Mark Levinson No. 515 turntable

Mark Levinson No. 515

The printed element armtube combines with a stainless steel gimbal assembly and counterweight, the latter having the advantage that it allows for fine adjustments with a knob on the back. It’s not clear whether the heavy counterweight is removable because of this facility, which could be an issue with the bearings in transit. The more obvious knob and dial on the arm is the large one for VTA, which offers an obvious and easy way to set and change the height of the arm. So much so that you can replicate VTA settings for different records which is quite a luxury. Rather than having a pair of arm cables exiting the back of the turntable, the No. 515 has a couple of RCA phono sockets either side of an earth post. You don’t get cables for this link however so you will need to find some suitably shielded interconnects for the job.

The No. 515 comes in two forms, with or without an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze cartridge, with which the name gains an MC suffix. This moving coil has cobalt-iron pole pieces and has an extruded aluminium housing with a conical aluminium cantilever and a Replicant 100 stylus (no Blade Runner jokes please). The price jumps by £2,000 with the Ortofon in place, but you do get it pre-installed and set up at the higher-than-recommended 2.7g downforce that Mark Levinson feels sounds best.

After hooking up the outputs with Townshend F1 Fractal interconnect to a Tom Evans Groove SRX phono stage, my initial impressions of the No. 515 were not very good. It seemed opaque and lacking in dynamic contrast and timing precision, so uninspiring in fact that I decided to change the cartridge. At this point, I discovered that the fixing bolts were not sufficiently tight. Unsurprisingly, sorting this proved highly beneficial to the results, which came under the category ‘gas on and cooking’. Now Weather Reports’ ‘125th Street Congress’ [Sweetnighter, CBS] was busting out of the speakers in forthright fashion and flowing freely with it. 

Not being a massive fan of record clamps I made a bit of comparison with the weight on and off different albums and concluded that not using the clamp was less appealing than leaving it on. It seems to sit on the sound, darkening the balance and stealing some of the life and energy which is what happens when you attempt to damp a piece of vibrating plastic, of course. Without the weight, the No. 515 sounds more open and vital with better resolution of mid and high frequencies, so that’s how listening proceeded. 

On Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby [Riverside], this record player resolved the brushes on skins of Paul Motian’s drums very clearly, with a bit more emphasis on this element than usual. It’s not the most resolute result I’ve had with this record. Still, the Cadenza is a relatively affordable MC, so I decided to change cartridges after all and put on something that seems more appropriate to the cost of the turntable. This cartridge upgrade took the form of a Transfiguration Proteus, which delivered a lot of the low-level detail that I was looking for straight from the first bar. When it was warmed up things got a lot more interesting especially when I put on Jocelyn Smith’s Honest Song [Berliner Meister Schallplatten], a direct to disc recording with a full band that was rendered with considerable power and realism by the No. 515. Timing is not in the very first league, but when it comes to getting a sense of being in the room with the musicians, it was a strong showing.

With Joni Mitchell’s live version of the ‘Circle Dance’ [Miles of Aisles, Asylum] the sense of being in a broad audience with all their requests for songs was palpable, the atmosphere almost crackling with the energy of the event. When Joni speaks and sings, you get a lot of the acoustic reverb from the stage; it’s great to hear the character of a recording it takes the listener to the place and time of the event. This is as close to time travel as it’s possible to achieve without a suitably equipped DeLorean. You get the warmth of Joni’s voice in full effect, the performance might have had a bit more scale and power back in 1974 but I don’t imagine that the PA would have been as revealing as this. The Proteus sounds rich and mellow on the Mark Levinson and when I dug out a vintage pressing of Al Green Explores Your Mind[London] to contrast with a modern audiophile repress it’s clear that tape decay is not something to be taken lightly. The faults of the worn pressing are audible, of course. Still, they take second place to the clarity and energy on offer that makes tracks like ‘Take Me to the River’ all the more essential it sounded so good that I had to let the album run into the fabulous ‘God Blessed Our Love’ with its super sweet backing vocals.

For a bit of contemporary contrast, I put on Tord Gustavsen’s The Other Side [ECM], which I reviewed when it came out on CD but only really began to appreciate once I got the vinyl. This album sounded sublime on the No. 515 with impressively quiet backgrounds and fabulous phrasing from the piano and double bass alike; the long arm gives this turntable a calm, sure-footed presentation that sounds even better when you wind up the level. I was still not quite feeling the timing however and decided to try a different interconnect to see if that would help, I went for Rega’s relatively inexpensive but turntable specific Low Capacitance cable. This cable isn’t as refined as the Townshend but did benefit timing quite obviously, and it also reduced hum a little probably because it’s fully shielded. Now the Mark Levinson gained some coherence which made for even more captivating listening, the full beauty of the Gustavsen set becoming all the more apparent as a result.

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