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Bill Armstrong
Financial Interests: click here
Source: Gryphon Scorpio, Marantz SA-1, Ayre C-5xe MP
Preamp/Integrated: Mark Levinson N°326S
Amplifier: Mark Levinson N°512
Speakers: ProAc Carbon 6
JPS Aluminata
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco
Powerline conditioning: Ayre L-5xe
Review Component Retail: £12.000 in the UK

Background & first impressions
: A decade ago Mark Levinson was arguably the most successful purveyor of American high-end audio operating in the UK. Its amplifiers were as respected as Krell’s or Audio Research’s, its digital products vied for supremacy with Wadia & Co. But unfortunately for fans of the brand the company’s priorities began to apparently shift by late 2003. Under the ownership of corporate leviathan Harman manufacture was moved from its long-established base in Middletown Connecticut to Bedford Massachusetts with the aim of utilizing the facilities of brand stable-mate Lexicon. Although cessation of production involved in this rationalization process lasted for only a few months, it still resulted in the razing of much hard-won customer loyalty.

The all-important supply chain had been broken. Parts required for servicing older equipment became difficult to supply and when new products could eventually be sourced there proved to be some reliability issues. Eventually Levinson would emerge from the tumultuous noughties more famous as a provider of in-car entertainment systems for Lexus than for any specialist hifi. And indeed some would say who could blame Harman for steering them down this road? It’s proven to be a highly lucrative venture, delivering spoils far greater than our own cabal could ever hope to offer (Harman’s cluster of companies reported sales worth $3.4 billion for the fiscal year ending June 30th, 2010).*


* Mark Levinson the man founded the company in 1972 but had no involvement since somewhere between 1980 and 1982 when the company (and the rights to his name) were purchased by Madrigal Labs. He subsequently founded Cello Film & Music Systems in 1984 followed by Red Rose Music in 1999. And as if being a founding father of the American high-end wasn’t enough to achieve enduring legendary status, he was also married to Kim Cattrall (aka Samantha from Sex and the City) between 1998 and 2004. The two co-authored the 2002 book Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm.

However two years ago keen-eyed audiophiles spotted some interesting activity on the horizon. A monster was coming back over the hill. Mark Levinson it appeared was on the comeback trail.

Exciting new products proceeded to materialize including the much anticipated and long overdue N°512 SACD player, a replacement for the very popular N°390S. The new model will play your SACDs but sticks resolutely to only two channels. Like the N°390S, an internal volume control is part of the package, meaning that direct connection to a power amp is an option.

First impressions tend to count and here the Levinson frustrates. It’s not the size (big enough to fully occupy even the largest shelf) or the quality of finish that grates.

It’s the design or rather lack of it. Compared with its svelte and bijou forerunner the new machine lacks any form of visual subtlety. The N°390 could have justly been referred to as an example of hifi jewelery but its replacement is sadly more Ratner’s than Tiffany’s.

Some might be polite and call it industrial looking but it looks rather lazy to my eyes. It’s certainly not going to help sell a £12.000 player in the showroom. The remote control is suitably brick-like too and boasts back illumination but its poor ergonomics make it too unwieldy for pleasant usage.
All specialist audio companies large or small seem to struggle in this area. The type of cute and useable handset that’s a staple of your average Sony micro system seems to leave high-end companies scratching their heads in utter bewilderment.

And it’s disappointing to note that the Esoteric-sourced transport fails to glide here with quite the same mellifluousness as it does in TEAC’s own machinery.

Rear panel connections include AES/SPDIF digital outputs as well as RS-232 control and Ethernet ports but unfortunately no digital inputs to allow an external source to utilize the N°512’s DAC.

This appears a distinct disadvantage when compared to some recently released competitors such as Esoteric’s K01 or K03 which even include 24/192 USB.