Mark Levinson No.526 preamplifier Page 2

The No.526 is a modern preamplifier, and setting it up requires more than plugging in interconnects. Eichenbaum ran through its thorough Setup routine, leaving most settings at their factory defaults, including: Auto Off, which puts the preamp in Standby after 20 minutes of inactivity; Green Standby, which conserves more power by shutting down most of the circuits, the No.526 then reactivated by pressing Standby on the remote or front panel; Mute (–40dB); headphone impedance (High); output gain (Variable); 80Hz high-pass output filter (Off); phono infrasonic (rumble) filter (Off); Volume Control taper (Mode 1, which sets the adjustment increment to 0.1dB unless the volume knob is spun fast; and Gain Offset (0dB for each input). For the No.526's other inputs, Eichenbaum changed the settings to better match the needs of my system: cartridge type (Moving Coil); phono gain setting (High); resistive loading (100 ohms); PCM datastreams (MPHAS); DSD datastreams (70kHz).

I then assigned input labels to most of my source components and after a few weeks, I found –40dB of muting inadequate—with Mute on, I could still easily hear the radio. Setting Mute at –80dB produced dead quiet with all sources other than the tuner. I also switched the headphone amp's output impedance to Low, to give sufficient volume with my Koss Pro 4/AA headphones.

The power amplifiers I used in my auditioning represented three phases of the Mark Levinson company's evolution: from the beginning, under the direction of founder Mark Levinson and engineers John Curl, and Tom Colangelo, the ML-2 monoblocks; from the years when ML was owned by Sandy Berlin and Madrigal Audio Laboratories, No.27 (stereo) and No.334 (dual-mono stereo); and, from the Harman Luxury Audio Group era, the No.536 monoblocks (review to appear in the July 2017 issue). I began my listening with the 400W No.536es.


Fresh out of the box, the sound of the Mark Levinson No.526 won me over. Just as I had with Theta Digital's Prometheus class-D amplifier, I knew after only a few seconds of listening that the No.526's sheer clarity, startling transparency, liquid midrange, and ability to render brilliant dynamic contrasts made it different from other preamplifiers. It was a revelation!

I couldn't wait to hear how the No.526's phono preamplifier would work with my low-output Spectral Reference MC cartridge, mounted in a Linn Ittok tonearm on a Sondek LP12 turntable. I was not disappointed. When I played the direct-to-disc The Sheffield Track Record: Rock Instrumental Tracks for Audio Component Testing and Evaluation (LP, Sheffield Lab 20), I was stunned by the sledgehammer dynamics and freight-train sense of drive. Still, I thought, it might be a fluke—so I put on another Sheffield D2D recording, Dave Grusin's Discovered Again (LP, Sheffield Lab 5), and heard the same dynamics. Grusin's "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow" was incredibly tight, full of driving piano chords strung together by a palpable bass line that couldn't be stopped.

The bass solidity and driving dynamics were just as evident in orchestral works—Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (direct-to-disc LP, Special C.E.S. Preview Edition, 4/29/1985, Sheffield Lab 24). Again, the No.526 easily conveyed the spaces between instruments—and the width and depth of soundstage—that make this recording one of my favorites. A recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in Shostakovich's Symphony 5, in a 1959 concert in the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory (LP, Columbia Masterworks MS 6115), captures huge orchestral climaxes that contrast with much softer passages for solo instruments. On one of my all-time favorite LPs, Leinsdorf again conducts the LAPO, this time in excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet (direct-to-disc LP, Sheffield Lab 8). I was enthralled by the rich orchestral timbres, silky strings, and intense, driving rhythms. Dance of the Knights was riveting, with snapping snare drum, woodwinds, and brass, each instrument sounding three-dimensional and occupying its own space, all on a wide, deep soundstage.


