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I’m tempted to say "unique signature" because this player is far from run of the mill. Richness is the first word to mind when the play button is hit. My initial listening notes pointed to a generous midband accompanied by dry and punchy bass. Listening to Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly I was amazed how this nascent digital recording opened up and bloomed in a startling glue-you-to-your-seat manner. I imagined for a moment that this is how it must have sounded in the control room of The Village Recorder. It was just so supremely pleasurable. Instrumental and vocal articulation both were of the highest order and the N°512 was clearly class-leading in its ability to convey detailed acoustic information concerning the studio environment. Width, height and depth attributes were all clearly discernible without ever serving to unrealistically stretch the overall presentation.
Playing Madeleine Peyroux’s Bare Bones highlighted the fact that the Levinson was particularly strong in an area where digital is still often deficient - the lifelike recreation of the human voice. The subtle dynamic shifts contained in a well recorded lead vocal are usually conveyed with more success through a good turntable and indeed the silver disc can often fail to refabricate the elusive type of continuity demanded by the ear if a recorded performance is to seem fully convincing. But this disc along with Melody Gardot’s My One and Only Thrill showcased the player’s superb ability to recreate not just voices but the bodies of the vocalists too. Two real personalities started to emerge through all that late-night smokiness and although many other players might sound attractive recreating these modern audiophile recordings, here the character of both women seemed more fleshed out than usual both physically and in turn emotionally.
On Gardot’s "Our Love is Easy" the N°512 perfectly captures the counterpoint between the faux-classical opening (Gardot backed by a lovely Vince Mendoza string arrangement) and the easy weight of the upright bass and brushed drums experienced upon her band’s eventual arrival. This delicate balancing act can suffer in the hands of less accomplished players lacking contrast and poignancy. And Gardot’s own performance remains foregrounded and focused throughout suffering not even the slightest shift in dynamic mass.
Moving uptempo, Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense proved enlightening. "Slippery People" hit the listening chair with the power of a gale, a giant rush of sound liberating in its sheer oomph. And the textural abilities of the player were ably demonstrated by the toothsome quality of Tina Weymouth’s synth bass on "Girlfriend is Better". But listening to that veritable hymn to angst "Life During Wartime" made me question whether the player was really allowing me to follow the various frenzied rhythms that constitute so much of the band’s trademark edginess. In short it seemed a little zoned out - more valium than cocaine. This wasn’t due to any apparent lack of authority. It was just missing a little snap, crackle and percussive ‘pop’.
Luckily I was able to compare the N°512 with two other notable albeit much more inexpensive contenders, the Ayre C-5xe MP and the Gryphon Scorpio. On Stop Making Sense the Danish player seemed to better lean into the rhythms successfully rendering more excitement. And with percussion—especially things like congas—the Scorpio had so much ‘pop’ and vitality that the listening room itself felt as though it was being pierced. In isolation the N°512 seemed to be doing a perfect job with "Let’s Stay Together" taken from The Best of Bryan Ferry, managing to isolate and ‘embody’ Ferry’s main vocal in a way that’s just so rare with digital. Yet my foot was forced towards more involuntary tapping when the same disc was slotted into the Gryphon.
On "Windswept" meanwhile my preference was reversed. This is an utterly sumptuous Rhett Davies production featuring a rolling hypnotic beat. Indeed if I had to choose just one single track to demonstrate the N°512’s strengths, this would be it. Like much of Ferry’s latter output texture is king here and the Levinson grabs this opportunity to strut like a peacock. The full sonic cornucopia on offer is captured with utter precision and here at least the rhythmic argument was fully convincing. In terms of sheer transparency it even managed to best my previous benchmark in this area - Zanden’s 2000P/5000 transport and DAC.