Mark Levinson No. 390S CD Processor

Mike Silverton

[February 2003.]

Picture of Mark Levinson No.390S CD Processor

These remarks are best read with Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians playing “Auld Lang Syne” softly in the background. Not long ago, an audio hardware reviewer noted an irony: As the vinyl medium wanders yet farther into its dusk, its playback hardware improves. I live a half-hour’s drive from a manufacturer in Rockport, Maine whose analog gear exemplifies the observation in mountain-high italics. (Prospective purchasers are advised to consult a mortgage broker.)

So we perhaps should linger for a moment at vinyl, which, in the silver disc’s much deplored infancy, audiophiles celebrated in a display of partisanship we now can view as a rear-guard action. What goes around, and so on: The CD is, itself, an endangered carrier. When the compact disc succumbs to a successor (or maybe successors?), vinyl becomes even more of a scenic overlook along Memory Lane. The immediately preceding leans so heavily on likelihood as to qualify as unripe fact. But never mind vinyl: Many of us have large and therefore costly CD collections we’d hate to see shelved alongside Edison cylinders in quaint little shops. What does one say? Welcome to Valhalla, it’s about to collapse?

Not necessarily. Well, actually, I don’t know, and neither do you, the future being such murky terrain. What I can do is describe a remarkable component. I’ve lived for a number of months with Madrigal Audio Lab’s Mark Levinson No.390S CD Processor, mine being an upgrade from its predecessor, the No.39. Obviously, I can’t compare it with its former self, but I can tell you what its virtues are.

To remain with that irony, the question surrounding the compact disc’s end-of-days seems to be Better is good, but better than what? I’ve been listening to recordings the quality of which would seem to defy enhancement. I’m in the midst of a review of music by the German Helmut Lachenmann on the Austrian label, Kairos. The bulk of the work is for instrumental groups, chamber to orchestra, the performances produced by state-supported organizations such as West German Radio. That’s the key. These culture apparats have been responsible for some of the best sound recordings I’ve heard. In terms of gimmickry, we’re furlongs from pop. My guess is that the hardware is minimal, albeit of high quality. In the recording of acoustic instruments and voice, less is more. I’ve listened to these Lachenmann performances (and others of similar type and origin) and have marveled at the sonics, particularly with regard to transparency, resolution, dynamic finesse and soundfield distribution.

So I guess I’m where that bemused reviewer sat when he commented on how good the software sounds. Not having lived with Burmester or other colossally pricey digital equivalent, including ML’s, I’d be foolish to claim that nothing’s better than my new and improved 390S. As dad liked to say, you get what you pay for. At 6,700 US greenbacks, the 390S falls somewhere beyond midpoint on a scale that ends at the Mint. I owned a Mark Levinson stereo amp I later sold and have been using a pair of ML No.33H mono amps for several years now. Not for nothing has Madrigal Audio’s Mark Levinson line acquired a reputation for superior build and parts quality. The only problem I’ve ever had with any ML piece was the No.39’s drawer mechanism, which, rather than die, grew enfeebled. Madrigal replaced it at the time of the upgrade, no questions asked. (Madrigal Audio Labs once sponsored http://www.lafolia.com/. My two managing editors and I now operate independent of anyone’s sponsorship or influence. This not-quite-a-review report is an act of love and respect.)

The prestigious “S” designation, heretofore applied to “several … separates,” attaches to this one-box player. Excuse me, processor. No idea what the letter stands for. Superior? I’ll drink to that. The Website printout I’m working from declines to apply the term “reference.” The No.33 amplifier, for instance, is a reference piece, i.e., Madrigal’s absolute best effort. While enormously powerful — rated at 150 watts into an 8-ohm load, the 33H is capable of delivering an astonishing 1,200 undistorted watts into, heaven help us, a 1-ohm load — there might exist a voltage swing my half-size version of the 33 will not address as competently as its big brother. I recall an email from an enthusiast who assured me that I’d prefer 33’s to my 33H’s. Well, maybe, but not every floor can support a pair of 33’s.

