Mark Levinson No.31 Reference CD transport Page 3

I was immediately struck by how similar my impressions of the No.31 were to those when I first heard the No.30. The qualities that make the No.30 such a great product—particularly its high resolution without being analytical—were elevated to an even higher level by adding the No.31. In fact, the No.31 proved to be as revelatory as the No.30. Together, they produced a presentation that far exceeded what I had believed to be the bounds of the Compact Disc format.

The No.31's effect on the system can only be described as magical. Even compared to other excellent transports, the No.31 was in another league. The soundstage became more expansive and transparent. Instrumental timbres were portrayed with liquidity and a certain harmonic rightness. Bass was deeper, tighter, and better defined. But the area in which the No.31 really knocked my socks off was its resolution of inner detail.

In fact, if I had to sum up the No.31 with one word, it would be "resolution." Just as the No.30's great strength was its ability to reveal musical information without sounding aggressive or analytical, the No.31's defining characteristic was its fine resolution of detail. The No.31 just presented so much more information to the listener. Despite this extraordinary resolving power, the No.31 was the antithesis of analytical, etched, forward, aggressive, "ruthlessly revealing," or any of the other adjectives used to describe products which force the music into your face. The more I listen to digital, the more importance I place on the ability to resolve detail without etch and fatigue. The No.30, and now the No.31, are unique in their ability to present what were formerly two mutually exclusive qualities.

The CD Three-Way Mirror (Reference Recordings RR-24CD), engineered by Keith Johnson, dramatically illustrated the No.31's ability to reveal more music. The disc has layers and layers of fine detail, particularly in the many percussion instruments. When switching from even the excellent Proceed PDT 3 to the No.31, I was amazed at how the presentation seemed to have more instruments with the No.31. This impression of more instruments was a result of the No.31's ability to present each instrument's unique character intact. If the low-level cues that define the instruments' sounds are obscured, the instruments tend to sound more alike, becoming fused. But if these cues are resolved, the listener is able to hear each instrument individually. This is why the No.31 seemed to reveal more instruments. Going back to the PDT 3 gave the impression that an entire layer of music was missing.

Another example is from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' first record (Warner Bros 9 26124-2). The guiro is a Latin percussion instrument in which a hollow wooden gourd with ridges is rubbed with a small stick, creating a series of transients. With lesser transports, the instrument is a synthetic, continuous sound. Through the No.31, the method by which the sound is created is clearly apparent, with the individual transients that make up the instrument's character resolved. Don't think for a minute, however, that I dwell on such matters when listening to music. I didn't enjoy the No.31 for these sonic characteristics, but for the musical effect of them. I use these examples to analyze and convey just why the No.31 seemed to present more music. With such fine resolution, the music was more real and lifelike, making listening more involving and satisfying.

The No.31 also was unmatched in its ability to resolve the spatial position of instruments in the soundstage and present them as individual images. Even massed voices, which often fuse together, were presented as many small and individual voices. The sonically superb CD Testament (Reference Recordings RR-49CD) is a good example; I could clearly resolve individual voices in the unaccompanied chorus of the opening track.

If you've ever flown over a city in the Southwest on a clear and dry night, you can get an idea of the type of spatial resolution I'm describing. There are certain conditions under which it is possible to resolve individual street lamps from the vast expanse of the city below. Rather than the city appearing as a mass of light, it is revealed as composed of many pinpoint objects that are clearly separate from the mass of light. So it was with the No.31; the smallest of details were sharply delineated, finely resolved, and distinct from the rest of the music. The result was a presentation overwhelming in the sheer amount of musical detail revealed. Discs with which I was intimately familiar were a shock: There was just so much more information within them.

Soundstaging was spectacular. Switching to the No.31 seemed to open up the presentation, revealing a vast expanse of space (on certain recordings), depth, and three-dimensional layering. I could clearly hear fine gradations of depth; instruments were behind others, with a palpable feeling of space between them. Adding to this impression, the No.31 had a stunning transparency that allowed me to see deep into the soundstage. The tambourine in "Jupiter" from Holst's The Planets (London 417 553-2) was at the very rear of the soundstage, yet had presence and immediacy. Moreover, the soundstage maintained its extraordinary width far to the back of the presentation, allowing reverb decay to fall away seemingly outside the listening room boundaries.

The No.31's bass was nothing short of stunning. The depth, control, pitch definition, and detail all exceeded previous standards. Rather than hearing merely low-frequency information, the No.31 snapped tight the lower registers, providing an astonishing degree of resolution. Bass notes were clearly articulated, with a terrific sense of pitch. I happen to like fast and intricate bass playing; the No.31 was a revelation in its ability to reveal nuances in bassists' performances. On the great Bill Bruford record One of a Kind (Editions EG EGCD 40), bassist Jeff Berlin really works out, particularly on the Alan Holdsworth composition "The Abingdon Chasp." On lesser transports, the fast runs and subtleties tend to be lost in a blur. The No.31 snapped the bass into tight focus, with far greater ability to hear exactly what he was doing. The musical effect was significant; there was more feeling of the bassist's contribution to the music and greater rhythmic drive. The No.31 didn't have the slowness or bass fatness that often characterize lesser transports.

