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With customers of the calibre jazz great Chick Corea, Bob Ludwig, the recording engineer and Peter Kermani, the Chairman of the American Symphony Orchestra league, Levinson is to audio what Petrossian is to caviar. A musical prodigy in both the artistic and technical spheres of the industry, Mark Levinson is widely recognised as America's founding son of High End audio who produces fine audio systems for the most discerning ears in the world.


With a spark of imagination, Levinson was able to blend a winning measure of the correct people and infuse them with enough enthusiasm to virtually create 'High End Audio - the elevation of audio reproduction into an artform. After starting his first company in 1971 simply called Mark Levinson Audio Systems, he has used his 'real' experience in music and the recording industry to bridge the gap between the performance of a musical event, its recording and ultimately, its flawless reproduction in the domestic listening environment.

Trained as a professional musician, Levinson studied trumpet, stringed bass and Indian music. By the age of sixteen, he was fortunate and of course talented enough to play with an astonishing array of the great jazz artists; from Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, to Sonny Rollins and members of the John Coltrane line-up including Jimmy Garrison. For most of this period, a smitten Levinson could be found in the recording studios working at any and every aspect of the industry to supplement his income and fuel his interests. His association with this formidable group of musicians presented Levinson with a unique opportunity in producing quality location recordings of the various sessions.

"I was sitting in with people like Paul Bley who is considered one of the two seminal influences on the modern jazz players of today. Bill Evans being the other one ' " says Levinson. "Bill was more involved with traditional jazz whereas Paul was experimenting more with free jazz. These two musicians were the real inspiration for people like Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. I was Paul Bley's bass player for over three years during which time we travelled through Europe and recorded there between 1966-71, the'67-68 period being the most productive. At that time, there weren't too many major European jazz figures - most of them were expatriots, like the drummer Stu Martin for example, who lived on a house boat in Amsterdam at the time that we were playing there.


"That lifestyle was entirely about music and you really couldn't afford to care about much else. One sacrificed a lot for the music, but I have many good memories of all sorts of experiences and quite a few tapes that I made on a small UHER tape recorder at the time"

The first products that Levinson built had nothing whatever to do with audiophile equipment or residential sound, they were designed instead for the recording of music. It was not until several years later that a friend asked him to produce a domestic preamplifier using the technology and ideas that he had developed. Discussing the possibility with Dick Burwen, one of the U.S's foremost studio engineers, the pair developed what they considered a workable idea.
"We decided to build a few of them simply for the hell of it " recalls Levinson. "We were basically building custom recording equipment at the time, but some people became very excited with the sound of our products and asked us to construct several more. This led to the development of residential audio equipment, which was not what I initially intended to do"

Whilst attending an Audio Engineering Society convention, Levinson attracted praise in the audio press from Bert Whyte who wrote a glowing report of the new Levinson products. Such effusive recommendations prompted many enquiries from various distributors and stores all over the world who wanted to distribute Levinson's products. Much of the Levinson's iconoclasticism comes from the encouragement of his family in whatever he chose to do.


"There was no pressure from anyone in my family to become anything that was contrary to my own wishes" says Levinson. "I was encouraged to be true to my own inner voices. What led me to get involved in audio was the desire to reproduce the 'real' music that I knew and understood in real life. 1 wanted to hear that sound come out of the speakers, to narrow the gap and make the reproduction sound as close as possible to the live performance"

The Levinson product follow lead of the respected Mcintosh concept in the elements that they introduced into the world of residential audio. However, where Mclntosh use consumer grade circuits and parts, Levinson investigates the use of more professionally oriented circuits and parts. The quality of the parts and materials are more akin to the high technology of industries such as computers and aerospace and were developed by Dick Burwen. Levinson utilised his own enthusiasm, and instincts to blend the ideas and technology of others, coupling it with his imagination and initiative in locating subcontractors and processes that could be used to make superior products.