The combination of the No.526 and Mark Levinson's powerful new No.536 monoblocks produced rich, dynamic, utterly transparent orchestral sound from my LPs. I heard the same tonal balance when I connected the No.526 to my ca-1977 Mark Levinson ML-2s (50W class-A into 4 ohms), as well as the same bass impact, rich string sound, and richness of woodwind timbres—but not at the lease-breaking levels possible with the No.536. The ML-2s had unusually good pitch definition, making it easy for me to follow Brady Blade's bass line in Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller's duet track, "The Maker," from Harris's Spyboy (CD, Eminent EM 25001-2). The No.334, from about 2003, had yet a different sound, with leaner upper bass, more open highs, and a deeper, wider stage.

The No.526 was also good at revealing differences among source components. My Day-Sequerra Reference 25th Anniversary Edition FM tuner had more extended highs, blacker backgrounds, and deeper soundstages than my 40-year-old McIntosh MR-78. Tuned to WQXR, a New York City classical station, the MR-78 had a smoother midrange response, slightly rolled-off highs, and an equally wide but shallower soundstage. As a result, the smoother but probably less accurate McIntosh provided a better source for background music than the Day-Sequerra.

The No.526 was equally able to reveal differences among DACs. As I switched between my Bryston BDA-3 and the No.526's own DAC while playing a recording, it was clear that the Bryston produced a richer sound, with more palpable deep bass with percussion and pipe-organ music—but the No.526's DAC had more open highs, and maintained the music's composure over a wider range of volume levels. I could most easily hear this when listening to the beginning of one of the late Wes Phillips's favorite recordings: "Deeper Well," from Spyboy. The Bryston BDA-3 captures the full weight and pressure of the sustained bass note, while the No.526's DAC better defined the note's limits, letting me understand more of the words Harris sings. These differences were subtle but intriguing. Both DACs have excellent sound quality, but those qualities differ; I could happily live with either.


Driving my Revel speakers full-range (no subwoofer), the No.526's bass response was solid, tuneful, and palpable. The very low pedal note that ends pipe organist James Busby's performance of Herbert Howells's Master Tallis's Testament, from Pipes Rhode Island (CD, Riago 101), pressurized the room in a believable manner. The No.526's pitch definition was exemplary: I heard and felt the different pedal ranks during organist Jean Guillou's performance of his own transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (CD, Dorian DOR-90117)—and with any of the amps, I could easily track the bass line in David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," from the Cat People soundtrack (CD, MCAD-1498).

Similarly, the No.526 captured the timbres of solo male voices without emphasizing the midbass. José Carreras's soft, lyrical tenor sounded effortless and beautiful in the Kyrie of Ariel Ramirez's Misa Criolla, conducted by José Luis Ocejo (CD, Philips 420 955-2), while the sound of the chorus was rich in the sorts of differences that help individualize the singers.

Don Dorsey's "Ascent," from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops' Time Warp (CD, Telarc CD-80106), is one of my favorite recordings for determining the openness of an audio component's highs, its dynamic range, and its transient speed. Performing on a synthesizer, Dorsey combines short segments of melodies, alternating with pounding chords and the soft sounds of triangles and bells. "Ascent" ends with a low rumble that blends into the Introduction of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. The No.526 demonstrated extremely quick transient response, "jet-black" silences between the sections of "Ascent," and great pitch definition that let me discern when the last rumble of Dorsey's synth had become the first note of Zarathustra: the lowest C of the organ and double bass.

Comparing the No.526's sound to that of other preamps didn't take long. The dynamics, punchy bass, and slam of my Mark Levinson ML-7 ($4325 when new, ca 1980) came close to those qualities as exhibited by the No.526. And my Bryston BP-26 ($4495 when new, ca 2008) had a good bit of the No.526's soundstage depth and three-dimensionality. But neither older preamp consistently equaled the No.526's tremendous clarity, air, transparency, articulate transients, and freedom from midrange grain.

The Mark Levinson No.526 costs more than 15 of the 21 preamplifiers listed in Class A of the current edition of Stereophile's "Recommended Components." Yet most of those are line-stage preamplifiers only—and many would see their prices raised above that of the No.526 if equipped with phono stages and DACs of commensurate value (in some cases, the manufacturer's own onboard options). On the other hand, those who buy a pure line-stage preamp can then mix and match separate DACs and phono stages, based on their budgets and what sounds best in their system. I understand this—I own a standalone DAC, the Bryston BDA-3, that offers a variety of digital inputs, and other standalone DACs now come with built-in MQA modules that let them play the highest-quality datastreams from digital streaming services, and/or have HDMI inputs for processing DSD datastreams from SACDs.


