|Mark Levinson No. 40 AV Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Sunday, 01 June 2003|
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Since the glory days of high-end audio in the late 1970s, the Mark Levinson brand has been associated with the world’s finest and most expensive preamps. Back in the day, the Mark Levinson brand was established on stereo preamps like the Mark Levinson JC1, which cost easily three times more than its closest competitor and yet sold like hotcakes. In today’s market, Harman International’s Madrigal, the parent company of the Mark Levinson brand, resisted releasing a high-end AV preamp to the market until years after other competitors had launched their products. Until now, Madrigal AV preamps were pretty much limited to the Proceed AVP, which was a very effective component but didn’t have the all-out high-end approach of a Mark Levinson product.
Today there is the Mark Levinson No. 40, which is a $30,000, dual-chassis AV preamp with a no-compromises design approach that takes the best Madrigal knows about stereo preamps, DACs, video switching and modular design and merges it all into one product. Upon first look, the most striking feature of the No. 40 is its small LCD video screen, directly in the center of the video box. The video screen eliminates the problem of having to navigate setup and preference menus on your video playback system. With the No. 40, all of your setup and system operations are available to you right in front of your nose.
Another excellent design feature of the No. 40 is its use of four knobs, with no more than about nine buttons total on both chasses. This makes system operations extremely easy with the No. 40. On the audio box, you’ll find volume on the right and surround mode on the left. There are five buttons on the audio box that I rarely use, including sound profile, display intensity, recall, balance and mute. Many of these settings are found on the hefty yet hand-sized remote, or can be programmed into the inputs when you set the No. 40 up with each of its inputs.
The video box, as mentioned earlier, has the LCD video screen and two matching knobs, one for input and the other for zone. If you are not using the No. 40 for multi-room systems, you may never touch the zone knob. You will certainly use the input knob if you control your system by hand. Some people with Crestron or AMX systems never need to actually touch their AV preamps because all of their features are programmed in their remotes. I have yet to get such a remote, but have plans to obtain one in the near future. I still think I will be using the hard volume and input controls, however. The buttons on the video box are more useful than the audio box. These include preview, display mode, menu select and enter. Preview is about the coolest feature ever, because you can very easily enjoy one source while cueing up others. For example, let’s say that you are watching a football game on digital cable, it is about to end and that you want to watch a DVD next. During the last commercial break, you can press preview, switch the input for preview purposes, set the disc up on the LCD screen, and then press preview again to finish watching the rest of the game. Your DVD will be all ready to go without you having to really interrupt your TV program. This is an especially useful feature for dealers who are trying to sell the No. 40 and/or gear associated with it. You can cue a DVD-Audio disc while finishing up an SACD, assuming you have two 5.1 analog inputs in your No. 40, which I recommend for many music enthusiast systems. Both the audio and video boxes have standby and hard power buttons on their faceplates. The hard power buttons are good for giving your No. 40 a fresh restart, as you would a PC that has been on for days. Honestly, I just leave my No. 40 on and it never really gives me any trouble. The only time I need the hard buttons is if there is a power failure in my building.
The No. 40, much like its highest-end competitors, has a modular design, meaning that you can add functionality to the unit with the simple addition of a card. In my case, I added a second six-channel analog input for SACD and DVD-Audio inputs. In the future, you might expect to see cards for Firewire inputs for DVD-Audio and possibly SACD or some sort of DVI video input for more advanced HDTV systems. Because of the dual-chassis modular design, the No. 40 can fit the needs of pretty much any system configuration you could possibly create today. As new surround formats are developed, your dealer can easily update the No. 40’s software without shipping or even removing it from your system.
Another performance feature that is greatly appreciated by this reviewer is video transcoding. Without wanting to sound like a written transcript of “The Screen Savers on TechTV,” video transcoding is the conversion (upconversion in most cases) of your video signal to a rate that you can export to the format of your choice. For example, you have determined that the output of your No. 40 will be component and will therefore have your No. 40 convert your composite and S-Video inputs to a component output. The No. 40 has very high video bandwidth capabilities (70 MHz). However, I could not run my HDTV signal through the No. 40, because in my system, I use a Faroudja NRS video scaler and there is no way for the Faroudja to know that the output of the No. 40 doesn’t need processing. For this reason, I have my HD receiver hooked directly into the input of the Faroudja NRS via the HD pass-through the input of the processor. It adds some complexity to switching from NTSC video to HDTV, but it was the best solution I could devise.
Under The Hood
Technologically, with a $30,000 price tag, the Mark Levinson No. 40 is allowed to use no-compromise parts and internal components with the goal of getting the best sound and picture possible for clients. Strangely, Madrigal makes a point of noting that the No. 40 is not a “reference component” like their reference-level No. 32 stereo preamp or their No. 33 power amps. I am not sure why the No. 40 isn’t worthy of such classification, especially considering how much technology it borrows from the Mark Levinson reference components.
The ADCs (analog to digital converters) are the first place where the No. 40 sets itself apart from other AV preamps. All analog inputs are converted to 24-bit 96 kHz signals by a collection of Sigma Delta DACs. The output is fully balanced into the preamps and can be fully balanced all the way to your power amps. The DACs get their own power supply regulation, much as the preamp stage of the No. 40 uses top of the line digital filters to keep things stable and quiet.
The No. 40 uses a total of four Analog Devices Sharc 32-bit processors, which could perhaps be enough to take on IBM’s Big Blue in a chess match. With all of the latest upconversion for movies and music, coupled with all of the new surround formats, the No. 40 needs some serious processing power – and gets it. In fact, it has enough for future technologies (surround modes for example) that could come via software upgrades.
In terms of preamplifier technologies, the No. 40 starts with some serious power supplies that are uniquely power-regulated and create very little heat. The No. 40’s preamp channels are fully balanced (to match the DACs), using metal film resistors, polypropylene and polyhenylsulfide caps, and more. To avoid jitter from digital inputs, the No. 40 uses a low-jitter reference clock, DC regulation for the DACs and then self-contain the components.