"Mclntosh really introduced a certain mentality to the world of conventional audio in the founding principles of high quality design construction and customer satisfaction. I don't think that any other company in the world has Mclntosh's success record to date. McIntosh introduced a whole series of ideas including the development of limited ranges of models which should remain in your line for a long time without allowing them to go out of date. They stressed customer satisfaction; make sure your customers are always happy, fix everything that malfunctions at no charge, make sure that the performance of your product is consistently stable and does not degrade even after long periods of time, do everything possible to verify equipment performance by holding free clinics and make sure that the resale value is high. Select only the stores that are going to be loyal to you, promote the product properly and ensure that the market image of the product is excellent so that pride of ownership is encouraged ... all these bases originated from Mclntosh. My work is a synthesis of different influences and I would say, a lot of the business values come from The Mclntosh school of thought, although we were searching for much higher levels of performance and quality."


In 1984, when investors decided to take control of his company, Levinson was forced to leave which resulted in the formation of a new company he named, CELLO.

"Part of that story concerns a group of investors who essentially took control of that company and I was left with the option of forgetting about audio or starting all over again. It happened because I trusted the wrong people. Five years after I left that company, the new owners declared bankruptcy in order to eliminate my 43 % of the stock and their trade debt. They then moved the assets into a new shell and instigated litigation to try to keep me out of audio. I had to fight for 2 years in Federal court for the right to work, the result is my new company, CELLO. It took a considerable amount of determination to get CELLO off the ground because there was a group of people who did not want CELLO to exist."

With CELLO, Levinson decided that there was an opportunity to make a statement in music reproduction equipment which had never been made before. "I had a new concept based on new principles, new technology, new packaging, with new objectives. Whereas the first company was primarily geared towards refining existing concepts in residential equipment, CELLO created new product concepts and models with new concepts of what equipment could be and could do. CELLO is to high end audio what the word processor is to the typewriter. Once you use a word processor you won't want to go back, so essentially CELLO was formed for those reasons as well as to bridge the gap between professional and residential audio. We are the only company in the world which is selling the same equipment to top studio engineers for use with the finest compact discs and records and to people for use in the home.

"People who want to have a fine system without a large system eating up their living room are attracted to our speakers as it is very difficult to find an aesthetically pleasing high quality loudspeaker. There are a few of them, and the few that exist are usually enormous, and you must place them metres away from the wall which makes it impossible to install into most fine homes, especially when you start thinking about those in New York and London. There are of course, many people with large homes, but there are also many who prefer to own a smaller but very high quality home, or apartment and when they put music into it they can afford to listen to anything they want. They don't however, want somebody telling them that they have to have some big 7 ft tall object which is very expensive and does not integrate with the decor of their home. One of the unusual things about the CELLO system is that it can be integrated into the home with designer options which are not available with other systems.

"A particular client in Paris who lives in an apartment with the very finest in original art, sculpture and furnishings, with walls that are handpainted with multicoats of lacquer, gold and silver purchased a CELLO system using the 'Amati' speakers painted with the same finish. The result is that the whole system dissolves into the wall.


"One of the most famous private art collectors and dealers in the world specialising in the works of Jackson Polliack and Mark Rothko, now retired, had a very large high end audio system installed in his home which he asked me to look at as a consultant in order to evaluate it. I handed him a letter outlining that the system had 22 serious faults in it, both electrical and mechanical and faults in the installation.

He said, 'Look, instead of fixing this thing, can I buy something else?' When he found out about the CELLO system he bought the entire range. Here is a guy who had two Rothko's on his wall which he sold for 1.8 million dollars. He had a living room approx. 35 It by 80ft long, with 22ft ceilings in midtown Manhattan, with a handpainted copy of a Vatican ceiling on 60ft of his living room, a 16th century Italian rectory table and one of the world's foremost collections of African sculpture!


