Mark Levinson 5909 Wireless Headphone REVIEW
This is a review written by Terry Ellis February 2023.
For my video review please see my YouTube channel link here
Wireless headphones are not a concept, but they are becoming ever increasingly more popular. I remember my uncle having some wireless headphones back when I was a much younger man as an example of how they have existed, but Bose possibly put wireless headphones on the modern map with their first QuietComfort 25 introduced back in 2014. It may seem strange to say, but I believe that products like the Mark Levinson 5909 are going to be responsible for starting another headphone revolution. I say that because, until recently, the convenience of a wireless headphone system came at quite a cost to sound quality compared to traditional wired headphones, but I am not sure that is the case anymore.
Bluetooth and Build
As it stands, wireless Bluetooth technology, even the latest and greatest commercial solutions using LDAC are lossy compared to even CD quality, that’s before we even contemplate listening to the abundance of high resolution music that is available through streaming services. If we are using an Apple device as the source then the music can be extremely lossy so the concept of “high-end” wireless headphones seems a hard sell. I don’t know what’s changed recently, I assume developments in microchip technology is allowing for the latest wireless headphones to be this much better, and as a result they are beginning to command higher price tags. The Mark Levinson 5909 cost £995 on Amazon and whilst that seems like a lot for a Bluetooth headphone it is only mid-priced for high end wired headphones. Of course there is a lot more going on with the 5909, the retail price includes DACs, amplifiers, DSP, wireless technology and an app and so our £995 has to go much farther. The build quality of the 5909 maybe shows this a little, because is pretty good, although maybe not up to the ‘luxury’ description claimed on the Mark Levinson website which is a little disappointing.
I don’t want to dwell on that negative, I’d rather push onto the big positive and that is sound quality. The 5909 are easily the best wireless headphones I have listened to so far but, there are two new kids on the block to consider, the Focal Bathys and the Bowers & Wilkins PX8. I have briefly listened to the PX8 but have yet to test them side by side (at the time of this review anyway). Do remember though that these Mark Levinson cost £200 more than the Focal and around £300 more than the Bowers, which is a good percentage more in both cases.
The reason why I think the 5909 sound like the best of their kind I can sum up in one word, refinement. Often what separates higher end audio products from their lesser counterparts is the refinement of their overall audio delivery. The 5909 have a wonderful composure and control throughout the frequency range, from bass to treble, and particularly with vocals. They sound very even handed, smooth and extremely articulate with a very high level of overall refinement. You may feel this all seems pretty rudimentary for a high end product, and not very stand out, but when I compared the 5909 to the Apple Airpods MAX, which are very good headphones, the Airpods no longer sounded as good. Their timing was off, they lack the same composure and smoothness and sound very edgy by comparison. They do sound more fun at first, and I like how upfront they are, but they do become tiring to listen to over time, most likely because of that lack of refinement. Listening to the Levinson 5909 you are drawn into the music more even with the overly highest expectations that a fairly extreme audiophile like me always has, in terms if holding the critical listeners attention the 5909 succeed.
The Levinson support Sony’s LDAC codec, and I used them with my partner’s Oppo phone at the maximum LDAC data transfer rates for the theoretical best audio quality. Using the Oppo phone as the music source I heard some promise of the better sound that LDAC can offer, but not so much as to make me go ‘wow’. I have to say that the usability of the Oppo was not good and was likely ruining the overall experience and I much preferred using my iPhone or iPad. That is not an Apple fan boy comment. I found that the Oppo would change the music sample rate from its native rate always to 96khz, making the sound fatter or thicker. I could manually adjust this in the Developer Options, setting it to the native sample rate and that delivered the cleanest and richest music delivery from the 5909, but it then switched back to 96Khz automatically when the music changed. I had to keep making the change back to native manually which I soon gave up on and went back to iPhone/iPad because it just worked and sounded not that much different, or worse. This is good news for Apple product users and there are a lot of them.
The 5909 make the Airpods Max sound rather unrefined in nearly every respect, particularly in the bass frequencies. This was surprising because I felt the lower registers were the Airpod Max best strength. Compared to the Mark Levinson they now sounded loose and wishy washy. It was a big and noticeable difference. One area where I preferred the Airpod Max is their vocal delivery. It is more immediate, present and crisp, more upfront but, again, not as refined.
For me the biggest drawback of the 5909 sound is that it is so refined, it is borderline too reserved, especially at lower volumes. This is great for longer listening sessions as you don’t experience fatigue, but it means music tends to be a bit stand off-ish, sounding more like background music rather than it grabbing your attention. Maybe that’s by design, but when you are sitting and critically listening, I prefer more immediacy to the sound, especially at lower volumes. I think the laid-back character meant I was turning the volume higher than usual to get more sonic verve and excitement. That was fine because the 5909 always stay composed, but it is something I noticed and was aware of. I found that I had the sound noticeably louder than with the Airpod Max.
Using The App
There is a dedicated Mark Levinson app for the 5909 which has options to choos between different noise cancelling modes, pretty stuff really these days with some basic sound tailoring options, but only for the bass.
