Published: 1. January 2013, No. 104
It is said that extraordinary people have several “lives.” Unlike computer games characters, they don’t die to be reborn but simply move on from one “stage” to another. They have so many ideas and energy to carry them out that they are usually not satisfied with tight constrictions of a single activity. They face underwater shoals and reefs but for those who are able to steer past them achieve immortality – they will be remembered by what they have left behind. This principle applies to every area of human activity – to scientists, musicians, engineers, doctors, teachers, and all activities where creativity is their to be or not to be.
One of such people is Mark Levinson. If we were to ask people on the street, who is this man, we might be surprised by their answers, especially if the poll was conducted in the United States. I think that many answers – actually a lot of answering women – would point to him as the husband of Kim Cattrall with whom he co-authored the book-tutorial titled The Art Of The Female Orgasm (Fig. Fritz Drury, Thorsons, 2002). Kim Cattrall in turn is well known to every person who has ever seen her portraying Samantha Jones in the TV series Sex and the City, broadcast by HBO between 1998 and 2004. Already after this short introduction we can see that Levinson, described on the occasion of the book promotion as an “audio designer” is a remarkable man.
Sex apart, the jewel in Levinson’s crown is his company Mark Levinson. Founded in 1972, in a short time it became synonymous with high-end. Before it happened, born in 1946 in Oakland, California, the son of Daniel J. Levinson and Maria Hertz Levinson, Mark Levinson grew up in the Boston area and then in New Haven. His father, a professor of psychology at Yale and Harvard (for 40 years!) was the author of a fundamental book for one of the strands of psychology titled Seasons of a Man's Life.
His son from childhood had musical inclinations. Before he turned 20 he played double bass and trumpet with the great figures of jazz: John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Griffin, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. It was possible because of his stubbornness but also his father’s professional contacts.
At the age of 21 he built something that changed his life – a PA console for Woodstock Music Festival (1969).
Four years later he founded his first company, Mark Levinson Audio Systems. His first product was the LNP-2 preamplifier in which he used the experience gained during designing the console. Ten years later, in 1982, the company bearing his name was taken over by Madrigal that subsequently launched many new products; Mark Levinson, the designer, however, no longer had anything in common with any of them. Not only did he – the Madrigal board also fired his closest associate, Tom Colangelo, as well as other key employees.
Levinson could not sit still in place so the same year, 1982, he founded another company, Cello Technologies, which for many people is a "cult" brand through such products as, among others, the extremely sophisticated Palette analog equalizer.
Again, in 1999 he left the company, sold the rights to its name and founded another – Red Rose Music. Under that brand he released several incredibly recorded SACD albums and designed amplifiers and loudspeakers. Some of his products found their way on the set of Sex and the City TV series and can be seen them in a few episodes. In 2000, Levinson designed a luxury sound system for Lexus cars. At the same time, the company bearing his name was purchased from Madrigal by Harman International Group, where it has remained until today.
After his split up with Kim Cattrall, Sam Levinson moved to Switzerland, the home country of his mother. There, in 2007 he founded his new company, Daniel Hertz S.A., thus honoring her maiden name (Hertz). The company offers complete, very expensive systems, very popular for example in Japan. We need to add that Mark Levinson is still an active music producer, known for his participation in a number of award-winning projects of such musicians as Jacky Terrason, Joe Lovano and Carnegie Hall Jazz Band.
An interesting trivia is that a system with the Daniel Hertz M1 speakers, the M5 amplifier and the M6 preamplifier, costing 200,000 dollars is owned by the former prime minister and current President of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev.
The reviewed No.512Super Audio CD player was designed long after Mark Levinson had left the company, and even after he had moved to the Old Continent. Nevertheless, it still bears his name. Perhaps paradoxically, but this way the device designed in 2008, the most important of Levinson’s companies pays him a tribute. For the fact is that when Philips and Sony launched the DSD format and SACD disc based on it, they asked Levinson for cooperation. They equipped him with a DSD recorder that was used to its maximum potential – Levinson recorded many hours of music material, which he subsequently released (without any further production) on SACD discs under Red Rose Music. These recordings have become a reference for many music producers. The No.512 is the best, so far, digital source from the company and a Super Audio CD player at the same time.
A selection of recordings used during auditions:
- Istanbul, wyk. Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall, Alia Vox, AVSA 9870, "Raices & Memoria, vol. IX", SACD/CD (2009).
