I've said this before, I know, but I think it's worth reiterating: One of the ongoing conversations that we higher-ups here at Home Theater Review continue to have is about the place of luxury electronics in a market that is forever trending toward higher performance at lower prices. Should we even be discussing $30,000 speakers when $5,000 alternatives sound practically perfect? Or, more to the point, should we knock something like Mark Levinson's $8,500 Nº5805 Integrated Amplifier when there are so many other fantastic integrated amps out there selling for a third or less?
I know I fall on the other side of the argument from so many of our readers here, but I think there's plenty of room in our hobby for products exactly like this. Make no mistake about it: Mark Levinson's Nº5805 is a luxury. Then again, so are the $150 polyhedral dice that my wife bought last week, despite the fact that her $10 Chessex dice roll just fine. So too is the $25 Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable brush I bought myself for my birthday to replace the two-buck synthetic brush I purchased at Michael's a year ago. Have my painting skills suddenly improved substantially upon acquisition of such a fine instrument? Nah. It just holds a little more paint, dries out a little less quickly, and I wanted something fancier and easier-to-clean for a change.
So, what does Mark Levinson do to justify the price of its Nº5805? The most obvious thing is its impeccable build quality and undeniably Mark Levinson aesthetic, not to mention its pedigree. The 5805 is an analog and digital integrated amplifier with support for 384kHz/32-bit PCM and DSD 11.2MHz, Bluetooth with aptX-HD connectivity, and Full MQA decoding. It's also a full-featured phono preamp and headphone amplifier. In short, aside from integrated music streaming, there's very little this unit won't do from a two-channel audio perspective.
For a reasonably mid-sized chassis that measures just 5.72 inches high by 17.25 inches wide and 19.98 inches deep, the 5805 tips the scales at a back-breaking 62 pounds, largely due to the goodies under the hood. A large part of that is the oversized (>500 VA) toroidal transformer, which features individual secondary windings for the left and right channels.
The chassis itself is a wonderful blend of beefy/inert and polished/refined. Square in the middle of the inch-thick, bead-blasted, anodized aluminum black front panel, you'll find a flush-mounted glass façade that houses the display, the standby button, the menu button, and a quarter-inch headphone output.
The sexy refinement continues on the Nº5805's beautiful and well-appointed back panel. In addition to its unique array of analog inputs (one pair of balanced XLR line-level inputs, two pairs of single-ended RCAs, one MC phono input, and one MM phono input), the Nº5805 also shares a good bit of digital connectivity with its more-affordable sibling, the $7,000 Nº5802. This includes two Toslink inputs, one asynchronous USB port, and a digital coaxial S/PDIF input (the Nº5802 also ups the coax count to two). Both chassis also include a pair of single-ended line-level outputs and stereo speaker-level outputs by way of straight-up sexy five-way binding posts, as well as RS-232 connectivity (DB9), IR input (3.5mm), programmable 12v trigger connectivity (input and output), and an RJ-45 Ethernet connection.
In contrast with the black aesthetic of the rest of the casing, the back panel also sports a high-contrast white background with black lettering that definitely comes in handy when it's time to hook everything up (or, at least it makes it easier for someone with eyes as old as mine). That's especially appreciated given how heavy the Nº5805 is. Generally speaking, once you get this thing in place, you're probably going to leave it there given its heft; lifting it or tilting it to make interconnections isn't an easy task.
In my case, connections were minimal and pretty simple. I connected a shielded USB cable from my Maingear Vybe media and gaming PC to the Nº5805, and added my Oppo UDP-205 to the equation via a pair of Straight Wire Encore II RCA-to-RCA interconnects. I also connected the 5805 to the Cisco eight-port network switch in my home office/two-channel listening room so I could take advantage of app control, as well as local IP access to the amp via HTML.
The latter is really only helpful for diagnostics and loading or saving configuration files, and the Mark Levinson 5Kontrol app for iOS devices doesn't offer much more than standby, source selection, mute, and balance controls. So, the bulk of setup was handled via the sleek IR remote control provided with the Mark Levinson Nº5805.
Although I like the remote for day-to-day operation, I do have some quibbles with it when it comes to navigating the 5805's rather dense menus. In lieu of a proper directional pad, the remote forces you to use the Input up and down keys to navigate the setup menus once you're in them, and the volume up and down keys in combination with the Enter button below to toggle specific options. It can be a frustrating and unintuitive process, but thankfully the 5805 is the sort of device you tend to set up once and then leave alone, other than source selection and volume control.
