The Mark Levinson No. 33H Mono Power Amplifiers: Mostly in Holistic Terms
|14 April 1999
BEST TO REPEAT AT THE START SOMETHING I MENTIONED
in an earlier appearance. I edit a webzine, La Folia, sponsored by Madrigal Audio Laboratories, the manufacturer of Mark Levinson audio components. As a music writer forFanfare and The Absolute Sound, I first purchased a Mark Levinson No.39 CD player and No.333 power amplifier before I approached a Madrigal executive familiar with my Fanfarework with a proposal for an online music review. The overture was mine. A tad cyberphobic (read: hapless geezer), I desired only to provide the writing, recruiting and editing, surrendering the webzine’s meat-&-potatoes operation to someone else’s care. The folks at Madrigal liked my idea. A music review would help attract browsers to their website. Nevertheless, the reader who regards what follows as suspect must not be faulted for untoward skepticism. I can do no more than assure you: my thoughts are my own.
Nor do these thoughts promise to resemble audio-hardware commentary as it normally occurs. I listen to my sound system as a totality and find it difficult to discuss it as an agglomerate of parts. Allowing thus for the inevitable verbal vagueness attaching to one’s experiential unity, suffice that I perceive the vastly more expensive and physically imposing 33H mono power amps as significantly, profoundly, astonishingly better. Than everything this side of breathing! (One wants not to overstate.) Mind, I liked the 333 very much indeed. We’re really talking about conditions of good to better to best to — oops! — off the chart. I’d do well to step back for a moment, wipe the foam from my lips, and describe relevant peripherals. I had an old Audio Power Industries Power Wedge line conditioner squirreled away in the closet which one day not long ago I decided to try with the digital piece. Very nice: I think perhaps the noise floor dropped. When noise floors descend, resolution accrues. I e-mailed Les Edelberg, the man who runs API, to ask him how urgently he recommends my replacing the old Wedge with one of his new Ultra Wedges. He did not say, You absolutely must! Yet, subtle geek that I am, I peered into the spaces between his comments and decided that yes, he really was saying I’d be much happier with the new line conditioner. I’ve lived now with an Ultra Wedge long enough to determine that I am indeed happier. Relative to that two other tweaks: a separately offered replacement power cord for the one that comes with the 112 Ultra (the model I bought), and an API power cord I’ve had on hand for several years. So then, we’ve an API 313 Power Link from player to Ultra, and from Ultra to wall, an API 311 Power Link. As a final touch, the player sits on a Bright Star Audio air-suspension platform (a shallow, open-bottom box atop a silent poo-poo cushion).
One further tweak, this to my Wilson WATT/Puppies. Scot Markwell ofThe Absolute Sound fashioned for me a set of Siltech jumpers — the external wires connecting the lower Puppy to the upper WATT — to replace Wilson Audio’s own Puppy Tail. Wilson warns against such replacements, since the networked Puppy Tail acts as part of the crossover. Caution noted, I think these Siltech wires do one hell of a job. My cabling otherwise is Nordost SPM, one pair balanced interconnects, ditto speaker cables. It’s a bare-bones system: CD player (with good analog level control), amps, and speakers. I live with my wife, Lee, in a small loft in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Scattered built-ins appear to act as effective diffusors. Our dwelling encloses a lot of wall art, sculpture, cushions, pillows, carpeting, but no room treatment as such. People find the acoustic quite good. High ceilings help.
As advertised, one’s thoughts on the Levinson No. 33H mono amp. First in importance, I’m listening to a system. The tweaks to the player are in the mix, as is the time of day, one’s mood and the music. At one moment, an especially revealing recording has one’s gear on its best, ultra-high-resolution behavior, at another, one listens (because he must) to something that would sound about as good emitting from a camel’s rump. Crummy discs dwell beyond help. If your system makes everything sound peachy, you’re up the wrong irrigation creek. Very well then, these are the qualities I assign primarily to the 33H:
The issue is one of truth in music, or more accurately, truth in recording. I’m closer to the heart of the matter. More than ever before, a superbly resolved soundstage appears to exist independent of the hardware. I’ve a better defined sense of depth, of coherence within the spread. That elusive quality of soundstage height seems more discernable too. I’m hearing a far more authoritative dynamic, an extraordinary control over transients, however crisp, brutal, or startling, along with a better delineated sense of dynamic gradation: diminutive sounds stand in clearer relief. The huge amp’s en-pointe finesse is perhaps what would most impress were it not for a no less forceful sense that the sounds one hears are unrelated to the electricity fueling these events. Not only do the components appear to exist independent of the soundstage, they likewise appear to have nothing to do with the wall outlets to which they’re connected. When an audiophile says he’s closer to the music, he often means that he’s hit upon those euphonious effects he holds as an ideal. Thus my discomfort with this phraseology. Euphony, the great homogenizer, is inimical to accurate portrayals of sound in the can. In this regard, it delights me to report that a great many of the CDs on my shelves sound better than I earlier thought, and no few, alas but no surprise, worse. Given a good source, harmonic complexities — call it whole-grain rectitude — are closer than not to those of live, unamplified sound. One is particularly aware of distinctions among productions. But placing the emphasis on production blunts the very strong impression that sounds now lack that electronic glaze one had adapted to without quite realizing it. The effect’s rather like a seeing an old painting recently restored to its original color and chiaroscuro.