- Ashra, Belle Aliance Plus, MG
- ART/Belle, 121914-5, 2 x SHM-CD (1979/2012).
- Bill Evans, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, Riverside/JVC, JVCXR-0020-2, XRCD (1958/2007).
- Chet Baker, Big Band, Pacific Jazz Records/Toshiba-EMI Limited, TOCJ-9442, "Super Bit Jazz Classics", CD (1957/2002).
- Dead Can Dance, Anastasis, [PIAS] Entertainment Group, PIASR311CDX, "Special Edition Hardbound Box Set", CD+USB drive 24/44,1 WAV (2012);
- Depeche Mode, Black Celebration, Mute, DMCD5, Collectors Edition, SACD/CD + DVD (1986/2007).
- Dominic Miller & Neil Stancey, New Dawn, Naim, naimcd066, CD (2002).
- Delius, Cello Concertos, wyk. Jacqueline Du Pré, EMI Classic, 9559052, 2 x SACD/CD (1965/2012).
- Frank Sinatra, Sinatra Sings Gershwin, Columbia/Legacy/Sony Music Entertainment, 507878 2, CD (2003).
- Genesis, Abacab, Virgin/EMI, 851832, SACD/CD + DVD (1981/2007).
- Hilary Hann, Hilary Hann Plays Bach, Sony Classical, SK 62793, Super Bit Mapping, 2 x CD (1997).
- Kraftwerk, Minimum-Maximum, Kling-Klang Produkt/EMI, 3349962, 2 x SACD/CD (2005).
- Manuel Göttsching, E2-E4. 30th Anniversary, MG
- ART, 404, CD (1981/2012).
- Miles Davis, Milestones, Columbia/Mobile Fidelity, UDSACD 2084, SACD/CD (1958/2012).
- Portishead, Third, Go! Disc/Universal Music K.K. (Japan), UICI-1069, CD (2008).
- Schubert, Lieder, wyk. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, dyr. Gerald Moore, "Signature Collection", EMI, 55962 2, 4 x SACD/CD.
- Sting, Sacred Love, A&M Records, 9860618, Limited Edition, SACD/CD (2003).
- Tangerine Dream, Zeit, Cherry Red Records/Belle, 121943-4, SHM-CD + CD (1972/2011).
- The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out, Columbia Records/Sony Music Entertainment Hong Kong, 883532, "K2HD Mastering CD", No. 0055, CD (1959/2011).
- This Mortal Coil, HD-CD Box SET: It’ll End In Tears, Filigree & Shadow, Blood, Dust & Guitars, 4AD [Japan], TMCBOX1, 4 x HDCD, (2011).
Japanese editions available from
Many, if not most traditionally trained engineers, i.e. without their experience extended in the area of designing digital players featuring a physical transport, believe that “bit is bit” and if anyone thinks otherwise he/she must be an idiot or a liar (depending on attributed intentions) . For them, an optical disc (including CDs) transport is nothing more than a component that allows perfect reading of the data on the disc. A perfect reading system provides necessary correction mechanisms being part of a standard, such as the Red Book, and the following PCM and D/A conversion circuits should only maintain that perfect form of the signal.
But if they took some trouble to conduct a laboratory test using various transport drives and the same system for converting a zero-one data stream to an analog waveform, measured the results and listened to what each transport drive introduced into the signal, they would have a tough nut to crack. The measurements they are used to almost certainly would not indicate any significant differences. The obvious ones would include different levels and types of jitter but, at least in theory, signal re-clocking in the DAC before the actual conversion should eliminate that kind of distortion.
The whole thing, however, is much more complicated. For on the other hand there are practitioners, most often also engineers including those with degrees, who know that even minor changes such as separating the lens pickup (yes!), motor drive and conversion circuit power supplies bring surprisingly large sonic corrections.
That brings us closer to understanding the emergence of those few manufacturers that turned the transport drive into a real work of art. I think I am not mistaken to list them as: Philips and the CD-Pro2, CEC and its belt drive, Accuphase and its version of the SACD drive, and TEAC (Esoteric) and its subsequent versions of the Vibration-free Rigid Disc-clamping System (VRDS) drive; currently its VRDS-NEO version adapted to read SACD discs.
