Mark Levinson No. 40 AV Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Sunday, 01 June 2003

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.

In my opinion, if you are buying a Mark Levinson No. 40, you are likely not going to be setting it up yourself. Dealers can use a PC to pre-program your No. 40 to have all of your preferences in the unit before they deliver it. They can also set up the No. 40 in a way that locks the client out of setup fields and preferences that could get the client in trouble. Depending on you and/or your family’s level of technical sophistication, you can set the lock-out accordingly. The No. 40 also has a way to return to the “non-volatile” system setup, so that you can get crazy with the settings after polishing off too much Batard Montrachet one night and then quickly snap back to the settings that your dealer set for you, without even having to pick up the phone for a support visit.

Going through the setup process does give you an idea of some of the vast capabilities of the No. 40. If you hit the menu button and flip the input knob, you will bring up the main categories of setup and configuration. The first main category is speaker settings. This is where you define levels, distance from your seating position and more. You will want to use a tape measure to measure off the exact position of all of your speakers, including your sub(s), for this setup section.

One of the options of the No. 40 is to set up multiple listening positions. I thought I wasn’t going to like this, but ended up loving it. Historically, audiophiles sit in the “sweet spot” to get the best imaging. With four DSP processors and at least six speakers, the No. 40 can create accurate imaging and shift it to other parts of the room. In my case, I created two settings: one for dead center in the middle of my seating and another for “left couch.” Literally, I measured off the exact positions of my ears when I am sitting on my favorite part of my couch and had the No. 40 make it image in that precise location. I know some audiophiles might scoff at this feature, but I am now a believer. In fact, while in left couch listening position, the center imaging is pretty damn good when sitting in the middle of the sofa. It is of course better towards the left end of my sofa.

The next main mode of setup is sound profiles where you can define your preferences for listening in mono, stereo and multi-channel audio. You can, for instance, decide that you want it to use your center listening position setting for stereo listening material. You might then tell it that mono material gets Dolby Pro Logic II matrix surround and the left couch seating position.

Define Inputs is a very important part of your setup process. This is the section where you name your inputs and define which audio and video inputs are associated with which output. In this section, you appreciate the attention to detail that went into the No. 40’s design, like the ability to name inputs with all sorts of characters and symbols, including lower- and upper-case. You can actually spell TiVo correctly with upper- and lower-case letters, using a very intuitive page on the LCD screen that you can scroll through with one of the knobs and the enter button. It is actually very fast. Another trick feature of the No. 40’s setup is that once you have some music rolling, you can actually use the volume control, even when you are four levels deep on the setup screens. The input select feature is a work of genius, with a graphic interface that literally shows you all of the inputs you have in your No. 40. In order to program your DVD-Audio input, you define its name, then select its audio input by scrolling through the options on the user interface. The graphic interface looks just like the back of your No. 40, so it is pretty easy to remember where you put what. It also helps to make some notes. When you get to, say, audio input No. 5, you’ll see six analog inputs highlighted in yellow. Hit enter and you are done. Then you move on to video. Perhaps your DVD-Audio player is not your reference player, so you might not connect it via component video. Perhaps you’ll use S-Video – you simply choose the S input you plugged into and then select it on your graphic interface. Now you are hooked up. Other cool features include the ability to offset the analog input from your analog sources so that they don’t overdrive your No. 40. Both my SACD and two different DVD-Audio players did that for me. Fixing the problem only took 30 seconds and the problem was gone forever. Other important decisions during the input definition part of the setup include setting which sound profile you want and listening position you want for each position.

The rest of the setup process includes audio defaults, which allow you to switch from one, two and multi-channel speaker modes on the fly. I never really used this, because I had these preferences programmed into my inputs directly. User Options are even more general preferences, such as the speed you use for muting scales down and the exact increments in which it scales down. There are display and remote options found in User Options as well. Lastly, Output Zones allows you to define the outputs for a multi-zone audio system, which I also didn’t use, although they looked pretty easy to set up.

