Hugely expensive, hugely talented – but, thankfully, not physically huge. The No. 5909 headphones go quite a long way to justifying the asking price.
- Rigorous yet easy-going sound
- Detail and nuance to spare
- Nice materials, expertly assembled
- Expensive and then some
- Can be bettered for noise-cancellation
- Abbreviated control app
- UKRRP: £999
- USARRP: $999
- EuropeRRP: €1000
- CanadaRRP: CA$1299
- AustraliaRRP: AU$1699
- BluetoothBluetooth 5.1 with aptX Adaptive and LDAC support
- Battery34 hours of battery life
- Audio40mm beryllium-coated dynamic drivers
The good news is that this product offers the most affordable route into owning a piece of equipment from the revered Mark Levinson brand. The bad news is that it’s a pair of wireless headphones costing well in excess of what most people consider ‘premium’.
The cynics among us may well have already written off the No. 5909 as an exercise in sticking an upmarket logo on a product and adjusting the price accordingly. But the rest of us should read on – if for no other reason than to find out if a grand for a pair of wireless headphones can be even remotely justified…
The Mark Levinson No. 5909 wireless active noise-cancelling headphones are on sale now, and in the UK will require you to part with £999 to secure a pair. In the US they’re a (slightly) more acceptable $999. Australian pricing is yet to be confirmed but, if exchange rates are anything to go by, they’ll be in the region of AU$1799 – which is a very exclusive region indeed.
It hardly needs emphasising that this sort of money will buy you four pairs of Sony WH-1000XM4, three pairs of Bowers & Wilkins PX7, or a couple of pairs of Bang & Olufsen HX. Or, more likely, one pair of one or another of them – and with a stack of money left over. These are but three examples of well-regarded, high-performance wireless over-ear active noise-cancellers that don’t cost anything like this sort of money – and there’s plenty more where they came from.
In other words, the No. 5909 are going to have to be supernaturally talented if they’re to justify the asking price.
- Premium materials, expertly deployed
- Reasonably compact by high-end headphone standards
- Is it wrong to be impressed by a cable?
You can’t fool with the design of over-ear headphones, as Mark Levinson recognises. So what’s the best way to help the perceived value of a product that looks, fundamentally, just the same as alternatives costing a quarter of the price? The answer in this instance seems to be to ensure the materials, build quality and finish are as impressive as possible.
So the No. 5909 are a winning combination of comfy memory foam, aromatic leather and anodised aluminium. They’re compact, comfortable to wear for hours on end, put together flawlessly, and feel as good as they look. In addition, the earpads are replaceable, which makes these headphones even more of a long-term proposition than the price already demands.
They live in an equally tactile travel-case, and are supplied with three cables that, thanks to their braiding and expensive-looking terminations, seem almost as upmarket as the headphones they accompany. Two lengths of 3.5mm to USB-C (1.25m and 4m) are provided, along with a USB-C to USB-C charging cable too.
- Extensive Bluetooth codec support
- Reasonable battery life
- Ample control options
The No. 5909 use Bluetooth 5.1 with SBC, AAC, LDAC and aptX Adaptive codec support, which should be ample for even the most demanding user. Once streamed aboard, sound is delivered by a pair of beryllium-coated 40mm full-range dynamic drivers.
Mark Levinson, as a Harman company, has access to the minds – and ears – that created the Harman curve, which is a representation of the sort of sound supposedly preferred by most of the people most of the time. Usually this sort of marketing-speak suggests nothing more than endless focus groups and a result that’s inherently compromised; but in this instance, the goal is to reach an ideal.
The headphones charge via USB-C and can function for six hours or so following just a 15-minute power-blast. Brim them, though, and you should be good for between 30 hours with active noise-cancellation switch on, and 34 hours with it off.
You can specify the sort of noise-cancellation you’d like (‘off’, ‘on’ or ‘awareness’) in the Mark Levinson Headphones app (free for iOS and Android), and then choose between ‘low’, ‘high’ and ‘adaptive’ for noise-cancelling, and ‘ambient’ or ‘voice pass’ for awareness. The app also lets you select between three Levinson-approved EQ settings (or ‘bass contours’), and decide how long the headphones will remain powered up when they’re not playing. That’s about your lot – so while the app is clean, stable and useful as far as it goes, it doesn’t really go all that far.
