I was initially struck by the Mambo's full and tonally lush midrange. The sonic presentation offered many of the positive traits that I've come to associate with tubes; smoothness, timbral richness and enhanced physical presence or image density. While it's not the most transparent amp I've heard to date, the Mambo's midrange and treble offered a beguiling liquidity that suited the human voice exceedingly well. I sifted through all sorts of vocal discs, amongst them Ella, Frank, Dino and Dusty to name a few. Bass was well extended but overall, I found bottom end performance to be good rather than great. It was a little more flaccid and devoid in punch than I am accustomed to.

A recent acquisition of mine is a terrific choral recording of orchestral and instrumental transcriptions performed by Accentus [Naïve V 4947]. Just listen to the gorgeous vocal reworking of Mahler's "Adagietto" from his 5th Symphony. I guarantee you will melt in your seat. Via the Mambo, the massed voices had a full, warm and grain-free smoothness and palpability that were intoxicating and certainly suggested the influence of glowing glass. The soundstage was wide and deep, with a decent rendition of space and air around the performers.

Alas, the party ended after prolonged listening and especially when I tried more rhythmically complex and agitated material. Valery Gergiev's impulsively conducted Rite of Spring [Philips 468 025-2] is terrifically recorded with all-tube equipment and displayed all the characteristics I mentioned above - yet it sounded ponderous and dynamically restrained. The relentless power and drive of this violent score was robbed of its incisiveness and slam. Leading edges of drum attacks were rounded off whereas during the "Dance of the Earth" and concluding "Sacrificial Dance", I can almost feel the percussive pounding in my chest with my Audio Zone Amp-1.

Joan Sutherland's The Art of the Prima Donna [Decca 467 115-2[ features bleeding chunks from a wide variety of operas. This is an excellent example of wonderful music unfortunately let down by a sometimes strident, bright and hard recording. Considering its age, I wasn't expecting perfect sonics. I bought it for the performances. Still, on just about every amp I've had, I inevitably tire of these limitations sooner than later. With the Mambo, I could zero in on Sutherland's vocal firework displays with little chance of discomfort setting in. The downside was a lack of transient attack and propulsive motion that became increasingly bothersome as listening progressed.

Rock recordings fared no better. On AC/DC's Back In Black [Epic EK 80207- oh the stories I could tell of what transpired while listening to this album in my youth], the Young brothers were obviously suffering from a truly malignant hangover because the swaggering, testosterone and liquor-fueled tracks "Shoot To Thrill" and "You Shook Me All Night Long" were rendered completely lackluster and lethargic. Guitars lacked bite and the drum kit sounded as if a blanket was thrown over it. Not a good sign.

Jesse Cook's Flamenco guitar on Nomad [Virgin 72435-93155-2-2], while three-dimensional and physically present, lost its sharp rapid-fire attack and sting. The body of each reproduced note and most of the following decay were there but the leading edge was veiled. Timing and musical flow became sluggish. My mind started to wander. I had difficulty becoming involved. I had to struggle to hear musical details. I couldn't quite make out the subtle little dynamic fluctuations that should separate the performers. Ultimately, it was a relief to swap the Mambo for my Bryston B60 or better yet, the Audio Zone AMP-1. While neither piece offered the lovely full-bodied harmonic richness of the Mambo, each demonstrated significantly more resolved and vibrant leading edge snap and foot-tapping incisiveness.

The AMP-1 -- and to a lesser extant the B60 -- had an uncanny ability to let me hear 'around corners' and extract far more detail without throwing it in my face to become overly analytical. Interestingly, the Manley Stingray currently in for review offers the glowing richness of the Mambo but allies it to a far more invigorating rhythmic flow and greater transparency. Even the $1,200 Vasant_K GA-120S was considerably more musical and involving than the Mambo.

I wasn't too impressed with the upsampling DAC either. In my opinion, the jury's still out on the so-called benefits of upsampling. I have yet to hear a decent implementation of this technology. I am also suspicious of players and DACs that don't allow the user to switch this feature off. I currently have yet another upsampling CD player for review and I really don't know what all the fuss is about. This technology seems more like a clever marketing ploy than the so-called magic bullet many claim. I'll have a lot more to say on upsampling in the coming months. With the Mambo and in every instance, I preferred my Rotel performing the number crunching over the Music Hall's onboard DAC. However, I suspect many would prefer it over the converters offered in budget digital players as found at your local Best Buys or Circuit City.

For me, the Level-2 Mambo never completely got out of the way of the music and was ultimately a disappointment. This was frustrating. You see, the Mambo is a solidly well-built amp. Obviously a good deal of work went into crafting it in the first place, then modifying it. As I didn't have a stock unit handy, I couldn't determine if the mod or the basic design were responsible for my impressions. As I've said in my bio, music evokes an emotional response from me. The best components all but vanish, thus allowing me greater insight into the artistic intent of the musicians in whatever musical genre strikes my fancy. I did not get that emotional connection with the Mambo in my system. If it seems I'm being hard on the Level-2 Mambo, there are plenty of amps I've declined reviewing. The fact that this one got written up suggests worthwhile attributes that will appeal to listeners who fancy a different presentation than I do. To wit, if you have a penchant for vocals, Opera, lounge music, the larger Diana Krall/Norah Jones genre, string quartets and generally prefer background listening that doesn't distract from what you're doing; then the Level-2 Mambo could be your ticket to heaven.

This literally hot'n'heavy silver champ unquestionably offers a very voluptuous and liquid midrange without so much as a hint of grain. In different contexts, these distinct qualities could well outweigh what to these ears seemed like leading-edge sluggishness and a parallel overall opacity. As always, remember that one fella's perfect warmth is another's sauna; that one writer's thrill becomes another listener's restlessness. Think of the modified Mambo in terms of 'classic tube sound' and you'll have pegged its overriding traits. Whether those are what your system needs is for you to decide.
Publisher's comment:
Upon reading this review pre-publication to check for facts, Walter Liederman of Underwood HiFi requested that we drop off the Mambo at Chris Johnson's for a once-over to insure that the unit was working properly. Chris just gave it a clean bill of health. This makes us comfortable to go forward with the review's publication. However, as in all instances where one of our writers expresses suspicion that he perhaps wasn't able to hear a component in its best light, we have offered the manufacturer a second opportunity to let another writer with different ancillaries, different room and different listener bias take a crack. As Walter explained, he very successfully sells the Mambo to people who own slightly forward or lean speakers and/or suffer the same effects from their rooms. John Potis is currently reviewing the Third Rethms and has made himself available to pen a second opinion on the Mambo. Stay tuned for a follow-up of this very review unit.

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