|Mark Levinson No. 336 Dual Monaural Power Amplifier|
|Home Theater Power Amplifiers Mono Amplifiers|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Wednesday, 01 November 2000|
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It was evident as soon as the No. 336 was broken in that it was a faster, more refined amplifier than the No. 333. A good example of this attribute was found on Paul Chamber's bass line on John Coltrane's Soultrane (DCC Jazz reissue). As Trane's sax sings way in front of my WATT Puppy's physical limits, Chamber's bass line wasn't just solid, as you'd expect from this kind of 350 watt powerhouse, it was specifically detailed. You could hear the resonance of the instrument and Chamber’s unique phrasings, especially as he climbed up the fretboard.
The No. 336 is a very precise amplifier. While listening to "The Way You Look Tonight" from Sinatra Reprise - The Very Good Years (Reprise), the No. 336 went places emotionally the other amps I have heard, including the No. 333 and the Jeff Rowland Model 112, couldn't go. The No. 336 has a presence and power that implied Ol' Blue Eye's Rat Pack swagger in front of a phenomenal arrangement. The orchestra benefited from an extremely wide soundstage, far beyond the physical limits of the speakers. There were moments when the trumpets sounded shrill. To a degree, this is the way the instruments are meant to sound when played live. Beyond that, the trumpets could have been affected by the live nature of my new listening room, which is only partially treated with absorption. Nonetheless, the No. 336 is going to point out to you the flaws, not just in your recordings, but in the rest of your system. Other amps I have owned and auditioned can cover up flaws for you. I thoroughly enjoyed my Sonic Frontiers Power Two tube amplifier for that specific reason. It reproduced music in ways that were very enjoyable, but not always most accurate. The No. 336 always lands on the side of accuracy, which means that it requires an excellent front end, preamp and cabling.
On more complex music like Earth, Wind and Fire's "September" from The Best of Earth Wind and Fire Volume 1 (Columbia), the extra power of the No. 336 really comes into play. A good friend of mine has a very efficient system, with Sonus Faber Amati Homage loudspeakers (92 dB efficient, $20,000 per pair) and Nagra 50-watt tube amps ($13,000 per pair). While the Nagras are stellar amps, they cannot create the threshold of sound while preserving the impact and details in the manner of a big amp like the Mark Levinson No. 336. With the No. 336, you get a great sense of liveliness on the incredible vocal harmonies, coupled with rock-solid bass response even at extreme levels. The high hat and cymbals did sound a bit bright, but I am confident that this reflects less-than-stellar recording on the album more than the brightness of the amp.
After the Earth, Wind and Fire demo, I was inspired to see if I could find the end of the No. 336's power reserve. When lesser-powered amps reach their limits, they tend to lose their imaging, sound out of phase and muddy in the low frequencies. Let's just say I never found the end of the No. 336. One of the more telling tests was on "Fuel" from Metallica's Reload album (Elektra). The dynamics are explosive on this cut. I, rather than the No. 336, wasn't prepared for how hard-hitting Jason Newsted's bass line was going to be at the intro, with my Proceed AVP pegged at its reference level. The guitars were scorching, but the most amazing element was how James Hetfield's voice jumped in front of the speakers. At what had to be 105 dB or more this cut rocked hard in ways I (and my neighbors - and the people walking 500 yards away on Sunset Boulevard) had never heard before. I had to reach for the volume knob long before the bass or the imaging ever gave out. Keep in mind that WATT Puppies are 93 dB efficient, which means they use power better than most loudspeakers on the market. However, listening to them on a No. 336 was like driving a very lightweight race car with a very powerful engine. It was impressive.
The Mark Levinson No. 336 is a very stable, powerful amplifier. If you were to break out every performance element of an amplifier, you would rate the No. 336 very highly in each category, with scores of 8's, 9's and 10's. There are amps on the market that sound sweeter: Sonic Frontiers and the Nagras, for example. There are a few amps that may have better bass performance, like the Krell FPB 600 and a select number of pro audio amplifiers. What these other amplifiers lack is consistently excellent performance - in each and every category - across the board. Your hot button may be sweet vocal sounds or extreme bass impact. In those cases, you may find a different amp that suits your needs better than a No. 336. The No. 336 is less extreme but much more consistent than other top-notch amplifiers.
The No. 336 is physically large and, in modern systems like mine that are rack-mounted in custom furniture, it needs to be carefully placed as to not make a professionally decorated room look like a recording studio. I was able to situate the amp in a (to my eye) tasteful-looking position near my speakers. If the idea of having a big amp on the floor is too much to take in your system, there’s an alternative. Mark Levinson recently announced that they have a mono version of the No. 336, called the 436, which is practically identical to a mono version of a No. 336, but it is designed for rack-mounting and can be used for applications such as center and/or rear channels.
If you are considering investing in the No. 336, as I have, you'll really want to have the components further upstream in your AV system upgraded to the highest expenditure that you can justify. The No. 336 is extremely revealing, which is anything but a downside. The downside is that you may have to invest in a high-end CD or DVD-A front end, because you'll find that you'll more clearly hear the weaknesses of less than state-of-the-art CD and/or DVD players.
The No. 336 is one of the best amplifiers made and among the best I have ever heard. I include it in the lofty company of the Cello Duet 350, Cello Performance II Amplifiers, Krell FPB 600 and the Jeff Rowland Model 112. A No. 336 has all the power you'd need to light up everything from very efficient loudspeakers like my Wilsons or Sonus Fabers to more power-hungry designs from Martin Logan, B&W and Madrigal's own Revel. The industrial design is excellent. The build quality is even better. The No. 336's strong suits, its power and speed, are perfectly suited for 24/96 DVD-Audio, as well as home theater applications. With the addition of the 400 series amplifiers, it is now easier to have an all-Mark Levinson 5.1 amplification system. As good as DVD-Audio is, this makes a big difference and adds value to this pricey gem.
Is the No. 336 worth the investment? If you own serious loudspeakers and are looking for a world-class amplifier to power them without a hiccup, then the answer is "yes." If your system is not quite at the level at which you can justify nearly $10,000 for an amplifier, you could make an argument for acquiring a No. 334 ($5,900) or a No. 335 ($7,900), which utilize many of the same technologies that have trickled down from the No. 336 and No. 333 amplifiers at a lesser price. The money that you save could be invested in an upgrade to your CD or DVD source. If you are like me, you'll want the extra horsepower, so you'll likely invest in the No. 336. It's far from an inexpensive amplifier, but it's worth every penny.