I skipped ahead to "The Entertainer" on the same disc and gave the No 53s a bit more volume to play with. Once again the No 53's portrayal of space was uncanny and transformed my listening room into the recording space itself. The high frequency detail, heard in the numerous cymbal crashes, was very non-digital sounding, with a good amount of air and decay not to mention a smooth detail that was never etched or fatiguing. The midrange is the No 53's party piece and proved to be on par with the best I've heard in my reference system to date. "The Entertainer" has a bit more going on than "Piano Man" in terms of scale, weight and dynamics and the No 53 was more than up to the task. Dynamically the No 53 was all about control, letting the music explode by rapidly layering musical elements on top of one another versus simply shouting at you. Even when pushed to the brink the No 53 kept its composure and never lost its attention to detail, no matter how minute the detail might have been. Honestly I thought my Revel Studio2s were going to give in long before the No 53s would, for there is just so much power on tap. The No 53's bass prowess is virtually without equal, which I found amazing given its digital pedigree. The No 53's bass response doesn't sound digital at all, possessing tremendous heft and weight, not to mention real slam and impact, but still exhibiting that unbelievable control I spoke about earlier.
However, like with "Piano Man" I wasn't able to get the No 53 to break out of its shell and really swing with reckless abandon. I won't call the No 53 dull or lifeless for it is neither of those things; however it's sound seems forged out of years of critical and classical training versus hours of jamming with the band in a seedy pub or Mom's garage. It's an amplifier back from finishing school which continues the lineage of Mark Levinson that it's generation of clients come to expect but the No 53s take it to a pleasant extreme.
In listening to the Mark Levinson No 53s in Jerry Del Colliano's system, which definitively illustrated that no matter how good or expensive the gear, performance is equal parts system synergy and the room itself. In Jerry's room there was clearly more low end slam being delivered from the No 53s, which injected a bit more "soul" into the No 53s performance, something I was missing just a touch of in my system/room. Though Jerry also uses larger Revel Salon2s in his system, where mine is based around the smaller, less bass heavy, Studio2s. On the guilty pleasure demo of "Hella Good" by No Doubt streamed from Jerry's Apple TV, I could hear the Roland 808 bass hits go so deep that they physically moved me with tight, resolute bass at overall levels that approached audio insanity. Thirty seconds of No Doubt track was all it took to convince me that the No 53s could rock and roll and were, in fact, 'Hella Good.'
Returning the evaluation of the No 53s in my system, I decided to cue up Diana Krall's Live in Paris and the track "A Case of You" (UMVD Labels). I love this song for the obvious reasons but also because there is so much subtlety in the recording in the form of audience members shifting to Krall's breathing and whispers, not to mention the sound of her own finger nails dancing across the ivories. Well, nothing escaped the No 53's grasp as I was treated to one of the most lifelike and organically crafted performances of the song I've heard to date. The soundstage sounded almost like a surround sound mix though all the while being finely detailed with near perfect delineation between the various musicians and their instruments. Krall's vocals were in full focus, though they rested just right of center, as I could audibly get a sense of the piano itself and the angle in which it was positioned on the stage. The sense of air and natural decay following each and every phrase and note uttered during the track was tremendous and though the No 53s are digital in nature, the way in which they rendered transient detail was more tube-like at times that what I was expecting.
Though the No 53s had no trouble playing back No Doubt, it was clear that subtle detailed and rich music more along the lines of Diana Krall were what the No 53s were born to reproduce.
Sticking with this musical theme for a bit, I went ahead and cued up what I thought would be the perfect test of the No 53s metal and delicacy all in one; the tracks "Hanging" and "Escape" from the Plunkett & Macleane soundtrack by Craig Armstrong (Melankolic). "Hanging" features a large choir and civil war era snare drums against a subdued string and woodwind section that gives way to "Escape," which is nothing if not a driving orchestral orgy and the quintessential movie trailer theme. I set the volume carefully knowing that about four minutes into the pair of tracks things were going to go from loud to "Are you out of your mind?" What I got was what I was expecting and proved to me once and for all that the No 53s weren't just good amps, they were great amps. The delicacy they posses even when faced with an onslaught of instruments, textures and tones is amazing; rendering every last morsel of the music as if their very life depended on it. The choir was most impressive as was the No 53's ability to set them in the soundstage and also delineate between the various levels in which they were standing. The high notes the soprano section hit were angelic and seemingly materialized from my rafters (if I had rafters) completely free of the speaker's themselves. However, it was the sole vocalist about a minute and a half into "Hanging" that gave me goose bumps for she seemingly stepped from the blackness that was my fireplace and approached me. It was haunting. But the real test came when the last, lingering notes of "Hanging" erupted into "Escape," and I scrambled to find the remote out of fear that I was about to blow something up. I didn't of course and the No 53s proved they had the balls to go up against any challenge and not only come out the other side but come out victorious. There was no hint of compression or distortion to be found anywhere, just clean, crisp, detailed music even when played back at volumes I've never hit before. What was even more surprising to me was that despite the 100dB plus peaks at times the sound was never fatiguing or harsh.
The No 53 is an unflappably smooth and refined amplifier that sounds every bit as good as the best digital amplifiers while still having the gusto of the very best solid state designs.
Competition and Comparison
To compare Mark Levinson's No 53 amplifier against its competition by reading our reviews for the McIntosh MC-501 mono amplifier by Brian Kahn and the Classe' CT-M600 monoblock amplifier by Dr. Ken Taraszka. More information is available on our Mark Levinson brand page and our Amplifier section.
Let's not mince words here as the Mark Levinson No 53 amplifiers were made for very wealthy audiophile clients in Asia and Europe first and foremost. In America, there are still audiophiles who have deep pockets but most of the people with the financial weight to actually buy Mark Levinson No 53s would want them rack mounted. While you could technically rack mount a pair of Levinson No 53s standing up, the installation would be awkward at best. I would have liked to see Harman make a rack mountable version of the No 53s as they run cool enough to live (at the bottom) of a professional equipment rack. This option would also allow for a No 53 as a center channel power amp for ultra-high-end home theaters. With the current configuration, I am not sure where you would install a single No 53 for a center channel speaker without it looking out of place.
The No 53 is a digital amplifier; however in its competitive marketplace you will likely not be comparing it to other digital amps from the likes of Bel Canto or NuForce for that's not a fair comparison. While digital in nature the No 53s act and sound more like traditional Class A or A/B amplifiers, though they do posses that digital "speed" and neutral sound. They have all the power you could ever ask for and then some, but they exhibit their power with great restraint. If you are looking for a flamboyant amp for heavy metal demos, there are better amps. If you listen carefully to the subtlest details of standup bass, acoustic piano and fine violins - I am not sure that the Mark Levinson No 53 has an equal in the market today.
Most digital amps save on power. The Mark Levinson No 53s use more traditional power supplies and basically drink AC from the wall. If you're looking for a "green" Mark Levinson amp than I'm afraid the No 53 is it, but I'm not sure I'd call it Mother Nature approved.
At $50,000 retail for the pair the No 53 monaural amplifiers from Mark Levinson are a true statement in more ways than one. Visually and physically they are both elegant and wonderfully imposing. They can power absolutely any audiophile speaker on the market today with ease - I don't care how much of a power pig your coffin-sized monster speakers are, the Mark Levinson No 53s are up to the challenge and will succeed with style and grace.