Andrew Robinson began his career as an art director in entertainment advertising in 2003, after graduating from Art Center College of Design. In 2006, he became a creative director at Crew Creative Advertising, and oversaw the agency's Television Division, where he worked for clients such as TNT, TBS, History, FX, and Bravo to name a few. He now has one of the most popular AV-related channels on YouTube.
Mark Levinson is likely best known for their power amps or perhaps their JC-1 preamp from back in the day, but since the days of the No 30 and No 31 - Mark Levinson has been making one fine source component. The No 512 CD/SACD player, reviewed here, is one such example. However in a world of affordable universal players and the relative death of SACD, is the No 512 the right player at the wrong time?
The No 512 is a pretty straightforward disc spinner both in design and implementation. Its all black chassis is hardly what I'd call stylish by today's standard though the build quality is second to none and extremely robust and solid. The No 512 is big for a CD player measuring in at a little over 17 inches in width by almost five inches tall and nearly 18 inches deep. The No 512 tips the scales at a substantial 33 pounds, making it not only one of the more solidly built players I've encountered recently but also one of the largest, so large in fact that it is a very tight fit for a standard Middle Atlantic shelf.
The No 512 is a single disc CD/SACD player that can play CDs and stereo-only SACD tracks. Sorry, no multi-channel here, nor does it support user ripped CDs or any other music formats such as MP3 etc. It features balanced and unbalanced audio outs as well as two digital outputs, one XLR and the other S/PDIF (RCA). The No 512 also has one Ethernet port, an RS-232 port, an IR port and two mini plug triggers rounding out its list of control options. The No 512 can be connected to a preamp as well as directly to an amplifier thanks to its variable output option that is only accessible via its unwieldy remote control.
Internally the No 512 uses 24-bit D/A converters in a dual mode setting meaning each channel (right and left) has two D/A converters versus the usual one. This concept of doubling up on everything extends to the No 512's power supplies of which it uses two, one for the digital circuitry and the other for the analog output stages. The digital circuits and analog stage are kept separate from one another via their own metal enclosures to minimize interference. Lastly, the No 512 minimizes the detrimental effects of jitter through the use of Mark Levinson's own Direct Digital Synthesis circuit or DDS, which reads the information from a CD or SACD and then stores it temporarily on the No 512's internal memory. The DDS then reclocks the signal from the memory bank and sends it to the player's analog or digital outputs. In a nutshell, the No 512's drive acts more like a transport sending the digital information to the player's internal memory first before it is sent to the output stages. This technique ensures that any jitter introduced by the transport itself is effectively removed from the signal before passing it along to you, the listener.
So what does all this technology mean for the No 512's performance? Well, for starters the No 512 requires a fair amount of break-in time; okay it needs a lot. Out of the box the No 512 is very dark and rather vague sounding with a top end that seems recessed and lost in a sea of bloated midrange and syrupy bass. After about 20-30 hours of break-in the No 512 really comes into its own possessing a very natural and airy midrange coupled with rock solid bass and an open high end. The player does have a slightly laid back sound, however it is very detailed, quick and supremely defined. The dynamics, while not throat stomping, are very impressive and the soundstage depth and width border on the surreal. The No 512 is an absolute champion in terms of making sure every last ounce of digital information is decoded and presented to the listener in a non fatiguing, natural and wholly enjoyable manner. After break-in and with properly recorded source material the No 512 is one of the best two channel sources I've ever encountered, good for hours of fatigue-free listening and enjoyment.
• The No 512 is a solid piece of kit, it feels carved out of a slab of granite more than a collection of parts and sheet metal, though I wish it was more stylish.
• The No 512 has one of the best, most refined and open top ends I've heard from a disc spinner in a long while. While I usually prefer a transport/DAC combo to achieve the best in digital two-channel audio, the No 512 makes a strong case for a single chassis solution, even if that chassis is a bit large and cumbersome.
• The No 512's midrange is its party piece, possessing all the weight, poise and detail you'd expect from digital but never really achieved until now. I'm not going to say the No 512 is analog sounding for it's different, but rest assured it's every bit as good as the best vinyl rig I've heard - only far more user friendly.
• The No 512's bass performance is solid though it does lack that last ounce of attack and slam, which only adds to the player's calm demeanor. While bass heads might want more attack out of their player I assure you after living with the No 512 for awhile I'm not entirely sold that more slam and attack is the right choice, for the No 512's bass sounds far more organic and natural than other high end players in its class.
• In terms of soundstage and overall musical presence I'm not sure it gets much better than the No 512.
• The No 512 is a bit unruly in terms of its size and heft, which makes it feel a bit more like a stereo amplifier than a CD player. It's a bit too wide for some Middle Atlantic racks making installation a bit of a chore or at the very least a tight squeeze.
• The No 512's materials aren't what I'd call soft or inviting. The back edges of the No 512's case are borderline Ginsu knife sharp.
• Everything on the No 512 feels solid though seemingly every operational command is accompanied by a rather audible 'thunk' or 'chunk.' The disc tray on the No 512 feels as if it will scratch the hell out of whatever you place in its care. It doesn't of course, but it's not what I'd call confidence inspiring.
• The fact that the No 512 only plays CDs and stereo SACDs is limiting to say the least considering there are far cheaper players that do more and sound almost as good. The No 512 is a true "cost no object" player that is second to none and one that makes no excuses for its limited capabilities. If you're in the market for a true, ultra high end, two-channel disc spinner look no further than the No 512.
• I fear the No 512 may be a bit late to the party or worse still the sole partygoer at an event that has long since ended. SACD never really took off, nor has it enjoyed a resurgence like vinyl has. And while CDs are still the current standard, their time on this mortal coil may be coming to an end as consumers switch to hard drive-based music systems and playback. The No 512, while brilliant, may be the wrong player at the wrong time.
Read The Conclusion on Page 2
The fact of the matter is you can't compare the No 512 to less expensive players, for the customer looking to purchase a No 512 isn't going to run or shop in those circles. The No 512 runs with the likes of EMM Labs, Wadia, Meridian etc. Among its true peers, all of which focus almost exclusively on two-channel CD playback, the No 512 can hold its head high, performing as well or better than the competition. Sure its $15,000 retail price is high if you're trying to compare it to a Denon or NAD player, however among the upper echelon of digital two channel sources you can actually spend a whole hell of a lot more and still not best the No 512.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the No 512 and will be sad to see it go, for it is a phenomenal player, one I know I could live with and love for years to come. If you're looking for an ultimate-level, high quality two channel digital source and can look past some of its design challenges and quirks, the Mark Levinson No 512 should be on your short list of products to audition.
• Read more about the Mark Levinson brand here.
• Learn more about SACD here.
• Read more audiophile source components reviews from Mark Levinson, EMM Labs, Krell, Classé and others by clicking here.