Mark Levinson No.37 CD transport & No.36S D/A converter Page 2
The Levinson No.36S D/A converter is based, as noted above, on the No.36, and its external and operating features are virtually identical. (For more details on the common features than I present here, I refer the reader to our review of the No.36 in Vol.18 No.11, or to Levinson's own very thorough, product information.) The No.36S has the same full complement of digital inputs, with the same ability to designate a user name for each input on the front-panel LED window. It has the "Master Communications Ports" to link it to other Levinson 30-series components—like the No.37—giving the whole system greater flexibility than each component has alone.
The No.36S also makes use of Levinson's "smart FIFO (First In, First Out)" buffer, which re-clocks the incoming data with high precision to minimize jitter. Madrigal claims less than 20 picoseconds of jitter for the No.36S. (If I were feeling cranky, I might ask if the jitter-reduction efforts in the No.37 are made somewhat redundant by the design of the No.36S. On the other hand, the No.36 will reject any jitter introduced after the No.37, such as if a low-bandwidth datalink is used.) The No.36S will decode at sampling frequencies of 32kHz, 44.1kHz, and 48kHz, though the FIFO does not operate at 32kHz, the still unused rate intended for use with satellite-broadcast digital radio.
Also as in the No.36, the 36S shunts unselected inputs to ground. Internally, both processors are fully balanced in both their analog and digital circuitry (unbalanced digital inputs are converted to balanced before any processing is performed).
The No.36S also provides for HDCD playback though the inclusion of Pacific Microsonics' PMD100 HDCD, 24-bit throughput, 8x-oversampling HDCD decoder/digital filter chip. And, like the 36, the 36S handles HDCD's inherent 6dB-lower level in its own unique way. Pacific Microsonics (who holds the HDCD patents) requires that HDCD processors decrease the level of playback for conventional discs, to match the level of HDCDs. Some processors do this digitally, which is not generally a sonically desirable way to change level—bits are literally discarded.
The Levinson gives users an option: The standard mode is HDCD Auto, which performs level matching in the digital domain. But the user may also select HDCD Man, which restores full gain—and all bits—to conventional CDs. Madrigal recommends this mode for best sound, and it's what I used in my listening tests. (If the No.36S is used with either the No.38 or 38s preamp, the Communications Link system will perform the level-match automatically, at the preamp, in the analog domain.)
But how does the No.36S differ from the No.36? The 36S includes more than 200 parts changes, including a four-layer, cyanate-ester main circuit board (in the 36, the same board is a two-layer, grade 10 glass-epoxy design). Roughly two-thirds of these parts changes are in the power-supply regulation for the analog board; the 36S power supply has a significantly lower output impedance. While the DACs in both converters are the same, the trimming in the 36S is performed via 0.0006%-accuracy Vishay bulk-foil hand-trimmed resistors, vs Vishay 0.01% potentiometers in the 36. There are also numerous other improvements and upgrades to the digital power supply, DAC bypass caps, digital clock, various improved capacitors, resistors, and internal cabling, and DAC shielding.
Owners of the No.36 have not been left out in the cold by all of this. A "Performance Upgrade" of the No.36 to the No.36S is available for $2500—the same as the difference in price between the two units. A new faceplate reading "No.36S" is also available, but at additional cost.
The Mark Levinson No.36S and No.37 comprise the finest CD-playback combination—or one-piece player—I have ever had in my system. Yes, the same manufacturer's No.30.5 D/A and No.31.5 transport together bookend an engineering tour de force, but unless your name is Ross Perot or Bill Gates, I'm not at all certain how I feel about recommending a $25,000 digital front-end. True, the $10,490 cost of the No.36S/37 combination also lies on the slippery slope to bankruptcy for most of us, but that extra $15,000 will still buy a few good dinners.
Like other Levinson digital products before them, the 37/36S (as I'll refer to them hereafter to avoid having to look up macros in my Wordperfect manual) define the word resolution—there is a striking overall clarity to their sound. If this comes at the price of a slightly analytical quality, then it's a worthwhile trade.
The 37/36S exude a feeling of total accuracy to the program material. Unless you believe that all CDs are perfect, that will not always be pleasant to hear. But it does mean that you can build the rest of your system around them without worrying that your electronics and loudspeakers were chosen because they compensated for a skewed source (a common problem in systems built to cater primarily to analog on vinyl).