|Mark Levinson No. 436 Monaural Power Amplifier|
|Home Theater Power Amplifiers Mono Amplifiers|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Wednesday, 01 January 2003|
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Throughout the audition period, I was impressed by the way these monstrously powered amplifiers could reproduce the seductiveness of vocals. An excellent example came from Tori Amos’s latest, Scarlet’s Walk (Epic). In the cut “Wampum Prayer,” the percussion intro was notably clear and airy. The piano, an instrument that is historically difficult to reproduce with accuracy, was placed distantly in the stage, yet sounded remarkably real. The No436 was able to reproduce both the strike of the hammers and the decay of this warm instrument as well as I have ever heard on any system with any recorded piano. Amos' vocals possessed fantastic inner detail and complex vocal timbres. In fact, I have yet to hear an amplifier that I felt recreated the complete vocal experience better than these amps. I have long loved tube amplification for its ability to breath life and midrange purity into my music. I was willing to accept the many compromises of tube amplification just to experience the sheer reality and seductiveness that tubes can provide. The No436 amplifiers had a quality that made me forget about the stereotypical differences inherent in the two designs, providing extremely transparent instrumental and vocal textures. In the song “Ms. Jesus,” Amos' voice was crisply detailed and infinitely resolute, down to the finite crunch in her vocal cords.
Moving from the clean side of vocal perfection to the awesomely filthy side of grunge, I loaded Mad Season’s Above (Columbia). In the song “Artificial Red,” the No436’s treated me to a unique combination experience of low-end authority and sweet yet transparent high frequencies. This recording is nasty enough that I was never wowed completely but it highlighted some specifically good characteristics of the No436s. The snare drum was tight, with a very natural ring and impending decay, and the guitar tone is simply infectious. In the song “Long Gone Day,” the saxophone was placed beautifully in the depth of the stage. Overall, this recording had better weight throughout the midband than I have heard from a solid-state amplifier. As I found with other recordings, Lane Staley’s vocals had a gloriously natural texture.
Off to some multi-channel music I went, with Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth (DTS Entertainment). For those enabled with the capability to play multi-channel DTS, this recording is truly special in every way, and perhaps the best sounding popular recording ever pressed to a disc of any kind. It unites the rare combination of a fabulous artist and performer, along with a beautifully done recording. The No436s had me listening to these tracks louder than ever before. In the opening cut “I’ve Been to Memphis,” the No436s were presented with the challenge of maintaining transparency and depth in the piano, yet providing power and low-frequency authority with the introduction of the drums. Even at volumes that could be heard three doors down, the instruments remained separated and without the slightest congestion. This recording through the No436 amplifiers was nothing short of sensational.
In Ridley Scott’s "Black Hawk Down" (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment), I put the 436s to the test. I listen to movies very loudly and what I have found with other high-powered, solid-state amplifiers is that the less than perfect soundtrack information could sound brittle in the upper frequencies. The No436’s didn’t. Many amplifiers sound great and lack annoying artifacts on well-recorded audiophile music, but to take something like a shoot-'em-up soundtrack that is played at extreme volumes yielding sweet and detailed sound is extraordinary. It made me want five No436s (one for each speaker) to truly realize the potential of the soundtrack. With the absence of a subwoofer, the helicopters still sounded surprisingly powerful and didn’t provide even the slightest signs of fatigue. Details such as the sound of copter blades piercing the wind and bullets flying by, were richly detailed, more so than with any other amplifier that I have auditioned to date. If I were to use more superlatives here, I might lose credibility with you. Just make sure to bring "Black Hawk Down" with you when you audition amps at this level and you’ll see what I am talking about.
My listening experience with the No436 amplifiers showed that they had an extremely quiet and richly detailed top end. They did not have the ultimate high-frequency transparency of the Linn Twin that I reviewed a couple moths back at $9,000, yet the No436s had an overall better balance. Although the No436s had less high-frequency information than the Twins, the high frequencies were nevertheless more pleasurable for my taste. The No436s didn’t have quite the sheer low-end power of the Pass X350, yet the No436s were more enjoyable than the Pass X350 in nearly every way. Taking all the techno mojo from the equation, the No.436s made me want to listen to real-world music and blockbuster movies more and at higher volumes.
The high frequencies of the No436 could be on the soft side for adrenaline junkies (like AudioRevolution.com publisher Jerry del Colliano). The low frequencies are likewise a bit mellower, albeit very controlled and solid, unlike the Mack truck-slamming bass that the Pass and Krell amplifiers provide. For me, the No436’s response was exemplary and preferable to either of the aforementioned amplifiers.
As always, before laying out the hard-earned dough, give them all a listen
The amplifier is a simple component when compared to feature-laden A/V preamps and many digital products, yet they have the job of a mighty workhorse. They should not be the forgotten component, but rather the foundation of your A/V system. The Mark Levinson No436 mono amplifiers are the best amps I have heard in my system and, in my opinion, are the best-sounding amplifiers in their price class. Del Colliano might prefer the comparably-priced monaural Krell Mcx 350s, but for my system, I stand by my comments. Also note that I am backing up my superlatives with my wallet – I bought the pair for my reference system.
I could go on to say in detail why I made the purchase, but I would rather opt for the simple explanation that they made me enjoy every aspect of my listening experience more than I ever had before. They are infinitely involving and brought me closer to my music. Although expensive for the pair, and even more so for the five or seven if you are so inclined to obtain them all for your A/V system, they are worth every penny.