The Mark Levinson website has all the usual sections alongside one called ‘gear’, click through and you get to the Harman International Merchandise Store where you can buy a number of Levinson branded garments and a small selection of golf equipment which includes the Callaway Warbird X bag. This discovery didn’t enhance the company’s image in my mind but maybe the big G is seen in a different light in the US. And I know that there are some silly names in audio but Warbird!
I would rather associate Mark Levinson the brand with the high quality engineering and muscular amplifiers that made it famous in the first place. Thankfully these characteristics still exist in the mere four products that are featured on the website, having seen at least two others in Munich last year I’m wondering why there aren’t more but rumour has it that they are not far off. They will not challenge the No.53 monaural reference power amp for top spot in the range, that much I do know. This tower of a 500 watt megalith will remain the ultimate ML power amp for the foreseeable future. Its antecedent, the No.33, shared its shape but was considerably larger, yet it had a lower specified output of 300 watts into eight ohm. The reason that ML was able to make the No.53 smaller is that it’s a class D, switching amplifier, the first one that the company has built.
This is not as usually is the case an amplifier with a switching power supply such as those made by Linn but one with a switching output stage. Mark Levinson decided to use this technology for many reasons and these are listed in an extensive white paper, but the crux is that the engineers at ML consider it to offer the best performance. This is because “it can handle the worst speaker loads with ease and has proven to have great dynamic range”. The power supply itself is a relatively conventional linear type. A practical advantage of the technology is that it’s higher efficiency means that it runs cooler than linear designs and thus requires less in the way of heat-sinking. Mark Levinson describes the No.53 as weighing “only 135lbs” which doesn’t seem that light but compared to the 200lbs plus of the No.33 it’s almost manageable. They still get warm though, 500 watts is after all a fair amount of power and it doubles that into four ohms, so we’re talking serious grip in terms of cone control.
Construction lives up to Mark Levinson’s enviable reputation for build quality, the chassis is made from machined and extruded aluminium and its interior is broken into three sections with the power supply at the bottom, four amplifiers in the middle and control circuitry on top. I’ve not seen air core inductors the size of the eight in here before and the PSU caps are pretty monstrous too. The element that makes the amplifiers special, the interleaved power technology (IPT) is what makes the control circuitry so densely packed with SMD devices; there are1,500 components across six layers of PCB. This puts the amp’s switching frequency up at 2MHz to ensure that none of its artefacts effect the audio band.
This amp has both balanced and single ended inputs with no need to switch between the two, I used cables from Townshend and Van den Hul for both interconnects and speakers. The latter could only be hooked up with spade terminals or bare wire to the amps which have very beefy “Hurricane” terminals that are easy to tighten/undo (apparently banana plug friendly terminals are available). Ethernet and Link 2 connections are provided for custom install set ups and there is a pair of trigger sockets for ease of power up. The most important feature of the back panel is the power save mode switch, this means that the amp powers down when switched with the big button on the front, otherwise that switch merely turns the lights off. Despite its switched operation this is still far from a green product when idle.
Despite the rating the No.53 doesn’t sound like a hugely powerful device however. This is the most obvious indication that we are not dealing with a regular amplifier, you get very little sense of how much grunt there is on tap. Initially this can seem rather underwhelming. Five hundred watts should after all sound like a beast, should it not? But a good amplifier should not sound like anything, it should be the proverbial straight wire with gain. And this is what proves to be the case with the No.53, it imparts so little of itself on the sound that it effectively disappears, yet the music can be played at any level without strain. That’s the other thing that strikes you, and this is more closely related to the power on tap than its class of creation, there is no discernible difference in character whether you play quietly or at Ted Nugent levels. I have encountered this once before with Bryston’s 1000 watt 28B SST which is also a behemoth albeit of the more conventional power munching class A/B variety, but it has a distinctly smooth character, it’s good character but it’s still character. The ML is far more subtle and, one suspects, far more revealing as a result. Unfortunately I don’t have any Apogee Scintillas with which to really challenge amplifiers but it’s clear that the No.53 is different in a good way.
It makes my admittedly rather ancient Gamut D200 Mk3 sound positively colourful, overtly ‘open’ and lively – qualities which though quite appealing are clearly being added to the music by the amp when contrasted with the ML. Going back to the monoblocks you get a far cleaner version of events, there is less amplifier in the mix so the reverb you hear is what the recording gives up rather than something that has been added in a particularly euphonic fashion. Everything is clearer and more natural which comes as quite a shock, it’s easy to hear why some prefer the sound of more colourful amps because it takes a while to adjust to an unenhanced picture of events, but there’s no doubting that the approach gets you closer to the music. The enormous headroom afforded by the quantity of power helps, especially when you have a wideband recording. I played a few HRx recordings via the MSB Platinum IV DAC (which regular readers will know I love) and was rewarded with breathtaking vivacity and acoustic space. The Hot Club of San Francisco band is not quite Django and Stephan but the quality of recording almost makes up for it when resolved to this degree. It really does invite you to close your eyes, suspend disbelief and be transported to the venue with the band. The scale of sound on Symphonic Dances from the same series is truly magnificent, this combined with the huge dynamics of the piece and the No.53’s ability to deliver those swings without trying makes for a very powerful experience. If you want to reproduce symphonic crescendos there is absolutely no substitute for fast and extensive power and this sophisticated brute certainly does both with ease.
One thing that is not emphasised is the bass, usually you can judge the power of an amplifier by its seismic capabilities but here the bass remains as neutral as the rest of the range. It provides the drive to make the orchestra sound real and the extension to mark out the scale of the hall but refuses to poke its head out and say ‘look at me’.
The MLs also allow the sound to escape the speakers entirely with many recordings, this is a quality that the Fact8 is rather good at revealing but nonetheless is achieved with a greater variety of material. It’s not all about the image though, they can swing like a mother with a bit of Charles Mingus’ inspirational Ah Um on the turntable, the combination of energy and finesse on this is phenomenal and when Mingus shouts “Oh yes lord I know” you think you do too. Even Brubeck’s overplayed "Take 5" gives up harmonic detail from sax, cymbals et al that is usually masked by the amplifier. Once you get rid of character in the hardware there is of course more room for the colour of the recordings themselves, the juice that powers this whole hi-fi shebang. Once you get used to this, and it takes a while as I say, there is a whole lot more music to be discovered on your favourite recordings. And that, dear reader, is what living is really all about!
SPECS & PRICING
Mark Levinson No.53 Monoblock Power Ampiifier
Two Link2 ports (input& output)
3.5mm trigger input, 3-12Vdc
3.5mm trigger output, 3-12Vdc
3-pin IEC standard power connector
Dimensions HxWxD: 530 x 214 x 518mm
Frequency Response: Within ±0.1dB from 10Hz to 20kHz Imput Impedance: 100 kΩ (balanced), 50 kΩ (unbalanced)
Input Connectors: balanced XLR, unbalanced RCA
Output connectors: “Hurricane” binding posts, 2 pairs
Input Sensitivity: 2.89V for maximum rated output power
Operating temperature: 0° to 35°C
Rated Output Power: 500W at 8Ω 1000W at 4Ω
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: -85dB, reference level: 2.83 Vrms (1W at 8Ω) Voltage Gain: 26.8dB
Weight: 135lb (61.3kg)
Price: £20,426 each