The 390S, yes. At 50-lbs. shipping weight, it’s a mere slip of a thing chock-full of attractions, to judge from what it does for my system. I’ll mention a few. (You can access the full text at marklevinson.com or madrigal.com. You can also download owners’ manuals for current and discontinued ML components. A nice touch, that, but you won’t find a price list. I asked why. Because a lot of Madrigal’s business is international, and prices overseas are generally higher.)

An updateable chassis. As mentioned, my 390S began life as an S-less 39.

A redesigned DAC / analog output module. “Borrowed heavily from the design of the No.32 Reference Preamplifier and … Audio Processor portion of the No.40 Media Console, the No.390S incorporates our latest advances in D-to-A converter design, output buffer and volume control technologies, all implemented on a four-layer Arlon® 25N circuit board.”

“As in the No.37 CD Transport, the No.390S derives its reference frequency from a custom-made, temperature-controlled crystal oscillator that acts as a clock with better than five-part-per-million accuracy (a two-hundredfold improvement over the standard oscillator) … By placing the all-important reference clock in the final stage of the transport section, all slaving and the mechanical subassemblies to it rather than the other way around, the signal presented to the digital processor … is uncontaminated by electrically or mechanically induced jitter.”

Fully balanced design “in both the analog and digital domains.” Balanced circuitry is a feature common to all ML components. (I’ve asked. The folks at Madrigal recommend balanced over single-ended ICs for the former’s superior noise-rejection characteristics. I’d recommend them also because XLR connectors cannot be jerked loose by you, a kid or pet. One thing to watch out for: In comparing balanced ICs with single-ended, the balanced will sound better because they transmit a 6-dB-louder signal. Louder generally sounds more impressive. It’s an old showroom trick. You’d need to match volume levels carefully.)

An output buffer with the “same topology used in the remarkable Mark Levinson No.32 Reference Preamplifier … pushing noise coupling and parasitic effects to vanishingly small levels.” I credit the Reimyo ALS-777 line conditioner and 390S especially for the remarkably clean and grainless space my speakers create.

With respect to the quotations immediately above, Madrigal’s a class operation. They don’t much go in for hyperbolic claims. Still, as a matter of intellectual integrity, as much as I want to, I’m uncomfortable yea-saying Madrigal’s claim that the 390S is rather more than an improved 39. That would require a side-by-side comparison, which in my case, as mentioned, is out of the question. Nor does Madrigal have a 39 to lend. Be that as it may, I acquired a bit of received wisdom early in my ascent to audio heaven that’s stuck with me as probably true. Memory is frail. One’s memory with regard to subtle differences in sound is especially frail, perhaps the least reliable of all. People have objected to like-component comparisons where the elapsed time between listening stints is measured in minutes. Because my wife and I had just moved from a Brooklyn loft to a house in Midcoast Maine, and having no listening room in readiness, I was willing to wait a couple of months for the upgrade’s return.

This I can say with confidence: The 390S is an impressive accomplishment. A high-quality analog volume control is an especially welcome feature for the audiophile with a one-medium system. No preamp needed. A small FM in the kitchen satisfies my radio needs. Less is more, particularly if your components are the best you can afford. I’ve learned from cable comparisons that a sound system is no better than its weakest link, and volume controls make a difference. The 39’s was good. The 390S’s is probably everything Madrigal says it is. A whole lot of things about the 390S are probably better. As a matter of basic philosophy and with particular respect to the 390S’s raison d’être, Madrigal in general exemplifies the easy-does-it design ethic. The No.39 appeared in 1996 and retired in 2001; in the world of digital, that’s a long spell ago. Five years between players is ample time, certainly, to come up with valid improvements. Indeed, yet we listen to the sum of a sound system’s parts. My amplification, speakers, cabling, isolation platforms, line conditioner, dedicated outlets and power cords would not contribute to as beautifully resolved a sound as I’m hearing were the 390S other than superb.

