REVIEW: MARK LEVINSON Nº585.5 INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER

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by Mark Gusew

24th April, 2019

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REVIEW: MARK LEVINSON Nº585.5 INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER

Mark Levinson's Nº585.5 is the brand's new flagship integrated amplifier - a $33,995 statement masterpiece and we at StereoNET were of course, very keen to hear it in action.

Mark Levinson

Nº585.5

Integrated Amplifier

AUD $33,995 RRP

The life of an audio reviewer can be a touch mundane sometimes. But occasionally you get a call that gets your attention. In this case, it started with “How would you like to come and pick up a Mark Levinson amplifier for review?”  A wry smile took over my face, and I couldn’t hide the grin. “Would I whaaat?” 

The prospect of reviewing the newest integrated amplifier by Mark Levinson, the new Nº585.5 certainly got me excited. Needing little introduction, Mark Levinson is one of the five brands that sit in the Harman Luxury Audio Group portfolio. Mark Levinson has won numerous international awards over the past four decades, as well as many rave audio reviews and is an aspirational brand for audiophile enthusiasts the world over.

Its new Nº585.5 is their flagship integrated amplifier, a $33,995 statement masterpiece and I was of course, very keen to hear it in action.

The Nº585.5 builds on the already successful and well-established Nº585 but now adds the Class A phono preamplifier as found in its award-winning No523 and No526 preamplifiers.

Thinking from a consumer's perspective, the question that started buzzing in my head is can anything this expensive really be worth the asking price?

In any case, my excitement was tempered somewhat when I had to load it into the car and set it up. This amplifier is larger than the majority of integrated amps, with the carton that it’s shipped in weighing a staggering 43.4kg and measuring a massive 480mm x 660mm x 660mm. It is extremely well packed, as you would expect, with a double carton approach and commands two people to unbox it. You do get a nifty pair of white gloves to make you feel special, but you may have to argue over who gets to wear them. 

Design

Physically it has the more or less the standard width of 438mm, but with a taller than usual height of 193mm. Make sure that your equipment rack will handle the additional depth of 507mm and the not unsubstantial weight of 32.6kgs. 

Once sitting on a rack, it’s a sight worth seeing, with excellent proportions and a logical layout. With a lovely satin finished brushed anodised black metal body and silver coloured controls, it certainly looks substantial, even stately, with an imbued sense of power and precise control. 

There is a simple display with red dot-matrix text, in keeping with Mark Levinson's traditional styling. The controls are a pleasure to use with silky smooth rotating dials that add to the appeal of using this amplifier. 

At the top of the amplifier are two rows of exposed heatsink strips, and a large top cover plate that has a function as well as form. The cuts in the grill hint at the electronics below and allow for necessary airflow.

The rear panel of the amplifier is logically laid out with adequate spacing between the sockets. There are four rows of connectors at the centre of the panel. At the top are the RCA inputs for the phono stage, below them are four sets of RCA line inputs, as well as a single balanced XLR input. There is also an RCA line output. Immediately below them are a set of six digital inputs, and below that are auxiliary system controls for firmware updates, IR, trigger and an IEC mains power connector. 

To the sides of the rear panel are large, well labelled, red and black coloured “Hurricane” speaker binding posts. These are evidently custom made, gold plated and look able to handle high current while adding security and the prevention from speaker wire short circuits. They have large wings that didn’t make putting my spades (which have a 45-degree angle on them) fully into the post and tightening them very easy. At least once they were in, they could be tightened easily. 

Audio Design & Technology

It would be fair to say that the Nº585.5 is a “full featured” integrated amplifier. With balanced and unbalanced line level inputs, the phono preamplifier as mentioned, and a six input DAC, nothing has been overlooked, if you don’t count an absent headphone output. 

Mark Levinson have followed what they call a “Pure Path design philosophy” in the creation of their current range of products. Under the guiding hand of Todd Eichenbaum (ex-Krell) as the Director of Engineering, the engineers have gone back in time, so to speak, by scouring the company archives, studying classic designs that worked for the brand in the past, including the ML-2 & № 33 and received inspiration for the gain stages and circuit architecture of their new amplifiers.  

The Nº585.5 utilises a high current, low negative feedback design, with folded cascode gain stages. The amp is direct coupled and uses a dual monosymmetrical design. As far as build quality goes, Mark Levinson has used the highest quality and over-specified components, with the goals of reliability, longevity, consistency, and safety. Indeed, as I handled and used this amplifier over some weeks, I maintained the impression that this was indeed the case. 

