August 2003Mark Levinson No.434 Mono Amplifiers
by Marc Mickelson
By now every audiophile has heard that "something happened" at Madrigal, umbrella company for the Mark Levinson brand name. The truth of the matter is that operations for Mark Levinson specifically have moved from Middletown, Connecticut to Bedford, Massachusetts. However, sources within Harman International, Madrigal's parent company, have assured me that the Mark Levinson brand is alive and well and will maintain its individuality. Thus the rumor that Mark Levinson and Lexicon, another Harman International brand that's headquartered in Bedford, have somehow merged is false. The move of production facilities, and presumably the letting go of much Mark Levinson staff in Connecticut, certainly happened for fiscal reasons. However, Harman International also wants the Mark Levinson brand to take advantage of what are termed "superior production processes" in place in Bedford. This, they hope, will lead to even greater reliability for Mark Levinson products.
So with this bit of subtext out of the way, I can address the Mark Levinson No.434 mono amplifiers that I received for review earlier this year -- before any rumors were in the air. These amps, along with all current Mark Levinson products, are scheduled to remain in production, just as they would have if operations had stayed in Connecticut. The No.434, along with the more powerful, more costly, and physically larger No.436 mono amp, is appropriate for home-theater use, but its heart is firmly within the audiophile ethic on which the Mark Levinson brand name was built.
The No.434, $4400 USD each, is a trimmer Mark Levinson amp, but it's not small by any standards. It measures 17 3/4"W x 21 1/4"D x 6"H and weighs a solid 56 pounds. The front is a picture of design simplicity and elegance, with only the master on/off pushbutton, operate/standby switch, and a red LED taking up residence on a panel squeezed between two silver flanking pieces. These silver panels are not just for show, however. They are not mounted flush with the chassis, thus allowing air to flow beneath them and through No.434. Airflow seems to be a major consideration with the No.434. Its heat sinks are internally mounted and visible through screen-like top and bottom covers, and the amp also has its own cooling fans that kick in when needed. From its layout, the No.434 looks to be designed so that a number of the amps could be stacked on top of each other, their heat sinks lining up vertically and their fans blowing exhaust air up through the heat sinks -- a novel approach to be sure.
The No.434 is rated to deliver 125 watts at 8 ohms and double its output with each halving of impedance from there. It uses four matched pairs of TO-3P output transistors per channel. These are the same output devices that Mark Levinson uses in its much pricier No.33 and No.33H monoblocks, and the same is true of the Arlon circuit boards used in all of the amps mentioned. Another development culled from the pricier Mark Levinson amps is the proprietary adaptive biasing scheme used in the No.434, which is said to offer the sonic advantages of a class-A output stage without the inefficiency and thermal problems of such. Furthermore, this biasing scheme is said to reduce distortion and make for sweeter sound and greater ease at all listening levels. It's all discussed at length in a white paper that's available on the Mark Levinson website.
Around back are pairs of proprietary wing-nut speaker binding posts as well as single-ended and balanced inputs. Because the No.434 is fully balanced, using the amp single ended requires shorting pins 1 and 3 of the XLR connector to reduce noise. A pair of U-shaped connectors for doing this is included. The amp's IEC receptacle is located very near one of the rear-mounted handles, making power cords with bulbous connectors a tight fit. Finally, there is a grouping of control and communications links that allow you, among other things, to connect the amps to home-automation systems as well as other Mark Levinson components in custom-installed configurations.
The No.434 is lovely -- certainly not your standard black-box audio component -- and as I've found with previous Mark Levinson products, there is a certain luxury factor to using these amps. The No.434s power up with a reassuring "blip," go into sleep mode with their front-panel LED slowly blinking, come with a very complete and well-written user's manual, and are connectable to other Mark Levinson components so all can be turned on at the touch of a single button. The amp's fans kick in rarely, and when they do they don't obscure music played at even low levels. The No.434 is not just about high-quality sound; it's about user friendliness as well.
