Some of the old audio names, such as Eico and Pilot, are gone. Others—Fisher, AR, KLH, H.H. Scott, etc.—have been rendered meaningless by corporate mergers and acquisitions. Yet more than 50 years after their founding, McIntosh and Marantz, arguably the two most prestigious names in American high-quality audio electronics, survive. The products they make today are probably closer in spirit to their original classics of half a century ago than at any time since the early 1970s.
Mark Levinson founded Mark Levinson Audio Systems in 1972, but sold it, and the right to market audio gear under his own name, to Madrigal Audio Laboratories, then owned by the late Sandy Berlin, in 1984. Harman International bought Madrigal in 1995. As well as Mark Levinson, Harman's Luxury Audio Group now also includes digital processing pioneer Lexicon, speaker manufacturer Revel, and JBL Synthesis. The Mark Levinson brand is now headquartered in Elkhart, Indiana, at the Crown Audio facility, another Harman-owned brand. The No.53 ($25,000 each; $50,000/pair) is Mark Levinson's first new Reference series monoblock since the No.33, way back in 1993, when Madrigal owned the company. Like other Mark Levinson products, it is manufactured at an independent facility in Massachusetts.
Back in the late 1980s, when I was writing for The Abso!ute Sound and couldn't afford any of the audio gear I was reviewing, my system consisted of an Oracle turntable with Magnepan unipivot arm, a pair of Spica TC-50 loudspeakers, and a heavily modified Hafler DH-200 power amp and DH-101 preamp. It was a fun system that imaged like hell, but my fondest audio memories of that time were of visiting fellow TAS reviewer Dr. Michael Gindi, who lived on Manhattan's West End Avenue, and listening to his mbl speakers. (With his shrink's paycheck, he could afford them.)
Don't be confused by the MBL 6010 D's oddly baroque, even retro looks. Behind all the glitzthe oversize, perfectly finished, black-lacquered faáade; the two big, solid brass knobs plated with 24-karat gold; the ornate lettering; and the incongruous digital volume displayresides a thoroughly modern, remote-controlled, unusually versatile, and well-thought-out solid-state preamplifier. Not that the 6010 is a new design. It's been around for a long time, and the current "D" iteration is at least five years old.
Take a casual look at the Mk.II edition of MBL's Reference 101E Radialstrahler loudspeaker, and you won't immediately see what's new compared with the original version, which I reviewed in October 2004. But the Mk.II has a shorter, sleeker bass cabinet, designed to, among other things, slightly lower the stack of omnidirectional drivers it supports. While the many other major revisions to this familiar and fascinating loudspeaker can't be seen, it's fair to say that, from the ground up, the Reference 101E Mk.II is a new loudspeaker in design, if not in concept.
Best known for its omnidirectional loudspeakers, the German manufacturer mbl also produces three complete lines of high-performance electronics that, despite being large and built to jewel-like perfection, are sometimes lost in the shadow cast by the dramatic-looking—and -sounding—Radialstrahler 101E, which I reviewed in October 2004.
As large as a small file cabinet and weighing 223 lbs, MBL's most powerful amplifier, the Reference 9011, is a tour de force of electronics design and implementation that will set you back $53,000 if you're a single-ended stereo enthusiast, or $106,000 if you like pure balanced mono.
Still burning in my bank of childhood memories are misty images of the glowing green lettering on the McIntosh tube preamps and tuners that populated the windows of the audio stores that once lined lower Manhattan's Cortlandt Street. Leonard's and most of those other retailers are long gone—as are most of the audio brands that shared their windows with McIntosh, and that once symbolized the might of American innovation and manufacturing. Even the World Trade Center, the controversial complex that replaced Cortlandt Street's "Radio Row," where the hi-fi industry was born, is tragically gone.
The unusual Miyajima Shilabe moving-coil cartridge ($2800) came to my attention through a friend, and I obtained one from the importer, Robin Wyatt of Robyatt Audio, a music lover and dedicated audiophile who imports gear as a sideline, and who lives nearby in New Jersey.