Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Mark Levinson 431 amplifier

Source: Stereophile May 2005

The review summarized two issues, which have influenced Mark Levinson lately. First, move to new production facility (Harman Specialty Group seeking greater efficiency and synergism decided to incorporate most of Group's manufacturing in one site), and second, the need to integrate traditional 2-channel audio equipments into home-theater and multi-channel set-ups. How do these two issues manifest themselves?

Well, move to new facility did not go smoothly, resulting in delays in deliveries and re-scheduling of new product launches. As of today, problems seem to be resolved, but some dealers are still vary about promised delivery times. But the second issue is more profound.

The 431 clearly shows the impact of raising popularity of home-theater & multi-channel set-ups to traditional HE-manufacturers. Gone are the days when Levinson products were designed according to "cost+", "built-to-last" and "will drive any load" principles. New designs like 431 are slimmer, build quality is high, but not over-done, and amplifier is not designed for demanding loads. Contrary to model it replaced, No.334, 431 is not rated for loads below 4 ohms or for bridged operation. BTW, production difficulties during the time of the review were still evident as first test unit did not even turn on from standby!

Nevertheless, Larry Greenhill gave No.431 dandy remarks. In comparison with No.334 using Revel Salon and Quad ESL-989 speakers, he observed that "just like the No.334, it had midbass punch and the ability to throw a wide, deep soundstage. It exerted tighter control over the Quad's bass response than had No.334, but sounded more analytical driving my Revel Ultima Salons, with less bass extension. In contrast, the No.334 sounded fuller and warmer through the Revels, darker through the Quads." He noted further " (ML) continues to build fine amplifiers, even after having shrunk those amps to fit into home-theater equipment racks."

To sum up, slight reduction in bass solidity and punch, but improvements in midrange detail and treble extension compared with No.334.

Viewpoint: As a (very) satisfied owner of ML 334 amplifier and ML390S cd-player I've feared the day when even the company like Mark Levinson has to submit to market demands of home-theater and cost cutting. BTW, the same happened to Mercedes Benz some 5 years ago when it had to change its production philosophy from "cost+" to "retail price-". Ask any long-time MB owners what they think about MB's latest models' quality and excellence...

Moreover, John Atkinson's measurements illustrated "new" design approach taken by ML, in particular when comparing with No.334's measurement done by Atkinson in September 1999 Stereophile. Note remarks like "the internal heatsinks just adequately specified" when No.334's heatsinks "could still be touched without discomfort".

No. 431's input impedance for both SE and balanced inputs was measured as 51k ohm dropping to 15k ohms at 20kHz. This might limit usage of No.431 with high output impedance (tube) pre-amps. No.334's input impedance was measured as 98k ohms balanced and 50.7k ohms unbalanced - nice high figures for successful system building. But my biggest anxiety is that No.431 is not rated for loads below 4 ohms. ML No.383 integrated amplifier I owned had the same limitation, and believe me, with Martin Logans speakers I definitely heard rolled-off treble and muddy bass.

So why am I groaning about one audiophile company trying to accomodate market demands? Simply, I see this as one more, major deviation from mentality of building great HE-equipment (see my February post "What is "high-end" audio?). Moreover, this is further evidence that although I personally don't see/hear any substantial benefits from multi-channel medias, my days as 2-channel audiophile are numbered. The writing is on the wall: great 2-channel vendors and equipments shall disappear. Seems to me that I'll never sell my No.334...

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