Kudos: Terrific build quality, fantastic sonic detail, great passive and active noise canceling
Concerns: Weight, on-head detection, bass levels
Growing up, my parents never had a stereo system in the house, so my first real encounter with “decent” audio was from a Sony Walkman and the pair of included headphones. From the Walkman, I eventually graduated to a Discman, again with headphones. (From there, it was a long journey into car audio, but I ultimately found my way back to home listening!)
What I learned from those many hours of listening was that headphones vary considerably in price, style, and quality, and that a great pair of ‘phones not only seriously influenced and improved the sound quality, they were also capable of delivering a truly impressive — yet personal — audio experience often at a fraction of the price of a full stereo rig.
Over the years I’ve had the chance to listen to lots of different headphones, ranging from the “throwaway” junkers you get at tradeshows or packed in with a new phone, to the incredibly impressive Shure KSE1500 electrostatic in-ear monitors, all the way to the Sennheiser HE-1s (aka “Orpheus 2”), the headphone equivalent of summiting Everest.
When I heard that Harman Luxury Group (which also includes JBL Synthesis, Revel, and Arcam) was releasing a new pair of high-end wireless headphones under the Mark Levinson nameplate, I was beyond intrigued. While I was familiar with the Levinson name and reputation, I’d never had a chance to experience any of the company’s components outside of demos. Unfortunately, this announcement was made at CES 2022, a show Harman did not attend in person, so there was no chance to experience them while I was there.
After my visit to Harman Luxury Audio’s Southern California facilities last year, I was able to see the headphones, but they didn’t have a working sample out to demo, which only made me more eager than ever to get my hands and ears on the No.5909 headphones! While they are by no means inexpensive, at just under $1000, they are by far the most affordable product to be graced with the Levinson name and benefit from some truly high-end elements, like Beryllium-coated drivers and industry-leading Active Noise Canceling (ANC). Right before this year’s CES — a full year after I’d requested a review sample — I received a package containing the headphones.
Mark Levinson and The Harman Target Curve
Not that it matters, but I was completely unaware that Mark Levinson, the man, is no longer affiliated in any way with the Mark Levinson audio brand, and hasn’t been since 1984. (He lost the right to use his name as a trade name on an audio product in a lawsuit in 1986.) Or that he had once been married to Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall (Samantha) and the couple co-wrote and published a book titled Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm. (To quote Hamilton, “That’s true.”) Levinson’s latest venture, announced in late February, is an audio engineering and manufacturing company called Daniel Hertz.
Harman International acquired Madrigal Audio Laboratories in 2003, which included Mark Levinson.
One of the topics discussed during my visit to Harman’s facilities was the decades’ worth of research the company has conducted to discover and answer two basic, yet crucial, questions: “What makes great sound?” and “Do people agree on what sounds great?”
If “great sound” is truly subjective and varies from person to person, it is a moving target that would be seemingly unhittable by a speaker designer.
Dr. Sean Olive, senior fellow at Harman in charge of acoustic research, commented, “Harman has spent decades researching the listening preferences of countless diverse subjects and measuring minute details to develop the ‘Harman Target Curve,’ a scientific, audio reproduction model that integrates the acoustic characteristic found to be most appealing to a wide cross-section of the public.”
In lay terms, this curve can be likened to the acoustic equivalent of an audio recipe that has been repeatedly proven that a vast majority of listeners will enjoy.
Additional research, such as testing and measuring details that include size and shape of people’s ears and head, has gone into adapting this target curve for use with headphones. While the headphone target curve was originally created back in 2012, it has been refined over the past decade to become the target for the Mark Levinson No.5909s. These headphones are said to be tuned within ±1 dB across the critical points of the spectrum of the Harman curve.
Regardless of your tax bracket, these are going to be a premium purchase for virtually any buyer, and the Levinson moniker carries a certain weighty expectation of luxury along with premium performance. And, unlike nearly every other product we sell — which are typically unboxed by us, often without the customer being present — headphones are by their very nature a personal experience, and the start of that journey begins at the unboxing.
The No.5909s arrive in a substantial box with nice four-color graphics on the outer carton featuring a picture of the headphones in whichever color was purchased, a list of the included parts on one side panel, and a highlight of the features on the back.
Removing the presentation case, a small fabric tab in Levinson’s signature red accent invites you to open the magnetically latched lid to reveal a foam-lined top where the phones lie in a custom cardboard holder.
