July 5, 2005

In This eNewsletter:
Stereophile eNewsletter to Appear Every 2 Weeks, by John Atkinson • Mark Levinson & the Bobcat, by Wes Phillips • This Month's Strangest Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

Stereophile eNewsletter to Appear Every 2 Weeks, by John Atkinson

Since it first appeared in December 2004, Stereophile's eNewsletter has arrived in your email inbox once a month. My goal for the newsletter was not to pack it with lightweight filler but to make its content a genuine complement to that of the print magazine and the magazine's website. However, a number of readers have found the length of our offering a bit daunting.

Starting this month, therefore, we will be publishing the newsletter twice as often, to keep its content to a more easily digestible length. The newsletter you receive the first Tuesday of the month will feature the writings of Wes Phillips, while the second newsletter, published on the third Tuesday of the month, will feature hot high-end news from Ken Kessler and my own musings on audio.

Enjoy.—John Atkinson

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From Wes Phillips

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Simaudio Ltd.
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Mark Levinson & the Bobcat, by Wes Phillips

In my grumpy rantings in the June eNewsletter, I mentioned that I'd scheduled an appointment at Red Rose Music's Seventh Avenue showroom, in New York City, to audition the Burwen Bobcat. I'd heard the demonstration that Mark Levinson had presented at Home Entertainment 2005, but it had left me with more questions than it answered. Mark Levinson and Richard Burwen both expanded on the HE2005 Red Rose presentation, as I reported here, but—to state it baldly—I remained confused by what high-end audio problem this solution was intended to fix.

A history lesson
Perhaps I should back up a minute for those of you who haven't been following this particular brouhaha. Mark Levinson is someone whose name has become synonymous with high-end audio. He founded Mark Levinson Audio Systems in 1972, ushering in a new standard of build quality (and pricing) for domestic solid-state audio products. In 1984, Madrigal Audio Laboratories, Inc., bought the assets of MLAS from Levinson and relaunched the company that today, as part of Harman International, trades under the name of Mark Levinson Madrigal Audio Laboratories.

Levinson went on to found Cello Film and Music Systems and, more recently, Red Rose Music, both of which personified the zeitgeist of their respective eras. Cello was an expression of the go-go 1980s and 1990s, manufacturing jewel-like products that seemed to have one foot in the professional recording realm and another in the world of high-end domestic hi-fi.

Red Rose Music, by contrast, seemed to be about simplification, offering, in Mikey Fremer's succinct summation, a chance for music-loving baby boomers to "relive the experience without the audiophile neurosis."

Over the years, Levinson, an enthusiastic musician, has also been involved in recordings. (Audiophiles may remember his LP of guitarist Elliot Fisk, not to mention his production of Blue Note recordings by Jacky Terrasson and Joe Lovano, among others.) He has also been active over the years in several music-oriented charities, including the Stradivarius Society, which arranges the loan of rare string instruments to promising young musicians, and the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which supports traditional musicians.

Some personal history
I should also offer the following disclaimer. I worked as a salesman at New York's Stereo Exchange in 1986–87, where, for about three weeks, we sold Cello products. More to the point, we didn't sell them—our store simply wasn't a destination for the customers who were the target for such an exclusive and costly line. However, I did spend quite a bit of time with Mark Levinson during that period, and I saw firsthand how persuasive and magnetic a salesman he can be.

What you bought when you bought Cello, in my opinion, wasn't so much the superb engineering or exquisite build quality (both of which the equipment had), but the Mark Levinson sales experience itself. If you know salesmen only as manipulative hacks who try to trick you into buying a product they don't believe in, then you haven't met Mark Levinson. Discussing music with him—and we were talking about music, the sublime essence of the universe; not its conduit, mere hi-fi—I felt smarter and more perceptive. I felt energized by the give and take of ideas, which quickly ranged from discussions of mental and physical well-being to the appreciation of the visual arts to non-Western philosophy. Well, of course, one appreciated quality in one's life—it was an extension of one's perception . . .

In other words, Mark Levinson didn't so much sell you a product, he enabled you to believe you were special enough to deserve it—that you were perceptive enough to comprehend just how good his components were. If I were cynical, I'd say his shtick was a masterful manipulation, but I thought then, and I think now, that it was sincere. Was it calculated? Almost certainly—as is nearly every effective public performance.

