Mark Levinson No. 5909 headphones review
Hands-on with the premium audio brand's first-ever wireless noise-canceling headphones
In this article: We discuss the release of Mark Levinson's first-ever headphones, including:
- A look behind the scenes with the scientists and engineers who developed them
- Our hands-on review and listening impressions.
CES 2022 may have been a more low-key event, but it still had its share of surprises. One unexpected, yet welcome debut: the Mark Levinson No. 5909 noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones. These are the very first headphones from the iconic high-end audio brand — and are unlike any model we've ever carried at Crutchfield.
They are super-premium wireless work/travel headphones, with adaptive noise-cancelling technology to hush loud distractions. Special circuitry scans and monitors external sound, then adjusts the level of noise cancellation accordingly. But these headphones also double as a bona fide audiophile wired option for focused at-home listening.
During a brief audition, I learned that their deluxe build and high-grade beryllium drivers help them excel in both scenarios. I also caught up via Zoom with Dr. Sean Olive, senior fellow at Harman International, to discuss how his ground-breaking headphone research helped shape the No. 5909’s splendid acoustic character.
I spent some time with Mark Levinson's debut headphones — their clear, well-balanced sound is a cut above most wireless noise-canceling models.
Listen wirelessly or wired — without compromise
These are primarily wireless headphones, and the newer, more reliable Bluetooth 5.1 is on board. Premium Bluetooth formats aptX™ Adaptive and LDAC are also supported with compatible devices, helping retain more musical detail. And they offer extended wireless range, so I could keep my phone on my desk and travel down the hall and upstairs without audio dropout.
These wireless headphones double as a bona fide audiophile wired option, driven by a high-performance headphone amp.
There are also several wired listening options, including traditional 3.5mm miniplug cables in two different lengths. So you can connect to a portable high-res player or dedicated headphone amp/DAC with that or the included 1/4" adapter. I found you can also make a digital connection and listen with the included USB-C charging cable (or USB-C to USB-A adapter).
Influenced by decades of scientific research
It's kind of hard to believe that these are the first headphones in the long, storied history of Mark Levinson. But think of the landscape back in the '70s when the company first introduced their world-class amplifiers — loudspeakers were so much more sophisticated than headphones. That's changed in the last decade, largely thanks to the advancements and scientific research of Harman International, Mark Levinson's parent company.
Within their California labs, Harman's audio experts — led by Dr. Olive, a former president of the Audio Engineering Society — developed a distinct sound signature, known within the high-end headphone scene as the "Harman curve." This special sound profile has been honed over the years by exhaustive user testing.
Dr. Sean Olive directs the Harman acoustic research group responsible for several breakthrough studies on headphone sound and perception.
“We found that on average, the [Harman headphone curve] closely matched the preferred in-room frequency response of a loudspeaker,” Dr. Olive told me.
This distinct balance of frequencies has informed the tuning of countless headphones from entry-level models on up to the rarified air of these No. 5909 headphones. And it has been scientifically proven to satisfy most listeners.
Hitting the Harman curve
As the idea of “Mark Levinson headphones” moved from concept to development, Dr. Olive and the Harman research group stayed deeply involved. It started with a meeting of the minds between Dr. Olive’s team, the Mark Levinson engineers and designers, and Harman’s deep bench of headphone experts from companies like JBL and AKG. At that point they all decided these headphones must hit the Harman target curve to a high degree.
Sure, the real-time noise cancellation, striking looks, and luxury feel were top of mind — but Mark Levinson is a high-end audiophile brand. And as Dr. Olive put it, “sound is something that could not be sacrificed.”
His research team put each pre-production model through a battery of acoustic tests and measurements. Whenever anything changed in the physical design, they ensured that it met their strict audio specifications. They also made sure that the frequency response stayed the same, with or without the active noise cancellation.
Inside Harman's Labs you'll find cutting-edge measurement equipment — like this "Hyperion Sphere" designed to improve the accuracy of 3D "spatial audio" reproduction in headphones.
These headphones were so deeply tied to the Harman target curve, that Dr. Olive and team used a special measuring tool to predict listener preference. “We have this model that analyzes a frequency response and calculates the preference score it would get on a listening test,” he said. “We aimed for 90% or higher.”
That means they didn't solely focus on tolerances, +/-dBs, or other icy, functional measurements. Instead, they could keep tabs on how real people would enjoy the Mark Levinson No. 5909 headphones — throughout the creation process.
Quick-moving beryllium drivers
Of course, with headphones, proper tuning is only one aspect of the overall performance. The No. 5909's dynamic drivers are made of precious metals and other high-grade material for optimal detail retrieval and resolution. That includes beryllium, an incredibly light and rigid metal that can stop and start quickly for realistic dynamics.
The expertly tuned high-performance drivers are made of beryllium and other premium materials.
Beryllium also has strong damping characteristics, which cuts down on reverberation and sound colorization that can especially muddy the midrange. I found that vocals, guitars, and other sounds in that area were very distinct and well-defined. In fact, I felt that way across all frequencies.
