Harman’s Mission to Revitalize Mark Levinson

01 January 2016 11:00

Dinesh Paliwal gets it. Paliwal is CEO of the sprawling Harman International pro and home audio conglomerate. Under his watch, the 70-year-old company has doubled revenues to $7 billion, grown to 27,000 employees, and amassed over 6000 patents. But Paliwal understands that having done well doesn’t mean you get to stand still. He’s investing in the future, and several of those investments are good news for audiophiles.

For instance, aware that Millennials might well get their first exposure to good sound in their fancy new rides, Paliwal purchased the car audio divisions of both B&W and B&O. This in addition to the company’s already strong presence in the sector courtesy of its own Harman, JBL, Infinity, Revel, and Mark Levinson brands. Paliwal also gleans that with audio having gone largely digital, software plays an increasingly important role in maintaining—or improving—the quality of the source. Software can also aid simplifying operation and personalizing audio for the listener. Consequently, Paliwal spent roughly $1B to acquire Silicon Valley’s Symphony Teleca for its digital expertise.

Most importantly, from TAS’ perspective, the CEO gets that Mark Levinson is the “cherry” atop the Harman empire—that it lends cache to the entire Harman product range. For this reason, after a long dry spell, the Mark Levinson unit is reaping investments from its parent the likes of which it has never seen before.

That investment is taking many forms. First, there is the new Levinson team—highly seasoned, yet quite fresh to Harman. One of its leaders, Todd Eichenbaum, who serves as Director of Engineering not only for Mark Levinson but also for Revel and Lexicon (Harman’s “Luxury Audio Group”), spent twenty years as Krell’s primary designer. Having spent three years at Harman, he is now the vet compared to his staff, which have mostly been hired in the past six to twelve months.

Harman is also giving Mark Levinson access to its $400 million R&D budget, and has established a separate, dedicated Levinson R&D facility in Connecticut, where the company was born. The R&D center, initially established two years ago, was recently expanded to 5500 square feet. Part of that space is given over to a beautifully outfitted listening room.

Paliwal also believes that top-flight service must be an integral part of the consumer’s Mark Levinson experience. To that end, he is assembling partners that can provide “white glove” delivery and setup. Such services are not uncommon in this industry, but Paliwal’s vision extends to services such as a dedicated support line where customers can request, for instance, a SWAT team to come and optimize their system before a big event.

As a result of this infusion of capital, people, and facilities, Mark Harman’s Mission to Revitalize Mark Levinson now has more new products in its pipeline than at any point in its history. The company will release two of these newcomers at the upcoming CES in January, and a total of eight will bow before the end of 2016. This product influx is intended to make up for the dearth of new products over the past six years. Indeed, the only recent new ML component was the No585 integrated amplifier/DAC. That $12k unit, the first from the new team, has a slightly different mission than previous ML product. Thanks to its (relatively) low price, the No585 can offer fans of the brand’s Lexus automotive audio systems their first step into a Levinson home system. In terms of international awards and initial shipments, the No585 is already the company’s most successful launch ever.

We won’t have to wait until CES for one of the forthcoming products. In November, ML released the No536 400W monoblock amps. At $15k a piece, these brutes are designed to serve as an upgrade path for No585 owners—as well as companions to the still-under-wraps CES components. I had the opportunity to see and hear the latter during a two day October press event at the Levinson R&D facility and its factory in nearby Massachusetts. I’m not allowed to publish anything about those new components until CES, but given that that the company wants to present a “full lineup” of electronics at the show, you can probably guess what they are.

While at the Levinson facility, I met Dinesh Paliwal, as well as Todd Eichenbaum and his crew. I was pleased to learn that the CEO’s dictate to the team is, “No compromise,” which is music to any engineer’s ears. I was also glad to observe that the company is no longer disavowing its illustrious origins. Today, Mark Levinson the company willingly pays homage to Mark Levinson the man—and even to some of his design principles. This isn’t surprising considering that Eichenbaum’s first exposure to the possibilities of high-end audio—an episode he describes as life-changing—came courtesy of early ML gear. When he arrived at Harman, Eichenbaum was determined not to re-create Krell, but rather to propagate that seminal experience. One of his first tasks at Harman was to delve into the schematics of those early Levinson products, adopting, adapting, and updating design elements.

The resulting sound, which I heard in the posh listening room outfitted with the latest ML gear and Revel Salon II loudspeakers, is smooth, rich,and refined. During the listening session, pace proved rock-steady, and dynamics were never shy. Despite the overly treated space, which robbed the sound of some air and treble energy, I was consistently drawn into the music.

Once upon a time it was hard to find a serious audio showroom that didn’t feature systems anchored by hulking silver-and-black Mark Levinson components. Those days have waned, but Harman is on a mission to bring them back. Based on what I saw and heard in Connecticut, the pedigree and attitudeof the people I met there, and the fastidious quality orientation of the factory (see sidebar), the company is on a promising course for a strong return.

Mack Technologies

There are factories, and then there are factories. Mack Technologies, the contract builder for all Mark Levinson home audio components, is the latter. Mack is neither a mass-product manufacturer nor a small, audiophile-oriented cottage enterprise. Its forte is low-volume, high-complexity products. That niche, which includes a good deal of classified work for the military, has proven popular enough to require 600 employees and 100,000 square feet in its Westford, MA, facility alone.

Why doesn’t ML build everything in-house? In a way, they do, since Mack is effectively (if not structurally) an arm of the company. The two have been collaborating closely on design for eleven years, with the joint purpose of ensuring that the final product will be of the highest possible quality, reliability, and service ability. Indeed, Mack performs Levinson’s repair services. What Mack brings to the collaboration, besides decades of manufacturing know-how, is compliance with a bevy of international quality standards. The QA processes Mack employs would be prohibitive for any boutique audiophile manufacturer.

For anyone used to audio factories—and I’ve seen my share—entering Mack’s factory floor, after first going through an elaborate process to become static-free, is an overwhelming experience. The place is simply enormous. I haven’t seen factories on this scale other than in the auto industry. Within this vast expanse, Mark Levinson occupies a sizable “cell.” Here, a team of builders who have been on the ML project since the beginning engages in a combination of state-of-the-art automated construction and hand assembly.

The first category is evident from the factory’s bounty of surface mountand wave-soldering machines. These are fed by reels of tiny surface-mount components and ultra-high-quality circuit boards. Yet there are still plenty of old-fashioned “through-hole” components in a typical Levinson component, and these are fitted and soldered by hand. Integration and final assembly is also done by hand. A No585, for example, takes two-and-a-half hours for one worker to assemble.

Next come the testing and burn-in functions. The factory’s attention to quality is evident everywhere. For example, each circuit board is subjected to five inspections. The last one uses 3-D X-rays to take an MRI-like picture of the board. This allows examination of things like solder thickness. John Kovach, Mack’s EVP of Global Operations, and Tracy Taylor, who manages the ML project, tell me that while Mark Levinson is more cosmetically demanding than the military, the two customers have similar requirements regarding parts tolerance and reliability.

I came away from Mack Technologies with an appreciation for the benefits of intelligent manufacturing outsourcing—and pleased to see a company keeping its outsourcing within the U.S. For most audio companies it’s an article of faith that their components must be built—or at least assembled—in-house. That ensures individual care,but precludes some leading-edge techniques for PCB construction and quality assurance. Mack and ML have forged an alliance that appears to deliver the best of both worlds.

Alan Taffel - The Absolute Sound