|Mark Levinson No. 39 CD Processor/Transport|
|Home Theater Audio Sources CD Players|
|Written by Dr. Milton Chu|
|Saturday, 01 January 2000|
I am not your stereotypical high end audio reviewer. I am a self employed physician who's interest in high performance audio stems from a love of performing and listening to music. My current reference system consists (working backwards) the Wilson Watt Puppy system 5.1, the Mark Levinson No. 332 amplifier, the Mark Levinson No. 39 CD processor and Transparent Reference cabling. Since I am a physician and a musician (trained in classical and jazz piano) and not an electrical engineer, I will not pretend that I have a technical superiority over anyone. I will therefore concentrate my reviews on the emotional content and quality of the music playback associated with a particular system or component.
The Mark Levinson No. 39 CD Processor... A new trend
The integration of CD transport, digital to analog converter, and preamp has recently developed as a new trend. Wadia, Madrigal and others have recently released integrated CD/preamp products. When I first became aware of this trend at Winter CES 1997, I was far from excited. I envisioned mediocre front ends which offered only compromises in each stage of the audio chain. There are only a few companies who can produce first rate preamps as well as digital products. Even though Madrigal is probably the only company who has the technology, funding and ability to execute a successful high end combo player I still began my listening of the No. 39 with skepticism.
Style and Substance
The most striking feature of the Levinson No. 39 is the razor thin CD transport drawer. Besides being esthetically dramatic, this transport's mechanism is one of the few examples of a CD transport that is proprietarily built. By producing their own CD transports, Madrigal (Levinson's parent company) is well positioned to avoid the pitfalls of OEM supplier, performance and availability problems.
The front faceplate of the No. 39 carries over the familiar black brushed aluminum design with the distinctive red LED screen found on the ever popular No. 38 preamp and accompanying gear. The buttons are a light color brushed aluminum and are both pleasing to look at and confidence inspiring to use. The No. 39 continues the tradition of functional design and rock solid build and reliability known to the Levinson line.
Industrial Grade Remote
Even the remote control has received considerable attention to detail. Unlike other high end remotes which are cheaply made and poorly designed, the remote for the No. 39 is a well made instrument. Madrigal brings the same feel for executing a function on the unit to the remote coupled with a very solid feel. Many of the preamp's essential features like, volume control and input switching, are on the remote. Madrigal went so far as to think of your coffee table when they surrounded the remote with rubber ribs.
The No. 39 has all of the advanced programming features that one would expect from a cost no object CD player such as custom play lists and HDCD decoding. In addition the No. 39 features a high quality analog preamp with advanced volume control, balance control, muting and more. Additionally, the No. 39 is outfitted with a forward thinking feature that allows you to control the power of ancillary components which is very useful for home automation applications. The obvious weakness of the No. 39 is the absence of analog inputs, tape loops and processor outputs. Use of a tuner, tape deck or surround processors are limited due to this weakness.
The No. 39 is a No. 37 CD transport with some of the best aspects of the No. 36 DAC and No. 38 preamplifier combined into one complete package. The transport is about as serious as they come with proprietary Closed Loop Jitter Reduction (CLJR) technology to read the digital signal from the CD with the lowest possible error or jitter. Levinson also uses a custom made digital oscillator (clock) that they report to be 200 fold more accurate then the standard oscillators.
The DAC in the No. 39 has two digital inputs including a S/PIDF (AKA: coax or RCA), a Toslink/optical input (AKA: EIAJ). Although more digital inputs would be cool, two inputs give you the option to use the DAC in your No. 39 to convert the digital signal from your Direct TV, DVD, 100 CD transport, Laserdisc, DAT, Nagra or any digital source. The filter in the No. 39 is the Pacific Microsonics PMD-100 which is a 24 bit HDCD chip that is actually downconverted to 20 bit as to best work with the converters. There is more information on the technical reasons for this downconversion on the Madrigal site. Links are at the end of this page.
As a preamp the No. 39 is very good. It has 0.1 dB increments of volume but lacks any analog inputs for tuners, phono sections, or tape decks. Nor does the No. 39 have a loop out so that one could use the No. 39 as the control center for a surround system. The No. 39 does a lot, however this lack of inputs and tape outs really excludes you from fully exploring your options with home theater and 5.1 surround for music without giving up on the No. 39 as your control center.
The No. 39 was used as a combined preamp and CD player for this review. I immediately noticed the No. 39 was remarkably realistic in reproducing the timing characteristics of certain CDs. For example: quick piano passages from Horowitz in Moscow (Deutsche Grammophon) had greater life and realism than I had remembered in previous listenings. In particular, the expression of Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major (K.330) was awe inspiring. In playback of more current, state of the art recordings, such as Beethoven Sonata in G Major op.96 enescu Sonata no. 25 by Wilson Audiophile Recordings, the No. 39 was extremely smooth and balanced.
The musical range of the No. 39 is not limited to the delicate complexities of classical music. Percussion on McCoy Tyner's, Live At Suite Basil on Sweet Basil Records was noticeably more clear, resolute and powerful with better attack, yielding more resolution at similar volumes as compared to other digital products I have owned and auditioned. Bass on several cuts like "Money" from the Mobile Fidelity version of Dark Side of the Moon was powerful, tight and impressive coming from the No. 39. The sound was strong in the low end however never drowning or bloated. While my Watt/Puppies won't create enough low bass to cause the plaster to fall from the ceiling, the bass on the No. 39 seemed to be all one could want.
Overall the No. 39 has a very smooth response that is very well behaved and accurate. My brief encounters with the combination of the Levinson No. 37 transport ($3995 USD) and No. 36S DAC ($6495 USD) and No. 38S preamp ($6495 USD) found the separates to be slightly more musical, but not by enough for me to open my check book that much farther for my system.
Applications and Conclusions
The Levinson No. 39 CD Processor offers a music lover three very high grade components into one complete package. The ease of use is phenomenal and the economies of scale are even better. At $5995 the No. 39 is far from inexpensive. However in comparison to the price of an excellent transport, high end HDCD DAC and a high performance, balanced, remote preamp, the No. 39 is a bargain.
For years audio purists have been preaching the strength of a great front end on the "garbage in, garbage out principal." A prospective client for the No. 39 could pair it with products like a Proceed or Aragon amp ($2500 est.), a pair of THIEL CS 3.6s or Martin Logan Re-Quests ($4000) with some nice Transparent, Cardas or Straight Wire cables ($2000) and you are in business with a very high performance, audio system priced $12,500 to $15,000 that could compete with most any other system on the market priced as high as double the price with plenty of room to improve as you are ready.
The Levinson No. 39 is a great CD player/preamp that could fit into a cost no-object high end audio system or as the music source, for a high end home theater. With the advent of DVD and other sources The Levinson No. 39 represents a solid investment in high performance digital playback. You may want to consider trading in your front end to make the move to a No. 39. I did and I am thrilled with my decision.