Phil Muzio, Madrigal's CEO

Photo: Mercury Pictures: Chris Fitzgerald

Madrigal's chief executive officer is known for working well into the night, but that's been a goal of his since boyhood. For many years he dreamed of becoming a professional guitarist, and even dropped out of Yale to satisfy a ravenous musical appetite. "Enough of trying to be a Renaissance man," Phil Muzio recalls thinking at the time. His aim was to be out there on the bandstand making music.

Muzio was born in 1954 and grew up on his family's 47-acre vegetable farm in North Haven, Connecticut. (The land, which his Sicilian-born grandfather bought in 1902, is just a 35-minute drive from Madrigal's Middletown headquarters, where Mark Levinson and Proceed components are manufactured and where the marketing of Revel speakers is handled.) At age 16, while still in high school, he took a part-time job at a New Haven audio shop called David Dean Smith. The eponymous Mr. Smith was one of America's first hi-fi specialty dealers.

Phil subsequently entered Yale, but left after his freshman year to study music at the University of Hartford's Hartt School and at the University of Bridgeport, where his teachers included the jazz guitarists Neil Slater and Sal Salvador. He continued to work at David Dean Smith and, one Thursday evening in 1974, he recognized a young musician who strolled onto the sales floor—a bass player, whose picture had appeared on a Paul Bley album cover.

That chance meeting with Mark Levinson was the real start of Phil Muzio's career, which now occupies more hours—day and evening—than he ever envisioned it would.

David Lander: You began working at Mark Levinson Audio Systems in 1974, two years after the company was established. What were your duties in the early years?

Phil Muzio: I was first doing odd assignments for Mark Levinson—delivering things, picking things up. When I started working inside the company, Mark had launched Mark Levinson Acoustic Recordings, and I was inspecting records, doing listening tests and final quality assurance, particularly on the LNP-2 preamplifier. Then I became associated with his engineer at the time, Tom Colangelo. He was overloaded, and he gave me a circuit schematic he needed breadboarded. I had done a lot of that work. I was a hi-fi hobbyist, and I had built several of my own preamplifiers by going into the basement at David Dean Smith and pulling the schematics out of the backs of service manuals and asking a lot of questions of the people in the service department. I built the board and returned it to him in a couple of hours, and he fired it up, and it worked. So he went to Mark and said, "I need this guy in the engineering department." It just kind of snowballed at that point.

Lander: By 1980, you were managing the engineering department. What did it consist of?

Muzio: There were five people, primarily Tom, but zero degreed engineers. It was a design department.

Lander: Was Mark still using John Curl or Richard Burwen designs, as he had done at first?

Muzio: No. We weren't getting any designs from John Curl or Richard at that point.

Lander: Many years ago, you began doing listening tests on equipment under development. That voicing, as you call it, helped create the large, spacious, enveloping sound that characterizes Levinson. What, specifically, are you listening for?

Muzio: I'm not one who gets off on saying that our sound is accurate. Anybody can say "We strive for accuracy." In point of fact, today, products from different manufacturers sound as widely different as they did 20 years ago. The sonic signature is really a personal choice. Bottom line: We're in the entertainment business. Our goal—and we've said this consistently for 30 years—is to re-create the original musical event. That goes beyond saying a violin sounds like a violin and a trumpet sounds like a trumpet. I'm talking about being able to convey the emotional message that the artist can convey in a live performance. Our job is to re-create that within a home.

Lander: What specific sonic characteristics do you focus on in order to get the job done?

Muzio: One is resolution, the detail available in a live musical performance that gives you the cues that trick you into thinking you're there. If it's a live recording, there are cues from the audience. In a piano recital, it's being able to hear pedals being pressed. There's a level of resolution that's key to creating that illusion.

Another one is dynamics. Without that, you'll never believe that it's really music. Acoustic instruments are wonderfully dynamic—-they get loud real fast, they get very quiet. You have to be able to optimize the electronics so they don't limit the capacity to put the dynamics of a performance in the room. That's something we call harmonic richness.

