Mark Levinson No.40 surround preamplifier-processor Page 4

Video Switching
The No.40's video-switching circuits were essentially transparent. I say "essentially" because, on some material, the Levinson feed actually looked a little more detailed! I really do mean "a little"; it wasn't at all easy to spot the difference. Of course, you might argue that any change can only be a degradation, but it's possible that some characteristics, such as the No.40's superior buffering of its video outputs, could account for the change. So could the slightly different video paths. I made a direct A/B comparison by employing a video-distribution amp and switcher from Extron. But again, for whatever reason, the difference was very subtle, and never to the disadvantage of the No.40.

Since I was fresh out of competing $30,000 processors, I went in the opposite direction—to an excellent processor (the Anthem AVM 20) that sells for about a tenth the Levinson's cost. My comparison plan called for starting with Dolby Digital material, then, if there were no notable differences, moving on to DTS and finishing up with CDs. But it wasn't necessary to go beyond DD to hear what I needed to hear. My first reaction with the Anthem, after several months of living with the No.40, was "Where did the detail go?" As it turned out, this first impression wasn't entirely accurate. The Anthem was performing well, and I doubt that many buyers would be less than delighted with it. But it seemed a little warmer and cushier than the Levinson, a little less incisive and dynamic, with a powerful but less crunchy and startling bass.

After careful level matching (helped greatly by the Levinson's 0.1dB level steps), this initial reaction proved only partially correct. The No.40's bass was still a bit more profound, punchy, and tight, but the Anthem had plenty of detail of its own. Where the Levinson clearly outperformed it was in the convincing naturalness of its detail and the sheer cleanness of its sound. The first 15 minutes of Lilo and Stitch had an openness and dimensionality, a sheer pristine cleanness from the No.40, that the Anthem couldn't quite match.

I heard the same thing on the soundtrack from Soldier. (This film may have been a box-office dud, but it's a good movie and an intriguing concept, until it falls apart in the third act.) As the discarded soldier Todd is dumped from the garbage ship early in the film, the noise of the sliding, crunching metallic waste was not as well-differentiated by the Anthem. In chapter 11, Loreena McKennitt's "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" sounded smoother from the Levinson, with more depth and dimensionality.

In short, the No.40 sounded more—dare I say it—analog-like. There was a subtle iciness from the Anthem in comparison, although, as I hope I've already made clear, the Levinson was in no way too rich or warm.

I don't want to overstate these differences. I heard them after living for several months with the Levinson, but even after spending several hours going back and forth between the two products at matched levels in all channels, I couldn't call the differences I heard "dramatic." The fact that the Levinson could outperform a quality product selling for a tenth its price is hardly amazing. The Anthem is an exceptional pre-pro in its own right, a remarkably well-thought-out, fine-sounding product that SGHT continues to recommend without reservation. But in a perfectionist sense, there was a significant difference even on Dolby Digital soundtracks—the sort of difference many audiophiles are willing to pay for (or would if they could).

Might there be a less ambitious Mark Levinson surround processor in our future? I'd love to find much of the No.40's striking sound and build quality in a less expensive product—say, one that costs less than $15,000. It wouldn't be impossible. Make it a one-box design. I could live without the hardware upgradeability (though software reprogramming would still be desirable). Drop the LCD preview screen. Keep some of the flexibility (though it could safely be scaled back a bit) and the build quality.

Actually, you might just get it. At press time, we were informed that the current Proceed AVP2 processor will be morphed into a Levinson product, to be available sometime this fall. It won't be cheap but, like the AVP2, should be priced in the high four figures when you include the optional outboard video switcher.

But if you want the Mark Levinson name on a surround processor now, or the best surround processor that Levinson is likely to offer, the No.40 is available today. There's no denying that it's over the top, in both capabilities and price. But it might be enough to say that it's the home-theater equivalent of the car Mercedes-Benz might build if they ever got really serious about building cars.