- Manufacturer & Model
- Mark Levinson № 5909 High-Resolution Wireless Headphones with Active Noise Cancellation
- $999.00 – Available Direct from Mark Levinson and Select Retailers
Hi-Res Audio certified: LDAC audio codec, Digital circuitry compatible with 24-bit/96kHz processing
Acoustic response up to 40kHz
Expertly tuned 40 mm Beryllium coated drivers acoustically optimized to the HARMAN Curve
Up to 34 hours battery life; 30 hours playtime with ANC enabled
Up to 6 hours of playtime with a 15-minute quick charge
Bluetooth 5.1 with LDAC, AAC, and aptX™ Adaptive technologies
Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) with three modes
Ambient Aware mode for situational awareness while on the go
Four-microphone voice array with Smart Wind Adaption
Premium leather headband and replaceable leather ear pads
Anodized aluminum frame
Automotive-grade metallic painted earcups
Available colors include Pearl Black, Ice Pewter, Radiant Red
Hard Shell Carry Case Included
All necessary cables and adapters INCLUDED
These exciting headphones are the "Swiss Army Knife" of personal audio. They function wirelessly (Bluetooth v5.1), with direct digital connection, and with a nod toward the "Audio Old School," they also function wired using external amplification! Wirelessly, they can interface with your device of choice and can operate as a duplex communications interface using the four built-in microphones. The Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation works with four more microphones to exclude outside noises from your listening session. At the same time, the Ambient Aware Mode can help maintain critical "situational awareness" when necessary. The Fashionistas among us will be happy to note that these attractive headphones range beyond the tediousness of just plain old "Basic Audiophile Black" and are available in Pearl Black, Ice Pewter, and Radiant Red! The headphones' design and feel are robust and precise and should provide years of service.
I have long admired audio and design philosophies developed and deployed by Harman International. Even a partial listing of the brands under the Harman International umbrella reads like a veritable "Who's Who" of the professional and consumer audio universe. And please keep in mind this is only a partial listing!
On the professional side, there are such stalwarts as AKG, BSS Audio, Crown Amplifiers, dbx, JBL, Lexicon, Selenium, Soundcraft, and Studer. And on the home and automotive front, the list is just as long and prestigious, including the likes of Arcam, Harman Kardon, Infinity, JBL, Revel, Selenium, B&O Automotive, and the focus of this review, Mark Levinson Audio Systems.
But this is a review of one specific product, as most reviews are. In this case, we’re taking a closer look at the rather remarkable Mark Levinson № 5909 Headphones!
It's All About the Headphones!
My first experience with headphones could hardly be called audiophile or even remotely high-fidelity. As a young fella approaching the mid-1960s, I was into Ham, shortwave, and CB radios. Being in the middle of Illinois, we had no need for air conditioning, which meant open windows. Since most of my listening was at night, and my neighbors were older folks that were definitely not interested in the noise of my hobbies, I caused some measure of consternation among the closest of those neighbors. After a stern warning from my ever-suffering mother, I found and purchased a nice set of $2.20 crystal headphones from Allied Electronics, and peace once more fell upon the neighborhood.
A couple of years later, when I discovered I liked music waaayyy more than Morse Code, that peace was once more fractured, or should I say Shattered!
That newly disrupted peace was enabled by my first foray into "Hi-Fidelity," a Philco all-in-one stereo system like the one pictured below. That player was the bomb! It came complete with a "free" electric guitar and the jack to plug it into, so I could attempt (and I do mean attempt!) to play along to my favorite Monkees and Beatles hits! Unfortunately, while the Philco had a headphone jack, it did not include headphones. Being a teenager and, thereby, automatically, a rebel without a clue, I played my music loud and proud! But, yet another complaint and yet another stern warning from my still-suffering mom, and I gave the crystal headphones a try only to discard them as unlistenable! So, forced into some measure of compliance, I purchased inexpensive, actual stereo headphones (about $8.00, I'm guessing) from where I had purchased the mighty Philco. Blessed silence again reigned in the neighborhood as I quickly learned the benefits of headphones in keeping the peace.
