We wonder how many headphone and hi-fi manufacturers saw a green light beam in front of their eyes when, at the end of 2020, Apple announced a pair of wireless headphones costing twice as much as the then-current premium competition. The AirPods Max didn’t exactly push the price parameters of wireless over-ear headphones – Bang & Olufsen’s flagship pairs have attracted a ‘premium’ for a while, as have a handful of special edition pairs (remember the 24ct gold-plated Dr Dre Beats Pro?).
Nevertheless, surely the audacious move by such a big company would have spurred some brands to consider similar ambition. The rise in pricier wireless headphones of late, like these Mark Levinson No. 5909, the T+A Solitaire T and the forthcoming Bowers & Wilkins Px8, might suggest so – though the maturation of headphone and Bluetooth technology will have naturally played its part too.
The Mark Levinsons enter our test room doors as the most expensive wireless pair we’ve tested and therefore do so with a weight of expectation on their shoulders. Can wireless performance ever be so good as to justify such an expense? That’s the question this review aims to answer.
Price is naturally the elephant in the room with us as we unbox the No. 5909. It’s their most obvious talking point – before you’ve heard them, at least. They carry a price tag twice as heavy as that of the five-star AirPods Max and Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless and roughly three times more than the Sony WH-1000XM5 and their Bose, Sennheiser and B&W rivals.
While it’s hard to quantify how much better sounding than their peers they need to be to justify their price – twice as good? Three times as good? – it’s clear that to earn a recommendation from us they need to be significantly better than the cheaper competition. And the only way they’re going to do that is by sounding significantly better.
While there’s more to most products we test than their specification, you’d expect a pair at this price to tick the right boxes – and the right boxes the No. 5909 do indeed tick. Wireless connectivity comes in aptX Adaptive and LDAC flavours, which are essentially the best-quality Bluetooth codecs currently in use. Qualcomm has come up with a next-generation aptX Lossless solution that can supposedly wirelessly transmit lossless audio uncompressed, but it won’t likely reach a decent number of devices until 2023 at the earliest. So, high-quality Bluetooth support: tick.
Active noise cancellation – an increasingly prevalent feature in wireless headphones and earbuds to the point that it’s almost expected – is another box ticked and comes in three modes: ANC High, Adaptive and ANC Low. An Awareness mode designed to let noise in for temporary convenience is available in (effective) Voice Pass and (more effective) Ambient options too. You can set your preferred ANC and Awareness settings in the accompanying Mark Levinson app, and they are then the two modes that, alongside ‘off’, you can cycle through using the right earcup’s dedicated ANC button.
That’s arguably the biggest justification for using the app, which otherwise simply lets you activate on-head detection so that music is automatically paused when the headphones are taken off/put back on (which works well); set an auto-timer to turn the headphones off after a period of no music playing; and choose between Neutral (default and, we find, preferred), Enhanced and Attenuated EQ sound profiles. For many, following initial experimentation, the app will be surplus to everyday listening needs.
Noise cancellation is well implemented, albeit more functional than forceful in its intensity. That’s not a criticism exactly; the Mark Levinsons physically block sound more than most pairs anyway due to their substantial build and solid-yet-satisfactory clamp force, and we admire the consistency of their sonic character and quality when ANC is on and off – not by any means a given for noise-cancelling wireless headphones. We don’t feel compelled to activate ANC on relatively noisy public transport but are pleased it’s there when a quieter classical piece comes on and that extra isolation from the outdoors and focus on the music is beneficial.
Activating ANC doesn’t detrimentally impact battery life as much as it can either, though naturally there is a difference between the claimed ANC on (30 hours) and ANC off (34 hours) figures, which we’re pleased to say translate in real-life too. We find an hour of mid-to-high volume, ANC-activated playback drains 3-4 per cent (note that battery status is also viewable in the app).
