High End 2015

High End 2015: Harman, Mark Levinson, JBL

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HE15_Logo_GB_01Harman International, a $6B audio company, has a lot of high-end audio brands. Lots and lots. It’s a little intimidating, actually.

Here at High End, Harman was showing off a few not-quite new products.

Introduced at CES, the No 536 mono amplifiers ($15k/channel) from Mark Levinson are designed and engineered in the USA. Each amp is good for 400watts into 8Ω and doubles down into 4Ω, and features a low-feedback Class A/B bias. Availability is scheduled for Fall.

Also new-ish were the JBL DD67000 Everest loudspeakers, now available in a variety of automotive finishes. This availability will be limited, however, as it’s being offered as some kind of exclusive thing.

Some updates to the Concerta Series from Revel were also discussed, including a high-gloss finish, curved sides, magnetic front-fasteners, and an acoustic lens for the tweeter. Towers get a third woofer, bringing the overall sensitivity to 90 or 91dB (depending on the model). Prices for the new line start at $900/pair for the bookshelves, which also includes a shallow-depth version for on-wall mounting.

The JBL-fronted system, played with the new Mark Levinson monos, was surprisingly good. Horns sounded breathy, and there was a good sense of space. The sweet spot was exactingly precise, but once attained, imaging was spooky good. Bass, regardless of the seat, was percussive and persuasive.

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Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Mark Levinson and Martin Logan

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by Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomYou ever seen a big rock ‘n roll show from the front row? How about closer than that?

I have.

I’ve been a newspaper photographer (among other jobs at a big daily) for a number of years, and when you get assigned a stadium gig, you show up about 15 minutes before the first song, and then the biggest security guards you’ve ever seen in your life escort you into the roped-off area in front of the front row and you get to take pictures for the first three songs.

The hottest ladies you’ve ever seen are always in the front row, they’ve usually had a few drinks, and now you’re standing in front of them and they want to know, “who the f*ck are you?”

My answer is always the same “I’m Malachi Kenney…” But I digress.

My whole point for bringing up this somewhat inane tack is that when I found myself sitting in the ‘front row’ of the Astell & Kern, Mark Levinson and Martin Logan room that Sergei Shinder of Yana Imaginative Audio Video Solutions helped set up, I got the same rock ‘n roll stadium concert vibe in my gut.

It didn’t hurt that the enormous Levinson No. 53 Reference Power Amplifiers ($34,000 CAN each) and gigantic Martin Logan Neoliths ($100,000 CAN – which were finished in a deep Ferrari arrest-me-red that they call Rosso Fuoco) were lit up in a stage-like presentation that looked ready for Kanye West.

The mood was set. They could have played Van Morrison and I would have swooned and held up my lighter in tribute… Luckily Sergei came over before I set anything on fire and asked me if I was familiar with the gear in the set up.

He then walked me though the kit: Astell & Kern AK500N MQS network audio player ($15,000 CAN) with “one-click CD ripping and perfect noise isolation through battery-only operation. PCM to DSD conversion… DNLA-based networking and high-reliability SSD.”

Whoa. OK. Cool. Looks the biz too. Very slick, and oh, did I mention you can jack it into the Levinson No. 53s without a pre-amp?

But, Sergei wasn’t doing that today. Today he was running the AK500N through a Levinson No. 52 Reference Dual-Monoaural Preamplifier ($42,000).

He asked if I liked Rush And I mean, c’mon, who says no to Rush. I smiled and said “of course!”

He said a fellow had been in on Friday with a Rush CD and asked to play it, it sounded great so Sergei ripped it using the AK500N and wanted to know “did I want to hear it?”

I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the sound. These are really big speakers and I was sitting about seven feet away. That old Maxell ad popped into my brain, and I just went with it.

These are baller speakers and amps. The soundstage is huge and all-encompassing, and literally makes you feel like you’re sitting in the front row of a concert.

A big nod to Astell & Kern as well, their proprietary 1x ripping formula extracted the most detail and slam I’ve been able to discern from a crappy ’80s CD in my entire life.

A friend who also heard this system said the top-end was a bit much, but I felt it was just right, especially considering the source material. Plenty of dynamics, (a little light on texture) tonal accuracy and timbral realism. Leading edges of notes were lightning fast and the decay on Peart’s cymbals and high hat were completely and utterly realistic. Spatial imaging of every ‘whack’ on a drum’s skin was etched into the air between the speakers. And another thing, no two ‘whacks’ sounded alike. Always a good sign of a great amp.