I’ve long harbored the feeling, looking at the tickets of high-end gear, that I’m in bad company. It’s clear that the stature of certain high-end objets d’art sonique owes in good part to eye-crossing pricetags, as an especially vacuous parallel to a celebrity culture in which one achieves fame for reasons having little to do with genius, talent, or even simple ability. Can there possibly be anything about the workmanship or materials in a $6,000 phono cartridge or $15,000 speaker cables that justify these numbers? At a half-yard under $20k the pair, yes, yubetcha, the Levinson No. 33H is wildly expensive. But knowing what it does, I cannot bring myself to call it a luxury. Remove two machine screws, slide back the vented roof flanked by the world’s most gorgeously extruded heat sinks, and you’re gazing at a voltage-gain-stage board of unusual beauty. I’ve been to Madrigal’s Middletown, CT plant and have seen these Levinson devices spread out in pieces. The promotional pamphlet Madrigal provides in no way cosmeticizes the amp’s interior. They are, believe me, that well made and, from what I’m hearing, that well conceived. What a pleasure to share one’s space with these needle-threading brutes.
Something approaching a technical note: The 33H mono power amplifier is rated at half the output of my now departed 333’s 300 watts per channel into eight ohms. Before I acquired the 333, I’d been using a Crown Macro Reference power amp, its steady-state output into eight ohms a whacking 760 watts. An amp’s weight relative to output seems a meaningless guide. The controversial Crown — here disparaged, there admired — weighs about 80 pounds, the Levinson 333, about 150 pounds. As an earnest of can-do slam, the 200-pound-each 33H’s declared output of 150 watts of continuous rms power into eight ohms (“measured from 20Hz-20kH with less than 0.5% THD,” as most likely a conservative rating) doubles as the impedance it addresses halves, concluding at an astonishing 1200 watts of continuous output, house current permitting, into one ohm! The amp’s power-supply tower enclosing a huge and boulder-heavy 3.417kVA toroidal transformer occupies the core of a vertical structure 18½ inches high by 11inches wide by 23 inches deep. With its matte-silver edifice flanked by the heat-sinks’ vertical black rails, the 33H is strikingly handsome. More to the point, form follows function. Much like the hot-water radiators they somewhat resemble, the rails disperse considerable warmth. Look at it this way: if you can afford these lovlies, you can probably handle the drubbing they’re bound to give your utility bill. Madrigal recommends leaving the 33H in stand-by, in which state each side consumes about 200 watts of power. Impressive? How about at idle 500-plus watts each! One pays for his pleasures.
As the very model of an exemplary city-dweller, one profits from electrical-outlet isolation. Among the engineering claims made on the amp’s behalf, I’m especially cheered by the “special power amplifier-within-the-power-amplifier” dedicated to mains regeneration: “In effect, [the 33H derives its] own AC power, creating an ideal source for the critical voltage gain and driver stages …. portions of the positive and negative DC voltages in the main power supply are siphoned off and used to drive a special oscillator that generates a pure 60 Hz sine wave …,” as, I believe, a feature unique to power amplifiers. I won’t trouble to summarize the remainder of what, for me, yields elation. Write Madrigal for the Levinson 33 / 33H pamphlet. So far as I can determine, it states its case in uninflated terms.
I’ve gone over to Silverton’s on a few occasions and can say his system always sounded clean, with tons of detail, gobs of openness (with focus), and not too untidy in the bass either, but somehow the Levinson electronics he loves so much have left me wanting. (Call me a recovering tubeaholic) At the time the Levinson No. 333 stereo amp handled the music’s business. I wondered aloud why this was so, offered advice on what to do, of course to no avail. Letting things be is what Mike’s about. Besides, he knows his music, is a hell of a cook, and likes the sound of his system just fine, thank you very much, good bye. We apparently don’t have the same tastes. I left it at that, he resumed his work for his webzine La Folia, and I began work on StereoTimes. When Mike told me by e-mail that the mighty 33H’s had arrived, my reply was something like, “Call me when they break in.” A few weeks passed before everything settled down at the mag and I was free to do some listening. I called my crew, “The Brass Ear” Brassington and “Left Channel” Lanese, to accompany me to Mike’s to critique these mighty beasts. (Everyone should have a crew like this — they’re two of the most experienced ears out there, no exceptions.)
We arrived at Mike’s place as planned, 5 PM Sunday. I smelled the coffee Mike makes whenever I visit it all the way down at the first floor. We were in for a treat. We hugged in the customarily manly, audiophile manner, made small talk, discussed the new mag … then we noticed the amps! “How’d you get them up the stairs?” Was the first thing “Left Channel” asked. The “Brass Ear” added in his normal fashion, “It shouldn’t matter how he got them up the stairs. Just be glad you weren’t here to help when they arrived!” Then began the business of listening.
“I can tell you right now this system is up there with the best of the best,” the “Brass Ear” observed in no less than twenty seconds of the first disc we played. I said nothing at first but in less than a half-hour remarked the serious improvements I heard overall and especially in the bass: not just tighter, cleaner, and more robust but more transparent — unlike any I’ve heard. We all were somewhat taken aback by the extremely clear window, the sheer expression of musicality produced by these amps strapped to a pair of WATT / Puppy V’s with nary a hint of harshness. The differences I recall between the 333’s and the 33H’s are not minor. What’s more amazing is the fact that the 333’s power rating is twice that of the 150 watt (into 8 ohms) 33H’s. Without knowing the rating, there’d be no way on earth you could ever convince me I was listening to a less powerful amplifier. To these ears, it simply wasn’t the case. The “Brass Ear” rated the system at the top of the heap in twenty seconds. “Left Channel” too thought the system much better than he expected it to be given Mike’s quite large loft. But he too is convinced these amps are a revolutionary design concept. Hopefully one day Madrigal will build their less expensive designs with the technologies employed in the 33H’s. Remembering the 333’s performance, I just couldn’t believe the differences one amp changeover wrought. That said, the price of admission is steep. That this level of sound quality actually exists makes the journey to audio nirvana all the more refreshing.
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