I recently sold my entire CD collection on decluttr.com for about $0.50 per disc. Sure, playing a CD can still have a ritualistic feel--after all, silver discs have been around for decades. However, with the emergence of services like Pandora, Spotify ,and TIDAL, we now live in a streaming music world. Ripped music has been around for years, but the game changed recently when TIDAL became the first company to offer CD-quality streaming. And with the more recent addition of MQA files, TIDAL now offers high-resolution music, too. Thus your collection of high-resolution SACDs and DVD-Audio discs is also kaput. Like vinyl, the silver disc is officially dead. Deniers are probably the same folks who think the world is flat.
So let's talk about music players capable of accessing all your ripped music on your in-home network, as well as Internet sources. In my view, Mark Levinson introduced the N° 519 specifically for this growing market. Don't get me wrong, the ? 519 still plays any type of silver disc through a sleek slot on the front, but its strengths are its network/streaming capabilities, build quality, and sound quality. Over the several months I spent with the N° 519, I would come to learn that it is a product that tries and succeeds at delivering a plethora of features without much compromise. Many other streaming-type products that I've encountered that attempt to offer nearly every feature under the sun wind up being squarely mediocre because there are economic limits on how well they can be engineered to perform. That's not the case the N° 519, which is a high-end product for affluent audiences. The Mark Levinson N° 519 retails for $20,000.
the N° 519 is a fully balanced device that plays up to 32-bit/192-kHz PCM and double-speed DSD. It can stream from most sources and has Spotify, TIDAL, Qobuz, Deezer, Rhapsody/Napster, and Internet radio built in (you need accounts to access third-party services). It can also be connected via Ethernet or wirelessly to a NAS device and even has Bluetooth with aptX. My review unit did not possess MQA decoding, but Levinson recently announced it will soon incorporate MQA technology into its digital products, and I would expect the N° 519 to be one of the first.
In addition to being a CD player and digital audio streamer (with balanced and single-ended analog and digital outputs), the N° 519 can serve as a DAC. It contains six digital inputs (one XLR, two coaxial, two optical, and one asynchronous USB); the only one I used was the USB connection, fed from an Apple computer. I also used the wireless network connection to a Synology NAS drive. Using cables from Wireworld, I connected the Levinson N° 519 to a Pass Labs XA30.8 stereo amp and a pair of Focal Sopra N°1 bookshelf speakers.
the N° 519 can be controlled from the front faceplate buttons and knobs, the remote control, or the Mark Levinson iPad app. The app can be used to search through and play music from your local network or third-party services like TIDAL. Metadata and artwork are displayed on both the iPad screen and the large display on the unit's faceplate. You can also search for and play your favorite titles using a third-party service like Audirvana. However, doing so requires using the USB input, and the cool functionality of having metadata and artwork appear on the unit's display is unavailable. This is kind of a bummer, and it would be great in my view if Mark Levinson could make the N° 519 metadata compatible when using third-party applications from a computer via USB.
Madeleine Peyroux's eighth studio album, Secular Hymns (Impluse!, TIDAL, 24/96), was recorded in the Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, England. It features Peyroux on acoustic guitar and vocals, Jon Herington (Steely Dan) on guitar and vocals, and Barak Mori on double bass and vocals. The recording is clean, extremely spacious, and highly revealing. The player presented tracks such as "Got You on My Mind," "Tango Till They're Sore," and "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now on)" with a silky tone and moody delight. I was quickly mesmerized, left wondering how a performance from a trio with no percussionist could deliver so much drama, even during slow or quiet passages. The liveliness and reverb from the church was easily evident, while the player masterfully presented an unwaveringly and precise soundstage with instrument and musician placement, even possessing a three-dimensional quality that I enjoyed immensely.
