Mark Levinson No.35 D/A processor Page 3
We still had a No.30 on hand, so a comparison merely required prying it away from Robert Harley. Not easyI'd already separated him from the No.31 for the duration of this reviewbut necessary. With both processors in my listening room, both driven by Levinson's own transport, the games began. It was humbling to realize that it probably cost less to build the Stereophile listening room itself than it would cost to purchase these three Levinson pieces.
Before I could begin, however, another problem raised its shaggy head: which digital cable to use. The obvious choice seemed to be to continue to use the Kimber, at least initially, for continuity's sake. But that was not easily done; the No.30 does not have a dedicated S/PDIF (RCA-type) coaxial digital input. Madrigal does have adapters to enable the use of one of the AES/EBU inputs in this mode, but I didn't want to contend with that added variable.
The choice had to be between optical ST and AES/EBU. I listened briefly to the No.35 with Levinson's own AES/EBU cable connecting it to the No.31 and definitely preferred the sound of the system with the Kimber AGDL. With the AES/EBU, the sound became slightly more bloated (those liking it may call it bloom), slightly fuller, and definitely more forward. There was less apparent depth and dimensionality to the soundstage, less overall focus.
Since the Kimber was not a candidate for the No.35/No.30 face-off, I turned back to the AudioQuest ST optical link. Comparing it briefly again to the Kimber, I still felt a marginal preference for the Kimber, but the ST was definitely closer than the AES/EBU, and perhaps, on further reflection, superior in some ways to the Kimber (a bit sweeter on top though with a bit less detailing overall). ST it would be.
Now I was ready to compare the No.35 with Levinson's flagship No.30. The rest of the system remained unchanged, including the TARA Labs Master RSC unbalanced interconnects between the processors to the Rowland Consummate preamplifier.
To my surprise, I found that I preferred the less expensive No.35 to the No.30. The choice was hardly clear-cut, with the No.31/No.30 making a powerful case for itself. But I found the No.35 to have, in my system, the tighter, more detailed sound. The No.30 certainly didn't lack for detail, but I found it to be, by a thin margin, the softer and sweeter of the two processors, rendering a slightly cleaner sound on many recordings but doing so at a slight loss in apparent upper-end extension. I went back and forth in my preferences, leaning to the No.30 on some discs, the No.35 on others. The No.30 sounded more liquid on the sometimes cool and dry Jurassic Park soundtrack (MCA MCAD-10859), but the No.35 was the more visceral, with a marginally tighter, better-defined bottom end. Nevertheless, I'd be hard pressed to prattle on about the differences. On "Jolie Louise" (Music from Northern Exposure, MCA MCAD-10685), excerpted from Daniel Lanois's Acadie (Opal 25969-2), the No.35 brought out the more interesting, finer shadings and natural textures of Lanois's voice. This impression was reinforced by other first-rate vocal recordings. Again, however, neither processor clearly took the upper hand. Comparing them using the usual audiophile checklist was frustrating.
Which, in the long run, was the more accurate? I cast my vote with the No.35, but not without a lot of soul-searching and hairsplitting. There was, I feel, a larger difference between AES/EBU and ST interconnects than between these two top-rank D/A processors. Further listening only reinforced this opinion, but also added to my marginal preference for the No.35. On Britten's Noye's Fludde (Virgin Classics VC 7 91129-2), the No.35's sharper sound was not necessarily a plus on this slightly bright recording, but its clean grainlessness helped considerably in minimizing any recording-generated irritation. The No.30, again, came across as the warmer-sounding unit. I also began to feel, as the comparison wore on, that the No.30 sounded somewhat more forward than the No.35, particularly in the upper midrange/lower treble. At the same time, the No.35 came across as more dynamicpunchier and tighter overall.
To ensure that a change to balanced output cables would not dramatically alter these conclusions (recall that, up to this point in the evaluation, I was using an unbalanced processor-to-preamp link), I briefly compared the TARA Labs unbalanced with a pair of AudioQuest balanced Lapis interconnects between the No.35 and the preamp. (Unfortunately, the added variable of a different brand of cable was unavoidable, as balanced TARA Labs RSC were not on hand.) The Lapis had a bit less bloom and a bit more brightness than the Master RSC. I continued to prefer the latternot by a huge margin, but by enough to continue using it for the remainder of the tests.
