Musician and Vocalist Artist Interviews

Mark Levinson: For the Love of Music - Part 1

Audiophiles the world over know the name Mark Levinson. For some, it's one of Harman International's high-end brands. But long before that, it was—and still is—the name of a multitalented man with an unswerving vision of what audio recording and reproduction can and should be.

Now living in Europe and the director of Swiss audio company Daniel Hertz, Levinson travels the world capturing and mastering musical performances and developing high-performance audio products to reproduce those and other recordings as faithfully as possible. I caught up with him in Los Angeles, California, where we spent several hours discussing a wide range of audio-related topics.

Beginnings

Levinson's journey into the world of audio began as a musician. "I'm a jazz musician at heart. I play flugelhorn, double bass, and the Indian sarod, and I've had the privilege of playing with many jazz greats and studying Indian music with Ali Akbar Khan. I discovered that being a musician at that level was invaluable to being in the audio world. If you don't know what music is, how can you reproduce it?"

In particular, Levinson found that studying Indian music was instrumental in forming his attitudes about audio. "Indian music comes from a very devotional place. It teaches you values, respect for tradition, and attention to detail. In many ways, it was good preparation for the field of work I ended up in, because that's what is really needed in the audio industry."

He began his audio career in the early 1970s. "I was hired to do some recording for a film about Joan Baez; it was my job to spec the equipment. I learned that the only portable mixer at the time was made by Nagra, but it clipped very easily. We had Neumann condenser microphones on Joan and the other musicians, and the inputs on the mixer would overload all the time. And I thought maybe something should be done about this.

"In those days, film sound was really about dialog, not high-quality music on location. I realized there was a need for something, and around the same time, I was introduced to Dick Burwen, a real scientist and engineer with a tremendously deep background. Dick was willing to mentor me, and our first project was making a mixer for the Baez film. I did the design and he built the modules. He mentored me on how to make something work well.

"We built four of them before we realized that film professionals were not willing to pay for quality; as long as sound came out, that was good enough. So there wasn't much of a path there. At one point, one of our associates said, 'While we're thinking about what to do next, can we listen to some music?' And I said, 'Well, we need a preamp. Why don't we make one? We have these modules sitting around.' So I called Dick and asked if we could build a preamp, and he agreed.

"That unit, which I called the LNP-1 for 'low-noise preamp,' ended up on a shelf in my parents' home. A guy came by who was going to buy a pair of speakers I had, and he asked to hear it. So I played the system, and he said, 'Wow, that's amazing! Do you know how many people would want to buy this thing?' I started thinking that I might be able to make some money. That was the impetus to develop the LNP-2 in 1972 under the Mark Levinson brand, which became an audiophile classic."

The Mark Levinson LNP-2

Levinson ran the company until 1980, when poor market conditions led him to hire a business manager who quickly forced him out and sold the company—and his name—to Harman. "The kind of people who are capable of creating true beauty are often not the same kind of people who are capable of running a profitable and stable business. So there is a tendency for businesses to be very stable and profitable but without soul, or to have soul but not be stable. The trick is combining those into something whole."

Cello Suite

His next venture came in 1984 with Cello Ltd. "I went back to Dick Burwen and asked what he thought about designing a power amp. He didn't think that was very interesting; he thought I should take a look at a tone-control system he had. When he showed it to me, I couldn't believe what it was doing. That was the beginning of the Cello Audio Palette, the ultimate analog audio equalizer.

The Cello Audio Palette

"Until then, equalizers corrected frequency-response problems but often introduced noise, distortion, and other anomalies, which generally outweighed the improvements they made. The Audio Palette introduced no audible noise or distortion. It had specifications much like Hewlett Packard test equipment. It was essentially transparent; the only thing it did was change frequency response.

"In fact, it introduced what was then a new concept to the audio world—the value of frequency response and its relationship to the listening experience. It taught people a lot; it was a university plugged into the wall. The Audio Palette introduced the idea of a truly transparent tone-control system that could dramatically improve the listening experience."

In 1990, Cello was among the first high-end companies to venture into the realm of home theater. "We worked with Faroudja, Vidikron, and Ampro, companies that were making the best analog projectors and video processors at that time. We made high-quality surround-sound speakers like the Amati, which was wall mountable, very thin, but very powerful and full range. We developed custom in-wall speakers for the side walls, and we were among the first to do acoustic treatment, sound isolation, and lighting."

Levinson recalls dealing with sound isolation in the Cello showroom in New York City. "We were in a very expensive townhouse on the Upper East Side, and we found out that our next-door neighbor was Ron Perlman, the billionaire owner of Revlon. His private office shared a wall with our demo room, where we intended to play movies at full tilt with Grand Master speakers and 6000 watts of power. I was informed that Ron would be very happy if he heard zero noise from us. So we built a special wall between our sound room and his office, and he heard nothing at all."

