Although Mark Levinson Audio Systems components continue to be produced, the company's headquarters moved in late 2003 from the Madrigal plant in Middletown, Connecticut, to Harman Specialty's facility in Bedford, Massachusetts. There ML shares manufacturing and sales space with Harman's other high-end lines, Revel and Lexicon.
Experienced reviewers know that shows are the wrong environments for critical audiophile listening. Convention centers—especially the one at Las Vegas—are huge, cavernous airplane hangers, not the intimate listening rooms reviewers thrive in. Extraneous sounds from subwoofer blasts and the constantly milling crowds leak in to sully the music. Booths set up by manufacturers on the show floor have very thin, flexible walls, and no bass treatment.
Loudspeaker cabinet design has been strongly influenced by home theater. Large floorstanding cabinets, required for reproduction of bass frequencies, are being replaced by tall, graceful towers with small footprints. While these slim speakers fit more easily into home décor and living spaces, to fill out their bass response they depend on being used with the subwoofers that are standard in multichannel systems.
It didn't seem like such a big deal. After all, when designer Kevin Voecks added a passive radiator to the bottom of Revel Loudspeakers' powerful Ultima Sub 15 subwoofer, no one expected that the resulting 6dB increase in bass output below 35Hz would be so audible. However, Revel's sophisticated double-blind listening tests (described in my review of their flagship Ultima Salon full-range loudspeaker in the March 1999 Stereophile, revealed that a big change had occurred. With now twice the radiating surface, the modified Sub 15 produced significantly deeper, more powerful bass.
Makers of powered subwoofers fall into two camps: those that fit a high-powered amplifier and a single, large woofer into a relatively small, unobtrusive enclosure; and those that build two or more 10" woofers and an amp of moderate power into a larger, heavier enclosure.
Harry Partch (1901-1974), composer and inventor of musical instruments, delighted in generating deep bass. Finding most standard orchestral instruments wanting in that department, he built the huge Marimba Eroica, which he described on his A Glimpse into the World of Harry Partch: 27 Unique Instruments (LP, Columbia MS-20576):
"You certainly love weird music!" my wife yelled from the kitchen. This just reconfirmed my suspicion that reviewing subwoofers is a lonely job that brings no respect. What's so weird about the droning of Tibetan temple horns accompanied by the chants of Tibetan Gyuto monks, all framed by a powerful synthesizer in Philip Glass's soundtrack to Kundun (CD, Nonesuch 79460-2)? What's so strange about the karate-like cries of the drummers in the Kromata Percussion ensemble as they smash away at their timpani and gongs in Yoshihisa Taira's Hierophonie V (CD, BIS CD-232)? What's so odd about the shuddering majesty of 25Hz notes played by Harry Partch's one-of-a-kind Eroica Marimba, heard on his Delusion of the Fury (LP, Columbia M2 30576)? Why would any spouse object to the primitive, driving synthesizer growls and screams from Morton Subotnick's The Wild Bull (LP, Nonesuch H-71208)?
It's common to read ads for new audio hardware that crow about "revolutionary" breakthroughs in sound performance, and that's how Velodyne crowed about their new Digital Drive DD-18, servo-controlled, powered 18" subwoofer. The ads suggested that the DD-18 can be digitally equalized to one's room with a resultant in-room frequency response of 20-200Hz, ±3dB.
Unless you've been on active duty in the Middle East, you're aware that Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab is back in business. During Stereophile's Home Entertainment 2003 show in San Francisco last June, Kal Rubinson and I played hookey to visit MoFi mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine's recording studio, at 1340 Mission Street. As we sat spellbound, Paul played the original four-track, ½", 1-mil master tape of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Minnesota Orchestra's legendary 1974 recording of Ravel's Boléro and Daphnis et Chloé (footnote 1). Stubblebine fed the four discrete channels from the specially modified ReVox reel-to-reel deck to a modern surround system. The master tape produced the cleanest, purest sound I had heard in a long time.
John Atkinson's track-by-track written evaluation in the July 2003 issue of his new Editor's Choice: Sampler & Test CD (Stereophile STPH016-2) drew me like a magnet. Here was a reviewer-editor putting into words his musical perceptions, gathered while he served as the engineer for the various recordings sampled on this compilation. JA's dual roles of writer and engineer merge complementary perspectives, yielding what should be useful descriptions of the sonic values of some of my favorite reference CDs. As I was about to start my review of Piega's new hybrid loudspeaker when I read this article, it was only natural to test whether this Swiss full-range speaker could deliver "what you should hear."