Exclusive with the audio legend Mark Levinson
Questions by Matej Isak, Mono & Stereo
You and your name are the legend of it’s own in high-end audio. Where and how did all started for Mark Levinson?
This is a long story, too long for now. Basically, I was a musician and enjoyed recording my teachers and friends. I wanted the sound to be better. I discovered there are two parts to this – the recording quality and the playback quality. I became involved in both, and started a company, MLAS, Ltd., (Mark Levinson Audio Systems, Ltd.) to manufacture both recording and playback equipment. This was in 1972 in Woodbridge, CT in the basement of my parents’ home.
Some say you are the founder of high-end industry?
I believe in good engineering and faithfully reproducing music. I don’t have much in common with the high end audio of today. High end audio equipment, for the most part, cannot be used by recording and mastering engineers because of serious limitations. Most of high end audio is based on nostalgia, marketing, politics, dreams and illusions. My Daniel Hertz products can be used by the top audio engineers in studios for recording and mastering because it has performance that high end audio is missing. I don’t even know what high end audio really is. It seems to be expensive audio equipment made in small quantities, reviewed in certain magazines and sold in certain stores, but I don’t think there is any real definition for the term.
Who were your inspirations (and still are)?
Dick Burwen was my original audio mentor. We are still close friends almost 40 years later. For company philosophy and equipment models, Yasuo Nakanishi of Japan was a great sensei (teacher) and friend. He helped so many companies but very few ever appreciated him. Sadly, he died some years ago, broken by business difficulties and illness. He was a great music lover starting in the early 1950’s. I have been inspired by the great musicians I have studied and played with, like Ali Akbar Khan (classical music of North India) and his associates, Paul Bley, Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, Herb Pomeroy, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, John Coltrane, and many more.
Would you consider that you were and are audiophile-oriented man-company?
I make audio equipment that seems right to me. I don’t think about the audiophile world. I am happy if someone enjoys the equipment I design and build, but my goal is to recreate a musical event, not look at marketing and audiophiles.
Kindly list all of the present products from Daniel Hertz?
People should visit www.danielhertz.com for details. Briefly:
Speakers: M1, M2, M3, M7
Power Amplifier. M5 TELIKOS Reference Mono Amplifier
Preamplifier: M6 1 MegOhms Preamplifier
Daniel Hertz pure silver litz interconnect cable
Daniel Hertz Premium 500 speaker cable
Why the name Daniel Hertz?
I wanted a family name. Daniel is my father’s name. Hertz is my mother’s family name. Heinrich Hertz, the physicist who first demonstrated the electromagnetic wave, was my great uncle. That was the beginning of audio.
What actually happened with Mark Levinson trademark and company?
I was young and inexperienced in business. I was a musician, really. Some American business sharks stole my name and company ( I was never paid anything), and they tried to keep me out of audio for life. They put the company through a planned bankruptcy to eliminate my stock, and sold everything to Harman later. I had nothing to do with products bearing my name since 1980. It is interesting that Harman refuses to service the older products that created the legend.
What would you say, that is the difference between Mark Levinson and Daniel Hertz_
Mark Levinson was a big step forward in the quality of sound and construction of preamplifiers and power amplifiers. Daniel Hertz offers a complete system approach that combines the most natural sound, the advantages of high efficiency (1W = 100dB sound pressure level), and European craftsmanship.
Can you tell us more about Red Rose music?
Red Rose Music was intended to make smaller, more affordable but extremely high quality equipment for a wider audience. RRM used ribbon-based speakers. Sadly, RRM suffered from executive fraud. Internal financial executives destroyed the company, and then destroyed the computer so no one could figure out exactly what they did. I was trying to rebuild RRM, but the global economy was getting worse and worse, and 9/11 was a terrible blow, as we were based in NY. Eventually, I found Europe to be a better home for me.
Cello products are the legendary standouts. Can you tell us more about company and your time with Cello?
Cello products entered the audio stratosphere. There is plenty of information about Cello on the net. I can’t write a 100 page book here to retell the story. Cello was used by some top record companies and mastering labs as well as residential users. When I started Cello with the Audio Palette, audio experts predicted a total failure. We sold 1,000 Audio Palettes over time.
One of our customers became an investor. He sold his company for a billion dollars cash. He decided he wanted to run Cello and forced me out. I never was paid anything for the company, and lost my life savings. Cello made a profit for 15 years. It was a tragedy that shortly after he took over, he bankrupted the company. When people create beauty, others will try to take it and destroy it. Used Cello equipment could become difficult to service because it used many custom parts, but I think Paul Jayson of Viola 5CT USA) is trying to provide service still. I am very proud of Cello Ltd. and its many pioneering innovations, like having its own showrooms in NY and LA, sort of like the precursors of Apple stores.
