Old School

Mark Levinson No.23 Amplifier

Getting my hands on a Mark Levinson 23 was definitely a pleasant stroll down memory lane.  The last Levinson amp to grace my listening room was the 50-watt-per-channel ML-11, and it sucked.  The amp I really wanted was this baby here, the mighty no.23 with 200 watts per channel.  But alas, back then I was a poseur and the no.23 had a retail price of $4,995 while the wimpy little ML-11 was only $1,995. But it said Mark Levinson on the front panel!

The no.23 was made from 1987 to 1990 and then became the 23.5, which ran all the way to 1995.  For a limited time, 23 owners could upgrade to the new model for about $2,000.

As much as hard-core Levinson fans will grump about which version is better, the truth is:  they both really rock.  Though designed by the Madrigal staff (not Mark Levinson, the man), these amplifiers had a very musical sound that was considerably warm overall compared to later products that were more clinical sounding.

Compact in size compared to the monstrous blue Krell amplifiers of the same period, the no.23 was packed with power supply and output transistors bolted to massive heat sinks.  Don’t let the small size fool you; it still weighs almost 100 pounds.  Not man enough to lift it?  Then you’re not man enough to own it, I’d say.

How much is that doggie in the window?

This particular specimen came from a recent visit to Echo Audio (www.echohifi.com) in Portland, Oregon with an $1,800 price tag on the shelf.  As you can see from the photos, it’s as clean as a whistle and upon bringing it home to for some extended listening sessions, I am tempted to make this part of my permanent collection.

Back when I owned my ML-11, I didn’t have a balanced preamplifier and those special CAMAC connectors were a major pain to deal with. Fast forward to today with an Audio Research LS-26 preamplifier and a three-meter pair of balanced Audioquest Sky cables, and I’m ready to roll.  Having just recently acquired the same speakers that I owned back in the late 80’s, a pair of mint Acoustat 2+2’s with the Medallion upgrades and fresh capacitors, I was astounded at just how good this amplifier sounds, even by today’s standards.

The bass is thunderous and gripped the Acoustats, providing better sound than I ever had back in the 80’s.  The high end is very non-grainy with a smooth if slightly forward midrange.  Even when taking it over to the TONEAudio studio to compare it with a few of the big-bucks power amplifiers in for review this issue, the no.23 not only sounds  great  but it’s an incredible bargain for less than $2,000.

Should your no.23 need service, there are a number of independent facilities around the country that can help you, and a quick call to the factory revealed that they send all their legacy product to Pyramid Audio in Austin, Texas.  Chris Lewis has years of ML repair under his belt and told me that the no. 23 is still very serviceable.  You can reach them at 512 458-8292.

A great anchor for your system

If you’d like a great treasure from high-end audio’s past and an amplifier that will drive practically anything, I would suggest a nice, clean Mark Levinson no.23.  An all-solid-state Levinson system from this time period is too much for me, but pair this amplifier with your favorite tube preamplifier (preferably one with balanced outputs) and you will be amazed at the level of musicality you can achieve in your system.  And if you come across a mint pair of 25 watt, ML-2 monoblocks, call me.  I’m done collecting tube amplifiers for a while.