I’ve spent the last two and a half years using Linear Tube Audio’s microZOTL MZ3 as my reference preamplifier. When the microZOTL Level 2 came out, I asked Nicholas Tolson, LTA’s Director of Sales and Marketing, to send me the new version so that I could compare it to the MZ3. The Level 2 sounds similar to the MZ3 in many ways, but I’m not going to cover all of them in this review. I would recommend that you take a look back at my MZ3 review here for a better idea of how the MZ3 sounds.
Oh, and if you own the MZ3, you may be asking the same question I asked when I heard about the new model. While LTA can update the original version of the preamplifier for about $1,600, the folks at LTA say there isn’t enough room in the MZ3 to update it to the new Level 2. Even so, I wanted to hear the differences between the MZ3 and the Level 2.
Description of the Level 2
There are several functional differences between the new Level 2 preamplifier and the MZ3. As pictured above, the faceplate has two additional inputs, one of which is balanced. The balance is a very significant difference, which I will explain later. There is also a tape in and out. Finally, and not to be overlooked, the power supply is built into the sleeker and larger chassis designed and built by Fern and Roby. There are also more adjustments on the menu.
What Else is New in the Level 2?
There’s a very good video here on the LTA website that describes this new model. In this video by My Audio Phrenia, Mark Schneider, the founder of LTA, describes the new preamp better than I ever could. The LTA website also lists the following changes:
Level 2 Upgrades
- Preamp output cap upgrades: The headphone and the preamp outputs are now separated and different types of output, optimized for each output were installed. The preamp cap has been upgraded to a premium Clarity CMR.
- Power supply cap upgrades: Mundorf Mlytic AG capacitors replaced the power supply caps and power storage caps on the audio board. This change increased the total amount of storage by 22,000uF.
System Used for this Review
When I reviewed the MZ3 I was still spinning vinyl. I have shared with you that I no longer have enough vision to do so comfortably. The result is that I now have a somewhat different review system. For this review, I used the new Level 2 with two amps, the Butler Audio MONAD monoblocks, and the First Watt SIT 3. You can see the rest of my current review system here.
So How Does the Level 2 Sound?
Well, my good buddy, Duke, and I wanted to find the answer to this question. My first impression was that the Level 2 sounds very similar to my MZ3 yet better. Like all of David Berning’s ZOTL Class A incarnations that I have heard, this preamp let me hear the “aliveness” that lives in the recording. There are several reasons for this. And yes, the Level 2 has even better dynamics than its predecessor.
The Level 2 is also so quiet that I could hear everything. I was especially able to tell how quiet this preamp was when I paired it with the First Watt SIT 3. With the LTA preamp and the First Watt SIT 3 driving my DeVore Super Nine speakers, I had to turn the volume control up quite a bit more than normal. In fact, with the lowest mastered DSD recordings, I had to turn the volume almost completely up. Still, the preamp produced no noise at all. This was amazing.
Because the Level 2 produces no noise, I could hear all of the detail and the spatial information in the recording. However, hearing so much detail and spatial information does not come at the cost of tonality. The result was that the music involved me even more emotionally. To me, the most significant differences between the Level 2 and the MZ3 are increases in big tone sounds, better timbre, and better harmonics.
Using the Balanced Input
In my system, the most significant difference I heard by far was when I placed an Audience FrontRow balanced interconnect cable between the Level 2 and my PS Audio DirectStream DAC. The result was a bigger and more fleshed-out sound that flooded my room with real music. All that I said above about tonality was even more pronounced using the balanced cable. The soundstage was also wider and deeper and both instruments and vocals occupied a more realistic and three-dimensional space. The bottom and top-end of the frequency range were also more extended.
LTA uses transformers to provide the balanced inputs on the Level 2 preamp. These balanced inputs enabled me to hear the significant changes in the Level 2. While the balanced inputs an optional upgrade, they are well worth the cost, and I would recommend them.
Without the balanced input upgrade, the Level 2, while significantly improved, does not raise the bar to the next level. With the balanced input, the Level 2 sounded like a completely new and much-improved preamp that definitely raised the bar to the next level. I highly recommend the Level 2 upgrade.
Here’s one last comment. After I finished listening and taking notes on the sound of the Level 2, I updated the software on my PS Audio DirectStream DAC to their Sunlight upgrade. It was so easy for me to hear the changes this upgrade made to my DAC. The Level 2 preamp enabled me to hear every detail and difference.