Mark Levinson No.32 Reference preamplifier Nos.32 & 380S
After I reviewed the "S" revision of the previous top-of-the-line Mark Levinson preamplifier, the No.380 (Stereophile, November 1997, Vol.20 No.11), I bought the review sample. Naturally, therefore, I was interested in hearing how the $14,950 No.32 Reference stacked up against the $6495 No.380S. So I arranged to use the review sample of the No.32 for a few weeks before it needed to be sent to Jonathan's Manhattan loft. I left the preamp warming up for two days before I did any serious listening, and the formal comparisons were performed just before it was time for it to be shipped.
From the outset, it was obvious that this was a Levinson product. If components from companies like Krell and Theta max out in the areas of punch and dynamics, those from the Madrigal design department focus more on envelopment, pulling the listener into the sound rather than thrusting it forward at him or her. So it was with the No.32. With the preamp connected to the Levinson No.33H monoblocks, these in turn driving B&W Silver Signatures, I was totally immersed in the music. The sound was smooth without being mellow, detailed without being unduly highlighted, powerful and quick without making me feel I had swallowed amphetamines.
But as Jonathan found, it was in the area of transparency—in his words, "the enormous amount of unforced information passing through its circuits"—that the Levinson excelled, and it was in this area that it dismissed the '380S. Until I heard the No.32, I was happy. But against the '32, the No.380S sounded less informative, more "gray"—as if a fine screen was washing out some of the sound picture's inherent contrast; as if the system's color saturation control had been backed off a notch.
Don't get me wrong—the '380S still does almost everything I need from a line-stage control preamplifier. It still develops that expansive, enveloping Levinson soundstage, and most of the time after the '32 had been sent chez 10, I enjoyed my music as much as ever. But every now and then I would flash on how the No.32 had brought out that little bit more detail, had interposed itself just that little bit less on what I was experiencing...and how, without the '32, my musical life was just that little bit more gray.—John Atkinson