Mark Levinson No.30 Reference Digital Processor Page 4
An important part of any component's musicality is the ability to throw a believable representation of individual instruments existing between and behind the loudspeakerssoundstaging. While many digital processors can present width and depth, the ability to create the illusion of spatially distinct individual instruments and voices is much more challenging. For me, digital has always blurred this separation, fusing images into a synthetic continuum. While some processors have gone a long way toward recreating (creating?) a sense of size and depth, they have nevertheless fallen short of analog replay in convincing the listener the presentation is made up of many individual components, not just varying shades of the same cloth. This aspect of music reproduction, I believe, is of paramount importance in the quest to pass the threshold from "good sound" to a powerful musical involvement. When the brain doesn't have to work so hard in aiding the illusion, there are fewer distractions to enjoying the music.
I've gone into this discussion because the No.30 has an astonishing ability to separate disparate musical threads from the overall fabric. In fact, this was the very first thing I noticed, seconds into the first disc. My opening comments about hearing more music relate to the No.30's uncanny bent for presenting even the quietest and most subtle sounds as distinct musical entities.
On Chick Corea's Light as a Feather CD (Polydor 827 148-2), for example, there is a percussion instrument midway into the soundstage that has always sounded like an undefined click. Not only did the No.30 unambiguously reveal the instrument to be woodblocks, it also presented the sounds with far better-defined pitches. Further, there was a feeling of air around the instrument, making it spatially distinct from the other instruments. No other digital processor even came close to conveying the inner detail that led to this impression. This is just one example of the No.30's stunning ability to resolve what's on the CD. I had a similar experience with every CD I played, no matter how many times I'd heard the music. Another example was the previously mentioned Water Music. Through other processors, the harpsichord toward the soundstage rear was presented as a sound reminiscent of a harpsichord. Through the No.30, it was a harpsichord, not a suggestion of one.
As I write this, I'm listening to background music through the No.30, well away from the sweet spot. Even from this position, facing away from the loudspeakers, the remarkable individuality of instrumental images and the portrayal of fine detail are unmistakable. Hearing things in recordings that I never knew were there makes me turn off the computer and listen. It's irresistible to hear my favorite music reproduced with a detail and life I didn't think possible from CD. I feel compelled to just sit there and listen with rapt attention. The only drawback is, it makes it difficult to finish the review!
Every CD I auditioned through the No.30 bowled me over with newfound musical information. The No.30 made what I thought were mediocre CDs sound almost like Chesky releases. Just imagine how actual Chesky discs sounded.
Interestingly, this discussion of soundstage evolved into presentation of detailperhaps indicating a closer link between these two aspects of presentation than previously realized. But back to what we more generally consider soundstaging: width and depth. Both were extraordinary through the No.30. The presentation extended beyond the loudspeaker boundaries, throwing images across a wide arc. There was also a great sense of reverberation surrounding the loudspeakers, creating a feeling of envelopment in the sound. The guitar solo in "Feel Like Going Home" from Luke and the Locomotives was surrounded by air and a remarkable sense of size. Recordings with lots of natural reverberation were stunning. A particular favorite, both musically and sonically, is Three-Way Mirror. Listen to the sheer sense of depth and space unfold on the first track. The apparent distance between the front and rear of the presentation contributed to the illusion that the sound was emerging from two boxes a few feet from the listening room's rear wall. Overall, the Wadia 2000 had a comparable presentation of distance and size, but with a slightly narrower perspective.
Image specificity was the No.30's forte. Instruments were presented as precisely defined objects, without smearing or integration into the music's fabric. Images were tight, compact, and thrown with pinpoint localization. In this regard, the No.30 has no peer. The No.30 didn't have the "sculpted" soundstage heard from the Theta processors, but was perhaps more natural and believable. In addition, the No.30 had a see-through transparency that allowed a clear view of individual instrumental outlines. The overall presentation was the antithesis of murky, congested, confused, or colored.
The No.30 had one other remarkable quality related to soundstaging: the ability to make the loudspeakers disappear. The music seemed to hang in space before me, not emerge from the loudspeakers. While this quality is very dependent on the loudspeakers, the No.30 contributed significantly to this impression. Overall, the No.30's combination of soundstage size, transparency, spatial and textural distinction between instruments, and resolution of fine detail worked synergistically to create a more convincing illusion of hearing real music.
When I received the No.30 review sample, I had just returned from making some recordings at David Manley's purist recording studio in California for the next Stereophile Test CD. As I listened to the DAT master tapes through various converters with the memory of the live instruments and microphone feed fresh in my mind, I was struck by just how much closer to the ideal of live music the No.30 sounded. It was that much better than anything else. This was accompanied, however, by a feeling of disappointment that these recordings will rarely be heard through the No.30.
I've been very cautious about equating even the best digital processors with analog. Any doubts about analog's superiority have been quickly dispatched by a comparison with, for example, a Sheffield direct-to-disc LP. This is a humbling experience for any digital processor. I therefore compared three digital processorsthe No.30, Audio Research's DAC1-20, and Kinergetics' KCD-55 Ultrato each other and to LP. The analog front-end included a Well-Tempered Turntable and LP Labs-modified WT arm, AudioQuest AQ 7000 cartridge, and a Vendetta Research phono preamp, all on a Merrill Stable Table. Sources in both CD and LP formats were Sheffield Lab 17 (Tower of Power Direct), Stereophile's Intermezzo, and Luke and the Locomotives.
Each LP was easily superior to the CD as decoded by the DAC1-20 and KCD-55 Ultra. The No.30, however, had some of the LP's qualities not heard through the other processors. The most striking aspect of the LP was a "you are there" immediacy. The DAC1-20 and KCD-55 Ultra sounded one step removed from the event, with less life. The No.30 lacked that last edge of palpability in relation to the LP, but was much closer in this regard than the other two processors. Although the No.30 was not quite as musical as the LP, it was not embarrassed by the comparison. That's saying a lot. Some aspects of the CD, however, were better than LP: no surface noise and better pitch stability, especially evident on Intermezzo. In fact, I preferred listening to the CD on this recording for these reasons.
In many evaluations of digital converters, it's a process or going back and forth (in addition to long-term, single-presentation listening) between products. These comparisons produce ambivalent feelings: processor A does this well, but processor B does that better. Forming a value judgment about which one is "better" involves assessing the musical significance of each processor's strengths and flaws. The No.30 posed no such dilemma: from the start, it was clearly superior in every respect.
The No.30 made one other powerful impression on me: its presentation of dynamic contrast and razor-sharp transient edges. Throughout the auditioning, I was amazed at how differently drums sounded through the No.30. They had a quickness and life that made them seem to jump from the presentation. I'm not talking about slam and "jump factor" (which the No.30 also has), but the ability to hear that leading-edge immediacy, even on quietly played drum kits. The musical effect was dramatic: hard-driving rhythms became even more so, and intricate rhythmic nuances by great jazz drummers suddenly became apparent for the first time. The music just seemed to have a much greater life and vitality, heightening the sense of musicians interacting with each other, especially with jazz.