Mark Levinson No.5909 Noise-Cancelling Stereo Headphones
If we set aside its in-car systems, Mark Levinson has never before had its imprint on a transducer. But a step into the headphone market with the No. 5909 a ฃ999 design intended for use boat at home and peripatetically is clearly a watershed moment.
You could argue that its involvement in automotive systems and turntables had already widened the Mark Levinson brief from the electronics-only product line-up of yore, but this is a move you might argue has arrived a little late given that the heat is going out of the audiophile headphone market.
And had I known in advance an ML headphone was due, I'd have supposed it to be an uncompromisingly purist, open-back design for the hi-fi cognoscenti. But perhaps precisely because that market is approaching saturation Harman Audio took the decision to make the No.5909 a headphone for all seasons. Which meant that it had to be closed-back, for noisy environments, have ANC to further its isolation capability, and provide Bluetooth (v5.1) connectivity for use with smartphones (although ML also supplies a short connecting lead for those who value sound quality over convenience). The No.5909 incorporates a four-microphone beamforming array for telephone calls, plus four microphones two feedforward, two feedback for ANC.
While no featherweight, it is moderately light at 356g always a welcome attribute, whatever your usage and its quite compact capsules rotate flat for storage in the supplied hard-shell zip-up carrying case. The No.5909 is 'circumaural' but as with so many headphones that description is nominal: you will need pretty small pinnae for them not to be squashed and rucked to fit within its earpad voids. Perhaps because my lugs are larger than average, I find this annoying.
To its credit, though, the No.5909 has modest head clamping force I measured just 2.8N. This is welcome for home use or when sitting on a bus but equates to a low stability factor (clamping force in Newtons divided by weight in kg) of 7.9, so users who plan to wear it while running or performing other physical jerks may wish for more grip.
There are four ways of conveying an audio signal to the No.5909: two analogue, two digital, three of them wired and one wireless. The wired options use the sole USB C socket on the underside of the right capsule, which is also used for charging. Specified battery life is 'up to 34 hours'/ '30 hours playtime with ANC enabled', while a 15-minute quick charge is said to give 'up to 6 hours' of play-time.
First of the analogue options is true passive operation. The headphone is powered down and driven from a conventional headphone outlet or headphone amplifier (two leads are supplied, long and short, terminated in 3.5mm mini-jack plugs at the source end). Specified nominal impedance is 32 Ohms; my measurements recorded more like 35/36 ohms minimum, with relatively little variation across the audio band for what are moving coil drive units, as a result of which the No.5909 is largely insensitive to frequency response changes caused by finite source impedance.
Second of the analogue modes I will refer to as active, although the female voice that announces it through the capsules unhelpfully calls it passive. In this you use the headphone's built-in amplification, and the ANC button on the left capsule toggles through three options: off ("passive"), on and awareness, the ANC and Awareness defaults (high/ low/adaptive and voice-pass/ambient) being set via the smartphone app when the No.5909 is paired via Bluetooth. Wireless connection is lost as soon as the connecting cable is plugged into headphone's USB socket. Mystery of mysteries, this second analogue option is not described in the No.5909's owner's manual, an omission I find astonishing. Thank you to PR Murdo Mathewson for running down the details of how to engage it: you must power up the headphone before making the cable connection; otherwise the headphone works in passive mode.
Option 3, the wired digital connection, requires the source end of the third supplied cable to be connected either to a C-type USB output socket or an A-type socket via the supplied adaptor. Windows computers do not require the installation of a special driver because operation is limited to a maximum of 96kHz sample rate. In this mode, as in active mode, you can toggle through the ANC and Awareness defaults using the ANC button.
Last but not least for many potential users is wireless operation via Bluetooth, which provides access, via the app, to all the ANC modes and to bass EQ which offers the options of either shelving up or shelving down bass output either side of 'neutral'.
The app also provides control of auto power off delay and allows head sensing to be enabled.
I had an issue with the app when the No.5909 first arrived, in that it didn't appear in Google Play when I tried to download it to my Lenovo TB-8504F tablet, bought in the last quarter of 2017 and running Android v8.2. Despite the app being stated to be compatible with v7.0 or later it was, I discovered, deemed incompatible with my device. Eventually I solved the problem by buying a new smartphone (Samsung Galaxy A12) on which the app performed as expected, but not before I had contacted Harman Luxury Audio Customer Support by email for assistance. The automated reply said that it was likely to take a week before I received a reply; in the event it took 10 days, by which time I'd solved the problem myself. Were I a paying customer I would not have been best pleased.
How It Performs
So, in what mode of operation does the No.5909 sound best passive, active or wired digital? (We can safely discount Bluetooth connection since lossy digital is hardly going to sound better than lossless, even though the No.5909 is compatible with the LDAC codec.) To test the passive option I used a Chord Electronics Qutest DAC feeding a Teac HA-501 headphone amplifier, with both the Chord and Teac powered from a PS Audio P20 mains regenerator, and via an Ideon 3R USB Renaissance MkII from my desktop measurement computer. For active operation I again used the Qutest and Teac; digital operation was conducted both with and without the Ideon 3R USB Renaissance MkII in the USB feed.
