Mark Levinson No 5101 Network Streaming SACD Player and DAC, No 5206 Preamplifier, and No 5302 Power Amplifier
It’s a bit unusual to review three highly sophisticated components at once, particularly in the luxury price range. This review covers the new Mark Levinson No 5101 Streaming SACD Player DAC ($5500), No 5206 preamp ($9000), and No 5302 power amplifier ($9000). Although each unit is good enough to merit a full review on its own, there is a certain method to the madness of trying to cover all three components in one review. First, a DAC/streamer, preamp, and power amplifier are the core electronics of an entire high-end system. Second, they all come from a top high-end manufacturer, and they have clearly been designed and “voiced” to interact with each other.
Here, however, I have to be careful about the use of the word “voiced.” It doesn’t take much listening to these components to realize that they are not designed to emphasize any given aspect of sound. They are designed to have as little coloration as possible, to avoid any sonic or technical problems in the way they interact, and to be as transparent to sources as possible. Instruments have to be “voiced” to emphasize given aspects of music as part of their design. Mark Levinson’s goal is the exact opposite: to create a product that is as accurate as possible.
The Case for Choosing Electronics from One Manufacturer
Getting this kind of accurate neutrality can be a major problem in setting up a high-end system. In fact, I have rarely encountered a top-quality high-end system where all the electronics matched in terms of manufacturer, generation, and price. Most audiophiles evolve their systems over time, and constantly try to find the magic component that will make yet another improvement in what they hear. The problem with this search is that they often end up mixing components from different manufacturers. Even systems that do attempt to standardize on a given manufacturer often mix the generation of at least one active component. What can be a minor coloration in one piece of electronics can become much more significant with this kind of mix-and-match effort.
The number of different electronic components that can add their own special sound character to a high-end system has also gotten higher. Many setups now have a separate front-end component for streaming, another for phono playback, and a separate SACD/CD transport or player. Some add a fourth to a preamp and power amp. This means four to seven active components—not counting the phono cartridge—and each then has its own cable connections, which also often involve different manufacturers, generations, levels of sophistication, and coloration.
A Determined Lack of Coloration
Regardless of the intentions and skill of the designers, mixing and matching means buying equipment designed to meet at least slightly different standards, and adding at least some low levels of coloration. Moreover, the chances of one coloration properly correcting another are slim. This makes a strong case for at least considering a “suite” of electronics like the Mark Levinson No 5101, No 5206, and No 5302, where the manufacturer has clearly gone to great effort to reduce coloration to a minimum and done so with great success.
As I’ll discuss shortly, each component still has its differences, although many are matters of features and ergonomics rather than sonics. Each, however, has excellent overall sound quality in terms of soundstage, transparency, timbre, detail, and dynamics. Each also avoids a problem that I continue to encounter with many competing products, which is a slight emphasis in the upper midrange that shows up in acoustic music with woodwinds and strings and sometimes brass—particularly on recordings attempting to exactly reproduce the sound of older instruments or the sibilants and upper range of female voice.
I should stress that I’m talking slight sonic differences, and different audiophiles and reviewers have different preferences. I have, however, heard a tendency to create a more forward and dynamic sound by emphasizing some aspects of the upper midrange. This is fine if you like the equivalent of a more front row—or near-the-musician—listening position with every performance. I don’t. I want natural hall effects with natural music.
Each Mark Levinson component has other things in common. Each does an excellent job of handling the transition from the upper bass to the lower midrange, preserving the natural warmth of music without softening or coloring it. The combined performance of the three components is also reinforced by the ability of the No 5302 power amp to drive and control the deeper bass of a wide range of speakers. I now make a point of auditioning this aspect of how a power amp performs in a range of my friends’ systems, and while the nuances again tend to be slight, the No 5302 did exceptionally well with a variety of speakers and speaker cables.
Mark Levinson No 5101 Network Streaming SACD Player and DAC
It’s hard to cram all of the operating and technical details of three complex components into one review, although all three have the same form-follows-function styling and excellent construction, and all three show careful attention to well-chosen rear-connection layouts and labeling. They also have a heft that their compact appearance does not communicate.
