While almost double the price of most Wireless ANC headphones that I’ve previously reviewed, there is no denying the premium sound quality, noise-cancellation performance, and absolute comfort that the Mark Levinson No. 5909 headphones bring to the table.
Mark Levinson No. 5909 Wireless Noise Canceling Bluetooth Headphones
- The headphone sound signature is tuned to follow the HARMAN curve.
- Overall sound quality is very balanced, with an appealing level of bass to suit most music.
- Noise Cancellation performance is very effective without too much discomfort to the ear drums.
- Comfort is best in class.
- How much of a premium are you paying for the name?
Headphones are one of those audio product categories that show no sign of contraction, streamlining, or slowing down even in the slightest. This is particularly true in the premium headphone segment where it seems every time I blink, a new headphone with an eye-watering list price is released. A really fine set of headphones these days is as much of a status symbol as a premium automatic wristwatch.
For its entrance into this contentious category, HARMAN has leveraged the name and design language of its most premium brand, Mark Levinson. In the new No.5909, the company created not an esoteric audiophile corded headphone (that move might be expected given the brand) but instead an elite set of Active Noise Cancelling headphones that scream “Business Class” all over. Wireless ANC headphones are a whole other busy headphone subcategory and there is a ton of action happening at the $499.00 price level and below. At $999.00 the Mark Levinson No.5909 land at the very top end of the spectrum. When they were originally announced, I confess to a certain level of skepticism over what they could bring to the table (besides aesthetics) that wasn’t already there. At that price point, they need to deliver a premium experience on every level. Do they? Yes, very much so!
Circumaural, closed-back, active noise cancellation Bluetooth headphones.
40mm dynamic drivers with Beryllium-coated diaphragms.
Frequency Response (passive):
10 Hz – 40 kHz (manufacturer).
Frequency Response (active):
20 Hz – 20 kHz (manufacturer).
97dB (SPL @1kHz/1mW)
LDAC, aptX, aptX HD, AAC
34 hours (w/BT on), 30 hours (w/BT or AUX in and ANC on).
Dimensions (H x W x D):
202.6mm (7.9″) x 205.4mm (8.1″) x 65.4mm (2.6″)
340g (12 oz)
Black, Pewter, or Red.
Hard shell carrying case, 4 m USB-C to 3.5 mm audio cable, 1.25 m USB-C to 3.5 mm audio cable, 1.25 m USB-C charging cable, USB-C to USB-A adaptor, 3.5 mm to 6.3 mm audio adaptor, Airplane audio adaptor, Microfiber polishing cloth.
mark levinson, 5909, anc, bluetooth, wireless, headphones, noise canceling, headphone reviews, headphone reviews 2022, noise cancelling headphones reviews 2022, reviews 2022
The aesthetics of the Mark Levinson No. 5909 are very classy. Very different from the streamlined, stealth appearance of your typical Sony or Bose offering. The No.5909 looks a little more serious with high-quality plastics and metal used throughout. The headphone frame is made from anodized aluminum and the earcup finish is rendered in automotive-grade metallic paint. The two-piece leather-wrapped headband with real red stitching is particularly sharp.
The leather-covered memory foam earpads completely encircled my ears, sealed well, are supremely comfortable, and can be replaced if necessary. Both clamping force and overall weight are quite reasonable which makes the No.5909 very easy to wear for multiple hours with a surprisingly minimal amount of ear sweats.
