Mark Levinson No 523 Preamplifier, Phonostage And Headphone Amplifier
Mark Levinson hardly needs an introduction. Back when the term "high-end audio" had hardly entered the lexicon, Mark Levinson came into being in 1980 and even though the company was no longer owned by the man Mark Levinson, the Mark Levinson brand did, and still has, a reputation for designing and selling very high-quality components. This remained a fact, despite changing hands a number of times.
While Mark Levinson brand operates independently, it is owned by Harman International Industries, which also owns and markets over 20 brands including Harman/Kardon, Crown Audio, Infinity, JBL, Lexicon, Revel, Soundcraft, Studer... These days the majority of "preamplifiers" are not actually preamplifiers, but linestages, as they lack an onboard phono-preamplifier. The Mark Levinson is in fact a preamplifier, since it includes what Levinson calls their Pure Phono, which uses the same design principles as their Pure Path design. This does away with any op amps and instead uses a fully discrete design.
I listened to quite a few records using the Levinson's on-board phono preamp, and after a time I began to not only admire its clean sound, but also its extended frequency response, and better yet, its lack of any nasties or excessive noise in the upper mids and treble that would imply that it couldn't handle the low output of the cartridges that I connected.
The Mark Levinson No 523 is a pleasure to use. I'm not just saying that because its volume and input selectors located on its front panel's far left and right feel so extravagant when in use. More importantly, the No 523 is very flexible, with just about every function adjustable via its front panel controls or remote. One can customize its input set-up, its volume control can be tailored for each input, it has a power management setting which enables the preamp to automatically shut down, the display can be dimmed or brightened, and one can set any of the outputs of the preamp to be fixed or variable – as a fixed output will be handy if one also uses the No 523 in a home theater set-up.
After my long audition, the Mark Levinson No 523 preamplifier has proven to be another high-quality high-end product made by this venerable company. It is a very flexible, a great sounding, and a great looking preamplifier that skimps on nothing – not internally or externally. I can't imagine any audiophile, young or old, finding anything lacking in the No 523. It may be a luxury product to most, but there are likely many seasoned audiophiles that will find this $15,000 preamplifier to be a relative bargain.
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