Mark Levinson No.38S preamplifier Page 2
Against the Sonic Frontiers SFL-2: Since Russ Novak favorably reviewed the Sonic Frontiers preamp last November (Vol.17 No.11, p.129), it has become a favorite among the magazine's review team, with Roberts Harley and Deutsch and Dick Olsher also using it as one of their long-term reference preamplifiers. The tubed SFL-2 is competitively priced at $3795; it, too, offers true balanced operation from input to output. For my comparisons with the Levinson '38S, I used balanced connections throughout, plugging CD source components into the SFL-2's best-sounding Direct input.
While both preamplifiers are among the best I've used in my system, their presentations were quite different. Which one I preferred depended very much on the recording. On the Ginger Baker Trio's beautifully recorded 1994 Going Back Home CD (Atlantic 82652-2), with guitarist Bill Frisell and acoustic bassist Charlie Haden, kickdrum via the Mark Levinson No.38S had what sounded like an octave greater low-frequency extension, which added considerably to the sense of slam. Bass drum via the Canadian preamp had more upper-bass bloom, but was more "puddingy" in its presentation. Double bass sounded heavier through the SFL-2, but in ultimate terms lacked low-frequency definition compared with the '38S. The Sonic Frontiers presented Baker's snare drum a little farther back in the soundstage, with more apparent "room" sound. The No.38S, however, offered a more open-sounding top octave and better definition to Ginger's tom-toms. On balance, I preferred the Mark Levinson on the Baker album. Score one for solid-state.
However, the opposite was true on the Us3 Hands on the Torch CD (Blue Note 80883 2). Here the Canadian preamp had a more forceful presentation. While the Levinson was better at presenting each detail in the sound, the Sonic Frontiers excelled in the manner in which it made the sound more of a whole, the result being an emphasis on the driving nature of this music. The '38S sounded just a little too polite in comparison. Even though I could better hear the different characters of all the artificial reverberation devices used in the mix, the Levinson's slightly drier soundstage presentation also subtracted a little from the sense of space. Us3's "It's Like That," for example, features subtle riffs from an electronic keyboard of some kind positioned behind and above the rap vocalist. Via the Sonic Frontiers, this instrument was separated in space just that little bit better. Score one for tubes.
On classical orchestral music, such as the excellent Ashkenazy-conducted performance of Sibelius's Karelia Suite (London 414 534-2), it was harder coming to a definite preference. This does not mean the preamps sounded the same. The Sonic Frontiers again emphasized the rhythmic aspects of the music. In the first movement, for example, it seemed to bring out more of the pulsing tonic-dominant bass line that underpins the first statement of the "big" tune on trumpet. The tubed soundstage also featured a big ambient bloom.
The Levinson, on the other hand, focused more on the specific instrumental tone colors, which were more lifelike. I could more easily identify the individual instruments within the accompanying brass choirparticularly the tuba, which melded into the sound via the Canadian preamp. The '38S's more open top octave also allowed the softly-brushed-together cymbals in this movement to sound more natural. The SFL-2, by comparison, emphasized the cymbals' presence region, which made them stick forward a little in the mix. And the Levinson's soundstage, while slightly less expansive, was better focused, instrumental positions being less ambiguously positioned.
One final point: While neither preamp produced audible levels of noise, when I laid my ear against the speaker the Mark Levinson was as silent as the grave. The Sonic Frontiers was relatively noisy in comparison.
Against the Threshold T2: The remote-controlled, $5250 Threshold T2 is reviewed in this issue by Steven Stone; given his feeling that it outperformed the basic Levinson No.38, a comparison with the '38S seemed appropriate. On the advice of Threshold's Randy Patton, I allowed the solid-state T2 to warm up for about 72 hours before I did any serious listening.
While I enjoyed the sound of the T2, and SS found it to have very little character to its sound, the comparisons between it and the other three preamps I auditioned (the two Levinsons and the Sonic Frontiers) revealed it to have the weightiest midbass of all of them. This gave it a good sense of macrodynamicsmusical slamthat made it sound "fast," as SS describes in his review. Overall, however, I found it to be closer to the No.38 than the '38S in its presentation.
Charlie Haden's bass on "Ramblin,' " from the Ginger Baker Trio CD, was full-bodied and weighty via the Threshold. By contrast, the leaner-balanced Levinson accentuated the leading edge to the instrument's sound, resulting in a more even presentation through the midbass. The drums were more punchy via the T2, more delicately delineated through the '38S. The overall sound was considerably more open, more spacious, more airy through the Mark Levinson.
The soundstaging was very similar in terms of depth and stability. But more detail was apparent through the '38S. Bill Frisell's electric guitar on this Ginger Baker track is recorded mainly in the right channel, but with a significant opposite-polarity component in the left channel. This places the image of the guitar to the outside of the right-speaker position. Both solid-state preamps performed better than the tubed Sonic Frontiers in that the stability of this rather contrived image position was better. At 1:47 into the track, however, something weird must have happened in the mixdown, as the guitar image collapses very briefly to a position between the speakers. This was much more noticeable over the Mark Levinsoneven though in the first comparison, where I observed this, the Threshold was auditioned second, which normally makes freshly observed recorded detail more obvious.
