Leema Acoustics has reworked its classic speaker into the Xen 2. David Price finds out how it compares with the original
Once upon a time, two former BBC engineers decided to form a hi-fi company. Prior to starting Leema, Lee Taylor was the recipient of BAFTA and Palme d’Or awards for his work in recording and sound mixing for television, music and film, while Mallory Nichols was involved in the manufacturing of Magtrax monitors for recording studios and mastering companies from the early nineties.
It was no surprise then, that the two men launched their new company with a loudspeaker. A decade and a half ago, the first Leema Xen mini monitor cost £1,000, and quickly marked itself out as a class act. You could hear its designers’ BBC background, yet it was clearly not just another LS3/5a soundalike. In engineering terms it was bang up to date, using a hybrid steel and wood cabinet with metal front baffle, plus high-quality modern drive units. That first Xen proved to be smooth and detailed, yet surprisingly feisty and fun in a way that BBC mini monitors traditionally were not.
Roll on 10 years and we have the Xen 2, very closely based on the older model and retaining its dinky demeanour.
There have been plenty of improvements, however, and what we have is a modern-looking product into which a lot of thought has obviously gone. It retains its A5-sized baffle and five-litre cabinet capacity, from which the company claims a wide frequency response of 57Hz to 25kHz, surprising for such a small box. What is less of a revelation is the claimed sensitivity, which at 85dB/1W/1m is average for a speaker of this size. In fairness, no small speaker can get away with a low-powered amplifier, so a reasonably muscular 60W RMS per channel minimum is needed to really start cooking on gas.
The Xen 2’s cabinet is folded and welded 1.5mm-thick steel, lined with a bitumastic layer, with wool inside the cavity for further damping. The rear panel is also steel with bitumen damping, and the crossover board is attached directly to the terminals. This uses Bennic parts and air core inductors where possible, to avoid saturation and compression in the crossover, says the company. A 12mm-thick steel bar runs across the centre to prevent fl ex, and the front panel is machined from rigid high-grade MDF.
There’s a choice of wood veneer or conventional black paint finishes. All in all, it feels really rather sturdy, and is extremely well damped; it’s quite unusual to see something built like this, at this price.
The fancy cabinet would go to waste however, if the drive units weren’t up to the job. Whereas the first Xen used a SEAS mid/bass unit, this new one gets a custom-designed 100mm affair specified by Leema. It has been specially designed to, “give a little just at the right frequency”, the company says – so it counters the tendency for small bass/mid drivers to peak across the midrange. It is loaded by two 260mm reflex ports, which extend into the cabinet then fold down behind the bass driver; two have been chosen to keep the speed of the air moving through them slower than the speed of sound, which is said to reduce compression port effects. Based on a now-discontinued VIFA design, the new 25mm tweeter is a soft-dome unit with a neodymium magnet and Ferro-fluid-loaded coil, which helps damp resonance and aid cooling.
In my experience, there are two types of small speakers – crisp, clean and detailed but lightweight and analytical sounding, and those that try to sound like bigger ones with more extended bass, but less detail and definition. The Xen 2 is a very fine mixture of the two, giving much of the detail and accuracy of BBC-type monitor speakers, with a fuller-bodied sound and less cerebral nature. In other words, it has been very cleverly voiced and will have widespread appeal to those who want a small speaker. It needs a decently powerful amplifier driving it; for the review the 2x 110W Exposure 3010S2-D does the honours.
Listening kicks off with Wooden Ships, by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. This is a great late sixties rock song, that’s tonally rich and rhythmically subtle and laid back; it’s not something you’d normally expect a small speaker to handle particularly well. Nevertheless I am surprised by its beautiful treatment of this classic tune. It sets up an unexpectedly large and spacious recorded acoustic, with instruments accurately located within. There is little sense of listening to a small speaker, the Xen 2 is obviously able to project the music well beyond its own boundaries – left and right, and back to front. It performs that trick that great small speakers do, of dissolving into the room.
Another hallmark of a great little loudspeaker is the quality of bass. There’s no way to defy the laws of physics, so nothing is going to match a large floorstander, but if the cabinet is good enough it can shift lots of air with relative impunity, showing little sign of stress even at high volume. And so it proves here; it sounds surprisingly extended, serving up a lovely fat bass guitar that makes this song so special. Feed the Leema a more tortuous piece of music – such as 808 State’s Ancodia – and you’re more aware of its limitations. This is a slice of classic early nineties techno, complete with heavy set bass synthesiser, and can bog down some small speakers. The Xen copes admirably, proving remarkably deft even at highish volumes, but still it is clear that it is working hard, compressing at very high levels.
It’s only mortal, so I wouldn’t expect anything else from a compact two-way.
With fine soundstaging and a good balanced tonality, this speaker gets off to a good start but does it excel in the area where smaller designs traditionally do well – timing? Boz Scaggs’ Lido Shuffle answers the question in the affirmative; the Xen 2 gets into the groove with the best of them, bouncing along in a wonderfully supple and carefree way. This is when you really begin to appreciate just how much fun music can be – there’s little like a small speaker with excellent drive units and a stiff cabinet to get the foot tapping. Yet unlike some rivals it doesn’t sound fast due to a peaky treble or midrange forwardness; the Leema has a fine and smooth tonal balance that doesn’t accent any particular part of the frequency spectrum. Instead, it captures attack transients – such as the song’s wonderfully taut snare drum – with great speed, thanks to the quality of materials that have gone to make it.
Despite obviously being mixed for seventies radio, the Boz Scaggs track is very well recorded and lets the Leema showcase its rather lovely tweeter. It gives a very silky yet well defined sound that has lots of atmosphere, which is something that isn’t always expected from a mini monitor. This works especially well on jazz, as Donald Byrd’s Stepping Into Tomorrow proves. The delicate triangle work on the title track of this classic album is well carried, and supplies the icing on the cake for this densely recorded cut. Indeed, it sashays along beautifully, the Xen 2 making full use of its rhythmic alacrity and fine handling of dynamics to give a very involving yet delicately detailed sound.
It’s not an easy job being a small speaker, but the Xen 2 carries off its destiny in life with grace. It offers a wonderful combination of all the good things about properly engineered small speakers (pace, detail, accuracy) without really giving too much ground on the downsides (bass extension, dynamic compression). As a result, it’s a very accessible-sounding speaker that is far less of a ‘Marmite’ product than many of its rivals. If your listening room is spatially challenged, you could do a lot worse than auditioning this diminutive diamond.
25mm soft dome tweeter
100mm mid/bass driver
Quoted sensitivity: 85dB/1W/1
DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 140 x 220 x 202mm.