Setup options include your choice of three different power modes: "Green," which minimizes power when in standby mode, meaning you can only power the unit on with IR, 12v trigger, or a double-tap of the standby button on the front panel; "Power Save," which cuts power to the audio circuits but keeps control circuits up and running so you can bring the unit out of standby via IP; and "Normal," which simple turns off the display and mutes output, but keeps the amps and audio circuits warmed up at all times.
Other important setup options that you'll definitely want to configure include a plethora of PCM filters, including your choice of apodizing fast, hybrid fast, brickwall, fast linear, slow linear, slow minimum, and fast minimum. The hybrid fast filter worked best for my purposes and for my musical tastes, but your mileage may vary. There are also DSD low-pass filters, options to turn upsampling on and off by input, and SSP (or home theater pass-through) for the analog inputs. There are also numerous configuration options related to the phono input stage and other options with limited (but welcomed) use cases, so at the risk of turning this review into a brochure, I recommend downloading the user manual from Mark Levinson's website to see which apply to the unique needs of your system.
While you're there, you'll also want to download the USB driver for the Nº5805, as well as the latest firmware, should you choose not to update the latter via your network. Throughout the course of this review, I relied on several speaker pairings, relying mostly on Focal's new Chora 826, but also spending some appreciable time with my tried-and-true Paradigm Studio 100 v5s, as well as the GoldenEar Triton One.Rs that normally reside in my media room, as well as a smaller pair of Triton Sevens.
Since I had been on one of my relatively regular Grateful Dead kicks right around the time I added the Mark Levinson Nº5805 to my system, just as I was wrapping up my review of the Focal Chora 826, I figured some consistency would be the best way for me to wrap my ears around the Mark Levinson's sound. I'm normally one to go for bootleg concert recordings of the Dead, but their best studio album, 1970's American Beauty, had passed through my Peachtree Nova 220SE into the Focals dozens of times in the days leading up to the installation of the Nº5805, so I sat down to give it another quick listen for comparison's sake.
It's worth pointing out here that the Peachtree is a stereo Class D integrated amp rated to deliver 220 watts per channel into eight ohms or 350 into four ohms. The Mark Levinson is, by contrast, a dual monoaural Class AB integrated amp rated (rather conservatively, I suspect) to deliver 125 watts per channel into eight ohms, with stable performance down to two ohms.
Whatever differences one might suspect to hear when comparing two such integrated amps, the biggest and most readily apparent to me was that the Nº5805's bass, by way of the Chora 826 speakers, sounded more muscular and more controlled to my ears, especially when listening to "Brokedown Palace." As I mentioned in the review of that speaker, the Chora 826, while not power hungry, definitely likes power, especially in the bottom end. A jump from the 35wpc Denon PMA-150H to the 220wpc Peachtree brought with it increased fullness and punch in the bottom end, as well as overall better tonal balance. The move from the Peachtree to the Mark Levinson resulted in so such tonal shifts, but I couldn't help but notice that the attack of Phil Lesh's bass was more pronounced, and its decay more lifelike.
Knowing that my Paradigm Studio 100s are a little less particular about amplification, I swapped them in and found much the same to be true, though perhaps not entirely to the same degree. Still, the lowest octaves always seemed more stable, properly proportioned, and controlled to my ears via the Nº5805. Subtly so, for sure, but subtleties are exactly what we in this hobby chase, and so often spend more money in search of.
Switching over to "Ripple" from the same album, I was also struck by the way the stringed instruments – especially Dave Grisman's mandolin – seemed better defined and more easily located within the soundstage. Grisman's punctuated string-plucks in particular would occasionally create little bursts of aural holography that danced just to the right of my right speaker (particularly so when I had the GoldenEars in place), and the overall soundstage and wonderful depth.
One of the things I always listen for with this track (one I can hear every note of in my head from beginning to end without even playing the song) is a little too much harsh sibilance with Jerry's lead vocal (especially around the 0:38 mark: "...with the gold of sunshine"). Despite the fact that his voice sounded a little closer to me than I'm used to hearing, I picked up on no such enhanced harshness.
I next loaded up the CD release of Joanna Newsom's 2006 album Ys, mostly as a stress-test for the Nº5805's DAC (as well as to do some comparisons between its DAC and that of my Oppo UDP-205). Newsom's vocals for the song "Only Skin" (which kick in around the 0:06 mark) being with the squeaky crack for which the singer is known, which not only makes her a bit of an acquired taste, but can also sound just plain wrong with any appreciable amount of ringing, especially pre-ringing. It was with this track that I settled on Hybrid Fast as my preferred PCM filter, although I have to say that all of them handled that distinctive vocal tick admirably.
