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[Review by ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN, orig. from Audio magazine 100th anniv. issue, May 1997]
The Mark Levinson No. 31.5 is truly of reference quality. But what do you get from a $9,495 CD transport that you don’t get from far less expensive competitors? And how much of an investment in a high- quality CD transport should you make relative to the other components in your system?
In terms of engineering, the answers are clear. The No. 31.5 offers outstanding manufacturing quality, tank-like solidity, and state-of-the- art technology. Madrigal, which makes Mark Levinson equipment, has long been a leader in digital technology, and every aspect of the No. 31.5 reflects this. The company’s emphasis on digital engineering helps explain why many people felt the earlier Mark Levinson No. 31 was a leading con tender for the title of best CD transport at any price. The No. 31.5 retains many of the No. 31’s attributes, including its disc-clamping system. And the earlier model’s isolated suspension has been enhanced in the No. 31.5 to float the disc, spindle, and laser pick up system within an 11-pound lead ring that rests on its own secondary suspension.
The 31.5 provides technophiliacs with a number of new features. These include a ruggedized version of the well-proven Philips CDM-12 double-speed CD-ROM mechanism, but with a CD-ROM controller whose oscillator precision is rated as accurate within 5 parts per million (ppm) instead of the 1,000-ppm oscillator that is standard with the CDM-12. The 31.5 also has an advanced all-digital servo and servo interface to get the best possible performance out of the CDM-12.
Further, the No. 31.5 has internal digital signal processing (DSP). The RF signal from the laser system is de coded into digital audio by a semi-custom gate array. The data is then transferred to an Analog Devices DSP chip that reads the subcodes in the data stream to provide faster control switching and time, index, and table-of-contents display information. Since the subcodes are used only by the transport, not the D/A converter, the 31.5 replaces the sub-code data in the outgoing bitstream with purely random data. After extensive tests, Madrigal concluded that this produced better imaging and small-detail dynamics than leaving the original subcodes or replacing them with quasi-random codes.
Like all Mark Levinson transports, the 31.5 has Closed-Loop Jitter Reduction—an advanced clocking circuit that has its own power Supply. This circuit, which is near the digital out puts, uses an exceptionally precise reference clock that is electrically and mechanically isolated.
The 31.5’s digital output stage is a high-speed differential type designed to deliver fast, clean edge transitions and low skew for better symmetry. Other advances are to be found in the 31.5’s operating software and in its remote control; there’s even a new, more gentle, lid assembly.
If you are of the Ferrari school of audio and crave ne plus ultra equipment simply so that you can have the best technology around, the 3 1.5’s new set of technical bells and whistles should please you. What’s more, if you already have a 31, you can up grade it to a 31.5—which itself was de signed with further upgrades in mind (including potential conversion to a CD/DVD transport).
But if you lack infinite wealth, you should consider whether the No. 31.5 offers sound quality to match its technology. After all, most audiophiles have to make reasoned trade-offs between sound quality, desire, and bankruptcy. That being the case, are the sonic benefits of the 31.5 worth the substantial investment?
The answer is yes for those well- heeled audiophiles who already own the $15,950 Mark Levinson No. 30.5 D/A converter, particularly if they also have a No. 31 transport. The synergy that often exists between the same manufacturer’s CD transport and D/A converter is readily apparent in the sound of the 31.5 transport and 30.5 D/A converter working harmoniously together.
Many regarded the earlier No. 31 and No. 30 combination as the best CD front end available. I found that combination to be slightly lacking in dynamics and bass energy, but, as I stated in my review previously, the upgrade of the No. 30 to the No. 30.5 did much to solve these problems. The 31.5 completes the process. Some top-ranking CD combinations are still slightly more dynamic, and many have more bass energy. However, if your taste runs to natural musical dynamics and accurate bass detail rather than mere bass power, I know of no current CD front end that offers more realistic musical dynamics and bass reproduction.
With the AES/EBU balanced electrical connection and a high-quality interconnect, the 30.5 and 31.5 offered significantly more low-level detail than their predecessors. This was quite apparent on quality pop CDs, such as those from Emmy Lou Harris, Sting, and Barbra Streisand.
As a classical music buff, however, what I found most striking was the subtle improvement the 30.5 and 31.5 made in upper-octave harmonics, soundstage detail, and reproduction of solo instruments. I can almost guarantee you’ll hear the difference in recordings of violin, piano, or harpsichord (a problem instrument for CD) as well as in recordings of massed voices and strings. I was particularly struck by the 30.5 and 31.5’s out standing ability to reproduce the subtle timbral information that distinguishes specific makes and generations of musical instruments.
