With a review of Mark Levinson's first noise-cancelling wireless headphones booked, I had to do a bit of recon for my intro. It goes as follows. "Outside audio, Mark Levinson was married to actress Kim Catrall who was one third of the female leads of Sex in the City. The couple authored a book, Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm. Inside audio he helmed the firm named after him until 1980 then reappeared in 1984 under Cello Ltd. and later Red Rose Music. He presently runs Daniel Hertz Audio from Switzerland. Yet this isn't about the living and walking tradename, the man Mark Levinson. This is about the N°5909 of the eponymous company. In 1984 it changed hands to Madrigal Audio Labs. Since 1990 it is owned by Harman Int. so now part of the enormous Samsung Group. The brand name is as much inextricable part of American high-end bedrock as was Krell under Dan d'Agostino or the Audio Research Company under William Z. Johnson. Half a century has passed since ML's 1972 launch. Today's N°5909 is their first-ever Bluetooth headphone…"
In the course of assembling that brief paragraph, I'd mucked about the Daniel Hertz website. I'd known of its existence but not really paid previous attention. Imagine my surprise now to learn that Mark Levinson offers complete systems again as he did with Red Rose Music. Now he centers them on power DACs with an embedded 384kHz-native IC called Mighty Cat co-developed with Intersil now Renesas. There's proprietary 'C Wave' processing with power ratings from 50-200wpc. The €30'000 4-channel model adds a built-in active crossover for bi-amping. There are Bluetooth, coaxial, USB digital inputs, 1MΩ analog inputs and a 6.3mm headphone jack. Click here for a very brief video introduction.
Why is this interesting? Because within ML's own time line, Dan d'Agostino is a famous contemporary still up to his old very big very hot 'n' heavy tricks of 5.5kVA transformers and 600'000µF 100V capacitor banks. Audio Research still make powerful valve amps. With brands of high cachet, we see a lot of old tech repackaged endlessly. Meanwhile Gayle Sanders, another pioneer of the American High End under Martin Logan, now helms Eikon where he promotes active DSP speakers with class D. Even Ralph Karsten of Atma-Sphere, home of Circlotron OTL tube amplifiers, now makes his own class D amp. On the subject of high-IQ hifi—Hi²Fi—the future already here is either fully active DSP speakers like Grimm's or Kii's; or integrated amplifiers with DSP smarts like Lyndorf's or NAD's. Active lo/hi-pass filters for proper subwoofer integration, user-friendly data capture of room behavior to program onboard compensation DSP, GaNFet high-speed switching outputs… that's where present-day engineering pulls out the rug from under even big famous companies which don't move with the times but instead stick to passive speakers driven by old-fashioned amplifiers. There's nothing wrong with recycling or upcycling. Should it be called high tech though when one can seriously up a system's behavioral IQ with DSP in either the speaker or amplifier?
Feel free to disagree. Editorials only mean to stimulate discussions. When high-end 'purists' like Mark Levinson and Gayle Sanders embrace digital signal processing to this extent, it would simply seem to presage how our hobby's key hardware really moves forward with the times. After all, if after founding ML in 1972, Mark Levinson still promoted the same tech in 2022, we'd not call it progress, would we? Did nothing happen in the last 50 years? Yet that's exactly what goes on elsewhere behind renovated window dressings of modernized industrial design. It's the old wine in new bottles syndrome. Does that make it 'high end'? When Mark Levinson was recently asked what today's high-end audio is, he had no idea. Perhaps once it was a noble concept. But when its meaning doesn't adapt to changing technologies, it's stuck in the past hence irrelevant. Perhaps that's why within today's High End, Daniel Hertz the brand is curiously homeless. What it represents no longer fits. Doesn't that suggest a long overdue need to overhaul the entire high-end notion so that our expectations sync up with the actual times we live in? After all, if what we expect/accept isn't on par with what's already available, we miss out and are misled. Or as John Darko put it in response to the above, "that's the thing, innit: a little Lyngdorf with room compensation smarts and sub integration really can challenge the big boys that come without".
