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December 1, 2004

Mark Levinson No.320S Preamplifier

Many cultures believe that names have power. In the world of hi-fi, that’s certainly true -- and few names conjure up more mojo than Mark Levinson. It’s 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 company’s factory, in Middletown, Connecticut. There, I witnessed firsthand not merely the assembly of the firm’s 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 wouldn’t 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.32’s 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.320S’s 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 the No.32.

Think of the No.320S as Madrigal’s version of the 360 Modena. It may cost only about 60% as much as the 612, but it’s pure Ferrari -- ummm, Mark Levinson.

You don’t know what I got

Building the 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 secondaries.

The signal-carrying circuits are kept separate from those that carry the control and display commands. In addition, each channel’s 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 signal’s sensitivity to noise. Single-ended input signals are converted to balanced mode at the input and remain balanced throughout the circuit, though they’re reconverted to single-ended if you need to feed SE signals to your power amps (if you don’t, they remain balanced at the outlet).

The No.320S uses the No.32’s 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 up.

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.

There’s also good news for those of you who want to keep your high-performance stereo systems within your multichannel systems: The No.320S’s surround-sound processor mode permits you to deactivate the No.320S’s master volume level control and pass complete control to the surround-sound processor. Yeah, it’s a pass-through -- but it’s a really good ’un.

The No.320S’s front panel is deceptively simple. There’s 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 -- it’s 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 you’ll get used to it -- I promise.

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 isn’t 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), I’d start to notice a change. With the No.320S, you need to really work to significantly change volume levels.

Not that I’m complaining -- I’d 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.320S’s 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 cables.

She blows ’em out of the water like you’ve never seen

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 I’ve had a Mark Levinson No.320S in my hi-fi system, I begin to understand the mystique of high-performance fantasy gear. Wow.

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. Telarc’s 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 Williams’s 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 Drummond’s dynamic and dynamically nuanced drumming had an alacrity that truly was alarming. I might want a concert piano in my living room -- and I’ll 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 it’s being played by someone as musical as Drummond.

Speaking of dynamics and loud presence, Andy Sheppard’s 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 I’m complaining about my hi-fi sounding too real. Never that.

She’s ported and relieved and she’s stroked and bored

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-fi’s biggest truisms: if it sounds good, it is good.

There’s 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. John’s Goin’ Back to New Orleans [CD, Warner Bros. 26940]. On "How Come My Dog Don’t 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 it’s across the street; the No.320S put it just the other side of the wall.

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 that’s how I remember it -- the Ayre has returned to its home in the sky back in Boulder, so I couldn’t directly compare them.

I’ve 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, it’s second to none. It’s probably the most user-friendly high-performance preamp I’ve ever had in my system.

If you value that, you’ll love the No.320S -- but you pay for that performance. It’s not for me to decide if you pay too dearly for it or not; that’s 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. There’s 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 can’t 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 I’d go. And it wouldn’t be for the Benjamins.

...Wes Phillips

Mark Levinson No.320S Preamplifier
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

E-mail: www.marklevinson.com/support/contact.asp
Website: www.marklevinson.com


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