You are reading the older HTML site
Positive Feedback ISSUE 77
Mark Levinson №52 40th Anniversary Line/Phono
Each business enterprise has its own so-called "founding myth" (in Western classical scholarship often referred to as etiological myth from the Greek word αἴτιον, "a cause"). The founding myth for Mark Levinson's company and, hence, for Mark Levinson himself was the LNP-2 preamplifier, launched in 1972. In Levinson's words, which he later repeated many times on various occasions, he was in a need of a high quality preamplifier for his personal use, so he designed and built his own. The LNP-2 achieves high prices today in the secondary market and is particularly valued in Japan, where it shows in a number of most expensive systems, next to other modern flagship audio components.
It is not surprising then that Mark Levinson's company did not offer a new reference preamplifier until 1998, when it launched to the market the №32 Reference Preamplifier. Not only had it go face to face the legendary LNP-2 but also other contemporary, really good preamplifiers.
And again passed more years before the company decided to make the next step, which was made possible by newer and better materials and the knowledge gained in the production of other components. An important factor was also a newly developed environmental awareness.
The №32 was an exceptional piece of audio equipment (machine). A two-chassis preamplifier, it literally changed the rules of the game. Previous Levinson preamplifier, the №28, followed the division that had been commonly known and widely used in the world of audio. One enclosure housed the amplification circuits, and the other one was the power supply. This is a rational solution that works really well. However, the №38 was to be much more than another "two-piece preamplifier." Mark Levinson decided to employ a microprocessor that controls all other circuits, and added a display screen. These two components are notorious for their high noise that interferes with the audio signal. Hence, the machine is divided somewhat against the logic developed over the years: the chassis that sports the volume and input knobs, all the push buttons and display screen, also houses the microprocessor and power supply. The gain stages (amplification circuits), together with all input and output connectors has been relocated to the other, larger enclosure, which sports no manipulators. The two chassis are linked with three umbilical cords. Two of them supply power to the audio section (separately for the left and right channel) and the third one carries control signals and supplies power to the relays.
The preamplifier looks insanely good and is considered by many audio journalists to be a reference unit. I have seen it in the list of products and presentation of the chief editor of the Japanese "Stereo Sound" magazine, whose system also included the Tech DAS Air Force One turntable, the machine of my dreams.
Albums auditioned during this review
• Assemblage 23, Bruise, Accession Records, A 128, Limited Edition, 2 x CD (2012).
• Brian Eno, Craft On A Milk Sea, Warp Records WARPCDD207, 2 x 180 g LP + 2 x CD + 24/44,1 WAV; reviewed HERE.
• Budka Suflera, Cień wielkiej góry, Live 2011 + studio 1975 (box), Polskie Nagrania Muza/Budka Suflera Productions, BSP 05-2011, 2 x 180 g LP + 2 x CD; reviewed HERE.
• Cyrus Chestnut, Midnight Melodies, Smoke Sessions Records SSR-1408, CD (2014); recenzja TUTAJ.
• Eric Clapton, Journeyman, Warner Bros. Records/Audio Fidelity AFZ 180, "Limited Edition No. 0281", SACD/CD (1989/2014).
• Fred Simon, Dreamhouse, Naim Label naimcd044, CD (2000).
• J. S. Bach, Die Kunst Der Fuge, wyk. Marcin Masecki, Lado ABC C/13, CD (2012).
• J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations BWV 988. 1981 Digital Recording, wyk. Glen Gould, CBS/Sony Music Entertainment Hong Kong 88765440092, "No. 0197", gold-CD (1982/2013).
• J. S. Bach, The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981, wyk. Glen Gould, Sony Classical/Legacy S3K 87703, 3 x CD (1956, 1982/2002).
• Jim Hall Trio, Blues On The Rocks, Gambit Records 69207, CD (2005).
• Johann Sebastian Bach, St. John Passion, BWV 245, dyr. Kenneth Slowik, Smithsonian Chamber Players and Chorus, Smithsonian Collection of Recordings/ADDA ND 0381, 2 x CD (1989).
• John Coltrane, Lush Life, Prestige/Universal Music (Japan), "Jazz The Best. Legendary 100, No. 55", CD (1961/2008).
