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More on the SE-MK2 preamplifier
as reviewed by Jim Olson
I couldn't wait to tell audiophiles about the extraordinary sonic merits of the Navison Audio gear and as a result in my review of the NVS-211 monoblocks and SE-MK2 preamp, I focused on the combination of the two. Together this Vietnamese combo was absolutely tops with a capability to transport the listener to the musical venue. I was so impressed with the Navison gear that I purchased the review samples.
But as in any top shelf system, further evaluation was necessary for each of the components on its own and hence this review of the SE-MK2 preamp. I also had two other preamps on hand for comparison, my trusty E.A.R. 834L, a reasonably priced all around excellent tube line-stage and the edge-of-the-art Mark Levinson 32 Reference.
Having the SE-MK2 in my system—in various configurations—always resulted in exceptionally stress-free and non-fatiguing listening. The music just seemed to be there, with the SE-MK2 preamp getting completely out of the way like the proverbial straight wire with gain; although the system always sounded better with the SE-MK2 present than it did with the source plugged directly into the amplifiers, more on that later. The most striking aspect of the SE-MK2's contribution to the system's sound was that it seemed to infuse recordings with an absolutely natural organic flow, which is very much in-line with the Navison Audio’s succinctly chosen slogan "the natural sound".
As I was trying to focus on individual facets of its performance, I found my attention constantly drifting away from my notes as I would find myself absorbed completely by the music. The SE-MK2 had the audiophile attributes in spades, but always in a way where it would step out of the way and honor the music. It presented an absolutely gorgeous midrange with its harmonic depth and inner detail. This was without sacrificing performance at the frequency extremes or the system’s dynamic range.
The bass was never less than good, with a natural quality and none of the exaggerated midbass warmth that's sometimes a characteristic of tubes. There was also nothing soft or romantic about the overall sonic presentation. Compared to my E.A.R. 834L preamp, the SE-MK2 clearly outperformed it in terms of control, solidity, speed, and extension and while it did not quite approach the performance of the Levinson 32 Reference preamp, it was not a gargantuan difference as might be expected. While playing large-scale orchestral music at high levels, I occasionally found the dynamics being a bit on the subdued side compared to the Levinson 32. This was noticeable on Ray Brown's bass solos on Sonny Rollins' Way Out West (CD, JVC VICJ 60085) which were fleshed out with uncanny realism and visceral presence by the Reference 32, but with less authority through the SE-MK2 . Though again the difference was not quite as large as one would expect. To fully appreciate the full scope of this comparison, for which some may call me crazy, take note that the SE-MK2 is a $4900 tube preamp and the Levison 32 is a $18,500 solid-state wonder and my long time favorite.
After going back and forth between the E.A.R. and the Navison, I simply abandoned the comparison between the two as the Navison SE-MK2 was substantially better in every possible way, particularly the noise floor, the macro and micro dynamics, and top-to-bottom coherency. What continued to allure me was the way with which the Navison preamp challenged the Levinson Reference; something that also proved to be enlightening.
The Levinson tantalized the senses with its cool ultra-smooth free-flowing ease that could handle the most complex dynamics with complete composure never running out of steam. It was absolutely dead neutral, absolutely out of the way of the music, and could get even the most die-hard tube lover to reconsider what good solid-state technology can do. Switching to the Navison proved a most interesting comparison as it contrasts what two completely different technologies can achieve for the music, albeit in very different ways. Switching to the Navison produced a sound that was deeply involving, and rich in timbre and nuance. It drew less attention to the music’s dynamic capability, while being more about capturing the sense of music taking place in a real space. The Levinson 32 Reference bowled me over while the Navison SE-MK2 drew me in.
Next up was Stravinsky's The Firebird (CD, Mercury Living Presence/Classic 90226). When I listened to it through the Navison SE-MK2 it gave me a remarkable sense of being in the auditorium of the London Symphony orchestra. The Levinson 32 was able to breathe the flow and pace of the live performance with a startlingly realistic performance of the bass drum. However, the Levinson 32 was a touch cool and clinical in its portrayal of music, it was as though it communicated to my brain while the Navison definitely touched the heart.
The high-frequency performance of the SE-MK2 proved to be absolutely staggering and the best I have heard from any preamp in my experience. The upper registers are simply there completely devoid of harshness, strain or for that matter softness or blurring, or any kind of euphonic or syrupy colorations. They are also neither cool nor warm, I find that the upper registers from 8000Hz could be characterized as allowing the high frequency information to flow through without any mechanical or electronic artifacts whatsoever.
While I felt that the Navison was absolutely neutral, not spotlighting any part of the frequency range, it imparted a slight harmonic richness and depth of soundstage that always made me prefer it to say using my CD player's built in volume control and plugging it straight into the amplifier. It was almost as though whenever it was present in the system it heightened the sense of emotion and involvement. Especially impressive, was the SE-MK2's midrange reproduction which added clarity, openness, and ability to convincingly render instrumental and vocal timbres. The subtle timbral differences, microdynamics, and colors of the voices were extremely well served by the Navison.
Ultimately, judged purely as a music-making machine, I would tip my hat in the direction of the Navison SE-MK2 even over Levinson’s outstanding Reference 32. I realize that this is saying a lot and in case you haven’t realized by now, I believe that the Navison SE-MK2 is a damn good preamp; one that you should seek out and audition for yourself. But you have to be prepared for the absolute simplicity of its build, with just a few inputs to get by, and you can forget about features. The Navison is an engineering statement painstakingly hand crafted to serve the music and nothing else.
If you can live with that and accept this massive and extremely heavy box that does nothing more than control the volume of your amplifier, then you should seriously consider the SE-MK2. I know of no other preamp on our shores that can captivate on such a wide range of musical material for under $5000. Well done Navison. Jim Olson