A New Era
Some audio historians consider the 1950s and 1960s the “Golden Age” of American hi-fi. Companies like Dynaco, Fisher, Scott, Mcintosh, and Marantz all made great products, some still sought by collectors today.
By the late 1960s, these companies had exhausted mainly their creative energies. Instead of continuing to push for better performance, they primarily sought to capitalize on their brand names by introducing cheaper products to compete with mass-market offerings from a burgeoning Japanese electronics industry. Unfortunately, while this trend brought affordable audio to millions of music fans, it did so by compromising performance potential, a classic “race to the bottom” that created a void in the market serving discerning music lovers.
Into this void stepped Mark Levinson, a young musician passionate about music reproduction and artisanal workmanship.
Already a legend at an early age—he was only 21 when he famously built the stage mixer used at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1968—Levinson set out to create no-compromise audio playback equipment that would come as close as possible to recreating the energy of live performances. He was uniquely qualified to combine the musical ear of a lifelong multi-instrumentalist with the patient perfectionism required to do groundbreaking design and engineering. He was also fortunate to be associated with mentors such as Richard Burwen, who encouraged him always to ask hard questions and never to settle for easy solutions.
Founded in 1972, Mark Levinson Audio Systems (MLAS) was the unquestioned leader among many high-performance audio companies that started in that decade. Instead of designing to a price point, MLAS designed to exceed all previous known playback limitations. The company also employed the best available engravers and machinists. The results were products such as the LNP-2 Preamplifier that were both ahead of their time and timeless. As a result, many audio authorities think MLAS products still look better, feel better, and outperform the best contemporary offerings from current high-end manufacturers.
These products were revelatory in 1974. That year, after hearing Mark’s LNP-2 Preamplifier (his first such product) at the Audio Engineering Show, Audio Magazine Associate Editor Bert Whyte told Mark: “I’m going to put you on the map. I did it for Tascam, and I can do it for you.” In his CES report, Whyte’s feature article on the LNP-2 Preamplifier concluded with this accolade: “Monetary considerations aside . . the premiere choice.”
Among the most ambitious audio products ever built, MLAS gear boasted technical specifications rarely equaled in the ensuing three decades. The LNP-2preamp, for example, had a 140dB dynamic range, 110dB channel separation up to 20 kHz, and channel-to-channel tracking within 0.1dB. MLAS products were the first to use non degradable metals such as rhodium, platinum, and gold, and the first to use Teflon as an insulating material. The result is that they are as good today as when they were new.
The name “Mark Levinson” soon entered the common lexicon,
synonymous with “ultra quality,” to such an extent that someone utterly unfamiliar with audio might say something like “That’s a Mark Levinson motorcycle,” or “I love your Mark Levinson jacket,” meaning the referenced objects were not only of the highest possible quality but were also exceedingly beautiful.
In Europe and Asia, the general public is often familiar with the names of individual designers in many fields. This isn’t true in America, where corporations usually take credit for advancements. The association of Mark Levinson’s name with a high concept was a rare occurrence. Nevertheless, the brand name came to have tremendous value. It was acquired and is leveraged today by Harman International in promoting its Mark Levinson-brand sound systems for luxury automobiles.
With Cello, the company he formed in 1984, Levinson created radically new audio concepts at stratospheric prices. With gifted engineers Tom Colangelo and Richard S. Burwen, Levinson introduced groundbreaking products such as the Cello Audio Palette, the world’s first audiophile-quality, sonically transparent equalizer.
Those who worked with Mark were in awe:
“We feel privileged to have been involved with the
creation of Mark Levinson’s products these many years, and own them ourselves. Mark is one of those rare people capable of bringing quality and beauty to a world where it is a rare commodity . . . He has the most demanding and uncompromised ideas of perfection we have ever encountered.”
Jack and Randy Weidner, precision machinists
and engravers, East Haven, Connecticut
The Cello Grand Master Reference system included all components— electronics, speakers, and custom-made cables with Swiss-made connectors. Previously, companies built electronics, or speakers, or cables, or source units, but not all. Cello was the first with a total system approach. As a result, the Grand Master system was the first in the industry capable of generating realistic concert-level sound pressure while simultaneously conveying the emotional nuances of a live performance.
