Before launching into Stereophile's first-ever report on a Mark Levinson product, an important point needs to be clarified. Although Mark Levinson products were originally made by Mark Levinson, they are no longer. Au contraire, Mark Levinson products are now being made by Madrigal, Ltd., which bought Mark Levinson Audio Systems' assets and trademark two years ago. Mark Levinson's products, as distinguished from Mark Levinson products, are now being manufactured by a company called Cello. But the subject of this report, the Mark Levinson ML-7A preamplifier, is a product of Madrigal, Ltd., not of Cello. Now that I've made that all perfectly clear, we may proceed.
Over the past two and a half years, I've auditioned and reviewed a number of digital audio products. It has been a fascinating experience both to watch digital playback technology evolve and to listen to the results of various design philosophies. The road to more musical digital audio has been a slow and steady climb, with occasional jumps forward made possible by new techniques and technologies. Making this odyssey even more interesting (and confounding), digital processors seem to offer varying interpretations of the music rather than striving toward a common ideal of presenting what's on the disc without editorial interjection.
The arrival of the Mark Levinson No.30 digital processor more than 2½ years ago marked a turning point in digital-audio reproduction. Although the No.30's $13,950 price tag put it out of reach of all but a few audiophiles, its stunning performance suggested that much more musical information was encoded on our CDs, waiting to be recovered by better digital processors. Further, it was inevitable that this level of performance would become less expensive over time. I was more excited by the No.30 than I've been over any other audio product. In fact, its musical performance was so spectacular that it alone occupied the Class A category in Stereophile's "Recommended Components."
Mark Levinson founded Mark Levinson Audio Systems in 1972, but sold it, and the right to market audio gear under his own name, to Madrigal Audio Laboratories, then owned by the late Sandy Berlin, in 1984. Harman International bought Madrigal in 1995. As well as Mark Levinson, Harman's Luxury Audio Group now also includes digital processing pioneer Lexicon, speaker manufacturer Revel, and JBL Synthesis. The Mark Levinson brand is now headquartered in Elkhart, Indiana, at the Crown Audio facility, another Harman-owned brand. The No.53 ($25,000 each; $50,000/pair) is Mark Levinson's first new Reference series monoblock since the No.33, way back in 1993, when Madrigal owned the company. Like other Mark Levinson products, it is manufactured at an independent facility in Massachusetts.
Back in the late 1980s, when I was writing for The Abso!ute Sound and couldn't afford any of the audio gear I was reviewing, my system consisted of an Oracle turntable with Magnepan unipivot arm, a pair of Spica TC-50 loudspeakers, and a heavily modified Hafler DH-200 power amp and DH-101 preamp. It was a fun system that imaged like hell, but my fondest audio memories of that time were of visiting fellow TAS reviewer Dr. Michael Gindi, who lived on Manhattan's West End Avenue, and listening to his mbl speakers. (With his shrink's paycheck, he could afford them.)
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.
Take a casual look at the Mk.II edition of MBL's Reference 101E Radialstrahler loudspeaker, and you won't immediately see what's new compared with the original version, which I reviewed in October 2004. But the Mk.II has a shorter, sleeker bass cabinet, designed to, among other things, slightly lower the stack of omnidirectional drivers it supports. While the many other major revisions to this familiar and fascinating loudspeaker can't be seen, it's fair to say that, from the ground up, the Reference 101E Mk.II is a new loudspeaker in design, if not in concept.
As large as a small file cabinet and weighing 223 lbs, MBL's most powerful amplifier, the Reference 9011, is a tour de force of electronics design and implementation that will set you back $53,000 if you're a single-ended stereo enthusiast, or $106,000 if you like pure balanced mono.
There are as many ways of designing a digital-to-analog converter as there are engineers. One approach is to select parts from manufacturers' data books and build the product according to the "application notes" provided by the parts manufacturers. This is the electronic equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit.
A more creative engineer may add a few tricks of his own to the standard brew. Bigger and better regulated power supplies, careful circuit-board layout, tweaky passive components, and attention to detail will likely make this designer's product sound better than the same basic building blocks implemented without this care. Indeed, the vast range of sonic flavors from digital processors containing very nearly the same parts attests to the designer's influence over a digital processor's sound.
It's been a while since I auditioned a Meridian CD player in my system. I had enthusiastically reviewed the English company's groundbreaking Pro-MCD player in early 1986, and over the years had kept up with the progress they were making in digital playback, either through my own reviews or by performing the measurements to accompany reviews by other Stereophile writers. The 508-24 player, reviewed by Wes Phillips in May 1998, was one of the finest digital products of the 1990s, I thought. But when Meridian began promoting surround sound and DVD-Audio at the turn of the century, their goals became somewhat incompatible with my own. Yes, I can appreciate what surround playback can do, but my own musical life is still solidly rooted in Two-Channel Land.
The audiophile does not pursue music reproduction because it is useful; he pursues it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If music were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and if music were not worth knowing life would not be worth living.
My apologies for corrupting the well-known statement by French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré (18541912), in which he described his relationship with science and nature. But substituting audiophile for scientist and music for nature, I feel the sentiment expresses what drives many audiophiles to the extremes for which mere mortals often chide us.
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.
Musical Fidelity's Tri-Vista kWP, introduced in 2003, was an impressive, high-tech, "statement" audiophile preamplifier. Its outboard power supply weighed almost 56 lbsmore than most power amplifiersand its hybrid circuitry included miniature military-grade vacuum tubes. As I said in my review of it in the January 2004 Stereophile, the kWP's chassis and innards were overbuilt, the measured performance impressive, and any sonic signature imposed on the signal was subtle and, essentially, inconsequential.
I was talking last winter to Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson, who had been enthusing about his forthcoming stereo amplifier, the AMS100. It would be physically enormousalmost a yard deepand commensurately heavy at 220 lbs. Despite its bulk, its maximum rated output would be just 100Wpc into 8 ohms. It would also be expensive, at $19,999. And to cock a snoot at environmentalists and their concerns, the AMS100's output stage would be biased into class-A up to its rated 8 ohm power, meaning that, even when not playing music, it will draw around 10 amps from a typical US wall supply of 120V. This also means that it will run very hot, making the amplifier impracticable for summer use in homes without central air-conditioning. Like mine.