Mark Levinson No.360 D/A converter Page 2

LEDs indicate the activation of digital de-emphasis, the detection of a professional AES/EBU-format signal (not the use of the similarly named AES/EBU connector), and absolute signal polarity (controlled by a button on the lower left). The Teach IR button is used to instruct learning remotes how to control the No.360. Finally, the inset right side of the front bears a standby button and power LED. When active, the LED is illuminated steadily, but flashes when the No.360 is in standby mode.

The labels on the front panel are really all one needs to know in order to operate the No.360, but control integration and linkage among Mark Levinson components is quite sophisticated. For example, selecting CD on a preamp will awaken a transport and DAC from standby mode. This is implemented via a master communications port on the rear panel. Also provided are a pair of PHASTlink ports and an RS-232 port for additional control options. The RS-232 port also serves as the connection for the software upgrades referred to above. In addition, the rear panel bears six digital inputs (two AES/EBU and one each ST optical, S/PDIF BNC, S/PDIF coax, and TosLink), an input for an external IR controller, an AES/EBU digital output, and, paired at the left and right ends, balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA-type analog output jacks.

The internal layout is equally logical. A central portion is divided into an anterior shielded power-supply compartment and a posterior digital input region. To either side are mirror-image DAC/analog compartments, separated from the central section by shielded dividers. Everything is clearly labeled, down to individual pin assignments; I got the impression that I could synthesize a schematic from careful examination of the circuit boards. The high quality of components suggests reliable long-term performance, and empty real estate is provided for future expansion.

Into the system
Despite its small size and simple appearance, the Mark Levinson No.360 is a full-featured DAC. At various times I tried each of its inputs, and even daisy-chained it with other DACs using the digital outputs. Because it was easy to move, I even schlepped it to Connecticut for a workout with my other system. The No.360 was simply unflappable, but I found its sound difficult to characterize. Without question, it was widerange and low in audible distortion, but seemed to lack much in the way of a distinctive flavor. It never knocked my socks off, but the more I listened, the less I thought about the equipment and the more I thought about the music and sound.

When a new component goes into my system, familiar recordings go into the player so I can get a quick feel for how well the new guy gets along with my old friends. The familiar sounds of the Bernstein/VPO Mahler Sixth (DG 427 697-2), and Herreweghe's performance of Schoenberg's arrangement for chamber orchestra of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901477), were undisturbed. As I listened, however, I became aware that there was less congestion among the low-frequency sounds in Das Lied than I was accustomed to, and each instrument could be perceived as a more coherent source throughout its range. Mahler's Symphony 6 had as much impact, and no more, at the bottom, but the overall sound was less hard and shrieky in the upper strings. Both recordings sounded a bit closer than before, but I suspect this was effected by the No.360's tight control of the warm reverberation of these different recordings. All this, mind you, was with no noticeable alteration of tonal balance. In fact, the No.360 seems to have a rather neutral balance.

The Levinson's treatment of another favorite, Alkan's Grand Sonate ("Les quatre ages"), played brilliantly by Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion CDA66794), was even more satisfying. The staggering dynamic range seemed absolutely effortless. In the lowest notes I could distinguish fundamentals, sympathetic harmonics from the piano, and later reports from the hall, and yet know they were all bound together.

Middle and top notes had a glorious ring to them. If there was anything to cavil about, it might have been the slight tendency of that ring to become a "ping" with treble notes played forte and louder. Still, if it weren't for the No.360's coherent tonal reproduction, I might have thought this due to an overly bright balance in the recording. Relying on what the No.360 told me, the recording isn't bright but captures something characteristic of the particular piano.

The No.360 did similar nice things with voices and small ensembles. I dug out an old favorite, Strike a Deep Chord (Justice JR0003-2)—the opening cut, "Brother Can You Spare A Dime," has a wide range of sounds, from solo voices and "whoop-whoop" backing vocals to John Campbell's assertive guitar and a generous bass. I remembered that the first time I played this recording, I wondered if it was possible that the first chorus actually was sung by Dr. John in falsetto rather than by Odetta. Via the Levinson No.360, that was not a possibility—even when loud, Dr. John's voice was always smaller and less resonant than Odetta's. The guitar had an appropriately cutting sound, and the bass was deep and tight.