Mark Levinson No5909 - Official Thread

This is the official thread for the Mark Levinson No5909 ANC headphones:

A lot of folks have been asking for impressions and measurements of these, so I’ll provide that here.

Because the 5909 is a wireless ANC headphone, these results are subject to change depending on any firmware updates that may be applied. For example, when they initially sent over a sample, the results were meaningfully different in the active mode than after the latest firmware update, which is significantly better. So the result may change again should they feel the need to release another firmware update. In any case, as of the latest firmware up to Feb 4th 2022, the following are my findings.

Measurements done on the GRAS 43AG-7 with KB5000 Anthropometric Pinnae.

Mark Levinson No5909 Frequency Response:

Curiously, the ambient mode and the passive mode didn’t seem to show much difference, but I think that’s also because I’m in a generally quiet environment. This might show a different result for those who are in louder spaces.

Now there is something to note - these measurement systems aren’t rated for accuracy above 10khz, but they’re also not random up there either, meaning that there does actually seem to be a difference in the upper treble between active and passive.

In any case, the 5909 is a headphone that to me is as impressive as it is disappointing, because it is oh so close to being that highly sought after perfect ANC headphone that we’re all hoping for. Given that the 5909 is from a Harman company, it follows the Harman target really quite well… for the most part.

It’s tuning is absolutely outstanding for 90% of its frequency response, and then particularly unpleasant for the last 10% of it - at least in ANC mode. The passive mode I’d argue is actually quite an impressive achievement, even if it might appeal more to older listeners who would appreciate the extra upper treble shimmer (thinking of the research that shows a preference for more treble in that demographic).

Despite the 5909’s excellent tuning for the majority of its frequency response, that 10khz peak in active mode is particularly intense. This is also where I don’t know if Harman’s predictive method is fine-grained enough to account for these high Q (narrow) deviations, and in my view, certain types of deviations are significantly worse than others. At the same time, I also think it’s possible for certain deviations to improve the result given other existing deviations.

But in this case, that peak is just too much, and it gives this kind of tizzy borderline sibilant presentation, as it emphasizes the upper edge of consonant tones in vocals. Listening to Patricia Barber’s Smash was particularly unbearable for me for example (brilliant track, but also good for testing sibilance issues). Again, older listeners might not have as much of an issue with this as I did.

In many ways though, this is still one of the best tuned ANC headphones available, and so for me the dealbreakers aren’t really in the 5909’s frequency response. Again, what they achieved for a passive result is truly impressive, and makes for a really solid foundation.

For the subjective experience, the 5909 is generally good. There’s no blunting for trailing ends of tones, with good clarity for the finer little nuances in the mix. In my view, there’s still some distance between this and high end wired headphones, but the gap is clearly getting smaller. A good comparable would be with the Sennheiser Momentum 3 for its subjective qualities, meaning that yes… it’s actually decently detailed. Is it $700 more detailed than the Momentum 3? absolutely not. But the majority of its frequency response is clearly better.

Considerations
The bigger issues are when it comes to usability. I expect this to be unique to each individual for how much you care about these things, and use case will highly determine how much. But personally, three things in particular make this something I would not be able to use… for the moment.

  1. There’s currently no custom EQ function in the app. There are two additional presets that you can choose from, but they don’t focus on the things that I would want to improve. In general the app is extremely limited. Contrast this with the AKG N700NCM2’s app, which has a fully customizable EQ option where you can adjust literally any frequency you want - and this headphone costs only a fraction of the 5909. It’s really unfortunate that this type of system wasn’t used for the 5909, as it would allow users to fix that upper treble zing. Hopefully they can add this in the future. If they do, I will be re-evaluating the 5909, because it’s so darn close to sounding great.

  2. I wasn’t able to connect to multiple devices at the same time. This is a feature I think we should expect with ANC headphones at this point. Additionally, there are some bugs and connectivity issues at the moment. After pairing it with my computer, for some reason I wasn’t able to use it with my phone again. It kept saying “connection timed out”, even though it was no longer paired to that other device. Even after restarting both the headphones and my phone, it still wouldn’t connect. The next day, it was able to connect just fine again, so no idea what’s going on there. For reference, I’m using a OnePlus 7t. This could be just an issue with my particular device, but I’ve never had that problem with other wireless headphones. This is something I expect them to iron out.

  3. There’s noticeable background hiss in ANC mode. This kind of defeats the purpose of an ANC headphone for me. I think for those who are using the 5909 for long plane rides, you won’t notice it, but in an office environment, it’s highly likely you will. This also might not be as much of a dealbreaker for some, since when music is playing, that noise floor isn’t as noticeable. But for me it was really annoying. I think largely because the background hiss and noise was stronger in the left channel than the right channel. Again, I don’t know if they can fix this with a firmware update, but I truly hope they can. I’m reminded of the Razer Opus a bit with this in that it’s tuned well but suffers from noise floor issues, kind of defeating the point for my use case.

App Screenshots:

Attenuated bass

Enhanced bass

Neutral

ANC Modes

Additional Notes

  • ANC Quality - It’s very good. My testing with this was purely experiential, so take this with a judicious helping of salt. In my comparisons, it had similar performance to the other well-performing ANC headphones like the Sony XM4, Razer Opus, Airpods Max, and better than headphones like the AKG N700NCM2. I expect there will be some differences with further testing in different environments, but I haven’t had the chance to take these on a plane yet or transit, which would be a more meaningful test. These also have decent passive isolation, which likely helps with that as well.

  • Comfort - The top headband is a bit too thin I think, as it did create a bit of a hot spot up top for me. The 5909 isn’t the lightest headphone, and so I think it would have been better to distribute the weight across a wider surface up top. Thankfully, there is cup swivel, so there are no issues with too much clamp pressure in certain places on the side of the head.

  • Build Quality - It’s generally good, with sturdy feeling materials and a nice arm extension system that feels satisfying to use. The top leather also feels good in the hand, and the yokes and cups aren’t that kind of rickety plastic that you get in lower end headphones.

  • Design - I have some reservations about the silver grille piece, as it looks a bit gaudy to me and just not that well integrated with the rest of the cup. In general this headphone has an aesthetic that to me doesn’t quite fit with the intended use, as it’s almost a bit ‘gamery’. But that stuff is all purely subjective, maybe it’s right for someone else.

  • Functions - Very straightforward and simple features. There’s a button for power, and you hold that to put it into pairing mode. Then above that there’s an ANC button that cycles through passive, active and ambient modes. On the other side you’ve got volume buttons and a USB-C port.

If anyone else has tried out this headphone, let me know what you think, and if you’d have any additional commentary on use case, because as I mentioned my situation might be different from yours.

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I’d be really interested to see a head to head comparison with the AKG N700nc Mk2. Despite the massive price difference, it seems that the n700nc is looking to be the thing to beat in terms of sound quality, and may serve as a good point of comparison as to where the 5909 stands. Anyways, insightful commentary as always.

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