Non-audiophiles who visit my listening room invariably ask one thing before making any comments about the sound they hear: "What are all those doing?" "Those" refers to the components -- two-piece preamp, mono amps, DAC, and transport. Non-audiophiles (I refrain from calling them normal people because we know what that implies about us) think of a stereo as being, at most, two speakers and a furniture-like rack of electronics. A stereo can also be simpler -- a single unit with speakers that may or may not detach. There are no separates as we define them -- or separate listening rooms, for that matter. Self-contained is the rule, not the exception.
Enter the high-end integrated amp, which gives owners power and volume/input switching in a single chassis. Convenience is high, and so is value. But we audiophiles love our separates .
Madrigal to the rescue with the No.383 integrated amp, which carries the Mark Levinson name but not nearly the price you would pay for one of the company's preamp/power-amp combinations. But in true Mark Levinson fashion, the No.383 is packed with parts and technology from the company's more costly products and offers a feature set that perhaps no product from another manufacturer can match.
But what about its sound? We're audiophiles here, after all. Read on.
Inside, outside, upside down
The two-tone No.383, which costs $5995 USD, looks every bit the high-quality Mark Levinson component that it is, which is to say that its styling is impeccably tasteful. I can easily imagine it resting on a stainless-steel kitchen rack in a Manhattan loft or an 18th-century sideboard-turned-audio-rack in a country home. Everyone who saw it in my room looked it over as they would an object of curiosity, and a couple of them even caressed it -- slowly, as they would a cashmere sweater. The No.383 certainly looks the part of a piece of high-performance audio gear.
Inside, three independent power supplies provide DC power to the No.383's circuits, including power supplies for each channel, standard equipment for Mark Levinson separates. The No.383 is rated at 100Wpc into 8-ohm loads, double this into 4 ohms. It measures 17.5" wide, 6.5" high and 19.5" deep, and it weighs a hefty 70 pounds. Handles on the rear panel make it easy -- or should I say easier -- to lug the No.383 around.
The No.383's output stage uses a dozen of the same output devices as those found in the Mark Levinson 300-series and No.33H amplifiers. In fact, the No.383's model designation indicates a bit about its heritage -- part No.38 preamp and part 300-series amplifier. The preamp section has switching for five inputs, including two balanced inputs. Volume (and balance) is controlled via solid-state attenuators in .1dB increments above 38.5 on the No.383's display, with slowly increasing steps at lower volumes. How completely smart!
On the rear panel are the inputs -- the RCA jacks are designed by Madrigal and substantial -- and speaker connections. The pairs of binding posts are also custom items, and their "winged" caps make tightening them by hand a snap. The only line-level outputs are for a tape deck -- you can't use the No.383 as a preamp or in a biamp setup. And why you would want to do either with 100Wpc at your disposal is a mystery. I'll say it for Madrigal: If you need more power, buy a Mark Levinson preamp/power amp combination. Also around back are a myriad of extras -- external IR link, trigger out and in jacks, ES-232 ports, PHASTlink port. These make the No.383 more functional or allow software updating or connection to automation systems. Of course, there's also an IEC power-cord receptacle, so you can experiment with your fave power cord.
The No.383 is remote controlled, and as I expect from Madrigal (and rarely get from other companies, alas), all functions on the No.383's front panel are duplicated on the soap-bar-sized remote. Operation is simple, but as you would expect from a component with a 49-page user manual, the No.383 has a very rich feature set. A few of my favorite user niceties are phase inversion, adjustable input offset (for equalizing the output level of sources -- a great reviewing tool and also something that will ensure you don't get blasted if you change from one input to another with higher gain), the ability to name each input on the No.383's LED display (with default settings for other Mark Levinson products), and standby (which disconnects the output and shuts off the display). And these only scratch the surface! You can spend hours customizing the No.383 for your system.