Levinson himself broke the mold with this complete no compromise system approach. Cello systems were purchased by music lovers at the very top of the market, as well as by many musicians, mastering engineers, and recording studios. Reviewers were stunned. “I was speaking with Mark Levinson . . . hoping I would find something exciting to present to our readers and wondering if this visionary of the 1970’s was still able to run the leading edge. I did; he is.
Levinson has shifted focus from individual products to a complete system concept aimed at performance goals which have been thought impossible to achieve – until now. Instead of listening to equipment, one quickly forgets about components and is absorbed by the music. The total effect . . . is so astonishing that it is not easy to convey without sounding far-fetched.”
- Robert Serio, High Performance Review
Cello Music and Film Systems
A forerunner of what today is a significant industry in the consumer electronics arena, Cello was among the first to incorporate high-performance video in custom-designed high-performance home theater systems.
“The results of Levinson’s efforts are far beyond what we’ve expected from home entertainment; it saddens us that more people can’t experience them.”
The world’s top professional musicians were equally in awe of Levinson gear:
“I have wanted for a very long time to share my love for Bach with my listening public. Without Mark Levinson, I would never have considered embarking on this project... Because Mark’s equipment so perfectly and so honestly replicates the extraordinary depths of the sound from my double bass, I feel that I can now, at long last, bring my dream of recording the Bach cello suites to fruition. What Mark Levinson offers the music world, in my opinion, is the opportunity to hear for the first time in reproduced form, music and soul as it really is.“
- Gary Karr, internationally recognized as the greatest living double bass soloist
Among the many music industry companies that purchased Mark Levinson- designed equipment were Atlantic Studios, DMP, MasterDisc, PolyGram, RCA, Sonomaster, Sony Music Studios, and Sterling Sound. Sony’s Mark Levinson- designed reference playback system was used for more than six years by world-class talent, including Celine Dion, Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Jackson, Tony Bennett, and many others. At Sony, the mastering room with Levinson’s Grand Master speakers became known as “The Cello Room.”
National Symphony Orchestra member and former Stereophile Contributing Editor Lewis Lipnick said this about his experience with Levinson gear:
“What Mark Levinson’s equipment does has more to do with the re-creation of the metaphysical aspects of music and the emotional interface between performer and listener than with conventional standards of sound quality... It’s the ultimate link between performer and listener, illuminating the very soul of music in a way never before possible.”
Red Rose Music
In the late 1990s, Levinson began a new phase in his career, characterized by a desire to bring no-compromise performance to a broader audience. Red Rose Music was a huge critical success, with amplifiers such as the Affirmation and loudspeakers such as the Rosebud MKII. Red Rose Music’s first power amplifier won the product of the year award from Italy's most respected audio magazine.
It’s a tribute to Levinson’s obsession with quality that almost all the products built and sold by his three companies are still in use. Unfortunately, they rarely come up for sale on the secondary market and, when they do, are frequently the objects of bidding wars by music lovers eager to own them.
Mark Levinson is the only audio company founder and a top-level professional musician.
In his teens and 20’s, he played with Sonny Rollins, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Jimmy Garrison, and later with Stan Getz and, most recently, alto sax jazz legend Lee Konitz. Of course, many people in the audio community have musical backgrounds. Still, Mark Levinson is the only prominent one who has worked as a professional musician with some of the greatest names in jazz.
Levinson is also a formidable recording and mastering engineer. During his almost four decades of designing and marketing high-performance audio products, Levinson also made legendary recordings of jazz, blues, classical, and other artists including some of the greatest musicians of Northern India. He is a longtime student of Ali Akbar Khan, and probably the only musician in the world adept at playing Indian music on the double bass. Mark’s double bass, made in 1680, is one of the masterpieces of Italian string instrument making.
