Mark Levinson No.32 Reference preamplifier Paul Bolin April 2004
During the period I was reviewing the Halcro dm10, VTL TL-7.5 Reference, and BAT VK-51 SE preamplifiers, John Atkinson decided it would be enlightening to have me listen to these state-of-the-art contenders in comparison to the venerable Mark Levinson No.32 Reference (reviewed by Jonathan Scull in January 2000). How, we wondered, would the new boys stand up when compared not only with each other, but also with a long-term resident of Class A of "Recommended Components"? So, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I did just that.
All four were auditioned over the course of four days. The solid-state units were warmed up in standby for a minimum of 48 hours prior to being auditioned; the tubed units were allowed one to two hours of warmup and stabilization time before I did any listening. All comparisons were made with the same system: my regular analog rig, the Aesthetix Io Signature phono stage, Esoteric DV-50 universal digital player, Halcro dm58 amplifiers, and Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be loudspeakers.
Acoustic Zen Silver Reference cables were used between the Aesthetix and the individual line stages and between line stages and amplifiers. Siltech SQ-110 Classic carried the Esoteric's signal to the line stages, and LS-188 Classic speaker wire fed the Nova Utopia Be's. Shunyata's Hydra 8 was used as the power source for all front-end components. Shunyata's Anaconda power cables supplied the juice to all of the preamplifiers, and an Anaconda Vx did the honors for the Esoteric. Siltech's SPX-30 Classic AC cords were used on the Halcros.
In back-to-back listening sessions, the character of each preamp came into sharper focus. There's no argument that the Levinson No.32 set a high standard for a number of years, but its age has begun to show. Comparatively speaking, the Levinson's backgrounds were nearly as silent as the Halcro's, and its user interface was the best of the four, which is high praise. But on the sonic report card it came up short. The No.32 sounded much darker than the tubed BAT, but without the latter's ripeness, palpability, and flat-out sexiness. The Levinson couldn't seem to generate as spacious a soundstage as the competition, and it consistently put me further away from the music, emotionally, than did the other three. It skated over the surfaces of music, albeit very stylishly, whereas the BAT, Halcro, and VTL dug into the music's substance with appreciably more conviction.
Time has marched on; while the $15,950 Levinson No.32 still has an excellent line stage, the others offer a wider performance envelope. The BAT and VTL have appreciably lower (though still very substantial) prices—$9000 and $12,500, respectively—while the Halcro offers as fine a phono stage as I have ever heard as an integral part of the package.—Paul Bolin