My hands-on impressions
The No. 5909 headphones impressed from the moment I unboxed them. Right away I was struck by the industrial design — it captures that timeless vibe of classic Mark Levinson audio gear. I could see and feel the thoughtful detail in the strong aluminum frame, textured leather headband, and the polished, gloss-metallic earcup finish.
Noise cancellation that adapts in real time
I certainly put the noise cancellation to the test in my basement office! With noise cancellation turned on, these headphones quieted the constant low-frequency hum of my furnace, and also the — well, let's just say more "staccato" — rhythm coming from my 9-year-old kid's new keyboard piano.
While these headphones don't offer the absolute best noise cancellation available, it is well above average. And based on my experience, I think the No. 5909 headphones are equipped to knock out plane engine drone and other air travel distractions. And it sets a low noise floor for what separates these headphones from the pack: that lifelike, nuanced Mark Levinson sound.
Secure, well-cushioned fit
The No. 5909s have a form-fitting design that helps keep them from slipping off as you move around. It's snug for sure, but it doesn't feel too "clamp-y" or like my head is in a vice. And the leather ear pads are soft, avoid pressure points well, and keep the drivers positioned properly toward the ears.
The Mark Levinson No. 5909 headphones have a form-fitting design with soft, sculpted ear pads.
In my hands, they felt heavy for a set of Bluetooth headphones. But they are not nearly as heavy as the larger audiophile headphones out there. And the padded leather headband distributed the weight in a way that didn't cause me great fatigue, even as I wore them through entire work shifts.
I had these headphones for about a week before their debut at CES. The good news is they aren't the type that takes a long time for me to warm up to — I was quite taken by their pristine sonic presentation.
Balanced and accurate sound
The highs sparkled with detail, but never sounded grating or overly analytical. And the bass had a refined punch out of the box — tight, complementary low end for the jazz, acoustic, and classic rock tracks I played initially.
I connected to my Samsung phone via Bluetooth with LDAC and fired up the new remaster of the Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young iconic Déjà vu album on Qobuz. It includes the original album, along with three "discs" worth of demos and outtakes. I got sucked into an earlier, looser extended version of "Almost Cut My Hair" through these headphones.
David Crosby's vocals aren't as prominent as in the final cut we all know. But having him fall back in the mix fit the more improvisational feel of this version. Grounded by the biting percussion, his vocals became part of the jam. That gave way to the two lead guitars dueling between the left and right earcups.
I switched over to hip-hop and wanted a little more sub bass, so I bumped it up with the Mark Levinson Headphones app — a free download for iPhones and Android phones. On the Boldy James EP, Super Tecmo Bo, this gave extra heft to the boom-bap beats that producer Alchemist laid under classic soul and jazz samples. Boldy's deep, baritone vocals are further accentuated, but never lost in the mix like they can be in lesser headphones with boomier or bloated bass.
Pinpoint stereo imaging
Sure, most Bluetooth headphones offer wired listening options. But few perform nearly as well in "passive" mode, without the built-in amplification or sound processing and sweetening. The No. 5909 headphones, with their premium drivers, held up just fine when powered by my reference tube amp. The sound was warmer, as expected, but still just as pristine and detailed.
I was particularly impressed with the imaging. The soundstage itself isn't huge, maybe just outside the head, but the instrument separation and sense of place within gives it extra depth. This played to the strengths of the dreamy, ambient jazz album Promises, a collaboration between British DJ Floating Points, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra.
The sweeping, mood-setting string instruments seemed to emanate from nowhere — or everywhere — as they engulfed my head. But as soon as I was lulled into a daze, the sax or electronic effects would cut through from a very specific location. And all the soft-to-loud musical moments had the beryllium-fueled dynamics on full display, with the subtle moments coming through just as clear as a gripping crescendo.
- premium closed-back, over-the-ear headphones
- adaptive noise-canceling circuitry automatically adjusts to the level of external sound
- Bluetooth® 5.1 for wireless music and phone calls
- high-quality aptX, aptX Adaptive, and LDAC audio streaming
- 40mm premium dynamic drivers coated in beryllium
- tuned to Harman's targeted headphone EQ curve
- lightweight anodized aluminum frame and flexible headband
- snug, secure fit with soft, sculpted ear pads (removable)
- free Mark Levinson Headphones app for Apple® or Android™ lets you adjust amount of bass
- earcup buttons offer easy controls for music, calls, and volume
- two sizes of USB-C to 3.5mm miniplug cables for optional wired listening (13-foot and 4-foot)
- frequency response: 20-20,000 Hz (wireless); 10-40,000 Hz (wired)
- sensitivity: 97 dB
- impedance: 32 ohms
- weight: 12 ounces
- warranty: 2 years
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Doug from Affton
Posted on 3/19/2022
They sound great, really great, but they are nowhere near as comfortable as my Sony WH-100XM4 headphones. After about an hour they are starting to give me a headache. I love them and have no regrets about buying them, but for extended listening sessions, it will be the Sonys for wireless or my Grados when mobility isn't an issue.