Levinson’s mastering equipment has been used to make CD reissues of recordings by artists in every imaginable genre. He personally remastered Miles
Davis’s seminal recording Birth of the Cool for the Capital label. Among the cognoscenti, Levinson recordings are as revered as Levinson electronics.
In 1998, he was supervising engineer for the three-CD set of performances by virtuoso violinist Elmar Oliveira, included with The Miracle Makers, a commemorative reference book about Stradivari and Guarneri violins, produced by rare instrument dealer Geoff Fushi, founder of the Stradivari Society. The Stradivari Society has assisted many top artists early in their careers, including Sarah Chang and Midori.
The book and recordings enjoyed a gala debut at Steinway Hall in February 1999, where Oliveira played an assortment of rare instruments, the tone of each chosen to match the mood of a particular composition. The event was covered by television news crews from Italy, Germany, Holland, and Japan and was recorded for posterity by Levinson.
When Sony decided to develop the Super Audio Compact
Disc, they needed reference recordings to demonstrate the new technology. They also needed expert recording engineers to prove its value to the music industry. Sony equipped Mark Levinson with one of ten prototype DSD (direct stream digital) recorders. He used this gear to make Live at Red Rose, one of the best-selling SACDs of all time, and the sole demonstration material used by Sony and Philips in their rollout of the format.
Levinson was one of the most enthusiastic backers of SACD, personally hosting 1 demonstrations per day for 3 days at the Consumer Electronics Show. Live at Red Rose was subsequently reissued as a Burwen Bobcat-processed CD for the LG Reference Recordings Collection.
Levinson has also made contributions as a humanitarian. In 1976, in an industry rampant with prejudice, he took the position that employees were welcome regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, or sexual preference. This was long before such policies were common in the workplace or encoded in the law.
Music Maker Relief Foundation
Levinson is also a tireless supporter of indigenous American music. In 1994, he helped Tim and Denise Duffy found the Music Maker Relief Foundation (www.musicmaker.org) which assists elderly destitute blues and folk artists primarily in the Southern USA. Music Maker gives money, pays for medical care and expenses, provides instruments, and arranges for performances at clubs and music festivals in the USA and overseas for its artists.
Music Maker uses a Mark Levinson-designed portable recording system to capture their music with astonishing fidelity. Using this equipment, Tim Duffy has made field recordings equivalent to those made in state-of-the-art studios. Music Maker is now endorsed by BB King, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and other music celebrities. The first Music Maker Relief Foundation compilation CD remastered by Mark Levinson from Tim Duffy’s early field cassette tapes was designated R 1 in the LG Reference CD Collection.
Daniel Hertz S.A.
In 2007, Levinson started Daniel Hertz S.A., in Neuchatel, Switzerland, to combine his audio engineering expertise with Swiss-made quality. Located in the historic town of Neuchatel, Daniel Hertz S.A. is working with artisanal companies to create a new breed of audio products. Neuchatel is the birthplace of watchmaking genius Louis Abraham Breguet, the most highly regarded watchmaker of the 18th century, and home to many of the greatest names in Swiss watchmaking today.
Switzerland has the world’s highest manufacturing standards. With a team of exceptional craftsmen, Daniel Hertz will bring legendary Mark Levinson sound to a new generation of music lovers.
An Unparalleled Life
Mark Levinson’s life has combined music performance, music recording, music playback equipment manufacturing, humanitarian assistance to destitute musicians, and considerable conceptual advancements to the industry’s knowledge base. His phenomenal contributions have no parallel in the audio industry. Yet despite his greatness, Levinson remains humble, attributing his success to his many brilliant associates and collaborators.
This is the legacy that Mark Levinson brings to LG Electronics.
In 2007, Mark Levinson was invited by Korea-based giant LG Electronics to assist them in upgrading their audio quality. Since then, LG products tuned by Mark Levinson have received the best press and have won coveted industry awards each year.
Team Effort = Strength in Business
Mark is often asked why he decided now to focus on working with LG. His simple answer: “In today’s economy, we need a very special team effort. It’s the perfect time to combine my expertise with the power of a big company like LG that is committed to excellent products, affordable prices, and strength in business.
