Red Rose Music Acquires AudioPrism, Opens for Business

We've all heard of the entrepreneur who liked a product so much that he bought the company. Such bold steps are sometimes wildly successful. Case in point: Mark Levinson and his high-end startup, Red Rose Music.

More than a year ago, the founder of Mark Levinson Audio Systems broke away from his second company, now known as Cello Technologies, to form his third venture in the audio industry. Levinson was hunting for a line of electronics to combine with a new series of high-efficiency ribbon loudspeakers from Swedish designer Bo Bengtsson, now designated the Red Rose Music R1, R2, and R3. Late last spring, a friend suggested that he take a look at AudioPrism products. Amps, preamps, and accessories from the Redmond, Washington-based manufacturer have won glowing endorsements from me and other Stereophile reviewers, including Sam Tellig and Jonathan Scull. Some of Bengtsson's prototypes astounded music lovers at the Miracle Makers event last February, a debut party for Geoff Fushi's rare violin reference book and recording project that Levinson took part in.

Auditioning AudioPrism amplifiers with the ribbons was a "revelation," Levinson said shortly after receiving some samples. "They were simply some of the best-sounding electronics I had ever heard, a perfect match for Bo's speakers." He wasted no time in setting up a meeting with AudioPrism principals Victor Tiscareno and Byron Collett. The three met in Los Angeles in midsummer and hammered out a deal in which Red Rose Music acquired AudioPrism for an undisclosed amount of money. The new partners decided to keep the merger quiet while Levinson negotiated for a retail space in Manhattan.

AudioPrism engineer Tiscareno, meanwhile, set about making some improvements to his already excellent products in preparation for the commercial debut of Red Rose. The Mana Reference monoblock amplifier, "vociferously" recommended by Jonathan Scull in the September issue of Stereophile, has been reborn as the Red Rose Model 1 Reference; the Debut Mk.II stereo power amp is now known as the Red Rose Model 2. Tiscareno and Collett will make an official announcement of the merger next month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (AudioPrism accessories, characterized by Mark Levinson as "high-value products," will continue to be sold through the AudioPrism dealer network.)

Back in New York, Levinson scored a coup by leasing a space he had long had his eye on—the former museum shop at the Whitney Museum. By mid-November, he and his small staff had overhauled the space and opened the door for business. "Customers came in off the street as we were moving in," Levinson recalls. "They just loved the sound." Business was so brisk from walk-in traffic alone that he decided to forgo an ad campaign. "Just incredible," he says, describing the public response to his new products. "We've had a storm of customers from the first day. We decided to go with a soft launch, rather than making a big announcement, so that the guys in Washington could keep up production." The Whitney enjoys an average of more than 5000 visitors per day.

Levinson has made great sound his mission in life for about 30 years now. His latest effort is to bring to music lovers "the finest-sounding electronics in the world at affordable prices." Red Rose packages its Model 3 preamplifier (formerly known as the AudioPrism Mantissa) with a Model 2 power amp and a pair of R3 ribbons for $9500—a combination that Levinson says has been flying out the door: "It's almost silly how easy it is. We don't have to sell at all. People come in, they hear that sound, and they have to have it. It's breathtakingly good." Standard-issue Red Rose electronics are also available as "Silver Signature" editions with upgraded parts and circuitry.

In the few weeks it's been open, Red Rose Music claims to have done a larger dollar volume than many far larger operations do in a year. His installers are running themselves ragged, he says, and Levinson himself has put in nonstop seven-day weeks since day one. He is lining up distribution for Red Rose products in Hong Kong and Japan, but declines to commit as to whether he wants to make the company much bigger than it is. "Given the response we've gotten here, we could probably put a Red Rose store in each of 30 cities," Levinson speculated recently, ignoring for a moment the logistical and administrative nightmare involved in running a business of that magnitude. "No, forget that," he corrected himself. "Small is beautiful."

It certainly is when you can do a seven- or eight-figure gross out of a space the size of a typical Manhattan apartment—a total easily within reach if business continues at its present pace. "I have no doubt that we are number one in the world in terms of dollars per square foot or sales per person," Levinson stated. No small boost to his good sound campaign is the recent availability of the Super Audio Compact Disc, a format that he calls "so much like real music" that he plans to make all his future recordings in it. The Red Rose shop has a 9-foot concert grand piano in one room, where Levinson conducts and participates in recording projects after hours. The Sony SCD-1 is the source recommended by Red Rose, he notes. "DSD is the future of audio. It's the most transparent thing you've ever heard." A catalog of Red Rose SACD recordings is in development.

Red Rose Music also carries a variety of video products, including flat-panel displays and some of Sony's upper-end products, which can be incorporated in combination home-theater/music systems with R-series loudspeakers and Red Rose amplification. Among the shop's other offerings are NHT's small SuperOne and SuperZero loudspeakers, Magnum Dynalab FM tuners, and Rega turntables. Like the items in it, Red Rose Music simply oozes "soul," according to Levinson. "And that's the only thing that counts."