I used the No.383 to drive Wilson WATT/Puppy 6 or Silverline Sonata speakers, with the Mark Levinson No.39 CD player used as the primary source -- to form an all-Mark Levinson-electronics system. I also used the No.39 as a transports to drive the Bel Canto DAC1.1 or Perpetual Technologies P-1A/P-3A combination. Speaker cables and interconnects were either TARA Labs Air One, JPS Labs NC Series and Superconductor2, or Nordost SPM Reference and Quattro-Fil. For comparison, I used an Audio Analogue Puccini SE Remote integrated amp. I tried a number of power cords but settled on the Shunyata PowerSnakes King Cobra Version 2 on the No.39 and Viper Version 2 with the No.383. The less expensive JPS Labs Power AC and PowerSnakes Sidewinder were also good choices with the No.383 and No.39 respectively. I have two equipment racks in my listening room, and these along with three Bright Star bases are needed for the reference components I use. Not so with the Levinson duo -- both components fit on one rack, No.383 on top and No.39 on the shelf below.
With all due respect to other audio manufacturers, there's something special about using a Mark Levinson component. I know that sound is what matters most, but in terms of features, ergonomics, and construction, the No.383 and No.39 CD player instill confidence. There were no surprises or problems, and the remote controls for both products hit their mark every time. And having written user manuals myself, I can say that the manuals for the No.383 and No.39 are comprehensive and, moreover, easy to understand. It's obvious that Madrigal has good people doing quality assurance on their products -- the company doesn't miss any details.
What solid state does
My last review excursion into the non-tube world was with the Bel Canto EVo 200.2 digital power amp, whose attributes would have seemed even more startling if the No.383 weren't here at the same time. The No.383's clarity and directness of expression were exemplary by any standards, but when the No.383 was paired with the wonderful Wilson WATT/Puppy 6 speakers, the sound was about the best I've heard from any non-tube component (yes, my bias is showing, but at least I admit it!).
What do I mean by "best"? Tubes appeal to certain listeners (and I'm one of them) because they heighten involvement, and I think ask more of the listener than solid state. Before you, my tube brethren, get ready to lynch me, remember a time when you heard really good solid-state gear. Didn't individual sounds begin and end in more stark fashion and from further back in the soundstage? Wasn't the bass more gusty than you hear with most tubes? Didn't the treble have a more linear, non-sweetened quality? And didn't you wonder, at least for a few quick seconds, if your system was, well, wrong?
If you haven't heard these things, you haven't heard really good solid-state gear, and the Mark Levinson No.383 qualifies as this. Perhaps it's due to the No.383's single-box approach, but I'm convinced that the sound this integrated amp produces would win a blind test or two against bigger-buck separates rigs. Take the noise floor, which, with tubes, masks to a degree the small details of the music. With the No.383 in my system, I didn't hear anything brand new per se, but I did hear that small details, all of them, came from further down in the mix, further down than I thought they resided. The moaning at the beginning of "Virtue" from Ani DiFranco's Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe RBR013-D] was far more apparent earlier into the song. Big deal? It is if you want to hear everything that's on your discs and LPs the way it was recorded on them, such as the bells at the beginning of "Twenty-Third Psalm" from the Live Recordings at Red Rose Music SACD/CD sampler [Red Rose Music RRM 01]. This track is a great test of just how much decay your system can reproduce, so don't play it if you have any doubts.
The No.383 is also a champ at transients -- their attack, decay and impact. The snap of drums and the "ting" of cymbals are all the more there, and in a way that even the best tubes can't quite accomplish. My test for this is Keith Richards' Main Offender [Virgin 86499 2], which has the most realistic-sounding drum work I've heard on any recording. On "Bodytalks," the opening cymbal crash is loud and steely, but not splashy; it trails off for multiple seconds. Then the snap of the drums kicks in, and it is the kind of sharp sound that you hear from drums live. While I miss the fullness and atmosphere in the midbass that tubes can bring to Main Offender, the No.383's portrayal is very satisfying, but altogether different -- more punchy and dynamic, more like the sound you hear standing in front of a PA stack.