"When we initially started CELLO, it was decided that we would work on one product at a time. The first product idea actually came from Dick Burwen. Dick developed the "Audio Palette", after 45 years of research and it is the single most fascinating, complete, rich and inspired piece of audio engineering 1 have ever seen. A normal preamplifier has 4 amplifiers in it. Here is something which contains 48 discrete class A amplifiers, 59 position rotary controls that we make by hand and has over 6000 parts in it."

According to Levinson, the Audio Palette was developed to help alleviate some of the problems inherent in recordings that are badly engineered. "What most people are doing is trying to assemble a group of components which enable certain recordings to sound good ' " he says. "The upshot of all this is that people start looking for recordings that their system likes to play. With the Audio palette, you choose the artist and the repertoire, and with a few simple turns of the wrist you have a very enjoyable iusical experience, so the Audio Palette is the key to the CELLO system because it enables the music lover to be in control."

Even though Levinson pioneered the 'straight line purist approach' to audio, he feels that despite the extra path that the signal must pass through, the advantages of the Audio Palette far outweigh the disadvantages. "A purist philosophy does not mean fewer dials. I am not of the purist philosophy - 1 founded it! I never said that equalizers were bad, I just said that we don't know any that are any good.


"In our previous experience, whenever we put an equaliser into the system, it sounded worse. The Audio Palette is not simply an equaliser, it is a far more complex product than that and the objective is essentially the idea of music restoration. The ability to restore the quality to approximate lifelike sound is different from the design objective of most equalisers which is to allow the engineer the ability to adjust the sound to create a variety of effects. The Audio Palette is userfriendly, anyone can learn to use it in a few minutes and you don't have to be an engineer when you want to restore music. If you don't want to restore music then u are stuck with either listening to bad sound or playing recordings that your system likes to play and 1 don't think that it is a state of the art concept - to spend a lot of money to listen to six records and 2 compact discs."


The matching preamplifier, the Audio Suite, is a mainframe which allows up to ten plug-in modules that slide in from the front allowing the user complete flexibility in selecting the amount of functions or modules which suit their requirements and budget. Therefore, the same mainframe and power supply can be used by a mastering lab for a set of tape head Dlayback electronics or by someone in the home who simply listens to records and compact discs.

Another Levinson touch adapted from his earlier product, is the use of 'Fischer CAMAC' connectors which are used in medical instrumentation "I came to the conclusion that there wasn't really any point in asking industry people to pay for a premium product that sported an inferior connector system."

Amongst Levinson's clients in the professional field is Bob Ludwig of MASTERDISC, probably the most famous mastering engineer in the world. Working with performers of the calibre of Bruce Springsteen, Keith Jarrett, Dire Straits, Carly Simon, U2, Genesis and many others, virtually 40% of the records played on New York FM Radio are mastered by his company.

"Bob says it's the first time in his life that every single day he looks forward to coming to work to listen to his system' " says Levinson.

In Stuttgart, West Germany, Reiner Bild owns the state of the art digital editing studio known as SONOMASTER. The studio basically consists of SONY digital editing equipment and CELLO. Reports from their customers, which include the major record labels of the world, tell them that they have the best monitoring system of any facility that they have ever visited.

"When I started my business in 1971 there was no such thing as High End audio, and now there is no equivalent to CELLO ' " says Levinson. "it is a new level ofsound that is not yet named. I am much more romantic than I used to be, but I am also more results-oriented. I would say CELLO is far more visionary, far more of a dream, far more ambitious and far more rarified than anything from the past.

"The idea is to be able to take anything from solo harpischord or classical guitar right up to the Count Basie orchestra or a full symphony sound and reproduce it all without having the system quit. It is able to reproduce recordings from the 1920s and 30s and restore them to an amazinglymodern sound. It can take the finest in compact discs and play them with the kind of dynamic realism that the recording engineers intended you to experience. single, modular system is presented in a compact and elegant fashion allowing the music lover to reproduce music without experiencing any problems.
"What we have done at CELLO is far more idealistic. Instead of asking, 'What would be a great amplifier?, we've asked, 'How can we bring music to life?"'

 

 

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