Mark Levinson No.360 D/A converter Comparisons

Sidebar 3: Comparisons

I toiled in vain to find a good analogy to help me characterize the distinctions among these three digital processors. First, I thought of The Three Tenors. It seemed appropriate to equate the mbl 1611HR with Luciano Pavarotti's glorious ring and imposing presence, and to associate the Burmester 970 with Placido Domingo's vocal accuracy and dramatic tone. However, it would be wrong to equate the excellent and future-proof Mark Levinson No.360 with José Carreras, a great tenor but one who once was even better.

Next, I thought that the three bears of Goldilocks' acquaintance might suit. Describing the Mark Levinson No.360 as Baby Bear works, since each is the smallest in its category and seems to have found an ideal balance of taste and performance. In addition, the No.360 (due to its reprogrammable DSP) and Baby Bear (due to its youth) probably have their best years still to come. The problem is in choosing which parent bear to represent the mbl, which the Burmester. Papa Bear's oversize chair, hard bed, and hot porridge might match the mbl's large chassis, taut dynamics, and vivid performance. However, Mama Bear's small chair, soft bed, and cold porridge are ill-matched to the Burmester's substantial construction, solid bass, and neutral balance. And I won't even attempt to grapple with the gender issues this analogy might imply!

So, falling back on a more conventional approach, I thought each of the three DACs to be a successful but idiosyncratic statement of how, late in the Sony/Philips "Red Book" era, a DAC should be made. Each is different in the design aspects that are given emphasis, in its physical execution, and in its analog depiction of the digital bitstream. After all, you can drive a Ferrari, a Mercedes, or a Porsche from point A to point B, but the three experiences will not be the same. And a Honda will get you there just as reliably.

Similar in spirit to the Honda, the MSB LinkDAC is a superb 24/96 device that costs only $349 and does nearly everything right. The Mark Levinson No.360, however, is a greatly superior device in execution and performance, and is about an order of magnitude (+11dB$) more expensive (footnote 1). I cannot compute the No.360's sound quality as an order of magnitude better, but, from my own particular audio and financial perspectives, I felt the additional cost was more than justified. The Levinson No.360 improved on the LinkDAC in high-frequency smoothness and detail, depth of soundstage, and overall had a more relaxed sound. The No.360, with the CAL CL-20 or any of the other transports, is also an advance on the Arcam Alpha 9, specifically because it lacks the Arcam's nearly poster-paint, forward presentation.

The '360 also improves on another Class A DAC, the Camelot Uther 2.0. Comparably smooth in the HF, the Levinson delivers just a bit more detail with standard CDs, and, of course, still more detail and air with 24/96 discs, which the Uther can't handle. (I have been informed that a newer Uther is in production, but I have not yet auditioned it.) Moreover, the Levinson No.360, with its multiplicity of inputs and DSP-based processing, seems to be the DAC that will most easily be kept at the cutting edge of digital advancements.

So if your budget will accommodate it, the No.360 is eminently worth the price. I haven't heard all the DACs in the world, but I certainly haven't heard one that's both better and cheaper than the No.360.—Kal Rubinson

Footnote 1: Since we are dealing with exponential differences in price, I conjured a new unit of measure, the dB$, to help my deliberations. The dB$ is equal to 10log(price1/price2). I used a multiplier of 10, not 20, because money is power, not merely potential. So, if we make the MSB LinkDAC our reference, the Levinson No.360 is +11dB$, the mbl 1611HR is +16dB$, and the Burmester 970 is +20dB$. Note that the Levinson is merely 1.8dB$ more than the Camelot Uther, and the Burmester is less than 4dB$ more than the mbl! These dB$ values seem to offer a better perspective on the nonlinear relationship between performance and price.—KR