The Mark Levinson No 5101 SACD player and DAC is, however, to some extent the odd man out of the three. The No 3202 preamp has excellent digital circuitry of its own with 32-bit/384kHz and 4x DSD capability. If you have moved on to high-resolution streaming and already have streaming capability with a digital output, you may want to consider whether investing in such a player is necessary, especially given the steady increase in high-resolution streaming services, and their individual coverage and sound quality.
Speaking personally, however, I’d still invest in an excellent SACD or CD player if I had a really large collection of SACD and CD discs, and there is certainly a case for the No 5101 if you are looking for one of the best possible DACs for streaming. I’ve had mixed experience with the sound quality of the streamed versions of older classical and acoustic jazz recordings: When I compare the few personal copies I have of high-resolution commercial recordings with the streamed version, I find a number of “hi-res” remasters of older analog recordings and earlier CDs now sound more natural and more musical on an optical disc played back on the best SACD and CD players than they do on many streaming-service versions.
As I’ve noted earlier, I also am not a fan of what seems to be a tendency in some streaming to slightly increase the upper-octave energy with classical instruments like strings and woodwinds or female voice. When a recording is miked—or altered in production—to have a more forward or immersive sonic perspective, I don’t like what happens to the upper octave sound of flute, violin, piano, or even percussion.
Don’t get me wrong. The best true high-resolution streamed recordings that really are recorded at levels of 24-bits and 96kHz or above can be truly excellent. I do find, however, that there is too much emphasis in high-end audio on what “high resolution” and MQA can or cannot do at the top end of the frequency spectrum, and too little emphasis on the rest of sound quality in the midbass to lower midrange, and on the rest of the recording process from microphone to analog-to-digital conversion.
If you are not into older analog recordings, you can largely disregard these comments and focus on the debates over the best forms of streaming and MQA—although these often focus far too much on the relatively limited aspects of sound they affect rather than on the quality of the entire recording from microphone to final digital format.
At the same time, the No 5101 is also exceptionally clean and neutral. If you need any technobabble to support this conclusion, Mark Levinson’s literature notes that the No 5101 has “five individual, ultra-low-noise voltage regulators that power an ESS Sabre 32-bit PRO series D/A converter to unleash maximum performance. Proprietary jitter-reduction circuitry and user-selectable digital filters—seven choices for PCM and four for DSD—along with ample regulated power enable the best possible digital reproduction.”
Mark Levinson also advertises that “the No 5101 utilizes proprietary Mark Levinson PurePath circuitry. Fully discrete, direct-coupled, dual-monaural, line-level output circuitry delivers exceptional reproduction of the analog signal to the balanced XLR stereo outputs as well as to the single-ended RCA connectors. The linear power supply and toroidal transformer with separate voltage regulators for the left and right channels provide a quiet, stable source of power for critical analog circuitry.”
Marketing hype aside, however, the No 5101 has really excellent sound, and one special feature in the form of seven different selectable PCM filters that allow you to choose between steep roll-off, reduced transient ringing, controlled ringing, and phase effects. I can’t say that the apodizing filter is the most neutral with the most music, but it’s nice to have the choice. You also can choose the SACD low-pass filter’s cutoff frequency, PLL bandwidth, and the sample frequency of the digital output. Not major concerns for most audiophiles, but again, nice to have the ability to experiment and see if you can hear a meaningful difference.
The No 5101 is also extremely flexible. It has a wide variety of inputs and supports FLAC, WAV, AIFF, OGG, MP3, AAC, and WMA audio formats, and SACD, CD-A, CD-R, and CD-RW disc formats.
The areas where I have reservations about the design are the display and remote control. The handheld remote is basic and only works with the No 5101, rather than providing combined controls for the No 5101 and the No 5206 preamp; plus, the front panel display is relatively small. This may not matter to you, however, in practice. Mark Levinson more than compensates by offering the 5Kontrol app for your tablet or iPad that you can use with Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet. The instructions for setup are in the well-written instruction manual and relatively easy to follow. If you and your computer are on speaking terms, the problems in the front-panel display and remote control won’t be issues.
