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Positive Feedback ISSUE
as reviewed by Jim Olson
It seems that exotic new amplifiers, both tube and solid state, are popping up everywhere, but many audiophiles continue to look to serious, well-funded brands for lasting value and long-term satisfaction. One such company is Mark Levinson. Many will argue that this firm has set the standard for precision, quality, and top-notch performance in an industry in which many products are sold as luxury goods, owned by consumers who also buy things like Rolex watches, Gucci clothes, and Ferraris.
A pair of Mark Levinson 33H monoblock amplifiers has been the centerpiece of my system for the last six months. I have been using the 33Hs with two preamps, the E.A.R. 834L and Mark Levinson's No. 320S. Before I get into their sound, I should mention that their build quality and aesthetics are beyond reproach. They are the most attractive objects in my living room. These pieces of electronic and mechanical sculpture are made of thick metal precision-cut to form very graceful lines. The result is a timeless design that is both elegant and sophisticated. By comparison, amplifiers from most competitors look like something built in a garage. Simply running a hand across the surface of one of these amps results in the conviction that some serious engineering went into the development of its innards. I suspect that the cost of their interior parts exceeds that of competing products, but the quality and timeless design of these amps justifies their price. Non-audiophile visitors do not raise an eyebrow when I tell them how much they cost—something I don't think would happen with other products.
The sound of the 33H monoblocks is in line with their design. They give an unmistakable impression of precision and accuracy, and of pacing, rhythm, and a bell-like yet ultra smooth clarity. These are ultra-precision components, which makes them both terrific review tools and awe-inspiring windows on the music. After living with the 33H monoblocks, I can confidently say that they are the ultimate in amplification.
The most notable quality of the 33Hs compared to other amplifiers, either tube or solid state, is an immediate improvement in dynamic and transient response. Music takes on a more rhythmic quality, with better pacing. On certain recordings, I find myself so enthralled that time seems to stop, and I am completely engulfed by the experience. The stellar dynamic and transient response of the 33Hs, combined with their effortless power delivery, lays a solid foundation for the music. Their bass performance is as good as it gets. In my experience, no other amplifier can deliver such phenomenal, iron-fisted bass. It is bottomless, yet perfectly controlled. The excellent pitch definition in the low frequencies constantly uncovers new information in my recordings. The bass also remains perfectly clean, taut, and controlled regardless of the playback level. The first time I turned the volume up to club levels, I cringed, expecting the system to distort and compress, but it just did not happen. The 33Hs never lost their grip on the speakers. Many people attribute compression and distortion to loudspeakers, but the amplifier is often equally at fault.
The 33Hs present a wide soundstage that goes way beyond the boundaries of my listening room. They control my loudspeakers in a way that makes them simply evaporate. Sound simply flows toward the listening position in a massive wave of sound that is wide, deep, and layered. The wave washes over me in the most pleasurable way, then continues on past the listening position. This effect occurs at all listening volumes—it is not diminished even at very low levels.
The 33Hs bare all of the details in a recording, but never sound fatiguing or harsh. Their presentation is incredibly smooth and lush, yet you can hear every breath, and the subtle spatial cues of every instrument within the soundstage. I tend to attribute this quality to the finest tube amps, which can present gobs of detail without sounding harsh, bright, or strident, but the 33Hs are as good or better then any tube amp I have heard in this respect. They make listening to every recording—including poorly recorded ones—a pleasurable experience.
The 33Hs' combination of low-frequency detail, ambience cues, and dynamic range is just astounding. On Branford Marsalis' Trio Jeepy (Columbia 44199), the space in which the recording took place is reproduced with astonishing realism. The musicians are solidly planted within the soundstage, and have an electrifying presence. When the trio gets going, the sound leaps out of my speakers in a manner I never before experienced. The 33Hs capture every nuance, every foot tap, and every bit of the musicians' background laughter with explosive dynamics. The transient response was phenomenal.
The only flaw that I can detect with the 33Hs is that images sometimes appear to be bigger than life. The effect is only evident on some recordings. Pavarotti can sound like he is eight feet tall, yet Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 on a Delos CD (1033) has a wide, sweeping soundstage, within which every instrument is precisely placed. Electronic or rock music is reproduced with such extraordinary fidelity and energy that I sometimes think it sounds better then live. I also can't help but think that anyone living with a low-powered tube amp simply has no idea what they are missing.
I thought it would be logical to compare the 33H monoblocks to Lamm Industries' new M1.2 Reference monoblocks, which are identically priced. An audiophile friend brought them over, and we spent an entire weekend comparing the two ultra-high-end amplifiers, which feature very different design philosophies. (The Lamms are a hybrid design featuring a tube (6922) input stage and a Mosfet output stage.) In terms of design and build quality, the Lamms look conventional and puny compared to the 33Hs. Each Levinson amp weighs 175 pounds, and each Lamm only 70 pounds. It also seems as though very little thought went into the chassis design of the Lamms. Of course, weight and cosmetics have nothing to do with the musicality of a component, but right off the bat, the Lamm monoblocks were no match for the Levinsons in dynamic authority, smoothness, and top-to-bottom coherence. With the 33Hs, the music snapped into the very solid, controlled presentation that I have already described. The Lamms presented a very different window on the music that was equally enjoyable, but very different.
The Lamms produced an enormous sonic picture in my room, with an effortless presentation of depth and layered images. They convincingly placed reach-out-and-touch images in space across the stage, well in front of the speakers, with greater delicacy, even fragility, than the 33Hs. They did likewise at the back of the stage. Their image focus was outstanding, and this time, Pavarotti had the correct height. The Lamms seemed more harmonically complex, with an inner glow that focused my attention on instrumental detail. The 33Hs made me tap my foot with the rhythm and pace of the instrument, while the Lamms gave me goose bumps listening to its inner detail. Listening to guitar recordings, the Levinsons made me want to get up and dance, while the Lamms made me wonder what brand of guitar strings the player was using.
The Lamms had perfectly controlled, tight, clean bass, but reinserting the Levinsons into the system made it obvious that the 33Hs are in another category when it comes to frequencies below 80Hz. The Levinsons extract such clean and bottomless bass that you realize that you have never heard the true potential of your loudspeakers until you try these amps.
While the Lamms presented classical music with a bit more accuracy and inner glow, I ultimately found the Levinson 33Hs more satisfying and exciting. Their extraordinary control and neutrality was more to my taste, though I am sure that many listeners will prefer the Lamms. As always, careful audition is advised when purchasing such expensive amplification.
Many would say that the law of diminishing returns kicks in at approximately $5000 for amplifiers, and the marginal improvement gained by going from a $5000 amplifier to a $20,000 amplifier does not justify a quadruple increase in price. A Lexus is twice as expensive as a Toyota, but is not twice as good. I would argue—but add that this is very subjective—that the Levinson 33Hs are at least four times as good as any $5000 amplifier that I have heard, and give me four times as much pleasure. On the basis of their build quality, timeless design, and stunning sonic performance, I consider the Levinson 33H monoblocks a good value, even at $20,000 a pair. Jim Olson