Mark Levinson N° 502 AV Preamplifer Reviewed

Mark Levinson N° 502 AV Preamplifer Reviewed

Mark Levinson is one of the biggest names in high end audio. While this unit is now discontinued it was only HDMI 1.1 compliant so will only accept the uncompressed codecs of Blu-ray via a player that will output LPCM, and it can't pass 3D video. Yes, these are downsides, but the analog audio performance of this piece is off the charts. Read Jerry Del Colliano's review of this unit here.

mark_levinson_no_502.gifIn a world where the best-sounding audio material is copy-protected via HDMI, audiophiles have become so frustrated with the complexities of home theater (AV) preamps and Blu-ray systems that many are simply going retro. They are returning to systems that are based around or exclusively used a two-channel preamp just to keep the purity and simplicity of their sound on their un-copy-protected CD and even LP sources. This short-lived trend might start to die, thanks to the Mark Levinson N° 502 media console. 

Additional Resources
Read more AV Preamp reviews from the top companies like Classé, Krell, Meridian, Arcam, Anthem and many others.
• Read more Mark Levinson reviews on HomeTheaterReview.com here.

The Mark Levinson N° 502 AV preamp is the $35,000 replacement for the mighty Mark Levinson N° 40. It represents a major leap forward in terms of technology and integration. Gone is the two-chassis design. The new edition is a sleeker, six-HDMI input audio and video switching preamp that stands up to the audio demands of a true audiophile, while switching both audio and video the way Hollywood studios demand of a copy-protected Blu-ray driven world. Tremendous effort has gone into making the Mark Levinson N° 502 immune to outside interference and noise from other components, allowing this home theater monster to link to its audiophile brethren also in the Mark Levinson line-up. The graphical user interface (GUI) on the old No. 40 was excellent compared to other AV preamps and the N° 502 is even better. While it might not be an iPhone, this preamp can be set up by the end user if you want but, for $35,000, you could very well expect your Mark Levinson dealer to complete the install for you, as this is about as expensive an audio-video component as you can find.

High Points
• The 502 packs audiophile sound while still having all the connections needed for today's modern home theater and distributed audio systems
• Mark Levinson's customer service is topnotch and, in a world where putting all the pieces together in a complex home theater is like cracking some sort of sick code, it's nice to have somebody who cares and answers the phone. Try that with the big Asian companies when you can't get their copy-protected products to make a picture on your screen
• The N° 502 is built to last forever with the types of materials and build quality you expect from a significant investment in your home theater system.

Read The Low Points and Conclusion on Page 2

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Low Points
HDMI 1.1 is two versions behind from the current standard. The Mark Levinson argument is that all of the current chipsets today convert the full digital audio to PCM inside the preamp already, so why not do it in your player and stick with a more stable HDMI 1.1 connection? Consumers who always want the latest and greatest, especially when spending $35,000, are having a hard time wrapping their minds around why it's better to take an older technology when they are spending the big money
• The N° 502 isn't configured to be as upgradeable as the No. 40 physically. History proved the card system of the No. 40 didn't see that many upgrades, so perhaps the 502 will be more flexible when the story is all told on the unit thanks to software and firmware, but at $35,000, anyone would expect this unit to stay current for years to come.
• Lack of HDMI 1.3 means that the Mark Levinson N° 502 cannot do Deep Color. Blu-ray players can't do this either, but this even better video technology is on the horizon and videophiles are atwitter over it.
• To date, there is, amazingly, no matching Blu-ray player to go with the N° 502. Consumers are expected to plunk down $35,000 and then plug in a consumer-grade Samsung or Sony that costs $500 for their source. Harman needs to make a limited edition run of 500 players using someone else's chassis and put out an expensive, stable and good-sounding player that can play any and every disc out there, including Blu-ray, CD, DVD, DVD-Audio, SACD and others. If a tiny company like Goldmund can do it, a giant like Harman can do it. In fact, Harman's limited-edition idea was done with an audiophile CD player a few years ago by Mark Levinson. And yes, we all remember the Proceed PMDT. It's time to get over the fear, as wealthy people (not just the same old audiophiles) will want a total solution.

Conclusion
Even their most bitter competitors are saying the Mark Levinson N° 502 is the best AV preamp currently on the market at this time. As high-end companies struggle to get a grip on their own relevance in a market that is being driven by consumer-grade retail powerhouses like Costco and Wal-Mart, Mark Levinson has made a true statement with the 502 AV preamp. Do they need a matching Blu-ray player? Without question, if they want to woo the Patek Philippe-wearing, Marquis jet-flying, non-audiophile demographic. At the same time, can you do any better in making your legacy music collection sound its best while pumping in master-quality sound via HDMI? Not without a Mark Levinson N° 502 in your rig. Even with the most feature-rich Japanese AV preamps costing from $3,500 to $7,000, the sound is unfortunately lean. With the Mark Levinson N° 502, you truly pay for your performance but, without question, you get the best of both the worlds of audio and HD video - right now in your theater. The Mark Levinson N° 502 is the cutting edge of AV preamps.

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