The No.31's overall perspective was laid-back and unaggressive, particularly in the treble. Moreover, there was complete lack of hashy grain overlaying treble textures. Violins had a sweetness and smoothness uncharacteristic of digital. Cymbals sounded more like brass being struck than bursts of white noise. With the grundge gone, cymbals had a more "brass-like" shimmer instead of a chromium splatter. The result was a sense of ease, lack of fatigue, and ability to listen for hour after hour without wanting to turn down the music.

Finally, the most important indicator of a product's musical worth is how strongly it compels you to continue playing music. Some products just don't let you leave the listening room; you can't turn off the system until you've heard a long list of favorite music. The No.31 is musically addicting.

But is such a high-quality transport really necessary if the digital processor has a well-designed input receiver and can reject jitter in the incoming data stream? The answer is yes. When I was auditioning the Audio Alchemy DTI, a jitter-reduction device, I found it degraded the performance of the Meridian 263, a converter with a very good input receiver and very low measured jitter. Switching from the Marantz CD-94 CD player used as a transport to the No.31 driving the 263 made my jaw drop once more. The presentation's transformation was vast. In fact, the No.31 driving the 263 was in many ways equal to or better than the Marantz transport driving the No.30 processor.

Incidentally, I was able to audition the No.31 with its lid open by a hidden software command. This allowed me to hear the lid's effect on the sound. Opening the lid added a hardness and glare to the upper mids and treble. The presentation became brighter and more metallic, reducing the sense of ease. The soundstage flattened, and the space between images narrowed. This could be either the effect of light on the detector or of acoustic energy impinging on the disc.

Because the No.31 has all four types of digital outputs, I auditioned each and compared them. As expected, Toslink was a distant fourth. The soundstage collapsed, fusing instrumental images into a synthetic continuum (by comparison). There was also an impression that the music was riding over a layer of grundge, making the space between notes less black. Coax was vastly better, with a bigger and more transparent soundstage.

The big battle, however, is between AES/EBU and ST-Type optical. I've been a big proponent of ST; it has consistently beaten electrical interfaces on other products I've auditioned. The AES/EBU interface in the No.30/No.31, however, is perhaps the most fully realized implementation of AES/EBU. It was a close call, but I ultimately preferred AES/EBU to ST for its tighter bass and better resolution of fine detail. The ST had a slight edge in spatial presentation—a more transparent soundstage and better separation of individual instruments—but the AES/EBU was more rhythmically involving. The No.31's spectacular resolution was also at its peak with AES/EBU, revealing the finest detail in instrumental timbre. This gave the instruments a slightly more believable texture. In fact, I ended up doing nearly all my listening with Madrigal's MDC-1 AES/EBU interconnect.

Note that these impressions are not transportable to interfaces on other products. Those components with a less well-designed electrical interface will undoubtedly benefit from ST, which requires very little engineering to make it sound good.

Just as the Mark Levinson No.30 Reference Digital Processor set a new standard in digital to analog conversion, so too has the No.31 Reference CD Transport redefined CD transport quality. It proved to be as revelatory as the No.30.

The No.31's musical presentation was remarkably similar to that of the No.30 processor. The No.31 presented music with an uncannily realistic portrayal of instrumental textures, a smooth and natural treble, terrific bass, exquisite resolution of fine musical detail, and an expansive, crystal-clear, and beautifully resolved soundstage.

I am at a loss to criticize the No.31. It produced such a transformation of my system that the newfound musicality may have blinded me to its faults. More likely, however, it will take a transport of equal caliber to reveal the No.31's weaknesses. For now, the Mark Levinson No.31 is unparalleled. Further, I can't say enough about the No.31's gorgeous build and sophisticated user interface. Both these aspects of the No.31 are unprecedented.

My experience with the No.31 taught me just how crucial the transport is in the digital playback chain. Not only was it vastly superior to every other transport I've auditioned, but it revealed just how weak a link the transport has been in digital playback musicality. Moreover, even processors with very good input receivers and low jitter had their sound transformed by the No.31.

If you haven't heard your system with the No.31 at the front end, and if you can afford the best in digital playback, the No.31 holds some very pleasant surprises, indeed. Be forewarned, however. Once you hear what the No.31 can do, you may find yourself, as JA did, unable to live without it.

Harman Specialty Group
3 Oak Park Drive
Bedford, MA 01730-1413
(781) 280-0300
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