MBL Noble Line N11 Preamplifier and N15 Monoblock Amplifier


Equipment report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers
MBL North America N11,
MBL North America N15,
MBL North America N51
MBL Noble Line N11 Preamplifier and N15 Monoblock Amplifier

The last speaker I tried with the Noble Line electronics was one of the Radialstrahlers it was designed with and for—the MBL 101 E Mk.II omnidirectional. Since the 101 Es are themselves dark in balance, the Noble Line’s tendency toward a bottom-up presentation was definitely more marked with them than it was with the Magicos and Maggies. However, this darker tonal balance isn’t what struck me first or foremost. No, it was the sheer joy I experienced listening to the system. Driven by the Noble Line electronics the 101 E Mk.IIs were and are nothing if not continual goosebump-raising fun.

Now I know that “fun” is not a usual critical superlative in our hobby. Indeed, a speaker or set of electronics that is a visceral joy to hear (at any level on any music) is almost automatically suspected of lacking accuracy or of compromising the absolute sound. Such suspicions may, in fact, have a bit of truth to them, but they are also an almost unbelievably narrow way of looking at what a hi-fi does (or should do). If we rule out deriving close to non-stop pleasure from our stereo systems—if we rule out the ways in which a great component is capable of turning off our critical faculties, rather than persistently turning them on (or off and on repeatedly)—then why in hell are we even bothering to purchase expensive toys that are bound to frustrate? Indeed, while they may not have quite the timbral linearity, accuracy, and realism of the standard-setting Magico M3s, the 101 E Mk.IIs are scarcely inaccurate or short on sonic lifelikeness when it comes to tone color, and are very close to the Magicos’ equal in dynamics, and their superior in dimensionality. Plus the Radialstrahlers do something else as well as, if not better than, the best cones in a box: Let’s face it—when we go to a concert in a recital hall we don’t ask ourselves whether the instruments we are hearing, a string quartet for example, sound like “real instruments in a real space.” They are real instruments in a real space—and they sound the way those particular instruments, the performance of the artists, the acoustics of the room, our seating position in that room, and a host of other factors permit them to sound. This does not mean that the “absolute standard” is invalid when it is applied to a recording of that same string quartet. What it does mean is that we never merely listen to sound. We listen to and are thrilled and moved by the gestures and feelings those sounds express. In short, we listen to and are moved by music. And while the Radialstrahlers may not capture the timbre of real instruments quite as neutrally and accurately as the Magico M3s do, they capture the toe-tapping, goosebump-raising thrill of hearing live music at least as well (which is why I once called Radialstrahlers the thrill rides of the high-end-audio amusement park).

The Noble Line N11 and N15 certainly bring out the 101s’ virtues without being hamstrung by their peculiarities. You might think that a speaker with a sensitivity of 81dB (or less), like the 101 E Mk.II, would be a challenge for any amp short of a behemoth, but the N15 (like the even more powerful MBL Reference 9011) never seemed fazed by the Radialstrahlers’ hunger for watts, volts, and amps. While I wouldn’t say that the N15s had quite the overall resolution or sensational treble snap and extension of the 9011s, they effortlessly reproduced hard-hitting bar-band rock ’n’ roll like Lake Street Dive’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” from Free Yourself Up [Nonesuch] at lifelike levels (ca. 95–96dB average SPLs), and they did this without sacrificing one of the very things that makes Radialstrahlers such a pleasure to listen to—their ability to play at very very high volumes without turning the slightest bit rough, bright, or annoying. (According to MBL’s literature, the N15 has a “soft-clipping” feature that, I assume, makes it sound even less rough and bright at very high levels, though this feature may also be partly responsible for the amp’s slight reduction in treble-range brilliance).

Another thing that the Noble electronics do not short-shrift is three dimensionality. Of course, an omnidirectional loudspeaker like the 101 E Mk.II, with 360-degree dispersion (and no enclosure), is a paragon of 3-D sound—to the extent that it is the one transducer I’m familiar with capable of making digital seem as if it’s got nearly as much bloom as analog. Already notably three-dimensional with the other speakers I used, the Noble amp and preamp made the Radialstrahlers sound, as I once said about their big brothers, the X-Tremes, like the sonic equivalent of going to a stage play rather than watching a movie. Indeed, the 101 omnis’ inherent ability to project musical energy in all directions rather than merely forward (or forward and back) is highly realistic—and a large part of the reason the Radialstrahlers sound so thrilling and real with the right sources and electronics. The Noble Line gear did them proud in this regard.