It wasn't until 1974, when I began to work for an electronics store with a Hi-Fi department, that I had a chance to revisit headphones as real hi-fidelity devices. We had a good selection for the day, including headsets from Sony, Sennheiser, Marantz, and Koss. But, for better or worse, we all, the sales guys that is, leaned toward the way too heavy, eminently uncomfortable, but built like a tank, Koss Pro 4AA with an MSRP of $60.00 (that's $367.00 adjusted for inflation). But what we all lusted after, as wanna to be audiophiles (not even a thing at the time. We were Hi-Fi Enthusiasts :-), were the Koss ESP-9 electrostatic headphones. But at a retail price of One Hundred and Fifty 1970s-style bucks, pushing $918.00 in today's money(!), the ESP-9s were simply out of reach for many.
I've personally owned plenty of headphones throughout the years, including those aforementioned Koss Pro 4 AAs, the Koss HV/1A, a pair of Sony’s, an early version of the Sennheiser Infrared Wireless headphones, and many that time have likely erased from my memory!
More recently, I tried out a set of Beats (free with the purchase of an Apple computer a few years ago) but quickly sold them. From the misery that was the Beats, I tried a variety of earbuds from Apple, Sony, and Koss before settling on some pricy Shure in-ear monitors. I liked the sound and isolation properties of the Shure in-ears, but the fit/seal was always an iffy thing, and with fit problems on in-ear monitors comes a lack of fidelity and a loss of bass. Given that, the Shure's joined the long eBay pantheon of sold-off gear.
Currently, the only thing in my headphone arsenal are simple Apple wired earbuds and my, so far, trusty and decent sounding, $35.00 Koss wired earbuds.
Over the years, I’ve found that headphones of all types have lost their appeal to me. I only used them as simple monitors for my video editing endeavors or as an isolation and entertainment source device when flying.
But even with my self-imposed abstinence from the headphone game, the allure, utility, and appeal of quality headphones are easy to understand! So, my curiosity was piqued to find out if a pair of $1000.00, over-the-ear headphones from one of the most prestigious brands in hi-fi, could slap the "headphone ambivalence" out of me.
The headphones arrived via UPS double-boxed and in perfect shape. Packaging was well done, and the headphones were securely packed and nicely displayed when opening the sleeved and magnetically secured box.
The box contained the following goodies:
Mark Levinson No 5909 Premium Wireless ANC Headphones
Travel Storage Case
1.25m USB-C to USB-C Charging Cable
1.25m USB-C to 3.5mm Proprietary Audio Cable
4m USB-C to 3.5mm Proprietary Audio Cable
3.5mm to 6.3mm Adaptor
USB-C to USB-A Adaptor
Airplane Audio Adaptor
Microfiber Polishing Cloth
Quick Start Guides (English and a separate multi-language QSG)
Warranty and Safety Guide (Multi-Language)
The Headphones, cables, and adapters fit tidily and securely in the plush hard-shell travel case supplied by Mark Levinson.
While there was no paper manual in the box, it can be downloaded HERE!
The fit and finish were perfect throughout. The headphones felt comfortable and had a secure feel without being overly tight. The controls were ergonomic, intuitive, and were quickly and easily learned, and adapted to.
The well-conceived Travel Case and accessories package was complete and appeared robust and well-built!
The Mark Levinson Headphones App is available for download from the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store. The App allows you to choose your listening preferences, select the available Active Noise Cancellation and Ambient Awareness modes, select Bass Contour settings, on-head detection, and Auto-Off time parameters.
As mentioned, if basic black is not your thing, the headphones are available in the three finishes below. My samples were in the lustrous Pearl Black finish.