“I am terrifically happy to work with the LG team because I believe in CEO Nam’s vision. I believe in the LG team, and am excited about bringing the joyous experience of the finest possible musical reproduction to people throughout the world. I believe that by making a contribution to the worlds of music, home theater, and other audio, we are providing a valuable service and have a bright future.”
High Praise from Music Industry Professionals As a small indication of where LG is headed, note this expert comment about LG/ Mark Levinson demonstrations at the January 2008 Consumer Electronics Show:
“My friends and I all feel that the sound of your (LG/ ML) audio systems is the best at the show, regardless of price. There are systems selling for 20 times the price or more that do not sound as good. Your systems simply sound more like real music than any others.”
- Rob Fraboni, record producer for Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Cocker, Bob Marley, etc.
Four Decades of Contributions
A partial list of high-performance audio products developed by Mark Levinson:
1970’s Mark Levinson Audio Systems (MLAS)
LNP-2 Professional Preamplifier
JC-1 Moving Coil Cartridge Preamplifier JC-1AC Moving Coil Cartridge Preamplifier JC-2 Straightline Preamplifier
LNC-2 Electronic Crossover ML-1 Preamplifier
ML-2 Class A Mono Amplifier with regulated power supplies
ML-3 Stereo Power Amplifier
Studer A-80 professional tape recorder with custom electronics ML-6A Dual Mono Preamplifier
ML-8 Microphone Preamplifier ML-9 Power Amplifier
ML-10 Preamplifier ML-11 Preamplifier
ML-12 Power Amplifier
The world’s first tri-amplified reference system for music listening: The HQD system – 2 x Hartley 24” woofers, 4 x QUAD electrostatic midranges, 2 xDecca ribbon tweeters, powered by six ML-2 amplifiers and two LNC-2 Electronic Crossovers, with custom pure silver interconnect cables and custom speaker wires.
From 1974 to 1978, Mark Levinson Acoustic Recordings produced a series of LP’s that set new industry standards for sonic quality in recordings. The series included LP’s of artists such as organist Myrtle Regier, pianist Lois Shapiro, percussionist Bill Elgart, classical guitarist Eliot Fisk, and organist Charles Krigbaum. Levinson’s classic 197 recording of Eliot Fisk (Bach and Scarlatti) has been reissued as part of the LG Reference CD Collection.
1980’s – mid 1990’s: Cello
Cello Audio Palette, world’s first no-compromise analog equalizer Cello Audio Suite
Cello Performance Mono Power Amplifier with regulated choke power supplies, 6.000 Watts @ Ohms in bridged mode.
Cello Encore preamp Cello Encore 1MΩ preamp
Cello Encore Mono Power Amplifier Cello Duet 350 amplifier
Cello Amati loudspeaker Cello Premier loudspeaker Cello Master loudspeaker
Grand Master Reference loudspeaker Cello Serafin active monitor loudspeaker Cello Legend loudspeaker
Cello Strings cables and interconnects, industry first with Litz construction, Teflon dielectric, and Swiss-made Fischer connectors.
Cello Reference Digital to Analog Converter
1990’s – mid 2000: Red Rose Music
Red Rose Music Model One Reference amplifier
Red Rose Music Model Two amplifier
Red Rose Music Model Three preamplifier Red Rose Music Model Five integrated amp Red Rose Music Passion amplifier
Red Rose Music Affirmation amplifier Red Rose Music Rosette amplifier
Red Rose Music Rosette Two phono stage Red Rose Music Spirit integrated amp
Red Rose Music Genius integrated amp with inboard USB digital-to-analog converter
Red Rose Music Revelation loudspeaker Red Rose Music R-3 loudspeaker
Red Rose Music Rosebud loudspeaker Red Rose Music Rosebud II loudspeaker
Red Rose Music Classic loudspeaker
Red Rose Music M1 Multi-Channel Power
Amplifier Red Rose Music M2 loudspeaker
Red Rose Music M-3 subwoofer
Red Rose Music Meditation loudspeaker