Mark Levinson No.360 D/A converter Kalman Rubinson, October 2003
I reviewed the Mark Levinson No.360 D/A converter in the December 1999 Stereophile (Vol.22 No.12), in the company of DACs from mbl and Burmester, and found that the ML held its own against the two much more expensive models. Those other two went back to their providers, with my gratitude, but the No.360 took up residence in my system as the reference against which new contenders would be graded. Its multiplicity of input connector types, 24-bit/96kHz capability, programmability, and doggone satisfying sound made it a welcome guest.
I now face a rackful of new contenders for the Mark Levinson's throne, so I had the No.360 ($4495) upgraded to a No.360S ($6995). (Mark Levinson products are now manufactured and designed by the Harman Specialty Group, 3 Oak Park, Bedford, MA 01730. Tel: (781) 280-0300. Fax: (781) 280-0490. Web: www.harmanspecialtygroup.com.) The two versions differ in four ways:
• the No.360S has four 32-bit SHARC DSPs, the No.360 two;
• the No.360S has four-layer cyanate-ester printed-circuit boards; the No.360 has two-layer fiberglass-epoxy boards;
• the No.360S has separate, discrete power regulation for its two channels, with OSCON caps for local reservoirs; and
• the No.360S uses hand-selected, bulk metal-foil resistors (calibrated to a tolerance of ±0.0002%), while the No.360 uses Vishay potentiometers.
The result of all these enhancements? The No.360 and No.360S have absolutely identical specs! That's not to say there's no advantage to upgrading to the No.360S. Granted, the additional DSP firepower means the No.360S can be programmed to handle more new formats than can the No.360. But while that potential has existed since these products were introduced in 1998, I've seen no evidence that Harman has taken advantage of it. I can only hope that Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP) and, dare I ask, DSD, are on the horizon.
As I see it, the big deal about the No.360S is that it's a fully tweaked No.360. There's a growing cottage industry of modifiers of audio equipment who upgrade the products of mainstream manufacturers with superior components and enhancements, often but not exclusively focused on power supplies. I'm skeptical about much of this; there's little opportunity for the customer to make meaningful comparisons of pre- and post-mod units, which encourages self-fulfilling anticipation. Moreover, not every modifier out there is making meaningful changes—but that's a topic for a long discussion elsewhere.
Still, I'm sure the engineers at Harman Specialty Group know the No.360's architecture best, not to mention what they might be able to get out of it with a greater investment of their time and your money. I have every reason to believe that the use of channel-specific discrete regulators, and the expensive OSCON caps and the selected bulk-film discrete resistors in place of high-quality trimmers, can contribute to the No.360S's sound, despite their lack of impact on the measured specs...but I had no more opportunity than anyone else to directly compare my old No.360 with its reborn No.360S self, so I'm in the same boat as the purchaser of an aftermarket modification. All I can ask, and answer, is whether it sounded good to me.
"Good" turned out to be an understatement. The No.360S sounded open and transparent from the get-go. It did not impress superficially by spotlighting its smooth treble or emphasizing its extended bass. Consequently, while it could sound a little reticent in direct comparison with such DACs as the MSB Platinum Link Plus or the Musical Fidelity A324, extended listening revealed that the No.360S missed none of the details or lacked for extension at the frequency extremes. What it lacked was coloration, which meant that it was completely untiring to listen to for long periods.
Listening to opening of the fourth door (Judith: "Ah! Lovely flowers!") in Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, in a thrilling new performance with Peter Eotvos conducting the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (Hänssler Classics 4088830702), I heard all the delicate, dreamy, but slightly anxious orchestration set deep and wide, and the voices of Cornelia Kallisch (Judith) and Peter Fried (Bluebeard) full in the foreground. As the fifth door opens wide, revealing Bluebeard's expansive domains and gleaming castle, the orchestra erupts into a series of powerful chords from the brass underpinned by the strings, especially the bass fiddles. Over these declamations soars Judith's ecstatic exclamation, followed by Bluebeard's proud description of his castle. This passage calls on the DAC and the rest of the system to portray both exquisite subtlety and monstrous dynamics. The No.360 did so handily, neither highlighting the winds behind Door No.4 nor restraining the explosion behind Door No.5.
I was sorry that the excellent Weiss Medea DAC that I reviewed in February had to depart just as the No.360S was settling in—it would have been good to spend more time listening to them head-to-head. Still, their similarities dominated, the No.360S offering a more expansive soundstage, the Medea suggesting a greater degree of detail in the lower and mid-treble. The latter difference was subtle (as, indeed, were all the differences), and the Levinson was remarkably free of grain and open throughout the spectrum.
This was nicely revealed on La Segunda (M•A Recordings M062A), the 2003 follow-up to one of my "R2D4" nominees for 2002, Sera una Noche (M•A M052A). Here, the arrangements are a little less quirky but more melodic, with the lead taken by a new vocalist, Lidia Borda, on five of the tracks. All of the acoustic and harmonic felicities of Sera una Noche are apparent, but Borda's more liquid sound (compared with Pedro Aznar's velvet tones) characterizes the greater immediacy of the new recording. Listen to the sweetness of Marcelo Moguilevsky's whistling as he introduces his gracious "Vals"; it's as instrumental and supple as his recorder work. And lest I give the impression that all the loveliness of the music and the No.360S was in the treble, listen, too, to the percussion throughout, especially the drum work at the end of the milonga, "Tauiqto Militar." The No.360S balanced all this within a credible acoustic space.
My December 1999 review of the Mark Levinson No.360 ended by emphasizing the DAC's neutrality and how it got out of the way, permitting the music to communicate with the listener. Four years later, I can say much the same of the No.360S, as well as that it has so far stood up to the best of the competition. In the near future, I'll be comparing the No.360S with several more contenders for top dog—er, DAC. I also hope to see Mark Levinson take more advantage of the No.360S's digital signal processing and intelligent input receiver.—Kalman Rubinson