December 1, 2004
Mark Levinson No.320S
Many cultures believe that names have
power. In the world of hi-fi, thats certainly true -- and few names conjure up more
mojo than Mark Levinson. Its the audio equivalent of Ferrari or Porsche -- a marque
that denotes status, luxury, and impeccable engineering.
Before I started writing onhifi.com, I did some freelance
copywriting for Mark Levinson, a job that required frequent visits to the companys
factory, in Middletown, Connecticut. There, I witnessed firsthand not merely the assembly
of the firms components, but the design process and the part-by-part vetting
procedure that go into each design.
The big product consuming Madrigal/Mark Levinson at that
time was the No.32 Reference Preamplifier, a two-box, no-holds-barred design that the
company hoped would raise the bar for solid-state preamplification -- as well it ought to
have, at $15,950 USD ($18,550 with phono section).
I saw the No.32 in its early breadbox stages -- and watched
in awe as the design team labored over every detail, refusing to let any part, no
matter how seemingly insignificant, be incorporated in the final design before it had been
measured and tested by ear in the circuit. It seemed to take forever, but Team 32
wouldnt let the company release the preamp until it was convinced that the word
"Reference" was a description, not merely a name.
The No.320S ($8000) is the No.32s direct descendent.
It eschews the separate power supply -- although it does isolate audio circuits, controls,
and housekeeping circuits with clever topology and an internal steel box that contains the
transformer and shields the audio circuits from electrostatic and magnetic interference.
However, the No.320Ss audio circuits, controls, layout, and optional phono modules
($1300) are closely based on those in the No.32 Reference -- in fact, a few crucial
sections, such as its resistor-ladder volume attenuator, are identical to those found in
Think of the No.320S as Madrigals version of the 360
Modena. It may cost only about 60% as much as the 612, but its pure Ferrari -- ummm,
You dont know what I got
No.32 Reference convinced the Levinson designers that the key to a quiet preamplifier was
the purity of its power supply. The No.320S offers a series of highly effective
noise-suppression and -isolation technologies, beginning with two stages of active voltage
regulation, which strip line noise from the incoming AC power at the point it enters the
chassis. The first stage smooths out variations in line voltage and temperature, then
passes the AC along to a high-performance stage, which feeds local high-speed power to the
audio circuits. Then the power is sent separately to the audio circuit and control
sections, each of which has its own low-noise toroidal transformer. The audio transformer
is caged within its own Faraday shield, to isolate the AC power from the low-voltage
The signal-carrying circuits are kept separate from those
that carry the control and display commands. In addition, each channels audio
circuits are located in separate areas within the chassis. Taking isolation even further,
the No.320S allows the user to deactivate unused inputs, which eliminates interference
from associated components. Deactivating an input severs the connection between the input
signal and ground connection, eliminating any potential ground-loop noise between the
No.320S and the associated component.
Like all Mark Levinson products, the No.320S is
differentially balanced, which lowers even more the audio signals sensitivity to
noise. Single-ended input signals are converted to balanced mode at the input and remain
balanced throughout the circuit, though theyre reconverted to single-ended if you
need to feed SE signals to your power amps (if you dont, they remain balanced at the
The No.320S uses the No.32s proprietary discrete
twin-ladder volume-attenuator modules, which employ surface-mounted resistors to adjust
volume according to two scales: increments of 1.0dB up to 23.0dB, and of 0.1dB from there
If LPs are important to you, Mark Levinson offers for the
No.320S an optional, fully balanced phono stage: two separate enclosed, shielded modules
that can either be ordered in conjunction with the preamplifier or purchased and installed
later. These are so exemplary as to require a separate review of their own.
Theres also good news for those of you who want to
keep your high-performance stereo systems within your multichannel systems: The
No.320Ss surround-sound processor mode permits you to deactivate the No.320Ss
master volume level control and pass complete control to the surround-sound processor.
Yeah, its a pass-through -- but its a really good un.
The No.320Ss front panel is deceptively simple.
Theres a power button; an electronic rotary source selector; a large, red
alphanumeric display; an electronic rotary volume knob; a Standby button; and a set of
four buttons that control setup, command, display intensity, and mute. All of these
functions can also be accessed through the remote control, which is compact but hefty, and
extremely easy to navigate.
The rear-panel connections include three balanced (XLR) and
four single-ended (RCA) input connectors, as well as separate main and record output
connectors. The main outs are in both balanced and SE configurations. Two CAT5
communication ports allow the No.320S to communicate with a Mark Levinson Link automation
system, and there are an RS-232 port and a DC trigger input and output.
She purrs like a kitten till the lake pipe roars
If you want to do it, the No.320S will probably let you.
Need to name your inputs? No problem. Need to accommodate several sources with wildly
divergent gains? You can set each input individually. Go ahead, set the master volume
level to match your speaker-amp combination -- its easy. Or, should you so desire,
you could assign individual inputs to the record outs. You may not be used to actually
having your hi-fi accommodate your needs, but youll get used to it -- I
What took me some getting used to was having a volume
control with the sensitivity of the one on the No.320S. It uses two scales, as I mentioned
earlier: a fairly noticeable 1.0dB up to 23dB, which isnt all that loud, and 0.1dB
thereafter. The first few times I adjusted the volume, I entered a few clicks and noticed
nothing. After about four clicks (almost half a dB), Id start to notice a
change. With the No.320S, you need to really work to significantly change volume levels.
