Mark Levinson No.40 surround preamplifier-processor
It's also one of the most expensive. Levinson gear has never been for the faint of checkbook, but that hasn't stopped Madrigal Audio Labs from designing and selling ever more ambitious and expensive devices. Only a few of us could ever hope to own such a product. For the rest of us, however, there's real value in knowing what's possible at the very tip of the home-theater pyramid. Remember that, as time goes by, electronic components tend to get more versatile and less expensive. It's probably a given that the No.40's sound quality will be impossible to touch in the near future in products at a tenth its cost, but the control features it provides won't be. If you want a glimpse of what may be in your A/V future, read on.
I saw the first prototype of the No.40 at a Consumer Electronics Show three years ago. It had already been in development for a year. That it's taken four years to bring the product to market indicates the amount of design effort and, yes, obsessive attention to detail that have gone into the No.40. In fact, that development period has already rendered almost common the product's most obvious design element: a small LCD video screen that can be used either for the setup menu (which can also be directed to your main display) or to monitor program material for cueing, etc. When I first saw the prototype, that view-screen was really cool. It still is, but at least five other manufacturers now offer a similar feature—one of them (Rotel) in a widescreen shape.
But there's a lot more here. For starters, the No.40 is a two-box design: one box each for video and audio. The video chassis has the above-mentioned LCD display. The audio box has its own window, this one a more conventional, alphanumeric LED display—big enough to read from across the room—that provides such information as the format in use and the volume level. The two chassis are linked by an umbilical cable and do not function separately.
You can't sell a surround pre-pro anywhere near this price today without upgradeability, and the No.40 is as upgradeable as they come. The price given in "Specifications" is for the standard configuration shown there, the minimum setup available. It's flexible enough, as is, for 95% of potential systems, but for those for whom even this isn't enough, all of the inputs and outputs, together with much of the rest of the circuitry in both the audio and video processors, are built on replaceable cards. There are also empty slots for additional inputs, outputs, and features such as an RF demodulator for Dolby Digital laserdiscs.
Most of the digital signal processing is performed by four SHARC DSP chips, which provide 32-bit fixed-point and 32- and 40-bit floating-point processing. Not only is 70% of the processing power of these chips currently unused and available for future applications, but four more SHARCs can be added on a plug-in module. In addition, two more processors are available on each of the two remote zone (R-Zone) cards provided in the standard configuration (additional R-Zones can be added as required). All of these processors can be reprogrammed on-site as additional software features, such as new surround modes, are developed.
In short, the flexibility of the No.40 will allow Madrigal to offer software upgrades, or new plug-in cards, as needed to accommodate important new technologies and market demands. From here, the No.40 appears to be ready to handle any challenge or change that could conceivably come along.
In other respects, the No.40 follows the design criteria that the best Levinson products have long incorporated. Levinson acknowledges that a few of their Reference products, such as the No.32 Reference Preamplifier ($15,950) and No.30.6 Reference Processor 2-channel D/A converter ($16,995), are a little more sophisticated. But it would take a direct comparison to convince me that they actually sound all that much better than the No.40.
The No.40's design borrows heavily from those Reference products. Its analog signal paths are fully balanced and use surface-mount metal-film resistors and polypropylene or polyphenylsulphide capacitors. The volume control is positioned after the DACs and digital filters and is built around a 12-bit ladder attenuator derived from the No.32 Reference.
The power supplies in the audio and video processors are a hybrid of linear and switching designs. Noise can be a major weakness of many switching supplies, but according to Madrigal the power supplies used here have noise levels comparable to those of linear designs. These hybrid supplies reduce excessive heat; both chassis of the No.40 ran only slightly warm to the touch—far cooler than Madrigal's first-generation Proceed surround processors.
A Madrigal-designed Intelligent FIFO (First In, First Out) digital input buffer, also used in many earlier Levinson and Proceed products, is said to dramatically reduce jitter without the time delays that can cause lip-sync problems with the video. The DACs are the new AD1853s from Analog Devices, two per channel for reduced noise.
All analog sources, including multichannel SACD and DVD-Audio material connected to the optional multichannel input card, are converted to digital at the input using high-quality, Madrigal-designed 24-bit/96kHz A/D converters. Some audiophiles will be alarmed by this conversion, but until we get a standard digital connection for these high-resolution sources, it may be the best way to provide full and proper bass management for all program material. Analog vinyl fans will not take kindly to conversion of their favorite source to digital and back again, even using the No.40's arguably state-of-the-art converters, but it's unlikely that many of them will be spending this sort of money for a surround processor unless it's used in a separate system.