Mark Levinson № 5101 Streaming SACD Player/DAC Review
This new premium-priced digital front end beguiles Mark Gusew…
№5101 Streaming SACD Player/DAC Review
The high-end hi-fi world is in an interesting place right now, with different markets showing highly diverse tastes. For example, in the USA and UK, streaming is really taking over, while the Japanese market is still very fond of physical media – especially SACD. An increasing number of companies – from Marantz to Technics – are launching multiple source digital front ends to cater to this. And now, Mark Levinson has joined in the fun with its new №5101.
The difference is, of course, that this company has a cachet that most others can only dream of, so it’s a real event when a product such as this is launched. You’ve also got to remember that – rather than this being a flagship high-end design for the company – it’s actually an entry-level Mark Levinson product. It’s the digital source component for the popular 5000 series and about one quarter the price of the №519 Reference digital streaming player.
Todd Eichenbaum, Director of Engineering, Luxury Audio at Harman International Industries (which owns the brand), told me: “Our mantra with all the 5000 series components has been to innovate and to simplify, so we can offer maximum performance and quality at more reasonable price points.” He’s got a point because the №5101 can play physical discs, both CD and SACD, music stored on a USB drive and stream digital content from a NAS drive or streaming provider. In short, apart from MiniDisc, there’s not much that it cannot play!
Mark Levinson products are easily recognisable from a distance due to their unique styling, and the №5101 is no different. The use of a black anodised cabinet with a solid aluminium rounded front panel and silver highlights is industrial design at its finest, and to my eye, contemporary and stylish. It matches the rest of the 5000 series visually, which is just as well because many users tend to assemble a system made up of only this brand’s products. Word from the factory is that it sounds particularly good paired with the №5206 preamp and №5302 power amp, but it’s still been designed to work well in virtually any system.
The slot-loading drive supports disc formats that include SACD, CD-A, CD-R, and CD-RW; said to have originally been developed for automotive use, it’s robust and built to last. It is shock-mounted to the unit’s steel chassis, with an added steel cage shielding for both electrical and mechanical noise reduction. Working with this is Mark Levinson’s PrecisionLink II DAC, based on an ESS Sabre ES9026PRO 32-bit chip with special jitter elimination circuitry. It crunches FLAC, WAV, AIFF, OGG, MP3, AAC and WMA files up to 24-bit/192k PCM or DSD 5.6. There are user-selectable digital filters available with different sonic characteristics, seven choices for PCM and four for DSD.
Having already developed an analogue output stage for the №5802/5805, unsurprisingly, the company’s engineers opted to use it again in the №5101; I reviewed the №5802 (www.stereonet.com/au/reviews/mark-levinson-ml5802-integrated-amplifier-review) and really enjoyed its sound. It’s similar to that used in the preamp and integrateds, except for having slightly different gain levels. Each channel is built around a discrete, direct-coupled and balanced single gain stage, which makes use of Mark Levinson’s patented voltage buffer design. Todd explained: “Having a single stage convert the differential current output of the DAC chip to a differential, line level voltage signal keeps the signal path as direct as possible. The circuit has inherently high open-loop linearity and bandwidth, using a very modest amount of negative feedback to achieve the measured and subjective performance we wanted.”
The company’s engineers have gone to great lengths to keep the noise floor as low as possible, with five individual power supplies for the DAC chip alone – while four more (two per channel) provide power for the analogue output stage. The unit itself has two main sources of power. A special switching power supply provides power for the SACD drive and all the digital circuitry, while a linear power supply with a toroidal transformer and low-noise Schottky rectifiers provides juice for the analogue circuitry.
You can use the №5101 as a straight DAC via the coaxial, optical S/PDIF or USB inputs, but there is no Bluetooth functionality. There is a pair of both balanced and unbalanced outputs to connect up an amplifier, but no headphone output – although it can, of course, be connected to an external headphone amplifier. Coaxial and optical S/PDIF digital outputs are provided. Both Ethernet and Wi-Fi functionality are offered, the latter using a supplied external antenna on the rear panel, allowing access to streaming services or local files stored on the network.
Two apps are recommended to use with the №5101 – Harman’s MusicLife, which provides convenient content navigation and access to online streaming services, and 5Kontrol, which allows a user to control the transport (and other 5000 series components), essentially replicating the remote control. Both Android and iOS versions are available. They operated fine, and although the MusicLife app isn’t the slickest around, it does get the job done. It was slightly disconcerting that within the MusicLife app, it’s labelled Arcam rather than Mark Levinson, though! System integration is available via Ethernet, RS-232 and IR input communication ports, including a 12V trigger input. The slim, solid aluminium remote control included is nicely weighted, although some of the commonly used buttons could be a bit larger and easier to find in the dark.
Every №5101 is designed in the USA, assembled by hand, and rigorously tested just outside Boston. Todd told me: “We pay the same attention to quality and consistency that we do on every Mark Levinson product.” It certainly is solid, weighing 11.5kg and appearing to be very well built.
Once powered up, it goes through a power-on self-test routine and then enters standby mode. I found it curious that when the unit was in standby, the indicator light would slowly flash on and off as if it needed attention. Updating to the latest firmware was a breeze. I found the slot-loading mechanism a joy to use, with smooth and almost silent ingress and egress of discs.
