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These headphones cost twice as much as AirPods Max — and we tried them head-to-head


I got the Perl Black version of the No. 5909. It’s also available with a Radiant Red or Ice Pewter trim. 


David Carnoy/CNET

This story is part of CES, where CNET covers the latest news on the most incredible tech coming soon.

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, it had something of an inverse price-to-sales ratio: The more expensive models sold better than the 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.

Read more: Best noise-canceling headphones for 2022

The No. 5909 are Mark Levinson’s first headphones and yes, they’re expensive at $999 (£1,000, approximately AU$1385). 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 City, 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. 

The headphones have physical control buttons and 4-microphone technology for voice calls.


David Carnoy/CNET

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 up to 30 hours with noise canceling on at moderate volume levels, and they appear to have multipoint Bluetooth pairing (so you can pair them to two devices simultaneously), but I’m still awaiting confirmation of that.

While they have 4-microphone technology for voice calls instead of 6-microphone technology, I tested them on the noisy streets of New York City 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).

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The No. 5909 in Radiant Red.


Mark Levinson

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.)  

mark-levinson-no-5909-headphones-app

You can tweak the bass settings in the companion app.


David Carnoy/CNET

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 3 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).

mark-levinson-no-5909-headphones-ldac

Streaming on a Google Pixel 4 XL with LDAC enabled.


David Carnoy/CNET

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.

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The headphones fold flat to fit in their carrying case.


David Carnoy/CNET

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

  • Hi-Res Audio certified:
    • LDAC audio codec
    • Digital circuitry compatible with 24-bit/96kHz processing
    • Acoustic response up to 40kHz
  • Expertly tuned 40 mm Beryllium coated drivers acoustically optimized to the Harman Curve
  • Bluetooth 5.1 with LDAC, AAC and aptX Adaptive technologies
  • Adaptive Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) 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
  • Cables (audio):
    • 4 m USB-C to 3.5 mm audio cable
    • 1.25 m USB-C to 3.5 mm audio cable
  • Cables (power):
    • 1.25 m USB-C charging cable
  • Adapters:
    • USB-C to USB-A adaptor
    • 3.5 mm to 6.3 mm audio adaptor
    • Airplane audio adaptor
  • Available colors include Pearl Black, Ice Pewter, Radiant Red



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