DEC 14, 2016
TO CREATE A GOOD SOUND SYSTEM, ESPECIALLY IN A CAR, THE FOLKS AT MARK LEVINSON RISK MADNESS. IT’S BECAUSE THEY MUST CONFRONT ABSOLUTE SILENCE.
Engineers put speakers through a lot of tests on the way to your ears, and one of them is an anechoic chamber, a room insulated against sound bouncing off walls (anechoic means “without echo”). In the total absence of sound, you start to hear things that have always been there: the sound of your heart, the quickening of the blood in your veins, the eerily mechanical clicking of your many valves opening and closing. After a while, you get disoriented. You may even start hearing things that have never been there: astronauts put into anechoic chambers report hallucinations caused by the brain’s inability to deal with pure silence. Where astronauts dare to tread, that’s where good speakers are born.
This is the sort of extremely niche, extremely technical work Harman International does in facilities all over the world – in Michigan, Connecticut, Japan, Germany, and elsewhere. You know Harman, whether you’re aware you know it or not. The audio equipment company comprises almost two dozen brands, including Mark Levinson, which has been making high-end audio since the 1970s and which in 2000 partnered with Lexus to design luxury sound systems for its cars.
Hidden among the cubicles and laboratories of the cavernous Harman acoustic design facility in Northridge, California, just outside Los Angeles, there are living rooms. They’re all different. This one has some tasteful crown molding; that one has low-pile carpet; this other one has French doors and low leather couches. These living rooms are where engineers test their sound systems in realistic settings, trying out different speakers and amps and positions to try to transform that living room into, say, New York’s iconic 30th Street Studio on the first day of July in 1959, where the Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded the jazz classic “Take Five.”
MARK LEVINSON SYSTEMS “HAVE ALWAYS BEEN KNOWN FOR THEIR UNCANNY ABILITY TO REPRODUCE A LARGE, REALISTIC, THREE-DIMENSIONAL SOUNDSTAGE”
In those living rooms, Mark Levinson systems are often used for that transformation. Todd Eichenbaum, director of engineering luxury audio at Harman, says that Mark Levinson components “have always been known for their uncanny ability to reproduce a large, realistic, three-dimensional soundstage, with individual instruments located with holographic precision.” Speakers, particularly those high-end towers that dominate a room, give the impression of throwing sound at you, delivering it to you. But talk to the people who design these systems and their goal seems to be more about delivering you to the sound. It gets spooky. They talk about transcending the space, about creating, as Eichenbaum says, a kind of sonic hologram: here are the drums to your right; there is the guitar in front of you, maybe a marimba off to the side (tastes vary). With a good sound system, you also hear the space itself: Is the recording in a concert hall or a small studio? Are the ceilings there high, vaulted, nonexistent? Is that a western wood-pewee singing outside?
All of which has been great for the history of the living room, but it’s much tougher to re-create 30th Street Studio in a car.
“The car is an extremely challenging environment,” says Chris Ludwig, chief engineer of acoustic systems at Harman, as diplomatically as possible. The space is small, there are a lot of reflective surfaces, and it’s hard to get the listener in “the sweet spot” between speakers. Ludwig works at the Harman facility in Novi, Michigan, where he and his engineering team spend as many as four years designing the Mark Levinson sound systems for each new series of Lexus. “A car is fundamentally acoustically flawed in terms of its interior design,” Ludwig says, “but through our technology and speaker design, we’re able to overcome a lot of those inefficiencies.” The team buys a current model and takes it apart, trying out new configurations of components and re-engineering the structure of the car itself, trying to build a soundstage with a Mark Levinson system inside the car such that even obscure songbirds will emerge from the music. “Mark Levinson car audio systems, quite simply, strive to reproduce every aspect of the listening experience in the car that our systems do in the home environment,” says Eichenbaum. Lexus buyers, says Kevin Rivera, senior marketing manager for Lexus, have always wanted something unavailable elsewhere, and the marque found a kindred brand in Mark Levinson’s top-tier, highly regarded audio. (The pair quickly identified a set of four shared virtues: audio purity, craftsmanship, emotional connection, and innovation.) Rivera says that between Mark Levinson’s focus on a pure sound experience and Lexus’ well-engineered, quiet cabins, “it was the perfect environment for a high-end audio system.”
Testing equipment on a Harmon workbench.
The anechoic chamber
An Orion 32 channel Digital / Analog converter in a Lexus LS, used to manipulate sound in the vehicle’s cabin.
THE REALLY GOOD AUDIO SYSTEMS, LIKE THE ONES THAT HARMAN’S TEAMS ARE MAKING WITH MARK LEVINSON, CREATE EXCITING, SATISFYING, SOOTHING SPACES OUT OF SOUND
It takes from 30 to 40 people – designers, engineers, specialists in a variety of fields – to develop each new audio system. They’re trying to get as close as possible to listening in a living room – and then, of course, transcending that, so you’re listening somewhere else entirely. “Music is a huge part of most people’s lives,” Ludwig says, so it makes sense that car companies would invest in the sound experience as much as the handling, the drivetrain, the climate control. Having good sound becomes essential for enjoying the ride. “It’s one of those things that in terms of your sensory experience is very attainable,” he says.
Ludwig became a jazz drummer at a young age; that, and an interest in math and science, informed his decision to become an engineer. He wanted to “merge the artistic and scientific,” which is where all this really ends up: a lot of state-of-the-art technology in service of conducting an artistic experience as faithfully as possible to the listener. And so, at the far end of the science, past the data analysis and terrifying silences, is the human ear, that most subjective and necessary piece of testing equipment. To that end, Harman employs “trained listeners” from within the company and beyond. “Only the most discriminating and consistent listeners are selected for product evaluations,” says Sean Olive, director of acoustic research at Harman’s Northridge facility. “For untrained listeners, we use people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, age groups, and listening experiences.”
Whatever it is that makes for a better listening experience, it appears to be universal. “So far we’ve found that untrained listeners like the same products as trained listeners,” says Olive. The really good audio systems, like the ones that Harman’s teams are doing with Mark Levinson, create exciting, satisfying, soothing spaces out of sound. The best of it comes up out of nothing, art out of revelatory silence