In fact, Mark Levinson has just released a less expensive version of the No.526: The No.523 ($15,000) is a No.526 without its built-in DAC and Clari-Fi modules. But the No.526's built-in DAC makes a major contribution to its sound quality, performing as well as or better than many standalone DACs I've heard.

The No.526's qualities of design and manufacture let me be drawn into the music as never before. Its uncanny ability to convey music with drive and power while retaining all of a recording's detail and richness and exposing the individual characteristics, good and bad, of my source components, made it easy for me to differentiate among different DACs, FM tuners, and amplifiers. Its phono stage is the best I've heard in my listening room, providing a fullness of instrumental timbres from my LPs that was palpable, and its comprehensive set-up menu let me fine-tune its sound. I suspect that, with more time, I could have refined its sound even more. But I fear that my seven months with the No.526 is already too long an imposition on the manufacturer, so back to Harman it must go.

The No.526 is superbly engineered, with an intuitive user interface and outstanding sound quality, in the best tradition of Mark Levinson. With its many features, intuitive controls, customizability, textbook engineering, five-year warranty—and jaw-dropping sound, the No.526 is a preamplifier to die for. Strongly recommended, and without reservation.

Harman International Industries, Inc.
8500 Balboa Boulevard
Northridge, CA 91329
(888) 691-4171

tonykaz's picture

I hear women say'n that about $500 Purses & Shoes.

You didn't mean it that way, did you?

I'll guess that you meant that it wasn't worth destroying your next three years financial life to own, so you sent it back. I would too, even if they let me have it for dealer cost ( about 50% ) or used/demo type of scratched damaged level ( 35% of Retail price ).

I think this "to die for" concept started with the early Christian Martyrs but it kinda died out till recently when wannabe up-scale women started shopping at Lord & Taylor, ISIS got it from them and reallllllly means it. ( ouch )

Now it aptly applies to the staggeringly priced Audiophile Gear.

I'm no longer an Audiophile!

I'm one of the fresh/new Stereophiles!!! ( I may even be the oldest )


Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

Tony, I wish your rant had some new information. But, nice guy that I am, I'll throw you a bone here - one that you might have missed in the review:

"....nonetheless, it has things the No.52 (the $30k preamp) doesn't: a DAC that can accept 32-bit data, a newer-design class-A phono circuit, a headphone output, a front-panel polarity switch, Harman's Clari-Fi digital-restoration module—which scans for file type (and thus degree of compression) and then uses existing data to guide it in restoring "waveform deficiencies"—and a defeatable, fourth-order, 80Hz high-pass output filter for use in a surround-sound system or with a subwoofer."

So there - you see? User with $30k preamp sees that the $20k preamp has new goodies that the $30k preamp doesn't have, and so Levinson obviously needs to create a new $40k preamp. Just sayin'.

tonykaz's picture

I still give the Front Cover to Mytek Brooklyn, it has MQA, it can even do Surround, for a measly $2K.

Only a very few will end up owning the ML ( the "Luxury" buyers ).

Besides, it's the actual quality of the recording that matters here, the sound quality differencial of DACs seems to be rather minute slivers overshadowed by stuff like iFi USB Cable technologies.

But, lets not tell the Orthodontists any of this. ML, Harmon and Samsung need these Good/Better/Best "Luxury" DACs to be a Sales Success.

It's safe to say that I've never enjoyed the Applause of Admiring Customers but I always seem to get re-hired after completing their troublesome projects. I'd be damn lucky to assemble a kit DAC and have the darn thing actually work. Annnnnnd, if it did actually work, I'd doubt that I could discern if it sounded any good.

Give me a Lamb Transfer Machine and I'll have it singing like a International Harvester.

