A few years back I reviewed the Mark Levinson No 433 multi-channel amplifier and called it "...a reference point from which all other cost-no-object amps must be judged." High praise, but then again the No 433 warranted it for at the time it was arguably the best amplifier the folks over at Mark Levinson had ever made. That was over two years ago. Since then, the No 433 has been discontinued and in its absence a bevy of phenomenal amplifiers from some of Mark Levinson's biggest rivals has hit the market. In some cases the competition has taken over the bar set by the venerable No 433 and launched into the cosmos. Would Mark Levinson be able to reclaim the magic of the No 433with their newest line of amplifiers, the No 500H Series, specifically the No 533H reviewed here?
Earlier this year, Mark Levinson began shipping what would effectively be the replacements for their famous No 400 Series amplifiers, which included true monaural amps, stereo amps and the No 433, which was a three channel multi-channel amp. The new No 500H series includes the No 531H monaural amplifier, No 532H stereo amplifier, No 533H three-channel amplifier and the No 535H five-channel amplifier. All of the No 500H Series amplifiers are rated at 300 Watts per channel into eight Ohms and 450 Watts per channel into four, with the exception of the No 535H which is rated at 200 Watts per channel into eight Ohms and 300 Watts per channel into four. Power is up 100-Watts into eight Ohms with the new No 500H Series over its No 400 Series predecessors, though it doesn't "double down" into four Ohms the way the old No 400 Series did. One thing that did remain constant between the old No 433 and the new No 533H is price, which rests at a cool $10,000 retail.
All of the No 500H Series Amplifiers share a common chassis, thus making them look largely identical from the front: clad in all black with slightly rounded left and right side panels that help dress up what would otherwise be a somewhat bland black box. The No 533H, reviewed here, measures in at seven and a half inches tall by 17 and three quarters inches wide by nearly 20 inches deep. The No 533H tips the scales at a respectable (but not quite backbreaking) 90 pounds, which I appreciate.
Around back the No 533H is all Mark Levinson, sporting three sets of the traditional Mark Levinson hurricane style binding posts accompanied by both balanced and unbalanced connection options. The No 533H features a removable power cord as well as a 12-volt trigger and an Ethernet port.
The entire casework and design of the No 533H's chassis has been focused around cooling, for it uses no fans of any kind nor sharp external heat sinks. The No 533H, like the No 433 before it, uses convection cooling.
Under the hood the No 533H gets a bit more complex. For starters the No 533H is not a true triple mono design; instead it's a semi monoblock design whereby all of the channels share a single transformer - something that doesn't sound appealing when describing a high-performance, borderline cost-no-object amplifier. Another notable change to the No 533H's internal design is in its use of capacitors. Instead of using a handful of large capacitors (six in the case of the old No 433) that looked liked unmarked Pepsi cans, as Mark Levinson has done in the past, the all new No 533H uses more, smaller capacitors that are mounted closer to the amplifiers themselves for better transient response.
Being green is all the rage these days and the trend has not gone unnoticed by the designers at Mark Levinson, for the No 533 boasts some very impressive power consumption specs in comparison to the old No 433. For starters the No 533H's standby power draw is three Watts, down from 10. When on, the No 533H draws 130 Watts, down from the No 433's 200, making it a far more efficient and Mother Nature-friendly design. At full power, or what Mark Levinson calls one eighth power (full power is usually only needed in short bursts) across all three of the No 533H's channels, its power consumption is 715 Watts, though one can expect the figure to be far lower for extended listening, even at higher levels.
The Crown Affair
Before I get into describing how I integrated the No 533H into my new reference system, I think it's important to touch upon one of Harman's other brands - Crown. Harman has taken a lot of slack as of late for re-badging third party products as well as their own, which is unfortunate for they're hardly the only ones doing it. At last year's CEDIA and CES a number of reviewers (present company excluded) were quick to point out and pre-judge the new No 500H Series of amps as nothing more than re-badged Crown amplifiers. Crown, for those of you who may not know the brand or its reputation, is one of the leading manufacturers of pro audio amplifiers and audio equipment commonly found in state-of-the-art recording studios, mixing stages and concert venues. It's no secret that Crown has influenced and even shared some of its technical know-how and designs with other brands within the Harman family of products. This type of cross pollination is bound to occur any time you have a parent company with several offspring, for it helps keep distribution and other costs low while hopefully keeping quality, both at the product and brand level, high. The automotive industry has done this very thing for years with much success (before everything went to hell); however when it comes to high value audiophile components, people, reviewers and die-hards especially, can get a bit carried away with their criticism of in-house technology sharing.
