It says something about the state of the vinyl revival that established high-end brands which existed in the day of vinyl supremacy are building its first-ever turntables. That is the case with the Mark Levinson No. 515, which is the first turntable to bear that name in the history of the marque. Eagle-eyed record player enthusiasts will notice however that this turntable bears a striking resemblance to those from a well-known US turntable specialist, namely VPI. Mark Levinson make no bones about this and given that developing a turntable that’s worthy of their name would be quite a challenge for an electronics company, the approach makes a lot of sense, why go to so much trouble when an expert in the field is happy to create a custom turntable to your specification. OEM turntable manufacturing has happened in the past, with companies including Rega making decks for other brands, but it’s relatively uncommon now and especially in the high end.
The No. 515 is not merely a rebadged model from the VPI range. Mark Levinson has put some research into the design, and the result has several distinctions not seen in the VPI range. The plinth is a sandwich of aluminium and composite materials with a vinyl wrap, and it’s big, at 533mm it’s too wide for the top of my rack. Four Delrin and aluminium feet keep it perched high enough for the power supply to sit underneath with the drive spindle sticking up at the right height. The way that the motor sits within a niche in the plinth is elegant, and the fact that the power supply is part of the system means that you don’t need to find space for another small box. It does mean a potentially chunky power cable hanging off the back but as the PSU and motor are separate to the turntable that doesn’t provide a direct conduit for vibration. What this approach does mean is that the No. 515’s performance can be affected by the nature of the supporting surface as this provides the energy path between motor and plinth.
Mark Levinson has chosen to drive the platter with no fewer than three belts, which is not a VPI trait. Levinson’s take is, “We use three belts to provide a somewhat tighter connection between the motor and the platter, which mitigates the effects of drag and results in a slightly more extended and accurate bass sound than a single belt. (It doesn’t look half bad either!).” The motor is a high torque AC synchronous type with the requisite power to spin up the substantial platter to 45rpm from standstill; the switch system doesn’t allow you to jump straight from 33.3 to the higher speed, you need to switch one off before using the other.
The platter is a robust and attractively machined lump of aluminium that sits on an inverted stainless steel bearing with a phosphor bronze bushing. The platter has a threaded centre spindle; however, the heavyweight stainless steel clamp that sits over the spindle requires no turning, which makes switching records a much quicker process. A mat made of a synthetic material that’s thicker than the wool variety sits atop the platter.
The tonearm looks very much like a VPI except for one significant variation which is that rather than being a typical JMW Memorial unipivot it has gimbal bearings, an idea that Mark Levinson brought to the table. The other difference is that the tonearm is not a metal or carbon tube but a 3D printed creation; this has the advantage that armtube and headshell are all one piece and means that no finishing is required. I couldn’t find any reference to its effective length in the manual, so I got the ruler out. As measurement required taking the distance from stylus tip to the bearing centre on the arm, it is a bit tricky, but using the supplied (metal) set-up gauge, it comes out at 275mm, which is close to 11 inches (279.4mm). The official word, however, is that it’s a 10inch arm.
The printed element armtube combines with a stainless steel gimbal assembly and counterweight, the latter having the advantage that it allows for fine adjustments with a knob on the back. It’s not clear whether the heavy counterweight is removable because of this facility, which could be an issue with the bearings in transit. The more obvious knob and dial on the arm is the large one for VTA, which offers an obvious and easy way to set and change the height of the arm. So much so that you can replicate VTA settings for different records which is quite a luxury. Rather than having a pair of arm cables exiting the back of the turntable, the No. 515 has a couple of RCA phono sockets either side of an earth post. You don’t get cables for this link however so you will need to find some suitably shielded interconnects for the job.
The No. 515 comes in two forms, with or without an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze cartridge, with which the name gains an MC suffix. This moving coil has cobalt-iron pole pieces and has an extruded aluminium housing with a conical aluminium cantilever and a Replicant 100 stylus (no Blade Runner jokes please). The price jumps by £2,000 with the Ortofon in place, but you do get it pre-installed and set up at the higher-than-recommended 2.7g downforce that Mark Levinson feels sounds best.
After hooking up the outputs with Townshend F1 Fractal interconnect to a Tom Evans Groove SRX phono stage, my initial impressions of the No. 515 were not very good. It seemed opaque and lacking in dynamic contrast and timing precision, so uninspiring in fact that I decided to change the cartridge. At this point, I discovered that the fixing bolts were not sufficiently tight. Unsurprisingly, sorting this proved highly beneficial to the results, which came under the category ‘gas on and cooking’. Now Weather Reports’ ‘125th Street Congress’ [Sweetnighter, CBS] was busting out of the speakers in forthright fashion and flowing freely with it.
Not being a massive fan of record clamps I made a bit of comparison with the weight on and off different albums and concluded that not using the clamp was less appealing than leaving it on. It seems to sit on the sound, darkening the balance and stealing some of the life and energy which is what happens when you attempt to damp a piece of vibrating plastic, of course. Without the weight, the No. 515 sounds more open and vital with better resolution of mid and high frequencies, so that’s how listening proceeded.
On Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby [Riverside], this record player resolved the brushes on skins of Paul Motian’s drums very clearly, with a bit more emphasis on this element than usual. It’s not the most resolute result I’ve had with this record. Still, the Cadenza is a relatively affordable MC, so I decided to change cartridges after all and put on something that seems more appropriate to the cost of the turntable. This cartridge upgrade took the form of a Transfiguration Proteus, which delivered a lot of the low-level detail that I was looking for straight from the first bar. When it was warmed up things got a lot more interesting especially when I put on Jocelyn Smith’s Honest Song [Berliner Meister Schallplatten], a direct to disc recording with a full band that was rendered with considerable power and realism by the No. 515. Timing is not in the very first league, but when it comes to getting a sense of being in the room with the musicians, it was a strong showing.
With Joni Mitchell’s live version of the ‘Circle Dance’ [Miles of Aisles, Asylum] the sense of being in a broad audience with all their requests for songs was palpable, the atmosphere almost crackling with the energy of the event. When Joni speaks and sings, you get a lot of the acoustic reverb from the stage; it’s great to hear the character of a recording it takes the listener to the place and time of the event. This is as close to time travel as it’s possible to achieve without a suitably equipped DeLorean. You get the warmth of Joni’s voice in full effect, the performance might have had a bit more scale and power back in 1974 but I don’t imagine that the PA would have been as revealing as this. The Proteus sounds rich and mellow on the Mark Levinson and when I dug out a vintage pressing of Al Green Explores Your Mind[London] to contrast with a modern audiophile repress it’s clear that tape decay is not something to be taken lightly. The faults of the worn pressing are audible, of course. Still, they take second place to the clarity and energy on offer that makes tracks like ‘Take Me to the River’ all the more essential it sounded so good that I had to let the album run into the fabulous ‘God Blessed Our Love’ with its super sweet backing vocals.
For a bit of contemporary contrast, I put on Tord Gustavsen’s The Other Side [ECM], which I reviewed when it came out on CD but only really began to appreciate once I got the vinyl. This album sounded sublime on the No. 515 with impressively quiet backgrounds and fabulous phrasing from the piano and double bass alike; the long arm gives this turntable a calm, sure-footed presentation that sounds even better when you wind up the level. I was still not quite feeling the timing however and decided to try a different interconnect to see if that would help, I went for Rega’s relatively inexpensive but turntable specific Low Capacitance cable. This cable isn’t as refined as the Townshend but did benefit timing quite obviously, and it also reduced hum a little probably because it’s fully shielded. Now the Mark Levinson gained some coherence which made for even more captivating listening, the full beauty of the Gustavsen set becoming all the more apparent as a result.
As Mark Levinson is keen to point out the low-end capabilities of this turntable, I found one of my heaviest albums in Burnt Friedman and Jaki Liebezeit’s Secret Rhythms [Nonplace]. This 45rpm pressing of bass and percussion revealed that the No. 515 does indeed plumb the depths well; low drums in particular kick with a resounding thud and the percussive metal work zings into life. The resulting full bandwidth powerplay is highly entertaining and sofa-vibrating in equal measure. It could have a bit more of the reverb that the best turntables extract from this album, but the calm, powerful delivery is easy to enjoy. I went back to the Ortofon Cadenza at this point to see how close it could get and discovered a delivery with impressive extension and some genuinely 3D imaging. It didn’t have the charm of the pricier cartridge, but I have to say that the texture it found in bowed double bass and the stability it brought to lively passages was not unentertaining. Continued listening did little to undermine this impression with a clean and open sound that’s strong on instruments and gives voices a sense of ‘body’ in the room.
Mark Levinson makes the No. 515 with the company’s customer base in mind, and ML amplifiers now have seriously good phono stages onboard (which put paid to my suggestion that they make a stage that could fit under the plinth of this turntable). The opportunity to buy a matching record player will appeal to that base. For the rest of us, the No. 515 is a substantial turntable with many appealing qualities and a sound that is as physical as the record player itself. It would be interesting to contrast cartridges that you can get for the £2,000 premium for the Ortofon Cadenza Bronze to the turntable, This Ortofon is competent and revealing, but there may be alternatives that are a little easier to love, and the turntable is more than capable of handling a more up-market cartridge. But such things are often in the ear of the beholder so don’t discount it by any means.
Type: Full-size, AC-drive turntable with 10inch tonearm
Rotational Speeds: 33 1/3 RPM, 45 RPM
Supplied Tonearm Length(s): 10-inch
Drive Mechanism: Belt driven via AC synchronous motor. Triple belt drive
Speed Control: Electronic speed control
Platter Type: Solid aluminium with soft mat
Platter Weight: Not specified
Bearing Type: Hardened stainless steel shaft spinning in a phosphor bronze bushing
Plinth Configuration: Rigid plinth on Delrin and aluminium feet
Dimensions (H×W×D): 200 × 533 × 404mm
Price: £10,000 (turntable), £12,000 (inc Ortofon Cadenza Bronze)
Manufactured by: Harman International
Distributed in the UK by Arcam
Tel: +44(0)7917 685759