Mark Levinson No.40 surround preamplifier-processor Page 3

Music on Tap
An expensive surround processor such as the No.40 has to do it all: excel not only on multichannel film soundtracks but on every type of sound source. From top to bottom, the No.40 did a superb job of straight 2-channel music playback. From its deep, tight bass to its airy, open, detailed top end, it won't be the weak link in any conceivable audio system—or even one we can't conceive of today. The subtle high-frequency detail in The All Star Percussion Ensemble (CD, Golden String GS CD0005) was exciting yet delicately detailed. The still-reference-quality bass on the old audiophile standard Däfos (CD, Reference Recordings RR-012CD) made me sit up and take notice. And well-recorded vocal music—from solo vocalist Gordon Lightfoot on his best-sounding album, If You Could Read My Mind (CD, Reprise 6392-2), to the choral work on Postcards (CD, Reference RR-61CD)—was warm yet incisive, with a vivid yet natural immediacy.

But, as already noted, the No.40 offers three different ways to listen to 2-channel sources: stereo, Madrigal's own Stereo Surround, and Dolby Pro Logic II Music. The closer I sat to the center sweet spot, the more I preferred 2-channel stereo with this sort of material—but if I moved even a couple of feet off-center, Dolby Pro Logic II, with its active center-channel speaker anchoring the soundstage, produced a more evenly weighted sonic image. Stereo Surround also worked well from the hot seat, but whether or not I preferred it to straight 2-channel playback depended very much on the program material.

Kevin Voecks advised me that, even with music, some people actually prefer Dolby's Pro Logic II Movie mode over PLII Music mode. Not I. As I heard it, PLII Movie crunched the front soundstage too much into the center, and that center sounded brighter—not in a positive way—than the center in PLII Music.

The only way to have checked out the transparency of the No.40's multichannel analog inputs, and their inherent A/D and D/A conversions, would have been to feed them a state-of-the-art analog source and compare the result with the same analog source bypassing the No.40. However, since the analog circuits in all the DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD, and CD players I had on hand were arguably well below the quality of the No.40's own analog sections, such a comparison would have made little sense. But based on what I heard from the SACD and DVD-A players I had available during the No.40's review period, I have no reservations about the quality of these inputs or their ability to pass even the highest-quality sources, even with the extra digital conversions factored in.

I suspect that only fans of analog vinyl will be put off by the No.40's lack of a true analog bypass and an onboard phono stage. I would still prefer a single-cable digital feed to the processor for SACD and DVD-A material, but a standard for that is not yet in place, and Levinson has not yet chosen to go the route of a brand-specific connection, as already traveled by Pioneer, Denon, and Meridian.

But it didn't take an SACD or DVD-A recording to hear superb multichannel music on the No.40. I popped the DTS Demonstration Disc #2 in my player and listened to Fleetwood Mac's "Silver Springs." The distinctively rich timbre of Stevie Nicks' voice, the crisp but not unnaturally bright instruments—from the silky cymbals to the warm and rich guitars—were all they should be. I then listened to the next track, from Mahler's Symphony No.2, recorded in a large stone church by Radio France and France Television. The power of the orchestra and chorus and the ambience of the space pulled me in.

I was exposed to legions of state-of-the-art, 2-channel audio-electronics products during the nine years I was Stereophile's consulting technical editor, and I reviewed dozens of them. I don't have on hand any current state-of-the-art gear that is exclusively 2-channel, but my prior experience tells me that few products out there, whether 2- or multichannel, are likely to equal the sound quality of the No.40 when playing music. And while Madrigal argues that its Mark Levinson Reference 2-channel equipment is marginally better, I'd have to hear it to be convinced.

At the Movies
I'm not sure how much I need to describe here about what the No.40 could do for film soundtracks. The Levinson has been a fixture in my system for some time, during which it lent its efforts to reviews of the NHT Evolution and Revel F50 speaker systems and the Marantz DV-8300 all-format DVD player. But for those who missed those reports . . .

On the best film soundtracks, the No.40 didn't appear to be doing anything at all to the sound—which is the most you can ask of any piece of electronics. It let the rest of the system be the best it could be. Whether the source was Dolby Digital or DTS, well-recorded films sounded detailed, crisp, and clean, with well-integrated surrounds and astonishingly deep, tight bass. Soundstaging was superb, and ambience was appropriate to the scene.

I could also easily hear the difference between music scores that had been recorded largely as hard left/right mixes and those that filled the whole space around and between the front speakers. The soundtrack from Glory is one of the best examples of the latter. It's long been an audiophile favorite, and it sounds no less effective on DVD than it does on the superb CD version. The natural, open sense of space and almost ethereal quality of this recording, with its perfectly integrated orchestra, chorus, and effects, could hardly be better—or better reproduced—than on the Levinson.

With the No.40, I rediscovered the DTS-ES Discrete soundtrack of Gladiator. It's a more difficult recording to reproduce than Glory, not only because it's far more complex, but also because it's not nearly as smooth and sweet. The Gladiator music track uses both acoustic instruments and synthesizer, and it's easy for the two to become mashed together to the point where the overall effect simply sounds like a distorted orchestra. The Levinson kept the two elements distinct, which resulted not only in greater clarity but also in a higher appreciation of the overall quality of the mix. When I put this DVD on to sample its sound through the No.40, I didn't plan to become so engrossed that I'd watch most of the film. Only the clock showing 1:30 a.m. and an early wakeup waiting for me the next day forced me to shut off the system and go to bed.

I won't go into the sound on the Special Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring here (I've referred to it too often in recent issues), except to point out that nothing I heard through the Levinson did anything but reaffirm why SGHT and countless other publications have voted it 2002's DVD of the Year.