The No.5909s are offered in three colors: Radiant Red, Black Pearl, and Ice Pewter. This is automotive-grade gloss metallic paint that surrounds the body of the phones, and it has a slick yet durable feel to it, like a richly waxed coat of paint on a luxury auto. I wouldn’t say the Red is “flashy,” but it definitely stands out more than the Black or Ice, which are more reserved.
Two more red fabric tabs help you remove the headphone tray to reveal a black zippered travel case emblazoned with the Mark Levinson logo. Beneath the travel case is the final black box, emblazoned with Mark Levinson in silver and containing a variety of manuals and setup guides, along with a microfiber polishing cloth.
Opening the dual zippers of the travel case — both with “No.5909” printed on them —reveals a soft felt lining for holding the phones and another zippered compartment that cradles the headband when the phones are stowed. This internal compartment holds a variety of the included accessories, including a 1.25-meter USB-C-to-3.5mm proprietary audio cable, a 1.25-meter USB-C charging cable, USB-C-to-USB-A adapter, mini-jack to 1/4-inch adapter, and dual-plug airline headphone adapter. Also included is a 4-meter USB-C-to-3.5mm proprietary audio cable. Another luxe touch is all these accessories retain the brand’s color scheme and logo. Slick.
My only complaint with the travel case is that it is pretty bulky and totally non-flexible. I get that this protects the ’phones during transport — its sole reason for existing — but it takes up a fair bit of space in a backpack or suitcase. Also, for the price, I don’t think it would be asking too much to throw in a Levinson-themed USB-C charger and an Apple lightning-to-mini connector.
Overall, the No.5909’s packaging, accessories, and attention to detail are all not-so-small reminders that you are dealing with a premium product, and it helps to lift anticipation for the listening experience.
Look and Feel
Premium products exude a certain fit-and-finish, as well as an overall attention to detail, that elevates them above the pack, and the No.5909s live up to this standard. Every time you go to lift them onto your head, you’ll appreciate the craftsmanship and components that went into manufacturing them.
Beyond the gloss metallic paint there are other premium parts, like forged and machined anodized aluminum, top-grade leather, laser-etched details, red detail stitching across the leather headband, and metal buttons with nice resistance. Nothing in these is plastic or feels like a compromise.
When you start to look at the small details, you’ll notice that when the headphones are oriented the correct way, Left and Right are very subtly etched on the aluminum armatures holding the earcups, while slightly more prominent around front, it displays No.5909.
You’ll also feel the difference when you adjust the headband. With cheaper ’phones, this can be a click-click adjustment, or just feel loose and sloppy. Here, there is a nice level of tension that allows you to adjust the phones, but with enough resistance that they stay in that position.
What your ears will appreciate straight-away is the supple and buttery leather that surrounds the memory-foam ear cushions. It’s preternaturally smooth and soft and is the ear equivalent to slipping your hands into a pair of Bottega Veneta gloves. Looking closer, you’ll notice the ear cushion is all a single piece of leather, with no stitching to touch your skin. The cups also fully swivel, letting you rest them comfortably around your neck when not in use.
If you’ve ever had a pair of headphones succumb to “leather leprosy,” where the fabric starts disintegrating and peeling off, you’ll appreciate that these ear cups are replaceable, meaning you should be able to continue enjoying the No.5909s in perfect comfort for many years to come.
What you can’t see are the 40mm Beryllium-coated drivers. Beryllium is the lightest alkaline earth metal, is extremely stiff with low mass, and offers audio extension up to 40 kHz to deliver remarkable details. (It is also rare, costly to mine, toxic in its powder form, and difficult to work with, which is why you only find it used on the highest-end loudspeakers. #Science)
I’ve spoken a bit about the build quality, and I will say that this comes at the price of weight. While the phones are rated as weighing 12 ounces (340 grams), I measured my pair at 12.4 ounces. In comparison, Sony’s WH-1000XM5 weighs 8.8 ounces, Bose’s Quiet Comfort 45 are 8.5 ounces, and the Bowers and Wilkins PX7 are 10.8 ounces. I went to Best Buy and tried these other phones on, and they definitely feel a lot lighter on the head. They also don’t feel nearly as luxe as the No.5909s.
Days after getting them, I flew out to CES and, while in the airport chatting with another passenger who was wearing a pair of Sony’s, he asked about the Levinson headphones and I let him try them on. The first words out of his mouth were, “Wow, these are heavy.” (To be fair, his next words were, “The noise canceling works really well.”)