When did you established Daniel Hertz and why?
Daniel Hertz is my final statement in no-compromise audio. I believe it offers the most natural sound, highest reliability, exquisite craftsmanship, flexibility, and maximum performance. Former Cello owners agree. I think it would be next to impossible to find the resources needed to make these products in the USA. They gave all the industrial work to China and so many small companies went out of business. I wanted to overcome the limitations of the past with new audio technologies, all perfectly tuned by ear in a complete system concept. Daniel Hertz equipment can also be used with other audio equipment for those who want to make their own combinations. After being so fortunate to work with so many wonderful people in my career, and meet so many great customers and have so much acceptance, I wanted to finish my career with a final, ultimate statement in audio. Now it is time to move to fixing recordings and bringing the music recordings up to the same level of quality.
Why are you chose Switzerland as place to be?
Switzerland is a great place to have a company. It has a stable infrastructure, solid currency, an excellent work ethic, a tradition of quality on many levels, and is centrally located in Europe.
Daniel Hertz become a synonym luxury high-end audio. What is the story behind it?
The secret of Daniel Hertz is putting all the energy into the most advanced engineering, quality, and careful listening, not marketing. People find us, we don’t chase them. Our customers demand excellence and are tired of the usual high end audio nonsense. They are usually respected people, and their opinion is valued by others.
If my memory serves me well even Mr. Medvedov holds your system?
A Russian TV show showed Dimitri Medvedev with his Daniel Hertz system, that is true.
You don’t implement any tubes, but only solid state. Why is that?
You cannot get Daniel Hertz quality with tubes.
Why did you choose Solid State as your path?
It works the best.
Have you ever even thought about implementing tubes into your products?
I tried it once with Red Rose Music. It was a big mistake. Never again.
Tubes vs Transistors?
You can get good sound with both, but tubes have too many downsides.
Silver. What is the real thing about using silver in audio chain?
Silver is the best conductor of electricity. Laws of physics. But copper is more practical for speaker cables.
What is your approach and specific to your topology?
No comment. Except that complete system design has proven to provide customer satisfaction because every component can be matched.
What does state of the art solid-state amplification actually means for Daniel Hertz?
I do not know why you keep using “solid state” here. State of the Art is enough. The answer to your question is, “listen for yourself.” Again, we have based our design on faithfully matching the sound to live music. This is the core of my work always. Record music with a high quality system like we have, and compare the playback.
Daniel Hertz Speakers are high efficient. Is this a must?
For me, yes. Less efficiency turns electrical signals into heat. That is music you don’t hear.
Can you tell us more about your speaker cables?
High-end audio is generally full of pseudo-science and fraud, especially with cables. Daniel Hertz speaker cable works very well, is not too expensive, and all our customers are happy.
What would you say sets apart Daniel Hertz audio design above other manufacturers?
What is the difference between your pro and audiophile lines?
We have only one line.
You’re also a musician. How important would you say, that is when designing any audio products?
That is the heart of it. How can you reproduce music if you don’t know what it is?
How is your musical path is going on?
I still play when possible. I especially enjoy playing the sarod, a classical string instrument of North India. Also my double bass, flugelhorn, and other instruments.
Petrof and Mark Levinson?
Petrof are music people. Daniel Hertz speakers are built by people who make some of the finest pianos in the world – my favorite piano. I could not find that quality anywhere else.
Where is the borderline between luxury and quality?
This is a personal judgment. For a classical pianist, a 2.8M piano is quality. For others, it might be a luxury.
Do you use pure class A is your signal chain? If so why?
Class A is very misunderstood. Of course, our circuits use a Class A approach, but I do not want to talk about it here because it is a big subject and needs a lot of time to explain correctly.
How important is power supply?
Very important. This is obvious.
Classical music. The ultimate test for high-end?
Every kind of music and recording has certain demands and requirements.
What is your opinion on digital music revolution and the birth of mp3?
Digital music was the beginning of the dark age of music. But something good will come of this soon.
Where is the fine line between, resolution, transparency and musicality?
Listen to the music in life and then the playback.
How do you fine-tune your products?
By ear. Indian music is especially hard to reproduce, but Daniel Hertz can do it.
What is the reference for your when designing any products?
Reproducing musical events.
Is there a need for a high price in high-end?
Not necessarily. But the very best will cost more than the others.
Audiophile is quite an overused term. How so you see it?
I don’t think about it. My involvement is with my work.
Digital audio era is here. Do you think this is the future to stay?
We have to make it work. It is possible. Watch for future developments from Daniel Hertz.
Great of you enjoy it.
Ever explored possibilities of Class D?