• Neu!, Neu! ‘75, Brain Records/P-Vine Records PCD-93529, CD (1975/2012).
• Niccolò Paganini, 24 Caprices for solo violin. Op.1, wyk. Mayuko Kamo, BMG Japan BVCC 40003, "RCA Red Seal", CD (2009/2012).
• Patrick Noland, Piano Gathering Light, Naim naimcd011, CD (1994).
• Radiohead, Kid A, Parlophone/EMI 27753 2, CD (2000).
• Skrzek & Rudź, The Stratomusica Suite, Generator GEN CD 032, CD (2014); reviewed HERE.
Let me make it clear, without beating around the bush: the №52 is one of the best preamplifiers I have ever heard. It is hard to state unequivocally that something is "the best" because this kind of a statement is highly suspicious in the context of the differences between various audio systems, user preferences and expectations. Trying to be as objective as possible, in some respects and to some extent it is a reference audio component. It is a real tool that makes my work, and the work of people like me, much easier; a component that would also make for some kind of a "core" of any given top recording studio system. As long as the people working there really cared about "top of the top," that is. Sitting down in front of a system with the Mark Levinson as a nexus between the other system components, you tend not to think of it as such and that is probably its key feature. Calling something a tool, one depersonalizes that thing, reducing it to an inanimate, manageable object. The №52 is obviously a thing. But as each object or article that is entangled in art—here even twofold, both as the art transmitter and its contributor, through the modification of sound—it has its own personality, something that makes us look at it not as if it were a well-organized pile of metal, silicon and plastic, but almost a person.
The thing that is almost shocking, even if we are familiar with top audio components, is the resolution offered by this preamplifier. In a general view, it results in the kind of presentation that is interesting and credible. Any given record played back using this preamplifier has something to show, something to be discovered, because the Levinson is eager to share with what it receives from the source.
Please do not think less of it, though. I don't think this is anything new if I say that a very similar description would fit other flagship products from the 1970s and 1980s, which are simply unlistenable today. Measured by their technology and specifications of that era they seemed the eighth wonder of the world. In reality, they sounded like a nightmare: bright, harsh and empty. Despite all that, the adjectives such as "transparent", "free of coloration" and "precise" could be applied to them and all of the adjectives would sound true in the case of the №52. The revolution in high-end perception, which the big companies have undergone, is so profound that it is even difficult to speak about a development continuity. Although in the area of preamplifiers Mark Levinson had always done a good job, the preamplifier under review is a new quality even compared to the previous models from the same manufacturer.
For a start, the №52 has an exceptionally rich, full-bodied and saturated midrange. Secondly, its treble is vibrant and deep, with an outstanding tonal quality; it is actually better than that offered by the following tube amplifiers that I hold in high esteem: the Tenor Audio Line1/Power1, the Ayon Audio Spheris II and the CAT SL1 Legend. The top end also sounds better than in the two solid state preamplifiers, the Accuphase C-3800 and the Soulution 720. This is a completely new quality, which nicely shows that the demarcation line between the tube and solid state is gradually losing its meaning, at least in the preamplifier department.
The sound is not just a collection of individual sub-ranges, I hope that much is clear. For that reason, the description of treble alone is an artificial exercise. We are somewhat used to this kind of procedure in audio, though; this is one of the techniques, which allows us to describe the sound. Especially if we remember that the way any audio component handles the treble is key to the credibility of the whole presentation. This can be done in an elegant manner, by slightly rounding off and warming the treble, as it is done by the Polaris III from Ayon, the SL1 Legend from CAT, the 720 from Soulution and the Line1 from Tenor (in an increasing order). Or you can try to keep the sound precise and resolving and yet still a tad warm, as in the C-3800 from Accuphase and the Robert Koda Takumi K-15.
The information carried in the treble is not limited to the direct sound but it also comprises the harmonics of even the lowest bass. The Levinson presents them as something coherent, as an extension of the basic sound. The machine never separates the top end from what lies below. With such an exceptional resolution and equally good selectivity, this is an extraordinary achievement, as that used to be an area where the high-end has been lacking. Here we have it in spades. It was no accident that I contrasted the №52 with the tube preamplifiers, including my Polaris III. All of them seem to be slightly veiled. Of course, compared with any less expensive product they leave it in the dust, proving that their sound is exceptional. However, the American preamplifier is better in that respect and there is no need to keep beating around the bush to prove otherwise.
