Mark Levinson No.53 Reference monoblock power amplifier Page 2

Sound Quality
When I first listened to the Mark Levinson No.53, its sound most reminded me of that of the Soulution 710 stereo amplifier that I reviewed in August 2011: fast, precise, detailed, somewhat lean overall, and more interested in correctly producing the initial transient than in fleshing out the texture-producing sustain. In "Yulunga," from Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth (LP, 4AD), the hand drum crackled with taut definition, while the metal percussive accent that floats above was noticeably and appropriately metallic. The shaker was reproduced as cleanly as I've ever heard it; the sound of each seed (or whatever) inside it was precisely rendered and compactly sized.

But the hand drum, too, sounded somewhat metallic. Clean, orderly, and precise, with a pitch-black backdrop, the No.53's reproduction of this album was in many ways compelling, though stage depth was less pronounced than I've grown accustomed to, and the picture was generally dry.

As promised, the No.53's bottom end was fast, taut, and very well extended through the Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria XLF speakers (review in the works)—the bass transients in "Yulunga" were superbly defined. The depth-charge bass notes a few minutes in had full extension and notably clean delineation of the transients, though they could have used some additional weight, and definitely more body. The amp gripped that bass bomb and held it cleanly until it was time to let it go. Then it seemed to dissipate unusually cleanly and quickly.

If you like your midband rich, you won't get it from the No.53; but if you like it transparent, open, and lightning-fast, that the ML could do—it was much like the Soulution 710 in that way.

I sat down and began cycling through CD-resolution and higher-rez files, using an iPad to control my Meridian (née Sooloos) Digital Music Server via Meridian's Core Control app. Decoding duties were performed by MSB's Platinum Diamond DAC IV, which produces the best digital sound I've ever heard, particularly in terms of top-end cleanness, transient clarity, image size, and three-dimensionality.

I went through everything from "It's Good News Week," by Hedgehoppers Anonymous, to Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning," to Arvo Pärt's Kanon Pokajanen, with the Estonian Philharmonic and Chamber Choir conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste (ECM New Series 1654/55), and noted the overall transient precision, superb if not unprecedented speed and clarity, resolution of inner detail, and black backgrounds. However, there was also a dose of listening fatigue partly caused by high-frequency hardness, and partly by the overall dryness, which also produced well-rendered outlines but little in the way of nuanced textures: all outer shell, very little creamy center.

Women's voices were problematic through the No.53. For instance, "Fields of Gold," from an out-of-print edition of Eva Cassidy's Songbird (LP, S&P 501), features a pristine recording of her stunningly pure voice, bathed in reverberation. The voice should be pinpoint sharp in the best sense of that phrase, compact in size, and well separated from the engulfing reverb. That reverb should be a cushion, not a trap. Through the No.53s Cassidy's voice was pinpoint sharp but the reverb, instead of being airy and ethereal, sounded like a hard haze that obscured detail at low levels and became fatiguing at higher ones. Reverb should be experienced as an event separate from the main one, but with every record or file I played through the No.53s, instruments, voices, and reverb seemed to blend into a single event.

As seems to be the case with switching amps, no matter how carefully designed, the higher in frequency the music goes, the more problems there are. That also holds true the more you turn up the volume. Generally speaking, the louder I played the No.53s, the more pronounced the haze. The more high-frequency content in the music—women's voices, cymbals, reverberant backdrops—the more the haze intruded on and obscured the images, forcing me to turn down the volume.

Singer Johnny Hartman's baritone on John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (LP, Impulse!/ORG 017) should produce a warm, rich, graceful, round, full voice between the speakers. The No.53s managed great clarity and edge definition, as they did with everything I played, analog or digital, but Hartman's voice sounded grayed-out. Turning up the volume helped fill it in a bit, but as soon as Hartman or Coltrane accented something with an increase in loudness, particularly in the upper octaves, the haze seemed to increase, pressing against an imaginary wall that prevented it from expressing itself spatially. The soundstages of familiar recordings were noticeably flattened.

Cables to the Rescue?
I wondered if swapping out the TARA Labs Omega Gold speaker cables, with their airy, extended top end, for something warmer and more inviting, might help. I had on hand the softer- and richer-sounding Stealth Dream V10, as well as AudioQuest's William E. Low Signature Series. I tried both. The overall balance became warmer and more burnished on top, but that seemed to mute the clarity of the very top end and the transient precision—among the No.53's best qualities—while accentuating and laying bare the haze and glare still inhabiting the upper octaves.

Conclusions
I found the sound of the No.53 very fast and clean, though very lean. They resolved a remarkable amount of genuine detail but were harmonically threadbare, sounded somewhat hard and mechanical on top, and had a hazy overlay just below that. The bass was fast, lean, taut, and well damped—rhythm'n'pacing were among the No.53's strongest suits. But overall, the nature of the sound induced listening fatigue. I rarely listened for more than an hour at a time, which for me is unusual.

