its real strengths and weaknesses. We had a couple of interesting alternatives on hand: the Gamut CD3 that greatly impressed us recently and our long-standing reference, the Resolution Audio Opus 21.
The Gamut made a case for spending an extra £1,000 by delivering a somewhat faster and more nimble performance. The Resolution Audio, on the other hand, struggled to justify its extra £495, delivering a less subtle but more exuberant sound. In its defence, it was slightly hamstrung by the sudden dysfunctionality of our DIN-to-phono lead, which accesses its direct output, so our comparison had to be made using the volume-controlled balanced output instead.
Connecting the Antila's balanced output to a Classe CP-700 preamp and ATC SCM150ASL active speakers did little to undermine the player's case. In truth, it did the opposite, allowing it to positively shimmer with low-level detail and musical beauty.
Things got interesting when the player picked up an effect that In The Country had applied to the opener on their latest album, something we'd not noticed before. Then we put on an older favourite, Time the Revelator by Gillian Welch...
With this recording, the player revealed that the oft-heard hardness in the recording is a result of an overdriven microphone/preamp. This revelation allowed us to hear through it to the voices and guitars, letting us hear how Welch's accompanist harmonises a touch on the chorus lines, and the character of the two instruments. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that this is about the best we've heard the track, the Antila playing a significant part in this finding.
New British CD players of world-beating class are very rare things, but Leema seems to have cracked it with its idiosyncratic approach to D/A conversion. It makes one wonder whether more DACs would be even more beneficial... Jason Kennedy