Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mark Levinson - Return to form

For about a week recently, I had in my house an amplifier that cost about as much as my Toyota Innova.

I joked with Koh Yee Phok of Flagship AV, which is the Mark Levinson distributor in Malaysia, that I would be really worried if thieves broke into my house because I would not be able to compensate him.

He joked that the Mark Levinson No 532 Dual Monaural Power Amplifier would be the last thing the thieves would steal - it weighs 121.5 lb (55.2kg) and it would require at least two strong guys to carry it.

The new series of Mark Levinson amps mark a return to form for the respected American high-end manufacturer and in terms of looks and sound, fans have likened them to the great No 30 series and its No 300 variants of which the No 33H monoblocks are said to be among the best amps that ML built.

The No 532 is huge - it measures  9-9/16" (243mm) high, 17½" (445mm) wide and 21-1/18" (536mm) deep. It may be too big for some racks.

In my house, it was left on the floor since I didn’t want to risk getting a hernia by moving it around. 


The simple front panel of the ML No 532 amp.

It also has heat-sinks at its sides the way that ML fans love so much. And to make things more unusual and interesting, the No 532 has  three ‘piers’ at the rear - it’s the only amp I have seen that is built like that.

Its website states: “To create the optimum power delivery system, the chassis of the No 532 is specially designed to isolate the audio circuits from interference and noise. When viewed from above, the rear portion of the power amplifier has three distinct piers. Control and power circuitry reside in the center pier, separate from the audio circuitry, which resides in the two outer piers – one dedicated to each channel. The power transformers are located at the front of the chassis, away from the audio circuits. This unusual design provides a number of important advantages – isolation of the potentially noisy power and control circuits from the delicate audio circuits, additional heat sink surface area for cooling, and very short signal and power delivery paths.”


The three 'piers' at the rear of the amp.

It s also designed with the modern consumer in mind - its website states: "As music and cinema systems continue to grow more complex, integrating individual components takes on greater importance. To address the increasing demand for more control and communications capabilities, the No 532 features Mark Levinson’s proprietary ML Net and Link2 inter-device communication protocols, allowing the No 532 to be easily integrated and controlled by other Mark Levinson devices. The No 532 also provides a traditional 12V trigger input and output to synchronize on/standby status with other devices that do not include ML Net or Link2. An RS-232 port also allows the No 532 to be controlled by units from industry leaders such as AMX, Crestron and other third party integrated control systems."

It is also the first non-Reference Mark Levinson amplifier to be fully differential and it provides both RCA and XLR connectors that accept balanced signals directly into the input stage of the amplifier with no additional circuitry.

When I used MIT CVT Terminator 2 RCA interconnects, the sound was fabulously detailed, but when I switched to the Audioquest Panther dbs balanced interconnects, there was an immediate and very obvious improvement. It was one of the few amps which showed so very clearly the sonic advantages of balanced connections.

As I noted in an earlier post (http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2010/09/mit-sounds-better-in-cable-loom.html), the Mark Levinson matched so well with the MITs that I called the distributor Tong Lee for a pair of XLR MIT interconnects, but there was no stock and I spent much time with the MIT RCA interconnects plugged in along with the MIT CVT Terminator 2 speaker wires in a ‘cable loom’ which resulted in most satisfying music.

Its power supply section seemed very well designed and did not appear to be that fussy about power cords. After trying a few, I ended up using a DIYed cord with Furutech connectors.

Offering 400 watts per channel, the ML never ran out of juice with the resident system comprising CEC 3300 CD player used as transport, QED optical cable, Benchmark DAC1 Pre, Bryston 4B SST and ATC SCM40 floorstanders. I also used the Toshiba laptop to feed hires music files to the USB input of the Benchmark with Media Monkey as music player. The entire system was plugged to a Furutech eTP60/20 power distributor/ passive RFI filter.

The Bryston is a good amp for its price but the ML No 532 costs as much as maybe five 4B SSTs, and there are differences - there have to be otherwise who would buy the ML?

Against the mighty Mark Levinson No 532, the Bryston - which had shown great control over the proceedings - lost out with the ML showing even more control and poise. The ML made the Bryston sound a bit ‘small’.

Bass had slam and depth while the mids and highs were transparent and smooth. The highs were most spacious and seemed to extend to ‘nothingness’. 

Some AV fans have noted that the ML’s bass was not strong enough to recreate sounds of bomb explosions, but I felt that the ML is too refined for AV and is best used for two-channel listening. The double bass and bass drums that I heard did not lack body or grunt.

The ML also created a huge soundstage and carved out more ‘presence’ from the space behind the speakers, widened the stage horizontally and vertically and placed the singers and musicians in their proper spots. I felt the MIT cables contributed much to the stable stereo imaging and rendition of details.

When I played Susan Boyle’s How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace the chorus singers were presented in rows behind and above Susan and I could pick out individual voices. I had never heard my humble system sound like that before and I have only heard that kind of presentation in systems costing a couple of hundred grand.


The amp may be too tall for some racks.

The ML has a quite neutral tonal balance that leans to the ‘warmish’ side compared with Bryston’s neutrality that leans towards leanness.

Even after extended listening sessions, I did not feel fatigued and the grainless and holographic presentation was most pleasing to listen to.

 The last Mark Levinson amp I heard was the ML No 331 100-watter and based on what I can recall, the No 532 sounded less warm but more powerful and had better soundstaging ability.

The new Mark Levinson amps are truly the rightful successors of the critically-acclaimed ML No 30 range.


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