|Mark Levinson No. 32 Reference Stereo Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Monday, 01 April 2002|
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I wanted to cover a variety of music examples, material that I used to evaluate the No. 32 as well as music that I felt provided a solid foundation for discerning sonic differences. Occasionally we receive complaints that the music selected is not “audiophile grade” and therefore serves no purpose for evaluation. I feel quite differently. In my view, the best music to evaluate a piece of equipment is the music that you love, and those cuts that provide you the greatest emotional connection.
I found some interesting initial results from Train’s most recent, Drops of Jupiter (Sony Music) and the title track of the same name. The No. 32 provided more musical information than I have been hearing from my Sonic Frontiers Line 3 preamplifier. This didn't come as a complete surprise due to the fact that the line 3 is a tube preamplifier and the strengths of tubes are not ultimate resolution but absolute sweetness and reality. With the No. 32, Pat Monahan’s vocals were exceptionally detailed. The No. 32 revealed vocal textures, and articulated previously unheard elements like a crunch in his vocal chords. The overall sound of Monahan’s voice was more pure and liquid than I have heard before.
Next in my battery of listening tests was Cyrus Chestnut’s Earth Stories (Atlantic) and the song “Grandma’s Blues.” In this cut I focused particularly on the percussion, a simple drum set that sits atop the stage politely in the distance. Details in the cymbals were eerily defined and the position perfectly distinguishable. I honestly found myself gasping at the reality of the sticks against the bell of the ride cymbal. In the song “Nutman’s Invention #1,” the piano felt as if it was physically in my room, or as close to it as any piano has yet been. Piano is one of the more difficult instruments to reproduce accurately. This song showcased the dynamic range of the No. 32 in all of its splendid. The tone of the hammers striking the strings was not only more realistic than I have ever heard reproduced, but provided an experience so life-like that it wasn’t the slightest stretch to believe that a Steinway Grand was present in my listening room. The resonance and decay of the lower frequency strings were warm and naturally aggressive yet never forward. I was positively floored by this cut. At high volumes, perhaps twice the natural volume of the acoustic instrument, the presentation remained firm without the least bit of abrasiveness. Remembering back, it was the synthetic, aggressive, and unforgiving presentation of solid-state preamps that originally steered me towards tubes many years ago, the No. 32 supplied the lush detail and quickness necessary to make an instrument sound live, and still supplied the silkiness of the best tubes today. It made me ponder the phrase “tube sweetness” as perhaps it might be more accurately defined in many cases as “tube softness.”
I went to a cut from one of my favorite entertainers of all time, Tony Bennett, from the wonderfully recorded and performed MTV Unplugged record. (Sony/Columbia) In the song “Speak Real Low,” I directed my attention to the part where Mr. Bennett asks the crowd to join in with the snapping of their fingers. With components short of perfection, this can sound as abrasive as rain hitting a tin roof. The No. 32 displayed an interesting phenomenon; one different than with any other preamp that I had heard, it created a perfect air that surrounded individual snaps making them seem completely distinguishable. I felt as if I could focus on a single snap in any given area and zero in. The No. 32 was capable of creating a sense of space and depth that was more real than artificial. I have heard tremendous stages before but the No. 32 made me believe that the images were truthful and present in my room. I heard the difference between perfectly defined, as with other great preamps that I have heard, and the next evolution – complete actuality. The difference here is what I had alluded to earlier, the ability to not just create perfect three-dimensional images, but to fool ones mind into believing that you are there. That is indeed what this quest for sonic perfection is really all about.
In the song “It Had to be You,” the No. 32 completely stepped aside letting the air in the room take over. I was mesmerized by the brushwork of Clayton Cameron, one of the greatest jazz percussionist of today and arguably the greatest brushman of all time. The Mark Levinson No. 32 sounded so completely absent that I could not only perfectly discern the rotational speed of the brushes on the snare drum, but could differentiate the pressure differences applied to the brushes. This was a liberating experience as I felt as if I was allowed an exclusive backstage pass and beyond the restrictions bestowed upon the everyday show attendee. In this case the restrictions that I am referring to is that of the electronics in my system.
Ben Harpers - Fight For Your Mind (Virgin), proved to be a worthy auditioning tool, it’s a fun piece of music but can sound less than superb with some components. In the song “Burn One Down” the percussion to the left of the stage was so accurate, it could fool the blind man. The tabla drums had a ring and body that were as good as I have ever heard. They were focused, articulate and precise sounding. The guitar had the sound of fresh strings with mounds of detailed sustain. This disc is one that gets more playing time in my car due to its less than completely enjoyable recording qualities for the ultra revealing home systems. However, I found with this disc as I did with about every other that I played through the No. 32 that it wasn’t solely the disc that was performing poorly, but was aided by the equipment that it was being played through. Not to say that all other preamps performed to a sub standard, just that the No. 32 performed a cut above.
Theater and Movies
Because I am a musician and a music lover first, and a video and movie lover second, I am not willing to compromise my music system in creating a top notch A/V system. The fact is that A/V preamps, even at their very best, are still not at the level of today’s reference grade two-channel preamps. Because of this, I maintain a high-level line stage preamp such as the No. 32, which allows me an ultra-pure audio sound system that is isolated from the imperfect defects of my A/V system. Rather than use my A/V preamp for music, even though the Anthem AVM20 is exceptionally good; it would be a huge step down from either the Sonic Frontiers preamp that I have been using, or the Levinson No. 32 that I am auditioning. To achieve this, I connected the CD source straight into the No. 32 line stage preamp, and the outputs from the No. 32 into my amplifiers. That assures a pure audio path. I then took the front main loudspeaker outputs from the A/V preamp and ran them into a second input of the No. 32. When I watch movies, I would then select this specific input and turn the volume control of the No. 32 to the specified and calibrated level for watching movies. Not necessarily for all, but a solution for those that can afford to run a dedicated high-quality two-channel preamp and will not stand for musical compromise.