There is no need to introduce Mark Levinson. He's a living audio legend, the man who founded high end audio in 1974 with his LNP-2 Preamplifier and has been closely associated with its development for 40 years.
His path led him through many different ventures. Along the way he created timeless products like the LNP-2 and the Cello Audio Palette, with tone controls (EQ), still considered state of the art almost 30 years later, and holding a steady high-price in the used market. Sad part is, whenever one appears it vanishes in no time.
Enter Daniel Hertz S.A. of Switzerland. Founded by Levinson in 2007, Daniel Hertz seems like a culmination of his life work in audio. In the last few years Daniel Hertz has made quite an impact with his M series of speakers and amplifiers across the world and especially in Asia. His Daniel Hertz electronics offer an intimate look into Mark’s vision of music and no nonsense reproduction.
Regarding the name. Yes, it relates to Heinrich Hertz, the German physicist who was the first to demonstrate the electromagnetic wave, who is directly connected to the beginning of audio. Heinrich Hertz was Mark's great uncle on his mother's side. The Hertz is the internationally accepted term for cycles per second, a measurement of frequency (Hz, kHz, mHz, gHz.) An intriguing and interesting connection. Daniel is his father’s name.
The DNA of Daniel Hertz reflects Levinson’s involvement in the professional world of live music recording and mastering as well as consumer world of residential audio. For this reason, he sees the recording as an intrinsic part of the audio playback chain, and for good reason. Audio systems do not reproduce music, they reproduce recordings of music.
Daniel Hertz Master Class is a Mac software audio player with built in A+ processing, 6 band EQ, adjustable input and output gain and ability to print files with the adjusted EQ and A+ embedded. It is a stand-alone application that supports all the file formats that Apple Quicktime is able to reproduce. During my review period it was stable and trouble free without glitches or problems. The user interface is straightforward, clean and stripped down with no unnecessary cosmetics. Both A+ and EQ can be turned on and off instantly by clicking a small box next to each function, or you can bypass both by clicking the bypass box, so you can hear exactly what you are doing.
I’m sure I'm not the only one that has been lusting for the original Cello Audio Palette or daydreaming of having a hardware version in the digital domain. Something that can be used as easily as the FM Acoustics Lineizer, but without the actual hardware and additional wires required. Enter the Master Class domain.
I've been around the digital audio from the early 80's. During my music making I've tried many of the audio programs and specially dedicated audio plugins on various platforms (Windows, Macintosh, Linux, IOS etc.).
Looking back at the beginning of digital audio, its clear that computer audio has come far. Everything advanced to the point where computers are nowadays being used for the entire production of the most highly regarded albums – recording, mixing, and final mastering. Advancing computer playback of music was a dream that took many years to materialize, although this movement brought its hubris along the way. More on that in the paragraph below.
Digital audio has been developed to the point where analog modeling offers an impressive array of professional audio plugins that simulate the classical analog equalizers, mastering compressors, signal chains, delays etc. The pro audio industry fought hard during the past two decades to lower the digital aliasing in order to achieve the best possible sound quality. Internal structure of platforms changed to 32bit and 64bit cores and new multiprocessors brought enormous advances in processing speed. While this is a subject of its own with many doors left open for endless debates, it’s for sure that a digital revolution has been happening. And the same accounts for the digital audio players that offer playback quality with more real high-end audio performance.
While digital audio plugins have their strong dedicated roles, I failed until now to find a sonically satisfying solution, even with the most advanced pro audio mastering audio tools or plugins being used in mastering chains and so-called channels strips.
I've felt from the start in the 80's that there was something inherently wrong with PCM audio. For some reason (and I'm not alone) I cannot stand listening to PCM recordings for more than 5-15 minutes without experiencing some sort of inner distress. For that reason most of my listening and testing is done with vinyl or either DSD. But with DSD there is a problem of actually finding pure DSD content. Most DSD or SACD is edited via PCM audio workstations, which kills the primary advantage of the DSD format. So-called “DSD-Wyde” editing is not DSD at all, it is PCM with the same resolution as DSD. Not the same thing! You have to dig to find this out, an inconvenience which bothers those who want the truth about DSD. As with vinyl direct analog recordings, pure DSD transfers from analog tapes do not create an unsettling feeling as PCM does. Once content is transferred to PCM, the listening fatigue is permanently there. Master Class addresses this fundamentally critical issue.
A+ is a bit hard to describe. It is subtle but the effects can be felt instantly with regard to the issue of listening fatigue and prolonged listening. This feature alone is worthy of high praise. It’s something that Mark strived hard to perfect during the past 15 years for his own recording and mastering, and then decided to make it available in a user friendly form. Without A+ Master Class would still be a remarkable Mac Audio player with stand out EQ, but would it lose one of the most important features and breakthroughs regarding the stressless audio listening experience that has been a hallmark of the finest analog master tapes and LP’s but until now virtually not possible with digital audio.