Cue big silence.
"Well if you put it that way" I hear one faint comment.
How would you put it then? That's a heavy-duty question, innit? Not having an answer is okay. Just grappling with the question is enough to stir up some useful dialogue. If you feel so inclined, let us know what comes up for you.
Srajan, I wanted to comment briefly on your high-end challenge. What is that thing called high-end audio? I am with you and Darko in that it must represent the most current tech which, as you point out, includes effective room correction, smart bass management and efficient amplifiers with high power density. I also think that in the absence of such features which in the right hands have become already very mature, the term 'high end' mainly represents legacy tech that is sold at astronomical prices. It is the old guard, not the younger university graduates with their degrees in the latest of technologies. We have Nelson Pass and Richard Vandersteen still do what they did when they first started. Bruno Putzeys reinvented himself a few times already from Phillips to Hypex to Grimm, Kii, Mola Mola and Purifi. He has circled the whole sector by working in amplification, DSP, speakers, converters and raw drivers. Very impressive. John Darko reviewed the Buchardt speakers which seem to pack a lot of the latest tech very cost effectively. Goldmund in Switzerland occupy a strange middle ground with very expensive ugly active speakers that are limited to 24/96.
Like your article suggested, coming up with a new definition for what high-end audio should be in 2022 is hard. But you are certainly on the right track by pointing at ever more powerful digital signal processing that should be exploited at the amplifier, speakers and room end of things not just in streamers and DACs where it matters so much less. Perhaps the real challenge is interdisciplinary in that components or speakers which include the very latest technology require not just all the old design skills but also advanced know-how in software, modeling the acoustic sciences in code and having access to expensive laboratory equipment and anechoic chambers for the necessary measurements. Assembling a team of engineers that can cover all these bases would seem to be a very costly endeavor. Bang & Olufsen gets very little respect with audiophiles but for raw engineering resources, they would seem to already have such a team in place including advanced industrial designers. Perhaps a collaboration between them and the Aavik and Børresen people you have reviewed could work at the edge of the art of what is possible today and redefine high-end audio for our century? I would add that as technology gets ever more sophisticated, it can become harder and harder for the technically less fluent of us to embrace. So whatever high-end audio decides to become, it should remain intuitive to use. Getting geeky is not my idea of a good time or anything I am prepared to pay for. I want to enjoy the music, not get bogged down by owner's manuals written by lab rats or apps whose menus have more layers than an onion. Advanced tech should be easy to use. That is part of what makes it advanced. Those are my few cents on your topic. Thanks for reading. – Dr. Franklin Krebs
Srajan, in your Hi²Fi piece, you mention a system's behavioral IQ. That just might be the new frontier which redefines high-end audio. You aren't wrong that we need a new definition. We have suffered under this notion of an absolute sound for too long. It created a concept of inviolate purity, which a group of reviewers set down a long time ago whose views seem to have stopped at the recording studio and never took into full account the real world where playback happens. If their concept is believed, we aren't allowed to make any adjustments to the signal to improve the sound in our normal living rooms, which aren't treated studios of the mastering engineers or the anechoic chamber of a speaker designer or review magazine. Mr. Krebs brings up Bang & Olufsen whose flagship speaker really is a marvel of integrated technology. In the high end of today, B&O is rarely mentioned. He is right that something is wrong with that picture. He is also correct that DSP for room and speaker behavior must be easy to use. Somehow the big majority of audiophiles seems to have grown up with the original print magazines in the US whose views shaped the High End but haven't changed since then. They see themselves as the defenders of a way of doing things that has become outdated. I thought that your specific examples of what Mark Levinson and Gayle Sanders are up to today made that point well.
I just realized that while I agree with much that's been said in your article, I haven't offered anything of real substance to bring about any change but I'm not sure I would know where to even start. However, I'm thinking about it now. That seems to have been your intention so good job I say. – Jeremy
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