Mark Levinson No.37 CD transport & No.36S D/A converter Page 4
I didn't have a comparably priced D/A converter/transport available for a direct comparison, but I'm not certain what that would prove. No comparison would be likely to change my opinion of the 37/36S. Of more interest to me (and, I trust, to most of our readers) was how the Mark Levinson combination would stack up against more-affordable competition. Specifically, I compared it with two high-end, single-piece players.
I began with the $2995 Audio Research CD1. My prior experience with this machine suggested that its sonic timbre is fairly similar to that of the Levinson gear, and it was. There really were no substantive differences between the two players (here I refer to the 37/36S together as "a player") in the general character of their sounds. The ARC's bass was marginally less tight, though neither player was at all deficient in either bass quality or quantity. But there was a refinement to the sound of the Levinson combo that escaped the ARC; the CD1 sounded a little brighter and less subtly shaded in the highs, with less obvious soundstage depth. Not huge differences on a linear scale, and certainly the benefits of the Levinsons come at a steep price. But they're there.
Differences in sonic character were, however, quite evident when I compared the Levinsons with the $3000 Sony CDP-XA7ES. And the balance was not, in every respect, on the Levinsons' side—the comparisons drew attention to a quality of the Levinsons' sound I haven't remarked on to this point. With its exceptional resolution, detail, and overall clean, clear sound, the 37/36S did sound rather cool and detached, appealing more to the intellect than to the emotions. Once we get beyond measurements, it is difficult to judge with absolute assurance the "accuracy" of any electronic component in the reproduction chain, given the vagaries of even the best program material and loudspeakers. But the Levinsons struck me as relaying as much of the truth as is possible about any given CD.
The Sony was fuller but less taut in the bass, softer and not quite as pristine in the highs, and less well resolved overall. But the XA7ES let me forget the equipment and get involved in the music at least as often as did the Levinsons. In particular, the Sony had a palpable immediacy and ease in the midrange that was very flattering to the human voice—a quality that this fan of vocal music particularly appreciated. The more analytical nature of the 37/36S combo could not duplicate this.
I commented above on the No.37's ability to relay the tension in music—an important attribute which was matched by the No.36S. The Sony did this less well, but emphasized instead an easygoing competence and balance. It reminded me, in fact, of the sound of the Accuphase DP-65, reviewed in the October 1994 issue (Vol.17 No.10). There I spoke of an "organic wholeness" to the sound. And while I have not heard the Accuphase in two years and will not attempt to compare it in detail to any of the products discussed here, the Sony struck me in much the same way. But despite all of this, I did find the Levinsons ultimately superior to the Sony, particularly in ways that matter to a reviewer.
No two ways about it—the Levinsons are precision tools, and their design is a stunning accomplishment. But that does not mean that you, the reader, will automatically find that they fit your needs and listening preferences. Listen to them. But also listen to the alternatives, many of which are less expensive.
In my review of the Mark Levinson No.36, I said that what the world needs is a great $299 CD player. Well, the Mark Levinson No.36S and No.37 hardly constitute that player, but the price of the state-of-the-CD-art is coming down. The 37/36S is far less expensive than Levinson's 31.5/30.5 combination, and in my judgment only those who simply like to spend lots of money would now choose the flagship pair—particularly with DVD for audio (which will require all new replay equipment) somewhere in the visible but still slightly fuzzy future. But CD is here today, and no CD playback device I know of will do the job better than the Levinson No.37 and No.36S.