Mark Levinson No.31 Reference CD transport
These rough figures from my straw poll corresponded closely with my own experience: The digital processor is by far the most important component in the digital playback chain. Although changing transports can have a very large effect on the sound, a digital processor's fundamental character—and intrinsic musicality—remain the same.
The digital processor's overriding role in digital sound quality would seem to be strengthened by the fact that newer digital processors have less and less recovered clock jitter. Not only are the jitter-inducing input receivers found in every processor getting better, but digital designers are learning ways to reduce jitter. With greater ability to reject jitter from the transport, one would expect the transport to have a diminishing role in sound quality.
But this thinking was turned on its head after I took one listen to the new Mark Levinson No.31 Reference CD Transport from Madrigal Audio Labs. The $8500 No.31, a Herculean design effort on the level of the Mark Levinson No.30, made a larger single difference to my playback system than almost any other component. This was as true with the transport used to feed state-of-the-art processors (the Levinson No.30 and Meitner IDAT) as with budget converters.
In fact, after John Atkinson heard what the No.31 did for his system, driving either the No.30 or a Generation III Theta, he bought one (footnote 2). Let me tell you why.
As with other aspects of the No.31's performance, the transport's features, user interface, and functionality are unprecedented. The No.31 operates like no other CD transport. I'll first give you a brief overview of the No.31's operation and features, then a complete description of its unique user interface.
Visually similar to the No.30 and the new No.35 processor, the No.31 is a top-loading unit with front and top panel controls. The No.31's dominating feature is the large motorized lid that opens to reveal the transport mechanism. A row of transport control buttons runs the length of the top panel in front of the lid. The towers on either side of the chassis, which contain the No.31's power supplies, further add to the Mark Levinson family resemblance.
The front panel features a large alphanumeric LED display similar to that of the No.30. This display provides elapsed time and track number readouts and messages to the user such as "No Disc," "New Program," "Opening," "Insert Disc," and "No Damper." Most of the front-panel controls pertain to programming functions.
A 25-button remote control provides key transport control and display functions. The built-from-scratch remote is gorgeous, easy to use, and very heavy; it's a solid block of extruded aluminum. The No.31's remote includes a function unique for a transport: a polarity inversion switch. This feature is made possible by a communication link between the No.31 and other Mark Levinson digital processors (the No.30 and No.35) which sends the inversion command to the processor. The link also allows the No.30 to recognize that it is connected to a No.31; the No.30 shows "No.31" in its display when connected to the transport.
With that overview, let's take a closer look at the No.31's remarkable features and operation.
The thick motor-driven lid opens to provide access to the transport mechanism for disc loading and unloading. After putting a disc on the spindle, a damper disc is placed over the CD and held in place magnetically. To prevent the disc from spinning off the spindle if the damper isn't installed, a sensor inside the lid prevents the transport from turning unless it detects the damper's presence. In addition, the front panel display will show the message "No Damper." Despite being driven by a powerful motor, the lid will stop nearly instantly if obstructed by a hand or other object; the software-controlled motor stops when any resistance is encountered. There are many technical reasons for the lid and top-loading design—reasons I'll discuss in the technical description.
The large top-panel buttons, which provide the usual transport control functions ("Play," "Pause," "Next," "Previous," "Scan," etc.), are machined from aluminum. In a nice touch—and the No.31 is loaded with nice touches—the buttons are inset in smooth, tightfitting bushings so they don't stick.
The No.31's front panel can be intimidating until you spend some time with the unit. The features and operational possibilities are vast, befitting a reference product. Most of the front panel controls program the No.31. In addition to the standard programing functions we've come to expect on CD players and transports, the No.31 includes a few unprecedented tricks. For example, it will not only remember the track programming for specific discs and repeat that program each time the disc is played, it will also switch absolute polarity on a track-by-track basis!
Here's how it works. Find the disc's correct polarity by using either the No.30's or No.31's remote polarity-inversion switch, then press "Program Save." The No.30 will always play that disc with the polarity you've selected. The polarity switching can be over an entire disc or on individual tracks if so programmed. The No.31 will remember the programming for about 1300 discs. Note that these extraordinary features are made possible by the communication link between the No.31 and other Mark Levinson digital products. Incidentally, you won't lose your programs if there is a power outage: the RAM containing the program information has a battery backup.
The display has 17 messages. These provide information about the No.31's status and make programming easier. In addition to the usual track number and display functions, the display can be configured to show a variety of elapsed/remaining time modes. Pushing the "Display Mode" button scrolls through four time-display options. LEDs clearly show which mode is selected. Like the No.30, the display can be dimmed or turned off completely. Dimming the No.31's display also dims the No.30's readout by the same amount. The position of the No.31's front-panel controls parallels those of the No.30, making its use intuitive if you're familiar with the No.30.
Although the No.31 is continuously powered, a "Standby" switch turns off the display. After my first day of listening to the No.31 (driving the No.30), I put the No.30 into Standby and got a surprise. The No.31's lid, which was open, closed automatically, and both the No.30 and No.31 went into Standby mode. This function doesn't work in reverse: It may be desirable to put the No.31 in Standby and still use the No.30 for decoding another digital source. Taking the No.31 out of Standby activates the No.30 and causes the No.30 to lock to the No.31, no matter which of the No.30's inputs had been previously selected. Further, pushing any button on the No.31 or No.31 remote causes the No.30 to select the No.31 as its input—even if both units are in Standby. One touch and the whole digital front end is powered up with the correct input selected and ready to go. This kind of "smart" operation is a harbinger of the future as audio components become more sophisticated in their user interfaces (footnote 3).
The rear panel has all four standard digital outputs: coax on an RCA jack, AES/EBU via an XLR connector, Toslink optical, and ST-Type optical. The communication ports and an IEC AC jack finish off the rear panel.
Needless to say, the No.31 is extraordinary visually, functionally, and tactilely. The unit's feel, operation, features—in fact, the user's experience—are far beyond that of any other transport. The No.31 was a joy to use. The top-loading design, motorized lid, and damper make disc changing a little slower than drawer-type transports, but never to the point of inconvenience.
Footnote 1: They were: Doug Goldberg (Audio Alchemy), Gary Gomes (UltraAnalog), Mike Moffat (Theta), Don Moses (Wadia), and Bob Odell (PS Audio).
Footnote 2: I subsequently upgraded my sample of the No.31 to No.31.5 status. My review of the latter can be found here.—John Atkinson
Footnote 3: This is just a hint of the No.31's features; there are far too many to describe here.