Again, although my preferences wavered a bit depending on the recording, I always seemed to come back to the No.35. I'm just as certain, however, that, given the nature and the degree of the differences, another listener might well prefer the No.30. Both D/A processors are superb devices. Given the gap in their prices, however, no one shopping for the No.30 should automatically assume that they will find it to be sonically superior; make the comparison for yourself. Matched levels in such a test will be no hindrance; both processors have identical output levels.
Up against the Gen.III
How did the No.35 fare in a head-to-head comparison with the best of other, perhaps more comparably priced processors? Unfortunately there was nothing on hand of equivalent cost, but the Theta DS Pro Generation IIIa less expensive but still hardly bargain-basement processorwas available. The Theta has been, and continues to be, highly rated in these pages, though I confess that my own experience with it had been, prior to this review, limited.
It took little listening for me to determine what others here already know: the Theta is excellent. With the Levinson No.31 transport driving both the No.35 and the Gen.III, again with the ST optical interconnect (footnote 1), neither processor jumped out as being clearly and unequivocally superior (footnote 2). But the No.35 now appeared as the sweeter, slightly richer, and more palpable-sounding processor. The principal difference here was the Gen.III's rather cooler, leaner (in the mid- and upper bass, not the deep bass), more analytical sound. It would be easy to exaggerate the differences here in the attempt to describe them; suffice it to say that the Gen.III has an added degree of detailing and focus which in this case was purchased at the price of a slightly more etched qualitysomething the No.35 did not have. The Gen.III definitely excels in transient attacks. On Mokave Volume 2, the Theta edged out the No.35 by virtue of its lightning speed, a real advantage on this percussion-driven music.
On the other hand, with vocalsboth solo and in chorusand instrumental ensemble work, the No.35 comes into its own, the Theta sounding a bit sterile in comparison.
The Theta has a reputation for a striking low end, and that it has. But in my admittedly subwooferless system, I found its extension to be no better than that of the No.35. What it did have was that slightly more lean and defined mid- and upper bass, lending it a trace better overall low-frequency clarity. Not exactly an, ah, earthshaking difference, however.
Balancing out the score-sheet, I vote for the No.35 overall, if only because the reduction in warmth I hear in the Theta is greater in degree than any relative transient superiority it may occasionally demonstrate over the No.35a "superiority" I found to be so small as to be inconsequential. The differences between these two processors were certainly less dramatic than I expected. Would I pay for the differences? Yes, if that roughly $3000 price spread was of little concern. I do like the No.35. I wish it were closer in price to the Theta. I think it is better than the Gen.III in ways that matter, but certainly no more soand perhaps lessthan one might expect, given the difference in price.
Two questions must be addressed in any discussion of a product as expensive as the Mark Levinson No.35. First, putting aside questions of price, how does it perform on an absolute basis? Second, how does the price fit into the equation? Unless your checkbook balance is so large that balancing it is a waste of time, the last question cannot be avoided. Given that the No.31/No.35 combination costs 5 to 10 times that of a typical audiophile CD playback system, is that differential worth the investment? That question can only be answered by the individual buyer.
For the reviewer who can afford it, the No.35 is a valuable tool and reference. For the audiophile who can justify the expenseparticularly for those who have not been happy with digital playback in the pastit demands to be heard. But, to loosely paraphrase our own Sam Tellig, somewhere down the road, at the present rate of digital advancement, you'll be able to buy this level of performance at more plebeian prices. The only question is, when? Five years? Ten? Twenty? That's a lot of listening time. If you have the money, well...you can't take it with you.
The Mark Levinson No.35 has not repealed the laws of diminishing returns, and although audiophiles and reviewers are prone to get off on small but significant (to us) performance details, we realize (don't we?) that such details can often cost big bucks that the average listener might consider all out of proportion to the gains. But isn't that what the pursuit of sonic realism and accuracy is all about?
Only a few of us can actually contemplate having the No.35 in our systems, not to mention pairing it with a system which will enable us to enjoy all of the performance built into it. But in the long run, such a cutting-edge component benefits us all by pointing the way to needed improvements in lesser products. When, at the end of the review period, JA asked if he could borrow the No.35, I keenly felt its departure from my listening room.
Footnote 1: The Theta provides for an S/PDIF (RCA-coax) input, but at this point I had become accustomed to sound with the ST cable and did not want to change that particular variable yet again.
Footnote 2: Particular care was taken here to compensate for the Theta's dramatically higher output level.