Voice-control is an option, though, and there are some physical controls split between the earcups. On the right there’s the familiar three-button strip handling ‘volume up/down’, ‘skip forwards/backwards’, ‘play/pause’, ‘answer/end call’ and ‘summon voice-assistant’. On the left, meanwhile, you can choose between your ANC and your ‘awareness’ settings – and there’s also access to a ‘power on/off/Bluetooth pairing’ control.
- Eloquent, organised and engaging sound
- Great dynamics and detail retrieval
- Fairly ordinary noise-cancelling
So far, this review has been rather grudging in its acceptance of the No. 5909 as a properly premium item, and has been keeping its powder dry ready to unleash a volley of invective regarding ‘value for money’ and ‘credulous lottery-winners’.
Well, that’s all going to have to wait for another day. Because while the level of ‘value for money’ the Mark Levinson No. 5909 headphones represent remains a live question, what’s not up for debate is their level of performance. These are properly talented headphones of the sort that will steal your time away.
Detail is as good a place as any to start: the No. 5909 are a remarkably detailed listen, able to extract the most minor, most transient information from the edges or the depths of a recording – and without being in any way analytical or uptight about it. If the minor harmonic variations in an instrument intrigue you, or the most fleeting mouth-sounds as a singer prepares to deliver the next line, the Mark Levinson will keep you listening – and entertained – for hours on end.
Rhythm, too, is a strong point. The No. 5909 have no problem expressing even the trickiest, most club-footed rhythms with absolute certainty – and again, they don’t make (no pun intended) a song and dance about it. They simply roll along with a sort of effortlessness that’s hard to come by.
And in every other meaningful respect, too, these Mark Levinson headphones are pretty accomplished. They describe low frequencies with real extension and variation, control attack and decay properly, and establish deep and stable foundations for the rest of the frequency range to build upon. At the opposite end, they demonstrate extremely well-judged bite and shine – there’s no rolling off at the top end in the name of ‘good taste’. Instead, they’re as bright and crunchy as the music demands, but never threaten to become coarse or hard, even at volume.
However, it’s in the mid-range that these headphones really confirm their high-end credentials. They handle a singer with complete sympathy, allowing all of the toil, emotion and character full expression. So, when they’re playing a Tidal stream of Ike & Tina Turner’s River Deep – Mountain High, the expression they give the vocal is literally and consistently hair-raising. This is a properly vintage recording, delivered to your ears from many decades away – but the immediacy and authenticity with which the No. 5909 serve it up makes it sound as fresh and crisp as an apple.
The soundstage here is reasonably expansive, rigorously organised and simplicity itself to follow. Dynamic potency – both where big volume shifts and minor, transient variations are concerned – is never in doubt. Even when asked to properly rough it with a compressed file of Slaughter & The Dogs’ Cranked Up Really High, the Mark Levinson are willing and not in any way judgmental.
Noise-cancellation is a fractionally more qualified success. Nobody’s expecting the Business Class lounge to be as raucous as the departure gate, of course, but even so the No. 5909 can’t quite deal with everything going on around you, if ‘everything’ turns out to be ‘quite a lot’.
It follows that the drone of an aircraft – or the drone of its passengers – isn’t banished as completely as by some other (inevitably much more affordable) alternatives. Which isn’t to say these headphones aren’t efficient in this regard. And, in all honesty, it’s hard to quantify the sort of noise-cancellation £1K ought to buy – but they can be bettered.
Should you buy it?
You take portable listening seriously Connected to an equally talented source player, these headphones sing.
You want silence Noise-cancellation is ‘very good’ rather than ‘great’
By every sensible metric, the No. 5909 should be a bauble with which to show off wealth. But these are no mere accessory – they’re a very high-achieving pair of headphones. And if you’re fortunate enough to be able to append this sort of money, they demand your full consideration
How we test
We test every headphones we review thoroughly over an extended period of time. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever, accept money to review a product.
Find out more about how we test in our ethics policy.
Tested for more than a week
Tested with a range of music
Tested with real world use
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Yes they do. They support LDAC, the digital circuitry in the headphones is compatible with 24-bit/96kHz processing, while the frequency range of the headphones (at least wired) can accept 40kHz, which is considered to be hi-res.