Affordable Audio

Levinson's next venture was Red Rose Music, which he started in 1999. "The concept was to create excellent-sounding audio equipment that was more compact and affordable, very simple, and user friendly. It was based on a retail-store concept, to create a destination for music lovers where everything was about the music-listening experience. The store was on Madison Avenue in the Whitney Museum. Unfortunately, 9/11 happened, and New York became a ghost town. Nobody wanted to invest in New York-based businesses, and I was forced to go elsewhere because we could no longer afford the rent of that store."

Red Rose ceased operations in 2004. "At that time, LG offered me a contract to be chief sound adviser and help upgrade the sound quality in its audio products, TVs, home theater systems, mobile phones, anything with audio. In particular, I'm proud of the FB-163, a compact music system with CD, DVD, AM/FM, power amp, and speakers, all for $250. People remarked on how natural and appealing the sound was. I felt we were making a contribution to the music community by providing a low-cost way for music to come to life."

The LG FB-163 compact audio system

How did Levinson achieve increased performance in such an inexpensive product? "I used my knowledge of electronics and speakers. It was a holistic approach—speaker cabinets, electronics, DSP. It was very successful, but LG failed to heed my advice. When I asked them who their competitors were, they said Bose and Sony. I said no, it's Apple, and if you don't watch it, they're going to blow you out of the water, which is exactly what happened.

"Mobile phones were LG's pride and joy, the heart of the company. They needed to do what Apple did, and I told them how to do it—touchscreen, simple user interface, high-quality camera, exactly what Apple did with the iPhone. Sadly, they didn't listen at that time."

After his stint at LG, Levinson consulted for Intersil, a US semiconductor company, for three years. "I was developing a class-D amplifier chip that could have revolutionized the low-cost audio world. But the company ran out of money and decided to retreat into its core business of power-management chips and stay away from audio."

Daniel Hertz

At that point, Levinson says, "I decided I'd had enough of working for other people, which I had never done before. So I used the money I had made and founded Daniel Hertz in 2007. The company name comes from my father's first name and Heinrich Hertz, a great uncle on my mom's side. He was the first to demonstrate the electromagnetic wave, which was the beginning of audio."

Daniel Hertz operates on two levels. "On the no-compromise level, our goal is to reproduce a musical event as close to the original as we possibly can, and to do that in the most efficient, elegant, simple way without excess or waste.

"One of the things people note about high-end audio is that the experience of owning the equipment often lacks the simplicity and enjoyment of less-expensive equipment. With low-cost stuff, you plug it in, turn it on, and enjoy it. With expensive equipment, it's messy sometimes. So Daniel Hertz is about a return to simplicity—plug it in, turn it on, let us do the work."

The Daniel Hertz M6 preamp and M5 power amp

The company's flagship products include the M6 stereo preamp, M5 monoblock power amp, and M1 speaker. "We only make one preamp and one power amp, and we make one speaker in three form factors, all of which use the same drivers—a compression tweeter from 2kHz up, a 12-inch cone from 80Hz to 2kHz, and an 18-inch cone for 80Hz and below. The 3-way M1 has all three drivers in one cabinet, the 2-way M2 has the tweeter and 12-incher, and the M3 subwoofer has only the 18-inch driver. We also offer the M7, which are the 2-way configuration in a wood-finish cabinet.

The Daniel Hertz M1 speaker

"The M1 is basically a mastering speaker that's designed to faithfully reproduce a recording with no sonic signature. The point is to bridge the gap between professional and consumer audio. It's interesting that almost no mastering studios use the same speakers that are used in the home, and vice versa, so there is a bridge to be crossed there. The problem is that no one thought it was possible.

A pair of M1s, each biamped with two M5 power amps, in the main room of Real Mastering Studios

The starting point for the speakers was a set of custom-designed, high-efficiency drivers that harken back to the bygone days. "If you look online for old JBL and Electrovoice drivers from the 1950s, they're hard to find, and they might cost thousands of dollars. But they are collector's items because they sound fantastic and they don't break. Some of those drivers are 70 years old, and they work like factory new. Ours are built like that; they are not built like most cones and domes today."

The Daniel Hertz M2 speakers and M3 subwoofer

Then there's the build quality of the finished product. "Our speakers are built at the Petrof piano factory in the Czech Republic, and they use the same finish as their concert grand piano. It takes a month to build them and two months to finish them. How many companies are willing to wait 90 days for a product to come off the line? On the other hand, there is no shortcut to getting that kind of finish.

"Building products to that kind of standard is almost a thing of the past. Everyone wants flash, and six months or a year later it's a different thing. I think that when people spend a lot of money, they're entitled to lasting value, something that will withstand the test of time."

