Mark Levinson No.39 CD player Page 3
Discs revealed the sort of tiny sonic details you'd expect a fine digital front-end to uncover. I heard plectra strike strings tentatively before the real attack, and I heard my share of stifled studio coughs and blown edits, but I can't really accuse the No.39 of accentuating such musically-beside-the-point trivia. On the contrary, what I noticed most was being drawn into the performances—hearing passion where it had not previously revealed itself to me.
For me, this has been one of digital's real sticking points. I love the convenience, the portability, the simplicity of manufacture, but when all is said and done, I still find some kernel of unhyped, relaxed, tonal reality in the best analog reproduction that our 16-bit/44.1kHz digital system simply doesn't match. That said, I haven't heard anything come closer than the Levinson No.39—although Krell's discontinued KPS-20i/l, if memory serves, didn't cede much ground to it, if any. (I'm not claiming that the No.39 is superior to the '31.5/'30.5 combo. According to Madrigal, it shouldn't be. I wasn't able to compare the two simply because it's impossible to convince JA to part with his rig for any length of time—an attitude I perfectly understand.)
Michael Fremer has said that, as good as digital has gotten, he still can't listen to it for long. By that standard, the No.39 is a winner—I was able to settle in for extended listening sessions in which the only limitation was the stamina of my Sitzplatz.
Maura O'Connell's Wandering Heart (Hannibal HNCD 1410) makes a good case for the No.39's strengths. Her voice is unusually rich and vibrant, yet powerful at the same time. It has a richly layered complexity not unlike the taste of a fine Islay malt, a taste that can initially be overwhelming-but relax, and that first intensity is replaced with successive revelations of smoky warmth, then a hint of sea iodine and salt, followed by herbs and wildflowers that linger on the tongue. With McConnell, the initial strength of her delivery is supported by a smoky warmth of its own, and her intelligence and empathy also linger in the ear long after the song is over. That's how she sounds live—and it's how she sounds on the No.39. On some CD players that strength comes across as a touch of hardness, and the flowering subtleties are obscured in the digital opacity that our friend Fremer rails against every month.
As I listened to O'Connell sing Richard Thompson's "Down Where the Drunkards Roll," I was also impressed with the '39's fine ability to place musicians in space, surrounded by air. It took me a while to realize how well the player did this because it sounds so perfectly natural and organic. Not gimmicky, not "special"—just remarkably like music. Even John McSherry's Uillean pipes—system busters when reproduced badly, but here sounding clean and clear and complex. (Listening to poorly reproduced pipes shrieking like fighting cats, it becomes easy to believe the old definition of a gentleman: one who can play the pipes, but doesn't.)
"...is the eye of the ear"—Thomas Draxe (Biblioteca, 1616)
Describing the No.39 by praising its performance as an ordinary CD player, however, is a little like complimenting Superman by counting up Clark Kent's Pulitzers—you ain't seen nothing 'til he puts on the cape and tights. The '39 really came into its own when I took the preamp out of the system and started using the variable output, digital switching, and digital processing.
You think your preamp is transparent? You're probably wrong. I knew this, of course, but I've never heard a CD player's variable output that wasn't more colored or coarse than a good preamp. Not even the best of 'em. So I was stunned by how good the '39 sounded going straight in. It was fast and clean—and more. More depth, more dynamics, more detail, more air...
Nor did I give up any control to obtain these gains. The volume is controllable in 0.1dB increments, ditto the balance. Despite the inconvenience of having to reinstall a preamp every time I wanted to listen to an LP, I spent the rest of my audition running the '39 straight in to the FPB 600—and loving it.