From a technical standpoint, the Mark Levinson No.5909 uses 40 mm, dynamic drivers, with Beryllium coated diaphragms. The headphone’s Bluetooth 5.1 system is based on the Qualcomm QCC5124 chipset and will converse with other products over LDAC, aptX, aptX HD, and AAC codecs. The No. 5909 also have been tuned by the sound wizards at HARMAN to accurately track the HARMAN sound preference curve. The available iOS and Android apps allow a choice between 3 different tuning profiles (Neutral, Bass Enhanced, and Bass Attenuated) based on the HARMAN preference curve. I had an email exchange with HARMAN’s Dr. Sean Olive, and he described the headphone tuning thusly;
“From the outset of this project, our number one goal was to tune the ML 5909 as close as possible to the Harman Target Curve, which describes a preferred frequency response of a headphone based on our research. Listening experiments determined the HARMAN target is preferred by 64% of the several hundred listeners we tested. There are two smaller listener segments who prefer the headphone with slightly more or less bass and treble. With that in mind, the ML 5909 provides three bass settings aimed to please each of the three segments. The Neutral setting comes closest to the HARMAN target with Enhanced and Attenuated Bass settings for people who prefer more and less bass, respectively.”
Along with a hard button on the left earcup, the app also controls the level of noise cancellation desired with High, Adaptive, and Low settings. There is also an Awareness setting that allows a choice of either vocal or ambient sounds to pass through easier. The app also provides information such as battery level and allows for the occasional firmware update for the headphones. One of the nice things about Bluetooth 5 is that it allows for backward compatibility and multiple connections to the headphones meaning that while the No.5909 may be paired wirelessly to your laptop for listening, the app is still connected to them too so ANC level and sound preferences can still be adjusted.
The Mark Levinson No.5909 headphones can be enjoyed in a few different ways. One is completely passively with no processing, by using them as a standard wired set of cans. It also works if the headphone’s battery is completely depleted. Next is a wired pure digital connection, USB to USB to a computer, the app will not be functional in this mode. ANC modes can be cycled via the button on the left earcup, and the sound preference will remain what was last selected with the app. Another is Analog wired (like pure passive) but with the electronics active. Again, the app will not be functional in this mode. ANC modes can be cycled via the button on the left earcup, and the sound preference will remain what was last selected with the app. Finally, there is wireless Bluetooth mode. No strings involved and all ANC and sound preference settings are adjustable through the app.
Accessories include a hardshell case, analog audio and USB cables for various connections and charging, a USB-C to USB-A adaptor, a 3.5 mm to 6.3 mm audio adaptor, an airplane audio adaptor, and a microfiber polishing cloth.
For the majority of my listening tests, I paired the Mark Levinson No.5909 headphones up with my iPhone 12 Pro MAX, and my Shanling M0 DAP occasionally connected to the Topping NX4 DSD portable headphone amp. Seeing as how the No.5909 is meant primarily for on-the-go use, I kept most of my listening with that in mind. That being said, I did try them out passively with the Geshelli Labs J2 and A2.5XL stack that is in for review and my reference Benchmark Media Systems stack for some home listening.
I’ll be honest, before I even listened to the Mark Levinson No.5909, I had some initial misgivings about the design, relative to the price. Do not get me wrong, the build quality, materials choice, and all that are very good, and it feels like a definite step above the typical $499.00 and under ANC headphone fare. I guess when someone uses the name Mark Levinson on a product, for me, there are expectations of tank-like, over-the-top, neigh-on-indestructible build quality, and maybe something a little closer to the design DNA of the electronics that we’ve seen over the years. What we have instead is a finely designed and sharp-looking set of executive travel headphones. Then I put them on, and I listened to them. And I lived with them, for a couple of months. Traveled with them on an international plane flight. My initial skepticism of the Mark Levinson No.5909’s bona fides completely, and utterly disappeared. These are, so far, the best sounding, most comfortable, and best performing Active Noise Canceling headphones that I have used so far.
Whatever you may think of the HARMAN preference curve, and the associated research, I find that I generally like the tuning. I previously enjoyed the sound of the Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2 Noire headphones whose tuning was also designed to follow the HARMAN curve, and I was finding the No.5909s to closely mirror that experience. The Mark Levinsons do a good job of naturally blocking out outside noise when you just put them on, the comfy and plush earpads created an excellent seal around my ears. When actively engaged, using the Neutral setting does indeed provide a very appealing and balanced, top to bottom, sonic presentation. I found however that for my taste, I preferred the Enhanced Bass setting. It gave acoustic bass, kick drum, and anything at 100-or-so Hertz and below, that little extra sonic “kick-in-the-pants” I like to hear without any thickness or bloating in the upper bass region.
