With its full house of control facilities, a configurable phono stage and an on-board D/A converter, the Mark Levinson No.26 delivers a comprehensive pre-amplifier solution. But its real talents lie in its treatment of the music …
Pre-amplifiers often end up being the unsung heroes of a stereo system. They have to offer complete and convenient control of both incoming and outgoing systems, while ensuring absolute signal integrity – and ideally without imparting any sonic signature of their own.
That’s easier said than done, especially in pre-amplifiers with comprehensive feature sets, such as the Mark Levinson No.526.
Don’t be fooled by the relatively slim dimensions of this one-box design, nor its minimalist switchgear: the No.526 has a comprehensive talent set, designed to address a broad cross-section of high-end stereo needs.
Thus, it offers both balanced and single-ended analogue inputs, as well as an array of digital inputs linked to a on-board D/A converter. For vinyl fans, there’s also a fully configurable MM/MC phono stage.
In addition, it offers the flexibility of a surround sound processor bypass mode for integration with home theatre applications, and a high-pass filter for the convenient use of a subwoofer. There’s even an excellent Class A headphone jack.
AT FACE VALUE
Not surprisingly, the No.26 reflects the classic Mark Levinson aesthetic approach: black anodised aluminium facia, red-hued LCD display, and silver switchgear. It’s a look that’s as distinctive as it’s smart, while remaining ergonomically accessible, too.
Equally unsurprising is the tactile quality of the unit: it feels substantial, with a fastidiously executed all-metal construction, pleasingly smooth metal finishes, top-class connectors, and etched front-panel labelling. It’s a beautifully functional piece of kit.
The control set consists of two rotary controllers for volume level and input selection respectively, and an array of six buttons. Four of those look after mute, balance, polarity and display intensity, with the other two allowing access to the pre-amp’s set-up menu.
The headphone socket is on the far left, with the power on/standby switch on the extreme right.
The heavily populated rear panel has a symmetrical arrangement of analogue inputs, reflecting the pre-amp’s dual-mono construction. The RCA phono input, complete with its grounding post, is located separately, as is the bank of digital inputs.
On the output front, the No.526 provides both single-ended RCA and balanced XLR options, with the option of engaging an 80 Hz high-pass filter to allow for easy integration of active subwoofers.
Further expanding the pre-amp’s versatility are a RS232 serial port, 12V trigger inputs and outputs, an RJ45 Ethernet socket for network connectivity, a micro-USB port and a USB Type A input. The latter is used for importing firmware updates, or exporting setup configurations.
UNDER THE COVERS
The No.526 is a fully discrete, direct-coupled, balanced, dual-mono pre-amplifier with 15-bit R2-R ladder volume controls for each channel and individual low-noise signal switching relays for each input.
The modular chassis isolates delicate low-level analogue signals and the RF-prone digital circuitry from the on-board power supplies. The chassis is fashioned from 6000-Series extruded aluminium and employs internal heatsinks.
The on-board Precision Link DAC employs the highly regarded ESS Technologies 9018K2M Sabre 32-bit DAC chipset, together with a C-Media audio processor chip for the asynchronous USB input – the latter conforming to the USB Audio 2.0 standard.
The DAC will handle PCM data of up to 192 kHz/32-bit, and is compatible with DSD64 and DSD128 in either native or DSD-over-PCM (DoP) formats. It makes provision for six digital inputs in total, ranging from the aforementioned USB port to a single AES/EBU input, a pair of SPDIF RCAs, and two Toslink optical inputs.
The DAC employs nine individual power supplies, specific jitter elimination circuitry, and fully balanced, discrete I/V circuitry. It features adjustable PCM and DSD filtering (the latter for the USB Type B input only).
The PCM filter options are Fast (steep roll-off), Slow (gradual roll-off) and M Phase (minimum phase). Their use depends heavily on personal preference, and demands some experimentation, which can be done on the fly for easy comparison.
Also available is Harman’s Clari-Fi restoration software, designed to enhance lossy music file formats, such as MP3s.
While we’re on the subject of the built-in DAC, it’s quite conceivable that would-be buyers of the No.526 may already own a top-class, standalone D/A converter, and would therefore not have any need for the ML’s integrated DAC.
The solution to that dilemma is the Mark Levinson No.523 – essentially identical to the No.526, but without the built-in DAC. The rest is all there, phono stage included, and it costs less, too.
The phono stage caters for both MM and MC cartridges, and can be configured for infrasonic filtering, gain, and both resistive (MC) and capacitive (MM) loads.
I was fortunate enough to spend the best part of two months in the company of the Mark Levinson pre-amp: initially the flagship No.526, and later the DAC-less No.523. Having used both, I can confirm that the two are sonically identical as far as their line stage, phono pre-amp and headphone amp characteristics are concerned.
The partnering system for the review remained consistent throughout. A PS Audio DirectStream with Bridge II streaming card served as primary source.
