Mark Levinson No.26 preamplifier & No.20 monoblock power amplifier Page 6

Presumably due to its combination of regulated power supply and class-A operation (though such conjecture over the correlation between art and technology is treading on thin ice), the No.20 proved more capable than almost any other amplifier I have used in the ability to "decode" dense musical lines. Take the heavy left-hand block chording in Liszt's B-minor piano sonata (in particular, the superb new Reference Recordings version with Minoru Nojima, RR-25). In the double-speed recapitulation of the triple-time Grandioso theme, Liszt has written 1-3-5 F# triads an octave below the bass clef. With less than the best amplification, this tends to be heard as a muddy, F#-tinged roar. The No.20s enabled me to hear the overall effect and the individual texture of the notes comprising the chord, both the forest and the trees making up the forest, to fall back on an analogy I've used before to illustrate what I mean by "transparency."

This ability to combine synthesis and analysis also applies to the soundstage presented by a pair of No.20s. Dense spatial lines, such as the complex mix of percussion, synthesizer, and vocals on "Rhythm of the Heat," from Peter Gabriel's third album, are presented in such a spatially separated manner, with respect to both width and depth of the soundstage that, as in real life, the listener can focus on individual lines and stay in touch with the musical whole. (This album, Gabriel's first digital, recorded in 1982, tends to be unlistenable with lesser amplification due to the morass of digital artifacts. With the No.26 and No.20s, the mess is resolved into music and distortion, more easily allowing the latter to be dismissed.)

If the No.20 has a sonic signature, it is a slight softness in the upper midrange and treble. For my tastes, room, and system, this is a plus; for other tastes, a more incisive high end might be preferred, such as that from the Levinson No.23.

In his April discussion on the dichotomy between accuracy and music, LA concluded that "a truly great preamp lets everything through, both music and distortion, but with such generosity that neither music nor distortion is cramped and narrow. Such a preamp is more accurate, and, in my opinion, more musical." The Mark Levinson No.26 is such a preamplifier, and truly great. Yes, it is expensive, but in my opinion, there is not a preamplifier that can approach its performance for less money.

The No.20 is a worthy successor to the classic ML-2. Capable of sounding much louder than its relatively modest power rating might suggest, it drives loudspeakers with authority analogous to an iron fist gloved in velvet. It joins that exclusive group of power amplifiers, including the Krell Reference, Audio Research M300, and Threshold SA/1, that, in acting as pure voltage sources with subjectively unlimited current reserves, enable a loudspeaker to perform at its best. I said earlier that I feel that the quality of an amplifier is far more relevant to the ability of a system to play music than that of the loudspeaker. Having lived with the No.20s for almost two months now, I would go even farther: with an amplifier of this quality, you could halve the cost of the SL600s' $1900 and use even cheaper loudspeakers, without too much compromise of the overall musical performance. It is just a shame that the price of admission to this level of amplifier performance is so high. Them's the breaks, I'm afraid.