Mark Levinson No.326S Preamplifier and No.432 Power Amplifier

Equipment report
Solid-state preamplifiers
Mark Levinson No. 326S
Mark Levinson No.326S Preamplifier and No.432 Power Amplifier

Although it was polite, subtle, and sophisticated in the midrange and treble, those qualities didn’t prevent the No.432 from delivering a rock-solid, tight, and extremely dynamic bottom end. This amplifier can rock when asked. Roscoe Beck’s outstanding bass work on Robben Ford and the Blue Line’s Handful of Blues had terrific punch and drive, laying the foundation for Ford’s searing guitar work. Timpani whacks had the appropriate measures of depth, suddenness of attack, and freedom from strain. With 800Wpc on tap into 4 ohms, the No.432 isn’t likely to run out of power even when driving the most difficult load. I never heard a softening of the bass, a reduction in bottom-end dynamics, or a congealing of the soundstage—all characteristics of an amplifier nearing its power limitations—during the auditioning. The No.432 is fully competitive with the best amplifiers Mark Levinson has produced, but offers a greater value, in my view. At $8000 for 400Wpc, the No.432 is about half the price of the company’s comparable efforts of ten or more years ago, and perhaps a touch better sounding. If you don’t need this much power, consider the otherwise-identical 200Wpc (400Wpc into 4 ohms) No.431 at $7000.

If the No.432 held few sonic surprises, the No.326S preamplifier rendered me slack-jawed. Inserting it into the reference system, now with the No.432 installed, completely upended my preconceptions. Yes, the No.326S had some identifiable Levinson characteristics, but was in a completely different league compared with the company’s previous efforts in preamplifier design. Specifically, the No.326S had much less of a “house sound” and vastly greater transparency and truth to the source than any other Mark Levinson preamp I’ve heard. In my review of the Mark Levinson No.38 preamp (Stereophile, August, 1994), for example, I wrote that the unit didn’t quite resolve the last measure of detail, and that its soundstage was somewhat constricted. The No.38 had a veiled and distant character that never really let me connect with the music. Not so the No.326S. This new preamp is absolutely world class in terms of transparency, soundstaging, bass extension, dynamics, and most dramatically, dimensionality.

Inserting the No.326S into my system (combined with the No.432 power amplifier) produced the most convincing and engaging sense of dimensionality I’ve heard from my system. Dimensionality is difficult to describe; it is a multifaceted aspect of reproduced music that encompasses soundstaging, tone color, image focus, bloom, and the ability of a component to resolve space between instrumental images. Dimensionality is that quality of an audio system that provides the impression of an instrument’s size, shape, texture, and precise position in the soundstage. Lots of hi-fi components throw images between the loudspeakers, but very few project a convincing illusion of the instrument’s body hanging in three-dimensional space before you. Dimensionality is also related to a component’s ability to differentiate tone colors, allowing the listener to pick out a single instrument from within a dense orchestration. This particular quality was apparent on the JVC XRCD resissue of Holst’s The Planets during the loud and brash multiple brass lines on “Mars.” I heard no smearing, no congestion, and no congealing of instrumental textures, just a sound very much closer to what one hears in the concert hall. (I had the benefit of hearing The Planets performed recently.) Interestingly, counterpoint was well served by the No.326S’s dimensionality, particularly its ability to keep left- and right-hand piano lines distinct. Listen to the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue as transcribed for piano and performed by Junichi Steven Sato [Sato Music Editions] on a fabulous new recording. The No.326S simply made the counterpoint more interesting and engaging.

Dimensionality is of course dependent on cues encoded in the signal, but is actually created by the brain. The signals driving the left and right loudspeakers are two-dimensional in nature—merely voltages that vary over time. These signals are converted to two patterns of compression and rarefaction in the air. From this pair of two-dimensional signals, the brain creates the illusion of objects (musical instruments) existing in space before us. How miniscule the difference in signals must be between a preamp that delivers dimensionality and one that doesn’t—but how important to the musical experience. Dimensionality gives music a natural sense of vividness and life without resorting to hi-fi trickery. Some components attempt to make up for lack of dimensionality by sounding forward, forced, and aggressive. This sonic vividness quickly becomes fatiguing, but natural dimensionality has the opposite effect, drawing the listener into the presentation in a completely relaxed way that encourages long listening sessions.