I’ll remain with Helmut Lachenmann and the Kairos label. CD 0012142KAI features the cryptically titled NUN, a 39-minute work of 1997-99 for flute, trombone, orchestra and men’s voices, Jonathan Nott conducting the WDR Symphony Orchestra, Köln. This West German Radio production is, for all practical purposes, perfect. I think we can agree that a recording, however good, cannot sound any better than the hardware through which it must pass.

In terms of textures and their manipulations, NUN is a masterwork. Lachenmann doesn’t make music so much as abstract aural assemblages, if we can accept that term in its most fluid sense. He pushes musical instruments to their respective edges. In listening to this recording of NUN, I am not aware of sounds emitting from speakers. Rather, I am immersed in an atmosphere. A soundfield as thrilling as the low-threshold disturbances preceding a summer storm is a rare and wonderful (and repeatable) event. I am in this thing! Well, perched at the edge. It would require a very well executed surround-recording to put me within it. A valid anxiety with regard to two-channel’s possible demise looks squarely at “very well executed.” If perfect productions of conventional stereo recordings remain the exception, imagine the opportunities to do it wrong in surround. It boggles the mind, even as a prospect.

You may well hate music I find thrilling. That’s not the issue. We all of us respond on the gooseflesh level to something. Why, otherwise, the bother and expense? In working on this Lachenmann-Kairos report, I have been able to concentrate with the greatest of pleasure on astonishingly fine sound. NUN bristles with every sonority imaginable and no few beyond imagination, much of it a tick or two above the noise floor, and this is where the system, and by easy inference, the 390S, shine. We tend to think of dynamic range in terms of softest-to-loudest. With a recording like this, it’s more like soft-softer-softest and how it all breathes. If DVD-A, SACD or whatever else the folks in white labcoats have in store get this even better — capture these almost tactile sounds in a more convincing way — we’d have to be nuts to say no thanks. And yet I wonder: Could this recording of NUN be appreciably better at a higher resolution rate on a different sort of carrier?

To answer that by proxy, I recently reviewed one of music’s more outrageous entities, a string quartet by Morton Feldman that goes on for hours. Mode, Brian Brandt’s splendid new-music label, issued a recording by the FLUX Quartet in two formats: five CDs and a single DVD. On my system, the CDs sound great. I’ve known Brian for dogs’ years and respect his integrity. He assures me that the DVD offers a superior sense of ambiance, and I’ve no reason to question the claim. Nor do I feel especially deprived. Similarly, in playing Da-Hong Seetoo and Max Wilcox’s fine recordings of the Emerson Quartet’s live performances in Aspen of the Shostakovich string quartets [Deutsche Grammophon 463 284-2, five CDs], I again experienced a remarkable space-filling image: lifelike attacks, richly complex harmonics, the cello’s foundation seemingly capable of supporting a house. In terms of what makes high-end audio the lovely thing it is, many of us — classical buffs especially — genuflect before a lifelike soundfield.

Which brings me to the Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem. (The oud is a Middle-Eastern lute.) Manfred Eicher, ECM’s main man, has always favored a “wet” acoustic for both his jazz and classical releases. A few years ago, the label began recording in an Austrian monastery, achieving at this site a particularly juicy, but more important, entirely natural ambiance, as against electronically applied reverb. The decidedly ethnic Astrakan Café, released in 2000 [ECM 1718], features a trio: Brahem, oud; Barbaros Erköse, clarinet; and Lassad Hosni, bendir and darbouka (percussion instruments). Now, if, as I’ve heard so often, digital media with higher resolution rates do a better job of filling out space, I’d be especially interested in hearing this program on something other than a CD. The soundstage is ravishing — wonderful air, beyond delicate decays, simply the bee’s knees. I understand and accept that the compact disc is close to having run its course. We return to that question: How much better can something get?