I've always wanted to review one of Madrigal's Mark Levinson products, and finally my prayers have been answered. The chosen victim? The No.32 Reference preamplifier. Note that "Reference" moniker. The No.32 is the first Mark Levinson preamplifier to carry such appellation. They're not kidding.
Conceptually, the preamplifier is the bottleneck in an audio system. All sources pass through it, and it influences every sound you hear. A system comprising great speakers and gutsy amplification will sound uninspired if that's the character of the preamplifier. Conversely, a great preamplifier will allow through so much information, so much of the music, that the listener can forgive the shortcomings of lesser speakers and amplifiers.
High-end audio companies take different approaches to staying successful. One way to maintain a market position is to continue improving fundamental designs, offering a little higher sonic performance with each model. The latest products from a company employing this approach will look and operate very much like their first products.
"Comping," they call it at Madrigal. Once a circuit and its board layout have been finalized, passive components are substituted one by one in an exhaustive series of listening tests to determine the places where use of a premium part, or one of closer tolerances, results in an audible benefit. This fine-tuning process cannot be open-ended, however, as products do have to shipped. So what happens when new parts become available, or new manufacturing processes allow a better-sounding part to be used without financial penalty?
Even as Robert Harley was writing his Stereophilereview of the $3995 Mark Levinson No.38 remote-controlled line preamplifier (it appeared in August '94, Vol.17 No.8, p.98), Madrigal Audio Laboratories announced an upgraded, cost-no-object version, the No.38S (footnote 1). At $6495, the 'S is significantly more expensive than the junior version; although it uses the same chassis, power supply, and circuit topology, it's in all other ways a different preamplifier.
Don't be confused by the MBL 6010 D's oddly baroque, even retro looks. Behind all the glitzthe oversize, perfectly finished, black-lacquered faáade; the two big, solid brass knobs plated with 24-karat gold; the ornate lettering; and the incongruous digital volume displayresides a thoroughly modern, remote-controlled, unusually versatile, and well-thought-out solid-state preamplifier. Not that the 6010 is a new design. It's been around for a long time, and the current "D" iteration is at least five years old.
Still burning in my bank of childhood memories are misty images of the glowing green lettering on the McIntosh tube preamps and tuners that populated the windows of the audio stores that once lined lower Manhattan's Cortlandt Street. Leonard's and most of those other retailers are long gone—as are most of the audio brands that shared their windows with McIntosh, and that once symbolized the might of American innovation and manufacturing. Even the World Trade Center, the controversial complex that replaced Cortlandt Street's "Radio Row," where the hi-fi industry was born, is tragically gone.
In August, I reviewed McIntosh's MC501 monoblock power amplifier. In terms of what I'd thought was possible from Mac, this was a revelation. Once memories and lurking preconceptions had been set aside and the amps installed in my system, the MC501 easily established itself as among the finest overall performers I have ever reviewed.
In a way, you could say that Meridian started the now epidemic practice of modifying stock CD players (usually of the Philips-Magnavox species). The original Meridian player, the MCD, was a reworking of the first-generation Philips and was praised by J. Gordon Holt in these pages in his 1985 review (Vol.8 No.2). The Meridian Pro (Vol.8 No.6) won similar plaudits, and is still to be seen lurking in JA's system. And the original 207 was well-received by MC in Vol.10 No.3.
"Desperation is the Mother of Invention." Isn't that how the proverb goes? Certainly it applied ten years ago in the case of the Philips engineers working on the development of the Compact Disc system. Given a specification that had included a 14-bit data word length, they had duly developed a 14-bit DAC chip, the TDA1540, only then to be informed that the CD standard decided upon after Sony joined forces with the Dutch company would involve 16-bit data words. (Thank goodness!)
In April 1987, Anthony H. Cordesman had mixed feelings about the Mod Squad Passive Line Drive System Control Center. (Read his review here.) Introduced in 1984, the Line Drive offered volume and balance controls, five line-level inputs, and switching and monitoring for two tape decks. You didn't plug it into the wall; it provided no gain. Was it even a proper preamp? (footnote 1)
AHC demurred. "I'm not sure that I'm ready to advise anyone to take the risk of not buying a unit with a top-quality phono stage, no matter how well CD or DAT perform," he concluded, between commenting on Middle East wars.
It doesn't take much to read between the lines of Sony's discontinuation of the TA-P9000ES analog preamplifier and their introduction of the SCD-XA9000ES SACD player with IEEE1394 digital output at Home Entertainment 2003. (A similar feature from the DVD-Audio camp has been promised.) Surely, we will at long last be able to have external digital processing and DACs in our preamp or control units. In addition to the freedom to mix and match components, this opens the door to having a single digital component manage bass and channel balance for all sources, and room/speaker correction without redundant redigitization.
Bryston describes its SP2 multichannel preamplifier-processor ($4995) as consisting of a stereo analog preamp with a volume-controlled 5.1-channel analog pass-through plus a full-featured multichannel digital audio processor, and claims that none of those functions compromises any of the others. The analog preamp is fully equivalent in features and performance to their BP26 preamp. The digital processor includes all the latest Dolby Digital, DTS, and THX modes, and is based on Texas Instruments' powerful Aureus DSP chip, which can be updated via an S/PDIF input. The digital and analog sections have independent power supplies, and there are no video inputs or functions other than a control port for the optional, external SPV-1 video switcher.
Sometimes, I think life would be easier if I were an audio customer. If I didn't have to wait on the priorities of the electronics companies, I might have gone out and bought a Blu-ray player months ago. Had I done so, I would have been shocked to find that almost all BD players are released with fewer than the advertised number of features, and sometimes require firmware updatessometimes even a return to the manufacturerto have them installed.