Less computer-knowledgeable audiophiles may need the aid of someone who is—or of a dealer—to help with setup. The 5Kontrol app does either a Wi-Fi or an Ethernet connection, and does not always switch easily from player to preamp and back. I should also stress that these problems with remotes and front panels are increasingly typical of today’s more advanced audio equipment. I would like, however, to see the high end stick with full-function remotes that are less confusing and easy to lose, and provide better (easier and more intuitive) instructions on setup for both computer applications and streaming.
Mark Levinson No 5206 Preamplifier
A preamp is a preamp, and I’ve already described the sound character of the Mark Levinson units. I also realize that calling an audio unit neutral, transparent, and uncolored lacks excitement, and will, to some, sound a bit bland and unexciting. It is more fun to claim that the product under review generated an epiphany bordering on a seizure, brought tears of joy to the eyes, or transformed the entire performance. Put differently, however, “neutral, transparent, and uncolored” means an excellent capability to actually reproduce what is on the recording, which I greatly prefer to saying that a unit revealed some unique aspect of the music that, in practice, is often a set of codewords for some form of coloration.
The No 5206 is outstanding in a number of other respects. The manufacturer notes that it has fully discrete, direct-coupled, dual-monaural, line-level preamp circuitry, and its analog circuitry is pure Class A. Other analog features include “a unique single gain stage mated to a digitally controlled resistor network for volume adjustment [that] maintains maximum signal integrity and widest possible bandwidth.” As stated earlier, the No 5206 has a built-in 32-bit/384kHz DAC with 4x DSD capability. Mark Levinson also notes that it has jitter-elimination circuitry and a fully balanced, discrete current-to-voltage converter.
As for features, six digital audio inputs are provided: one AES, two coaxial, two optical SPDIF, and one asynchronous USB for playback of high-resolution PCM (up to 32 bit/384kHz) and DSD files (up to 11.2MHz). Mark Levinson notes that the No 5206 includes MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) technology, “which enables playback of MQA audio files and streams.” The No 5206 also has a Bluetooth receiver equipped with aptX-HD for high-quality Bluetooth playback. Each of its four stereo line-level inputs—two balanced XLR and two single-ended, using custom Mark Levinson RCA connectors—has its own individual high-reliability signal-switching relays. And, it has a headphone output with the current and power capacity to drive headphones directly.
I tried the No 5206’s digital inputs with the No 5101’s digital outputs, the new PS Audio SACD/CD transport, my home computer, several other transports, and a variety of streaming services. It had outstanding performance with all of them, particularly in the more sensitive (to me) areas of the upper midrange, where some DACs can still be a bit hard or limit depth. You also get the same PCM filter choices that come with the No 5101, the same PLL lock switch, and the same ability to limit upsampling.
Another outstanding feature of the No 5206 is that it includes a fully integrated and really excellent moving-coil and moving-magnet phono input. Mark Levinson describes this phono preamp as “a newly designed phonostage featuring a hybrid gain topology that mates key discrete components from the acclaimed No 500 Series phonostage with low-noise preamp circuits for high performance…A hybrid active/passive RIAA equalizer employs precision resistors and polypropylene capacitors. The user can select mm/mc gain and optional infrasonic filter from the setup menu, while capacitive and resistive loading settings are easily accessed from the rear panel. Variable line-level RCA outputs allow system expansion and flexibility.”
The end result is that the No 5206 gives you least three components—all designed with the same lack of coloration—for the price of one: A standard preamp, a DAC, and the kind of phono preamp that I wish were integrated into every preamp. The phono section fully complements the sound character of the high-level analog sections; it is unusually quiet, although best used with normal rather than ultra-low-output moving coils. The phono sound is about as revealing as the LP permits. It does a great job of handling low-level passages, and the cartridge and recording—not the preamp—will limit the accuracy of timbre and soundstage.
