Mark Levinson's Milestone Year

Mark Levinson, born December 11, 1946, celebrates an important anniversary in 2002. Exactly 30 years ago he jogged onto the playing field of high-end audio, so early in the game that fans, then few and far between, could count the players on their fingers.

The high-fidelity industry seems a logical home for a jazz musician like Levinson, who once envisioned a career playing flugelhorn and double bass, but his voyage into audio was a detour that could be said to have begun at age 22, when he took a job working on a film about Joan Baez. "It was a joy to find people willing to pay me to do something," quips the trim, youthful 55-year-old, who is quick to recall his "nonexistent income as a musician."

The next leg of the journey was a film-sound equipment project. Levinson and a couple of friends were working on mixers for location recording when one said, "While we're thinking about what we're going to make and who we're going to sell it to, maybe we could listen to some music." After a quick audit of the equipment on hand revealed that there was no preamp, Levinson turned to Richard Burwen, who was providing him with engineering guidance. That led to the LNP-2 preamplifier, the first product from Mark Levinson Audio Systems.

In fall 1999, Levinson tucked elements of his previous companies, Cello (footnote 1) and Mark Levinson Acoustic Recordings as well as MLAS, into a petite, 750-square-foot store on the toniest stretch of Manhattan's Madison Avenue. He used that space, which more closely resembles the art galleries that dot the neighborhood than it does a conventional audio outlet, to launch yet another brand.

The traditional symbol for a 30th anniversary is the pearl, something a visit to Levinson's jewel box of a boutique could easily evoke. Nonetheless, when the authoritative history of high-end audio is written, the emblem associated with Mark Levinson during his 30th year in the industry will more likely be a rose.

David Lander: You used your own name and that of a musical instrument for your previous brands. What led you to name your current brand Red Rose?

Mark Levinson: A red rose is a symbol. It stands for love, passion, commitment. It's not about the technical; it's about feeling. It's also simple.

Lander: As you look back on your three decades of hardware manufacturing, what stands out?

Levinson: It's exceptionally meaningful when a company introduces not only products but some consciousness or special standard of reference or excellence. I think my previous companies introduced ideas that were important and that, in one way or another, have helped change things. My first company introduced the idea of using circuits, parts, and materials of exceptional quality to make preamps and power amps that would be exceptionally long-lasting and give good service, and offer performance that was on a par with the best electronics products in other industries—like instrumentation, medical instruments, and so forth. They also were very simple, very Spartan, the idea there being that quality and simplicity were more important than complexity.

From that came a whole ocean of products that were thin and black and simple. The knob I designed for the JC-2 preamp, which was later used on the ML-1, is now on dozens of different products from other companies in one permutation or other. And there was the idea that a small, dedicated distribution network was more valuable than having an awful lot of stores and a product without any real involvement in it or commitment to it on the part of the dealer. I would say that many of the important ideas I tried to develop at MLAS were inspired by the original McIntosh company.

Lander: And Cello?

Levinson: I think Cello also introduced a number of interesting ideas, such as using high-quality audio equipment with video—the idea that maybe a really phenomenal two-channel audio system would be a great complement to a wonderful projection system. A lot of people happen to enjoy that approach—and the idea of the company store as a way that people could get closer to the factory than is usually possible through a distribution network.

There was an intimacy about the early days of audio that I find sadly lacking in today's audio world. Actually, I just caught the tail end of it, but stores at the time were usually proprietor-run. The proprietor had enthusiasm and commitment to the products, knew recordings, knew which recordings were out on what labels by what artists. There was a shared feeling for music and music reproduction both. At record labels, the proprietor was often the recording engineer, very friendly with the artists. It was a shared passion, and over the decades that's gone away. There's been this incredible loss of involvement and commitment and passion, and I think people miss that. People used to love their records. I remember when an LP was a treasured possession.

Lander: What was your vision for Red Rose Music when you conceived it?

Levinson: The heart of Red Rose can be summed up like this: make really beautiful products and take care of your customers. No one can perfectly envision the development of a company, and I wouldn't try to, but I think the founding spirit has proved enduring and fruitful. I've spent many years involved in what would be described as extremely expensive products, often very sophisticated and intended for a very small audience that can afford those price points, and I've enjoyed it very much. With Red Rose, I decided to make only a small number of products that were compact and truly affordable, that would be satisfying in such a way that people wouldn't feel any need to trade them in—products that are on the planet for a long time.

Lander: And the second part of the equation—taking care of your customers?

Levinson: I decided we should open up our own store, even though we couldn't afford to advertise. We were just going to see who walked in the door. What was important was to build a new model of what an audio store could be. Actually, it's kind of a combination of some very old-fashioned things with some new things. The thought was that we would develop the minimalist approach, boil it down, focus on what we thought were the very best products. In the early days, audio stores had only a few lines; there weren't that many lines. If you had a couple of amps and one or two speakers and a record player, a tape recorder—a few things—it was fine.

We would just offer a simple selection of what we considered the very best options in each category and design systems that focused on quality and simplicity rather than on mediocrity and complexity. Fewer boxes, but with the quality of sound, the quality of picture, the ease of operation, the freedom from obsolescence. All these factors are part of the Red Rose approach.

Lander: Red Rose is, of course, an audio equipment manufacturer with a factory and an engineering department in Redmond, Washington, just outside Seattle. How involved were you in designing the company's products?

Levinson: I'm still involved intimately in the design of every product, but like all the great products I know of, they're group efforts. Victor Tiscareno is our chief engineer, and there's a whole team of dedicated people who worked with Victor and myself, a group of people in the company who all contributed. But I have to say that, without Victor, we wouldn't have the line. He really provided the engineering that made everything lock in the way it needed to.

Lander: Some of your manufacturing is done in China. What led you to that source?

Levinson: I heard there were some high-end companies in China that had a limited market for their products, and I sensed a possible synergy. We found two companies comprising engineering, design, and manufacturing resources of the most creative and passionate kind—kindred spirits, people with a deep, fundamental involvement in music reproduction who were, curiously, inspired by my early work. So I decided to create a team, if you will, of the guys in Washington and the guys in China. There's also someone in Japan, one of the last master moving-coil cartridge makers. The idea is to work together to make a new kind of audio product that's sonically...let's call it satisfying, that just leaves you at peace, just makes you feel "I'm there," but is also very affordable, very compact, very pretty to look at, long-lasting. I don't think we could do it any other way. I think we were very fortunate to find people who could each contribute something to this end.

Footnote 1: Mark Levinson's work with Cello was described in a Stereophile interview by Barry Willis, published in November 1997 (Vol.20 No.11)Ed.

deckeda's picture

... when first published and thinking OK what happened to Cello? Still am. And what of Red Rose?

As I read both this and the '98 interview in retrospect it's clear Levinson's a forward thinker. But I'm reminded of S. Jobs: "Real artists ship."