|Mark Levinson No. 32 Reference Stereo Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Monday, 01 April 2002|
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When Mark Levinson announced they would be introducing a $16,000 preamp ($18,500 with the phono section) there was a group of long time loyalists who scurried to authorized dealers to put down deposits while other audiophiles and music enthusiasts simply shook their heads in amazement. $16,000 is a lot of money for a preamp even for the first “Reference” preamp from Mark Levinson. I’d be lying to say I wasn’t just a bit curious as to what Madrigal could do if cost was no object and with the No. 32 clearly cost isn’t the concern – performance is.
With time and dramatic changes to my music system, the need (OK you can call it a lust) for a reference preamp became evident. I arranged for a review sample and then the fun began. After unpacking, careful inspection revealed a beautifully designed and assembled product. The No. 32 looks great with its twenty first century styling and is built to tolerances I have never seen in any audio product. After examining over the No. 32 like a jeweler would the most rare of gems, I concluded that the No. 32 mechanically, is unequivocally the most impressively engineered A/V product that I’ve fondled.
Many of today’s elite preamplifiers use a two chassis design to optimize performance by removing their noisy power supplies from the sensitive audio electronics. Mark Levinson has taken a fresh approach with the No. 32 by packaging its power supplies, control circuitry, and display electronics in one enclosure, then placing the sensitive audio circuitry in another, an interesting and creative approach that makes intuitive sense. Although there are benefits in separating the power supplies alone, noise generated by the display, switches, and other devices could possibly infiltrate the audio path to some level when contained in same enclosure.
The sleek "controller" chassis contains all of the No. 32’s controls. To the left and right are sculpted, bead-blasted aluminum knobs measuring approximately an inch in diameter, controlling source selection and volume respectively. The front panel has a sparse selection of controls with a button to select recording output, one to attenuate the display intensity, a system setup menu button, balance, mute, and standby allowing you to leave the system in a pre-warmed stage, ready for listening.
The volume control on the No. 32 is engineering artistry in its own right. Its attenuator design uses 66 SMT mounted resistors per channel, providing clean control in 0.1 dB increments. This level of infinite adjustment took some time to adjust to. A couple clicks of the volume control on the remote, provided indistinguishable change. To make any real difference you need to be patient. The feel of the volume knob on the control unit is magnificent. At the center of the control chassis is a large display with red LED characters measuring approximately one-half inch in height. This display is very legible and easily viewed with capable eyes from across a large room.
The rear panel of the control chassis provides left and right DC power outputs for the separate preamp module, a DC power connector for use with the Mark Levinson No. 25 external phono stage, and the main A/C power input. It also provides control ports for Phast and other controllers, a RS-232 port for future software upgrades, communication ports, and IR trigger I/O. DC power cables in three-foot lengths to connect the two chassis’ are included.
At the heart of the control module is the No. 32’s power regeneration system. The effects of poor power are well documented and a condition that plagues absolutely every A/V system. Some homes have better power yet everyone reaps the misfortune of sharing power with neighbors and their appliances. With the No. 32, the power comes from the two power supplies, one for each channel, and then runs through a dedicated power amplifier optimized to produce a single frequency of 400 Hz. This pure sine wave is then rectified, filtered, and regulated, providing the No. 32 with clean power at a frequency that makes its electronics run profoundly more efficiently. Those familiar with power regeneration will recognize this concept as nothing new, with a number of available outboard power products that successfully employ similar technological concepts. It should be pointed out however that there is a difference between concept and implementation.
The “Preamp Module” electronics are contained in a die-cast aluminum enclosure with separate sealed compartments for the left and right channel audio electronics. The only information allowed to enter the shielded compartments is channel specific audio signals and the purified DC power. Mark Levinson uses the ultra-expensive Arlon 25N material on the No. 32’s sensitive PC boards. This material is known for its extremely uniform and low dielectric constant minimizing cross-talk and noise.
The fully balanced phono stage option for the No. 32 comes in the form of two enclosed and shielded modules that can either be ordered with your No. 32, or purchased later and installed by your local dealer. The review unit was not outfitted with the optional phono modules therefore I recommend that you audition them before purchasing this option.
The remote control for the No. 32 is built equal to the standard that the rest of the preamp. It has a good layout with large square rubber buttons, providing only essential functions thus eliminating the dreaded handful of confusion factor. My only complaint being that this solidly constructed remote, made from hefty extruded black anodized aluminum, was too heavy for my tastes. I didn’t like the balance and it never quite felt comfortable in my hand or my lap.