Stressless!? As I've mentioned before in my text, for me digital audio is in many ways a giant leap forward in the evolution of the musical reproduction. Sadly, it has in its DNA something quirky and troublesome. I'm really baffled that nobody else in high-end audio society wrote publicly about this. I've been talking about this fact for years. Over the past two decades I've written about this so many times, that my rumbling sounds like a broken record even to myself. Still, I cannot ignore this evident negative phenomenon.
The PCM "digititis" seems to deal directly with the level of the stress it produces on our human system. It might be that people differ in their sensitivity to this. However, the recent rebirth of vinyl around the world tells us that this phenomenon is virtually global. Our lifestyle may take away our ability to spot this more lucidly. With the fast forward way of living, our sensitive warning receptors are often masked or put in off function by the speed and multiplexing of our daily dealings. In my opinion this phenomena also affects the way people started to address and respect music itself and the musician in past twenty years.
We cannot put all the blame on the amount of the music and the quality of it. There is a strong connection to the background music listening habits people developed from the early 80's (the time of introduction of the CD) and onwards that has affected us all, even many hardcore music lovers and audiophiles. Stress is closely connected to our reaction to experiencing the music being reproduced. Stress interferes with or blocks our emotional experience and enjoyment, and as a result, our deep inner world of musical experience is lost. This may be why there is very little talk about the recreation of lifelike concert-going feeling within the high-end audio.
With the A+ turned on the subtle process starts to affect the music at once. It is only positive and eliminates the nasty feeling. Without the A+ turned on, the raw PCM audio nature results in the hectic feeling of unease or to what some people might call listening fatigue. Raw PCM creates irritation and leads to pushing the music in the background or turning it off completely. It makes listening a non- involving act and music as well as musician lose the importance of their art. Instead of being appreciative, the result of listening is completely opposite taking the inherent potency of the music away. This is the high price we have paid for the convenience of digital audio – the loss of disappearing into the music that we have with analog.
With A + the result is clearly the reappearance of the stress-free aura surrounding the music. Involvement is back, enjoyment returns, and we can get lost in the music.
I can see the hordes of doubtful faces when I say that the legendary Cello Audio Palette has morphed into the contemporary Daniel Hertz Master Class audio player with the Master Class onboard EQ. The simplicity and operation closely reflect the analogue feeling of the hardware and so does the musical performance when tuned with Master Class EQ.
Master Class turnover frequencies reflect closely those of the Cello Audio Palette. Mark invested his time, passion, know-how and funds into making this a mature product. While there are many things to say regarding the depth of the Master Class heritage, technology and people behind it, for this review I want to keep my focus on the musical outcome. Perhaps in post commentary I can touch on them.
Master Class EQ was designed to make on-the-fly real time frequency response corrections to the music being played. It uses 6 bands for tonal balance adjustment at center frequencies of 40Hz, 120Hz, 500Hz, 2kHz, 5kHz and 20kHz. These bands cover the most important frequency ranges with easy adjustment, without taking out the heart of the music. The input and output volume settings adjust the gain structure and avoid clipping. Interestingly, whenever you're pushing the gain of dedicated bands, the output vu-meters may go into the red, like with analog console vu-meters showing you the approach or arrival of clipping. The meters tell you when you are getting close to the point of overdriving. I've had the same feeling like "riding" the analog mixing board with these EQ virtual sliders.
For those of you that might not be familiar with subject of mixing or pushing the gain, the analog domain distorts in a different and more musical way as you approach clipping, and it can be pushed for a different more musical result. When digital signals are pushed into clipping, it results in hard clipping which sounds terrible. In the same way, whenever I was being very adventurous with moving the dedicated frequency sliders up, I was reminded of working with EQ in the analog domain.
This shows that there is much hidden under the "simplicity" of the Master Class UI. The result of tuning the desired song stays musical with the correct tone, timbre and density. To make this right means something special and Mark has done it here in a most practical way.
Master Class offers an ability to load and save EQ presets. This opens up enormous possibilities of sharing them without constraints. Imagine the online community where people exchange freely their EQ settings for the particular album. We all know how many versions of the same album there might be with different reissues, different masterings, different eras, etc. Now imagine the ability to download preset for each of their releases. This is special and something I think will happen in a big way among those who use Master Class.
The implementation of the Master Class EQ can go from subtle to the big bump. Sometimes only a few tenths of a dB are needed, but result is heard at once. The need of the adjustment depends on the actual music record material, but even the little changes benefits. I've found almost no song, I couldn’t improve with Master Class.
It’s extremely hard to make a transparent EQ that doesn't suck out the life and stays musical. In most cases whenever you adjust one band, the change creates a frequency loop hole or frequency bump that affects other bands and destroys the coherent complexity of the music. Such EQ negatively impacts the music so it just sounds wrong. Such changes reflect more something that a music producer would do when adjusting a certain aspect of instrument EQ rather then addressing the overall tonal balance structure, like in voicing a guitar. Master Class is designed to model the whole recording as a harmonic whole, not play games or introduce sound effects. Most importantly, Master Class EQ doesn't kill the music, but rather remedies it instantly.
RENDER AND SAVE
Another great feature is so called “Render and Save” – the ability to print a new AIFF file that captures the A+ and EQ you have selected with your changes embedded. This means you can use Master Class once, make a new file, get what you want, and forget about the original track and its limitations.
