Leema Acoustics have developed an enviable record of innovation and ingenuity, exemplified in the Stream by the multi-DAC design.
Where most manufacturers use a single digital-to-analogue converter chip to do the crucial job of turning binary numbers into analogue audio, Leema uses eight of them (the claim of '16 DACs' is justified as each chip is stereo – i.e. there are eight DACs per channel).
This is a cunning ploy, because it allows the averaging out of errors in each individual DAC – errors which show up in audio terms as distortion and noise. To some extent this has been done before, in different ways, but we're not aware of any manufacturers taking it quite as far as Leema has done.
The DAC in question is a tiny part, making it easier to accommodate in quantities and doesn't cost a fortune, though its data-sheet performance looks pretty good even in solo operation. Not so many years ago, eight DAC chips would have been an expensive luxury indeed!
For the rest, the transport is a familiar Philips audio type, with a low-jitter digital interface chip and conventional power supply providing support, while the analogue output uses good quality op-amps.
The user interface is unique to Leema and uses a single rotary/push control. It's absolutely fine, but we'd have liked a slightly more informative display: the two-digit affair fitted gives track number only, or a two-letter clue to what's happening and it's not much to go on. We found it a bit frustrating that it's impossible to know where you are in a track.
It seems the particular strength of this player is in the bass, which is extended, taut and also tuneful. What's more, it has great insight and detail, tricky attributes to get right in the lowest octaves and often considered among the preserves of the high end. Practically all music has bass in it, of course, and getting this just right is a fine basis (literally!) for all-round performance.
That said, there seems to be a touch less precision in the upper half of the audio spectrum than some of the players in this group could offer. This is only slight and clearly didn't bother our listeners at all in some of the test tracks, but there was the occasional comment about blurred textures and spatial positioning.
It seemed most apparent in the cello and piano track, where the piano tone was felt to be just a little muffled and the distinction between the instruments was less clear-cut than in previous presentations.
A little perversely, though, the two most complex tracks were thought clear and well presented in terms of instrumental definition. There was also concerted praise for the handling of dynamics, on large and small scales, in these tracks, with a real sense of drama in the Shostakovich. Vocals were communicative and unforced, while imaging was multi-dimensional and stable.
Summing up, we'd incline to the view that this player has a very slightly warm balance. Listening over longer periods than our panel could partake of, we soon became completely accustomed to this and were able to enjoy to the full the Stream's bass and also its good timing and rhythmic drive.
It's a strong performer in almost every way, though in the most delicate treble moments it just slightly lags some competitors for sweetness and 'air'.