Tony in Michigan

ps. the Schiit Yggy DAC has 7 individual Circuit boards that each look as jam packed as the one board of this ML. the Yggy cost = $2,500, go figure! ( it might even sound as good or better )

ps.2) nice hearing from y'all ( again )

dalethorn's picture

I don't know all of that gear (very little of it actually), so I enquire for my own use starting with certain principles. For example, if I want the most realistic sound, I know I will need a good-size room and big speakers that can output realistic sound. There's no getting around that, unless you intend to compromise. Then I need amps appropriate to the speakers, and from there work backward to the source (CD, digital etc.) Do you think that people who want the most realistic sound, who are buying the big speakers for their listening room, are inclined to skimp on amps and DACs and source components? Do you decide on those items mainly by price? I'd like to read case studies of audiophiles who want the real thing, but are able to get there with relatively cheap ancillary components. Those systems should be an interesting study.

tonykaz's picture

I'm old school Scotland ( Linn ). I start with a darn good source and darn good recordings and build out from there. Speakers come last.

In the USA, folks start with Speakers and build back to the Source.

I can recall a CES ( 1980s ) where the Cerwin Vega guys were playing Sheffield Lab records making their crappy but gigantic loudspeakers sound pretty darn good. But... try playing really crappy recordings on a well done Wilson system and you're gonna get really crappy sound.

Most vinyl was made to be played on really crappy Sears & Roebuck crappy record changers. We could forgive ( back then ), the World was a nicer place.

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

Sorry, but that reply does not address what I said. A case study of "best sound" large speakers - which ancillary components can go with those speakers that don't compromise the sound?

tonykaz's picture

Of course.

The very best I've owned were the Elecrocompaniet Mono Amps, today the Mastering Engineers are using gigantically powerful Class D. They're talking over a thousand watts per channel.

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

In that case, I will confess I'm still skeptical about Class D, in spite of our advances in electronics. People say they can hear the difference between 96 khz and DSD 384 or what have you, and they *can't* hear the difference between Class A and Class D (all other features being equal of course)?

tonykaz's picture

All this stuff has different sound quality, I think.

But, Class D definitely does a superb job with music.

The Gigantic plus is that Tons of Power comes realllllllly cheap and does make Loudspeakers come to life. It's like Infinite Head-room with no down-side.

Harmon's finest System, the M-2, uses Class D.

We Audiophiles are the last ones to find out.

We still have Class A on our Alters.

We're Old School

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

Dodging the issue again, Tony. If you're good with Class D over Class A, then I assume you're probably OK with CD's 44 khz over any high-res format. Unless you say otherwise.

tonykaz's picture

I'm ok with 16/44.1

I feel like the higher rez. files are like using a Box Car to haul a milk crate.

Besides, MQA is a 16/44.1 format.

The Pro-Audio folks mostly use 48 & 96, I'm not having to Standardize to their communities needs.

Consumer music barely has 10 bits of dynamic range, and my hearing starts tapering off at 8khz.

24/192 is the Sizzle,
16/44.1 is the Steak

Tony in Michigan

allhifi's picture

A mesmerizing intellect !

(What would we do without you ...)

allhifi's picture

TIM: What's with the referencing of industry margins/%'s ?

No other industry proponents(I know) advocates such discussion. What's up with that?

Great stuff cost 'large'. That you nor I may have the resources required is no need to 'dis' and dismiss it -regardless of the math employed.

I'd recommend you search out gear more to/at your 'level' -or find another hobby/bitching bench.

peter jasz

(P.S> Women's clothing appears of real interest to you. Why not enlighten us with the margins of those consumer goods -and pick up a pair of stiletto's -for yourself of course- while you're at it.)

tonykaz's picture

Are y'all back-reading ML reviews?

in the 1970's & 1980's I was an Audio Industry Importer, Manufacturer, Dealer and Mail Order outfit. ( jus say'n )

Now-a-days I'm disappointed with the Vinyl Collectors Claiming High Ground Performance for their hideously expensive Playback systems. I'll take my Soap Box with me to Oakwood Cemetery, when my time finally arrives.