For me the 5909 deliver a very tight and punchy bass at all times, especially when turned up. It is a very articulate bass; and this is exceptional considering the files we are listening to are so compressed. For me, some of the time I wanted more bass. You can engage a bass lift in the app and I think this sounded better in some ways but, depending on whether I had noise cancelling on or off, if the volume was up quite high, the way the DSP or EQ has been designed it thickened the sound to the point where the 5909 start to lose what’s stand-out and great about their sound, the composure. The bass lift made the headphones sometimes sound better and sometimes worse. This inconsistency meant that I couldn’t leave this mode engaged for any length of time, which was a shame. Allowing far more control over the bass in the app, even more subtle adjustments in small increments would be a very welcome addition as it would overcome this issue / limitation.
There is a mode which allows you to reduce the bass to lean-out the sound. However, this mode makes no sense to me at all as I dont know why anyone would want less bass than the stock amount. Overall I do feel the bass contour control in the app is a wasted opportunity for what could be an awesome fairly comprehensive sound tuning feature giving users more flexibility and fine control.
The noise cancelling has three main modes, high/low, adaptive and awareness (or transparency). The noise cancelling seems pretty on par with the Apple, maybe not quite as aggressive or as effective but splitting hairs difference in the real world. I stress tested them both outdoors near a very busy road. The 5909 have a better passive noise cancellation from the much larger and thicker ear cushions but the Airpods Max sound noticeably better with noise cancelling engaged, whereas the 5909 I think sounded better with it off. Unfortunately, my review sample had a bit of an issue with the noise cancelling system and how my head and face movement affected it, movement of my face would cause a rumble sound to be heard in headphones, like microphone rustle type of sound. I checked with another reviewer, whom I know well, to see if they had the same issue as me. They didn’t, so I am pretty sure it is just an issue with this review sample. I think its right to mention it for transparency reasons. (No pun intended.)
Moving onto comfort, this is where the 5909 out-performs the Airpods Max by a noticeable margin but not for free. The ear cushions on the Airpods look cool but are very poor in use. They are thin, not that comfortable and feel cheap, yet they are not cheap to replace at about £70 a set, a ridiculous price IMHO. The 5909 don’t quite get the full luxury padding of a big expensive headphone like an Audeze but they are closer to that quality. This makes all the difference to how the headphones feel and fit, especially for longer listening sessions. These are closed back headphones and they don’t absorb the sweat and end up being rather pungent, as the Airpods can do.
Using the Mark Levinson 5909, I really like the clamping force and how light they are. To me the balance of the two important ergonomics is about perfect.
As I mentioned, the Mark Levinson website describes the 5909s as luxury headphones. They didn’t feel luxury to me but maybe I am expecting too much for the money. The ear cushions are great quality, I like the headband design but it is not super plush, the earcups look a bit “plasticy”, but when you tap them they feel more like they are made from a very inert moulded resin type of material, so much nicer than cheap plastic. These are well built headphones, but I don’t think they have the obvious ‘wow’ factor for their overall build given their high price. The Airpods Max do have lovely looking aluminium elements which gives them more visual and feel appeal. But what you notice straight away with the Airpods is that they feel heavy on your head and, because the earpads are not cushioned enough, they don’t support their own weight very well. The 5909s support their own weight perfectly.
But for out and about use the Mark Levinson are large and bulky, I am guessing a function-over-form design, whereas the Airpods are very sleek by comparison. If you had long hair, you could hide the Airpods but not the Levinson. For me they are too big to use for a daily work commute and I am the least vain person around, but for plane or long train journeys, they would be no problem at all to wear.
In The Case
The carry case for the 5909 has a very clever way of storing some cables and the included accessories such as a USB C cable for charging.
I really liked that there are two different length of USB C to 3.5mm phono cables included, intended for powering the 5909 from a headphone amplifier setup. When you take this route the Bluetooth active circuitry disables and they behave the same as any passive wired headphone. This is a critically important feature for someone like me because I can use them wired to a mac computer to edit videos with no bluetooth latency. This means that the 5909 can be, and should be, a consideration for content creators using them as a multi-purpose audio device. It also means you can use them with any headphone amplifier setup and I dare say you get even more performance from them with very good electronics driving them. I really like this flexibility.
I have given the 5909 a very good work out in different scenarios. I have had them connected to my iPad Pro and my Panasonic OLED TV via Bluetooth to enjoy Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube content and I think the ease of doing all of this is what makes the new wireless headphone stand out, because they offer great sound quality for all the content we consume in the modern world. We do so without disturbing anyone else in the home which is particularly useful when you have young children.
To sum up, the Mark Levinson are not perfect, but do I want some, Yes.
Do I think they are better than the Airpod Max, in nearly every area, very much Yes.
The big question is do I think they are worth double the price of the Airpods Max. That is tough question to answer as its not an unequivocal yes because I do have some niggles with them, but the niggles have not pushed me back towards the Airpods. In fact, I haven’t used the Airpods at all since the Mark Levinson have been here for review, which is a good number of weeks now. That is because the Levinson sound so much better, they have made it impossible to go back.
As it stands the Mark Levinson are easily my favourite Bluetooth headphones and have set the bar very high. That is great for the future of wireless headphone quality, but I say this with hesitation as the two new-comers from Focal and Bowers and Wilkins cost less money and how they perform by comparison will be super interesting.
A Special Performer Award is Pursuit Perfect Systems highest accolade and is in recognition of exceptional product performance regardless of price
For the full specification of the Mark Levinson 5909 please see their website linked here