I work with Intersil D2Audio, a manufacturer of Class D amps.When well designed, they can be better than many discrete high end amps.
How close can one get with digital reproduction in comparing to analog in your opinion?
Equal or better with new technology just coming.
What subcontractors do you employ?
No comment. Except we are proud to work with Petrof piano company for speaker building.
Does form follows function with Daniel Hertz?
That is the best way.
Do you still believe in traditional “made in” Europe quality?
Quality can come from anywhere. But normally it takes generations of culture to develop quality.
What do you think about products coming from China?
Some are good. Quality is not by nationality.
Any plans for more affordable Daniel Hertz components?
Daniel Hertz is a statement in excellence. Period. But if I find a way, maybe…
Your speakers need 1watt to achieve 100db. Is the trend, that overtook audio in 70 went into a wrong way?
The laws of physics have not yet been repealed, even by the Americans.
How important are the room acoustics?
Daniel Hertz equipment sounds fine in most living rooms without acoustic treatment. Most acoustic treatment destroys the sound. The best helps in certain situations.
There is quite few DSP and room correction solutions, but they seems to add too much to the music. What are your experiences?
DSP room correction is basically a mistake.
When is it simple enough (design and topology) to say stop, this is where it all end and amplifier is finished?
When you feel happy and enjoy listening.
You’re working on the new transistor, which will change the way we see affordable audio gear?
I am working on new kinds of semiconductors but that is too big a story for here.
Who were and still are your inspirations in audio world?
McIntosh created the founding principle of engineering and design excellence in the 1950’s, with unparalleled customer service, but they discontinued that a long time ago. Many talented people have created interesting products, too many to list. I prefer to generate my own designs with my team of people.
What sets Daniel Hertz audio from competition?
- The most natural sound.
- Designs based on high efficiency technology.
- The finest quality of craftsmanship, parts and materials.
- Extremely wide dynamic range.
- Very deep bass with no “woofer” sound.
- Vitality even at low volume levels.
- Virtually no dynamic compression.
- High reliability beyond any high end audio standards.
- Incredible sense of space due to controlled dispersion characteristics.
- Perfect for the mastering engineer as well as the music lover at home.
- Completely matched electronics, cables and speakers tested with live vs recorded events with the most demanding music.
Daniel Hertz sound philosophy?
Record a live event of great music and play it back. You must feel that you are in the room with the musicians, and you do not get tired of listening. You also need science, measurements, listening with many kinds of recordings from all eras and genres. The system must play without stress, and provide the maximum connection with the music, as the musicians intended/
Do you ever plan to bring any other components to your line?
Maybe. The current catalogue is the permanent base of Daniel Hertz. This is not a company that plays the high-end audio game. Like my second company Cello Ltd., every piece will be a collector’s item.
Can you tell us more on special and innovative approaches that you use in your products?
Words do not convey the soul of Daniel Hertz. You have to discover it, as you would a musical instrument. Daniel Hertz is like a great piano or violin. You have to play it to feel it and understand it.
What would you say, that is the secret of Daniel Hertz?
Love, soul, passion, commitment, life experience, science, and the best people. Daniel Hertz is the summing up of my life’s work in audio.
How do you see the state of present high-end society?
I prefer not to comment, except to say this. I observe that the world is becoming obsessed with toys and gadgets, and disconnected from art and soul, the artisanal and the deep.
Would you say that high quality is more affordable today or you have to pay premium price for best components and sound?
This depends on what you want, and if you find the right people to help you, not just take your money.
Where does hi-fi stops and high end comes in for you?
No one has an answer for this question. I do not see any definition of what high-end audio is.
What is the definitive goal of Daniel Hertz audio?
Daniel Hertz provides a new world reference in audio quality. Its goal is to sum up all I have learned, and bring it to the world. The purpose is very spiritual. Those who have it understand this.
What do you see the future of audio and where do you see your roll in it?
The future of audio depends on a number of things that are still in flux. It is also connected to the world of music recordings, and how that is developed. Love of music is universal. Almost everyone has it. But the business world is normally run by people who are paid to make money, not create beauty and uplift the soul.
Are physical medium obsolete?
No, because you can enjoy music on any medium if you have the right solution.
What is your opinion of vinyl?
Can be very enjoyable. But it also has severe limitations as anyone can tell if they hear the master tape. The limitations may be more or less audible depending on the type of music.I recorded Bill Elgart (“A Life” in 1976). The LP is unlistenable. Many people returned it. The CD and SACD are awesome.
Do you think analog master tape quality can be matched within the digital domain?
Yes, with the right solutions.
Can you tell us more about your recordings and what is so special about them?