Thanks for writing

Tony in Michigan

Trace's picture

I see Me. Kaz is on one of his non-germane rants. Always amusing/pitiful. If Mr. Greenhill compares the Levinson to the Theta Prometheus monos I can relate as I own his review samples. In relating to the clarity/dynamics it would seem to be a good pairing and am sorry the test could not have included them.

tonykaz's picture

You nailed it!

Staggering price levels are non-germane to Music gear, they are germane to the world of Modern Art.

Maybe, just maybe, you might get the reviewer to autograph this piece and buy it from Harmon.

Tony in Michigan

ps. like the reviewer, I once owned ML gear. I'm not a "Luxury" buyer any longer.

allhifi's picture

Yeh Tony, but you probably wish you could be (deep down, secretly) !

(RE: "... I once owned ML gear. I'm not a "Luxury" buyer any longer.")


tonykaz's picture

Last year I was going thru a Cancer Scare, I cleared at the tail end of 2017 but I remain on a careful watch.

Plus, my hearing is tapering off above 8Khz.

High End Audio was once an exciting hobby for me. Most of my Audio peer group are long-gone.

Now, I'm looking at AirPlanes and flying.

The entire World is changing, I'll remain active as long as I'm able.

The Tesla Engineering is becoming the next Apple with Elon Musk being the next Steve Jobs.

21st Century, here we come.

Tony in Michigan

allhifi's picture

Hi Tony. Thank you for clarifying. Wishing you good health moving forward.

You mention HF hearing extending to 8KHz. You know, lately, I've undertaken considerable interest in what "lies" in the lower frequencies (i.e. 1-Hz to 100 Hz. range -and then extending to 1-5KHz.)

I believe the notion of physical hearing acuity above 10/15K KHz., to be nothing more than an interesting observation.

Designer's (and listener's) should be far more concerned with 'Low-Frequency' resolution, as it is here, within these fundamental (core) frequencies where ALL of the audio signal information rests upon.
If LF resolution is absent -so too must all (harmonic) frequencies that follow.
Bottom line: HF hearing to 8 KHz. should NOT prevent one from enjoying the full-bandwidth of music; 8-KHz. remains quite high.

Moving on, oh yes, Tesla, Battery/Fuel-Cell Power is both long-overdue and quite necessary.

More than enough trillions of dollars have been harvested from crude oil. Enough billionaire, millionaire's have polluted their pockets for the past 100-years -as has governments "take". Nothing quite like so much money that "everyone" can take a healthy/happy slice.

Take care Tony,

peter jasz

mrkaic's picture

John, do you happen to have the measures of the residual noise at open input? From Figure 3 I eyeballed it to be around 0.04 mV, which appears quite good. But it would be interesting to know the precise value.



Staxguy's picture

It's a very good looking product (just look at the interior photos), the Mark Levinson No. 526 Preamplifier ($20,000.00 USD), and the Clari-Fi digital technology sure sounds interesting, but what has happened to Mark Levinson?

It is 2017, and the SN ratio is 97 db (100 dB, A-weighted). What of 24-bit audio? What of at least 130 dB?

For $1750, back in 1973, Mark Levinson made the LNP-2 Preamplifier, which boasted dynamic range of > 130 dB.

Today, for about $2000.00 USD you would find that in a product like the Brooklyn MyTek DAC.

To my eye, Mark Levinson of today has gone a bit McIntosh, in the box-preservation department, harking back to the days of the 33 (1990's).

Would I take a Mark Levinson No. 526 and associated components over a Daniel Hertz ML 6L Preamplifier and ML 5L Monoblocks?

Ah, there is nothing wrong with 97 dB. That's 1 dB over the CD's 96 dB dynamic range, though not yet into Sony's Super Bit Mapping (20-bit) territory...

BTW, TonyKaz, are you the famous Kaz of inner|fidelity?

Looking at the circuit boards today, they remind me abit of Asus and their Xonar ...

Though I am thinking of their external DAC.

Would I buy the Mark Levinson, if I had more money. Ah, yes, likely to go with the JBL speakers...

