Here is one of the true survivor brands. Mark Levinson Audio Systems began life in the early 1970s, from the outset as the highest of high-end companies. The company separated from Levinson himself, went out of business, then became part of the Madrigal Group, which became a part of the Harman Group, which itself became part of Samsung relatively recently. The brand had some fallow periods (this is the polite version; the real deal got real nasty), as well as winding up becoming the in-car upgrade for Lexus. At the core, however, is a brand name that bespeaks of the best in high-end audio. And that has never changed.
All of which made the company’s most recent 5000 line stand out from the norm. While not built for economy, the line represents a new entry-point for a brand that frequently pushed the envelope of high-end price structure. As a result, it would be understandable if Mark Levinson 5000 models were in some way ‘Mark Levinson Lite’. That’s not what happens in the No. 5805 tested here. Instead, the No. 5805 and its No. 5802 baby brother represent a deeper change in the way audio happens. It also speaks to a design that needs deep pockets to realise.
At first glance, the No. 5805 is simply another conventional integrated amplifier. It bears a familial resemblance to the more up-scale 500 series, specifically the No. 508.2 integrated. It has many of the same elements inside, too; most notably the phono stages, although the difference between the two is the No. 508.2’s phono stage is fully discreet, where the No. 5805 bristles with chips. The biggest change is a move from essentally an amp with a DAC to a full digital hub. That might seem like a minor change – it’s not.
Plug the No. 5805 into the Ethernet and it has its own IP address with set-up screens you can access via a web browser. Or, you can configure the amplifier in the more conventional way using the front panel and the remote. Either way, you are presented with a host of options for the user, including full input trim settings (so you can control both the starting volume levels and the maximum volume of each source, the speed of the volume level, whether ‘mute’ means ‘shut up!’ or ‘be quiet!’, there’s even options to put it into different types of standby, whether you want to be fully biodegradable and wait an hour for it to come on song, or burn through a few polar bears and have it run on a more juicy standby. You can name sources too, of course, and the loading options of that phono section are far more flexible than usual thanks to the web browser, and you can troubleshoot your system.
This also means the No. 5805 is comprehensively input-ready. It’s got eight inputs in total; four analogue (one XLR, two RCA, one MM/MC phono) and four digital (one coaxial and two optical S/PDIF, USB). Bluetooth is included too. One of the more clever features on the No. 5805 is that you can assign one of seven different reconstruction filters independently to each digital input; so if you think the first coaxial is a bit ‘Fast Linear’, the optical sounds very ‘Brickwall’ and the USB is ‘Apodizing Fast’, you can set these up in that way. Usually, the filter applies globally, so this is a step in the right direction for audio obsessiveness.
There is also an Ethernet port, but it’s for control (along with RS232 and USB-A) rather than streaming, which is a shame given its flexibilty elsewhere. It has a home-theatre by-pass though, which with the absence of Ethernet streaming does suggest it’s targeting a very traditional audio buyer with a more non-traditional design. Streaming aside, I think that its range of inputs and outputs (there’s a 1/4” headphone jack on the front panel) give the No. 5805 decent flexibility.
The amplifier delivers 125W per channel, in a direct-coupled, Class AB design. For all its modernity in installation, the amplifier itself is relatively conventional and relies on an internal preamp/power amp architecture that shares a common power input with a 500VA transformer. Even the headphone stage is a feed from a preamp rather than its own amplifier. The circuit features a voltage-gain layout that connects to an eight-transistor output stage, with two out of the eight running in pure Class A. The bias of this output stage varies according to temperature. Mark Levinson suggests that this power amplifier architecture is derived (‘descended’ according to Levinson) from the company’s No. 534 power amplifier, in a trickle-down manner. This is not a bad starting place for an amplifier.
I used the Mark Levinson No. 5805 with a range of components fore and aft. The amp more than delivered the good when used with the Audiovector R1 Arreté tested in this issue, as well as the outgoing Magico A3 and the resident Wilson Audio Duette Series 2. It was fed by the USB output of a Melco N10 and the RCA sockets of the Innous ZENmini III tested next issue. I also used it with my Kuzma Stabi S/4Point9/CAR 40 vinyl front end. Cables were cycled between Cardas Clear, Ansuz D2, and Nordost Odin 2 (although with each cable costing more than the amp, this was taking things a little too far!). The amp arrived with some miles on the clock so running in wasn’t an experience to have, but on EU-friendly standby levels, it definitely improved from a cold start after half an hour or so. The amplifier rarely got above comfortably warm, save for the times when it was sweltering in 30°C heat during the UK’s mid-summer heatwave.
I’ve had some experience of Mark Levinson products in the past, but the accent is on the past. Although I’ve spent time listening to the latest iterations, they are more passing aquaintances than close friends. Even so, that classic Levinson dark, rich, and powerful sound continues to run through modern Mark Levinson devices.
But not here.
This is Mark Levinson rebooted, with a sound more in line with what the modern audiophile wants from their equipment. The almost brooding sound of the more upmarket models is replaced with a more immediate and forward presentation. It still retains that large and powerful sound that characterises Mark Levinson’s soundstaging properties, but where once Mark Levinson passed majestically between musical themes, on the No. 5805 it bounds more vigourously. It’s a ‘younger’ sound than I expected too; more forgiving of signal compression, more energetic on rock and dance music, and perhaps ultimately more Little Simz than Little Feat.
