What’s more common than high-priced, heavyweight, high-end integrated amps? High-priced, heavyweight, high-end integrated amps that incorporate an internal DAC. You can argue about who was the first to offer a high-end integrated amplifier, aiming to offer the performance and advantages of (and thus monetise) their high-end brand identity at more approachable prices. If you really wanted to get archaeological on the subject one might brandish names like Lentek, but for me, the first company that actually made the concept work was Mark Levinson with their No. 383. It wasn’t the first to market, but it was the first such product that embodied both the superb ergonomics and build quality of the flagship products with more than a slice of their musical qualities too. The fact that it still holds its own today is no mean feat and rather proves the point.
They say that history repeats itself and in this case, they’re definitely right. Just as MLAS were far from first to the high-end integrated party, they’ve been pretty slow off the mark when it comes to the digital integrated market too, but once again, they’ve nailed it. Of course, that terminology – digital integrated – covers a lot of technological real estate and since the 383’s hay-day we’ve seen the rise and rise of Class D amplification that offers huge amounts of cool-running power from diminutive dimensions. But by now you’ll have gathered that I’m far from impressed with the vast majority of ‘digital integrateds’ and the seemingly ubiquitous use of Class D, hybrid Class D, pseudo Class D, and every other kind of clever, not quite Class D you’ve ever come across has a lot to do with that. The archetypical example is the Devialet, a product that embodies everything good and bad with the whole concept – from its compact dimensions, stylish exterior, and multi-room, multi input versatility to its pan flat dynamic range and fractured temporal domain.
In many ways the £10,500 Levinson 585 is both a contrast and a direct response to products like the Devialet. Traditionally beefy, its substantial casework houses a classic fully differential, load tolerant, high-current Class AB output stage that will happily pump 200 watts into an 8 ohm load (twice the rated output of its predecessor), while its 33kg dead-weight will come as a distinctly unpleasant shock to Class D fans. This amplifier looks and feels like it means business and that’s something that carries over to both its connectivity and, as you’ll see (and hear), its sound. As well as one balanced and three single-ended analogue inputs, the 585 offers six digital inputs (asynchronous USB, two TOSlink optical, two
S/PDIF on RCA, and, thank the Lord, AES/EBU). Each output can be named and have its level set. The analogue inputs can each be configured for use with a surround sound processor, while you can choose the PCM filter characteristics for each of the digital inputs as well as whether or not to apply Harman’s proprietary Clari-Fi circuitry, designed to restore dynamic range to compressed file formats like MP3. There’s also a set of outputs (on single-ended RCAs) that can be set as fixed, variable, or pre-out (power-amp disabled). Finally, there’s a high-pass option on the main speaker connections, for use in systems with a sub-woofer.
But the real clincher here is not the sheer range of options, but the ease with which you can access and control them. When the 383 first appeared back at the turn of the century, it embodied the state-of-the-art user interface and menu system from the Levinson Reference products. Super intuitive and incredibly straightforward, it has yet to be bettered, and in a world where systems are starting to seriously resemble computers, with all the opaque operational complexity and software glitches that implies, you can imagine how pleased I was to discover that the 585 has inherited the 383’s control logic lock, stock, and barrel. Throw in a display that’s big enough and clear enough to read from across the room and that can be dimmed or set to switch off after ten seconds, and you have pretty much the perfect interface. You can even define how quickly the volume control responds to input…