Transport drives from the latter manufacturer are used by a few companies, such as dCS, emmLabs or Soulution. The latter two, however, do not use the two most expensive VRDS-NEO versions (1 Series and 3 Series), available only in top Esoteric players, but rather its twin variant called VOSP: Vertically-aligned Optical Stability Platform. It doesn’t have the turntable mechanism or the rigid “bridge” component, but it incorporates the sled assembly and optical pickup of the 3 Series, the motor drive and other components of the VRDS-NEO, including a cast, extremely stable tray. For the record, let’s note that there is also a new, lower cost version of VRDS-NEO called VRDS-VMK-5 (see HERE http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews/esoteric18/transports.pdf a>).
If we are ready to accept what we hear, i.e. the fact that there are audible sonic differences between transport drives of various designs, it’ll be easier for us to digest the following information: Esoteric drives are usually associated with a precise, selective, somewhat cool sound. At least the VRDS-NEO is. However, if listened to the above mentioned Soulution players (the 745 reviewed HERE and the 540 HERE), or the emmLabs XDS1 Signature Edition (HERE), it would be difficult for us to believe that. The sound of these players is actually entirely different from the cited stereotype. Just as is, for that matter, the sound of the reviewed Mark Levinson.
EMI Signature Collection -
Super Audio CD in full its glory
>The Japanese market is amazing in each and every way. Almost obsessive attention to detail and a commitment to tradition superimposed on the mind open to the wildest futuristic ideas form a combination no one seems able to “stand up to.”
A manifestation of that perfection in audio world are CD and SACD discs. The Japanese are known for their ability to use the same material that released everywhere else in the world looks and sounds any lousy and came up with little wonders called “mini-LP” editions (or “cardboard sleeve” – the term used by the online shop CD Japan
) boasting the kind of sound, which embarrasses not only their Western counterparts but even high-resolution audio files. The quality of printing, transfer, pressing – everything is just perfect.
Our brothers from the Japanese Islands are also well known for their commitment to classic composers of European and American music, both jazz and rock. But most of all they have fallen in love with classical music that they release in incredible quantity.
One of the major sources of these remasters are rich EMI archives. Meticulously catalogued and kept in very good condition, they include both 78 rpm, 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm vinyl records, master tapes and more recently also hard drives with digital recordings. For years, most important works from this source have been reissued, collected in Japan in the “Best 100” series.
However… Apparently, it is not only them who can do something but rather it is us who all too often give up on the same thing. It appeared on the market in two groups, starting from April 9th, 2012. What did? Well, one of the most important classical music series in recent years, the Signature Collection, Audiophile Edition – Hybrid SACD series. It includes the most important works from the 50s and 60s issued on SACD/CD discs; two, three or even four discs in one album! The albums are usually linked by one artist.
Especially for this project at Abbey Road Studios prepared new remasters, using analog master tapes transferred to hard drive and processed in 24-bit and 96 kHz in the SADiE Series 5 PCM 8 system. The signal has been re-mastered as PCM in the digital domain and transferred to DSD files. Among the producers responsible for the remastering were Simon Gibson, Ian Jones and Andrew Walter. The material has been issued in the same form it has been stored on the master tapes, i.e. mono or stereo. An interesting interview with Simon Gibson who describes in details the process of creating the new A.D. 2012 masters titled High Resolution Resurrection
can be found in this year’s October issue of “Stereophile” (Robert Baird, High Resolution Resurrection
, “Stereophile,” Vol.35 No.10, October 2012, pp. 133-137).
The quality of these recordings is flawless – historically and artistically. And they simply sound insane! I would strongly urge you to buy all ten titles that have appeared so far, because they are collector's edition full of incredible, fantastically performed music. The albums are not cheap but please remember that usually contain a few CDs for the price of one title from Japan.
If I mostly listened to vocal recordings I would already be negotiating credit with my bank. The way Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sounded in Schubert repertoire was insane. The recordings from 1955, recently remastered and released by EMI on hybrid SACD discs (Signature Collection Series) are simply incredible. The first of the four discs comprising Lieder album box I listened to deep into the night, gave me musical shrills. The vocal was full, large, three-dimensional despite it being a mono recording. The piano was just an addition but even that instrument, in its imperfect presentation (in terms of sound quality), had a proper volume. It was a presentation rendering a live event, with a little hint of warmness, an intimate tête-à-tête with the performer. What brought me to my knees (figuratively speaking – I was lying on the couch with my eyes closed) was the presentation. Not the characteristics we usually mention in the first place, i.e. the quality of treble or bass or dynamic range, but something taken as a whole. It was an incredibly natural presentation. The first time I heard such old recordings with such a small amount of noise. Even the so far unbeatable recording of Sinatra I've Got a Crush on You from his album Sinatra Sings Gershwin couldn’t touch it. Denoising of old recordings is a heroic job, a real art (wish it weren’t still a secret for many), where it’s very easy to mess up something. Simon Gibson, the person responsible for the EMI remasters, did something amazing on this occasion!
