Mark Levinson HQD loudspeaker system

The name "Mark Levinson" has for some years been equated with absolute, no-compromise perfectionism in audio design. Mark Levinson's equipment is highly esteemed by many audiophiles and audio-oriented musicians (most musicians just don't care about reproduced sound), and he has produced some of the best recordings that have ever been made. Each side of his HQD loudspeaker system comprises a pair of Quad electrostatic speakers, one pair mounted upside-down below the other in a wooden frame with the extreme highs reproduced by a central Kelly ribbon unit. two separate cabinets feature Hartley 24" woofers. We were curious about the HQD but never requested one for testing because we felt that its $26,000 price tag put it in a class where it could only be of academic interest to 99% of our readers.

It appears we made a wrong decision there. Readers' letters indicated that, while few had anv intention of purchasing an HQD, they were nonetheless interested in knowing whether or not the system was indeed as good as it was claimed to be. We were considering requesting one for testing when, by sheer chance, we had an opportunity to hear the system in a dealer's showroom. We have decided not to test one in our offices. Here's why:

We had been invited to attend a demonstration of the then-new Sony PCM-1 digital-audio recording system in a Philadelphia store (late in 1978). Sony had brought along a single recorded cassette containing about 30 minutes of short musical selections in the PCM format, and this was played through a pair of Precedent Mod-3 speakers after the spoken presentation. After the demonstration, we proposed that the PCM equipment be moved into the plush upstairs salon where the HQD system was set up, to see how the PCM would sound through them. We were not impressed, but—as we explained to Chestnut Hill propretor Jack Rubinson—there was really no way we could pin down what we heard without our knowing what the program material sounded like.

In order to settle that question, we requested (and received) that same PCM demo tape when we borrowed the PCM-1 for the review in this issue, and have since had an opportunity to audition it in relation to other, familiar source material. We are now in a position to report that, while the PCM material left some things to be desired (it was somewhat soft at the high end, for example, although that was the fault of the tape, not of the PCM unit we tested), it was not causing the rather gross aberrations we heard from the HQD system that night. These were: A somewhat heavy, loose low end, a slightly closed-in top (ie, more so than on the PCM tape), and the same kind of super-rich, overly-fat middle range we have heard before when stacked Quads are used without equalization to compensate for their rising lower range when the normal front-to-rear sound cancellation is offset by the doubled radiating area (fig.1).


Fig.1 Subjective frequency response (ie, as heard, rather than as measured) of the Mark Levinson HQD system as set up in one dealer's showroom.

The system had many things going for it in terms of imaging, smoothness and remarkable inner detail, but the sound of every instrument reproduced by the system was so darkened by that lower-middle-range hype that nothing we heard sounded more than remotely like the real instruments playing in or behind the room.

So, we wrote a long, rather unkind report on the HQD, pointing out that, if that was typical of the way it was supposed to sound (And why not, after Mr. Levinson had installed and tweaked it?), then it had to be the most expensive bomb ever to be made available for civilian use. Mr. Levinson responded with a phone call during which he:

1) Told us we had not heard it at its best, but refused to address himself to our specific criticisms;

2) Claimed that many practicing professional musicians felt the HQD to be "extremely realistic";

3) Informed us that, since he sold very few HQD systems and would soon be discontinuing them anyway because Quad had ceased making those speakers, the "sensible" thing to do would be to kill the report; and

4) Mentioned, just in passing of course, that he was currently writing a feature article for Time on the subject of "underground" audio magazines.

We could just imagine how our writeup would read: "This irresponsible publication attacks dedicated, perfectionist manufacturers, one of which is a musician (And who can better judge musical sound than a musician?), and reports on products that it has auditioned in stores on the basis of a 30-minute listen to unfamiliar program material."

We agreed to kill the report. We did not however say we would not write another one explaining in more detail how we reached our conclusions concerning the sound of the HQD. Perhaps the system does sound better in some other dealer showrooms. (We were urged to visit a dealer in Florida who has one working "properly.") Room acoustics can do strange things. But we have worked with stacked Quads before, we know what happens to that lower middle range, and we learned from Mr. Levinson that he had taken no measures to correct that problem.

To us, it is then a reasonable assumption that what we heard is characteristic of that system, and will impair its ability to reproduce instrumental timbres in the vast majority of listening rooms.

In view of the former problem, there is little point in analyzing the HQD's sound further, except to hazard an educated guess that the low end would have been much improved had it used an array of smaller woofers (with lower cone mass) and a higher-powered amplifier than the 24W Mark Levinson ML-2 monoblock.

Incidentally, we can well understand why many musicians will like the HQD. Despite its weaknesses, it is one of the few systems that have detail without stridency. And anyone with a musician's familiarity with live-instrument sound can mentally fill in the deficiencies of the reproduction.

There is no question about Mr. Levinson's integrity. We know enough about him to know he is sincerely interested in music and in the accurate reproduction thereof. We simply disagree with what he obviously envisions as accuracy.