Using the Mark Levinson No.5909 headphone in wireless Bluetooth mode made for an excellent sounding pairing with both my iPhone 12Pro MAX and my little Shanling M0 DAP. Whenever I’ve listened to music on wireless BT headphones in the past, to varying degrees, I always could tell I was listening to a wireless connection. With the No.5909, it became much harder to tell that difference. A good deal of credit for that is likely due to the BT 5.1 spec and the respective Qualcomm chipset used. I mean quadrupling the range and bandwidth available over the previous BT 4.0 spec has to account for something. In practice, the improvement was very noticeable when using my Shanling DAP. With other BT headphones I’ve paired with it in the past (PSB, DALI, B&W, NAD, and Sony) I would have to keep the little DAP in either my breast pocket or rolled up in my t-shirt sleeve, like a pack of cigarettes, for the wireless connection to remain stable. Try putting it in my pants pocket and I’d immediately get signal breakup and a consistent connection became impossible. I always chalked it up to the Shanling M0’s assumed limited transmission power. However, when using the No. 5909 with it, I was able to keep the little player in my pants pocket and maintain a clear connection with no breakup, even when using LDAC.
While many wireless BT headphones allow you to listen to them passively with a traditional wire connection, they don’t sound at their best while doing it. It’s more of a “last resort” feature that doesn’t leave you without music if the battery runs down. These headphones are typically dependent on their DSP and active electronics to really perform as they should. The No.5909 is also the first pair of wireless ANC headphones I’ve come across that are a pleasure to listen to completely passively. They are legitimately a damn fine-sounding pair of headphones in their own right. Should you happen to burn through the 30-34 hours of active playing time that Mark Levinson No.5909 are rated to provide, your music will not suffer when you resort to digging out the analog wire to plug them in.
When using noise cancellation in general situations, like when in a mall or on the bus, the Low setting was completely sufficient for snuffing out most ambient noise and gave no discomfort to my eardrums even after prolonged use. When on my flights to and from Denmark recently for my visit to DALI speakers, the Adaptive setting did the trick to reduce airplane engine noise to sleep-acceptable levels while only delivering a light level of pressure on my eardrums. I found the High setting to be even more effective at snuffing out all noise, but it felt uncomfortable on my eardrums after just half an hour. The Ambient and Voice Awareness modes work as advertised in allowing either environment sounds or voice announcements to come through the noise cancellation. These features were both useful and effective on that plane flight. An interesting side benefit (at least for me) when listening to music while using ANC was that I noticed even slightly more punch in the bass frequencies over when ANC was off. It wasn’t huge but it was noticeable, and it didn’t throw off the overall balance of sound. Mids and highs still sounded clear and appealing. I even got a chance to answer a couple of phone calls with the No.5909s while walking my dog in the mornings. Call quality and vocal clarity seemed very good in both cases and the persons on the other end seemed to have no problems hearing me.
Thorbjørn Risager and the Black Tornado “Come on in”
When listening to Thorbjørn Risager and the Black Tornado singing “Last Train”, lead singer Risager’s gravelly, weathered voice comes through with exceptional detail. The buzzing of one of the amplifiers that is often relegated to a subtle background detail is easily detectable. When the drums, bass, and guitar come in on the chorus, there is a wonderful sense of weight and impact when that happens listening with the No.5909. Yet, all the instruments remain clear and nicely separated. There is no muddiness in the sound to speak of just a nicely balanced presentation…and a kick-butt slide guitar!