Also, the band rubs me a bit on the top of my head, which also makes me aware of them. Maybe it’s because I use hair gel, or maybe my dome peaks at the top, but after an hour or so of wearing them, I often find myself readjusting positions a bit. (To be fair, I had this same issue with a pair of Definitive Technology Symphonys I reviewed previously.)
I’m not saying they are uncomfortable to wear, but they also don’t disappear on your head and make you forget you are wearing them. And if you are coming from a lighter pair, be aware these could weigh nearly 50 percent more.
Also, I’m not saying you should wear $1000 headphones to the gym, but, if you are looking for the ultimate subtle gym flex, this could be the answer. Knowing that no matter how many pounds the other person is slinging, the fact that you are working out in a state of far superior audiophile bliss offers some satisfaction. However, if you do decide to work out in the No.5909s, you’ll probably find that the leather earcups are great at retaining heat and locking in your juices. After a few sets, I am compelled to take them off and dry off the cups, which are visibly wet. Every time I did so, I was thankful that Levinson offers replacement cups should the need arise.
Once powered on, the headphones enter pairing mode, indicated by a slowly pulsing white light on the left cup and a sonar-like sound in the headphones. After the initial pairing, I never had a problem with the headphones being immediately recognized and pairing with my iPhone or my laptop.
To get the most out of the headphones, you’ll want to install the Mark Levinson Headphone app (iOS and Android). With this app, you can check the headphone’s firmware (and presumably update it) and see the current battery level. Beyond that, you can also select and set the default modes for ANC and Awareness. You can also adjust the bass contour between Neutral (closest to the Harman curve), Enhanced (delivers a +6 dB boost beyond the curve), or Attenuated (about 3 dB down).
You can also set an auto-off timer for how quickly (if ever) the phones will power off when they aren’t playing any content and enable On-Head Detection, which will automatically pause the music when you remove the phones from your head.
The phones are rated with up to 34 hours of Bluetooth playback and up to 30 hours with ANC enabled. I never put a clock to this, but it did feel like I got days between charges. It takes about 100 minutes to get to full charge using a USB-C charger. It also offers fast charging that delivers up to six hours playtime with a 15-minute charge.
The Bluetooth 5.1 receiver claims extended wireless ranges up to 65 feet, which also seems credible, as I was able to leave my phone in my bedroom and walk around my 2100-square-foot home without losing connection.
After you snug the 5909s onto your ears, the first thing you notice is the silence. The cups completely and lovingly encapsulate your ears, creating a wonderful cone of isolation. It’s like when you step into a luxury car and shut all of the doors, walling yourself away from the noise of the world. Even with no music playing, it is difficult to have a conversation with the headphones on, so complete is their passive isolation. You can still hear sounds, but they are distant — like they’re happening in another room.
I’m usually terrible with remembering which buttons do what, but the button layout makes it very easy to quickly find the adjustment you’re looking for. On the left ’phone is power and ANC toggle, and on the right are volume up and down, flanking a slightly raised, center multi-function button that is used to play/pause music, answer/end a call, skip forward/back, or activate your voice assistant.
At the time of their release, the ANC chip used in the No.5909s was exclusive and the most advanced in use, with four microphones dedicated to ANC duties. (Another four are used for voice/talk.) It includes three ANC modes: High, which offers most attenuation, specifically in 80 to 150 Hz frequencies, and is best for noisiest environments; Adaptive, which provides 3 dB more attenuation between 500 and 1000 Hz for environments that vary in background noise; and Low, which has 10 dB less reduction between 80 and 1000 Hz, and is said to be good when background noise is minimal, say on a walk around the neighborhood or while sitting in an office. There are also two Awareness modes: Ambient, which allows all sounds to pass through, and Voice Pass, which allows mid and high frequencies through to hear a voice response.
I got to put the No.5909s to the test on my cross-country flights to CES, and I thought the noise canceling did a terrific job, cutting the drone of the plane’s engines down to something that was happening way off in the distance. Combined with a rain-sounds track on repeat, I was able to get some semblance of sleep on my redeye flight home. As I write this, I’m in a hotel room, and it has knocked down the sound of the noisy HVAC system. At work, I switched over to Ambient Awareness mode so I could hear if the phone started ringing or hear the beep of the front door opening.
One nifty feature is the voice confirmation. When you switch ANC modes — either via the app or by using the button — a female voice with a British accent announces what mode has been engaged so you aren’t left guessing.
While “Bluetooth” and “high-resolution audio” might seem like terms that are at odds with each other, the Levinsons utilize Bluetooth 5.1 with LDAC, AAC, and AptX Adaptive (backward-compatible with aptX HD) for best-in-class wireless transmission.