I used the No.434 monoblocks initially in an all-Madrigal system that included a Mark Levinson No.390S CD player run directly into the amps and a pair of Revel Ultima Studio speakers. This system produced some very special synergy -- including truly world-class dynamic contrasts. These are all fine products, but at no time did any of them sound as good as when they were all used together. If you are considering Mark Levinson electronics or Revel speakers, you should hear them with each other. I was captivated by the sound produced in my room.
After their use with the Revel speakers and No.390S, the No.434s were put into my reference system: Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7 speakers, Lamm L2 Reference and Audio Research Reference Two Mk II preamps, Mark Levinson No.390S CD player, Esoteric DV-50 universal audio/video player, Zanden Model 5000 Mk III DAC, and Mark Levinson No.37 CD transport. For the bulk of the reviewing period, interconnects and speaker cables were either from Shunyata Research (Aries and Andromeda) or Analysis Plus (Solo Crystal Oval and Solo Crystal Oval 8). Power cords were from Shunyata Research, with pairs of Anaconda Vx or Taipan cords powering the amps, a single Anaconda Vx for the preamp, and Taipan or Python cords for the digital gear. Power was provided by a Shunyata Hydra, with a Sound Application XE-12S with 20-amp Elrod power cord used at various times as well. All electronics sat on Silent Running isoBase 3.0 bases, with the digital player or transport resting on a Bright Star Big Rock and Townsend Seismic Sink.
Any audiophile knows that building a great audio system involves matching components, and in this regard, with audio equipment from so many different makers in use, my system can be a challenge. With the No.434 amps, I greatly preferred the Audio Research preamp, which is also fully balanced, over the Lamm L2 as it produced a more full and suave sonic picture. With the Lamm preamp, the sound was not bad by any means, but it was more lean and, to my ears, less involving. Yes, your mileage may vary, but the real point of mentioning this is to encourage experimentation with the No.434 amps. Given the synergy I heard with the No.390S CD player, I suspect a Mark Levinson preamp may be the best bet of all.
One of the most interesting sonic changes you can make to your system is to switch from a tube amplifier to a solid-state unit, or vice versa. Tubeophiles often discover that the extra power of a good solid-state amp along with its bass depth and control are noteworthy. They can also find the sound uninvolving -- dry, sterile, and lacking in body are the most common complaints. Solid-state mavens miss the oomph that their powerhouse amps have when they switch to tubes, but often they can't get over the harmonic richness and sense of life that tubes can impart. Such an exercise doesn't often produce defectors; more likely, it solidifies for each listener why he loves tube or solid-state amplification to begin with.
Well, nobody will mistake the Mark Levinson No.434 monoblocks for tube amps. Their effortless drive and sheer authority give away the fact that they offer gobs of power and can control just about any speaker with ease. In fact, even though they are rated at 125 watts, they sound like they can provide many times this -- and I'm sure they can on musical peaks. Why, I wondered, would anyone need the No.436 given the tremendous power the No.434 displays? Perhaps a larger room or a more insensitive speaker would require such power; perhaps an audiophile would simply spring for the larger and more powerful amps because he can afford them. Nonetheless, the power reserves of the No.434 seemed infinite with Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7 speakers in my 12' x 24' listening room, and even with the less sensitive Revel Ultima Studio speakers, the No.434s had no trouble producing deafening SPLs.
But high-end audio is about quality, not quantity, and here the No.434 shows itself to be an amp that can perhaps soften a tube lover's heart -- not with an approximation of so-called tubiness but rather its own set of uncompromising sonic characteristics. Bass, for one, has crushing impact and power. Yes, perhaps some other solid-state amps will do the low end better (Mark Levinson sells some such amps), but I doubt it'll be a night-and-day difference. My favorite test for bass depth and power is Harry Connick Jr's She [Columbia CK 64376], specifically "Joe Slam and the Spaceship." The very low tones that open this number, along with the rhythmic thumping of the drum kit, will tax your system's bass capabilities and, moreover, let you know how well your speakers and amplifier can control such prodigious music. The No.434 handled this workout without working up a sweat, sounding identical to the Mark Levinson No.383 integrated amp until I pushed the volume control past 12:00, when the No.434s just got louder and the No.383 started to compress. I would never listen to music at such levels unless I was trying to ruin my hearing, but the No.434's could easily reproduce it -- along with bass that could seemingly rock the foundation of my house if need be.