These were real vocals. I referred to Sinatra and Fischer-Dieskau because they are the most spectacular examples of what the No.512 does to vocals. It did the same, however, to just about any repertoire, no matter how produced; CDs or SACDs, analog recordings or digital PCM and DSD. In each of these cases the Mark Levinson player made the presentation appear very “normal” in the best sense of the word. One had a feeling of being “in there” with the performers. To achieve that it was necessary to slightly remodel the sound, give it some direction, but more on that later.
First, a word to those who listen to small jazz bands or chamber music, where vocal does not necessarily have to be number one or exist at all: if I only listened to that kind of music I would already be selling my family silver, stocks and shares, or whatever I inherited from my grandfather in Australia (if only I had him, that is). There is no much benefit from either of these “goods” being nothing but “deposit” money; the money should be spent on what we need and what we love.
You will instantly fall in love with jazz listened to on this player. Such as Bill Evans recordings from his Everybody Digs Bill Evans album, the guitar duo of Dominic Miller and Neil Stacey (New Dawn), or Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. And all the others.
The American player shows real i.e. true face of these recordings. Large volume, beautifully shown low midrange and bass (at least down to several dozens of Hz, which is where the low descending double bass is most heard), everything was spectacular in how it had effect on the audience, that is me. It was almost a subliminal message, something like being attracted to the recordings. Everything was full, firm, almost fat but with beautifully open treble, with a breath of air behind the instruments, i.e. with boldly displayed, without any inhibition, acoustics. A window to another dimension opened between the speakers; it was like teleporting that chunk of space a few decades back. I used to read about it (passionately!) in sci-fi novels but hadn’t yet heard anything like that at home.
What was truly spectacular was not only the size of the instruments and the acoustics but also the way it was all laid out in the window opened between the speakers for the time of audition. Without any pressure, naturally, with unforced breath. That correlation between color, acoustics and dynamics was truly remarkable. I’d heard something like that before only twice on digital players – the Ancient Audio Lektor Grand SE and the Jadis JD1 MkII/JS1 MkIII, and a few times on turntables, including the Transrotor Argos. If I were to generalize this description, I'd say that both vocals and small bands were shown by the Levinson player in such a way as if it were a high-end turntable. Mea culpa!
On the other hand, if I only listened to rock and electronic music, but also large orchestral music, I would need to consider the pros and cons. It is not a neutral presentation in the sense we mean it in the context of, say, Marantz, dCS, Linn, or even Accuphase. The No.512 tone was expressly formed so that all the elements I mentioned had a leading role.
In these designers choices I can hear an idea that is close to me as well. Now, home reproduction has no chance of being identical to real, live sound. What hinders the realization of this ideal is physical limitations of the listening room and speakers, as well as the lack of visual stimulation. After all, taking part in a music concert our sense of sight accounts for about 80% (if not more) of the total experience. It helps e.g. with the spatial location of performing musicians. When it’s missing, we can come to terms with this and not try to correct it. We then get somewhat blurred, poorly differentiated image. In fact, it is difficult in this case to talk about depth or 3D.
Each presentation implementing the postulate to make the experience of music real, authentic (i.e., a presentation that will evoke emotions and feelings similar to those experienced during a live concert) and not just fully compliant with the original, must be manipulated in some way. This can be done e.g. by accenting the sound attack or its brightening resulting in very distinct phantom images, fantastic selectivity and transparency. Or differently, through fine-tuning the resolution, slightly accenting lower midrange and midbass and filling everything with harmonics (easy to say; implementing it is exceedingly difficult). What we get in result is the sound like the No.512, or at least belonging to the same class.