Some recent history
That's why I was startled by the presentation I saw—and the ones I heard about—at HE2005. The Burwen Bobcat demo was sales by assertion, perhaps the weakest form of sales presentation there is. Rather than allowing his audience to discover the qualities of the product, Mark Levinson told us it was better and steamrolled over people's questions. He didn't enlist the audience as allies, as I'd seen him do in the past, but kept us at arm's length, refusing to perform A/B demos or even discuss what the Bobcat did.

So when I showed up at Red Rose Music on June 9, I was curious about which Mark Levinson I was going to meet: Would it be the most messianic salesman I had ever met, or would it be the uncomfortable, slightly hostile presenter from HE2005?

If life were only so simple.

Since I'd publicly complained about the lack of comparisons at HE2005, I brought CDs I was familiar with, thinking we might rip a few songs to the Windows Media Player 10 format so I could compare them with and without the Bobcat processing. I never got a chance to do that, although Levinson did offer to let me audition the combo of program and DAC—and even offered to provide me with a Windows laptop, as Bobcat won't run on the OS X that powers my household.

We began with a brief rundown of the system Levinson was using for playback, which included several new Red Rose components, specifically the M-1 Multichannel Audio Video five-channel amplifier ($5000), four pairs of M-2 two-way loudspeakers ($5000/pair) arranged as two stereo pairs consisting of four speaker modules each, and a single M-3 subwoofer ($4000). The system's source was a laptop running the Burwen Bobcat program, feeding Red Rose's proprietary USB DAC from Daniel Hertz Advanced Audio designs.

Anatomy lesson
Before we started, however, Levinson explained that the Bobcat was not so much an equalizer or a means of restoring missing information to MP3s as it was a solution to a far more pervasive problem confronting the audio industry, not to mention modern society: the damage that PCM recording causes to the human nervous system. Citing "Human Stress Provoked by Digital Recordings," a 1980 article by Dr. John Diamond, Levinson argued that the process of recording music with PCM digital technology stripped it of its ability to nurture the human spirit. In fact, he said, it created stress that disrupted neural and muscular functions.

Levinson asserted that DSD recording did not create the same type of stress response, and claimed to have proven this in a demonstration to Sony's David Kawakami at a SPARS function several years ago. Unfortunately, Levinson said, DSD and SACD never gained a foothold in the marketplace.

The Burwen Bobcat, through its use of ultra-high-frequency reverberation and strategic equalization, overcomes the deleterious effects of PCM digital, Levinson claimed. He said he had proven this in tests using the Avatar Biofeedback Testing System. Because he did not have an Avatar system at Red Rose, he offered to test my responses to PCM digital and the Burwen Bobcat on the spot, employing the techniques of applied kinesiology.

Applied kinesiology (AK) is a diagnostic tool, developed by chiropractor Dr. George Goodheart, that uses muscle testing to examine bodily responses to stimuli. Essentially, the applied kinesiologist tests a muscle's resistance and, when a muscle tests weak, attempts to determine the cause of that weakness through the addition or removal of variables. According to Dr. William Walsh, a Fellow of the College of Applied Kinesiologists who trained with Dr. Goodheart, there are fewer than 500 trained kinesiologists in the US who can perform the testing regimen reliably and repeatedly. Mark Levinson, to his credit, pointed out that he is not a trained kinesiologist, but offered his test results as nonetheless instructive.

He began by having me remove my quartz watch and made sure I had no cell phones or other electronic devices in my pockets. He had me stand erect and lift my arm straight out to my side as he played a 128kbps MP3 recording without Burwen Bobcat enhancement. The AK testing procedure involves the subject resisting, as strongly as possible, the practitioner's downward push on the subject's arm. No matter how hard I resisted, Mark was able to push my arm down easily while the MP3 recording played. He repeated the experiment with the Burwen Bobcat engaged and could not push my arm down.

We repeated the experiment several times with similar results. Levinson then proposed an interesting variation on the procedure. With no music playing, he had me repeat phrases while testing my muscle response.

"I hate music." My arm went down.

"I love music." My arm was rigid.