The M1 power amp is no less refined. "We developed a special adaptive biasing scheme to achieve pure class-A performance with no power-rail crossover distortion up to full power without a lot of wasted heat. It's not operating in class-A mode, but if you look at the THD (total harmonic distortion) waveform, there are no nasty glitches like most amps have, even at 10 kHz, 1 watt, 8 ohms.

The distortion waveform of the M5 amp at 10kHz/1W/8Ω has no sharp spikes that occur in most other power amps.

"A 25-watt, pure class-A amp can bake you out of the room. The M5 is a 400-watt amp with pure class-A performance that runs relatively cool. It's a discrete, analog amp with no audible noise at all.

"Partly because of the topology and partly because of the biasing scheme, the amp achieves pure class-A performance without cranking the amp at maximum current all the time, which it no longer needs. It's like a car engine—a modern engine might put out the same horsepower as an engine 30 years ago, but it uses a lot less gas because it's more efficient. What we did is make the amp more efficient."

Then there's Levinson's desire to bring high-quality audio to a wider audience. "You can optimize for efficiency and profits or for quality and passion, but it's hard to do both. Daniel Hertz is all about quality and passion, and the big products will always be expensive. But that doesn't mean we can't take that technology and reduce the cost intelligently to make something for a wider audience that represents something special. It helps to have a no-compromise level so you understand the technology and engineering behind it, which can help you can make intelligent choices when you try to go down in price.

"To me, there's no particular virtue in being expensive or inexpensive, except that, when you have a bigger budget, you can usually do better, and when you go for a wider audience, you can help more people. I enjoy both. I enjoy going for the best quality, but I also feel that, when possible, manufacturers should do what they can to make better quality available to more people.

"In fact, that's what I'm working on now. Our goal is to make a complete compact system with amp, speakers, and cables for under $5000. The idea is to make something that is as close to our big equipment as possible for a price that more people can afford in a package that will last for 50 years and not have to be redesigned or changed."

Audio Measurements

Levinson has always been dedicated to scientific principles when it comes to audio equipment. "I've always been concerned with science and the ear, but the ear doesn't do you any good if you don't have the science first. You must have measurements first, and then you can use your ear for fine tuning. The ear can't get rid of distortion, noise, frequency-response problems, and so on. You need to have the basics in place first."

And he certainly applies this principle to his own products. "The LNP-2 preamp's dynamic range was 140 dB, and the crosstalk at 10 kHz was 110 dB; typically, it's 30 or 40 dB. The Audio Palette had a total dynamic range of over 110 dB and the ability to drive 600-ohm loads with no additional distortion."

For Levinson, perhaps the most important measurement is frequency response. "The Audio Palette introduced what was then a new concept to the audio world: the value of frequency response. What is the relationship of frequency response to the listening experience? It taught people a lot; it was a university plugged into the wall."

He gives an interesting example from a recent demonstration event for Daniel Hertz. "It was in Taiwan, and the space for the event had terrible acoustics. It was an art gallery, all cement. Our distributor asked a local manufacturer of tube amps, Stephen Tao, if we could use his showroom, which was a beautiful space, and he said yes.

Stephen Tao and Mark Levinson in Tao's Taiwan showroom

"At the end of the event, we asked Stephen if he wanted to try his tube amps with our speakers. We hooked it up, and the sound was not great. He was devastated. I said, 'I don't think it's your amplifier, I think it's the interaction between the output impedance of your amp and the speaker's load impedance.'

"So I ran the mastering tools on my Mac, opened up an equalizer, and in a few minutes, his amp sounded much closer to the Daniel Hertz amp. Not exactly the same, but it sounded really good. Why? Because we got the frequency response in the same ballpark. Everyone was stunned. Most manufacturers of audio equipment didn't realize the power of frequency-response measurements.

"The audio industry as a whole is geared toward wishful thinking and focused on profits, not truth. If it was focused on truth, the industry would have a radically different climate than it does today."

Unfortunately, audio measurements are not always clearly defined. "For example, how do you measure the frequency response of a speaker? There are many different ways to do it. The test you choose might differ from the one another company uses, and this influences the outcome.

"Conventional audio specs do not explain sonic differences. You could have 10 speakers, all with the same 'specs,' and they are likely to sound very different. It's all about the listening experience, because there isn't much support in terms of numbers and specs. And a lot of what's printed is just wrong anyway, and they get away with it because nobody knows enough about audio to catch them on it."

High-Efficiency Speakers

For Levinson, another critical factor of good audio quality is the use of high-efficiency speakers. "Many years ago, we had speakers that could output over 100 dB with 1 watt of power into 8 ohms. Today, we have speakers with efficiency in the mid 70s. The amount of power you need to reproduce 100 dB is humongous. Remember that to increase the output by 3 dB, you need to double the power.