I was fortunate to be able to use the №5101 along with the excellent Classe Delta Pre and Stereo Power Amplifier driving Harman’s JBL HDI-3800 loudspeakers for my listening tests, with the combination proving extremely revealing yet tonally well balanced. This bodes well for use with other neutral-sounding Mark Levinson components.
The №5101 has a smooth, controlled and measured sound, not footloose and fancy-free but disciplined, tight and authoritative. Another lovely facet to its character is that all music – and especially good recordings – is rewarded with a likeable quality that quickly makes friends with the listener. It’s an impressive piece of equipment, as befits a sophisticated high-end player bearing a name like this.
This Mark Levinson also asks more of the system that it’s being used in than many digital sources. I found it particularly demanding of power cables and interconnects – to the extent that these can curtail or enhance its capabilities. I used balanced Inakustik XLR output cables, which sounded better than the unbalanced ones. With suitable cabling, the sound was holographic, with a large airy soundstage with plenty of depth.
Herb Albert’s Second Wind produced plenty of colour and excitement, with a strong bass undercurrent, snappy and well-timed percussion, and soaring trumpet notes. The instruments were rendered with all their texture intact, and the balance was exemplary. Indeed I found the №5101 to have an excellent, smooth and uniform tonality with no vices. Frequency extremes are handled very well, with fine extension and freedom from harshness. It suited every genre of music that I could throw at it equally well. The smokey nightclub jazz of Liten Visa by the Johan Björklund Trio sounded intimate, and the tenor saxophone, in particular, had a very natural character.
Schubert’s Death and the Maiden by the Sjostromska String Quartet with two violins, a viola and a cello seemed sharp – as string instruments often do in real life. The Mark Levinson player did not sugar-coat the recording or add artificial warmth or softness to the texture of the bow on the string. Meanwhile, Anabasis by Dead Can Dance was wonderfully transparent and ethereal, the №5101 acting as an open window into the recording, letting me hear often obscured fine detail. Vocal reverb seemed especially impressive and easily followed amidst all the other sounds.
Bass is an impressive aspect to this player too. I heard detail, definition and texture in the low-end bass guitar notes, often an excellent indicator of careful design and execution. And it balanced well with the rest of the frequency range. This player isn’t the absolute last word on bottom end power, or midband detail and transparency, but it does really well at this price point, standing tall enough to destroy many SACD players from only a few years ago.
Music’s natural timing and flow is well conveyed, too. Not That Funny by Fleetwood Mac came across with all of the performance intact and proved foot-tappingly good fun. One could really get the sense that Tusk was a studio album that was carefully produced and mastered, with the timing of all the parts painstakingly crafted. The bass line, guitars and percussion all played tightly, cohesively and with lots of control – and the transients were handled well. The snare and kick drums in Brown Eyes sounded cracking, with great speed and punch. I also loved the way that the entire drum kit imaged, with the cymbals sounding very realistic.
The SACD skills of the Mark Levinson proved impressive, too. Bombed by Mark Lanegan and Wendy Rae Fowler was spatially contained to the centre of the loudspeakers, sounding exactly as it should, with the centre fill densely packed with information and having great tonal separation of the two voices. Jeff Buckley’s Lilac Wine was effortless in its presentation, with the soundstage extending well outside of the loudspeakers and filling the listening room with glorious sound. I really connected with Jeff on an emotional level as he sang; it was more than just sound, but a realistic musical performance heard in my own lounge room that allowed the enjoyment of song to wash over me.
Switching between the layers of Sabat Mater by Florilegium highlighted the superior sonic quality of the SACD format. There wasn’t a night-and-day difference, but it was a worthwhile upgrade – particularly with increased separation between the soprano and counter tenor. The soundstage also benefited, with a larger and more natural soundscape with added depth and increased definition, especially when all the instruments were playing at once.
Finding shared tracks on a NAS drive proved straightforward and worked as expected. I compared a stored rip of the CD track Artificial Red by Mad Season with the CD and Tidal streamed versions for comparison. The physical CD sounded the most robust, explosive and with the most spatial information, followed by the Tidal version which had just a little less everywhere but was quite close in reality, and then the copy from the NAS. In reality, all versions were very listenable, and at times convenience wins over outright sound quality.
Streaming lossless content from Tidal and Qobuz was a treat, with easy access to millions of tracks. There is no MQA support, but the music still sounded superb. The quality of streaming is not quite at physical CD levels, with a very slightly diminished image density and a softening of the frequency extremes. Unless you had a physical copy to compare it against, you would be delighted with the excellent sound quality.
USB thumb drives inserted into the rear panel can be a handy way to play music. Select USB on the remote control, and once started you can access tracks via the remote or the 5Kontrol app. Selection is almost instantaneous. The sound quality proved extremely good, with excellent tonal accuracy, control and detail.
I continue to be impressed with Mark Levinson’s expanding range of 5000 series components and feel that value for money is now as important a criterion as sound quality. Although I could not connect up with other Mark Levinson gear for the review, I imagine that using the №5101 as the digital source for a complete 5000 series system will be very good indeed, with all the flexibility expected of modern players and streamers along with excellent sound. Having a true multi-purpose player with additional content options beyond spinning CDs seriously extends the life and usefulness of the machine.
There’s no denying the innate feeling of luxury every time you use Mark Levinson equipment, and this makes ownership rather special. The №5101 continues this sensation, and to my mind, establishes benchmark performance levels for others to aspire to.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early 80’s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now manages a boutique audio manufacturer.
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