To be able to access my NAS-based digital music library, I hooked up a headless Mac Mini to the No.526 via USB. I then used Roon music management software to configure the ML as a Roon endpoint, and was then able to use the Roon application to select and play back files from the NAS, as well as from the Tidal streaming service.
On a more conventional level, I used my trusty Esoteric UX-03SE universal player as a digital transport, delivering its digital wares to one of the No.526’s RCA digital inputs – surprisingly, the Esoteric isn’t equipped with AES/EBU.
My Avid Diva II SP turntable was on hand for vinyl playback. A Sutherland 20/20 phono stage provided a counterpoint for the No.526’s built-in phono section.
My trusty Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers, driven by a pair of PS Audio M700 monoblocks, completed the playback chain, while cabling was TelluriumQ Black throughout.
Both the No.526 and the No.523 review units were well played in demo examples that required no further burn-in. Set-up was a straightforward affair: I prioritised the balanced XLR inputs where possible.
The Levinson pre-amp allows individual customisation of each analogue and digital input, including the phono stage. Options include adjusting offset and gain, as well as renaming the inputs, either by selecting from one of the preset titles, or inputting your own.
The process is logical and straightforward but a little laborious. Given that the Levinson offers network connectivity (albeit only for installation, system control and firmware upgrade purposes) it would make a lot of sense to develop a dedicated app to make input setup (and other functions) more convenient.
The pre-amp does come with a remote control handset that duplicates all the front fascia functions, though.
SOUNDS LIKE …
The No.526 is the most revealing pre-amplifier I’ve ever heard. It has an uncanny ability to unbundle the music’s multiple layers, extracting and presenting a rich harvest of information, yet never losing sight of the overall sonic image, nor the musical message behind it.
That image was lucidly presented, with a sense of spatial and temporal accuracy that contributed to both the realism and the immediacy of the music. Scale and ambience were recreated with almost startling intensity, always affording the music ample space and air.
The Levinson allowed access to nuances and details, to subtle shifts in tempo and dynamics, and to fine tonal graduations, that simply weren’t apparent with lesser pre-amps. Even more importantly, it was able to contextualise those elements in a way that strengthened and validated the musical message.
As a result, everything I listened to, across all inputs and from all sources, sounded more vivid, more immediate and more engaging. Vitally, the sheer accuracy and depth of content extracted never sounded exaggerated or clinical: it simply made the music sound more believable – and more musical.
I started off focusing on the No.26’s digital talents. As mentioned briefly above, the built-in Precision Link DAC has a trio of digital filter options, selectable for each digital input individually.
The filters are dubbed Fast, Slow and Minimum Phase. Fast offers a steep roll-off to attenuate unwanted high frequencies, and also the lowest levels of noise and distortion. Slow rolls off the high frequencies more gently, and displays less pre- and post-ringing on transients.
Minimum Phase links a steep roll-off high-frequencies, but displays only post-ringing on transients. Filter choice is heavily dependent on programme material and personal taste, and can be used to ‘tailor’ the DAC’s performance to suit a specific recording, or individual preference.
Personally I found the Minimum Phase filter delivered the most satisfying compromise between precision and musicality, most of the time. It seemed to achieve the best overall grasp of the music across a broad spread of genres and formats, and was the least critical of less than pristine recordings.
Concentrating specifically on the DAC’s performance (after all, anyone spending this kind of money on a pre-amp will almost certainly already have heavyweight, standalone DAC in their system), I was impressed with the lucidity and grip of the No.526 in its digital role.
In that sense, the DAC was perfectly aligned with the pre-amp’s overall sonic signature, and clearly also benefited from the Levinson’s close attention to signal integrity, noise and interference management.
Listening to Van Morrison’s spellbinding collaboration with organ whizz Joey DeFrancesco, You’re Driving Me Crazy, was a deeply engaging experience, simply because the No.526 was able to recreate the music with a sense of spot-on timing, spatial generosity and attention-grabbing presence.
No wonder that it was impossible to listen to just a track or two: I ended up riveted to my listening chair for the entire set, just marvelling at the sheer immediacy and startling realism of what was being produced.
As with analogue sources, the No.526 not only afforded the music loads of soundspace, but extracted so much spatial and dimensional detail that it was easy to pinpoint the exact presence of each performer.
So accurate and realistic was this imaging that it was easy to plot and confirm each individual’s physical position – and not just across the width of the soundstage, but across all three dimensional planes.
On ‘Have I Told You Lately’, the horn section is off to the right and quite far back, while Joey’s Hammond B3 is to the front and left. Morrison’s vocals command centre stage, as they should, with the drums slightly to the left, but elevated behind Van The Man.
As each performer steps up to take a solo, they’re positioned either to the left or the right of the centre, but with such dimensional truthfulness that the elusive sense of ‘being there’ – the holy grail of hi-fi – is quite remarkable, and utterly compelling.