It was by no accident that this is the only preamplifier that let me hear what the UV 22 Super CD Encoder from Apogee Electronics Corporation is all about. The UV22 is a special encoder with its own unique logo—it used to be an important part of this manufacturer's lineup. Its goal was to encode on the CD more information that seemed possible with the Red Book standard. The company literature claims that the UV22 adds to the audio signal an inaudible high frequency bias signal. Through a special algorithm it adds energy around the frequency of 22kHz. As we can read, this let the CD reach a 20-bit resolution even though it was still limited to the 16-bit CD format.
This technology used to be employed by other companies. It is a classic dithering with noise shaping. Apogee worked out their own algorithm, claiming that it is much better solution from others, like Super Bit Mapping from Sony. The effects were varied, though. In a number of recordings, the treble was bright and had an unnatural "spiky" character. However, better recordings presented us with something special. The sound was still a tad brighter but the amount of treble information was exceptional. The album Sonatas of Brahms and Beach by Arturo Delmoni and Yuri Funahashi has been produced that way. The producer is John Marks, with Robert C. Ludwig handling mastering duties. And it was the Levinson that let me hear it so clearly for the first time.
The treble sounds equally well, and in some respects even better than from the best tube audio components I know. I am still to review the Stratos III from Ayon Audio and I admit to have never heard the flagship Lamm or Kondo preamplifiers. But in life there always are surprises ahead and that should not keep us silent for the sake of something we do not know. That would be crazy. For the present moment it is what it is—the Mark rules all the way.
This is all the more important as the midrange behaves in a very similar way. After auditioning a couple of CDs, after fetching them from the shelves and opening the boxes, I sat down to write my thoughts and impressions, and then to select for the review the ones that seemed most important during the auditions. It turned out that the majority of them are piano recordings, or those with the piano in the leading role. And it is no wonder. The №52's sound is so well balanced that this notoriously difficult instrument was coming to life and getting more credible.
Gould on the 1981 gold CD version of Goldberg Variations, played back with the Polaris III in the system, sounds warm and extremely "from-the-gut", which makes for a real treat. The Levinson, however, went further still. The sound was no longer so "cuddly" (even though I like it like hell), but there was even more music to it. The resolution, the proper kind of resolution rather than a fake one, brings with it not only detailness. The latter is a derivative of differentiation and the ability to provide, in a short period time, a large number of well-organized information that is linked to something bigger. This results in a "warm" sound, one that is warm with the warmth of density and maturity, rather than any tonal manipulation. Thanks to that, it was the first time when I heard at home the real bodies and the relations between murmuring Gould and the piano. The piano was in the foreground, with its own reverb, and Gould was sitting slightly further down, with more reverb; the piano was the direct sound and Gould was the delayed one. It made for an incredible experience and an even better connection to the music that—I thought—had been embedded into me for good.
A perfect tonal differentiation is one thing. But the differentiation of dynamics offered by this component is something much bigger than that. I have never heard so well rendered drums on the recordings from the 1950s and 1960s, like Jim Hall Trio's album Blues On The Rock. Nor have I even suspected such an incredible degree of layering and showing real differences between the instruments, as on the album Salzau Music On The Water by the trio Danielsson, Dell and Landgren. The differentiation of dynamics and timing are things that are absolutely basic in music. Without them it is difficult to even talk about a musical piece. The Levinson does it better than all the other preamps I have come across. Even passive preamps, which I do not like, but which nevertheless offer an outstanding rhythm, seem compressed and slowed in comparison.
Perhaps this is the reason behind my opinion on the bass. It is not particularly dense nor does it seem to extend very deep. These are nothing but appearances as it extends much deeper than it does in the Polaris III. But it is also better controlled, with better defined attack and sustain. That is why the bass in the Ayon, the Tenor and the Soulution seems to be denser and better saturated. I cannot explain it otherwise. Objectively speaking, the kind of presentation as the one offered by the №52 is indisputably more correct. It will be very difficult to repeat such great sounding double basses elsewhere. So clearly demonstrated recording and production problems of Peter Gabriel's album So tend to elude us elsewhere. The aforementioned components made some sort of "remastering" of this album, perfecting its sound enough for its dry tone and quite crudely captured, contoured bass passable. With the Mark Levinson they attract our attention instead.
