Mark Levinson No.30.5 Reference digital processor Page 3

The extreme bottom end—always the No.30's Achilles' heel—was more extended and tighter through the No.30.5. Although the SFD-2 had more bottom-end punch, the No.30.5 was a huge improvement over the No.30.

A large part of why I liked the SFD-2 more than the No.30 was the SFD-2's cleaner treble. By comparison, the No.30 had a layer of grain over the treble, and a slightly metallic quality. There was also a certain "coldness" to the No.30's sound that was largely the result of the treble grain.

Fortunately, the No.30.5 has none of these characteristics. Its treble was much smoother, more liquid, less hard, and better integrated into the music's fabric than the No.30's. Again, there wasn't less treble from the No.30.5, but that treble was vastly cleaner than the No.30's. The combination of these two factors made the No.30.5 warmer and sweeter without changing the overall tonal balance.

In fact, the No.30.5 had the cleanest, smoothest, best-integrated treble I've heard from digital. Cymbals had less of a "white noise" character and more of a smooth shimmer. Vocal sibilance was significantly less objectionable, sounding more like a natural part of the voice than a synthetic noise intruding on the music.

The No.30.5's smoother, more liquid sound extended into the midrange. Textures were softer and more easygoing, yet also more immediate. For example, piano had a less "glassy" sound in the upper registers, and violin sounded warmer and less thin.

The No.30's perspective has always been a bit distant, as though I'm listening from row W rather than row H. This makes for an easygoing presentation, but can sometimes lack the visceral immediacy necessary to some music. Astonishingly, the No.30.5 retained the best qualities of the No.30's perspective—the lack of an in-your-face character—and brought a newfound palpability and immediacy to the music. The No.30.5 had a much more tangible, real, and present quality. The presentation wasn't more forward, but it had a greater sense of vividness and life.

Closely related to the No.30.5's greater immediacy was the more transparent soundstage. The No.30.5 unfolded a huge panorama on the music, with instruments hanging in three-dimensional space. The slightly "arm's-length" perspective of the No.30 was greatly reduced by the No.30.5's greater transparency. The No.30.5 wasn't any more forward than the No.30, but the new processor removed the slight veil that its forebear drew over the soundstage, giving music a greater vitality and palpability.

Perhaps the biggest improvement in the No.30.5 was its vastly higher resolving power. The new processor presented a wealth of previously unheard detail—both spatial and timbral. It was much easier to hear the spatial relationships between instruments with the No.30.5; the processor resolved much finer degrees of soundstage layering than did its predecessor. Moreover, the No.30.5 had a more focused, precise, and tight spatial presentation. I could more easily hear each instrument as a distinctly separate entity, rather than hearing its contribution as merely an added color to the musical fabric. Massed voices were particularly impressive—the processor's pinpoint spatial presentation resolved each voice, and revealed layer upon layer of depth.

The No.30.5's stunning resolution really hit home when I listened to discs I'd recently bought and heard only on the SFD-2. The Dixie Dreggs' new Full Circle (Capricorn 42021-2) and John McLaughlin's Qué Alegrãa (Verve 837 280-2) were infused with subtlety and nuance I hadn't heard before.

The No.30.5's ability to convey the music's dynamic expression was significantly better than that of the No.30—on a large scale, the No.30.5 had a greater sense of slam and weight. No less important was the No.30.5's ability to resolve tiny changes in musical dynamics. Vocal inflections, for example, were portrayed with more gradations of dynamics, allowing the playback system to better convey the performer's expression. Again, the difference may be small in an objective sense, but I found myself much more involved with the music.

Before the No.30.5 came along, the Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 (balanced mode) was my processor of choice—regardless of price. The tubed unit's smoother treble and vastly better bass performance put it ahead of the No.30, even though its perspective is a bit on the forward side for my tastes. But in its new No.30.5 incarnation, the Mark Levinson processor has regained its position as the preeminent digital processor. Specifically, it had better bass definition, with a leaner, tighter sound. In fact, compared to the SFD-2, the No.30.5's overall sound is best described as tight, precise, focused, and of higher resolution.$s5

Finally, I performed an interesting experiment to judge the No.30.5's claimed isolation from transport jitter. I first listened to the No.30 fed by the No.31 transport via AES/EBU interface, then the same music played on a Counterpoint DA-11 transport via a TosLink interconnect. I wanted to compare the sound of a state-of-the-art transport with the best interface to a much less expensive transport with the worst possible interface.

As expected, the No.30 sounded much better when driven by the No.31. I then played the same selection on both transport/interface combinations into the No.30.5. The sonic difference between transports and interfaces was greatly reduced when decoded by the No.30.5, suggesting that the new processor is, indeed, much less transport-sensitive. I did, however, hear a marginal difference between the TosLinked Counterpoint and the AES/EBU'd No.31, suggesting that the No.30.5 still isn't 100% immune to the quality of the source.

With the introduction of the Mark Levinson No.30.5 Reference Digital Processor, Madrigal has again set the standard against which all other digital processors must be judged. The No.30.5 is without question the best digital processor I've heard, and a significant improvement in performance over the No.30.

Fortunately, owners of the No.30 can upgrade to the No.30.5's superior performance for $3000. I strongly recommend doing so; the performance difference is well worth the price—several times over. Further, Madrigal should be commended for offering this upgrade path—and long-term value—to their customers. For $3000, your No.30 will again be the state of the art. Without this upgradeability, a $14,000 processor bought three years ago would have much lower value today.

At $15,950, the No.30.5 isn't for everyone. But if you can afford it, it provides not only the highest level of digital playback available today, but also a platform for possibly the best digital playback of the future.

Footnote 5: It's a testament to the SFD-2's sonics and value that it's used as a reference for judging a processor that costs more than three times the price.
Madrigal Audio Laboratories, Inc.
Harman High Performance Audio/Video Group
1718 West Mishawaka Road
Elkhart, IN 46517
(516) 594-0300