That the Levinson also managed to capture the electricity, the energy and the boisterous enthusiasm of this ensemble (recorded live in one or two takes) further added to the sheer joy of the listening experience.
Swapping the USB interface for good old RCA-based SPDIF, I used the Esoteric to play a long-time Pat Metheny favourite. Imaginary Day is musically fascinating and melodically elusive, with the virtuoso guitarist and his band creating vast, soaring sonic landscapes that never become monotonous, and seem to deliver new insights with every listen.
Never was this truer than with the Mark Levinson: its ability to closely examine even the finest slivers of detail, while never losing sight of the music’s overall direction or intent, revealed so much more of the music that it allowed a new level of appreciation.
Again, staging and dimensionality were expansive, creating the space and the air to fully savour the music, while the coherence and impetus of the delivery ensured a vibrant and enthralling listening experience.
By comparison, PS Audio’s DirectStream sounded more restrained and more polite, if no less transparent. Connected to the No.526 via balanced XLR, It couldn’t quite muster the gusto and the momentum of the ML’s own DAC, and the sound was slightly less layered, if still expansive and dimensionally accurate.
Coping with the diminutive signals from a phono cartridge is arguably one of audio’s toughest tests, especially if the phono stage is an integrated part of the pre-amp, where it is even more likely to be subjected to noise and interference than a standalone phono pre-amp.
The Levinson’s on-board phono stage followed the sonic lead set by the pre-amp itself, delivering a vanishingly low noise floor, even at high listening levels, while providing enough adjustment scope to handle most cartridges.
Listening to the marvellously dynamic and rousingly realistic Passion, Grace And Fire by guitar virtuosos John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia was a spellbinding experience, with the No526’s revealing, wide-open signature applied here to riveting effect.
The detail retrieval was astonishing, with the music taking on an almost physical stature. I could hear, see and almost feel the precise plucking of strings, the percussive fingerwork on well-worn frets, and the timbre and resonance of the acoustic guitars.
The Levinson ensured that the encounter with the music was so immediate that it was more a case of experiencing than merely listening to the music. There was a wholesomeness, a tangibility to the sound that demanded close and consistently gratifying attention.
The No.526’s phono stage accommodated the specific requirements of both a Van Den Hul The Frog and an Ortofon Cadenza Black, and accurately reflected the different characters of these two moving coil cartridges: the slightly warmer, almost organic immediacy of The Frog, and the revealing, precise and thrilling authority of the Ortofon.
Heard in the context of the Levinson’s overall talents for arresting, edge-of-your-seat realism, expansive staging and pin-point detailing, vinyl playback took on a new level of engagement and discovery.
I found myself hauling out album after album, just to confirm how downright tremendous everything from Jeff Beck and Pink Floyd to Eleanor McEvoy and Focus sounded under the Levinson’s auspices.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The real magic of the Mark Levinson No. 526 is exactly that: it makes any music, from any source, sound as good as it’s likely to get.
It is honest, revealing and precise, but not clinically so, and has the ability to drill down to the essence of a performance, revealing previously unnoticed or obscured nuances, details and subtleties.
Hearing music, even music you’re closely familiar with, through the No.526 is to hear it properly for the first time, presented with astonishing vitality, immediacy and truthfulness. It’s a benchmark product that shows just what a top-end pre-amp is capable of.
And while the privilege of owning a No.526 (or the slightly more affordable, DAC-less No.523) demands a significant investment, the end result vindicates every cent.
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz (±0,02 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >100 dB (A-weighted)
– 1x AES/EBU, 2x coaxial RCA, 2x Toslink optical, 1x asynchronous USB Type B
– 2x stereo balanced XLR, 3x stereo single-ended RCA, 1x phono
– 1x stereo single-ended RCA, 1x stereo balanced XLR, 1x 6,3 mm headphone jack
Dimensions (WxDxH): 438 x 485 x 101 mm
Weight: 18,6 kg
Mark Levinson No.526 – R336 490
Mark Levinson No. 523 – R249 000
PS Audio DirectStream/Bridge II DAC
Esoteric UX-03SE universal player
Avid Diva II SP/SME 309/Van Den Hul The Frog and Ortofon Cadenza Black
Sutherland 20/20 phono stage
PS Audio M700 monoblocks
Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers
Synology DS213+ NAS
TelluriumQ Black speaker cables and interlinks
PS Audio P5 power conditioner
Van Morrison/Joey De Francesco – You’re Driving Me Crazy (Sony 44/16 FLAC)
Pat Metheny – Imaginary Day (Warner Brothers CD)
John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Paco De Lucia – Passion, Grace And Fire (Sony Music/Audio Fidelity LP)
Hans Zimmer – Live In Prague (Eagle Records 48/24 MQA FLAC via Tidal)
Dire Straits – Love Over Gold (Phonogram LP)
Jeff Buckley – You And I (Columbia/Legacy LP)