“Audio means smarts,” Dinesh Paliwal, Harman’s chairman, president, and CEO, told the handful of reporters seated around the conference room table at the company’s Shelton, CT, engineering facility. “That’s how you make the signal the purest, ever.”
Paliwal could have been discussing the endeavors of any one of the audio leviathan’s multitude of esteemed brands; but on this day, it was all about the arm that he and the rest of the company are seeking to revitalize and reposition at the pinnacle of luxury audio excellence: Mark Levinson.
Dinesh Paliwal (front row, third from left) with the Mark Levinson engineering team, led by Todd Eichenbaum (back row, second from left).
Founded in 1972 by its eponymous visionary in nearby Woodbridge, CT, the company immediately came to represent the synthesis of engineering genius and the love of great sound, producing some of the most revered amplifiers in the world, like the ML-2. Harman eventually acquired the brand in 1990, which resulted in more innovative products. In 2000, the company entered into an exclusive contract with Lexus to supply the luxury automaker with its premier sound systems.
Over the past decade and a half, however, the fervor for producing innovative, top-notch home audiophile equipment that the Mark Levinson name embodied had waned. So two years ago, Harman established its Shelton facility and assembled a team of audio superstars, led by director of engineering Todd Eichenbaum, with the goal of reestablishing the brand as the world’s preeminent luxury amplifier manufacturer.
Late last year, Mark Levinson launched the No. 585 amplifier, the first of what is now an unprecedented line of new products being developed by the brand, fueled by the largest research and development investment in the brand’s history. “I want Harman to be known for Mark Levinson, Revel, and Lexicon [the company’s other luxury audio brands],” Paliwal said. “I see myself as the custodian of this company’s top brands; I want to do justice to these brands like Dr. Harman did.”
The inside of the No. 585 integrated amplifier.
Paliwal explained that Harman holds a number of advantages over its competitors in creating the ultimate audiophile amplifiers. The company, with an annual revenue of roughly $7 billion, has an unparalleled breadth of resources—such as proprietary technologies like Clari-Fi, which improves the quality of lower bit-rate audio files, much like the way 4K televisions upscale HD video content—to pour into the brand. This backing also allows the company to make long-term bets that don’t risk the stability of its business.
In its 5,500-square-foot Shelton facility, the team of 12 engineers is diligently at work bringing these bets to fruition. The brand is on pace to release nine new products in a 24-month span, adhering to the philosophy of Albert Einstein: “As simple as possible, but not simpler.” Following the No. 585 all-in-one integrated amplifier with onboard DAC, the brand will release the No. 536 monaural amplifiers in November, which provide a powerful but more affordable alternative to its top-of-the-line No. 53 mono amps, at $30,000 per pair (as Paliwal stressed, these Mark Levinson products aren’t intended for the masses.)
Next up are offerings that aim to provide the most capable measures of integrating the demands for connectivity with the pristine sound quality with which the brand is again becoming synonymous; these will be unveiled at CES 2016.
So, after seeing and hearing about all of the work and innovation going into the brand’s newest products, it was finally time to hear how they sound. I sat in one of the two center sofa seats in the facility’s demo room and closed my eyes as the sonic waves soared and punched out of the pair of Revel Salon2 hi-fi speaker towers, which were driven by a pair of No. 536 mono amps through a No. 585 serving as the preamp.
Beginning with a couple of classical pieces, the sound was incredibly vast, with crystal-clear, effortless operatic vocals grounded with a rock-solid bass foundation that was as hefty and muscular without becoming overwhelming. The 536s’ 400 watts of power (through 8 ohms, or 800 watts through 4 ohms) allowed for astonishing clarity across a sweeping dynamic range; the effect was an experience that aurally transported me directly into the room where the music was recorded.
The facility’s demo room, featuring No. 536 mono amps (bottom shelf on rack) and No. 585 integrated amp (top right shelf) along with legacy media player, preamp, and amp, all flanked by Revel Salon2 speaker towers.
The highlight of the demonstration was a recording of a percussion ensemble that featured a drum kit accompanied by several other kinds of drums. The bass drum kicks thumped me in the chest, the tom and snare hits punched and popped authentically, and all the while the cymbals shimmered as clear as a bell; this was truly the closest approximation of the sound of live drums that I’ve ever experienced. Walking out of the demo room, it was quite clear why these products cost so much to produce.
For its first steps in the ascent back to the top of the audiophile world, the Mark Levinson brand has used jetpacks. With all of Harman’s resources and the smarts of the engineers in Shelton—who seem as impassioned as they are intelligent—the brand is quite obviously on its way to some serious achievements in the pursuit of the purest sound, ever.