And imaging, the localization of the performers. You get that with the first notes played in a live performance. You know where people are across the performance area, but you also know who's close, who's far away, who's in the back and off to the right. And then you also get a sense of the space. You have to be able to convey that because, on most recordings, all that information is there.

Lander: You've said that you got out of the live music business because you ultimately decided you weren't good enough to succeed as a top-level performer. Before that, though, you did play professionally. Does that experience inform your in-house listening sessions?

Muzio: I had a lot of experience playing in big bands. That was good training. I know that people don't have long aural memories, but I do believe that something develops.

Lander: "The ear educates itself," is how Rudy Bozak—that grand old man of loudspeakers—once put it.

Muzio: Correct. I've spent my life listening, and I think I have a sense of when something sounds right. "Right," to me, means it sounds like it really does occur in the room. And I think I have a sense of when things sound wrong. I was in the rhythm section, so to my left the saxophones were in front, the trumpets were in back. I always got a kick out of people saying, particularly with tube equipment, "It's so musical. It's so warm." If you've ever listened to a trumpet live, you'd never describe it as warm. It's brash. When I read reviewers who say the trumpets were harsh, I never know if they're commenting that they don't like the way trumpets sound or they don't like the way the system is re-creating the sound.

Lander: You've said it varies from project to project, but how many hours might you spend in the listening room evaluating a product during development?

Muzio: Hundreds. We start very early in the design of a product, in engineering, because there are decisions that need to be made at a topological level. That isn't every circuit block in every product; it's up for grabs. There's a lot of science here. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a product that's designed with good engineering practices, good basic physics, good electronics principles, etc., will outperform a product that isn't.

We place a high value on proper design practices and good bench measurements, but there's a flip side to the product-development process. We don't sell the measurements—we sell the experience, and the experience happens in the listening room. It's evaluated by people with their ears. Those two things go hand in hand. You advance the electrical design, and you confirm it in the sound room. From our experience, we know that certain circuit blocks within a product are more influential than others.

We have a whole library of topologies—and we advance them, they evolve. There are a lot of areas in digital design where the library continues to grow, because we're doing more products that have more digital parts to them than ever before. So our guys may come to me and say, "These three circuits all measure well, we think they're all valid to use in this block, but we need you to listen to them to see which one sounds better."

Lander: These days, you listen along with Tom Calatayud, a senior design engineer. Is that so there's someone present who can pinpoint the technological reasons why you're hearing—or not hearing—something?

Muzio: That's part of the reason. We have a pretty stable crew here, and a number of the key players in engineering have gone through this process with me many, many times. They understand what I mean when I say certain things. They know what I expect.

Lander: And, I would think, specific electronics problems create certain sonic aberrations.

Muzio: There are certain sonic characteristics to a system that has ground-loop problems. If it does X, Y, and Z, you have ground-loop problems. There's a whole library of those kinds of things. There's a history that builds up year after year after year.

Lander: Do you know which version of a circuit each prototype under evaluation is using?

Muzio: I never know what choices I'm making. I may know that tonight we need to decide on a feedback loop for a particular amplifier.

Lander: So, in effect, the tests are blind.

Muzio: Yes.

Lander: What are your feelings about the future of SACD and DVD-Audio?

Muzio: I stopped playing the horses, so to speak, some time ago, because I found it not to be productive. With SACD and DVD-Audio, we're talking about formats that, performancewise, have a lot of potential. What I think is important to the marketplace today is compatibility.

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COMMENTS
tmsorosk's picture

Those are still some of the coolest looking speakers ever designed by man, and best sounding.

Ariel Bitran's picture

what a great interview. 

jmsent's picture

..and Madrigal is long gone. Revel speakers are made in China and Indonesia. Mark Levinson, even though they still claim to be active in the home audio business, has largely become a badge brand used on Lexus automobile sound systems. My, how times have changed.

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