He is clearly seeking things in reproduced sound that we consider to be of secondary importance to that rather elusive illusion of aliveness—what has been called the grestait or total impression of live-music sound. It is that quality which we found missing from the HQD that we heard, and which we have reason to doubt the system is capable of in most listening environments.

Just as an afterthought, we called the editor of Time and asked whether he didn't think it constituted a conflict of interest to have a high-end equipment manufacturer "reviewing" magazines that review his products? He didn't know anything about any such article. Maybe, we figured, we had mis-heard the publication's name. Maybe Mr. Levinson had said "The (New York) Times." Their editorial offices didn't know anything about such an article either. Now we are putting it to Mr. Levinson: Who are you writing that article for? Or were you putting us on? (footnote 1)—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: Mr. Levinson could not be reached at his office before this page of the magazine was pasted up. His comments, if forthcoming before our press deadline, will be found in the "Manufacturer's Comment" section. Otherwise, they will appear in our next issue.—J. Gordon Holt [It appears that Mark Levinson never did respond.—Ed.]

Kenc's picture

intimidation is the sincerest form of flattery...

Allen Fant's picture

Man, I miss JGH every day. No doubt that every designer feels their products are better than the rest. Sometimes yes, most of the time no. Finally, you bet room acoustics play their respective part- it is an anomaly (or can be) for sure.

dalethorn's picture

I heard the HQD one day in Cleveland - late 1970's. Very impressive. I suppose they tweaked it some, since it sounded reasonably neutral.

tmsorosk's picture

I heard them many times at a local dealers show room. I also loved them, can't imagine anyone not liking them.

dalethorn's picture

I found this comment (excerpt) in a review recently, and thought it relevant to the HQD system, which I presume this writer/commenter has never heard:

"I only listen to classical/opera and I judge audiophile equipment based on my extensive live concert experiences. On the "Also Sprach Zarathustra", I can safely say that no piece of audiophile equipment, no matter how high end, has successfully replicated the live performances of 'Zarathustra' that I heard (at Walt Disney Concert Hall, SF Davies Symphony Hall, & NYC Avery Fisher Hall). The work calls for a massive sense of scale in the top and an equally visceral impact in the bass organ pedals following the climactic cymbal crash. Ironically it's not the loudness, but the amount of details and their combined impact that I am looking for."

I rather thought the HQD did accomplish that, although if power limitations and small amounts of distortion can be ignored, the Bose 901 had a sense of that as well.

Robert J Reina's picture

Boy that picture brings back memories. I never heard the Levinson HQD system but I remember Lenny Bellezza escorting me into the back room of Lyric Hi-Fi in 1978 to see it when I was trying to scrape together enough money to buy a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10s, which was big bucks for me at the time. I was in awe at the sight of these things. But I was very naive back then (Dynaco was high end to me). I had never heard of the Mark Levinson brand. As a matter of fact, the first time I looked at the faceplate of Levinson gear, I looked quickly and mistakenly thought the diode in the logo was additional stylized lettering. I thought the manufacturer's name was "Market Envision."

dalethorn's picture

The DQ10 was a very interesting speaker. We had them in a very small room, which seemed to work OK. When we sold them to a friend, he set them up in a fairly large basement rec room - at least 18x30 feet I'd guess, and the bass just disappeared. He bought them anyway.

BB's picture

This is what happens when a "designer" with (allegedly) NO engineering credentials decides to "design" an audio component. Much of the high end is an insult to real engineering, and ML is its figurehead. If one pair of Quads sounds good, surely two pairs must be better, right? (Remember those dreadful double Advents? Thanks HP) I wonder if ML had ever understood dipole cancellation until JGH set him straight in his wonderfully blunt style. If you want "better" bass, just go find the largest woofer driver you can - the ridiculous 24" Hartley driver ought to do it. And everyone knows that Quads need more sparkly highs, so let's grab the famous Kelly ribbon tweeter and stick it in the mix too. Without people such as John Curl, who had his own vendetta, ML would be, and often was, lost (allegedly). Trying to capitalize on his musician credentials, he has left (allegedly) a trail of broken businesses and inconsistent products ever since. Want a chuckle? Read his "audio legend" self description in the website for his new venture, the Daniel Hertz company.

cgh's picture

Yeah, brief bio = 25 pages like $20k for $500 in parts = a bargain. I can't knock it, even if it's momentarily gratifying to poke fun. I work with a CIO that was recently anointed one of the top X most powerful in America by a certain well known publication. Much of the article was on their passion for running, family, and non-profit work. In actuality they haven't run a mile since college maybe 20 years ago, they work 70 hours a week, which obviates family time, and they have several highly paid board appointments that require two days of work per year (not counting signing off on executive compensation). So this kind of positioning is rampant and expected in business. Anyway, I have no idea whether Mr L even picks up his trumpet any more, or the bass from the picture in front of the 2d diffuser panel. I've never heard any recordings with any of the names dropped (Konitz, Rollins, Corea, Jarrett etc.) For all I know these exist somewhere. I've played guitar with some rather famous names, but I have no recordings as evidence. I've never heard a certain speaker co owner play his classical guitar either, but I've seen some nice poses with the 4th finger stretching well into the upper registers. He may be very good for all I know. I play rather seriously and build on the side and would love to hear more CG in audio circles, but I also wouldn't be surprised if it was the business side pushing that image.

The 90's were probably the last real decade that we could reasonably bend the truth. Everything since is verifiable electronically.

Veda's picture

"The 90's were probably the last real decade that we could reasonably bend the truth. Everything since is verifiable electronically."

Thus the conquest for most new upcoming speaker brands to focus on flat response and great off axis. Coincidentally the same new speaker designers who have striven for measured goodness prefer to hear pleasant sounding speakers.

whatdoesitsoundlike's picture

Sure it had enviable qualities: The lightning fast transient response of the Quads, the delicious lushness and speed of the ribbon tweeters, the thundering bass of the Harley's. But that was the problem: 3 distinct sounds. The worst was the bass and midrange. Who in their right mind would attempt to mate a 24" cone woofer with a fast electrostatic? Its pure insanity! To even contemplate it might work is to ignore all known laws of physics. Yeah the woofers are a little slow. Wow. What a surprise. A child would surmise the same. Look at the setup in this photo. You can't place a dipole so close to a rear wall! Have these people no experience with speaker setup? I wouldn't even place a front facing speaker that close to a wall. Ideally you need at least 6' and preferably more to really get a sense of space and not have the back wall interfering with the sound with a front facing speaker. People that claim otherwise have no conception of imaging or its capabilities when the room/back wall doesn't ruin it and the equipment possesses the ability to deliver those 3 dimensional (width, depth, height) images. A dipole needs at least twice that! They are purposely shoving the speaker close because of WR (wife resistance) knowing it will be easier to sell if they claim the walls don't make such a difference. Linn did that with their Isobarik line and it was ridiculous. I heard them at a dealer (the Sara's and it was a fine speaker, but when the salesman left the room for a minute I pulled them out from the wall and what a difference it made. Even the salesman admitted the same. But Linn knew that they could sell way more if people thought they sounded their best against the wall. Conformity is so mediocre and shameful. Especially in high end audio where it has no place. Especially in an area where its not a matter of money, rather one of appearance.

The only hybrid speaker that really worked did so because it used similar components. HP's QRS-1D was a landmark advancement in audio at the time. What was a shame was that nobody seemed to later combine Infinity's newer midrange units (less metallic sounding) with the bass panels and ribbons in the Tympani IV's. And maybe some fast, servo controlled monster sub for below 40 hz. Combined with the Goldmund Reference and best Koetsu moving coil at the time along with the best Audio Research or Conrad Johnson tube electronics and some room treatment and you would really have great reproduction.

Later some people tried to mimic this setup themselves but almost always used inferior components. Strathern ribbons were a nightmare to drive with their .55 ohm impedance (imagine driving that with a tube amp or listening through the opaque matching transformers they supplied to make it a stable 8 ohm load?). Most people never used ribbon tweeters with the Stratherns ignoring the fact that they roll off severely a little over 5000 hz. And they would mate the Stratherns with large cone drivers making the same mistake Arnie made in the 70's with the QRS Reference. You'd think people would learn. Nope! Meanwhile there were tons of Magneplanar II's around that could be acquired for a few hundred dollars on the used market. Not as much radiating area as the Tympani but still produced prodigious midbass and upper bass (down to about 40-50 hz), especially if firing down the side wall VERY far from the back wall. The trick with those was to place them right up against the side wall at a perpendicular angle. And drive them with a beefy, fast bass amp. But no, they would mate them with cheap 10"-12" paper coned sloppy drivers then complain about the discontinuous sound!

Aeolian's picture

Have you ever heard the HQD live? I have. I've even heard 1st generation tapes on an ML-5 played though it. One of those tapes was Eubie Blake at a college concert hall. He was stamping his foot on the stage and the sound was anything but the typical bloated subwoofer boom. I don't know what the crossover point was but suspect it was very low. It didn't sound like any sub I've ever heard, you just had a bit of concussive impact and the attack of his foot hitting the stage. No overhang or false bass.
Musicians are more tolerant of timbral variations than engineers or recording folks. But less tolerant of other things. What JGH thought of as lower midrange bloat might sound like warmth to a musician. I know that in the couple of hours I spent in front of an HQD I was captivated by hearing other musicians express themselves. I not only play multiple instruments, but I worked in a music store selling pianos and wind instruments to people who obsessed over various aspects of them. The HQD brought that back to me in a way nothing before or since has. I've gotten away from high end audio as it's lost that emphasis on connecting though the recording to the musicians that I first experienced in the late '70s.
And from memory, the ribbon tweeters I heard were Deccas. I also heard a single Quad set up with Deccas and Janis subs. Next best thing I've heard. Loved my MGIIIs but have never heard though anything like those Levinson/Quad systems.