Not that Im complaining -- Id much rather have
such a fine tool for establishing precisely the right playback level than have to suffer
with the music too loud or too soft. "Suffer"? Well, that may be overstating the
case, but small increments in loudness can make a world of difference in believability.
However, between that level of adjustability and the
No.320Ss mutability in establishing gain settings and individual source settings, it
played extremely well with others -- so I played with a lot of "others."
I used my reliable standby Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista CD
player and the McCormack UDP-1 universal player as sources, and the Linn Klimax Twin,
darTZeel NHB-108, Conrad-Johnson Premier Eleven, and McCormack DNA-500 power amplifiers.
For speakers, I was able to use the Aerial Model 20Ts, PSB T6es, and Krell Resolution 2s.
I strung everything together with Shunyata Research Constellation Series Aries
interconnects in both balanced and SE configurations, as well as Shunyata Lyra speaker
She blows em out of the water like youve
Do you know what it feels like to nestle your butt-cheeks
into that glove-soft Italian leather and press the accelerator down, unleashing all those
Italian horses? Well, neither do I -- but now that Ive had a Mark Levinson No.320S
in my hi-fi system, I begin to understand the mystique of high-performance fantasy gear.
Listen, nobody needs a $8000 preamplifier, any more
than they need a $150,000 automobile. But I have to tell you, using this particular $8000
preamp was no hardship. Au contraire.
Perhaps it was the stone-quiet background against which the
No.320S presented music, but I felt overwhelmed with audio information with the preamp in
the system. Telarcs new SACD of Barber, Vaughan Williams, and Pachelbel [Telarc
SACD-60641] showed phenomenal hall presence and ambience. After nearly 20 years of
listening to these performances, the combination of the Soundstream-to-DSD mastering and
the No.320S finally allowed me to hear just how richly detailed the recording is. In
Vaughan Williamss Tallis Fantasia, as the two ensembles waxed and waned in
volume, I was conscious of the hall filling with sound -- the sensation seemed just as
physical as if I were filling an aquarium with water. And when the cellos and basses
throbbed with their booming pulses, oh my goodness. It was palpable -- as if someone had
rapped his knuckle against my chest.
The Lost Chords [CD, WATT/32], by Carla Bley, Andy
Sheppard, Steve Swallow, and Billy Drummond, is a live recording commemorating their 2003
European tour, and the No.320S presented it as live. No, make that really live.
Actually, it was almost uncomfortably live -- Billy Drummonds dynamic and
dynamically nuanced drumming had an alacrity that truly was alarming. I might want a
concert piano in my living room -- and Ill surely welcome bassist Steve Swallow in
any time he wants to play -- but sitting 8 away from a trap set requires nerves of
steel, even when its being played by someone as musical as Drummond.
Speaking of dynamics and loud presence, Andy
Sheppards sax sounded real enough to remind me why, back in college, we used to make
our sax-playing roommate stuff a tea towel in the bell of his horn when he practiced
during study hours. Not -- I hasten again to add -- that Im complaining about my
hi-fi sounding too real. Never that.
Shes ported and relieved and shes stroked
Before and during my audition of the No.320S, I also
listened to the Blue Circle Audio BC3 Galatea Mk II, and that comparison helped illustrate
one of high-end hi-fis biggest truisms: if it sounds good, it is good.
Theres no question that the No.320S was quieter and
even less colored than the BC3, which is remarkably uncolored for a tube preamp. However,
the BC3 offers a deeper soundstage with recordings that have a tendency toward sonic
holography, such as Dr. Johns Goin Back to New Orleans [CD, Warner
Bros. 26940]. On "How Come My Dog Dont Bark (When You Come Around)?,"
there is, in fact, a dog barking. The BC3 throws that dog so far beyond my front wall that
it sounds as though its across the street; the No.320S put it just the other side of
Please note that this was a difference of degree, not of
night-and-day contrast -- but the Levinson, for all its silence and low-level resolution,
did not possess the soundstage depth of the tubed preamp. In this respect, it was more in
line with other high-end solid-state preamplifiers, such as the Krell KAV-280p, although
my reference Ayre K-1x is more tube-like in its portrayal of depth. Or thats
how I remember it -- the Ayre has returned to its home in the sky back in Boulder, so I
couldnt directly compare them.
Ive got the pink slip, daddy
The Mark Levinson No.320S ranks with the very finest audio
components I have ever auditioned. In terms of ease of use and system adaptability,
its second to none. Its probably the most user-friendly high-performance
preamp Ive ever had in my system.
If you value that, youll love the No.320S --
but you pay for that performance. Its not for me to decide if you pay too dearly for
it or not; thats a personal decision. However, just as is the case with a Ferrari,
the concept of value in a product such as this is not the same as the concept of a bargain.
Theres a pride of ownership inherent in having a product such as the No.320S, and if
that has no appeal for you, then neither will the preamp. Having used the No.320S, I
completely understand how seductive that pride is, even as I acknowledge that I cant
pay the price -- not from personal choice, but more like career choice.
If your occupation affords you the luxury to consider a
preamplifier as exalted as the Mark Levinson No.320S, however, consider it a prime
candidate. If I had to choose between a pile of money and this preamplifier, I know which
way Id go. And it wouldnt be for the Benjamins.
Mark Levinson No.320S
Price: $8000 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Harman Specialty Group
3 Oak Park
Bedford, MA 01730
Phone: (781) 280-0300
Fax: (781) 280-0490