We tried the $1,000 Mark Levinson headphones that were just announced at CES
The No. 5909 are among the most expensive wireless headphones ever created. So how good are they?
David CarnoyExecutive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
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A few months back I had a conversation with Master & Dynamic founder and CEO Jonathan Levine about the price of his company's headphones. Master & Dynamic makes premium wireless headphones that generally cost between $300 and $500. I said it would be nice if the company had a more affordable option. He remarked that they'd tried that. The company priced its MW07 Go earbuds at less than $200 but they hadn't sold that well. In fact, he said, Master & Dynamic had something of an inverse price-to-sales ratio: Its more expensive models sold better than its less expensive models.
I thought about that conversation as I was trying out the new Mark Levinson No. 5909 wireless noise-canceling headphones announced at CES 2022. An even more premium audio brand than Master & Dynamic, Mark Levinson, long owned by Harman (now a Samsung subsidiary), is known for its high-end amps, preamps and turntables that also have numbers for names.
The No. 5909 are Mark Levinson's first headphones and yes, they're expensive at $999 (£1,000, which is approximately AU$1,880). However, judging from my conversation with Master & Dynamic's Levine and the number of AirPods Max models I see on people's heads in the streets of New York, there are plenty of folks who don't mind dropping big money on a set of cans. The fact that the No. 5909's cost about double what the AirPods Max cost could very well make them more desirable to a certain class of buyers.
Not surprisingly, the No. 5909 are really good headphones. They have a sturdy design without managing to feel hefty on your head (read: they're substantial but not too heavy) and they're comfortable to wear over long periods thanks to their nicely padded (and replaceable) leather-covered earcups and headband. They fold flat but not up, and are similar in some ways to the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 in that they have an aluminum frame and seem hard to break.
Features-wise, most of what you'd expect in a pair of premium wireless headphones is here: Strong, effective noise canceling, a transparency mode that lets ambient sound in (I thought it sounded pretty natural) and sensors that automatically pause and resume your music when you take the headphones off and replace them on your ears, respectively. Battery life is rated at a healthy 30 hours with noise-canceling on, and they appear to have multipoint Bluetooth pairing (so you can pair them to 2 devices simultaneously), but I'm awaiting confirmation of that.
While they have four-microphone technology for voice calls instead of six, I tested them on the noisy streets of New York and callers said my voice sounded clearer compared to the AirPods Max, and the headphones did a good job muffling background noise. They were superior to the AirPods Max for voice calls. That said, I do think the AirPods Max's noise-canceling is superior overall. And the AirPods Max feature Apple's spatial audio virtual surround sound with head tracking that I find enhances my movie and TV watching experience (I'm less enamored with it when it comes to music listening).
As for sound, it's a fairly even battle if you're streaming wirelessly from an iPhone. The No. 5909 are high-res certified with support for Sony's LDAC and Qualcomm's AptX Adaptive codecs that allow for near-lossless streaming over Bluetooth. Apple's iPhones and iPads don't support those codecs while certain Android devices do. Using the No. 5909 headphones over Bluetooth on my iPhone 13 Pro, it sounded a tad more natural and refined than the AirPods Max (the No. 5909 had a touch more "pure" and accurate sound).
I did notice a difference when I paired the No. 5909 to my Google Pixel 4 XL, which has support for LDAC (you can turn on "HD Audio: LDAC" in the settings next to the headphones in the Bluetooth menu so you know you're actually getting LDAC). I use the Qobuz audio streaming service that offers high-res streaming, and the sound while listening to the No. 5909 on the Pixel 4 XL was noticeably better. Overall, the sound had a little more depth and texture, and there's a touch more sparkle, definition and openness. (The AirPods Max add similar depth when you use them in wired mode.)
The press release for the headphones talks about how the headphones are optimized for the Harman Curve, which is a way of describing how the headphones have been tuned to a balanced sound profile with the option to boost the bass or "attenuate" it in the companion app. The EQ consists of three bass "countour" settings -- neutral, enhanced and attenuated. That's it, which I liked.
Headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM4 that also have support for LDAC streaming over Bluetooth aren't a huge step behind the No. 5909. But the No. 5909 definitely sound better with superior overall clarity, definition and accuracy (they are clearly the more articulate headphone). It's easily one of the best-sounding Bluetooth headphones if you have the right device and streaming service (services such as Tidal offer "high-resolution" streaming but I prefer Qobuz).
But Bluetooth is Bluetooth, and the truth is if you're really serious about your music listening, you're going to do it with a set of wired headphones and not bother with wireless. Mark Levinson is accommodating in that regard. You get a couple of sets of cables that allow you to plug into a headphone jack (you get one long and one shorter USB-C to 3.5mm cable) and you can store all the cables, including the USB-C charging cable, in a compartment in the headphone's case.
Going wired, you'll get another slight bump in sound quality, especially when you get into true lossless music, and the headphones sound excellent in wired mode. However, I think there are plenty of less expensive wired headphones that measure up pretty well to the No. 5909. For instance, I plugged in a set of $300 Beyerdynamic DT 700 Pro X "studio" headphones for comparison and ended up finding the two headphones almost equally appealing with only a slight edge to the No. 5909 (I found them slightly warmer).
Anyway, the No. 5909 are great wireless headphones and excellent headphones overall. I liked them a lot, but then again, I didn't have to pay $1,000 for them.
I'll still need to use them for another week or so before I post my full review with a rating, but in the meantime here's a look at the headphones' key specs.
Mark Levinson No. 5909 features, per Harman
Expertly tuned 40mm beryllium-coated drivers acoustically optimized to the Harman Curve
Bluetooth 5.1 with LDAC, AAC and aptX Adaptive technologies
Adaptive active noise cancellation with three modes
Ambient Aware mode for situational awareness while on the go
Four-microphone voice array with Smart Wind Adaption
Up to 34 hours battery life; 30 hours playtime with ANC enabled
Up to 6 hours playtime with 15-minute quick charge
Hard shell carrying case
Available colors: pearl black, ice pewter, radiant red
Hi-Res Audio certified:
LDAC audio codec
Digital circuitry compatible with 24-bit/96kHz processing