The reviewed player’s presentation focused on treble and soundstage foreground gives just such a picture – beautifully saturated, “analog” in the sense of being absolutely consistent and dynamic. But if we play something like Depeche Mode Black Celebration, Kraftwerk Minimum-Maximum, Genesis Abacab or Sting’s Sacred Love we will face a dilemma that can only be solved volitionally, i.e. by our conscious decision. At the same time, while the two previous cases were based on emotions, this one must be carefully analyzed using our head.
In carrying out the scenario we are discussing, the designers faced the problem that could not be fully solved, at least not for now, and which has been to some extent overcome only by a few manufacturers in devices costing two to three times more than the No.512. And not all of them at that.
What it involves is adding some differentiated, controlled bass and better differentiated treble. The Levinson sounds in just such “complete” way, i.e. it is difficult to point out any particular frequency range. But when we play any of the aforementioned albums, to which I might add Cello Concertos by Edgar and Delius performed by Jacqueline Du Pré, we hear that the low end that previously was so incredibly exciting, building the mood and largely determining the volume of sound, is not fully controlled at the bottom end. Or at least not as much as in the best players I mentioned. It is closer to the Ayon CD-5s SE, with its tube output stage than to solid stage output of the McIntosh and the Soulution. It is not particularly differentiated or selective. On the plus side, it’s not boomy or dragging and has quite short decay – it constitutes a part of a larger whole, not a separate entity.
I had more trouble with identifying the high end. For all that, it’s a very open sound. We do not deal with its rounding off as in both Soulution players and the emmLabs player or its warming as in the Ayon or – even – the Jadis. It’s clearly closer in its resolution, openness and differentiation to the top Ancient Audio from which it’s a little warmer. Differentiation I refer to is not as incredible as that which happens in midrange (and maybe that's why it draws our attention).
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed that all album titles I mentioned in the previous paragraph are SACD discs. That is not a coincidence. I would venture to say it is one of the very few Super Audio CD players that fully deserves this name. In 90% of cases, at least in my opinion, the added ability to read the “dense” disc layer does not translate into a particularly marked sound improvement. We can hear that something is better but it's really hard to appreciate the efforts of music engineers and producers. One of the few designs that was absolutely and undeniably a high definition player was the 65,000 USD Accuphase DP-900/DC-901 combo I’d reviewed for “Audio.” The Mark Levinson No.512 is the second machine I could call that. With its additional sonic characteristics I would even say that my personal preferences would point to it as the player I would have gladly kept.
An important feature of the reviewed device is that it will not be embarrassed by any album, regardless of how it’s been recorded. Including those SACDs where the “thick” layer has been converted from dubious quality PCM material. Something like the mentioned albums by Sting or Genesis. I keep the former only as a sort of reference point, the Charybdis of world records. Of course, provided we agree to assign a value to the Scylla and the Charybdis – respectively – positive and negative. I don’t have another so poorly produced album with such disastrous transfer to SACD. And yet played on the Levinson it sounded tolerably, which in this case means “sensationally.” Poor resolution and other problems I can’t exactly pinpoint were indicated by a flattening of dynamics but not by brightening, which is widespread with "precision" players. Similarly, the far from ideal edition of Abacab by Genesis (a double SACD + DVD edition from 2007) clearly benefitted from it, showing depth and color.
Auditioning and evaluating quality audio equipment is a real pleasure and it is for those moments that reviewers toss around tons of steel, copper and wood, not to mention rare earth metals and their alloys. Although I don’t usually review audio components I openly don’t like or don’t feel like listening to, even among the ones I choose to describe are those that don’t fully correspond with what’s most important to me. I respect them; I know that in other systems, for other music lovers they will be right on in there, but not for me.