 

The Nº585.5 is a Class AB amplifier design that is conservatively rated at 200W/Ch into 8 ohms and 350W/Ch into 4 ohms and is stable into 2 ohms. Internally a huge 900VA custom-designed, low noise toroidal transformer supplies the current, with individual secondary windings for the left and right channels.  

It’s the attention to detail and the depth of engineering skill that is self-evident in the design and execution of the Nº585.5. Even the volume control has been given special attention. Rather than using the humble potentiometer, engineers have decided to use discrete 15-bit R-2R ladders and low-noise analogue switches to maximise the bandwidth and signal integrity.

A lot of care has gone into the phono stage with a separate highly shielded card handling the preamplifier duties. It features both Moving Magnet (MM) and Moving Coil (MC) modes, with five settings of input capacitance for the MM mode and ten user selectable MC input resistance settings and three gain settings, to allow you to get the best from your cartridge. It’s a discrete class A design using high-quality components that does without the use of less satisfactory op amps.  

The onboard digital duties are looked after by a DAC board that features an ESS Sabre 32 bit Precision Link DAC chip, with three selectable filters and makes use of seven separate power supplies. It plays up to 32-bit, 192kHz PCM and double-speed DSD, natively or DoP (DSD over PCM). As mentioned, there are six high-res digital inputs, one AES/EBU XLR, two S/PDIF RCA, two optical TOSLINK and a USB-B connection. 

A feature that you don’t see every day is the newly developed Harman Clari-Fi™ technology. This is a switchable function that can enhance the reproduction of lower resolution audio signals. Clari-Fi functions only when a digital input is the active input. More on how it works, and more importantly on how the feature sounds, shortly.

I found I needed to consult the user manual to fully discover all the other features that this integrated amplifier offers; there are just so many. This amplifier really is ‘integrated’ in the fullest sense, and it would be highly unlikely that anything you would need is missing. A lot of thought and careful product planning has no doubt been given to this amplifier and certainly feature-wise, I can’t fault it. 

Everything is screwed together immaculately, with hidden fasteners and world-class metal finishing that is as good as it gets anywhere and at any price. The entire project was designed and then handcrafted in the state of Connecticut, USA, so you get the sense that they take the build quality rather personally.

Listening

New out of the box, and not surprisingly, the Nº585.5 certainly improved with at least 30 minutes of warm-up time and especially after it was past the first hundred or so playing hours. Incidentally, 'Standby' can be set to either of three power management settings, so that you can keep the audio circuits powered on at all times. 

I am firmly in the camp that believes that every component in the reproduction chain, has a ‘sound’ or distortion that it adds to the music source. In the recording studio, it includes the microphones, cables, mixing desk, software, and any number of additional processes before we even consume or playback the original performance. We can only attempt to get as close as possible to the musical truth. 

The combination of components we choose will ultimately have a bearing on the final result, and that is what will dictate 'synergy' in your audio system. Why do I bring this up? Because initially, I felt I wasn’t quite able to obtain a level of synergy with the Nº585.5 and various loudspeakers that I was happy with at this level. I came close a couple of times but felt that since the amplifier was very likely voiced with fellow-Harman brands JBL and Revel speakers, which of course I didn’t have on hand, that I didn’t quite achieve the audio nirvana that I am personally looking for. This is not a criticism of Mark Levinson or the amplifier, but we are talking about a pairing of two critical components that have much to do with the tonal balance and overall enjoyment. 

I know StereoNET AU's Editor, Marc Rushton, personally uses Mark Levinson electronics with JBL K2 loudspeakers in his system and has very much achieved 'synergy'. I've spent considerable time listening to his system which backs up my theory that brand and component pairing is crucial.

I found that the Nº585.5 is a lovely transparent device with power to spare. It has total control over the loudspeakers and has no trouble driving even difficult loads with ease. It can play loud, really loud, but without the usual dynamic compression and increase of harshness that can happen with some amps as they are pushed. It gave me the impression that this amplifier has an endless power supply. Although it’s conservatively rated at 200w/ch into 8 ohms, it's more than enough for any conceivable residential setting, even when driving inefficient loudspeakers. 

Tonally, the Nº585.5 is not quite the “straight wire with gain” model, but then virtually no component is. There's nicely extended and powerful bass, with an ever so slight forward emphasis in the bass guitar/kick drum region. 