What's more, "Only Skin" solidified my impression of the Nº5805 as an integrated amp with incredibly controlled and yet incredibly authoritative bass, even with a speaker like the Focal Chora 826. That wasn't as much of a salient point when relying on the GoldenEar Triton One.R, of course, what with its powered bass section. But no matter the speaker, I constantly found the Nº5805's other most pronounced performance characteristic to be a subtle but distinctive deepening of the soundstage, and a greater sense of proximity to the instruments at the front of it. With "Only Skin," it sounded like Newsom scooted her and her harp a few feet closer to me, while the orchestra (arranged and conducted by Van Dyke Parks) seemed to scooch a few feet farther away.
Having a headphone amp built into an integrated amp is a big convenience for me, since I like to keep my two-channel setup as simple as possible, but I also like to do some private listening at times, especially when the missus goes to bed early. Problem is, I find the headphone amps built into most integrated amps just can't really do justice to some of my favorite headphones in my collection, including my HIFIMAN HE-500s. I generally have to push the volume knob too high to get the right tonal balance out of these cans with anything other than a standalone HPA.
Much to my pleasure, I found that the headphone output of the Nº5805 was more than sufficient to drive these fussy cans. I loaded up the Deluxe Edition re-release of the Allman Brothers Band's Idlewild South and pressed play, and within a few bars of the first cut, "Revival," I knew everything I needed to know about the unit's performance with headphones. The rhythm section in particular, comprised of Berry Oakley's subdued but ever-present bass and percussion by Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks, sprang to life in a way it normally doesn't via these cans, and the overall tonal balance was simply pitch perfect.
It's times like this when I wish we had a "Things you should know that don't quite fit into the Performance or Downside sections" section, but given the lack of such I have to mention here that the Nº5805 did fail both of my intermodulation distortion tests, both with 96/24 and 192/24 files. The warbling tones that I run to test for IMD produced audible audio squiggles, which would be silent if the 5805 were linear to such ultrasonic frequencies.
So, why am I waffling on calling this a Downside? Because most amps fail this test. In fact, the last amp that crossed my threshold and passed this test was the Meridian Audio 857 nearly two years ago.
Secondly, this doesn't affect 44.1/16 audio, which is the bulk of what I listen to. Thirdly, the IMD produced by the Nº5805 was low enough that it never had an appreciably audible impact on high-res recordings when I compared some 96/24 music films to 44.1/16 downsamples I've produced myself. (I always run such tests, IMD or not, because if a DAC sounds significantly different with high-res audio and 44.1/16 files made from the same source, there's something wrong with that DAC. Thankfully, the Nº5805 passed that test with flying colors.)
A more objective criticism is that the Nº5805, despite its network connectivity, doesn't support network audio streaming. Not even Spotify Connect. That's an oversight for an integrated amp/DAC at this price point, in my opinion. Even AirPlay 2 support would have been appreciated. Unfortunately, the only way to stream to the unit is via Bluetooth or USB.
Comparisons and Competition
I'm honestly not sure how many people shopping around in Mark Levinson territory are likely to also consider for Marantz gear, but for those who are, the Marantz PM-KI Ruby Integrated Amplifier and SA-KI Ruby CD/SACD Player is a combo you might want to consider. It features more by way of analog connectivity, if that's what you're looking for, but is only rated to deliver 100 watts per channel into eight ohms instead of 125. The downside is that the PM-KI Ruby doesn't feature any digital connectivity on its own, hence the two-piece recommendation.
The $7,500 McIntosh MA7200 is another integrated amp that may be worth your consideration, depending on the reasons you're drawn to the Mark Levinson. Needless to say, the two have very different aesthetics, which may sway you one way or another. The McIntosh is a little better appointed when it comes to both digital and analog connectivity, and if specs are to be believed its output appears to be linear into the ultrasonic range. Its output is also rated at 200 watts per channel into eight, four, or two ohms.
As I said from the giddy-up, the Mark Levinson Nº5805 isn't the integrated amp you'll be auditioning if value is your only (or even a major) concern. This is a luxury component aimed at a luxury buyer, and although I feel that its price is justified by its performance--especially in its bass control and the depth of its soundstage--you're also paying a good bit for the build quality, the styling, the ergonomics (my glob, I didn't even mention the drop-dead sexy and luxurious feeling volume knob above for fear that I wouldn't be able to shut up about it once I started typing) and indeed the nameplate.
Even the remote feels all fancy-pants. Yes, I had quibbles about its functionality during the setup process, but in day-to-day use it made me feel like I ought to be holding it in one hand and a glass of J. W. Burmester Extra Selected in the other.
Combine that with a pretty much unimpeachable headphone amp and you have the makings of an almost-all-in-one audio system whose only significant missing feature is streaming capabilities, even if it were something as simple as AirPlay 2 certification or, probably more appropriately, Roon support.
• Visit the Mark Levinson website for more information.
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