The most important thing is to find musicians who play at the highest level. Then, recording them is fairly easy. Recording is an art. You can’t explain how you paint or write or make a violin in a few words.
Do you plan to record more music?
Who are your musical inspirations?
Too many to list. Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, Gary Peacock, Paul Motian, Lee Konitz, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, Art Tatum, Ameer Khan, Sonny Rollins, the young Alam Khan, son of Ali Akbar, and many others.
Can you tell us more about your time with Keith Jarret and Chick Corea?
Keith and I both went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston when it was very small, on Newberry St. Keith played in my band, I played in his band. He was playing in a cocktail piano lounge for $15 a night. Chick became a good friend. He played often at Connelly’s, a jazz club in a black section of Boston, as the house pianist with greats like Coleman Hawkins and Roy Haynes. He probably got $15 a night too.
John Coltrane is one of my favorite artists. Can you tell me more about the time you spend with him and if he affected you in any way?
Another long story. When I was 18, he invited me to come to his hotel room in Boston to talk and play. I was too afraid to go. I know what I lost. That taught me never to be afraid of anything again.
Coltrane somehow entered different kind of space and time withs his last years. He was deeply impressed by teachings and music of India. Can you elaborate on this and the way you see it?
Not here. Ali Akbar Khan lived where John was trying to get. But his music is incomparable.
How did you become influenced by Sarod and where did you learn to play it?
Ali Akbar Khan. Go on the internet or contact Mary Khan at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, CA. www.aacm.org . After 40 years, I am still only a student, but I learned to touch the music and play some things.
Indian classical music with their knowledge, mantras, ragas etc. is a very unique universe, that seems to never stop. Did it touch you?
Could you find a connection between jazz and Indian classical music?
Yes, but is very obscure and has nothing to do with the fusion music being played today. Real North Indian classical music should be played pure. Elements can be incorporated into jazz but almost no one knows how to do it because they never studied adequately.
You know the tone of the instruments. How difficult is to achieve it in reproduction?
Listen to my recordings on a Daniel Hertz system.
Good in many applications.
Is it possible to achieve the same feeling with high-end audio as on concert?
Possibly. The most important thing is your mind. Even a small mono system can bring joy too.
How to remove mystics from audio?
Some people need them because audio is their hobby. Many fields have them – cars, watches, photography, for example. Pay more attention to the music.
What is the difference between audiophile and music lover?
There is nothing wrong with enjoying good equipment, and loving music. The two are not always together, but many people love both.
What does a music lover get with buying Daniel Hertz?
You only find out when you have it. Usually people find that their quest has ended.
What is your reference when designing and testing new products?
Good recordings and science.
What is the real high-end reproduction for you?
When you forget about equipment.
Is Daniel Hertz high-end or ultra high-end company?
We are just people doing our best.
You were also involved with Sony and SACD. Please tell us more.
SACD was originally developed to stop piracy. It had merit, also for sonic quality. But there were no tools in DSD, the format of SACD. So engineers mostly used normal PCM technology so most SACD’s are just CD’s in a different format. A pity. Sony and Philips abandoned SACD under the onslaught of MP3 and downloaded music.
What is your opinion on SACD audio quality?
It can be great if done well.
You were also involved with giant LG. What was your role?
I was Chief Sound Advisor for three years. I helped LG upgrade its sound quality, as they requested. I learned a lot and they treated me very well. I met many very interesting people.
Who would you say typical Daniel Hertz audio customers are?
People who love music and can afford to buy Daniel Hertz equipment.
You also mastered few records. Can you tell us more about this?
I can’t remember all the things I did. I remember remastering the “Birth of the Cool” seminal jazz recording using the Cello Audio Palette, and having Lee Konitz sitting next to me, agreeing with the results. Lee played alto sax on that iconic recording from the 1950’s, with Miles Davis and other greats, and there he was, sitting next to me.
Any last thoughts for our readers?
Support real live music. If we don’t, it might disappear. Get rid of amplification of live music as much as possible. Support small music spaces that provide intimacy. Support large venues like concert halls and opera houses that are now endangered. Contribute to organizations like the Ali Akbar College of Music (www.aacm.org) and the Music Maker Relief Foundation (www.muaicmaker.org ).
Instead of nostalgia and fantasies about my past achievements, see what Daniel Hertz is doing today. If you are able, support living people and companies that are based on true dedication to the best in engineering, craftsmanship, design, and love of music. For those who cannot afford it, just enjoy what you have and know that your appreciation is valued. I would like to thank all the people who have loved my work and enabled me to have such a rewarding career in audio. And thanks to you and your magazine for asking so many good questions, and allowing me to speak to your readers.
Mono and Stereo ultra high end audio magazine
All rights reserved, November 2011
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