Even though the setup process seems incredibly detailed in this review, it is in fact very simple and could be completed in most systems without a PC in about an hour. If you have experience with the No. 40, you could cut that time in half. You can save your setup on a CD and/or on a hard drive, so that you can always have your setup work ready to upload for whatever possible reason arises.

Industrial Design
The No. 40 absolutely leads all other AV preamps and/or any other electronics I have reviewed or even seen to date in terms of physical design. The industrial design of the No. 40 is modern, slick and elegant, but even better is how intuitive it is to use when you consider how flexible and powerful a tool it is. The use of a mere nine buttons and four knobs on the front of the unit is a pleasant departure from the overly populated faceplates of many AV preamps. The No. 40 can be outfitted with a kit for rack-mounting that makes the installation look seamless.

When almost all other high-end preamps need a PC and at least the first year or two of an electric engineering degree to set them up, the No. 40 wins the Steven Jobs Intuitive AV component of the Year award. Things are where they should be and are accessible easily and quickly for day to day and setup purposes. For an AV reviewer, this is truly a pleasure, one that I think will filter down to a more traditional end user who demands high-end performance with simplicity at the same time.

The Music on the No. 40
Starting with traditional 16-bit CDs being played on a Meridian 800 CD/DVD-V/DVD-Audio player, I went to some world-class soul from the title track of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (MCA). I have heard this record thousands of times, but not until I listened to it on the Meridian 800/No. 40 combo did I notice that as “Electric Ladyland” begins, you can actually hear the old-school analog effects cycle along with the drum beat before Jimi’s guitar starts in.

It was on the track “Rainy Day, Dream Away” that I started to appreciate the magnitude of the upgrade to the No. 40 from my former reference standard, the Proceed AVP. Now the AVP has been upgraded to an AVP2 recently, which was major, but it still ain’t no No. 40 and this Hendrix track was solid proof. At low levels, you can hear the young Steve Winwood’s electric organ bubble over with bluesy soul. The sax beams forward, more like a musical instrument and less like a stereo system. Jimi’s voice, when switched over to Pro-Logic II + THX, took on an added height and was centered with rock-solid stability. Some purists are switching over to listening to their stereo material in matrix surround, thanks to Pro Logic II. I must admit, with the right material, it isn’t bad. With serious processing power in the No. 40, it doesn’t resemble the shrill, lifeless music effects (hall, church, etc.) of AV preamps from years ago.

The next 16-bit CD up for audition was Prince’s Purple Rain (Warner Brothers) for the tune “The Beautiful Ones.” On the No. 40, “The Beautiful Ones” sounded more three-dimensional, but all of the advanced DACs and processors couldn’t smooth out the bright cymbals and fatiguing snares. The wimpy bass never came to life with the improved gear. However, Prince’s guitar solo halfway through the track had a depth and energy that was as good as I have ever heard it.

Moving back in time to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (EMI) “When I’m Sixty-Four,” the normally cloudy-sounding track cleared up like a pimply-faced kid mainlining Accutane on an IV. I was knocked out by the decay on the bell that rings before the start of the second verse. The whole Sgt. Pepper’s record sounded more like musical instruments playing live and less like a reproduction. Any music fan could hear and appreciate the differences.

I transitioned over to SACDs with my relatively cost-effective Sony SCD-555 changer (about $700) as source running into my No. 40. I had my Meridian 800 hooked up, with both analog (5.1 for DVD-Audio and Movies) and digital out for comparison’s sake. My SACD player was hooked up via 5.1 analog inputs, which showed the No. 40’s effects on lesser DACs from the SACD player. Ultimately, the No. 40 upconverts and scales the analog inputs to 24-96 (or higher frequency, in some cases), but lesser DACs going out remain lesser DACs.

