The High End: What’s in a Name?

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Recently, while visiting Los Angeles, I spent an interesting morning with the eponymous Mark Levinson. Before you march off in search of a dictionary, I’ll tell you that “eponymous” refers to a personal name that also identifies a company, institution, or the like. Thus “Donna Karan” identifies both a line of fashions and the de signer who created them. “Dolby” identifies a series of noise-reduction systems, film-sound improvements, and the engineer (Ray Dolby) who designed them.

“Eponymous” is an adjective that should be familiar to audio enthusiasts, since many companies and product lines have been named after the engineers who founded the companies and designed their first products. Of course, as in the examples of Bob Carver (Carver and Sunfire amplifiers) and Roy Allison (Allison and RDL loudspeakers), eponymous founders may eventually leave their namesake companies and start new companies. And companies are not always founded solely by the engineers who designed the products. For example, in the companies launched by (Saul) Marantz, (Frank) McIntosh, and (Avery) Fisher during hi-fi’s early years, many circuit designs were created by Sidney Smith and others.

Mark Levinson has been an influential force in high-end audio for two decades, but he’s not an engineer. He’s a musician, from a family of musicians. Perhaps his most important gift is that he knows what music actually sounds like, and he is dedicated to improving both its recording and playback. In contrast, many professional musicians are poor judges of sound quality. They translate a score into such a vivid mental image of the music that they often focus on that instead of the actual sound. While responding to musical values (tempo, phrasing, expression), they may not notice differences in the actual sound it self, such as its timbre and stereo imaging.

Levinson first gained attention among audiophiles as the creator of a series of “purist” recordings that were issued on LP during the 1970’s. Then, as now, many microphones had obvious inaccuracies that colored every sound, and recording engineers often selected microphones for specific tasks according to the way their colorations complemented the tone of the instrument or voice being recorded. Levinson, on the other hand, chose the most accurate microphones he could find— a pair of omnidirectional B&K measurement mikes. He recorded mostly classical music, in recitals around Yale University. Recently those recordings were reissued on CD, and, aside from some low-level tape hiss, the CD’s deliver fine sound. Timbres are tonally authentic, with realistic live-concert ambience.

Levinson’s recording activities led him into a quest for improvements in electronics — modifying tape recorders for improved sound, developing better phono preamplifiers, and so forth. He hired John Curl and other circuit-design engineers for these projects. Then he and a business partner launched the Mark Levinson brand to manufacture state-of-the-art electronic components.

In the mid-1980’s the company was bought by Madrigal Audio, which continues to design and sell superb electronics under the Mark Levinson name — and under other brand names, too, such as Proceed. Meanwhile, Mark Levinson (the person) returned to his first interest, improving the sound of analog tape recordings, and started another company, Cello, Ltd., to develop state-of-the-art products.

The signal that is retrieved from an analog tape by the playback head is a very small waveform, typically measuring less than a thousandth of a volt. It must be amplified a great deal to bring it up to line level, and it also needs elaborate equalization to restore flat frequency response. But the preamplifier circuits in most tape recorders are considerably less sophisticated than a high-end phono preamp. Cello developed its own electronics package for use with studio tape recorders, based on the same design principles and high-quality parts that are used in the best pho no preamplifiers. Cello tape electronics are now used in many of the country’s leading disc-mastering studios.

Other Cello products are used equally by audiophiles and recording studios. The best-known example is the Cello Palette, an equalizer based on circuit designs by the engineer/audiophile Richard Burwen. And when home theater became the fastest-growing segment of high-end audio, Levinson and his partners launched the Cello Music and Film division, selling Cello systems through dedicated show rooms in New York, Los Angeles, Milan, and Moscow.

Levinson also assembled a state-of-the-art digital recording system based on B&K measurement microphones, low- noise mike preamps, and two digital modules designed by Apogee Electronics — a superb 20-bit analog-to-digital converter and the Apogee UV-22 redithering processor. The latter recodes 20-bit recordings so that their finest details may be re produced within the confines of the 16-bit CD format. The Cello system has led to three unique recording ventures:

• The Cello Cafe, opening soon in New York, will be an amplifier-free nightclub in which performances will be recorded live. After each concert, listeners will be able to hear the recording. Selected recordings will also be issued on CD.

• Gene Pope, manager of Cello’s Mos cow showroom, has launched a new CD label, PopeMusic. Using just one B&K mike per channel (no mixing!), the recordings capture spectacularly accurate dynamics. The label’s first two releases have won rave reviews. One features bal let music by Shchedrin and Shostakovitch recorded by Pope in the concert hall at the Moscow Conservatory. The other disc is an album of pop vocals by Lori Lieber man recorded in the U.S. by Pope and Levinson.

• The Music Maker Relief and Recording Foundation is a joint project by Levinson and Tim Duffy to record authentic blues performers who are elderly and destitute in the rural South. Income from a $100 sampler CD will provide medicine, food, housing, and further re cording opportunities for the artists.

For more information on these projects, contact Cello at 41 E. 62nd St., New York, NY 10021; telephone, 212-472-5016.

BY PETER W. MITCHELL


Source: Stereo Review (09-1995)

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Updated: Monday, 2016-10-03 11:07 PST