Mark Levinson No.32 Reference preamplifier Page 4

Volume control
The No.32 Reference introduces Mark Levinson's new active attenuator. The attenuator modules are constructed on their own four-layer Arlon boards, where local power-supply regulation and bypass capacitors make for clean power and optimum isolation. An array of precision resistors provides attenuation in 0.1dB steps down to -57.0dB, at which point the steps increase to 1.0dB. In total, this hardware provides for more than 65,000 steps, allowing the No.32's "stepped attenuator" to act—and sound—like a continuously variable control. Optimal volume was always a cinch to find, even though one has to lean on the remote and hold the button down for longer than usual as the display moves up or down in 0.1dB steps. But it's churlish to complain—repeatable and precise settings make for happy reviewers. If you're in a hurry, spinning the knob on the Controller steps through volume settings in a more lively manner.

The No.32's output contains high-performance buffer amplifiers that, Madrigal claims, feature low noise and distortion, low output impedance, high current capability, and broad bandwidth. Two pairs each of balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) connectors are available at the main outputs. Single-ended and balanced outputs are independently buffered to allow simultaneous use of both connector types without sonic compromise. Buffered record outputs are provided on one pair of balanced (XLR) and two pairs of single-ended (RCA) connectors.

With the No.32, Mark Levinson has institutionalized the art of engineering tweakage! To their heroic efforts, jaded though I may be, I doff my hat.

32 and Reference to go
I begin my description of the No.32's sound by simply saying...Patricia Barber. Her new album, Companion (Premonition/Blue Note 5 22963 2), is just phenomenal. It's her first recording with the Hammond-B3, and it's the best yet from engineer Jim Anderson. What a babe! What a talent! What a recording! [It's this issue's "Recording of the Month."—Ed.]

Start with "Use Me," that ol' Bill Withers warhorse. For the sheer enjoyment of it, groove to the long acoustic-bass exposition. At first, you might not have a clear idea where it's going (although I, for one, was content to follow the musical exploration with much anticipation and enjoyment). Then, suddenly, out pops that familiar tune: "If it feels this good getting used..." Yeah, baby.

Let's get audiophile. Soundstage width, depth, and "population," as it were, never sounded better. Not overall as screamingly transparent as some preamps manage, but I came to understand that the No.32 put its many talents into the totality of its presentation, so transparency as an end in itself was out; the No.32's version of transparency was dictated more by the overall balance of its presentation. For instance: The audiophile concept of "air"—the sense of the original acoustic—is inextricably tied up with transparency...and with speed, pace, tonal color, harmonics, bloom, decay, and so on. In this regard, the totality of music as presented by the No.32 was astonishing.

The ambience of the Green Mill in Chicago, the club where Barber got her start, was beautifully rendered; I almost felt a part of the proceedings. Check your system's bass prowess with that involved acoustic bass solo that kick-starts "Use Me." Feel the pull and release of the strings during the long sustain just before the familiar riff emerges. Feel yourself pulled into the moment as the percussion comes up, followed by Barber's voice and strong stage presence. Musically, her take on "Use me" is wonderfully considered, the acoustic perfectly set up by the No.32. Engaging, rich, rife, extended, airy, smooth, and oh so palpable, the unforced detail rushed through the JMlab Utopias at an incredibly high level. Pace, speed, leading-edge definition, and pitch differentiation come no better than this.

Interesting audiophile tidbit: The sound of the Hammond B3 in its upper registers can be extremely revealing of a system's ability to deliver the goods in the treble. If your tweeter's at all touchy or hard, too close to its breakup mode, or insufficiently damped from same, trust me—you'll hear it with the B3.

Mark Levinson
2081 South Main Street
Middletown, CT 06457
(860) 346-0896