I prefer the kind of sound offered by the Mark Levinson No.512. It is not perfect, just to be clear. My reference player can do some things better, for example it shows a bigger soundstage and is more accurate on both edges of the frequency band. Still, in quite a long time it is the first player I would actually like to have, if only to play SACDs which get from it some kind of imprimatur. Let’s note that the build in preamp proved to be excellent and makes it a full package. The No.512 coupled directly via Siltech Royal Signature Empress Double Crown balanced interconnects to my Soulution 710 power amp was captivating. I was fully aware of what could be further improved yet ended up loading again and again discs that should be, taking everything I wrote literally, rejected (“by the listeners” to quote the classic). Ignoring that, I actually spent most time in their company, with the headphones on, reading first Kochanie, zabiłem koty (“Honey, I killed the cats”) by Masłowska, whose autograph my wife got for me at the last XVI Krakow Book Fair, and then Reamde by Neil Stephenson (unfortunately without his autograph), listening to albums that, again, in theory, would not necessarily be associated with the Levinson – be that Zeit by Tangerine Dream from the latest double-disc SHM-CD edition (interestingly, the second disc is an ordinary CD), Belle Alliance Plus by Ashra, or E2-E4 by Manuel Göttsching. The depth of tone, its multidimensionality, absolutely stunning midrange and slightly emphasized bass made me immerse in these sounds, not caring if they sound “natural,” or if they are “neutral,” or perhaps shown “with precision” and just as they “should be.” Listen for yourself and you will understand what I mean.
Who is this player for? Is there anyone out there today who still needs an expensive audio disc player? It's probably the two most important questions that call for our attention and, in case of those who like what I wrote and would like to get a closer look at the No.512, for some answers.
Free will is a sacred thing, given by God (if we are believers) or granted and protected constitutionally (if we opt for the other option) and no one can tell us what to do in this situation. But let me exercise my right to the freedom of speech and tell you what I think.
It seems to me that the compact disc, CD in particular but also – surprise! – SACD will stay with us for a long time. And that – paradoxically – is due to computers and the extraordinary popularity of audio files. Anyone who has tried to tame the damn thing knows that there is always something to ruin our listening and often will not even allow it. After all it's just a computer. A music lover can’t usually be bothered by nor is fond of fiddling with it and doesn’t give a s..t about the what and how; he or she just wants to listen to music. Therefore, his/her only sensible option is a physical medium such as the CD that can be launched by the index finger and two buttons. And the album will always play exactly the same.
Hence the inevitable return to physical media. From this point of view, the more expensive the player, the more it makes sense. The kids use audio files anyway and will most likely continue to do so; maybe they'll be able to catch up with the analog counter-revolution. For serious people, with money – only digital disc player. And the Levinson is the perfect device that will stay with us “forever.” That is, until it falls apart in years. That should not happen too soon because its component most susceptible to wear is excellent – after all it’s a transport drive from Esoteric!
So, why the Levinson No.512? Please, read again the “Sound” section of this review. It's an extremely addictive, engaging sound that may have some weaker moments but we don’t care for them because everything else is so damn good. Besides, if someone can show me a device without any flaws, I will lick his or her boots. Here and now the ML No.512 may be our last CD player.
The American player was compared against the Ancient Audio AIR V-edition CD player and the Human Audio Libretto HD. The testing had a character of an A-B comparison with known A and B. Music samples were 2 minutes long; whole albums were also auditioned. The No.512 sat on the Acoustic Revive RAF-48H platform that seems designed especially for it – both in terms of its size as well as the effect on the player’s sound. I used the Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300 power cord plugged into the Acoustic Revive RTP-4U power distributor. I also used the Royal Signature Ruby Double Crown power cord and the Octopus power strip from Siltech. The No.512 was coupled to the reference system with the Ayon Audio Polaris III [Custom Version] preamplifier via the unbalanced Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300 interconnects. A separate listening session was dedicated to audition the American player plugged directly to XLR balanced inputs of the Soulution 710 power amplifier via the Siltech Royal Signature Empress Double Crown interconnects. Before auditioning the player had been for 48 hours in the “repeat” mode.
The American manufacturer is faithful to its own design line, developed over the years. Mark Levinson devices are large and solid, with a characteristic black front panel featuring round silver buttons. They are traditional “hard buttons" having a hard surface and definite tactile feel. There are no less than twelve buttons, including a black one. They are used to operate the CD transport, to dim and switch off the display, choose between the SACD and CD disc layer and select the stereo or multi-channel section.
They are also doubled on a large and heavy metal remote control sporting – for a change – “soft buttons.” The remote control has additional buttons: volume control, direct access to tracks, mute, and line-out selector- unregulated or regulated.
As matter of fact, the No.512 is a SACD player with an integrated preamplifier. The last statement is true if we define the primary feature of the preamplifier to be volume control. The player has no inputs and nowadays the lack of USB or even S/PDIF 24/192 input is a serious shortcoming. Volume control in the reviewed device is carried out in the analog domain in the range of 0 (silence) to 73.2 (max). The level of 2 V on the RCA outputs and 4 V on the XLR corresponds to the level of 61.2. At the maximum gain setting it is, respectively, 8 V and 16 V. With the output impedance of 10 Ω that should be enough to drive any power amplifier.