"I hate my work." My arm went down.

"I love my work." Arm rigid.

This, Levinson claimed, showed that the cognitive dissonance caused by false statements was essentially similar to the kind of emotional and physical stress caused by PCM digital recording. It also showed, he said, that I was one of the most sensitive test subjects he had ever seen—possibly because of my intelligence, sensitive hearing, or emotional openness. Moi?—the poster child for Middle American emotional repression?

Time for another disclaimer—or perhaps a straight claim. I'm very familiar with kinesiological testing, having been Bill Walsh's office manager for a few years when I was starting my career as a professional writer. I found Levinson's test disturbing, primarily because he pulled my arm upward before each muscle test—something that I had never experienced with any certified kinesiologist.

To me, the most troubling aspect of the whole afternoon was this misuse of an effective tool. Kinesiological testing is not bunk, and Dr. Diamond is a serious therapist whose work poses disturbing questions. Furthermore, as Walsh observed, "The only possible way for any test—kinesiological or otherwise—to have validity is if the tester has no emotional involvement in the outcome."

Not that my whole afternoon at Red Rose focused on the mind/body connection. We did perform some classic comparisons, beginning by listening to Rickie Lee Jones' "I'll Be Seeing You" as a 128kbps MP3, which sounded flat, shrill, and uninvolving. No surprise there. We listened again, this time with the "basic" Bobcat setting, and the sound was less grating and less grainy. There was no question that I preferred the sound with the Bobcat.

I again asked the obvious question: "Why use MP3s as the source if the software could improve the uncompressed CD sound?" Levinson's response was that the Bobcat made MP3s sound as good as analog or DSD, and ameliorated the effects of PCM digital so well that there was no point in making consumers eat up all that hard-disk space with uncompressed files.

But why employ the computer as a storage device at all? Couldn't the process have been incorporated into a standalone component? No, Levinson explained, it was very processing-intensive and required Pentium 4 technology.

We continued our comparisons, sometimes using MP3 files and sometimes, just to silence my objections, uncompressed WMA files. There is no question in my mind that the Bobcat had an effect—usually making the music sound less harsh and slightly (in a few cases, substantially) more dynamic. We employed quite a few of the different stock settings of the Bobcat program—Basic 1, 2, 3; Classical 1, 2, 3; and Vocal 1, 2, 3—and what impressed me most was not how different the settings sounded from one another, but how subtle the variations were. Levinson observed that, in many of the settings, there were level shifts of as little as 0.1dB throughout the spectrum. The key to this product," Levinson told me, "is Dick Burwen's ears."

Based on the listening tests, Dick Burwen's ears agree with mine.

As we talked, Levinson told me that he was increasingly concerned about the proliferation of PCM sound in the world. We are, he said, immersed in a vast sea of digitized noise: cell tones, game sound, portable digital players, movie and television soundtracks, computers—pretty much any type of reproduced sound we encounter has, at some point, gone through PCM processing. As a result, we are undergoing a constant barrage of stress that cumulatively can overwhelm our nervous systems to the point that, as Dr. Diamond observed, music becomes "untherapeutic, contrary to its true nature."

What if, Levinson asked rhetorically, the Burwen Bobcat could reverse that trend? If, he suggested, Red Rose could convince Microsoft to license the Bobcat technology, then all computers, games, and the like could benefit from its therapeutic processing.

So the Bobcat could work as a straight computer program? Well, yes, he replied—to a more limited degree. However, in order to convince the computer industry that Bobcat processing is worth implementing, it first needs to be accepted by the high-end audio elite.

Oh-ho! Is that the rationale behind the product? Or is it what Levinson told me as I left Red Rose's atelier? "I'm 58 years old, and I couldn't go through the rest of my life selling expensive equipment just to make a buck when the sound itself is horrible. We need to fight the physiological and sociological effects of all the PCM sound that engulfs us."

Obviously, the AK testing scenario made me feel hustled, but that doesn't mean the Bobcat wasn't admirable on its own terms. It certainly improved the sound of MP3s—and it might actually improve the sound of digitized music that is engulfing the world. That's a laudable goal, but I remain unconvinced that we audiophiles are suffering from the problem it ostensibly solves.—Wes Phillips

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