Putting the DAC issue aside, I was able to get some great sound from the newest SACD releases from Universal Music Group (Verve), specifically the Brazilian jazz classic Getz and Gilberto. This record set the standard for the genre of Brazilian jazz and has long been one of my reference audio CDs for its stellar recording and suave style. The SACD version was eminently smoother than the 16-bit CD coming in digitally from a very well-built Marantz DVD-Audio player source. On the SACD, you notice the subtle differences of the fingering of the chords as the tune saunters along. The recording sounds dated in terms of the hard panning left and right for imaging, but the overall musicality is as good as much of what you’ll hear from the best recordings of today. Ultimately, every second of Getz and Gilberto is brilliant, and on the SACD into the No. 40, it is like heroin for your ears. Once you get a shot of it, you keep coming back.

Switching over to DVD-Audio, I fired up another classic from the late 1950s, Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section. This is a Japanese DVD-Audio disc that is pretty much unavailable in the U.S., but it is worth making the effort to find overseas it because it is scary good, even in stereo. I paid $60 for the DVD-Audio disc, plus shipping, and would have paid more now that I have had the chance to hear it on my system. After listening to this album on the No. 40, fed from the Meridian 800, I can say I have never heard a musical event sound this amazing unless I was out at a live performance or sitting in on a studio session. The presence was disgustingly good, with the kind of musical reality and presence that makes you want to turn up the volume more and more, yet the system never gives out. The bass on the CD from a different source sounds puny in comparison to what’s on this DVD-Audio title. Red Garland’s first piano solo sounds so palpable that you’d argue you could tell exactly where on the keys he was voicing the notes and chords. Best of all is Pepper’s alto sax, which beams far in front of my Wilson WATT Puppy V6.0’s in ways you will only hear with the center channel on. And this was just stereo.

To get all of the speakers going in high-resolution surround, I fired up my favorite DVD-Audio title that’s been released so far, Yes’ Fragile (Rhino). On the progressive rock classic “Roundabout,” you get to hear a no-holds-barred free-for-all from a band that can really play. Jon Anderson’s voice projects strongly from the center speaker, while sharing the spotlight with bassist Chris Squire on the right side of the soundstage and guitarist Steve Howe on the left. Add in virtuoso rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman and you have a musical onslaught that goes from zero to 60 in a hurry. As the tune develops, runs from Wakeman and Howe (using both electric and acoustic guitars) move from front to back and from left to right, creating a 360-degree musical experience that makes one wonder why all records don’t sound this good. The only level for this tune is loud and the No. 40 sets things up perfectly for a tight, resolute experience that never gives out. When the track is over in about seven minutes, you need to catch your breath.

The Movies on the No. 40
I was obsessed with high-resolution audio playback during the first few weeks that I had my No. 40. I searched for SACDs and DVD-Audio titles like an audio freak. When I got my Meridian 800, I didn’t have enough analog inputs to connect it for a few weeks while I was using a different DVD-Audio player, so I hooked it up digitally. What I saw in terms of video quality though the No. 40 was stunning. Faults I was blaming on my Madrigal Imaging D-ILA projector cleared up, which prompted me to watch more movies.

The most fun I had was with “Zoolander” (Paramount Home Entertainment). Early in the film, as Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is looking for moral support from his very gay male model clique, the posse enthusiastically suggests that the solution to Derek’s problems will be obtaining Orange Mocha Frappaccinos. Driving through streets of Manhattan, the motley crew of pretty boys hang from an older, top-down Jeep while ridiculously jamming out to Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.” I was laughing so hard the first two times I watched the scene that I didn’t notice how well the No. 40 did with upconverting the audio from the Meridian 800 via its analog inputs. It sounded pretty darn good on a careful listen. Once the boys get their Starbucks, Derek is distracted by a huge billboard featuring his rival Hansel (Owen Wilson). In the meantime, his pals are frolicking at the gas station – splashing water on each other. Upon careful listening you can hear them plunk the washers into the buckets and then spraying water from left to right and or right left. Within seconds the boys graduate from splashing water to playfully dousing themselves with gallons of unleaded fuel. Thoughtlessly, one of the gorgeous but mentally challenged male models lights up a cigarette and blows everyone but Derek to bits. Who knows how the explosion sounds – you’re laughing too hard to hear it.