The No 533H arrived shortly after my wife and I moved into our new home off the beaten path in the Angeles National Forest an hour outside of Downtown Los Angeles. There's not a whole lot to installing a power amplifier, even one as decidedly high-end as the No 533H. I slid it into position along the bottom shelf of my new Omni+ Vent rack and connected it via Transparent Reference cable to my trusty Mark Levinson No 326S preamp. The No 533H saw double duty powering both my new Bowers & Wilkins 800D loudspeakers in my main reference room as well as my Revel Studio2s, which have found a home in our new master bedroom. Both pairs of speakers were connected via Transparent Reference speaker cable.
As for sources, I used the few I had on hand which included my ever-ready Sony ES Blu-ray player, Oppo universal player and AppleTV playing back lossless audio files from my Intel based Mac Pro.
From delivery to installation the whole process took less than 20 minutes and was easily completed without any outside assistance. I let the No 533H break in for a little over a week before sitting down for some critical listening.
I started my evaluation of the No 533H with the Sarah McLachlan album The Freedom Sessions (Arista) and the track "Ice Cream." From the opening note I knew the No 533H was going to be something special. From the beginning the No 533H captured and conveyed the true essence of the performance. Notice how I said performance, for all to often high caliber amps like the No 533H reveal every last nuance of a recording, yet do so independently or at the cost of coherence, making it less of a performance and more of a collection of finely tuned and refined sounds. This is simply not the case with the No 533H for it conveyed the music across the entire frequency spectrum in concert, giving me a true sense of the phrase "you are there," in terms of describing its sound.
Past Mark Levinson designs have been a bit laid back, casting a wide and deep soundstage that never fully extended out into the room. Well, that criticism can be retired, for the No 533H retained its deeper-than-thou soundstage yet brought the performer to the forefront, well beyond the front baffles of my Bowers & Wilkins 800Ds. Speaking of vocals, the No 533H has a way with vocal reproduction that is both effortless and wholly natural, not to mention palpable. The No 533H's bass performance is organic and rich with excellent detail and extension, not to mention depth, though it never feels showy or overly accentuated the way some high-powered amps sound. Again, the No 533H doesn't allow any one element shine over the rest. The high frequencies are noticeably improved over the No 433 possessing far more air and extension and weight. The No 533H's ability to shine light upon the subtlest of cues and musical hits is something I wasn't quite prepared for, for so many previous Mark Levinson designs sound a touch veiled in comparison. Despite its ability to reproduce every note, breath and quiver of a guitar string it always sounds natural and live.
Wanting to test a bit more of its dynamic prowess, as well as its ability to recreate something a bit more complex then a simple quartet, I reached for the soundtrack to Mission Impossible 2 (Hollywood Records). Composed by Hans Zimmer, the soundtrack to Mission Impossible 2 features a bevy of tried and true action motifs sandwiched between some beautifully orchestrated Flamenco inspired tracks, with haunting vocals by Lisa Gerrard.
One such track - "Seville" has been a personal favorite of mine and quite the torture test for any system, for it features plucky and vibrant Spanish guitar riffs set against the driving rhythm of Flamenco dancing - aka, stomping heels and handclaps. Through lesser amps (and systems) this track can quickly turn sour; however through the No 533H no such worry was necessary. The Flamenco dancer's steps were visceral and possessed such dimension that several guests to my house swore they could "see" them dancing between the speakers. The sheer speed the No 533H possesses, especially in the bass, is stunning not to mention deceptive, for I don't consider the No 533H to be a forward sounding or lean amp - two qualities normally associated with "fast" amplifiers. The bass was punchy and incredibly deep and required no additional assistance from a subwoofer, for the No 533H was capable of driving my large Bowers & Wilkins 800D to their fullest, full-range potential, even at extreme levels. Speaking of extremes, the No 533H is seemingly unflappable in its composure and power delivery and despite my best efforts, I couldn't get it to give up the ghost and show it's dark side. There's plenty of power here for most modern loudspeakers, although perhaps some older electrostatics or ribbons might cause the No 533H some minor squabbles, but no traditional cone-and-dome speaker would tax this amp.
