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DAC - Mark Levinson ML35

MARK LEVINSON ML-35

The Dark knight

 

I-INTRODUCTION.

Since we began to review the best vintage DACs, such as the STAX X1/T, the WADIA 9 and the THETA Gen V-a, we simultaneaously began a quest for the best DAC,...., if this word has any sense...

Consequently, we recently decided to review the MARK LEVINSON ML-35. Why ? Simply because it belongs to the best that Mark Levinson delivered during the golden age of the High Fidelity.(it has been delivered to the market in 1992). Its big brother, the ML-31, is more expensive but did not deliver a better sound to our ears...it is surprising but it prooves that a listening session is the only things that never lies to get a true position regarding any deivce.

 

Here are a few ML-35 specifications:

♦ The Recevier comes from CRYSTAL, the CS-8412 like in the ML-35, implemented differently but (according to ML)  offering the same performance regarding the jitter. The filter is the same, and belongs to 8x oversampling family.

 

♦ The DAC ship is also the same: it is an Ultra Analog 20400, 20 bits, labelled DRDAC (Dual Reference Digital to Analog Converter), said to be a version especially developped for Mark Levinson. This probably means that they have selected the "best" chips amongst the UA production, because it is of course quite impossible to develop a DAC just for a manufacturer like ML (you have to manufacture thousands of chips to get a ROI).

Remember that the UA-20400 was the best chip available at this time, and it equipped most of the best DACs, such as : SONIC FRONTIER, or the COUNTERPOINT DA-10 (before the marvelous Rapture Premium upgrade, delivered 15 years later to the market by Mike ELLIOTT himself).

♦The power supply is separated, but contrarily to the ML-31 it is not located in a separated chassis.

The Analog and digital parts are the same than in the ML-31, but they are made of Epoxy instead of Teflon.

 

Note 1: As for every DAC equipped with a CS-8412 not followed by a DSP (like in the WADIA or THETA for example), we remind that there is a pin to pin compatible chip that tremendously improves the sound : it it the CS-8414. By changing the stocked CS-8412 by a CS-8414, the sonic improvement is most of the time unbelievable. We have not tried this upgrade on the ML-35, but we did on many other DACs with great success.

 

As a summary, the ML-35 is a "small" ML-31 with most of the sonic qualities belonging to the ML-31 but at a much lower price.

Thanks to Mark Levinson for having issued this product, that could have reduced the ML-31 sales volume.

 

II-MARK LEVISONSON ML-35 OVERVIEW.

Like most of the Mark Levison products from this era (1992), this one is very well built, robust and seriously designed. There is no need to repeat that it is almost impossible to find a similar built quality nowdays, except from from a very few firms such as MSB, or dCS,... and probably with lighter cabinets than the one we get here...

ML36_devant.jpg

 

Rear view:

ML35_derriere.jpg

Rear left side:

ML35_arriere_gauche.jpg

Center view:

ML35_centre.jpg

 

Right part view:

ML35_droite.jpg

 

and finally a complete view of full featured rear panel:

ML35_derriere.jpg

 

The conversion chip used in the ML-35 is the famous Ultra Analog UA-20400, here is a photo of this chip:

ML35_DAC.jpg

 

III-LISTENING CONFIGURATION.

As usual, the listening configuration remains unchanged in order toprovide you with a solid and durable base for comparing the products reviewed on Threshold Lovers.

configreference2.jpg

 

 

IV-THE LISTENING SESSIONS.

The listening sessions have been realised on my Reference system #2 and in a "dream system" belonging to a friend of mine (costing more than 200k€..).

The first thing that we have to mention is that this DAC is not sensitive to the Drive : the sound is very similar the same whatever the drive is.

We have let the DAC permanetly ON during many days in order to be sure that it is fully stabilized before auditioning; we remind that some "state of the art" DACs, such as the WADIA 9 for example, requires a week to reach their optimum and are designed to remain permanently ON.

We immediately knew that this DACs plays in the same league than the best DACs, such as the WADIA 9 or THETA Gen V-a, meaning that it belongs to the cream of the DACs...

Later during the audition, we felt that something was going wrong. The sound we good, no doubt, but not entirely at the level of a super DAC. It took us dozens of tests to identifiy the right cause.

We finally discovered that you can get the best from this DAC only if you do not use the XLR digital output, nor the Optic Fiber output !

you must use one of the 2 RCA digital outputs with a silver cable (in our context, we used a Stereovox SEI-600).... It is almost sure that it would hae been difficult for a common owner to identify this issue, but this also a value added of Threshold Lovers...

Once you have connected the ML-35 with such a cable from one of the 2 RCA outputs, this DAC is marvelous: you get everything you expect from a high end DAC. It is in the same league than the WADIA 9 and THETA Gen-Va, and if I am not going to say which one I prefer, my heart looks in its direction...

 

 

V-CONCLUSION.

This « old school DAC » is a big surprise. Although it undertakes only the 44.1kHz and 48kHz frequencies, it has a incredible wonderful sound, different than the current Mark Levinson sound.

When I lessoned to it a few years ago, I found it as being part of the 5 best DACs in the world, and this new listening session reminds me this past feeling.

I do not know why the current DACs do not have this touch of magic, or so rarely. ULTRA ANALOG does not exist anymore, but CRYSTAL, BURR BROWN, ANALOG DEVICES and others should seriously look at how good were the past chips....

We do not believe that the engineers were more expert in the past years than they actually are, but it is probably wise to pick up these beauties before they become impossible to find.

You should not mind about the new digital formats such as the 96 kHz, simply because there is so much to discover in the 44.1 kHz format when it is properly decoded. It is easy to believe that "more bits means more music", but the CD format is excellent if (and only if) it is properly decoded...

 

Pros:

  • rightness of the musical reproduction
  • sense of rythm
  • beautiful building quality

 

Cons:

  • it is heavy (but most if not all the excellent DAC are heavy...)
  • Maintenance might be an issue
  • the digital connection makes a too big difference (see text)
  • the power cord is a bit strange...
  • the price is high for a used device: more than 1.800€...
TL_5stateart.jpg

This article has been written by Florent, March  2016.


Creation date : 09/02/2016 @ 14:56
Last update : 30/03/2016 @ 18:30
Category : DAC
Page read 48 times


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Reactions to this article


Reaction #1 

by jadis36r 20/10/2016 @ 14:24

Bonjour
Si panne du module UltraAnalog 20400 :
module de remplacement PCXDACMODULE chez :
http://www.partsconnexion.com/parts_sonic_frontiers.html
Ex dirigeants de Sonic Frontiers qui ont monté ce commerce.
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