Mark Levinson No.53 Reference monoblock power amplifier Measurements

Sidebar 3: Measurements

To perform measurements on the Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, I used Stereophile's loan sample of the top-of-the-line Audio Precision SYS2722 system (see and the January 2008 "As We See It"). Before testing one of the monoblocks (serial no. 9800004396), I ran it at one-third its rated power into 8 ohms for 60 minutes, which thermally is the worst case for an amplifier with a class-A/B output stage. As the No.53 both uses a switching output stage and is very much more efficient at turning power from the wall into voltage and current to drive the loudspeaker, this test is not really applicable. Still, at the end of that period the vertical heatsinks on the amplifier's sides were warm, at 90.1°F (32.3°C). Peculiarly, the chassis was warmer than the heatsinks, at 97°F (36.1°C). After I'd run the amplifier for several hours at lower powers, the chassis and heatsinks had stabilized at around 110°F (43.3°C). This is due to the fact that, unlike a class-D amplifier, the switching transistors are continuously passing current. The THD+noise percentage at one-third power with the amplifier cold was a very low 0.0052%; this figure dropped to 0.00495% at the end of one hour.

The No.53's voltage gain into 8 ohms was the same for balanced and unbalanced operation: 26.8dB, as specified. Both modes preserved absolute polarity, the XLR input jack being wired with pin 2 hot. (Pin 3 was shorted to pin 1 with the supplied jumper for single-ended operation.) The balanced input impedance at low and middle frequencies was inconsequentially below the specified 100k ohms at 93k ohms, dropping to 64k ohms at 20kHz. The unbalanced input impedance was half those figures, as expected.

The output impedance at low frequencies was very low, at 0.06 ohm, including 6' of speaker cable. This rose to 0.25 ohm at the top of the audioband, presumably due to the presence of a passive output filter on the amplifier's output to reduce the level of ultrasonic switching noise. Not only did this increase in output impedance give rise to some modification of the amplifier's frequency response with our standard simulated loudspeaker (fig.1, gray trace; see, there was a degree of peaking above the audioband that developed with higher impedances (fig.1, blue and green traces). This peaking resulted in a single cycle of overshoot and well-damped ringing with an 8 ohm load (fig.2).

Fig.1 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, frequency response at 2.83V into: simulated loudspeaker load (gray), 16 ohms (green), 8 ohms (blue), 4 ohms (magenta), 2 ohms (red) (0.5dB/vertical div.).

Fig.2 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, small-signal 10kHz squarewave into 8 ohms (no AP low-pass filter).

An amplifier with a switching output stage produces ultrasonic noise. However, with no signal, the No.53 had 7mV of noise with a center frequency of 197kHz present at its speaker terminals, which is significantly lower in level than with a conventional class-D amplifier. (The Anthem amplifier also reviewed this month, for example, has almost 900mV of ultrasonic noise present on its output.) The No.53's unweighted, wideband signal/noise ratio, ref. 1W into 8 ohms with the input shorted, was therefore still lower than usual, at just 52.1dB. Restricting the measurement bandwidth to the audioband increased the ratio to 87.3dB, while switching in an A-weighting filter increased it further, to 89.9dB. Fig.3 shows the spectrum at low frequencies of the Mark Levinson's noise floor while it drove a 1kHz signal at 150W into 8 ohms. Note the complete absence of AC-supply–related spuriae at 60Hz and its harmonics.

Fig.3 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, spectrum of 1kHz sinewave, DC–1kHz, at 150W into 8 ohms (with AP low-pass filter, linear frequency scale).

Because ultrasonic and radio-frequency noise, even at low levels, can drive the Audio Precision analyzer's input into slew-rate limiting, which will produce distortion, all the following measurements of THD and IMD were taken with Audio Precision's AUX-0025 passive low-pass filter, which rejects noise above 200kHz and has a maximum input level of ±200V peak.

Figs. 4, 5, and 6 show how the THD+N percentage in the No.53's output varied with power into 8, 4, and 2 ohms, respectively. Below 10W into each load, the measurement is dominated by noise, indicated by the upward slope of the traces with decreasing power. The actual distortion starts to rise above the noise at a few tens of watts but is extremely low in level: at or below 0.005% into the higher impedances. Defining "clipping" as the power at which the amplifier was producing 1% of THD+N, the No.53 readily exceeds its specified output power, clipping at 686W into 8 ohms (28.4dBW), 1080W into 4 ohms (27.3dBW), and 1500W into 2 ohms (25.8dBW). (Note that I don't hold the wall voltage constant for these tests.)

Fig.4 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, distortion (%) vs 1kHz continuous output power into 8 ohms (with AP low-pass filter).

Fig.5 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, distortion (%) vs 1kHz continuous output power into 4 ohms (with AP low-pass filter).

Fig.6 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, distortion (%) vs 1kHz continuous output power into 2 ohms (with AP low-pass filter).