Lee Morgan's biggest problem as a trumpeter and band leader is a high-class problem. What could ever follow The Sidewinder? Lee Morgan's The Gigolo (Blue Note, TIDAL, 24/192) is a noteworthy successor in my mind, containing great tracks like "Speedball" and "You Go to My Head." Recorded in 1965 (two years after The Sidewinder) but not released until 1968, The Gigolo was just released in 24/192 high-resolution stereo. Through the N° 519, it contains newfound clarity and intrigue. Throughout The Gigolo, Morgan's trumpet, especially his solos, had improved tone and attack. Drums were snappy and clear, and the double bass was deep and smooth, all lending to the enjoyable nature of the high-resolution release and above-average presentation through the N° 519.
Jazz R&B artist Gregory Porter's third album, Liquid Spirit (Blue Note, TIDAL, 24/96), won him a Grammy in 2014. His songwriting is heartfelt in a way that lies in stark contrast to much of today's modern music. The recording quality of Liquid Spirit is exceptional. On "Water Under Bridges," "Hey Laura," and "Wolfcry," Porter's voice was presented through the 519 with warmth and elegance, delightfully floating in space as a clear testament to how male vocals should sound. A consistent theme through Liquid Spirit is Porter's band. They are a ridiculously talented bunch, and the 519 presented their performance with balance and finesse, in a wide and expertly detailed soundstage.
I would conclude my evaluation of the N° 519 with Robert Plant's hard-rocking Manic Nirvana (Es Paranza Records, TIDAL, 16/44.1). Released in 1990, Manic Nirvana, Plant's fifth studio album, was a huge commercial success. Right from the opening track, "Hurting Kind (I've Got My Eyes on You)," the 519 demonstrated that it could not only handle the delicate passages during my jazz and R&B evaluations, but it could also rock. Electric instruments, particularly distorted guitars, did not suffer from the harshness or brittleness, even at more aggressive volumes, associated with many other DACs. The soundstage was wide and clear, with Plant situated front and center performing like his usual larger-than-life self. At no point did the Levinson N° 519 ever lose its knack for sounding more analog than digital--impressive, indeed.
• The N° 519 breaks the mold of network players that provide nearly every feature under the sun but in mediocre fashion. The 519 is an outstanding performer in almost every way.
• When networked to your NAS drive or using third-party Internet music services directly on the N° 519, metadata is available on the Levinson iPad app and through the front-panel display. Cool!
• The 519 sounds spectacular. Its digital processing performs at a level that one should expect from a digital-to-analog converter costing over 10 thousand dollars.
• The Levinson iPad application is a bit quirky and slow at times, especially when searching for your favorite music. The menu navigation could be more thoughtfully designed, and I would argue it's due for a major firmware update.
• The N° 519 should absolutely be set up by your dealer. The folks from HARMAN came to my home to set it up, and it did not seem like a classic plug-and-play setup to me. After setup, though, it was extremely easy to use.
• Given the cost of the N° 519, a consumer should reasonably expect some form of room correction software. Even though not everyone believes in room correction, it is a fact that nobody has a perfect room. For those believers out there, having this option would be a big plus.
Comparison and Competition
There are few network streamers that come to mind in the price range of the Mark Levinson N° 519. However, that does not mean it lacks competitors. Products from highly reputable brands such as the Cary Audio DMS500 ($4,995), Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty Digital Hub ($8,950), PSAudio Direct Stream DAC ($5,999), and Naim Audio's Uniti lineup, which we have reviewed. All should garner your attention if you are in the market for an all-in-one network streaming solution.
The Mark Levinson N° 519 represents the pinnacle of performance in streaming network players. It is a high-caliber all-in-one solution that caters to the most affluent consumers who care only about music from digital sources. All one needs to complement the N° 519 is a license to TIDAL Hi-Fi, an iPad, an amplifier, and speakers, and you will have a knockout state-of-the-art system.
The current trend toward online music streaming is more exciting than ever, with TIDAL Hi-Fi offering consumers a massive library of digital high-resolution music at one's fingertips. Yes, the N° 519 will set you back a few mortgage payments, but it is built like a tank, sounds sweet, and can easily serve as the heart and soul of any high-end audio system. It represents everything you should expect from a product with the Mark Levinson name on it.