I own an all Mark Levinson system: 31.5 transport, 30.6 DAC, 52 preamp, 33 monoblocks, Revel Ultima Salon speakers, Siltech power chords, XLO digital interconnect, Transparent Audio balanced interconnects and speaker cables, Black Diamond Racing shelf, Goldmund cones.
I have had the same system for over 10 years which had a No.32 preamp instead of the present 52. I am therefore familiar with the Mark Levinson "signature sound" which one reviewer summed up quite nicely as "gentlemanly" - so probably not ideal for those into heavy metal! For me that sound means an accurate sound stage (be it an outdoor concert, a church recording, a concert hall or a studio) where the music is open, airy, effortless and is as close to the original performance as possible without trying to add any emphasis or slam or extra colouration.
In my system the No.32 was "absent" - it never drew any attention to itself, just like the rest of the components. The sound stage was always realistic and accurate (wide when it is meant to be so and intimate when so intended by the recording engineers); voices, piano and strings were reproduced faithfully as if you were in the recording venue itself. The sound was never tubby - it was fast but not lean so a dramatic drum solo never sounded messy.
In "Hotel California" - track 6 of the Eagles' Hell Freezes Over, there are at least 2 occasions when the crowd whistled enthusiastically in the middle of the track. It never fails to bring a smile to my face - you always feel you are part of that crowd on that day. The opening guitar riffs seem to float above the right speaker. In Proprius' opening track of Cantate Domino, you are immediately struck by the majesty (and size) of the church organ, sense the acoustics created by the walls of the Oscarskyrkan church in Stockholm and then the singing of the choir coming in wave after wave of perfect harmony. Carol Kidd's rendition of "When I dream" is what I use to gauge a system's ability to reproduce the timbre of her lovely voice - it is a magical performance that I never tire of. It is as if her voice is spot lit while all around is black silence. Lately I have been listening a lot to Bach's "Air" by violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. The violin is perfectly balanced between the soloist and the English Chamber Orchestra, its tone life-like and compelling.
Then I came across the No.52. I was skeptical because the latest is not necessarily the best. I heard that the Mark Levinson Reference 53 mono blocks that replaced the 33 is lean and fatiguing - supposedly a Mark Levinson in name but not in its soul. It is a Class D digital switching power amp vs the original Class A amp - so perhaps this should come as no surprise? It's like comparing the early days of CDs with the lusciousness of vinyl. Would the No.52 be similarly clinical and lean?
When I substituted the 52 for the 32 in my set up, the difference was not subtle. Let me get one thing out of the way: to my ears, this time the apple did not fall far from the tree. But there is a very discernible difference:
With Hotel California in Hell Freezes Over, there were the familiar whistles but this time they were much more realistic because I could almost sense the exact spot of the people whistling! Where you could absolutely sense the crowd in the foreground before now they seem to be silhouetted in front of you. This was how much the sound stage had improved. But the real surprise came with the drums - it was tighter, snappier, deeper and the decay could be heard effortlessly. To me it seemed as if the sonic imagery became much more 3-D, not sharper or leaner, just that much more "live". And that guitar riff above the right speaker? Every super rapid pluck of the strings were more apparent - you could feel the strings moving. My interest piqued, I rushed to play my other benchmark CDs to confirm what I heard.
With Cantate Domino I was floored - the organ was powerful and compelling like I have never heard it (probably because the lower notes were really kicking in this time so I really felt the vibrations from the organ? NB volume was kept the same throughout), the choir was singing in sections and yet together - you could almost pick out certain individuals singing in front of you.
With Carol Kidd it was as if the camera had moved closer to her lips - every tremor, timbre and breath was picked up but not in an analytical way. I was not even looking for these - they simply presented themselves.
With Anne Akiko Meyer's violin, the 3-D sound staging became apparent - you could more easily sense the physical separation of the solo violin from the orchestra. It was not spot lit in any way, just wonderfully separated so as to make you that much more involved in her interpretation of that piece of music.
In 11 years nothing came close to tempting me to change my No.32. The 52 managed this in 2 days. For what it is worth I also checked out the Audio Research Reference 5 SE and their top-of-the-line Reference 10. I remember years ago I was torn between the Audio Research Reference 2 and the Mark Levinson No.32. The Reference 5 SE did not even come close to the No.32 never mind the 52. The Reference 10 however is a totally different story. It is the first tube preamp that in a blind listening test I would not have thought was a tube preamp. It was able to reproduce the guitar riffs in Hotel California. It was fast and very musical. However I found it lacked the punch of the No.52 in bass and drums, and surprisingly for me it was not as strong as the 52 when it came to voice and string instruments where I was expecting a tube preamp to have a natural advantage.
Hope this helps. At the end of the day it's about the music not the components. Happy listening!
"Air" The Bach Album - Anne Akiko Meyers and the English Chamber Orchestra (Evolution)
Proprius "Cantate Domino" XRCD2 version
Best Audiophile Voices XRCD2 version
Eagles' "Hell Freezes Over" XRCD2 version
Harman Mark Levinson No.52 User Review
Mark Levinson No.52 Reference Preamplifier vs No.32 Reference PreamplifierReview of Harman Mark Levinson No.52 Stereo Pre-Amplifier by David Yeo, May 28, 2014.This item was purchased for US$30,000 from MG Hiend in 2014. The reviewer still owns this product.
Ease of Use9
Value for Money8