I also came to admire the utter evenness of the No.383's sound -- no region highlighted via emphasis or rolled off. I don't detect with the No.383 the kind of treble "whiteness" that I have often heard with solid-state equipment. I can't prove it, but my sense is that the No.383 is so well designed that it addresses some kind of artifacts or distortion that are responsible for this less-than-desirable trait in other products. A recent find of mine is G. Love and Special Sauce [Okeh/Epic EK57851], the slick, funky, urban debut from the band of the same name. This is a fine-sounding CD, but not one you'll want to put on a too-bright system and really push. But with the No.383, this disc shows off its sonic chops, each of the musicians and the singer sounding as flat as can be. "Flat" is good? Yes, as you realize that the No.39/No.383 combination is just letting the recording and its characteristic tonality through without editorializing. And if you can listen to "Baby's Got Sauce" and not sing along, you're a more restrained listener than I.
The bass of my system with the No.383 in use was not compromised at all by the lack of separates. When Matt Tucker from Wilson Audio set up the WATT/Puppy 6 speakers I reviewed, he used the No.383 for checking the sound because he was more familiar with it than my Lamm tubed separates. At one point I left Matt alone to do his thing and went upstairs. A few minutes later, it sounded like someone was pounding on the front of my house with a giant hammer -- but I knew it was Matt. He was "dialing in the bass," playing a recording of drums with which I wasn't familiar. Matt's verdict? "You get some great, dynamic bass in this room." But it wasn't just the room. Again with Main Offender, the kick drum on "Runnin' Too Deep" was pounding me in the chest with the No.383's volume at 52 -- very loud. The bass had impact I could easily feel -- again, a characteristic of live music.
So should you audition a No.383 even if you are considering more expensive separates? If you need the extra power that a separate power amp can give you, then the No.383 will not be for you. Its 100Wpc are substantial, but you won't fill a big room with sound if your speakers need mega wattage. However, I would put the No.383 through its paces in my system before spending more money, even if I had my eye on a Mark Levinson preamp/power amp combination and could easily afford it. The space you'll save with the No.383 is a luxury that spending more money won't bring you, and you won't miss out on the wonderful engineering and user amenities for which Mark Levinson products are known. Criticizing the No.383 based on what it does is fruitless, and coming up with things it doesn't do will take some hard thought and the willingness to let your fantasies run wild. It would be nice if the No.383 could read my mind -- although maybe not. Its LED display has enough room for a dozen alpha-numeric characters of information.
I'm a great admirer of the Audio Analogue Puccini SE integrated amp, which I heard long ago and included in a "Standout Systems" article. The Puccini SE is a warm and sweet-sounding integrated, EL34 tube sound is what I thought. Audio Analogue has released a new model of the Puccini SE, one that includes remote-control capability. The Puccini SE Remote costs more than its predecessor, $1495 versus $1195, and offers a little more power, 60Wpc versus 50. It's a redesign, not simply the same unit with remote control added.
The phrase that littered my listening notes when I was making the direct comparison between the Puccini SE Remote and No.383 is "not nearly." The Puccini SE Remote is not nearly as neutral or directly communicative as the No.383. It's not nearly as powerful or resolving. The Puccini SE Remote sounds less sweet and tubey than the non-remote-controlled version, but it's still not up to No.383 standards in terms of the strengths of solid state. Would we expect anything else from it given that it costs one-quarter the price of the No.383? No, and I doubt anyone would be seriously considering both for purchase -- they're different in all kinds of ways. Just the same, the Puccini SE Remote is a fine product that I'll write about in greater detail in the future.
When it's right, it's right
It was a shrewd move for Madrigal to create an integrated amp like the No.383, proving its place in the audio world once again by creating a product that hardly any other company can live up to. But then, I would think it may hurt the sales of its separates. The No.383 is a Mark Levinson down to its parts and design, and its sound is above reproach, even for a tube guy like me. I loved its remote control and coolness factor. If you're someone who likes to sit in your listening chair and play with a piece of audio equipment, you'll fall hard for the No.383.
But don't let all the bells and whistles fool you -- the No.383 is a recommended component of exceptional merit for golden-eared audiophiles. Above this, it's a Reviewers' Choice, and at this point in time, it would be my first choice in solid-state equipment.
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