|Mark Levinson No. 390S CD Processor|
|Home Theater Audio Sources CD Players|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Saturday, 01 March 2003|
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Many music enthusiasts have placed their digital playback purchase plans on hold indefinitely, awaiting the end of the seemingly never-ending digital format wars that have plagued this industry for far too long. Nobody wants to lay down large green for a digital playback system that becomes outdated before the new smell has worn off. While all this is being played out by the mainstream Asian electronics conglomerates, companies like Madrigal continue to produce CD players at the highest conceivable level. What will be the next digital format is anyone’s guess, yet one constant remains – the desire to milk absolutely everything you can from your existing compact disc collection. Let’s face it, regardless of what the future holds, you will be listening to the bulk of your existing disc collection for eternity.
CD playback technology continues to advance, making the best of yesteryear sound lethargic and dull by comparison. An example of an advanced design is the Mark Levinson No390S, Madrigal’s latest CD playback machine that improves upon its predecessor, the No39, in almost every possible category. The No390S is a fully balanced, single-disc CD source that automatically upconverts all of your music to 24-bit, and either 352.8 or 384 kHz sampling rate.
A close look at the 390S reveals an elegant and very well manufactured product. From its curved machined front bezel to its solidly constructed chassis, the 390S is a beautiful piece of gear. The No390S is rack-mountable and measures 15.75 inches wide by 14.31 inches deep, stands 3.84 inches in height, and weighs a dense 50 pounds. In the world of large amplifiers, 50 pounds doesn’t sound so substantial, but in a component of this size, it feels like a plate of bricks. The No390S sells for $6,700.
The No390S is dramatically improved in terms of performance compared to the No39. It comes with a complete redesign to the DAC/Analog output module. It also reaps the benefits of Madrigal’s latest D/A converter innovations. Another substantial improvement comes from its updated volume control design. Madrigal offers both factory upgrades and field upgrades for the technologically ambitious, costing $1,800 or $1,500, respectively. If you want a new front panel with the updated model number, that will cost you an additional $300. This upgrade cost equals the difference between the two models’ retail price.
The front panel of the 390S is unchanged from the No39. It comes with a contoured front bezel and a simple array of buttons to control the unit. There are 11 buttons total, including the standard playback choices like play, stop and pause, along with a display intensity button, curiously a repeat button and up and down volume buttons. I say “curiously” because the unit is best controlled by the remote and has a boatload of features to manipulate, yet with its sparse array of controls on the unit, repeat was included.
The transport drawer is very smooth and seemed exceptionally responsive. The rear of the chassis is as simple as you would expect, with both balanced and single-ended analog outputs, along with both AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital outputs. It has in and out communication ports for communicating to other Mark Levinson gear, as well as an external infrared jack.
The 390S comes with a plethora of modern CD playback features. First and foremost is its automatic upsampling feature to either 352.8 or 384 kHz sampling rate, depending on your source material. Sampling rate is most simply understood as a plotted graph. When the information is coded in its digital language and later converted back to analog, it’s done by a series of points. Traditional CD playback is done at 44.1 kHz or 44,100 times per second. In the case of the No390S, it upsamples this data at eight times the frequency of standard playback systems, creating a more detailed and accurate reproduction.
Another over-the-top feature is its balanced analog volume control. This essentially makes the No390S a worthy preamplifier and a CD player in one chassis. For those looking for a minimalist playback system, this could be the trick. There are many advantages to eliminating a component, something we’ll test later in the review. The best part of this feature is that it allows you to make 0.1 dB incremental changes to volume while maintaining full performance of the DACs at any level.
Internally, Madrigal has spared no expense in creating the best-sounding player possible. Unlike most manufacturers, they produce their own transport, rather than purchasing one from Philips or another supplier. This has many advantages, both sonic and feature-related. For those who may think this is trivial, consider that every transport sounds distinctively different, a testimony to the contribution it makes to the overall performance of the player. This also gives the engineers full control of the playback features. For instance, the No390s allows you to modify the playlist and will automatically remember this the next time you play the disc. If there is a song on the CD that you simply don’t like, skip it and the next time it encounters the disc, unless you tell it otherwise, it will again be skipped. This is just one of hundreds of powerful control options the 390S provides.
The biggest shortcomings in digital reproduction are timing-related issues as the digital information is converted to analog. These inaccuracies are referred to as jitter. Simply stated, the clock is responsible for setting the tempo for which the data is retrieved. When this tempo is inaccurate, it causes jitter, a condition that causes your music to sound synthetic and tinny. To correct this, Madrigal has employed their Closed Loop Jitter Reduction System, or CLJR. Madrigal integrates a custom-designed, temperature-compensated crystal oscillator that acts as the No390S’s clock. They then removed this oscillator from the ultra-noisy laser mechanism environment and placed it on its own circuit card with its own power supply and electrical isolation, then located it adjacent to the digital processor and output section. This system in theory stands to virtually eliminate noise and jitter from the signal path.
At the component level, the No390S uses some of the very best materials available. One such example is the use of a four-layer Arlon 25N circuit card, a very expensive material known for its superb dielectric constant. This has enabled the No390S to achieve very low noise within a very dense and complexly routed design.
The No390S will play standard CDs only. It will decode HDCD software but will not play either DVD (DVD-Audio or DVD-Video) or SACD formats. The remote is significant, as it is made of extruded and machined aluminum. Much like other Mark Levinson remotes, it is solid, well laid out, and provides the quality you would expect from a piece of gear at this price level.