I own the excellent Mark Levinson No.326S preamplifier which I reviewed for Audiodrom and which drives my No.432 power amplifier. The No.326S is a well-thought and carefully produced piece of gear that offers a great range of options and has minimum to none sonic signature. The No. 526 takes the performance of the No.326S to another level by improvements to both sound and versatility.

100% reference

Function and form

Ease of use

The No.526 delivers everything that we expect from Mark Levinson: a fully discrete signal path that is fully balanced and dual-mono from input to output, and shielded and physically separated internal modules. Mark Levinson combine JFET devices, chosen for their low noise and high gain with bi-polar devices, that mitigate JFET’s nonlinear behavior. This way the No. 526 brings the best of both and exhibits excellent bandwidth and linearity.
To all these traditional strengths the No.526 adds an ability to accommodate basically any analogue or digital source. There are two XLR and three RCA analogue audio inputs, dedicated phono inputs and six digital inputs, including asynchronous USB, AES/EBU balanced, TOSLINK optical and coaxial unbalanced. The built-in DAC is based on ESS Sabre32 Reference chips and provides digital decoding up to 32-bit/192kHz from PCM and DSD (up to 5.6MHz). The outputs are XLR, RCA and a 1/4" jack of a completely new Class-A headphone preamplifier for up to 32-ohm headphones.

With all the care going to the digital suite of the No.526 I was pleased to see that a Phono preamp has been included as a standard, rather than an optional (extra costs) board like it was in No.326S. The Class A “Pure Phono” stage does not contain any op amps and is completely balanced with physically separated channels. The Pure Phono stage offers a fixed-gain MM section with five capacitive cartridge-loading settings, and an MC section with three gain settings and 10 resistive cartridge-loading settings. There is also an infrasonic filter available.

I am not going to talk about controls that are similar to the Mark Levinson No.326S preamp, neither about its intuitive multilevel menus that enable a user to configure and adjust the preamplifier for his needs. The only thing I am missing is the MONO button. I’ve found it useful with some music material, like early The Beatles’ stereo records that are quite annoying due to hard-panning when the instruments are either in R or L channel. Pushing the MONO button sorted out the things neatly. Other than that the No.526 is a full-fledged preamp which sells at reasonable price.

Bass management


The review of the Mark Levinson No.526 can be quite short. We tested it in two different set-ups (see the footnote) against No.326 and could not identify its character as it has none. The best news is that the No.526 is even more characterless than the No.326S.
If I should outline two most prominent features to its sound, they would be: Clarity, clarity, clarity and drama, drama, drama. With a good power amplifier you get everything you dream of: silky spark on highs, smooth and rich midrange, deep and tight bass and cohesive soundstaging. All conveyed with startling clarity and transparency, pinpoint imaging, wonderful spatial separation and huge dynamic contrasts. As if quiet parts were delivered quieter and peaks were more thunderous than before. It is not that the No.526 adds something, it is the result of No.526 letting the power amplifier personality to shine through without bottle-necking it. Let’s view it from a different perspective: the No.526 was not created to compensate shortages of an audio chain – it was created to switch inputs and control volume, without its own personality. Yet it definitely leaves some imprint of sound, at least in its digital section, and we can even adjust this imprint. For that purpose Mark Levinson included 3 digital filter options, plus Harman’s Clari-Fi circuit.

Clarity & delicacy


The digital filtering options are available only for signals that pass through the NO.526’s DAC. The FAST filter has a steep roll-off for high frequency information above the useful bandwidth to minimize noise and distortion. The SLOW filter has a gentler roll-off of high frequencies and exhibits less pre- and post-ringing on transients. The MINIMUM PHASE filter has a steep roll-off of high frequencies. Unlike the other two, it exhibits only post-ringing on transients.

Mark Levinson explains, that “these filters are selectable because there is no one correct filter choice. Some listeners are sensitive to pre-ringing on transients and believe it sounds unnatural. A digital filter with pre-ringing exhibits excellent frequency response behavior precisely because of its transient behavior. Other listeners might be more sensitive to the relatively long period of ringing exhibited by the Minimum Phase filter and therefore would prefer the Fast or Slow filter.” Though this is not a new thing, personally I prefer one default filtering stage for the switching between different filters offers much less perceptible change than swapping a power cord.

Tonal accuracy

Temporal resolution

“The Clari-Fi chip analyzes compressed digital audio files during playback, in real time, and reconstructs much of what was lost in the compression process. The complex Clari-Fi processing algorithm is implemented on a powerful Analog Devices SHARC DSP (digital signal processor). Unlike simple equalization, Clari-Fi continuously and automatically adapts the amount of reconstruction it performs to the degree to which an audio file has been compressed,” says Mark Levinson. Philosophically speaking I do not think that it is Harman’s role to reconstruct the intent of artists or sound engineers, is it? On the other hand I completely understand their motivation: to remove listening fatigue that arrives as a result of the overuse of compression.

The No.526 has an INTENSITY control that switches between levels 0 to 9 and BYPASS. On internet blogs I found claims kind of “Clari-Fi restores MP3s to a near-vinyl state“. Ha, ha, ha. Not even close. Still I have to admit that the Clari-Fi does something to music which is positive. I would say it works like a subtle expander that makes bass lines more palpable, highs less sharp and music a tiny bit more breathing.

Spatial resolution

Soundstage width
Soundstage depth

Most the preamp-power combos are like Siamese twins, one cannot exist without the other, complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It makes sense because the brands put a lot of efforts into fine tuning the performance of their components. I can’t imagine e.g. Luxman or emmLabs spending months to ‘voice’ their preamps to McIntosh’s power amplifiers. The versatility of the No.526 and especially its audible “absence” (or inaudible “presence”) makes the No.526 and excellent buy. This preamplifier will easily become a heart of any system.

Price as reviewed:550 000,- Kč

Recommended resellers

Nisel SK, Bratislava, tel. +421 905 203 078

Absolute Audio, Praha, tel. +420 777 739 377

Associated components

  • Sources: Van Medevoort CD460/DA468, C.E.C. TL-51XR, Accuphase DP-720, Accuphase DG-58
  • Amplifiers: Mark Levinson No.326S, Mark Levinson No.423, TAD-M2500 MkII, Emotiva XPA-DR1 monoblocks
  • Interconnects and speaker cables: Kubala-Sosna Emotion, Audioquest Vodka, Audioquest Redwood, Audioquest Wild
  • Loudspeakers:  Revel Ultima Studio2, TAD Evolution One E1
  • Power conditioning: IsoTek Titan, Shunyata Research Sigma HC, Synergistic Research Powercell 8 UEF, Nordost Valhalla



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