"Let's say you have a speaker with efficiency of 75 dB/W, and you want to reproduce 102 dB. From 75 to 102 is 27 dB, or nine steps of 3 dB. That would take 512 watts to reproduce what you could do with 1 watt and a speaker with 102 dB efficiency.

"Now let's say you want to reproduce a peak of 114 dB; peaks can sometimes be 20dB over the average level. That means you need 8 kilowatts to reproduce what a speaker with 102dB efficiency can do with 8 watts! And let's not forget that 8 kilowatts would fry the speaker! Not to mention other problems, like your electric bill, the amount of heat, etc."

However, high-efficiency speakers often have their own drawbacks. "Typical high-efficiency speakers tend to be high in distortion with strong resonant modes and other non-linearities that render them unpopular with music lovers. But they play loud and don't tend to fail, so they're often used in professional settings like live sound and movie theaters.

"On the other hand, low-efficiency speakers suffer from severe dynamic compression, audible breakup and resonance modes, limited power handling, and deterioration due to aging, partly because a lot of the energy they take in is converted into heat. In fact, so much information is lost to heat, they should disqualified from being called high-resolution. How can they be high-resolution when they're losing 40 percent of the energy?"

Interestingly, while low-efficiency speakers tend to have more problems, "they are often sonically more digestible. When you listen to such a speaker, what's wrong with it may be more palatable." So Levinson set out to combine the best of both worlds in the Daniel Hertz speakers.

The key is designing the speaker to be more linear. "The enemy of any speaker is non-linearity. Look at the electrical input and the acoustical output. They should track, but in many cases, they don't. For example, in low-efficiency speakers, let's say you raise the input level by 20 dB. You'd think the output level should be up by 20 dB, but it's not, it's much less. That's called dynamic compression. If you have a certain frequency response at low levels, you'd expect it to remain the same as you raise the level, but it doesn't. If you measure distortion at a low level, you'd expect to have the same distortion as you increase the level, but you don't. The performance of the speaker varies with level, frequency, and waveform complexity. Our drivers are much more linear in these ways."

The importance of linearity extends to the power amp as well. "In a home environment, high-efficiency speakers rarely use more than a few milliwatts of power. That means the amp must be linear in the milliwatt range, and most amps are not, especially solid-state amps. In that range, you get humongous amounts of switching distortion. Nobody intended them to be used down there. That's why tube amps are often matched with high-efficiency speakers, because they are more linear in the milliwatt range.

"But tube amps have other problems, like high output impedance, low damping factor, low output current, noise, and other non-linearities that compromise performance. So we made the M5 amp with no crossover/switching distortion. The special adaptive-bias technology offers pure class-A performance with relatively low heat, and it puts out 400 watts."

But if it's operating mostly in the milliwatt range, why does it need to produce 400 watts? "I wanted to make an amp that would never be obsolete, that would be extremely flexible, and would never have to be changed. We found the sweet spot at 400 watts; anything less wasn't that much less money, but more than that was much more expensive, so we drew the line there. It will operate linearly all the way from milliwatts up to 400 watts."

Tubes vs. Solid-State

Speaking of amps, Levinson prefers solid-state over tube-based designs. "One of my biggest mistakes was getting involved with vacuum tubes. Some of the things people like about tubes are actually frequency-response changes that can be measured. Put a sine wave into the amp and measure the frequency response at the input terminals of the speaker. You'll find that it isn't flat at all due to the output impedance of the amp interacting with the load impedance of the speaker. That doesn't happen with solid state so much due to the low output impedance; tube amps tend to have a high output impedance. If you like that sound, what you're really liking is the EQ curve.

"The worst thing is that modern vacuum tubes are often unreliable. You don't make a tube amp, you make a holder for a tube amp. The tube itself is the amp, and it's made by someone else in a third-world country with no quality control. In the old days, tubes were made in Holland, America, and England, but now, they are made in Mongolia or wherever and you don't know what you're going to get. And there is no way to guarantee customer satisfaction.

"I see no advantage in tube amps except for people who want to look at glowing tubes. But that is not my job; my job is making people happy by providing long-term satisfaction, and I would not attempt to do that with tube equipment today.

"As far as I'm concerned, tube equipment is mostly about euphonics, nostalgia, and wishful thinking. I focus on good engineering, long-term reliability and stability, and excellent specifications, none of which I felt could be achieved with tubes, but could definitely be achieved with solid state. There are products I've designed that are still meeting factory specs 35 years later."

Our conversation ran well into the night, and Levinson had much more to say, but that will have to wait until Part 2. Stay tuned!