The slender disc tray is made of cast aluminum. Right above on the front panel is the large, easy to read dot-matrix red display. All audio devices should be so communicative! Unfortunately, we will not see on the display such information as CD-text or SACD-text. It also lacks – which is a real pity – the beautiful SACD logo. Loading such disc is indicated by a dull-looking, ordinary red LED.
The rear panel looks evokes the classic CC high-end players from the 90s. There are analog XLR and RCA outputs as well as digital, electric RCA (S/PDIF) and XLR (AES/EBU which is a balanced S/PDIF signal used in recording studios). We also have a series port and remote control port, an IEC socket and the only port showing the age we live in – an Ethernet port that allows us to control the device, check its status and the like via the Internet. There is no trace of digital INPUTS.
The unit is housed in a solid enclosure made of bent aluminum plates and a thick aluminum front panel. It sits on specially prepared, conical, very low (to lower the center of gravity?) aluminum feet lined with soft material.
The player interior is divided into sections corresponding to particular tasks. In the center is the VOSP Esoteric transport drive, the same as in emmLabs and Soulution players. Its chassis is plastic and the mechanical assembly originates in a universal (SACD / CD) drive from Sony. The chassis frame is fastened on the top with a rigid aluminum cover sporting a solid, heavy stainless steel stabilizer disc. Beneath is a classic magnetic disc clamper. The cast tray is very solid. The chassis support frame is mounted to aluminum based plate that in turn is bolted to the enclosure “floor.” The fact that the whole design is based on the Sony drive is evidenced by Sony ICs in the decoding circuit. It is mounted to a larger control system PCB, and the whole is housed in a stainless steel shield.
The digital signal is then sent to another steel “box” hiding the DAC circuit. Quite literally – the PCB was originally designed for a D/A converter marked “No.512 DAC” (from 2008). It sports golden traces, surface mount components and high-quality board substrate. Levinson previously used very expensive PCB substrate called Arlon (also found in devices from Enlightened Audio Design). Now, however, we find even more expensive material called Nelco N4000-13. Knowing how this player sounds I would never have guessed that the gain stage is built on ICs!
The output features Xilinx DSP. At first I thought it is used to upsample the CD signal to 24/192. It seems, however, that something else is implemented. The company takes pride in a special Direct Digital Synthesis (DDS) circuit which minimizes jitter. What it apparently does is it to load the signal from CD and SACD into memory, overclock it and in that form transfer it to the DACs. Of course that does not exclude upsampling as one of the features of asynchronous upsampling is that the signal is first buffered and then overclocked, but I'm not sure about it here – the manufacturer makes no mention of upsampling.
And so we come to two DACs, one per each channel, based on the Analog Devices AD1955. According to its manufacturer, unique features of this chip are a separate DSD bit-stream (i.e. without conversion to PCM) and external digital filter interface. Both are used here.
The balanced current-output is built on AD ICs, and others. The output circuit features Burr Brown OPA2134 chips. There are also four relay switches – presumably the output mode selector (regulated or unregulated). The outputs utilize a DC Servo circuit. Output connectors are solid, soldered, with gold pins. On the XLRs pin 2 is the “hot” conductor.
The remaining part of the interior is occupied by an extensive power supply. I counted eight separate, discrete rectifiers with diodes bypassed with capacitors. There are many voltage controllers with heat sinks and digital outputs are coupled by impedance matching transformers. Power is provided by two toroid transformers, manufactured in Canada by Plitron.
Beautiful work all in all.
Technical Specification (according to the manufacturer):
Playback formats: CD and SACD
Frequency Range: +0.0 dB / -0.2 dB PCM/CD; +0.0 dB / -0.5 dB DSD/SACD
Signal to noise ratio: 108 dB
Dynamic range: 108 dB
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): 92 dB PCM/CD, 99 dB DSD/SACD
Output voltage (fixed): 4 V (XLR), 2 V (RCA)
Maximum output voltage (variable): 16 V (XLR), 8 V (RCA)
Output Impedance: 10 Ω
Power consumption: 100 W
Dimensions (HxWxD): 116 x 442 x 448 mm
Weight: 15 kg