Listening to this combo I felt like Geddy Lee was right in front of me, ditto for Neil Peart (slightly higher than Geddy) and Alex Lifeson… Peart was elevated just enough in the 3D imaging to believe his massive drum kit was all around him, Geddy just in front and slightly lower and Lifeson to my right.

I laughed several times at how enjoyable this system sounded and how it gave you absolutely no choice but to rock out with it. To me, this wasn’t hi fi per se, it was an experience like no other I’ve had from a two-way stereo. And at this price point, it should be. Performers were presented completely life-sized and exuded all the air, breath, punch and visceral individuality of a live band right in front of you.

I can’t say how this set-up fared with well-recorded jazz, or classical, or what an analog front end would sound like through it (would LOVE to hear that) because I only heard Rush on it, but what I heard left a strong impression.

This is a big, meaty, juicy sound that definitely won’t be for everyone, (I could see many saying “it’s too much…”) but for those pursuing that front-row seat to the concert they couldn’t ever get to, the Neolith and No. 53’s in conjunction with the A&K digital source will get you there.

With any luck, I’ll be right in front of you when you arrive.

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: JBL, Mark Levinson Define Legendary

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By John Stancavage

If you look at all the automobiles in production today, it’s hard to find many models that are very close to what they were 20 or even 30 years ago. Volkswagen’s Beetle is one classic that has been updated internally but is little changed on the outside, while Ford’s Mustang and Chevy’s Camaro also hark strongly back to yesteryear.

The audio world has a few more timeless classics. Variations on the old Marantz 7C preamp and 8B tube amp can be bought today, for example, while McIntosh’s MC275 amp has needed only a few engineering upgrades.

In the speaker market, every boomer who as a near-penniless kid lusted over the sound of some huge JBL speakers now can fulfill that old dream. The company is tapping this nostalgia by showing more at audio shows in recent years, typically paired from electronics with another name that may not be quite as old, but is no less legendary, Mark Levinson. Both now are owned by the same parent, Harman International.

It’s been a tough few decades for speaker makers, especially those that were known best for their sizable statement models. The home theater craze threatened to vanquish two-channel sound in favor of speakers selected more for their ability to be sunk smoothly into walls and ceilings than for their sound quality. Big speaker cabinets used to be a prestige thing for audio fans, then suddenly small was in.

Today, JBL makes in-wall speakers. But it bravely has decided to damn the torpedoes and get back to its roots with some good, old-fashioned monster transducers. At AXPONA 2015, the brand was displaying two of its top offerings, the Everest DD67000 (now in V2 form, $74,000 a pair). The 300-pound behemoths each feature dual 15-inch woofers, a 4-inch beryllium midrange (up from 3 inches in the previous DD66000 model) and a 1-inch beryllium tweeter. While the beryllium material and some of the innards are relatively new, the exterior cabinet and horn system dates back to the company’s glory days.

Also following in the family tradition was a pair of K2 speakers ($44,000), which could be described as a baby brother to the Everest — it’s just a baby that weighs 180 pounds. It shares its bigger sibling’s horn-loaded midrange and tweeter, but gets by on only one 15-inch woofer.

Powering these two monster loudspeakers were equally formidable amps from Mark Levinson, the No. 53 monoblocks ($49,000 a pair), controlled by Mark Levinson’s newest preamp, the two-chassis No. 52 ($30,000). The company has been introducing increasingly stratospheric-priced equipment in recent years, but at AXPONA it also debuted its new integrated 200-watt amp/preamp/DAC, which was priced at $12,000.

When I visited, JBL reps were playing the big Everest speakers on the big Levinson monoblocks. Whether blasting the feedback-heavy roar of Stevie Ray Vaughan or the more subtle bent notes of Mark Knopfler, the system bright a live PA sound to the material — a little brash, with plenty of bass and powerful transients. This isn’t surprising, considering the company’s frequent use in the pro world.

Such massive speakers may not be everyone’s cup of tea these days, but for those who prefer their whisky straight and rock and roll unpolished, JBL certainly would be happy to bring the party to your house.

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NYIAS

NYIAS 2015: Lexus with Mark Levinson

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NYIAS_LogoFinding an actual Harman-branded display at the NYIAS was like finding a unicorn. For the record, it was our second. Unicorn, that is. I’ll get back to that later. But for now, we have Lexus and the Mark Levinson sound system.