I don’t think added pep in its step is a bad thing, although Mark Levinson purists might not agree. Where the traditional Mark Levinson sound is ideal for accompanying long late-night sessions, the No. 5805 is great for plenty of quick-fire listening. I don’t want to overstate this; it’s not that the existing equipment can’t use party as a verb, or the newer models are too excitable to work in a late-night all-of-Yessongs [Atlantic] playing session, just that the No. 5805 plays to different strengths. And that really is a good thing.
The central aspect of the No. 5805’s performance that shines through on analogue, digital, and LP sources is its infectious, boppy sense of rhythm. OK, not quite in the manner of something like a similarly priced Naim rig, but the Mark Levinson keeps time well, and in an upbeat rather than a measured way. This makes the tribal, Iran-meets-Cuba in a London basement rhythms of Ariwo’s ‘Alafin’ [Ariwo, Manana, CD] have more drive and energy. You can’t help but tap your foot to the track. Move this over to bigger sounding systems and it sounds bigger, but slower. You are perhaps less likely to notice they are playing kitchen utensils, though!
That said, the No. 5805 is extremely detailed, and given the chance to show off with impressively recorded music, it does just that. Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances [Zinman, Baltimore SO, Telarc] is played with gusto and verve, and the Mark Levinson amp reproduces that and the dynamic range exceptionally well. It also creates a good stereo soundfield, albeit one that is more about width than depth. However, the detail and spatial aspects don’t tend to lay poor recordings bare, either. It just brings out the best in a track.
Where the No. 5805 comes up short next to the best is in vocal articulation and coherence. It’s not that voices are indistinct, but my go-to track for determining such things – ’Animales hambrientos’ by Bebe [Cambio de Piel, Warner Spain] – is telling. When it’s good, I think I know Spanish. Here, I thought “I wish I knew Spanish”.
Overall, though, the amplifier delivers a very fine performance. It’s crisply dynamic and presents sounds in a soundstage with excellent solidity. It’s a very much ‘turn it up’ amplifier, too; not simply a party animal and it can play well at low levels, but when you play something fun, it makes you want to turn it up.
Perhaps the acid test of the No. 5805 came when casually listening to a series of YouTube clips through the optical input, being fed from my TV. I had a few friends come round, and I’m not ashaimed to say we all got a bit ‘refreshed’ and had given up on regular music and video entertainment and engaged in a spot of random YouTube clip watching instead. Over the course of the evening, we churned through everything from Frankie Boyle insulting his audience, through the ‘let’s play the most obscure piece of music you can find’ game, and eventually to essentially giggling at silly memes and Mitchell & Webb clips. Eventually, we gave up when trying to count just how many SS soldiers Clint Eastwood shot up in each clip of Where Eagles Dare, and carriages (well, Ubers) awaited the revellers. Then it struck me. I had managed to turn on, use, enjoy, and turn off, a high-end audio system – while drunk and in the company of fellow members of the ‘inebriati’ – switch it to play from TOSlink, play it loud and enjoyable enough to shout down ‘The Knights Tippler’ and nothing went ‘bang!’, nothing required adult supervision, and fun was had. In contrast, had I been using a more conventional high-end system, I’d have never even thrown the first switch!
Finally, how you rank the headphone socket largely depends on just how much of a headphone enthusiast you consider yourself. If you use headphones on an occasional basis, and use a pair of moderately demanding headphones, it’s perfectly fine, and has the same detailed, fast, and engaging properties of the amplifier itself (primarily because it is the amplifier itself!). If you consider yourself a headphonista and spend most of your listening sessions under a headband, then the No. 5805’s headphone socket is about average; good for a ‘built-in’, but no match for a dedicated headphone amplifier. In this context, and with more demanding headphones, the headphone socket is a little grey and undynamic. I think for most users of the No. 5805, they won’t ever go for a separate headphone amp and they will use the amp with mid-range AKGs or similar and really enjoy what they hear.
Is it possible to build a set of components that do what the No. 5805 does for less? Of course, but that’s not the point. People who buy the No. 5805 would never countenance buying separates in this fashion, and neither would they go for a separates system that featured Mark Levinson’s more upmarket models. I first thought of the No. 5805 as ‘training wheels’ for the bigger stuff, but that’s not how this amp’s story arc plays out. Instead, this is a product designed for people who will likely never go for the bigger stuff. This is all the Levinson you need today!
The No. 5805 is Levinson reborn, after all. It’s not Mark Levinson for the rest of us, it’s Mark Levinson for a new generation; a generation that appreciates good things, but is time-poor, space-poor, and therefore unwilling to accept the plethora of different boxes that makes up a traditional audio system. In other words, it’s Mark Levinson for right now!
Type: Integrated amplifier with built in DAC and phono stage
Power output: 2 × 125 W into 8 Ohms
Minimum load: 2 Ohms
Analogue inputs: 1 pair balanced, 2 pairs unbalanced. Phono: separate MM and MC (only one can be connected)
Digital inputs: 1 asynchronous USB 2.0 B Audio, 2 optical, 1 coax (S/PDIF)
Sample rates/Bit depth: PCM up to 384kHz up to 32 bits. DSD: native of DOP, single, double, or quad speed. Full MQA decoding
Control inputs: Ethernet, RS232, and USB A
Input Impedance: 20k ohms (balanced) 10k ohms (single-ended)
Phono: MM: Input resistance 47k ohm. Input capacitance: selectable. Gain: 39dB. MC: Input resistance: Selectable. Gain: 69dB
Manufactured by: Mark Levinson Music Systems
Distributed in the UK by: Arcam
Tel: +44(0)1223 203200
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