Construction and Design
The headphones contain two 40mm (1.5748 inches for the metric-ally challenged among us) Beryllium-coated full-range drivers. The № 5909s sound profile has been acoustically tuned to the scientifically vetted HARMAN Curve.
For those unfamiliar with the Harman Curve, here is a brief explanation from the Brochure.
"The Harman Curve is the result of decades of studies into listening preferences and the metrics of great sound, the HARMAN Curve is the acoustic response curve that has achieved the highest subjective scoring in blind listening tests. This pioneering research, developed by Dr. Sean Olive, Senior Fellow at HARMAN and Past President of the Audio Engineering Society, was used in the development of the Mark Levinson №5909 and has resulted in the incredible acoustic performance of these headphones."
If you want to find out more about the Harman Target Curve and why it makes so much sense when applied to headphones, there is an informative article from Sean E Olive, PhD, a lead researcher into the Harman Curve, in Acoustics Today (The Acoustical Society of America on-line magazine) that can be found here!
Here is what the Harman Target Curve looks like today and over the last decade.
Frequency response is stated as 10Hz to 40kHz in the passive mode and 20Hz to 20kHz in the active (Bluetooth and/or ANC) modes. Sensitivity is given as 97dB SPL @ 1kHz/1mW. The maximum SPL is listed as 98dB.
The bulk of the 5909s hard bits are forged or machined Aluminum, giving an extremely robust feel to the headphones. The leather headband has a memory foam cushion for comfort and durability. The replaceable around-the-ear pads are soft, premium leather with a luxurious feel.
Below is an exploded diagram from Mark Levinson, showing the construction of the № 5909s headphones.
Connectivity-wise, the Mark Levinson № 5909 shines. Connect wirelessly to your devices via Bluetooth (v5.1 LDAC 24-bit/96kHz, HD protocols A2DP 1.3.1, AVRCP 1.6, HFP 1.7.1). Connect digital direct via USB at up to 24-bit/96kHz using the onboard DAC/Amplifier. Or connect passively using external power amplification and the supplied proprietary audio cables.
There are eight microphones on the body of the headphones. Four microphones provide input and ambient information to enable the Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation feature. Four other microphones provide vocal input for answering your phone calls on the go without removing the headphones. In addition, the vocal input mics feature Smart Wind Adaption to increase call clarity and intelligibility in windy conditions.
The onboard Lithium-Ion battery will keep you rocking over Bluetooth for 34 hours without using the Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation or somewhere around 30 hours with the ANC turned on. If you use outboard power amplification, you can still use the ANC, but the battery continues to discharge, and the battery life is still around 30 hours. However, when using the Digital Direct connection method (digital direct via USB), the battery continues charging from the USB connection whether the ANC is engaged or not.
The time to a full charge from a dead battery is approximately 100 minutes. For those in full travel mode, a 15-minute quick charge will give you around 6 hours of playtime.
Following the clear instructions, Bluetooth pairing and setup went smoothly and was easily accomplished, with or without the Mark Levinson Headphones App.
You can pair to multiple devices, and two devices can remain simultaneously paired. In addition, the 5909s will automatically switch to the actively playing source on-the-fly.
Once interfaced with the headphones, the Mark Levinson Headphones App makes any new firmware updates available to the user, facilitates pairing, and makes it easy to change the few changeable options available to the user. But, of course, most of those changes are also available through button pushes on the headphones.
There are literally only four Settings Menu items available on the App.
- ANC/Awareness – Choices are, Off-ANC-Awareness
- When ANC is selected, more choices appear – ANC HIGH-ADAPTIVE-ANC LOW
- When AWARENESS is selected, two more options appear – VOICE PASS-AMBIENT
- Bass Contour – Choices are, Neutral-Enhanced-Attenuated
- Auto-Off Timer – Choices are, 30MIN-1HR-3HR-NEVER
- On-Head Detection – On/Off
Although the App is minimalist, it works just fine and does what it is supposed to do quickly and reliably.