This amplifier is a powerhouse. However, plotting the THD+N percentage against frequency at a voltage where I could be sure that the measurement was showing actual distortion rather than noise—14.15V, equivalent to 25W into 8 ohms, 50W into 4 ohms, and 100W into 2 ohms—revealed that the THD rose considerably above 500Hz, particularly into lower impedances (fig.7). I wasn't expecting this, as one supposed benefit of Mark Levinson's proprietary "class-I" output-stage topology is improved high-frequency linearity compared with conventional class-D designs. I also wasn't expecting what I found when I examined the waveform of the No.53's residual distortion: a burst of high-frequency noise at every zero-crossing point (fig.8). Into lower impedances, these bursts of noise were accompanied by voltage spikes, alternately positive- and negative-going, at the exact zero-voltage points (fig.9). Note that while the actual THD+N percentage was very low, at 0.005%, this kind of behavior might be more audible than the low percentage would suggest.

Fig.7 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, THD+N (%) vs frequency (with AP low-pass filter) at 14.15V into: 16 ohms (green), 8 ohms (blue), 4 ohms (magenta), 2 ohms (red).

Fig.8 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, 1kHz waveform at 173W into 8 ohms (with AP low-pass filter), 0.005% THD+N (top); distortion and noise waveform with fundamental notched out (bottom, not to scale).

Fig.9 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, 1kHz waveform at 340W into 4 ohms (with AP low-pass filter), 0.005% THD+N (top); distortion and noise waveform with fundamental notched out (bottom, not to scale).

At low frequencies, the No.53's distortion spectrum was dominated by the subjectively innocuous third harmonic (fig.10), though "dominated" is not really the appropriate word to use for something lying at –106dB (0.0005%). This graph was taken into 8 ohms; reducing the load increased the level of the third harmonic by 10dB, with the second harmonic making an appearance just above –120dB (0.0001%, fig.11), but no higher-order harmonics present. However, with a 1kHz tone at the same level, a picket fence of harmonics appeared, both even- and odd-order (fig.12), which correlates with the bursts and spikes at the waveform's zero-crossing points. Again, while the levels of these harmonics are sufficiently low that it is unlikely they will be audible with music, this is still something I don't like to see.

Fig.10 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, spectrum of 50Hz sinewave, DC–1kHz, at 150W into 8 ohms (with AP low-pass filter, linear frequency scale).

Fig.11 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, spectrum of 50Hz sinewave, DC–1kHz, at 300W into 4 ohms (with AP low-pass filter, linear frequency scale).

Fig.12 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, spectrum of 1kHz sinewave, DC–10kHz, at 150W into 8 ohms (with AP low-pass filter, linear frequency scale).

Surprisingly, despite the amplifier's reduced linearity at the top of the audioband, it performed well on the punishing high-frequency intermodulation test (fig.13). The difference product resulting from the equal mix of 19 and 20kHz tones lay at –114dB (0.0002%), and the higher-order intermodulation products all lay at or below –83dB (0.007%).

Fig.13 Mark Levinson No.53 Reference, HF intermodulation spectrum, DC–24kHz, 19+20kHz at 300W peak into 4 ohms (with AP low-pass filter, linear frequency scale).

In almost all ways, the Mark Levinson Reference No.53 measures superbly well, especially for an amplifier with a switching output stage. But I keep returning to those bursts of noise and distortion at the signal's zero-crossing points. As I said, the absolute level of this behavior was very low. But it is a very unnatural thing to happen, and I can't help wondering if this behavior lay at the root of Michael Fremer's dissatisfaction with the No.53's sound. I took a listen to the Mark Levinsons driving Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers in his listening room. (Not only did I want to hear for myself if Michael was correct in his description of the No.53's character; as a longtime owner of a pair of the older Mark Levinson No.33H monoblocks, I was interested in hearing how the new amplifiers sounded.) The sound was initially very impressive. It had tremendous dynamic sweep, with superb control of the Wilsons' woofers, tremendous clarity, and nothing identifiably wrong. However, the more I listened, the more the overall sonic picture seemed flat and uninvolving. An enigma.—John Atkinson

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tmsorosk's picture

Many may find Mike's less than stellar review a surprize , not me , I found his sonic discription about on par with mine , and thats coming from a guy thats on his third generation of Levinson amps.

Mark Levinson needs to go back to the drawing board on this one.

Will Levein's picture

I was looking forward to this review because my understanding is the No.53s have pretty much split-opinions between those that 'get-them' and those that don't. Obviously Mr Harley is in the latter camp & he hasn't exactly held back has he!

I myself am the very satisfied owner of the stereo No.532. Unlike the commentor above this was the first ML purchase I've ever made, and believe me, I compared it at length (both in terms of time & geography!) with all the expected contendors. It emerged far and away as my favourite: the best power amp I've heard in 20 years of listening.

I accept that the consensus is emerging that the No.53s are indeed disappointing, but what I would say is don't write off the 'lesser' amps in the range, because they perform superbly and offer what I think is good value for money too.

John Atkinson's picture

Larry Greenhill favorably reviewed the No.532H in the August 2011 issue of Stereophile: see

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Will Levein's picture

Of course I meant Mr Fremer, not Harley. I read too many Hi-Fi magazines!