I first compared passive to digital, using two tracks that might seem almost fatuously different: The Shadows' 'Foot Tapper' from Summer Holiday (44.1kHz/16-bit rip from EMI 543995 2) and Roderick Williams singing the haunting 'Is My Team Ploughing?' from Butterworth's setting of A Shropshire Lad (44.1kHz/16-bit rip from Naxos 8.572426). Is it crazy to use a little-regarded 1960s pop recording to assess a headphone in 2022? I say not because the key attribute of 'Foot Tapper' is, as the title suggests, its energy: if it doesn't pump you up it isn't working. You can hear occasional overloading of Hank Marvin's guitar amp, but who cares?
What you want any good hi-fi component to do is reveal, but not emphasise, such technical shortcomings while preserving the music's essential character: in this instance, drive. The passive connection using a DAC/amp combination costing around twice the No.5909 did this handsomely, whereas the digital interface sounded less clean and less well resolved. In the Butterworth, the acoustic was clouded via the digital link, the piano chords less telling and the pathos of the subject a dead man asking his friend whether his girl is now happy with someone else (guess who?) less affecting as a result.
Using the same two tracks for the passive vs active shoot-out, I reached the same conclusion for much the same reasons: the passive connection provides with the right source equipment a level of insight and engagement that the active connection does not. Does this imply that the No.5909's amplifier is the limitation here rather than its DAC? That's conjecture because there's no way to be sure. What is clear is that the No.5909's acoustic capabilities outreach its electronic ones, so there's profit in hooking it up to a good home hi-fi system.
So, in passive mode, with quality peripherals, just how good is the No.5909 compared to a passive, open-back headphone of the old school? Is this an unfair comparison: apples and pears? Of course, but it informs a suggestion I'll make shortly.
The No.5909's sound quality benefits enormously from having a neutral tonal balance a first hurdle where countless headphones fall. It adheres pretty closely to the Harman target response, and while it has shelved-up bass output, this occurs low enough in frequency to avoid the thickening of lower-midrange textures that is a pet hate of mine. You can't scale back the up-shelving in passive mode, otherwise I'd have done so (I fit the older/ classical -listening demographic Harman identifies as preferring this), but it wasn't a deal breaker.
It's when we delve into more subtle aspects of music delivery that the No.5909 reveals its limitations. Ultimately, it lacks resolving power and this isn't merely a 'hi-fi' criticism, it's a musical one. A track I almost always turn to as part of critical listening is Sabina Sciubba and Antonio Forcione's 'Take Five' from Meet Me In London (Naim label 192kHz/24-bit download): it embodies some strong sibilants which quickly reveal any high-treble issues. But more than that it is a singing tour de force, Sciubba deploying a battery of vocal skills to embody the cheeky femme fatale. If these are even partly fluffed, the artistry and sheer fun of her performance (she chuckles at the start of the track) are diminished and that's what the No.5909 did.
I found similar if not always quite so telling examples of compromised transparency listening to Frank Sinatra, Canned Heat, Tony Joe White, Mozart, Harrison Birtwistle, etc. Sound quality was unfailingly good, but always a step removed from revelatory.
Which leads to my suggestion. The No.5909 is versatile, solidly built and demonstrates the virtues of neutral tonal balance, but there's no such thing as a headphone for all potential users, which is how the No.5909 is pitched. So if you really must have a 'one for all' headphone, and you're happy to pay a stiff ฃ1k for it, the No.5909 demands attention. But there are capable, tonally neutral ANC/ Bluetooth headphones at around ฃ300 (I'm thinking particularly of the PSB M4U 8, recently upgraded to MkII form), leaving ฃ700 or so to spend on an open-back, passive headphone for home use a messier compromise, but possibly an enlightened one.
Note, though, that the No.5909 like all closed-back headphones I've measured is very sensitive to the quality of the earpad seal. Achieving a good seal to the artificial ear was a particular problem with the left capsule, but both demonstrated large losses in low frequency output when compromised with chunky spectacle frames or simulated hair.
Harman makes play of the diaphragm of the 40mm drive units being of an unspecified beryllium-coated plastic it says '40mm beryllium driver', which is misleading but this does not ensure that the No.5909 is entirely free of resonance, as shown by the left capsule cumulative spectral decay waterfall.
The impedance versus frequency trace displays clear wiggles at around 650Hz and 1.6kHz, indicative of resonances, and ridges in the CSD plot confirm them (as do glitches in the uncorrected frequency response). Above 2kHz, though where cone breakup typically occurs the waterfall is pretty clean aside from fast-decaying modes at around 3kHz and 6.2kHz.
Processing latency (measured as the difference in impulse response 'time of flight' between passive and active modes) was 2965 samples at the 96kHz measurement frequency, equivalent to 30.9ms or 0.77 of a frame at 25fps, which should not result in lip-sync issues when watching moving pictures. The delay is equivalent to someone talking to you from 10.6m (35 feet) away.
The full set of measurement results (lots of them!) can be viewed at headphonetestlab.co.uk.
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