The soundstage created by the No. 30.5 and 31.5 was superb. While some competitors present the soundstage in a different—but equally convincing—form, I have yet to hear any CD front end do a better job of revealing the soundstage detail that is actually on a recording.
Some CD front ends seem to be at their best only with audiophile-quality recordings (a phenomenon I can’t explain), but this Mark Levinson combination retains the earlier Levinson models’ ability to get the best out of old, lower-quality CDs. The No. 30.5 and No. 31.5 usually improved the sound of run-of-the-mill CDs—a not inconsiderable advantage, since average recordings often boast the best performances.
So if you already own a Mark Levinson No. 30.5 D/A converter and can afford a 31.5 CD transport, your decision is simple. Otherwise, the key issue becomes whether you can afford the 31.5 and what D/A converter you intend to use it with.
Economically challenged audiophiles will want to consider the merits of the Mark Levinson No. 31.5 relative to those of the numerous CD transports that provide fine sound at considerably lower prices. There is, for example, Mark Levinson’s No. 37, at $3,995 (not to mention the $5,995 No. 39 CD player, which uses much of the same technology found in the company’s separates). I also recommend the PS Audio Lambda Two and the Theta Digital Data Basic II (each about $2,000). Additionally, very good transports are available from Classé Audio (the CDT-1, for $2,495), Sonic Frontiers (the SF1-1, at $2,295), and Wadia Digital (the Wadia 20, at $4,500). Theta Digital’s Data III ($4,500) is not only an excellent CD transport but an outstanding laserdisc player as well.
The most you can expect from the best CD transports is a relatively subtle improvement in bass definition and dynamics, transient definition, and low-level detail. A very good D/A converter and speaker are required to hear the differences between very good, excellent, and state-of-the-art transports. If I were forced to make a choice, I’d almost always invest in a better D/A converter and speakers and make a compromise with the transport, where sonic differences are much less significant.
The Mark Levinson No. 30.5 D/A converter sounded consistently better with mid-priced transports than the No. 31.5 transport did with mid-priced converters. I heard roughly the same quality of sound when I listened to the No. 31.5 with the Meridian 565 and Wadia 27 as I did when I connected it to the much more expensive Levinson 30.5. But while the Theta Digital D5 Pro Generation V-a Balanced D/A converter sounded very good with the 31.5 transport, it sounded just as good with Theta’s own much lower-priced Data III transport when I used Theta’s proprietary optical interface to connect the two. The slight sonic differences I heard between the Theta/Levinson and the Theta/Theta combinations were not musically consequential. This demonstrates that experimentation is required with different types of digital connection. You cannot assume that the No.31.5 will outperform another manufacturer’s transport with the same manufacturer’s D/A converter.
The Mark Levinson No. 31.5 produced some sonic improvements with other mid- priced D/A converters, but these varied by brand and model. And it quickly became clear that there is no more point in putting a ne plus ultra CD transport into a medium-quality sound system than there is in giving that system an ultra-expensive analog front end. If your D/A converter is more “lovable” than accurate or has significant colorations, you probably will get equal performance from a less expensive transport. I heard little improvement of any kind when I used the No. 31.5 with the kind of “audiophile” D/A converters that attempt to “enhance” CD sound by rolling off the highs, adding their own euphonic colorations, or softening dynamics.
I also found, incidentally, that you can screw up the sound of almost any trans port/DAC combination by using the wrong kind of digital cable. I would not even begin to audition a transport as good as the No. 31.5 without using an AES/EBU or RCA coaxial cable that I knew met all of the relevant technical specifications. A good cable manufacturer will make it clear that a given cable does meet specification. If not, hype notwithstanding, there is a good chance the cable will turn out to be overpriced, gimmicky rubbish—no better or worse than the anonymous digital interconnect with yellow RCA plugs that lurks in every audiophile’s junk box.
The foregoing comments are no reflection of the value of the No. 31.5 or of any other state-of-the-art CD transport, if your system’s other components match its quality. It’s just common sense that you should not pay for improvements you cannot hear and not invest too much in one component relative to the others. Admittedly, this is like telling a junkie not to buy dope. If you spend a lot of time with the Mark Levinson No. 31.5 transport, particularly in combi nation with the No. 30.5 D/A converter, you may start considering what non-audio- related assets you can sell off to pay for the purchase.
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