Mark Levinson No.38 preamplifier Page 3

The left and right audio circuits flank the power supply and digital block for maximum isolation between channels. Rows of relays cover the rear portion of the pcb, providing the switching functions and disconnection of unselected inputs. The RCA jacks, custom-made for Madrigal, are of very high quality; XLR connectors are Swiss-made Neutriks. The No.38's layout, parts quality, build, fit'n'finish, and overall appearance are absolutely first-rate. Indeed, it's surprising that Madrigal can sell a preamplifier with these features (particularly remote control), cosmetics, and technical sophistication for $3995 (footnote 1).

None of the No.38's technical attributes and advanced features would be important if it didn't sound good. After all, when the music starts, the only thing that matters is the preamplifier's sonic transparency and ability to convey the musical intent of the recording.

It was obvious from the start that the 38 had a certain sonic character—one that was very different from that of the LS5. The No.38 reminded me very much of the No.30 digital processor, with which I'm very familiar. The No.38 is best described as polite, refined, and understated, its influence on music the antithesis of hyped, etched, or aggressive.

Specifically, the No.38's midrange and treble were on the recessed side, with a measure of darkness overlaying the sound. The upper midrange and treble were somewhat subdued, giving music a sense of ease and smoothness. Vocal sibilants were noticeably muted through the No.38, as were cymbals, the upper harmonics of violin, and saxophone—which had a burnished, brass-like quality that de-emphasized its sheen.

Compared with the LS5, the No.38 was much more laid-back in the midrange and treble. I found, however, that the No.38's subdued quality tended to diminish the music's palpability, life, and vibrancy. While the No.38 was smooth and clean, the LS5 presented a greater sense of the instruments existing in the listening room; I felt closer to the music with the LS5.

Related to these differences, the No.38 didn't resolve the same degree of detail heard from the LS5—the tubed preamp seemed to reveal more of what was going on in the music. Subtle nuances easily resolved by the LS5 were more muted and obscured through the No.38—for example, the harpsichord on Handel's Water Musik (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907010) tended to get lost in the back of the soundstage.

The No.38's soundstaging was excellent, but not in the same league as the LS5's. By comparison, the No.38 was a little foreshortened and compressed, and lacked the LS5's tremendous sense of bloom and openness. The No.38's more subdued treble made the soundstage less open and transparent. These differences were particularly apparent on Frank Zappa's The Yellow Shark (Barking Pumpkin R2 71600). The No.38 lacked some of the sense of air between the soundstage layers, making the ensemble less expansive. This tendency also made it more difficult to hear the individual instruments in this very complex music—the arrangements were more vivid and palpable through the LS5. While I would rate the No.38's soundstage as very good, it lacked the LS5's last measure of air and bloom—the tubed unit's strong suit.

The No.38 had a lean, tight, controlled, and extended bass, particularly in comparison with the LS5. The tubed unit was warmer, fatter, fuller, and had more bloom, but didn't have the tautness, definition, and extension of the No.38. I vacillated as to which I preferred with different recordings. The LS5's purring quality on bass guitar—Roscoe Beck's great playing on the Robben Ford and the Blue Line CD (Stretch STD-1102), for example—was a big plus. On music where bottom-end punch and extension are important—like Michael Ruff's Speaking in Melodies (Sheffield CD-35)—I preferred the No.38's low-frequency precision and control.

I've heard the No.38 in two other systems, both of which were completely unfamiliar to me. The first was at JA's house: a No.31 transport, No.30 processor, No.20.6 power amplifiers, and B&W John Bowers Silver Signature loudspeakers. The second system was similar, but with Wilson Audio X-1 loudspeakers ($60,000/pair), heard at Peter McGrath's Sound Components during Hi-Fi '94, Stereophile's High-End Hi-Fi Show in Miami this past April. In both cases, the sound was absolutely terrific. In fact, the sound at Peter McGrath's was among the best two or three reproductions of music I've ever heard. Although it's impossible to judge a single component within the context of an unknown system, a great final result suggests that every component in the signal path sounds good.

I don't want to give the impression that I didn't like the No.38—it's an excellent preamplifier. Only in comparison with the half-again-as-much LS5—which has vastly fewer functional capabilities—did it fall short. The fairer comparison may be between the $5990 LS5 (with the BL2) and the $6495 No.38S.

Finally, the elements of system-matching and personal preference should be considered. Listeners with systems that tend to be a little forward, bright, and aggressive may find that the No.38 provides the perfect complement. Similarly, listeners who value smoothness over detail and space may choose the No.38. A further consideration is the No.38's highly sophisticated user interface, and sheer joy of use.

The new Mark Levinson No.38 is a revolutionary leap forward in preamplifier functionality, convenience, and user interface. Its sophisticated array of features redefines the role of a preamplifier in a music system. The volume control was sheer magic, and particularly useful for precisely repeating volume levels.

On a sonic and musical basis, the No.38 offered excellent performance. It did, however, have a certain signature that will complement some systems and listening tastes more than others. The No.38's understated character tended to soften the vibrancy of music. In my system, I preferred the all-tubed Audio Research LS5's brighter, more palpable quality, whereas JA, for example, would go for the No.38. Note, however, that the LS5 is much more expensive (with the companion BL2), and lacks the No.38's sophisticated functions.

All things considered, at $3995 the No.38 is a great sonic and operational bargain. Indeed, I'm surprised that such an advanced preamplifier could be built for this price. The remote-control capability, fully balanced design, extraordinary build quality (1"-thick front panel, for just one example), vast array of nice touches for the user, and good sonics make the No.38 a winner.

Footnote 1: Because of the No.38's great initial success—it's on its way to becoming the largest-selling product in Madrigal's history—a cost-no-object version, called the No.38S, has now been made available. The $6495 "S" version has more than three dozen refinements, all of which reportedly improve its sonic performance.
Mark Levinson division of the Harman Consumer Group
1718 W. Mishawaka Road
Elkhart, IN 46517
(516) 594-0300