Wes Montgomery “Groove Yard”
Playing “Bock to Bock” by the Montgomery Brothers, the Mark Levinson headphones render an excellent impression of the recording space among the many other details they present. The opening brushwork on drum skins is crystal-clear. Then the acoustic bass comes in and has a nice deep, full sound to the notes. Sometimes with other headphones, the guitar on the left and piano on the right tend to meld together and don’t sound very distinct. With the No.5909, the guitar and piano sounds remain distinct even though they are playing the same notes.
Melody Gardot “My One and Only Thrill”
Turning to some female vocals, “Who Will Comfort Me” by Melody Gardot, her vocals sounded incredibly clear and detailed through these cans. It was very easy to hear the subtleties of her breaths taken between lyrics. Yet the No.5909 also gave Miss, Gardot’s voice the right weight and dimension to her lyrics when called for. The acoustic bass line sounded nice and meaty with good detail in the string plucks. The solo muted trumpet midway through the song had not just the right tonality, but a good deal of dimension to it. That trumpet solo can come off sounding rather flat through some other headphones.
ZZ Top “Tres Hombres”
ZZ Top’s “Precious and Grace” begins with a swampy and dirty-sounding guitar and bass opening that the Mark Levinson headphones absolutely nailed. Dripping with details and a distorted, nasty character as it were. Then guitarist Billy Gibbons’ vocals come in sounding equal parts plaintive and nasty which the headphones also capture, with sound quality and detail in spades. Gibbons’ slide guitar work is also rendered with commensurate precision and care, sounding for all the world like a raw musical buzzsaw. A killer bit of music right there.
When compared to my longtime favorite ANC headphones, the DALI IO6, the Mark Levinson No.5909 surpasses the DALIs with noticeably more bass that still manages to remain detailed. Midrange and treble performance between the two headphones were quite comparable with a slight edge going to the No.5909 in terms of overall transparency. Also, the DALI’s do not sound near as good as the Mark Levinson cans when run completely passively.
Compared to the original Bowers & Wilkins PX7, the Mark Levinson headphones trounce the PX7 when it comes to bass quality and impact. The B&W’s have an unexpected level of spaciousness to their sound that is very appealing, but I still prefer the No.5909’s overall superior transparency, especially in the treble.
Compared to the original PSB M4U8 headphones, the PSBs occasionally had a slight upper bass prominence that the No.5909 did not exhibit. They generally sounded more natural in this region than the PSB. The Mark Levinsons also sounded superior to the PSB when run completely passively.
Compared to the Sony WH-1000XM3, the Mark Levinsons are much more balanced sounding out of the box than the Sony. The Sony headphones need the app-based EQ to bring down the overly hot default bass level. The No.5909 also has the edge on midrange and treble transparency too.
THE MARK LEVINSON No. 5909 WIRELESS NOISE CANCELING BLUETOOTH HEADPHONES sound and feel exceptional, in any manner that you decide to use them. These are the first noise-canceling headphones that I have been able to say that about.
- Best sound from a Wireless BT headphone so far.
- Supremely comfortable.
- Effective ANC.
- With a cord and no power, they still sound fantastic.
- I got nuthin’.
The Mark Levinson No.5909 ended up completely overturning my preconceptions of these headphones being more style than substance. Besides their elite good looks, a serious level of R&D has gone into these cans to not only make them sound exceptional but also to make them almost effortless to use. In a very real sense, they are two headphones in one. The benefits of enhanced range and bandwidth found in the latest Bluetooth 5.1 chipset, meshed with effective ANC performance, selectable bass tuning, and great comfort make them an excellent set of wireless travel headphones. The Beryllium-coated drivers not only deliver the sonic goods when operating wirelessly but they continue to do so when listening completely passively. It’s actually a better-than-enjoyable experience. No longer are you stuck with the sound of “last resort” when the power runs out. I like the passive sound of the Mark Levinson No.5909 better than some more expensive wired headphones out there. It’s that good. Looking at the entirety of what the No.5909 can do, they are certainly worth the price. They are the best of their breed thus far, with no qualifiers. Highly Recommended!