Then moving upwards, a smooth and highly detailed midrange, that is simply fantastic with either male or female vocals. Likewise, the treble is highly detailed, sweet, smooth and totally grain-free with a slightly rolled off or recessed upper treble, the area that seems to give additional air and ambience to recordings, above 10kHz. 

This character in the upper treble was entirely pleasant with some loudspeakers, but with others, offered a slightly darker sound not dissimilar to other Mark Levinson products I've heard in the past. As I eluded to earlier, I imagine that this would be overcome by finding a synergistic loudspeaker pairing. It also became clear that the amplifier is extremely low noise, with a serenity and calmness to its sound evident by the fact that the extreme top end was so polite. 

I managed to listen to the Nº585.5 in three separate systems and with a variety of loudspeakers and auxiliary components. What I was hearing was consistent, and all of the inputs, analogue, digital or line level are remarkably neutral and clean, with openness and lack of additional character or colouration.

The phono stage was staggeringly good. The soundstage that it delivers is huge, well outside the boundaries of the speakers and with detail, texture and transparency. I appreciated that the cartridge settings were user selectable from one of the many menus and that the changes were instant and easily heard. Optimising for a new phono cartridge is dead simple and doesn’t require fiddling with tiny switches. The difference between using the default settings and the optimum setting is profound and makes the investment in a good MC cartridge and indeed turntable and arm combination altogether worthwhile.

Digital sources are very well catered for on the Nº585.5, with plenty of inputs available. I mostly used the USB input from a Melco music library and found it stable and trouble-free to set up and use. It has a neutral and flat tonal response and a clean and open sound with lots of inner detail and a broad soundstage. 

Using the Clari-Fi function was fun and at times useful. Pressing this button on the clearly laid out remote control activates the Clari-Fi circuitry. According to the blurb on the website, Clari-Fi analyses compressed digital audio files during playback and “rebuilds” what was lost in compression. I’m not sure how this is achieved, but I can tell you that in many circumstances the Clari-Fi function worked precisely as advertised and was even desirable. It made some CD quality recordings have more life and brought the midrange forward. I can understand that this is most likely intended for MP3 or lossy streaming formats, but sometimes no amount of polish can make up for poor quality content in the first place. 

Upon reflection, I notice that all of the inputs including the DAC and Phono stages have something in common; they are all extremely quiet with an evidently low noise floor. This silence allows for plenty of minute and tiny details to be heard in the music and is especially appreciated when played at moderate or quiet volume levels. It all gives the impression of polish and poise and that the Nº585.5 integrated amplifier is undoubtedly special. 

Conclusion

We can agree that Mark Levinson makes excellent sounding, state of the art products, but is the Nº585.5 really worth it?

You have to admit that luxury goods are considered as such because they imbue a feeling of luxury, quality, good breeding and fine craftsmanship. And that’s certainly the feeling that I had when I inserted the Mark Levinson Nº585.5 Integrated Amplifier into my system. And you pay for that feeling.

Mark Levinson has especially nailed the DAC & Phono input stages, and they would be world class components in their own right if they could be removed and sold separately. But the fact that they are all contained within a good looking, high quality, powerful integrated amplifier makes this amplifier a no brainer for value. That’s if $33,995 can be considered as good value in your mind.

Looking at the Mark Levinson price list, the Nº526 preamplifier which appears to be quite similar to what is used within the Nº585.5 sells for $39,000, but will still leave you needing a power amplifier. The most affordable of the Mark Levinson power amplifiers is the Nº532H which sells for $16,500 with 300W/Ch — combined that's a total of $55,500, or $21,505 more than the reviewed Nº585.5 integrated amplifier here.

Add to that quality power cables and interconnects and suddenly the Nº585.5 looks like the bargain in the Mark Levinson product line up. 

Yes, if you are considering a true luxury integrated amplifier as the backbone to your home audio system, why not choose the same brand selected by Lexus motor vehicles, Mark Levinson. 

For more information visit Mark Levinson.


Footnote

I want to take this opportunity to express my condolences to Geoff Matthews' family and Convoy staff. In preparation for the review of the Mark Levinson Nº585.5, I had the privilege of speaking with Geoff on a few occasions just before his passing and heard firsthand his enthusiasm and excitement for the Mark Levinson brand he represented in Australia. I am sure that his legacy will endure and is a testimony to the person that he is.  

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Mark Gusew

Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.

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