These are strange times for the digital to analogue converter. Having come back from the edge of extinction, it is no longer sufficient for a DAC to be simply a means of turning your ones and zeroes into an analogue signal. First came USB; initially as a convenience feature, but now as an all-singing, all-dancing high resolution connection. Then came volume controls; first doing unpleasant things like bit reduction to get the levels up and down, but later morphing into sophisticated noise shaping devices that can challenge analogue designs.
Now, Leema Acoustics has decided that even acting as a digital preamp is not enough. The Libra is either an extremely ambitious DAC or the start of a new evolution in product categories. Quite whether this is in response to a clearly stated demand for such a thing or a gamble to try and find some clear air in a congested category is unclear, but it is fair to say that the Libra doesn’t sit entirely in either the DAC or preamp category. This is a DAC that also happens to have most of the trimmings of an analogue preamp at the same time.
First, however, the decoding side. Leema is in the small group of companies that has an entirely bespoke decoding solution for its products rather than relying on an off-the-shelf DAC. Leema instead uses a system called Quattro Infinity which is designed to avoid the issues of crosstalk (see boxout). With a pair of these modules lurking under a pair of heatsinks on the main board, the Libra is effectively a fully balanced design across both the digital and analogue sections of the circuit.
A bespoke converter is not the whole story of the Libra’s decoding. Clever though they may be, the Quattro Infinity modules only support S/PDIF and PCM. As the Libra supports DSD64 and 128 as well as DXD – a tickbox requirement of any digital product at this price point despite the continued absence of any killer material in these formats. Libra uses an additional Cirrus Logic CS4392 DAC is attached to each channel to allow for DSD to be decoded. Interestingly, the Libra can receive DSD via the optical and coaxial inputs as well as the USB connection through the DoP (DSD over PCM) open standard.
As USB remains key to how these DACs will be used, the Libra makes use of Leema’s own M1 USB interface. This is fully galvanically isolated and is intended to isolate the Libra from any nastiness that might be passed from the USB source and this should mean that the Libra is entirely agnostic about what you connect to it. This is further aided by Leema supplying drivers for Mac, OSX, and Linux meaning that no operating system should be off limits. Finishing off the digital side of things is a Bluetooth input that supports aptX and allows for a quick and simple convenience connection to suitably equipped devices.
Joining the USB connection are no less than nine other digital inputs. Leema has fitted the Libra with three coax, three optical, two AES inputs, and – like PS Audio before it – the under-utilised I2S connection in addition to the USB input. This means that the Libra should be able to handle even the most sprawling systems without breaking sweat. However, it is what else that lurks on the back panel that really puts the Libra into a different bracket from its rivals.