Seriously — we were shocked. Alex figured that Lexus would be a natural for this kind of thing, but after a cursory exam of the floor and several dozen blank stares later, we actually stumbled onto someone that actually knew something. Better still, someone that knew how to demo it.

Her name was Shauna and I thought she was just marvelous. Upbeat, smiling, curious and completely open with the edges of her knowledge, Shauna guided Alex and I through the system we found in the Lexus LS 460L

$1,580 is peanuts in today’s high-end audio world. Not so much when you add in the $80k base sticker price of the ultra-premium LS 460L, but the point is, this is one of those “duh!” kind of upgrades on a lux cruiser — I can’t think of a single reason not to opt in, based on the price alone.

The fact that the 19 speaker, 450watt 7.1 surround system was perhaps the best-sounding at the show shouldn’t hurt, either.

Shauna came prepped with a demo disc, an shtick, and an effervescent delivery — what we heard was tight bass, see-through midrange and a detailed top-end. Not bad at all. My ten-year-old BMW wishes it was this coherent.

She’d been told that this system “rivaled systems that cost more than $150k”, which is a load of horseshit, but given what was on display, I forgave the blatant hyperbole that the Mark Levinson team was shoveling out.

The actual details on the system (other than power and speaker count and the fact that everything is DSP’d) were as thin as everywhere else, unfortunately, but the proof in the pudding was in the eating, and this was an all-you-can-eat buffet of goodness.

There are M&L systems available for most Lexus models.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Levinson and JBL, peerless

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Logo - Blue VectorBrighton dealer, Home Audio Sound, got the Golden Shoehorn award this year. Cramming a pair of the big-boned JBL 67000 Everests ($75k) into a standard room in the Atrium is no easy job. Cramming them in so they look like the best fit in the world? That’s what they did, and that’s nothing less than pure art. From the gorgeous, maple veneer, to the open spaces, to the wide open curtains that let the room fill with light, this was easily one of the most inviting show rooms that I’ve ever seen. Laugh all you want, but that kind of thing matters after three days of slogging around a hotel. It was a soothing oasis that promised soulful silence and inner peace.

The gorgeous Everests were joined by a full suite of J-Boat class (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it) Mark Levinson components. A No. 512 SACD player spun discs, A No. 52 Reference Preamplifier managed the volume control, and a pair of the polarizing No. 53 Reference monoblocks drove the speakers. The last gizmo was a White ParaMedic 26 parametric equalizer to help with inevitable room conditions.

Unfortunately, the actual system was not silent when I walked in. It was, in fact, playing Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, and there was much gnashing of teeth. Dynamics were severely truncated, with everything sounding like it had gone through a primitive volume normalizer. High frequencies were outright painful, and tone was… well… There was, technically, tone. Of a sort. I guess. I’m not entirely sure it belonged to a Michael Jackson album. If I weren’t polite, I’d mention that something was aggravating the compression drivers into the sort of hellish breakup that made a good attempt at taking the enamel off my teeth.

If there is to be a pull-quote from this writeup, I would suggest: “The system shown here offered an experience without peer at the 2014 Festival.” I would not, necessarily, suggest linking back to the original text.

Ah… show conditions, the only thing that can take a top-of-the-line system like this and make it sound worse than a defective toy jukebox. Based on previous experiences with the source, the preamp, the speakers, and this dealer’s setup prowess, the sound here was not only a wild aberration, but almost certainly a dangerous portent of the end times.

As Governor William J. Le Petomane said, “this friggin’ thing is warped.”

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CAS 2014

CAS 2014: Stunt Systems, Sight and Sound with JBL and Mark Levinson

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Dyn_CAS-logo-2Again, ignore the misleadingly soothing pianist in the lobby. One of the real pleasures at an audio show comes when the big guns bring out all of their dogs and ponies. Some may systems are stunt systems by virtue of their cost, but they’re otherwise modest and unassuming. Other exhibits are just stunts.

The Excessive Excess full-boat Harman system presented in the cavernous Bayshore Ballroom by Sight & Sound Home Theater was the most traditional of stunts. It was only one of four systems present in the room, and it only played twice per day. It featured the JBL Everest ($75,000), a pair of Mark Levinson No.53 monoblocks ($50,000), and Mark Levinson No.52 preamplifier ($30,000). When I snuck in, music was coming from a Hanss T-60 turntable loaded with a SME tonearm and a cartridge that I didn’t identify. Continue reading

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