The No.434 sounds as uncolored as any amp -- as any piece of audio equipment -- I've encountered. It's only in comparison to other amplifiers that its sonic personality becomes discernible. The last solid-state power amp I owned was from Threshold, and that amp, a TA-300, sounded darker and more lush than the No.434. The hybrid Lamm M1.1s I owned a while back were somewhere in between that Threshold amp and the No.434. My Lamm ML1.1 push-pull tube amps sound more linear than the M1.1s, but they don't sound as transparent through the midrange as the No.434s. In turn, the No.434s can sound a bit dry compared to these amps, a trait that may be exacerbated by certain speakers. Some audiophiles chase fidelity above all other sonic traits, while others are after a more "human" portrayal. The No.434 will appeal more to the former than the latter, I suspect, unless the latter values the sort of power the No.434 can deliver.
In fact, I think the single term that sums up the No.434's sound is authority. The No.434 will certainly reproduce dainty music in an authentically gentle way, but it will do so with consummate image density and heft -- consummate authority. Some tube amps will portray singers with a more rounded, blood-and-bone quality to them, but none that I've heard can match the visceral solidity of the No.434. High-end audio may be about quality, but unfortunately it's also about choosing compromises as well.
Audio Research's 100.2 solid-state stereo amp was discontinued earlier this year, but it's an amp I know well. It's rated to deliver 100Wpc via bipolar output devices and has only one gain stage. Its sound is inviting, offering much of what Audio Research tube amps do historically (clarity, detail, and relative lack of euphony) along with enough power to drive most speakers, all for a $3495 price. It's also fully balanced, so what it cedes in the way of physical complexity to a pair of Mark Levinson No.434 monblocks it equals in terms of its circuit design.
Even though the 100.2 and No.434 have nearly the same power output, the two amps are different sonically. The 100.2 won't quite reach the deafening levels that the No.434 will, but even in terms of the sound produced, there are notable differences. The 100.2 sounds clearer and at the same time more gentle -- more like a tube amp, but certainly not exactly like one. The No.434 counters with its authority and ability to control a speaker, offering SPLs that can annoy your neighbors in the process. Oh, the 100.2 will play loudly, but after a certain point, the sonic portrait starts to break up instead of just getting louder and louder as it does with the No.434. Down low, the 100.2 is detailed and expressive, while the No.434 offers greater low-frequency depth and weight. Both are unfettered through the midrange, but the 100.2 sounds just a touch more immediate, and this carries into the treble where it seems to soar, thinly trailing off with a slightly more lifelike sense of decay than the No.434, which in comparison sounds a touch blunt.
I've recommended the Audio Research 100.2 to many people since I first heard it -- it's a startlingly fine amplifier, one that might have earned a Reviewers' Choice nod for its performance and price had we reviewed it. The No.434, at almost three times the 100.2's price, holds its ground in most ways and excels past the 100.2 in others. Its bigger power comes at a bigger price.
So many of today's solid-state amplifiers have characteristics that mimic those of their competitors. The vast majority offer the ability to deliver their power over an extremely wide bandwidth and into loads that dip and rise like a rollercoaster. Tube amps, on the other hand, often require some thought in terms of the speaker with which they will be paired, a requirement that's enough for many audiophiles to stick with solid state.
Amps like the Mark Levinson No.434 don't necessarily bridge the gap between the tube and solid-state camps, but they do delineate the differences to a greater degree and prove that enjoyable reproduction comes in many different forms. The No.434 is rated to deliver in excess of 100 watts, but its power reserves laugh at such a conservative rating. It's an amp for those who value gripping sonics, the sort of sound that comes only with ample power and power reserves. It's for those listeners who want their amp to do its job with overt fidelity and not some obvious sound of its own. I love life with my tube amps, but the No.434 makes me respect how the other half lives.
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