That is the kind of situation where we hit a brick wall and what is better for us starts to count more from what is objectively better, and these two are not the same. The sound of the preamplifier from the Harman camp is neither light nor dry. Nor is it less full-bodied or dull. Actually, it is exactly the opposite: take each of these terms, cross it out and replace with its antonym, and you will be much closer to the truth. I will, however, perfectly understand all those who will point to the Tenor, the Solution, the Ayon, the CAT, the Audio Research and other similar-sounding, flagship preamplifiers, as those that better suit their needs. Because they do sound denser, warmer, fuller and have a deeper bass extension. I will understand that, even though - as we have already demonstrated - this is just an impression.
There is no need to deceive oneself and get mixed up. In most sonic aspects, the №52 is a true reference preamplifier. It has everything required of a preamplifier because. While being extremely transparent, it brings onboard its own personality; although you can hear how it differs from other preamplifiers, it is only through the way it interprets the music rather than individual aspects abstracted from it.
The only place where the three best tube preamps I have ever heard may be more likeable is the volume of the sound and soundstage size. The Levinson's precision also translates into these two aspects, but in its own way. An ideal attack makes the decay seem shortened and, hence, the size of the phantom images slightly smaller. Smaller, that is, than in the best preamps I know. And just slightly smaller, not much. What is more important for the №52 is what happens in the foreground. The latter is fantastically credible and convincing. That which is further away is precise but not as intense, due to a slightly lighter tonal weight.
Everything that I have just written is not supposed to hurt. Although over the years I have been using a tube preamplifier, and not without a reason, the Mark Levinson would be a valuable upgrade to my audio system. It has beautiful tonal quality, exemplary dynamics and differentiation, and the treble is more sonorous, more three-dimensional and have a better "own" weight than that offered by tube preamps. The bass is reference in terms of its outline and the differentiation of tonality and depth. The Mark Levinson allows for a comfortable listening to the music. It brings loads of information that builds up the credibility of presentation. The albums that are problematic to play back are not massacred by it, but they will not sound as friendly as when they are played back on the Polaris III.
For me, this a reference. I will not say, however, that it is the "best" preamplifier in the world. I cannot not to remember the incredibly encouraging sound of the Tenor Audio Line1/Power1, the outstanding smoothness of the Stratos II from Ayon Audio and the wonderful density of the Soulution 720, reminiscent of the best tube components. Or the silky precision of the Robert Koda Takumi K-15 and the C-3800 of the Accuphase fame. But that is precisely why audio is such an exciting activity: there is no such thing as absolute and final truth; instead, there is only the truth of the place where the question about it has found us.
The №52 Preamplifier from Mark Levinson joined my reference audio system comprising the Soulution 720 power amplifier and the Ancient Audio Lektor Air V-edition CD player. Additionally, during the auditions the system was also fronted by the two turntables: the Transrotor Dark Star Silver Shadow with the SME M2-9 tonearm and the Fonica Violin with the F03 ver.3 arm, both equipped with the phono cartridges from Miyajima Lab, the Kansui (stereo) and the ZERO (mono). I was using the RCA Audio Sensor Prelude IC outboard phono preamplifier. The Mark Levinson preamplifier was seated in the same spot that is usually taken by my Polaris III preamp, with the audio module resting on Acoustic Revive RAF-48H air board and the control module on the Franz Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc Original and the Acoustic Revive Hickory RHB-20 isolation board. The whole system sat on the three-level Finite Elemente Pagode Edition rack. The №52 was compared to the Ayon Audio Polaris III and the Tenor Audio Line1/Power1 preamplifiers. The control sound that I used was the passive attenuator in my Ancient Audio player.