Axiom05's picture

The technology used in the 532 and No. 53 amps is very different. They are very different amplifiers and one should have no expectations about one based upon the other.

tmsorosk's picture

Good point { Axiom05 } , the 53 's were Levenson's first attempt at class D , but Levinson will send you a bunch of imfo stating it's not class D if you question them on the technology . From there written description it sound's allot like class D to me , but I'm know expert .


It was Larry's review that put the nails in the coffin for the #532H for me . After a little over a year listening to it , I've found it to be as he described. Thanks again Larry.

JohnnyR's picture waited a whole year after LISTENING to the amp yourself THEN read a review and decided it was a crap product but only after letting someone else tell you it was? xD

"It was Larry's review that put the nails in the coffin for the #532H for me . After a little over a year listening to it , I've found it to be as he described. Thanks again Larry."

So much for trusting your own ears and judgement. LMAO

UpAnA's picture

It is not Class D. It is based on the idea of "interleaved Class I". They are fundamentally different, although both switching amplifier technology.

As they say, when all you have is a hammer, everything sort of looks like a nail. In audio, some folks will call switching amplifiers "Class D" and even assign the false moniker like "Digital Amps" to them.

tmsorosk's picture

You may want to read the whole post JohnnyR , and get off drugs.

JohnnyR's picture

Where did I misquote you? Get off drugs yourself. Don't blame me if you kept a "faulty" amp for over a year.

tmsorosk's picture

 " Putting the nails in the coffin "  Would mean it was the last step in a very long process of reading , researching , listening in many systems as well as a long term loan of the #532H in two of my own systems , listening to different music at different levels and trying many cords , cables etc over a period of months to make things just right , before purchasing . Larry's timely review simple confirmed what I felt .  

 I also feel the " faulty amp " as you described it , is one of the best I've ever heard  and will likely keep it for years .

                 Clear ?

UpAnA's picture


Nothing this terrible should be foisted upon an unsuspecting listener. Please allow me to send you a forwarding address and I will properly dismantle it and melt down it's parts for scrap.

I will even refund all of the money recovered from the scrap process, and do the entire procedure for free.

Shall we split the shipping cost?

gn77b's picture

I can't help but wonder about few things and simply notice others. first, are the measurements and subjective reviews completely independent here at Stereophile and the results kept secret until publication? there seems to be a correlation between good measuring gear and subjectively perceived "dry", "fatiguing" or "uninvolving" sound. that, to me, seems suspect. I can imagine a scenario along the lines of "oh, these are the measurements? they look very good, I expect this to sound bad". maybe even unconsciously so. which, amusingly, proves that there is indeed a correlation between sound and measurements.

I have wondered if what we read here are not indeed slightly biased opinions and the result of idiosyncrasies. would anyone reviewing the No. 53 judge it the same?

also, the Soulution is an exceptionally good measuring amp but not class D and not based on large amounts of NFB. but again we read about that "clinical" sound. I can't think of many good measuring amps here at Stereophile that weren't characterized as sounding "dry", "clinical" etc. the same way I can't think of many horribly measuring SET amps that weren't sbjectively praised.

it gets even weirder with speakers. the also recently reviewed Alexandria XLFs have an impedance dropping to 2 ohms and a "schizophrenically" looking frequency response. I can think of many much cheaper speakers reviewed here at Stereophile that have much better measurements. and yet Mr. Atkinson ends his comments by saying "But overall, this is an impressively well-engineered design."

note that I'm not saying I disagree, I have myself perceived some sonic traits that seem to correlate with certain types of amplifiers but no topology/technology seems to be free from its inherent flaws. yet, many times there seems to be a double standard in some reviews, certain equipment receiving harsher critique, just because.

I'm at a loss on how to interpret all this.

Michael Fremer's picture

Actually many great sounding amps measure well too and I never did write that the Soulution wasn't a fine sounding amp. I just described how it sounded, something measurements really don't fully tell you. As for the XLFs, if you look at but one measurement, rather than at all of the ones that really provide a window on how a speaker actually sounds, especially of a complex speaker design like the XLF, you'll often come to a wrong conclusion. A pair of Russian engineers insisted based on the measurements that I have "boomy bass" at home. I told them I don't. They insisted the measurements don't lie so I invited them over. They came with their test CDs and I let them do as they wished with volume etc. Their conclusion: "no boomy bass"! Then I said let me play you some records. "Oh we don't like vinyl" they replied. I said "as long as you're here and since I was kind enough to invite you over, indulge me please." So I played them a few records---not "audiophile" records---that left them literally dumbfounded. They'd never heard anything like that (in a good way). One record in particular moved them---a 1975 recording of "Porgy and Bess" with Maazel conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. "Is that on CD"? they asked. I said "I'm sure, but it won't sound like that." "Well it should," they responded. "Buy it and let me know" I said. So they did and a few weeks later they got back to me and said "You are right! It didn't sound nearly as good". But I'm sure gn77b that it measured better.

kevon27's picture

Ah EMOTIVA XPA 1 mono blocks - made in China and I can get thee on eBay for $1600 and still pay my mortgage..
I love being frugal and can still get great quality gear.