Getting back to the music, the dueling guitars of "Seville" were rich and extremely dynamic and stood in stark contrast to the dancer's thunderous steps, yet they were never overshadowed, allowing me to hear every strum even when those fingers were playing at near breakneck speed. Along with hearing every note, strum and string I got a sense of the size of the guitars themselves and the cavernous hollow that make up the lighter weight bodies of the Spanish guitars.
Next I cued up some higher resolution music by way of John Mayer's Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles (Columbia) on Blu-ray disc. Chaptering to the track "Gravity," the sense of space I got from the No 533H was astonishing. Keep in mind for this demo I set the disc to high-resolution stereo, not Dolby TrueHD, and despite only using two channels, the soundstage width and depth through the No 533H didn't leave me wanting for a center channel speaker or rears. Mayer's guitar riff during the track's opening was so utterly real that it actually made me laugh out loud, for I couldn't believe what I was hearing, it was that good. When the band, especially the drum kit comes into the fray, the impact, while not boisterous, was felt and resonated through the space the way it did at the Nokia Theater where the album was recorded. Mayer's vocals remained the focus throughout with his guitar playing a close second while the rest of the band kept a fair distance behind my left and right speaker's baffles, yet they were never overshadowed by Mayer's solos or lyrics.
The musical bridge at around the seven minute mark was impressive, with Mayer's guitars standing in stark contrast to the thunderous cymbal crashes and heavier footed kick drum beats - yet both never competed and both were allowed to shine through the No 533H. Dynamically the No 533H is leaps and bounds better than previous Mark Levinson offerings and I'd argue, better than Mark Levinson's current reference the No 53 monaural amplifier.
The No 533H doesn't just accelerate and increase in volume to showcase dynamics, instead it builds, little by little, layer-by-layer until the culmination of all of the information and sound has nowhere else to go so that it has to simply explode. But as quickly as it can build, it can also stop, leaving a virtual vacuum of sound in its wake and it can do all of this in the blink of an eye. Now that is what true dynamics are about. It's also what I find so seductive about the No 533H's sound, because what I've described sounds really good and crucial, yet you get the sense that the No 533H can't be bothered for it's just business as usual as far as its concerned.
I ended my evaluation of the No 533H with The Dark Knight (Warner Brothers) on Blu-ray. The Dark Knight needs no introduction, so I'll just get right to it: as good as the No 533H is with music, it's equally impressive with movies. The Dark Knight is full of low impact hits, dynamic swings and louder than thou sequences, all of which passed through the No 533H with aplomb. Dialog via the No 533H is crystal clear though always possessing a natural organic quality, like what you hear when you actually listen to someone speak "unplugged." A lot of times dialog comes off as artificial sounding to me for two reasons: a) the actors are wearing and/or speaking into microphones and b) their voices are being amplified. Well, even amidst amplification and microphones you should still get a sense of their size, shape, weight and mass just more so, which is what you hear via the No 533H, but not so much through lesser amps. The heavy action sequences did little to tax the No 533H and metal on metal impacts like those heard during the tunnel chase were especially visceral. Again, the No 533H powered my large Bowers & Wilkins 800Ds to their fullest potential leaving me questioning the need for a sub - it's bass prowess is that good. However no film, The Dark Knight included, is comprised solely of loud crashes and explosions, which is why I found the film's subtler moments, like the dinner table conversation between Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne, to be more impressive then the biggest action sequence. The subtle cues of forks scrapping against fine china and the sound of Champagne flutes being lifted into the air could be heard in the furthest reaches of the soundstage as laid out by the No 533H, even though there was no visual cue on screen showing me these actions. The No 533H ability to recreate natural ambiance that is both detailed and enveloping is stunning. Again, nothing goes unnoticed by the No 533H, yet noting stands out either - it just sounds like it should. Real. Right. As a home theater amp, granted you'll have to buy a separate two-channel amp to power a full 5.1 system; the No 533H is one of the best I've heard.