My impression of the Threshold having a darker, sweeter, morefull-bodied but less-detailed character persisted through my auditioning. On Sibelius's Karelia Suite, which itself sounds rather dark, the T2 smeared over some of the sense of hushed expectancy at the start of the first movementeven though its presentation of individual instrumental sounds was considerably sweeter. The '38S's violins were brighter, for example, as was the trumpet; but via the Threshold, it was harder to focus on specific instrumental images within the composer's rather dense scoring.
The accompanying figures in this work are complex, yet the '38S allowed me to hear more easily how each piece of Sibelius's polyrhythmic jigsaw fits into the whole. By comparison, the T2 ran it all togetherI couldn't see the trees for the forest. It was as though the Levinson was better at preserving the music's microdynamics, the recording's fine detail, even while the Threshold was better at conveying the music's excitement and drivethe macrodynamics. Some will prefer the big-boned sound of the Threshold to the Levinson's more cerebral, "polite" presentation; but for me, there was ultimately no contest.
Emotionally, I need to hear what's going on, and the mellow-balanced, forceful-sounding Threshold didn't cut it. On the Us3 track mentioned earlier, I'm ashamed to say that I couldn't identify the bass instrument via any of the preamps I tried. But only the Mark Levinson '38S allowed me to hear the slight, almost non-inflected turn at the top of the bass riff. And in the quiet keyboard ornamental figure also mentioned earlier, only the SFL-2 and '38S allowed the slight vibrato on the end note's tail to be easily perceived. Even when I knew it was there, it was slightly smeared by the Threshold. Score one for the Levinson.
Wheels Within Wheels: It's important not to exaggerate the degree of sonic differences between these preamplifiers. Convergent evolution is still in effect. But at this rarefied price level, these slight differences in presentation are going to make all the difference in obtaining a sonically stunning system sound. I preferred the Levinson '38S with my musical tastes in my system and my room.
I finished my formal auditioning of the No.38S with two CDs that, while sounding completely different, reveal its strengths. I always used to think that Cream's Wheels of Fire was let down by Felix Pappalardi's production, which seemed to suck the strength out of the bass. But the Levinson's superb presentation of microdynamics allowed Ginger Baker's gloriously loose drum styleno Linn Drum heto shine through unsullied, whether it was from my original English LP or DCC's recent CD remastering (GZS(2)1020). And the preamp's ability to keep recorded details distinct from one another emphasized the glory in Eric Clapton's overdubbed guitar parts. While everyone gets hung up on EC's ability as a freeblowing soloist, I think that it was as a superbly constructive and supportive rhythm guitarist that he truly shonecheck out his backing riffs in "Sitting On Top of the World."
And the live tracks on WheelsI was there! Which is why I finished up my reviewing chores with La Fabuleuse Histoire du Mister Swing (French WEA 2292-42338-2)a 1988 live double album from Michel Jonasz that was recommended to me by industry veteran Joe Abrams of TARA Labs. "Le Temps Passé" ("Time Gone By") sends chills down my spine every time I hear it (which is not as often as I would like).
Gently struck, gloriously ambient congas are joined by a fetishistically percussive piano and a flute'n'synth riff to set the stage; then, thundering forward from the speakers comes the most awesomely deep bass I have ever heardproduced by what I can only suspect is a Chapman Stick, a 10-stringed fretted bass instrument that's tapped by the fingers of both hands (footnote 3). Any sense of boom or lack of low-frequency control in an audio component and you lose the delicate leading edges of the bass instrument's sound, the sense of hardly-held-back power, and the sense of pace when it plays a quarter-note figure in the song's second half; any lack of detail and the delicate sense of ambience, especially in the envelopingly expansive chorus, is blurred; any brightness or lack of sophistication and the rough-sounding treble instruments and voice on this recording lurch too far forward in the mix.
With the No.38S, everything was just right. I was there. Virtual reality, Levinson-style.
Expensive it may be, but the Mark Levinson No.38S was the most neutral and at the same time most musically satisfying preamplifier to spend time in my system. This is not to say it isn't exceeded in specific performance areas by rival components: the much less expensive Sonic Frontiers SFL-2, for example, offered a better-developed sense of pace and a bigger soundstage; the Threshold had a bigger bass; and both sound less polite than the Levinson. But taken as a package, the No.38S had no weaknesses. It sounded simply superb.
And that remote volume control! Other remote-controlled preamplifiers have basically added remote level-adjustment to an otherwise conventional control center. The '38S's ergonomics are addictive, particularly when it's hooked up to other Levinson components via their communications links. Madrigal's Mark Levinson No.38S sets a new paradigm.
Footnote 3: Bassist Reggie McBride is only credited with "guitare basse," and on other tracks he can be clearly heard to be playing a conventional bass. Any readers know anything more substantial about the bass instruments used on this recording?