Battery life 34 hours
Bluetooth aptX Adaptive, LDAC, AAC
Audio cables 1.2m + 4m
Handily for the forgetful, a 15-minute ‘fast’ charge offers six hours of listening, too. In this day and age, you won’t be surprised to read that the No. 5909 charge via USB-C, and you’ll also be more relieved than surprised to know that a 1.2m USB-C charging cable and both 1.25m and 4m USB-C to 3.5mm cables for wired listening come supplied, packaged in an ovular hardshell case alongside a USB-C to USB-A adaptor, an airplane adaptor… and of course, the headphones themselves. Mark Levinson clearly believes the No. 5909 will be used both on the fly and at home, and it’s probably right.
Their design panders to both use cases – hefty and padded enough to enjoy for hours at home, yet also glitzy and compact enough (the cups can fold flat) to take out and about. Perhaps dubiously resembling AKG’s Quincy Jones-endorsed N90Q model from years previous, their red anodised aluminium frame, metallic painted ear cups (in red or black) and leather headband and earpads don’t immediately strike us as impressive for the money. Initially, we find ourselves questioning their perceived-versus-real value, especially as we slide our fingers over the small, plasticky earcup buttons. But after handling and wearing the No. 5909 for several weeks, it becomes easier to appreciate the remarkable quality of their construction.
In that time, however, we don’t become any more attached to the on-cup controls. We wish Mark Levinson had opted for a classier, more intuitive three-key volume and playback button, as it isn’t easy to quickly discern between the middle (play/pause and skip track) and side (volume up and volume down) controls when they’re being worn.
That an unremarkable button is the first and last of our criticisms gives you a strong hint at the answer to the question we posed at the beginning of our review: can wireless performance ever be so good as to justify such an expense? Again, the No. 5909 need to perform substantially better than the class-leading crop of cheaper competition – and they do.
If we hadn’t unboxed the Levinsons and gone through the simple Bluetooth pairing process ourselves, we would be tempted to check for any wires dangling from the earcups. While the No. 5909’s performance is still short of the best available from similarly priced wired headphones, it’s easily the best wireless headphones performance we’ve come across.
The first adjective that comes to mind when we don the Mark Levinsons on our heads, connect them to our Astell & Kern music player via aptX HD Bluetooth and play Black Country, New Road’s Chaos Space Machine is ‘sparkling’, such is the crystal-clear and crisply detailed manner in which they present the track’s thespian instrumentation. The soundfield their 40mm Beryllium-coated drivers produce has the spic-and-span cleanliness and astute organisation to not be overwhelmed by the sonic density and frenetic energy of the experimental piece – even at higher listening levels, surprisingly. And every corner of it appears to embrace the subtle details and dynamics the septet has artistically shoehorned into the wild composition.
The vivacious production of Toto’s Rosanna gives the Mark Levinsons a sonic canvas on which to truly showboat – those drums biting, vocals rich, and guitar lines and keyboards infectiously musical. They lap it up as enthusiastically as a dog eats spilled ice cream. No part of the frequency spectrum is given undue priority, and that, coupled with the headphones’ attention to detail and brisk nature, makes the No. 5909 utterly compelling to listen to in a way lesser wireless headphones are not.
They aren’t just concerned with having a good time, either, as impressively shrewd when delivering the subtle dynamics and lingering harmonics of Ludovico Einaudi’s piano playing, and when asked to convey the woodwind textures and hit the climactic heights throughout The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey soundtrack.
As alluded to previously, the Mark Levinson No. 5909 aren’t necessarily replacements for a wired set-up you’re happy with. A laptop feeding a Chord Mojo 2 DAC connected to Grado SR325x wired headphones offers greater all-round sonic sophistication and finesse. But for anyone who is after the convenience of wireless without sacrificing too much sound quality to get it, and lucky enough to afford such a best-of-both-worlds solution, the Mark Levinsons are highly recommendable.
Perceived value may not get top marks, but sonic value certainly does – and that’s really what matters here. Mark our words, these wireless headphones really wow.
- Sound 5
- Features 5
- Build 4
Read our review of the Apple AirPods Max
Also consider the Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless
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Need ANC? Check out our best noise-cancelling headphones guide