By the numbers, the headphones are rated from 20 Hz to 20 kHz response and up to 24-bit/96 kHz resolution with Bluetooth. (Bluetooth AptX Adaptive delivers 24/48 and up to 576 kbps; LDAC can deliver up to 24/96 and up to 990 kbps transfer; AAC is 24/44.1 and up to 320 kbps.)
For the “purest” sound quality, you can connect the included proprietary wired analog headphone cable where the phones are rated for a frequency response of 10 Hz to 40 kHz or use a wired USB connection that supports up to 32-bit/96 kHz.
If you want to buck the trend and connect the cord, then go right ahead, but that’s kind of missing the point. More importantly, the No.5909s can operate in a true passive mode that not only bypasses all internal electronics, it lets you still enjoy music if the headphone battery is totally dead. (For the record, you can have both the headphone cable connected and utilize the ANC settings if you’re a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of person.)
One feature that didn’t work well for me was the on-head detection. I engaged this when I initially set up the phones and then forgot about it. However, I had numerous times when the music would just stop playing. At first I thought it was having Bluetooth issues, but after it did it with two separate iPhones and my laptop, I figured it had to be something else. Then I noticed that when I would remove the ’phones and put them back onto my ears, or specifically press the right cup tightly into my ear, the music would come back. For me, this feature was just too sensitive, and disabling on-head detection solved a lot of aggravation.
I’m a big fan of loudspeakers that employ Beryllium drivers, so I loved the highly detailed sound of the No.5909s. What I noticed over and over were the tiny details I was clearly hearing that I’d never noticed before. Whether this was due to the headphones’ terrific clarity or that they created such isolation from the outside world, or a combination of the two, you could really peer into the music. Things like a door opening and floor creaking at the opening of Fiona Apple’s “Werewolf,” or the layered vocals and sounds in Taylor Swift songs, or the background voices and swirling sounds in Dark Side of the Moon.
You also notice little micro-sounds like the texture of brush strokes, the sounds of a singer opening her mouth, or the little background noises of the recording space, as in The Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Sessions. High-frequency sounds like cymbal strikes especially stand out with incredible detail and clarity, letting you appreciate the ring and decay of the note.
The audio presentation was so clear and intimate, it made me think of “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” better known as ASMR. There was a scene in the finale of Netflix’s Alice in Borderland where they are playing croquet, and you could clearly hear the heavy ball rolling and crunching along over the grass, or the sounds of Zakir Hussain playing the Madal on Good Hope that produced a near tactile feeling. If you’re into ASMR, these will take your tinglings to the next level.
Pick a favorite song or album and give it a listen through the No.5909s and you’ll likely experience it anew. It’s almost a cliché to say it, but the Levinson headphones had me going back and enjoying albums I hadn’t listened to in years. (When’s the last time you gave Synchronicity by The Police a listen?)
Bass-heads will likely find the neutral bass contour a little too neutral. I did nearly all my listening with bass enhanced engaged, and, even then, it was more “audiophile bass,” like listening to quality tower speakers without a subwoofer. There were moments, like on Lana Del Rey’s new album Did you know that…, where you’d get hit with a big, deep synth bass drop, but, for the most part, bass through these ’phones is more restrained and refined. This is likely more accurate, but if your preference is for deep bass, the Levinsons might leave you a little thin.
With the No.5909, Mark Levinson has delivered a product that lets you enjoy an audiophile experience on the go — either with or without a cord. With terrific ANC, a massive battery life, fantastic build quality, and superlative sound quality, these are headphones that you can use and enjoy for years to come.
- High-resolution wireless headphones with digital circuitry compatible with 24-bit/96 kHz processing and acoustic response up to 40 kHz
- Expertly tuned 40mm Beryllium-coated drivers acoustically optimized to the Harman Target Curve
- Bluetooth 5.1 with LDAC, AAC, and aptX Adaptive
- Adaptive Active Noise canceling with three modes and two Awareness modes
- Four-microphone voice array with Smart Wind Adaption
- Up to 34 hours battery life (30 hours with ANC enabled); up to 6 hours playtime with 15-minute quick charge
- Mark Levinson Headphone app available for iOS and Android
- Available in three colors: Pearl Black, Ice Pewter, Radiant Red
Dimensions: 8.1 x 7.9 x 2.6-inches (WxHxD)
Weight: 340/12 grams/ounces