Listening and Operation
I gave the Mark Levinson № 5909 Headphones a good workout alternating between three source devices. In every case, the Bluetooth pairing was quick and flawless using my MacBook Pro, iPhone, or iPad.
For this review, I focused on slightly different listening parameters than usual.
- Ease/Flexibility of setup and connection
- Ergonomics and Ease of Operation
- Sound Quality – Overall quality of sound. Aural satisfaction. Level of involvement and engagement engendered through the use of the headphones. And the effectiveness and useability of the Ambient Active Noise Control and Ambient Awareness features.
- Comfort - Where I would look at physical comfort and potential for the dreaded "Listening Fatigue."
- Experiential Satisfaction – In other words, did I enjoy the "Headphone Experience?"
Review Criteria #1 - Ease/Flexibility of setup and connection - Bluetooth Pairing was Easy-Peasy across all devices. Follow the instructions in the "Quick Start Guide," or install the Mark Levinson Headphone App on your mobile devices (RECOMMENDED) and follow the clear prompts. Setup using the wired options was also simple to accomplish and should be easy if you are familiar with the connection quirks of your PC/Apple device OS. If you aren't, refer to the downloadable complete instruction guide for help.
Review Criteria #2 - Ergonomics and Ease of Operation - Ergonomics are excellent and it took no time to learn the few button pushes that facilitate the operation of the Mark Levinson № 5909s. Operation by feel was also good, with the On/Off button having a recognizable groove, and the Answer/Hang Up button, in between the Volume Up/Down buttons, was raised. In addition, changes in the ANC and Ambient Awareness modes, or even On/Off, are audibly echoed in the headphones.
More on #3, 4, and 5 later!
Getting Down to Business
When using the MacBook Pro, I alternated between the three available connection methods, Bluetooth, Direct Digital (USB), and Passive (external amplification). For passive listening, I first tried the headphone jack on the MacBook. It worked fine, but the sound seemed rounded/soft, overly warm, and lacking in volume and punch. I immediately switched to the headphone amp on my MOTU M2 Digital Audio Interface, and the clarity, punch, and volume were restored. With that learned, I happily continued to use the MOTU M2 to drive the headphones when used in the passive mode on the Mac.
I also briefly auditioned the headphones using the headphones amp in my Marantz AV7706 and Denon AVR-1912, and the results were essentially the same as the MOTU M2 configuration.
When my iPhone and iPad were used as sources, the Bluetooth connection only was used, as that seemed most appropriate for those devices.
I started by sampling a variety of music genres while streaming via Amazon Music Ultra HD. Using that service, I sampled tunes from diverse artists such as Michael McDonald for some soul-infused rock, Primus,"Bob" for some brutal bass, Keiko Matsui for some smooth jazz sensibilities, Tool for a bit of an "Ænema,"and System of a Down for a bit of "Chop Suey!"
Across the board, the sound was superb at any volume and using any connection method.
Highs were crisp and detailed without any hint of harshness and never became strident with any of the material sampled.
Mids were warm, extremely detailed, and smoothly presented.
Bass was punchy and, in some cases, profound. However, it was somewhat eerie to be confronted with that amount of prodigious, perceived bass (Primus, “Bob”) an inch and a half from my eardrum, and yet not experience the visceral impact provided by a decent subwoofer(s) or full-range speaker system.
The sense of space, soundstage, and instrument separation/identity that excellent headphones can bring to the table were undoubtedly there, and in some instances, the effect was a bit startling!
The Mark Levinson № 5909 headphones provided excellent detail and texture to the music, that is sometimes lost in the speaker/room interface, even when using the finest speakers.
Even with the thickest, most dense of music - think my sampling of Tool and System of a Down - subtle details such as previously unnoticed delicate cymbal work and other minutia were easily heard, and the separation of the instruments was much more discernible without that pesky room interface interfering with the soundstage.
