CONCOURS D’ELEGANCE OF INTEGRATED AMPS: SHOWCASING THE MBL 7008 AND THE CHALLENGER, MARK LEVINSON 383 INTEGRATED AMP
|CONCOURS D’ELEGANCE OF INTEGRATED AMPS: SHOWCASING THE MBL 7008 AND THE CHALLENGER, MARK LEVINSON 383 INTEGRATED AMP
Recently, I had the privilege of spending some time tinkering with and listening to MBL’s newest integrated amp, the Model 7008, to see how it compared to the top contender in this field, the Mark Levinson 383 integrated amp. Before I go any further, let me make two observations: First, it is always a delight for me to spend with audiophiles talking about the mutual love they share for music and cars. There is just something about the first Porsche Carrera RS model that had a rear spoiler extending into the top of its rear fenders, and the form-follows-function of a gleaming Levinson 383 integrated amp that brings men and (hopefully more) women to the pursuit of this love of ours: getting closer to musical truth and the intention of the artist in the recorded music we love. Second, let me state for the record that I realize very few of us in these tough economic times can actually afford to purchase either of these pricey integrated amps. However, I venture to argue that just like the new Porsches we see on the track (which few of us can afford to own), these top of the line audio products inform the industry what to strive for, in sonic excellence, new engineering techniques and craft design. This is a good thing, especially when such technology and craft are incorporated into more affordable gear that many of us can afford to purchase.
Under The Hood
Similar to the improvements rendered by a new K-Jetronic fuel injection system, a two-way catalytic converter and an air injection pump, all found on the 1978 Porsche 911 SC model, (as opposed to its predecessor, the 1975-1978 911), a look under the hood of the MBL 7008 and finds an array of German engineering improvements aimed at MBL’s goal of providing a shorter signal path for purer musical reproduction. In the power section, the 7008 is designed with dual-mono construction, using two separate power boards. Uniquely, the heat sink is on the top of the unit, which MBL claims creates the shortest signal path and most homogenous temperature field for lowest thermal distortion. Rated at 120W into 8 ohms (200W into 4 ohms), the 7008 never broke a sweat at even the most challenging decibels driving various loudspeakers with impedances of 5 ohms and under (Ascendo System F-3; MBL 311E), and those with relatively low sensitivity below 86dB/1W/1m (MBL 311E; Harbeth Super HL5). No trailing throttle oversteers, no front-end shake, (like the classic 911 cars) just pure agility and seemingly unlimited power from this power section.
The 7008’s preamplifier section is pure analog from the input (over a precise volume control potentiometer) to the output stage, with the power supply for the preamp input stages located on the same circuit board so as to insure a short path to supply the input circuits. There is also a separate transformer for low power analog input electronics directly on the input circuit board, again to insure separation of high and low current transformers. Adding dimensionality is the ability to use the 7008 as a stand-alone preamp, or in conjunction with a surround processor, utilizing its unique processor/bypass feature. Around back, the MBL sports gold plated XLR sockets, fairly decent quality RCA jacks and speaker binding posts, an input for an optional phono stage and a removable power cord. The adjustable digital display is relatively small in size, and can be difficult to read from a distance. My chief complaint is with the remote, made of plastic with buttons set too close together. For a vehicle of such price and distinction as the 7008, the remote should be of better build quality and ergonomics. Contrasted to the remote, the entire build quality of the 7008 chassis is first rate, with clean sleek lines and no sharp edges to its heat sinks, conveying confidence and European sophistication. Add to this package the nod to headphone users, with a very good sounding (and quiet) headphone output section. It was a joy to turn on the 7008 at night, nestling back with a pair of the new Sennheiser 650 cans, and wallowing in the rich, soulful voice of Jackson Browne, who, by the way, offers his own interesting take on a driving experience in The Naked Ride Home [Elecktra 62793-2].
Hitting The Track
How does the German engineered 7008 sound after many punishing hours of listening by yours truly in both a small office space and a long, narrow living room, strapped to tough impedance loads presented by MBL’s own 311E or the German great, the Ascendo System F-3 loudspeakers? Like a classic Porsche, it performed admirably, with agility, power and endurance, without adding a scintilla of coloration or added warmth to the presentation. This may not be to everyone’s liking, similar to the ride in a classic Porsche, where every aspect of the road is felt, and one must always be on alert for quick and decisive action making driving a visceral experience – not just a journey to get from one place to another.
The experience with listening to the 7008 in my systems for several months was quite a similar, visceral experience. First, the 7008’s overall perspective was that you were always ushered to a seat in the first rows of the recording venue. Treble, midrange and bass were always presented in dynamic, sharp and concise manner, no matter the genre of music or the loudspeakers utilized. Starting with the treble region, there was a clean delivery into the stratosphere, without any etch or grain, except what was present on a particular recording. I would describe the treble as forward, but not overly bright or thin, more analytical than colored. For example, on the magnificent Chesky recording of Oregon in Beyond Words [Chesky JD130], Paul McCandless’ soprano sax on “Leather Cats” is captured with its proper tone, without any thinness or reedy quality. His squeal at the end of this fun romp is managed quite well, although some might prefer more warmth and fullness to his tone. On McCandless’ penny whistle initiating the contemplative, “Witchi-Tai-To,” the 7008 portrays this tough treble act with proper tone, without an overly dry character. In another test of treble presentation, ride cymbals sounded very energetic through the 7008, without any grain or overt dryness. My man Roy Haynes is still pulling off those blistery cymbal flourishes, and on “Bright Mississippi” from The Roy Haynes Trio with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci [Verve 314543534-2] the 7008 put me in a seat right next to his kit in this live session.
Midrange timbres through the 7008, particularly voice, piano, and violin, continued the forward perspective of being very involving as well as tonally and texturally accurate. I enjoyed both female and male vocalists through the 7008, although some might find its presentation of voices a bit too forward or even strident on some bright recordings. One gem of a recording that I enjoy for its pristine recording of male and female voices accompanied by bass is Rob Wasserman – Duets CD [MCA 42131]. On “The Moon Is Made of Gold,” Wasserman joins Rickie Lee Jones on a magical lullaby. Through the 7008, Rickie Lee’s delicate mids and highs were caught in their lightness and proper timbre, with only a slight hint of thinness (more evident on the smaller mbl 311E loudspeakers than when driving the Ascendos). Other female vocalists were similarly portrayed with energy, sparkle and accuracy through the 7008. Alison Krauss’s lovely vocal filigree as displayed on “Gravity” from Lonely Runs Both Ways [Rounder 116610525-2] was woven with such fine detail and sparkle by the 7008 that she was singing just for me. As for the tough project of capturing the tonality of a banjo, the 7008 pushed Ron Block’s banjo front and center in “Rain Please Go Away,” with all of the energy of individual strums and picks crisply depicted in space and time. Returning to Wasserman’s Duets for examples of male vocalists, in “Brothers,” Bobby McFerrin’s unique body music is perfectly rendered, as we sit right under his breathing body instrument with the 7008 in place. A great rollicking duet with Lou Reed must also be mentioned, “One For My Baby,” where Lou and Wasserman get electric and the 7008 conveys the immediacy and energy of this session perfectly. Reed’s deep distinctive voice is well portrayed, but again, with very little warmth or lushness in the mix, which I am more accustomed to hearing on this cut. Accuracy, finesse and agility are the adjectives again that come to mind to describe the midrange through the 7008.
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