GOLD Fingerprint is a very special award. We give both as a recognition of a specific product and—simultaneously—of lifetime achievement. The №52 Reference Preamplifier is a great example of how modern technology can be employed to convey the music in the best possible way. Not to convey the audio "signal" but simply the music. It is not enough to merely obtain a very low distortion of a static type, typically used to describe electronic components, but to complete it via auditions, using a sensitive and trained ear. And it happens that the design choices made on the basis of auditions often result in a decrease in measurable parameters. As John Atkinson, the chief editor of Stereophile and an engineer responsible for measuring all the components reviewed by this magazine, writes in his recent editorial:
"That happened in the fall of 1989. I explained to the readers that, unlike the mainstream magazines, where measurements appear to define or even replace the listening experience, Stereophile's measurements would have four goals: 1) discover measured behavior that would affect a product's possible compatibility with other products; 2) uncover inadequate engineering; 3) ensure that there isn't some simple reason for a component to sound the way it does (spending a lot of money on a component with a built-in tone control in the form of a nonflat response is not my idea of a good deal); and 4) build up a measurement database that will eventually reveal correlations between what is heard and what is measured.
A quarter century later, however, that fourth and final goal seems as far away as it was in 1989. All I can do is repeat the words of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that head this essay" ["God Lives in the Details"].
John Atkinson, God Lives in the Details, Stereophile October 2014, Vol. 37, No. 10, p. 3."
It seems that Mark Levinson knows perfectly well what all this is about. Even though it is a large company, owned by a huge corporation.
The №52 is divided between two extremely solidly build enclosures. They are made of aluminum plates and sheets, with a characteristic division of the front panel, copied in all possible ways by other manufacturers, for example Marantz and Lindemann, to mention a larger and smaller manufacturer. The center part is flat and black, and it sports all display screens and buttons, while both sides have rounded surfaces.
The division in this case is different than usual, e.g. that used in the Ayon Audio Polaris III or the Line1/Power1 from Tenor Audio. In these two examples, one chassis houses the power supply, and other one is the proper preamplifier, with all the control circuits. The №52 breaks away from that division, which I have seen before in the top preamplifiers from American VTL, in that one of the enclosures, referred to as "noisy," houses the power supply and control logic circuits with all the operating buttons and display screen. The other, "clean" chassis, only houses the amplification circuits and input and output connectors. It seems a much better partition (allocation, distribution, apportionment, allotment).
The faceplate of the "noisy" section sports the characteristic Mark Levinson red dot-matrix display. It is quite large, with a good contrast ratio. It can be dimmed in a few steps, and even switched off. At the same time, the user dims or switches off the big red company logo on the front panel of the "clean" chassis. Volume level is controlled with an aluminum knob on the left side, the right knob being input selector. Both of them are also used to navigate through the menu. Since the machine is microprocessor controlled, there are lots of available settings. Starting with giving names to the inputs (which I used), through activating the outputs, selecting the system gain and channel balance, to changing the phono input load impedance and capacity. The manufacturer has equipped the system with yet another possibility—with a few settings you can set up cartridge azimuth. Marvelous. The push buttons under the screen are used to change its brightness, activate various menu settings, mute the output and enter the standby mode.
The "clean" chassis is hooked up to the "noisy" module with three umbilical cords. Two of them are used to supply power and the third one carries the control signals. Power supply is separate for the left and right channels—the preamplifier has a dual-mono design. The umbilical cords are branded as Mark Levinson and are terminated with fantastic Lemo connectors.
The faceplate of the amplification module is completely bare, except for an illuminated Mark Levinson logo and a red LED. That's why we instinctively think that this is the power supply unit. But it is the rear panel where the real magic happens. We are greeted with three balanced XLR input connectors (2 = hot)—the preamp has a symmetrical, differential design—and four unbalanced RCAs. Below are two pairs of balanced and two unbalanced output connectors (for the total of four) and an extra pair of auxiliary outputs. The AUX is a new, clever way of using the output to function as a third pre-out. It can be activated or switched off, it can also be configured independently of the main outputs, as a pass-through full-range subwoofer output or a record output. There, you can also connect a headphone amplifier. In the middle there is one entry—for phono. MM supports both the insert and the MC. These settings are made in the menu. If you do not use the turntable, this input can be switched off so as not to introduce noise into the system.
The power supply and control module is heavier than the actual preamplifier. Its interior is divided with thick screens into three parts. The power supply is the company's special pride, because it contains innovative design solutions. Electric power is rectified, filtered and controlled in three switching power supply modules from XP Power (± 15 VDC). It is then fed to the AC regenerator via heavy-duty bus bars.