Summary and Closing Thoughts
Did I enjoy my time with the Mark Levinson № 5909 Headphones? Heck yeah! I found them engaging, revealing, comfortable, and even, dare I say it, seductive! These are headphones that immediately draw you into the soundscape, demanding your attention and respect.
So, let's address items 3, 4, and 5 on my little list of review criteria!
Review Criteria #3 - Sound Quality – Overall quality of sound. Aural satisfaction. Level of involvement and engagement engendered through the use of the headphones. And the effectiveness and useability of the Ambient Active Noise Control and Ambient Awareness features.
Was there a difference in sound quality between the various connection methods? I'd have to say yes.
The best sound, for me, was using the Direct Passive connection using external amplification. The big caveat to that statement was the quality of the headphone amplifier. As I mentioned, the MacBook Pro headphone amp left something to be desired and sounded too flabby. A slight course correction made by switching to the DAC and headphone amp in my MOTU M2 Audio Interface, connected to the same MAC, led to a quantum leap forward in the definition, togetherness, clarity, dynamics, headroom, and punch.
The Direct Digital connection was a very close second-best connection method. The headphones can accept up to a 24-bit 96kHz digital signal. The onboard amplifier supplies plenty of energy to the drivers with more than enough juice for excellent dynamics and headroom. This connection method's sound was pristine and precise, with plenty of low-end drive, punch, and an ultra-black background. The mid-range was smooth, listenable, and enjoyable. The highs were sweet and extended but were never harsh or strident.
To me, the Bluetooth connection provided the least "connectable" sound. That is not to say the sound quality was not good! In fact, it remained excellent across all three devices used in testing. I believe the slight decrease in sound quality is due to the inherent limitations of Bluetooth wireless connection and not the headphones themselves. What did I hear? I perceived a bit of overall rounding and softening of the sound. The sound seemed a bit more compressed and less dynamic, resulting in a slight lessening or compression of the soundstage. But, having said that, these are the best Bluetooth headphones I have ever wrapped around, or stuck into, my noggin!
Do the ANC and Ambient Awareness modes affect the sound? Maybe? I did not notice any overt change in the sound quality when using ANC other than one odd effect, akin to listening to music in an overly damped room. A slight loss of reverberance or a deadening of the sound causing a noticeable impact is what I perceived. The Ambient Awareness feature also worked great, allowing the outside world into the headphone environment when desired and tailoring the effect from allowing no outside mix, to allowing everything at a reduced level, to passing only voice traffic. I tried the Ambient Awareness feature while conversing with my wife. I was able to (almost!) shut her out by disabling Ambient Awareness and then easily carrying on a conversation using either of the other Ambient Awareness active modes.
But did the ANC work? Absolutely! It worked as advertised. Over the years, I have used ambient noise-canceling headphones from Sennheiser and Bose, which worked well enough, and ambient noise-canceling earbuds from Sony that worked fine if you had a good ear seal. Not having a flight scheduled that I could jump on to test them, I simply turned on our vacuum cleaner and activated the ANC. The machine’s noise was almost entirely shut out at six feet, distance even with no music playing, and completely unnoticeable when program material was present in the headphones. With something playing, I had to get my head within a foot even to hear the faintest whine above the program material.
Review Criteria #4 - Comfort - Physical comfort and potential for the dreaded "Listening Fatigue."
Were the Mark Levinson № 5909 High-Resolution Wireless Headphones comfortable? Yes!
The adjustability of the headband was about standard. In other words, a good range of adjustment for a "one-size-fits-all" type of thing. But, the level of comfort provided by the thoughtful addition of a memory foam insert on the crown, and the soft, velvety feel of the premium leather wrapped around the pliant and cushiony foam that constitute the earcups, elevated the comfort level to far above the average for me. While not precisely featherweight at 12.0 ounces (340 grams), the headphones never felt heavy burdensome. Hey, my old Koss Pro 4AAs tipped the scales at a whopping 22.5 ounces without the cable!
