Mark Levinson No.360 D/A converter Page 3
To pursue this issue of subjective noise level, I needed to use George Cardas' new sampler CD-R, Oregon Music, but the CAL CL-20 transport won't play CD-Rs. So, breaking from the test regimen, I connected the Meridian 508-24's S/PDIF output to the No.360 and compared the analog outputs from the Meridian with the No.360.
On the last six of Oregon Music's 12 cuts (I can't abide the first six), the instruments and voices were scarily present, uncontaminated by the audible auras of more common recordings. The voices sounded human, even at very high levels, and the instruments ranged naturally from delicate triangle to a deliciously raucous saxophone. Moreover, there was no background noise at all. By "background" I don't mean the low-level noise that I can hear by pressing my ear to the speaker grille over the tweeter. No, I mean that the music just seemed to be there in my room, not heard through a window into another space—and that was with either the Meridian alone or the Meridian/No.360 in combination. After adjusting for the 3dB difference in output levels, I could not distinguish them in A-B tests or with extended listening.
That the Meridian 508-24 is a fine instrument is a given, but kudos is due the Levinson No.360 for equaling it under more strenuous conditions. Remember, instead of taking the internal data and clock signals directly to the OSF and D/As as the one-box Meridian does, the No.360 must receive and decode a signal that is multiplexed by the Meridian's S/PDIF encoder and piped out by its line driver over a coaxial cable. Is its excellent performance due to the custom receiver circuits or the FIFO buffer's reduction of jitter? Dunno, but this is one DAC that doesn't seem to need a multi-line interface, like I2S.
The No.360 is also capable of handling 24/96 sources—I found myself nearly addicted to such recordings via this DAC. If you thought the Mobile Fidelity CD reissue of Muddy Waters' Folk Singer was pretty damn good, Classic Records' DAD version (DAD 1020) heard through the Levinson No.360 will be a revelation. As with other Classic DADs, the differences in clarity and dynamics are very satisfying, but the No.360 presented Waters' voice with almost scary presence—noticeably better than with the MSB LinkDAC I reviewed back in January, for example.
Since the Mark Levinson No.360 seemed to have no obvious defining character, the best way to get a handle on it might be through comparison with other DACs. Pitted against the MSB LinkDAC, the Levinson improved on nearly all aspects of performance, most noticeably by offering lower subjective noise and more relaxed HF and ambience. Both of those effects were quite apparent in A-B comparisons. The sonic differences between the No.360 and the Camelot Uther 2 were very subtle—the Levinson's bass was just a bit tauter and subjectively quieter.
But A-B comparisons were much more dependent on signal source. The No.360's superiority in extricating detail was revealed only in extended comparisons, and only with more complex and intricate scores. For those who deem such differences relevant, it's possible that the No.360's 24/96 capability and DSP potential, and the Uther's superb analog gain control, will loom as greater make-weights.
The Mark Levinson No.360 joins the very short list of components whose neutrality makes them less impressive in facile A-B comparisons than in extended listening. Like the Sonic Frontiers Line 2 preamp some time back (and the Line 3 now in my system), the No.360 is more distinctive for what it does not do than for what it does. The No.360 does not favor any part of the audible spectrum, does not present an enhanced soundstage, and does not emphasize dynamic contrasts. What it does seem to do is present an extremely detailed and uncolored sonic image that invites long and involving listening.