The AC regeneration system (very similar to those used by Ayon Audio in the third generation of the Polaris preamplifier and its power supply) is isolated from the mains voltage by the power supply and generates clean AC power that is subsequently sent to the rectifier and filtering circuits, and voltage controllers. The regenerator is actually a massive power amplifier that generates a 200Hz sinusoidal AC current (vs. 60Hz in the Ayon), which is fed to large toroidal transformers (one per channel). What is new in this power supply version is the refined and complex voltage controller at the regenerator output. The transformers provide perfect +5 VAC and ± 18 VAC. The former is used to power the relays in the audio circuit, and the latter is further filtered and controlled in the amplification section, providing ± 15 VDC at the output.
The IEC power connector is shielded—I assume that it includes a mains power filter.
The amplification module is also divided into three parts, although they have different proportions. In the very center, between two thick aluminum screens, sits the phono stage daughter board, which is plugged into the motherboard. Based on ICs, it also employs Wima capacitors and multiple relays to select the circuit gain and phono cartridge load.
The amplification circuits, output stage and volume attenuator, all in dual-mono topology, are located on both sides of the phone board. Each channel comprises three daughter boards with the aforementioned circuits. They are plugged into the large motherboard and protected by a Faraday cage. The cage is informally referred to in the company as the "engine blocks." The amplification and buffer stages employ ICs. The volume attenuator is constructed using switchable discreet resistors. This is the fourth generation of the attenuator based on Levinson's idea. It first appeared in 1990, in the №29 preamplifier from Madrigal Laboratories. The company claims that it was the first "transparent" attenuator of the "solid state" type in the world. Volume is adjustable in 1dB steps up to 23dB and then in 0.1dB increments. Input gain can be selected in four steps: 0dB, 6dB, 12dB or 18dB.
Circuit boards with input connectors, activated by relays, are located at the rear panel. The RCA connectors are made by Levinson. They use Teflon® PTFE as dielectric. Each input switching circuit employs two relays in the T-Switch configuration. Their contacts are made of gold plated silver. What is important is the way the unused inputs are handled. The relays disconnect both the signal and ground paths from the RCA inputs connectors. The signal path is also physically coupled to ground in the middle of its trace. This allows for a complete isolation of all the inputs from the audio circuit as well as the inputs from each other. What we are talking about here is the level of isolation of more than 120 dB between the two channels of any given input and immeasurable between inputs. Mark Levinson calls the solution "virtually unplugged switching topology."
All PCBs use high-speed Nelco laminate, with gold plated traces and solder pads. The assembly workmanship is simply perfect.
HARMAN INTERNATIONAL INDUSTRIES, INC.
Price (in Poland): 114,900 PLN
MADE IN USA
Specification (according to the manufacturer)
• >100 mV @1kHz (40dB gain)
• >10 mV @1kHz (60dB gain)
Frequency Response: ±1dB (RIAA response)
• Resistive: 3.3 Ω, 5 Ω, 7.7 Ω, 10 Ω, 33 Ω, 50 Ω, 77 Ω, 100 Ω, 330 Ω, 47 kΩ (user-selectable)
• Capacitive: 50 pF, 100 pF, 150 pF, 200 pF, 250 pF, 300 pF, 350 pF, 0.01 μF (user-selectable)
Gain: +40 dB, +60dB @1 kHz (user-selectable)
Volume Control Range: 80dB
Frequency Response: 10Hz – 40kHz (±0.2dB)
Input Impedance: 100 kΩ
Maximum Output Level: 16 V balanced (XLR) connectors | 8 V unbalanced (RCA) connectors
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: Residual Noise < 120dB (20Hz – 20kHz, input terminated, balanced)
Gain: 0dB, +6dB, +12 dB, +18dB (user-selectable)
20 Ω – balanced (XLR) connectors | 10 Ω – unbalanced (RCA) connectors
Power Consumption (maximum): 65 W
Dimensions (H x D x W):
• Control - 82 x 438 x 330 mm
• Audio - 140 x 438 x 330 mm
• Control – 11 kg
• Audio – 16 kg
• Total – 27 kg