I spent several one- to two-hour sessions listening to the headphones at all levels for this review. I never removed them because I was "tired" or "worn out!" In some cases, I was genuinely reluctant to put them aside, but duty occasionally calls (As in… Hey honey! Come here!) at the most inconvenient of times!
Aside from the physical comfort, I never experienced any "listening fatigue" that I could detect. On the contrary, long listening sessions were extraordinarily comfortable and rewarding!
Review Criteria #5 - Experiential Satisfaction – Did I enjoy the "Headphone Experience?" Do they bring something to the table that speakers in a room can’t?
The simple answer to the above is YES! As I'm sure most of you know, the "Headphone Experience" is a very different animal in many respects. For me, it is the sense of listening in a highly controlled acoustic environment. This environment is easily decerned as an artificial construct, to be sure, but a much more detailed and revealing one to the plus side. If you genuinely want to hear and understand what the recording engineer experienced, then a good pair of headphones may be the only way to closely recreate that sound. I liken the sound of the Mark Levinson № 5909 High-Resolution Wireless Headphones to some of the best studio control rooms that I have had the opportunity to visit. In the studio, the synergistic combination of the speakers, audio signal chain, and the room are designed to provide a universally tight, controlled, smooth, and highly revealing sound. The Mark Levinson № 5909 Headphones delivered that kind of detail and quality of sound into the "tiny room" that consists of the ear cups and the ear canal.
So, in this case, my answer to Review Criteria #5 is yes, these headphones have reopened my eyes and ears to the compelling experiential value of great headphones and the "Headphone Experience!"
Considering the stellar performance, quality of the sound, connection flexibility, genuine utility of the HD Bluetooth connectivity, excellent Active Noise Cancellation, functional and useful Ambient Awareness modes, the ability to answer a phone call with the utmost clarity on the fly, and the sweet travel/storage case with the excellent accessory package, these headphones, as a total package, begin to take on the real semblance of a bargain.
With the Mark Levinson № 5909 High-Resolution Wireless Headphones, you are getting a superb sounding, well-designed, and by all appearances, durable product that should provide years of service. One thousand dollars is certainly not inexpensive, but in this case, I believe "you get what you paid for" holds true! Too much? That would be for you and the budget to decide.
Mark Levinson provides outstanding service and a two-year limited warranty for these fine headphones.
Have the Mark Levinson № 5909 Headphones convinced me to buy a new set of headphones? Well, yes, but don't tell you-know-who! And so far, the № 5909s are at the top of my list! Highly recommended without reservation!
Specifications: Mark Levinson № 5909 High-Resolution Wireless Headphones
Type: Premium High-Resolution Wireless Adaptive ANC Noise Cancelling Headphones
Driver size: 40mm (1.75") Beryllium Coated Driver
Frequency response (Passive): 10Hz – 40kHz
Frequency response (Active): 20Hz – 20kHz
Sensitivity: 97dB SPL @1kHz/1mW
Maximum SPL: 98dB
Maximum input power (Passive): 100mW
Microphone Sensitivity: -32dBV @ 1kHz/Pa
Impedance: 32 ohms
Bluetooth transmitted power: <8dbm
Bluetooth transmitted modulation: GFSK, π/4 DQPSK / 8DPSK
Bluetooth frequency: 2.402GHz – 2.480GHz
Bluetooth profile version: A2DP 1.3.1, AVRCP 1.6, HFP 1.7.1
Bluetooth version: v5.1
Battery type: Lithium-ion battery (750mAh/3.7V)
Power supply: 5V/1.0A
Charging time: 100 minutes
Quick Charge: 15 minutes for 6 hours playtime
Music playtime with BT on: 34 hrs
Music playtime with BT & ANC on: 30 hrs
Music playtime with Aux-in & ANC on: 30 hrs
Dimensions (H x W x D): 202.6mm (7.9") x 205.4mm (8.1") x 65.4mm (2.6")
Weight: 340g (12 oz)
Warranty: 2 Years Parts & Labor