Another key feature of the phono preamp is that the DIP switches on the rear panel provide a much wider range of loading for moving-coil cartridges than usual. This is a feature that has real practical value in getting the best moving-coil frequency response, and one where I’ve found user experimentation can really pay off—particularly in smoothing the upper midrange and highs and in getting a smooth balance with the rest of the midrange and bass. Loading is a tweak that’s really worth several hours of listening, during which you may well find the cartridge manufacturer’s recommended load is not the best option. (Go for natural musical sound, not warmth or exaggerated highs.) There also are four capacitance loadings for moving-magnet cartridges. Finally, the No 5206 has a number of other features that are described in detail in an exceptionally well-written and detailed instruction book. These include the ability to update the No 5206 using your home computer, home-theater pass-through mode, and a subwoofer high-pass filter that can be switched between the RCA and XLR outputs.
I do, however, have the same cautions about the remote control that I had for the No 5101. I really don’t want a remote that does not have labeled switches for each input or a balance control to help lock in the best soundstage and imaging. Once again, however, the 5Kontrol application converts a tablet or iPad to the remote that should have come with the unit, and has all of the features you’ll need.
Mark Levinson No 5302 Power Amplifier
Last, and scarcely least, the No 5302 power amplifier is a bit of a sleeper. Mark Levinson does provide some technical detail. It summarizes the design by stating that “the fully discrete, direct-coupled, Class AB amplifier-channels get their power from an oversized 1100VA toroidal transformer with individual secondary windings, rectifiers, and filter capacitors for the left and right channels. The voltage gain stage employs a topology directly descended from the acclaimed No 534 amplifier, which is mated to an output stage comprising two high-speed driver transistors operating in Class A and six 260V/15A output transistors. Two Thermal-Trak devices in a unique configuration guarantee stable output-bias regardless of load or temperature. Four 10,000-microfarad capacitors per channel, located directly on the output-stage circuit board, easily provide enough current.”
Before I read the specifications and actually listened, however, I assumed from its size that the No 5302 would sound like a really good moderately powered unit. Well, it is moderately powered by today’s audio-behemoth standards. Mark Levinson rates it at a “conservative” 135 watts per channel at 8 ohms, at 270 watts per channel at 4 ohms, and 550 watts at 4 ohms bridged in mono—with stable operation into 2 ohms.
However, wattage ratings are one thing, and sound quality is another. The No 5302 delivered more deep bass energy and dynamics into a number of different speakers than many amps with much higher power ratings. Dynamics were exceptional and musically realistic in passages where some power amplifiers seem to lose a bit of their ability to clearly reproduce transient detail across the entire frequency spectrum, often losing a bit of deep bass and sometimes even midbass energy.
As was the case with all three Mark Levinson components, low-level detail and dynamics were very good, and performance was equally good to very high listening levels. The soundstage was as accurate as speaker setup, room, and recording permitted, without any emphasis on a given instrument or voice or any alteration in image placement and size.
While the No 5302 was not “warm” in the classic sense, it was exceptionally realistic when it came to sharp shifts in musical energy, or electronic music with deep bass lines. This performance is particularly good if the standby mode is set to “Normal.” There is also a switchable auto-off feature that can kick in after 20 minutes, if you are worried about power consumption.
It was also interesting to try the No 5302 out with the different systems of several of my friends, some of whom are blessed with the ability to afford quite expensive components. The No 5302 also seemed to do an exceptional job of controlling the speaker and minimizing any effects from using different speaker cables. I can’t tell you why.
The only sonic cautions I really have is that a number of competing power amps have a slightly different balance of highs and detail. Every power amp is different and so is every setup. As for features, I have two minor quibbles. Setting up all the features can be a bit complex and may require the use of a computer or tablet/iPad. No big deal, and, once again, the instruction manual is well written, but the computer-challenged may need the help of a savvy friend or dealer. Overall, this new Mark Levinson series is really good gear and was a lot of fun to listen to.