I was impressed with the No. 40’s ability to resolve more subtle details at lower levels. In “Jackie Brown” (Miramax Home Entertainment), bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) stops by his new client Jackie’s (Pam Grier) home to retrieve the handgun that she swiped from the glove box of his car when he was driving her home from a stint in jail for smuggling $50,000 cash and two ounces of blow. The scene was shot in the morning and as Jackie pours a cup of black coffee, she asks Max if he wants to listen to some music. He awkwardly agrees, being a very white man in a beautiful black woman’s apartment. She sets down an LP of The Delfonics “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).” Although this Philly-soul standard is never played that loudly in the film, you can hear the cracks and pops of the record while hanging onto the very carefully crafted dialogue. The content and the way the LP sounds, paired with the resolute dialogue, provides the kind of subtle details that add up to the total suspension of disbelief that one can achieve while watching a movie on the Mark Levinson No. 40.

The Downside
Allow me to wipe the drool from my chin long enough to pick fault with the Mark Levinson No. 40, because while it is certainly great, it isn’t completely perfect. First off, the No. 40 has no matching Mark Levinson DVD/DVD-Audio/SACD player that can be connected digitally. Meridian has an AV preamp DVD/CD/DVD-Audio (sans the SACD) combination at the reference level for about the same price as just a No. 40. Moreover, the Meridian components can connect digitally, which requires a “proprietary” connection these days but some day will work via Firewire. The No. 40 has the room to take a Firewire card, yet the Meridian, because it has both components and its own connection, can do it today. The performance difference that achieved with an all-digital connection is really nice.

The preamps and the DACs in the No. 40 are very good on paper and certainly in practice, but those who are looking to compare and contrast preamps and DACs as they upgrade from a high-end audio system to a multi-channel system will find No. 40’s lack of an analog pass-through to be a disadvantage. For example, with an analog pass-through, I could have compared the internal DACs in the Meridian 800 with the ones inside the No. 40. In reality, everything that goes into the No. 40 analog is upconverted by the DACs inside. Madrigal’s argument is a good one in that that their DACs are excellent; after all, all analog sources sound better upconverted. Also, according to Madrigal, even one analog pass-through would defeat the bass management of the No. 40, and you certainly wouldn’t want that.

Beyond downsides, the things I would wish for on the No. 40 include better screen savers. Madrigal could license high-end photos to fill the LCD screen when it goes to sleep. Apple does this successfully with their OSX. Lastly, I would like to see simple Internet connectivity for the No. 40 for upgrades and dealer support. I never really want to get my email with the No. 40, but it would be nice to have the periodic software updates download if I want them via an onscreen prompt, much like my TiVo provides. If I had issues with the No. 40 and needed help, it would be nice to have a dealer or Madrigal download my settings from even a simple dialup modem.

There are few who would argue with the statement that the Mark Levinson sets an entirely new standard for high-end AV preamps. It merges more than 20 years of audio and video design knowledge with a rich tradition of no-compromise audio components. Ultimately, the No. 40 took forever to come out and for good reason. In terms of reliability, it is rock solid, unlike Madrigal’s much-maligned (but recently and finally fixed) Proceed PMDT DVD transport. Madrigal knows that high-end enthusiasts want the highest performance from a Mark Levinson branded AV preamp and they give us that with room to spare.

When a reviewer breaks off a check to buy a single component that costs over three times more than my first car, readers should interpret this as the compliment to the product that it is. It has been a long time since I have owned a phenomenal preamp and outrageously good DACs, and I never want to go without them again. I mean no disrespect to the Proceed AVP, which served me well and neatly managed my growing AV system for years, but the No. 40 is just that much better. When you consider the No. 40’s absurdly high cost, its overall advantages and its disadvantages, there just isn’t a better AV preamp on the market. I encourage existing owners of Mark Levinson electronics, even the two-channel guys, to start negotiating trade-in values with your dealers. You will want a No. 40 the second you see it.
Manufacturer Mark Levinson
Model No. 40 AV Preamplifier

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