Mark Levinson No.334 power amplifier Page 3

Don Dorsey's use of synthesizer chords in "Ascent," from Time Warp (Telarc CD-80106), thrilled me again. Although I'm familiar with this piece, I had not anticipated how the much the Salon/No.334 combination would intensify my emotional reaction to the music. The sledgehammer bass and transparent highs sent me on an emotional roller coaster, as Dorsey's synthesizer erupted out of total black silence with a run of bells, pulses, whooshes, and high-pitched tones like those produced by running your finger over the rim of a glass—all sweeping back and forth across the soundstage at what seemed an infinite number of different loudness levels. The end—a whipcracking shot followed by a deep, subterranean rumble—was eerie, tortured, and unnerving. On live concert vocals, the Salon/No.334 combination developed such powerful rhythmic drive and pace that I jumped out of my seat and began dancing when, on Spyboy (Eminent EM 25001-2), Emmylou Harris broke into a chorus from "Born to Run."

As a result of such dynamic contrasts, the No.334 was able to develop extraordinary instrumental timbre and resolution of fine detail. I heard this while listening to "The Mooche," from Jerome Harris' Rendezvous: Jerome Harris Quintet Plays Jazz (Stereophile STPH013-2). I've used this track to review four different loudspeakers; past notes describe Duke Ellington's composition as "a somber, recessed, dark, blurred, and distant tune, like a train passing in the night." Putting the No.334 in the audio chain brought forth the most dramatic, focused, and stunningly transparent presentation I'd heard. The amplifier best captured and reproduced the opening cymbal work—a shimmering, metallic sound rather than something that lesser amplifiers turn into soft, hissing static. Switching from gain-matched comparison amplifiers to the No.334 widened the soundstage and revealed the different tensions of the tom-tom heads in Billy Drummond's drumkit. The kick drum, previously a faint shadow, took on an oppressive, solid heft. Trumpet and trombone solos blossomed into the full, biting, "brassy blattiness" that J. Gordon Holt claims can be heard only on the finest high-fidelity systems.

Although I reached very positive conclusions about the No.334, in one area it left me unfulfilled: power. The Revel Salon loudspeakers sounded best when I gunned the volume control. Only the biggest monoblock amplifier I had to hand—the Bryston 7B-ST, rated at 965W into 4 ohms—could play full-volume percussion music into my large listening room without compression. At the volume levels I like, a single No.334 choked during the opening timbale solo of "Tito," from Arturo Sandoval's Hothouse (N2K 10023). The soundstage narrowed, and the gunshotlike timbale cracks were softened. Bridging the two No.334s brought back the high sound-pressure levels and width of soundstage I enjoy with this selection, yet bridged No.334s had a slight glare and sounded a bit two-dimensional. A single No.334 in stereo produced a deeper, more three-dimensional soundstage, greater dynamic contrasts, and the most satisfying timbres of musical instruments.

Was it possible, using Revel Salons in a huge listening room, to get the purity of the No.334's stereo mode and still deliver enough power to play percussion? Yes—by using two No.334s in a vertically biamped system. This involved using a Y-connector to feed both inputs of a No.334 from a single channel's interconnect. The left and right pairs of speaker cables from each No.334 were configured to drive different parts of a single Salon.

Listened to in this biamped configuration, the percussion opening of "Tito" remained uncompressed and free of glare at much higher volume—enough so that I was startled and electrified by exploding timbale rimshots and staccato brass notes erupting out of a black background, and could easily hear the building crescendo in the opening drum solo. Headroom seemed endless, and the soundstage was very deep, wide, and rich. All the soundstaging space, transparency, grain-free midrange, and well-defined bass heard in the stereo configuration were present, with added headroom and enhanced dynamic contrasts. The performance of these amplifiers was awesome!

Summing up
The No.334's minor physical changes gave me no hint of its major sonic improvements over the No.331, the more powerful No.334 turned out to be far superior in bass slam, dynamics, and definition. It accurately conveyed instrumental timbre, provided resolution of fine musical detail, and created a "lush, opulent, billowing soundstage" (footnote 4). Its bass response is the best I have heard from a Mark Levinson stereo amplifier. It will be a sad day here when the No.334 amplifiers leave.

Unabashedly expensive at $5990, the No.334 proved its worth in coaxing the very best performance from different loudspeakers in my listening room. My enthusiasm was not diminished when a single No.334 ran out of steam playing percussion music on a pair of Revel Salons. For large loudspeakers in demanding listening rooms like mine, one could purchase two No.334 amplifiers for biamplification, or choose the more powerful, 350Wpc No.336. But for most music, a single No.334 in stereo had more than enough bass slam.

The No.334's higher power rating, increased ability to render dynamic musical contrasts, and outstanding build quality have earned it a strong Class A rating from me. I'm certain that it would have made my father smile.

Footnote 4: From JA's description of the sound of the Wadia 27ix/270 CD player in Stereophile, April 1999, p.165.