I could go on about the 101 E Mk.IIs—about their incredibly lifelike power-range weight and impact, about their bottommost octaves (which are said to extend to 22Hz), about their uncannily natural reproduction of voices, brasses, and strings, about their boxless openness and vast soundstage—and even though some of these things would also be to the credit of the Noble Line electronics driving them, the Radialstrahlers are not the subject of this review. It is the N11 and N15 that I’m focusing on, and the bottom line here is plain. Neither the amp nor the preamp is the last word in high-end electronics (even in the MBL lines), but then they don’t cost anything close to what that last word costs. What they are, like the MBL Radialstrahlers they pair up with so beautifully, is thrilling to listen to—a little dark, a little soft and sweet on top, a little lower in top-end extension and resolution than their $100k+ competition, but always enjoyable, powerful, and musical, and, given the right source and pairing, fully capable of a realism that raises goosebumps and of a soundfield of head-slapping breadth, width, and depth. In sum, these are components I can recommend to every kind of listener, and particularly to those with Magneplanar or MBL loudspeakers.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Linestage preamplifier
Inputs: Seven analog
Outputs: Five variable, two fixed
Dimensions: 17.7" x 5.9" x 17.7"
Price: $14,600

Type: Class D monoblock amplifier
Power: 560W/36A into 4 ohms
Inputs: Two XLR, one XLR pass-through
Outputs: Two pairs WBT binding posts
Dimensions: 17.7" x 5.9" x 16.8"
Price: $35,200/pr.

Type: Class D integrated amp
Power: 380Wpc/28A into 4 ohms
Inputs: Six analog (RCA and XLR)
Outputs: Two analog (RCA)
Dimensions: 17.7" x 5.9" x 17.7"
Price: $16,500

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JV’s Reference System
Loudspeakers: Magico M Project, Magico M3, Raidho D-1, Zellaton Reference Mk II, Avantgarde Zero 1, MartinLogan CLX, Magnepan .7, Magnepan 1.7, Magnepan 30.7
Subwoofers: JL Audio Gotham (pair), Magico QSub 15 (pair)
Linestage preamps: Soulution 725, Constellation Audio Altair II, Siltech SAGA System C1, Air Tight ATE-2001 Reference
Phonostage preamps: Soulution 755, Constellation Audio Perseus, Audio Consulting Silver Rock Toroidal, Innovative Cohesion Engineering Raptor
Power amplifiers: Soulution 711, Constellation Audio Hercules II Stereo, Air Tight 3211, Air Tight ATM-2001, Zanden Audio Systems Model 9600, Siltech SAGA System V1/P1, Odyssey Audio Stratos
Analog sources: Acoustic Signature Invictus/T-9000 tonearm, Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V, TW Acustic Black Knight/Raven 10.5, Continuum Audio Labs Obsidian with Viper tonearm, AMG Viella 12
Tape deck: United Home Audio Ultimate 1 OPS
Phono cartridges: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Air Tight Opus 1, Ortofon MC Anna, Ortofon MC A90
Digital sources: Berkeley Alpha DAC 2, MSB The Reference DAC
Cables and interconnects: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power cords: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power conditioners: Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Technical Brain, AudioQuest Niagara 5000
Support systems: Critical Mass Systems MAXXUM and QXK equipment racks and amp stands
Room treatments: Stein Music H2 Harmonizer system, Synergistic Research UEF Acoustic Panels/Atmosphere XL4/UEF Acoustic Dot system, Synergistic Research ART system, Shakti Hallographs (6), Zanden Acoustic panels, A/V Room Services Metu acoustic panels and traps, ASC Tube Traps
Accessories: Symposium Isis and Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks and Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment and amp stands, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Clearaudio Double Matrix Professional Sonic record cleaner, Synergistic Research RED Quantum fuses, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses