Mark Levinson's Milestone Year Page 2

Lander: The meat and potatoes of the Red Rose line consists of just a couple of systems with a few possible permutations to them. Can you specify the basics for our readers?

Levinson: The Rosebud is a $3000 speaker, the Classic is an $8000 speaker, and the Revelation is a $50,000 speaker. The amplifiers generally associated with the Rosebud are the Rosette, a $2000, 35Wpc unit, and the Passion, a 100Wpc unit for $3000. The Rosette is very compact—it's only 4 ½" wide and can sit on a shelf. It's extremely simple and unobtrusive. The Passion is for somebody who wants to go further. For an extra thousand dollars, you can have more than twice the power in a more traditional horizontal integrated amplifier with better sound. The natural mate for the Classic is the Affirmation, a $7000 integrated amplifier. With the $8000 Classic speakers, it's a $15,000 idea. So you can say our basic ideas are $5000 and $15,000. The $5000 package can be augmented to $6000 with the Passion, and our $15,000 package can be reduced. If you felt you didn't need the power, you might be able to drive the Classics with a Passion or a Rosette.

Lander: You've also simplified the cable issue. You have a single Red Rose speaker cable and one interconnect, very flexible and thin enough to live with comfortably.

Levinson: It's $10 a foot, and our customers are very happy with it.

Lander: Why the leap from $3000 and $8000/pair speakers to one that costs $50,000/pair?

Levinson: There's something within me that still wants to express what can be done without thinking about the cost, just the musical result.

Lander: How many of your customers, regardless of whether their systems incorporate video components, tend to think of them as music ensembles?

Levinson: I would say probably 80% of our customers think of their purchases as music systems. We're very happy to do music-only systems; that's our heart and soul. But there's no law that says a music lover can't also be interested in video in some way—especially when, for $1200, he can buy a progressive-scan DVD/CD/SACD player, cable it up to the system, and watch a movie.

Lander: You feel strongly that the PCM operating system is antithetical to a musically satisfying listening experience. You're convinced it embodies some artifact or artifacts that you've called the "PCM signature." Just what is that?

Levinson: There's something about the PCM operating system that interacts with human beings to create a very peculiar result. Things occur outside us. We sense them, and we form a response to them. There seems to be something about PCM that human beings respond to negatively, that is not described or defined in the conventional tests.

Lander: Some psychoacoustic phenomenon?

Levinson: It may be neurological. Let's say it's something involuntary. We don't choose to do it. There really should be some studies on this, but I would say it's pretty clear how people feel about CD. When I see all this evidence piled up, year after year, there's no question in my mind. Having a store in New York City has been a real education for me, an ongoing workshop that continues as long as we leave the door open. A wide variety of people walk in, and many, unsolicited, tell us that they're not happy with CDs. You can't imagine how many times we hear this from people. And these are mostly not audiophiles. They're just people walking down the street—they don't know my name, they're not into high-end audio. And yet, when these same people take a listen to music recorded in DSD or on LP, the response is, "Wow. Now that's something I love." I don't want to be misinterpreted. This is not to say you can't derive pleasure from a CD. I'm sure many people do.

Lander: Do the ones who don't tell you why?

Levinson: Oh, sure. It's very consistent. People find CDs irritating, fatiguing, boring. Maybe it isn't even something as overt as that. Maybe it's, "Well, I just kinda stopped listening." People who used to listen to music a lot "just kinda stopped listening." At the same time, you see people who buy audio equipment getting more and more and more equipment—more expensive, more complicated: very expensive cables, D/A converters, this, that, and the other thing, loading themselves up with tons of gear, still not happy.

My associates and I have discovered that there are two ways to make this problem go away. One is the LP; the other one is SACD—if it's implemented properly. There's an unbelievable number of people getting back into LPs, because people miss the involvement, the emotional excitement that they used to have from LP.

Lander: Still, you've noted that we live in a world where our electronic destiny is digital. And you've expressed hope that, in recorded music, that destiny is Direct Stream Digital.

Levinson: Just about the time we started the store, we encountered DSD, and that proved to be a really wonderful path, which we've been following. Sony's DSD technology was a starting point. Before that, there was almost no hope, because PCM was a roadblock to getting where we wanted to go. My first experience with the technology was through DSD on a hard drive, and from the first time we played it back, it was clear that this was something special. It didn't feel like digital. It felt like my old analog master tapes, basically—this clear, natural, enjoyable medium that suddenly afforded the passion of analog and the convenience of digital. It had a profound effect on me.

Lander: How many channels do you think it takes to make a music listener happy?

Levinson: One. Mono's fine. I've never heard anybody bitch about Louis Armstrong, saying, "I would enjoy it if it were only stereo." Multichannel is an interesting idea and perhaps can be used with some interesting results, but there are a couple of problems. One is that most of the repertoire people want to listen to doesn't lend itself to multichannel. It might be interesting for Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand;';'; you can think of a few examples. Another is that people will end up with five mediocre speakers and a mediocre subwoofer instead of a good two-channel system that would make them want to listen to music more. If it doesn't do that, then what good is it? It's the industry saying that the answer is quantity—more of this, more of that. But satisfaction isn't created by quantity; it's created by quality. It's not created by complexity; it's created by simplicity.

Lander: You've cited a parallel problem in music-industry products—recordings that lack content.

Levinson: The key ingredient is content. It's the artists and repertoire. People are going back to recordings from the 1920s, '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, because they find content there that they don't find in newer recordings. There's something in our culture that has come to value loud, distorted, booming, MIDI-synthesized, highly overproduced recordings that are essentially noise.

Lander: What distinguishes music from noise?

Levinson: If it touches the heart, it's music; if it doesn't, it's noise. I believe the majority of people in this world want and love real music; that is, music made by human beings and their instruments in life. They're tired of electronic, synthesized stuff—patchwork-quilt, overdubbed productions created by engineers. I'm sure that stuff is meaningful to some people, but everywhere I turn, people are wondering, "Do I really have to hear this?" I would like to see Red Rose make a contribution toward delivering not just good audio systems, but recordings that impart the nourishing qualities that people are so hungry for. There are some amazing musicians out there. Our sampler gives an indication—people like Chico Freeman, Kenny Rankin, Bill Sims, Simon Mulligan.

Lander: They're all featured on Live Recordings at Red Rose Music, Volume One. Ten of its 12 tracks were recorded in your store direct to DSD, weren't they?

Levinson: Right. We just lock the door and turn on one or two lights and play. I feel the greatest musical magic happens when musicians are playing together, close to each other, with no headphones, no glass isolation booths, no cue tracks, no amplifiers if they can help it. If we can just capture that in a very simple, noninvasive way, then we have a better chance of getting magic moments. We've had some fantastic evenings, and we plan a series of recordings that are basically just that—musicians making music in an old-fashioned way captured with two mikes and going straight to DSD.

Lander: You recently released a group of SACDs made from some of the master tapes in your archive. Tell us a bit about that project.

Levinson: There are some recordings I made in the '70s that I think are musically significant, and I wanted to see what happened when we transferred them to DSD. It was a miracle. I was deeply moved when I heard the SACD pressings for the first time. It's like being able to give people a near-perfect copy of my 30ips tapes for $20. In the past, this was just a dream, but now it's a reality. DSD allows people to get so much more of what the musicians intended that it's staggering. When recordings sound so natural, you don't need systems with battleship amps and huge speakers.

Lander: Does your current schedule leave you time for playing the double bass?

Levinson: I'm starting to practice, at least. I'm starting to get some pads in my fingers.


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."