Specs & Pricing
No 5101 Streaming DAC and Disc Player
Formats supported: SACD, CD, CD-RW, CD-R; FLAC, WAV, AIFF, OGG, MP3, AAC, and WMA
Outputs: Balanced on XLR jacks, unbalanced on RCA jacks
Inputs: Coaxial and optical digital, USB-A for thumb drive or USB drive
Control: RS232, Mark Levinson 5Kontrol app, streaming and transport control via MusicLife app
Networking: Ethernet and Wi-Fi
Output voltage: 3V unbalanced, 6V balanced
Signal-to-noise ratio: >106dB balanced, >94dB single-ended
Dimensions: 17.25″ x 4.97″ x 18.36″
Weight: 36 lbs.
No 5206 Dual Monaural Preamplifier
Analog inputs: Two stereo pairs balanced on XLR jacks, two stereo pairs unbalanced on RCA jacks, moving-magnet on RCA jacks, moving coil on RCA jacks.
Digital inputs: Two coaxial on RCA jacks, two TosLink optical, one AES/EBU, one USB
Outputs: One stereo pair balanced on XLR jacks, one stereo pair unbalanced on RCA jacks
Phono gain and loading: 39dB gain, 47k ohms, selectable capacitance 20, 70, 120, 170pF (moving magnet); 69dB gain, 37 ohms to 1k ohms (moving coil)
DAC: Up to 384/32 PCM, DSD512
Dimensions: 17.25″ x 4.96″ x 19.25″ (including knobs and connectors)
Weight: 34 lbs.
No 5302 Power Amplifier
Output power: 135Wpc into 8 ohms, 20Hz–20kHz at <0.35% THD, both channels driven; 270Wpc into 4 ohms (stereo mode); 275Wpc into 8 ohms, 20Hz–20kHz at <0.3% THD (bridged monaural); 550W into 4 ohms, 20Hz–20kHz (bridged monaural)
Input sensitivity: 145mV RMS input for 2.83V RMS output
Total harmonic distortion: <0.04% at 1kHz, 135W, 8Ω load; <0.35% at 20kHz, 135W, 8Ω load
Signal-to-noise ratio: >102dB, 20Hz to 20kHz, wideband, unweighted, referred to 135W into 8 ohms
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz, +0/-0.2dB; <0.2Hz–110kHz; +0/-3dB
Input impedance: 100k ohms (balanced), 50k ohms unbalanced
Inputs: One pair balanced line-level inputs (XLR), one pair single-ended line-level inputs (RCA)
Output connectors: Two pairs high current multi-way binding posts
Control: One RS-232 port (DB-9); one Ethernet port (RJ-45); one USB port for firmware updates (USB-A); one baseband IR input (1⁄8″/3.5mm phone jack); one programmable 12V DC trigger output, one programmable 12V DC trigger input
Power consumption: 0.4W (Green standby); 2W (power-save standby); 35W (standby); 90W (idle); 1000W (maximum)
Dimensions: 17.25″ x 5.75″ (includes feet) x 18″
Weight: 70 lbs.
By Anthony Cordesman
I've been reviewing audio components since some long talks with HP back in the early 1980s. My first experiences with the high end came in the 1950s at the University of Chicago, where I earned part of my tuition selling gear for Allied Radio and a local high-end audio dealer, and worked on sound systems for local night clubs, the Court Theater, and the university radio station. My professional life has been in national security, but I've never lost touch with the high end and have lived as a student and diplomat in Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, NATO, Asia, Iran and the Middle East and Asia. I've been lucky enough to live in places where opera, orchestras, and live chamber and jazz performances were common and cheap, and to encounter a wide range of different venues, approaches to performing, and national variations in high-end audio gear. I currently hold the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and my open source analyses are available at that web site. What I look for in reviewing is the ability to provide a musically real experience at a given price point in a real-world listening room, and the ability to reveal the overall balance of musical sound qualities that I know are on a given recording. Where possible, I try to listen on a variety of systems as well as my own reference system.More articles from this editor
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