Of all manufacturers, Mark Levinson launches a bluetooth headphone with ANC? Can this still be high end? It definitely can – but not like you think!
Hi-fi enthusiasts associate the name “Mark Levinson” with uncompromising components of the reference class. Especially the integrated amplifiers, pre-amplifiers and power amplifiers of the US manufacturer, which has long been part of the Harman Group, are almost cult-like revered. So it’s surprising that there’s now a Bluetooth headphone from Mark Levinson. Would you have expected such a trendy headset from this manufacturer? We didn’t. We were all the more excited when the Mark Levinson No 5909 headphones presented themselves to the FIDELITY editorial team as a test specimen. A Bluetooth headphone with this name should have something special to offer. It is available for just under 1000 Euros, which is not a small amount of money in absolute terms. By ML standards, however, the price is almost a bargain. To clarify right away: This is not feasible without Chinese manufacturing, which the No 5909 reveals after removing the leather ear pads.
However, the workmanship of the closed, circumaural headphones is very good. Instead of plastic, the manufacturer relies on aluminum and steel for the skeleton, the head and ear pads are made of genuine leather, only the ear cups are made of plastic, which is, however, of very good quality. Dynamic sound transducers are newly developed 40-millimeter drivers with beryllium coating. Beryllium is known to be used in some high-end tweeters from renowned speaker manufacturers and promises high reproduction precision in the case of the headphones. A USB-C port for the three included connection cables is found on the right shell. A pure USB cable with USB-C plugs joins two cables of different lengths with USB-C plugs on 3.5 mm stereo jacks. That’s right: The No 5909 can also be operated passively. The manufacturer even emphasizes that it sounds best that way.
Nevertheless, it is packed with digital technology, as already mentioned in the introduction. This starts with the Bluetooth functionality. Although it still works with BT 5.1, it also offers Sony’s LDAC in addition to the obligatory AAC and aptX in terms of codecs, which enables data transfer in high-resolution quality. In fact, up to 24 bit/96 kilohertz, but this maximum resolution is only possible with lossy compression. Lossless is 16 bit/48 kilohertz and thus flawless CD quality possible. Since LDAC has been integrated into the operating system’s base code since Android 8.0, users of mobile Android devices can rub their hands with joy and long for the headphones. The Apple faction is left out and yet has no reason to complain. The No 5909 has another feature that has not been considered anywhere yet: A USB audio interface is integrated into the headphones in a class-compliant manner. As soon as the handset is connected to a MacBook Pro via USB-C cable, for example, it is recognized as a sound output device. As such, the interface can actually play back high-resolution music material, interestingly often called “high-bit audio”. Admittedly wired, this is nevertheless more than Bluetooth makes possible – no matter what the marketing strategists tell you.
Further, the handset is also equipped with an up-to-date adaptive active noise cancellation system, with ANC. As the long name suggests, the strength of the ANC is not only manually adjustable, but also automatically depending on the current environment. This goes from slightly muffling to almost completely blocking out ambient noise and works remarkably well, especially since the No 5909 is already isolating by design anyway. Further comfort for the permanent headphones is provided by the “Awareness Mode”, which mixes in certain frequencies on the contrary so that the user doesn’t miss announcements, for example, and of course the handset also supports making phone calls. For this purpose, it features the latest beamforming technology in addition to four powerful external microphones, which ensures really good speech intelligibility.
The digital active technology can be controlled via small switches on the ear cups. On the left are the on and Bluetooth pairing switches as well as a similar one for the ANC and awareness function. The volume can be adjusted via a plus/minus rocker on the right. The rather simple “Megaphone app” only allows ANC and awareness control. The app does not offer a sound control in the usual sense, only the option to influence the bass reproduction. There is a good reason for this: The sound of the receiver was tuned according to the so-called Harman curve, which is based on empirical listening research. This means it sounds optimal everywhere in the world and for all people, old and young. Now that’s something – and especially the purists who disdain equalizers and DSPs in the signal path are pricking up their ears.
Space miracle worker
Which is why we want to go directly to listening practice with the Mark Levinson No 5909. Although it’s not directly a guiding weight, it wears well. This is due to the soft leather upholstery and the foam. Only wearers of glasses may find it a bit tight once the ear cups around the ears have closed up.
To get the ML listener on its sound track, it first has to prove itself passively and is connected to my new acquisition, the top headphone amplifier Violectric V281 and gets the beautiful song “Dronning Fjellrose” by the Scandinavian Hoff Ensemble from the appropriately chosen album Quiet Winter Night in 24 bit/352.8 kHz via my reference combination – and immediately proves where the audiophile hammer hangs at Mark Levinson/Harman: The impulse response and resolution of the headphones, which tend to be slightly warmly tuned, are on a very high level, and the spatial representation is one of the most impressive that I have heard in headphones so far. Thus, the angelic voice of the singer rises above the acoustic ensemble led by the sensitive grand piano and gently sways in the pulse of the music. The drums and double bass set accents, the cymbals purring, the bass strings creaking woodily as a soulful electric guitar voice joins the singer. But the duet doesn’t last long, back to the verse, final cadence from the bass, the song fades out in pure major – and it’s quite clear: that was great!
Next, I streamed the same song via Apple Music. The Mark Levinson No 5909 now actively converts sound – first via Bluetooth, then via its USB audio interface – and sounds convincing doing it. It is even close to the passive performance with the reference device and summa summarum an audiophile head turner in all its modes.
USB interfaces and DACs: AudioQuest DragonFly, Mutec MC-3+USB, Mytek Digital Stereo 192-DSD DAC, Violectric HPA V280 S/PDIF | PC: Apple MacBook Pro 6/Apple MacBook Pro M1 | Software player: Audirvana | Headphone: AKG K 702 Studio | Headphone amps: Violectric HPA V280, AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt | Cables: Vovox, AudioQuest, Klotz
Mark Levinson No 5909
Concept: circumaural closed-back active headphone with bluetooth and ANC | Impedance: 32 Ω | Driver: 40-mm-driver with beryllium coating | Frequency response: 10 Hz bis 40 kHz | Bluetooth/codecs: version 5.1/aptX, AAC, LDAC | Battery life: at least 29 hours without, 25 hours with ANC active | Earpad and headband material: Leather | Special features: USB audio interface („class compliant“), maximum resolution 24 bit/96 kHz | Included accessories: three cables (USB C to USB C, 2 x USB C to mini jack 1,25 m/4 m), adapter 3,5/6,3-mm stereo jack, adapter USB C to USB A, air plane adapter, cleaning cloth, transport case | Weight: 340 g | Warranty period: 2 years | Price: around 1000 Euros