I should probably work on a 97 dB wallet. :)

allhifi's picture

Ummm, you say:

" For $1750, back in 1973, Mark Levinson made the LNP-2 Preamplifier, which boasted dynamic range of > 130 dB."

I suspect that amount in 73' about equals $20K today.

It's near impossible to believe poorer performance (both measured and subjective SQ) with today's premium-part/high-end brands, including of course today's impressive ML brand.

I'd also bet your LNP-2 ML would be un-listenable when compared to any high-quality preamp today -and specifically the No. 523/526, near regardless of 'measured' performance.

Just the thought of those shitty volume pot's (likely used) noise is enough (and a major reason) why resolution could not possibly exceed 70-80- db., regardless of ML "boasting" 130 db. dynamic range.


Staxguy's picture

BTW, I like the sound of the Mark Levinson Pure Path technology.

It is so well in contrast to the Convergent Audio Technology CAT SL-1 Renaissance Black Path ($9995.00 USD), which is so Aghora Tantric!

PurePath TM is more Christian, more Promise Keepers!

Ah, Charlie Hayden would have a revival!

ToeJam's picture

I own a No. 523 and a pair of No. 536's. My DAC is a Bel Canto 2.7. I've found the clarity of sounds and the spaciousness between voices in harmony is remarkable. I don't have experience with other fine DACs or Preamps as these are my first non-AVR purchases, but I couldn't be happier with what I hear coming from my B&W 800's. However, the quality of a recording is revealed to an extreme, and a great deal of good music is noticeably less appealing on this system. On the other hand, fine recordings are magical.

allhifi's picture

TJ: You have some great hi-fi equipment !


christophervalle's picture

When referring to the Koss Pro 4AA, do you mean the original? Decades old? Whenever I put on a pair of those, I was reminded of Uncle Fester with his head in a vice. Painful? Maybe, but he sure looked happy.

Glotz's picture

The comparisons were very meaningful, while admittedly super-convenient. It still resonates well.

allhifi's picture

ML has some superb equipment.

Why in the world they'd offer the No. 526 (with built in DAC, S/W cut-off filter and such) is a bit foolish.

Have a stand-alone unit for this --or better (cheaper) yet, a simple open space within the unit (say/call it a "520"-series) and then option a DAC, Phono stage, Server/Renderer or other 'processing' circuits (a la carte) satisfying customer requirements.

All three (pre's) are a waste of skews -- No. 326S, 526 and a 523 ??

Instead of a sensible, high-tech "modular" build (or better yet, 1-U/2U size) separate chassis), ML has made the entire exercise unnecessarily complicated.
The best stuff is always separates. Yet here (No.526), we have a "chinsy" 4"X 6" circuit board stuffed in the center of the chassis --for an additional $5-K !!??

The stand-alone No.52?(dual-chassis) flagship preamplifier is fine, but a $20-K PRE/DAC --seriously ?

peter jasz

rick3803's picture

I have an old ML No. 32 and it still reveals its transparent signature. I don't know why ML would install a DAC when they always harped about noise. Why not separate? The headphone jack and phono "card" or "stage" is convenient. The phono stage for my unit was about an $1800 option. They were easily installed by the owner or dealer. My front end is digital so I opted out. I wish I had gotten it.

My display is also more easily seen. The red numerals on the 32 are much larger reminiscent of the old style whereas in comparison, the red numerals on the 526 are really small. The features on the 526 reflect rapidly changing audio market and that's good. I'd like to hear a 526 to see if it has improved but there isn't a dealer near me (Atlanta). Audio appears to be getting more complicated with those bloated video/audio processors and the like.

Levinson went under a while ago and is slowly making its way back into the trust of former owners and the few dealers that remain. Many were shafted. I'm leery of Harmon's influence on that DNA and Levinson's commitment to quality and service like they were 20 years ago. The sound from my system is just so good.

My gear is all ML and is in need of service. That's something I hadn't thought about (like recapping etc). ML doesn't service their product anymore. They used to do it and I trusted them as manufacturer. Is anyone aware of a reliable company who knows ML gear and has a good rep? NYC area or the SE?