The whole process of rendering and saving to disk happens in one or two seconds. Click and a new AIFF is on your desktop or the designated destination folder. You can remake your complete iTunes library with Master Class and just play the new AIFF files you make. The MC processed files can be sent out to your friends or "non" believers to try out and compare the treated files with the original ones.
It’s funny how many applications come to mind with the Master Class “Render and Save” file print option. Master Class suddenly appears to apply not only to music listeners, but also to recording engineers, producers, musicians, etc. who create content. Master Class can be easily used as an effective EQ or mastering tool. Master Class provides overall EQ and A+ for an entire DAW (digital audio workstation files), final musical mix, or you can just add the unique A+ to the final master. Imagine the addition of the A+ stressless feature in popular songs for the wider audience.
Daniel Hertz Master Class is clearly a very special product. For me, it's a dream come true as it finally opens up the door to prolonged listening to my digital collection of music. Master Class makes PCM a viable solution on all levels.
To often we heard from audiophiles about the need for actual progress. We all know that anything new requires change, but the fact is that many people are resistant to change. There are times when we need to accept something new and the corresponding paradigm shift. Everyone demands working and practical solutions. Here is the prime example of a product that can jointly embrace audiophiles and music lovers in their quest. Master Class helps music come to life with full bloom.
As an experiment I tried to bring Apple native AAC files from my iTunes library up to the same level of sound of my vinyl LP versions. With Master class input and output sliders I've match the gain and starting to play around with six bands. It took me some AB switching, but result was something that made me wonder. I would say I came to the 90%+ matching of the vinyl, that in the end offered almost the exact match if not the same.
Master Class offers a groundbreaking achievement and with the impact that advances more than just the sound. There is something here on a larger scale of importance. Without getting too altruistic or philosophical, technology should be in the service of the art. Music is for sure an art form that affects us most intimately. Master Class elevates digital audio reproduction to the plane where music finally becomes again the main focus and not a side show. With Master Class it feels like a time machine has finally started moving its bearings in bringing us back the attributes of the era when music matter the most.
Some recordings are very well made and need only A+ and only small EQ adjustments. But many less perfect recordings take on new importance with Master Class processing and can get the appreciation they deserve and be recognized for the music and performance they capture. With few slides of the virtual faders you can easily tune your favorite music to sound better, more presentable, musical and lifelike. Some results are stunning, some advanced, but in general Master Class can affect all the music with a grand impact and natural sound.
At the present time there is a strong trend and movement towards DSD (the file format of SACD). With Master Class, you can actually use your existing digital sound library without reinvesting the funds into the latest DSD format releases, and get equal or better results. Yes, pure analog DSD transfers can sound really impressive, but with Master Class you can get the results of similar and better impact even with the vast existing music from your beloved audio library and without spending hard earned money again.
Master Class ensures that music reproduction stays in the domain of natural sound and tone and timbre richness. This is rare and something both music lover and audio aficionados will cherish.
For me A+ adds to the groundbreaking triumph in terms of both evolutional and revolutionary aspects. A+ removes the unpleasant artifacts of digital audio with absolutely no compromise to the music. With A+, digital audio embraces the attributes of analog in the best way I've heard so far. It’s something that must be heard and experienced to appreciate the full benefit. Finally, I must say that - most importantly - this application works!
It’s music that matters and Mark Levinson continuously excels in closing the gap of the musical and interactive part of the message being sent to the listener.
The Cello Audio Palette might be a distant dream, a revelation for the fortunate few. If you can find one, the cost nowadays is in the range of $15,000 -20,000. On the other hand, Master Class brings this privilege to the 21st century in the best possible way. Simple, easy to use, effective, affordable and musically involving.
It's the combination of A+ and EQ in Master Class that makes this audio player such a stand out. When used with feeling, they excel in what they do symbiotically.
We might be accustomed to sound of pop, rock, blues albums where each record is strictly monitored and "tailored" on the monitors. This can have a certain consistency even on home audio systems. On the other hand, many live acoustical recordings are over-processed and don’t drag you in and offer the right feeling. This is where with a few mouse turns and clicks you're able to bring the "magic".
Daniel Hertz Master Class feels like the Patek Philippe of music players. It puts the focus on the main aspect of the music reproduction: the quality! It’s deliberately a Mac-only application, simple to use, reliable and with no brainer operational design. The main word is purity of musicality. The ownership of Master Class depends on ones urge, quest and importance of high-end reproduction of digital audio. For me it represents a milestone in the digital audio playback.
Daniel Hertz Master Class receives without a second guess the Upper Echelon Class Mono & Stereo award. This prestigious award embraces the unique position of this Mac software audio player with exquisite functionalities that seamlessly builds the bridge between digital music reproduction and the listener. It’s interactive in the best way.
Price and technical details:
- Master Class is CHF 600 (USD 660).
- Usb dongle is necessary for the operation and its shipped to end customer when upon the order.
- Program/application is emailed with instructions.
- Mac OS 10.8 or higher is required.
Daniel Hertz SA Neuchâtel