Mark Levinson's No.53 is beautifully built, technologically impressive, and physically attractive in an industrial high-tech kind of way. If you prefer powerful, muscular solid-state amps—I'm already sold on them—and you're shopping in the $50,000 range, find a retailer who can demonstrate for you a pair of No.53s, and give them a long, serious listen. You might like the sound, especially if your goal is to firm up a system that sounds too warm and loose. But be careful—at first, you might be bowled over by their speed, clarity, and seeming resolution of detail. Longer-term listening, however, might reveal that those pinpoints of detail appear because the surrounding context has been stripped away.

COMPANY INFO
Harman Luxury Audio Group
1718 W. Mishawaka Road
Elkhart, IN 46517
(888) 691-4171
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COMMENTS
tmsorosk's picture

Many may find Mike's less than stellar review a surprize , not me , I found his sonic discription about on par with mine , and thats coming from a guy thats on his third generation of Levinson amps.

Mark Levinson needs to go back to the drawing board on this one.

Will Levein's picture

I was looking forward to this review because my understanding is the No.53s have pretty much split-opinions between those that 'get-them' and those that don't. Obviously Mr Harley is in the latter camp & he hasn't exactly held back has he!

I myself am the very satisfied owner of the stereo No.532. Unlike the commentor above this was the first ML purchase I've ever made, and believe me, I compared it at length (both in terms of time & geography!) with all the expected contendors. It emerged far and away as my favourite: the best power amp I've heard in 20 years of listening.

I accept that the consensus is emerging that the No.53s are indeed disappointing, but what I would say is don't write off the 'lesser' amps in the range, because they perform superbly and offer what I think is good value for money too.

John Atkinson's picture

Larry Greenhill favorably reviewed the No.532H in the August 2011 issue of Stereophile: see www.stereophile.com/content/mark-levinson-no532h-power-amplifier.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Will Levein's picture

Of course I meant Mr Fremer, not Harley. I read too many Hi-Fi magazines!

Axiom05's picture

The technology used in the 532 and No. 53 amps is very different. They are very different amplifiers and one should have no expectations about one based upon the other.

tmsorosk's picture

Good point { Axiom05 } , the 53 's were Levenson's first attempt at class D , but Levinson will send you a bunch of imfo stating it's not class D if you question them on the technology . From there written description it sound's allot like class D to me , but I'm know expert .

 

It was Larry's review that put the nails in the coffin for the #532H for me . After a little over a year listening to it , I've found it to be as he described. Thanks again Larry.

JohnnyR's picture

........you waited a whole year after LISTENING to the amp yourself THEN read a review and decided it was a crap product but only after letting someone else tell you it was? xD

"It was Larry's review that put the nails in the coffin for the #532H for me . After a little over a year listening to it , I've found it to be as he described. Thanks again Larry."

So much for trusting your own ears and judgement. LMAO

tmsorosk's picture

You may want to read the whole post JohnnyR , and get off drugs.

JohnnyR's picture

Where did I misquote you? Get off drugs yourself. Don't blame me if you kept a "faulty" amp for over a year.

tmsorosk's picture

 " Putting the nails in the coffin "  Would mean it was the last step in a very long process of reading , researching , listening in many systems as well as a long term loan of the #532H in two of my own systems , listening to different music at different levels and trying many cords , cables etc over a period of months to make things just right , before purchasing . Larry's timely review simple confirmed what I felt .  

 I also feel the " faulty amp " as you described it , is one of the best I've ever heard  and will likely keep it for years .

                 Clear ?

gn77b's picture

I can't help but wonder about few things and simply notice others. first, are the measurements and subjective reviews completely independent here at Stereophile and the results kept secret until publication? there seems to be a correlation between good measuring gear and subjectively perceived "dry", "fatiguing" or "uninvolving" sound. that, to me, seems suspect. I can imagine a scenario along the lines of "oh, these are the measurements? they look very good, I expect this to sound bad". maybe even unconsciously so. which, amusingly, proves that there is indeed a correlation between sound and measurements.

I have wondered if what we read here are not indeed slightly biased opinions and the result of idiosyncrasies. would anyone reviewing the No. 53 judge it the same?

also, the Soulution is an exceptionally good measuring amp but not class D and not based on large amounts of NFB. but again we read about that "clinical" sound. I can't think of many good measuring amps here at Stereophile that weren't characterized as sounding "dry", "clinical" etc. the same way I can't think of many horribly measuring SET amps that weren't sbjectively praised.

it gets even weirder with speakers. the also recently reviewed Alexandria XLFs have an impedance dropping to 2 ohms and a "schizophrenically" looking frequency response. I can think of many much cheaper speakers reviewed here at Stereophile that have much better measurements. and yet Mr. Atkinson ends his comments by saying "But overall, this is an impressively well-engineered design."

note that I'm not saying I disagree, I have myself perceived some sonic traits that seem to correlate with certain types of amplifiers but no topology/technology seems to be free from its inherent flaws. yet, many times there seems to be a double standard in some reviews, certain equipment receiving harsher critique, just because.

I'm at a loss on how to interpret all this.

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