Mark Levinson on Daniel Hertz: One More Time Page 2

The sound

After Levinson and I talked about his products, he gave me free run of the only Daniel Hertz system currently in the U.S., installed in a home in Marin County, Calif. The system comprised two M1s, each with its horn tweeter and woofer/midrange driven by a single M5 amp and its 18-inch woofer driven by a separate M5. The M6 preamp fed the system, and we used Levinson’s MacBook Pro laptop, connected through USB, as the source. We played my own “torture test” CD of tunes chosen specifically to reveal a system’s strengths and flaws, and we also played several of Levinson’s recordings, stored as WAV files on the laptop.

Frankly, I harbored some trepidation. In my opinion (and in the “opinion” of my speaker measurement gear), crossing a tweeter over to a woofer any larger than 6.5 inches in diameter almost always causes dispersion problems and nasty “cupped hands” coloration, as if singers had their hands cupped around their mouths. To my shock, I couldn’t hear any cupped hands coloration in the M1 at all, despite its 12-inch midrange/woofer. Every singer sounded completely natural.

“You don’t often see a 12-inch woofer crossed over to a tweeter now,” Levinson commented, “but you used to, with the old JBLs and Altecs.”

(I have a crackpot theory as to why the midrange sounded so good. Start with the idea that at high frequencies, most of a driver’s back-and-forth movement occurs near the center of the cone, and the parts of the cone toward the outside don’t move so much. My guess is that the low mass of the 12-incher’s treated paper cone and dust cap allows the large dust cap to act as a midrange driver, much as a dust cap on a small full-range speaker tends to act as a tweeter. The old-school pleated surround, as opposed to the half-roll surround found on most 12-inch woofers, may also play a role.)

There were so many things I liked about the system it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s begin with Steely Dan’s “Aja,” one of my favorite test cuts. Even with some of the world’s finest speakers, the piano in this tune tends to sound hard and brittle — like a cheap upright model — and rather monophonic. But through the Daniel Hertz system, I got a true stereo perspective on the instrument. It sounded smooth, organic, and natural, more like a baby grand.

Indeed, the M1 seemed to create numerous “micro-soundstages” within a larger soundstage — the piano in its own acoustic space, the drums in their own space, Wayne Shorter’s saxophone in its own space. And that’s the way most multitrack recordings are made, combining stereo recordings of instruments like piano and drums with mono recordings of guitar, voice, sax, etc.

I literally cried a few tears when Levinson played an old recording of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker that he had remastered. Parker’s recordings usually sound awful, partly because of the primitive recording technology of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and partly because any decent saxophone in Parker’s possession was usually hocked quickly to support his heroin habit. But Levinson had found one of Parker’s few serviceable recordings, and his remastering and the extraordinary fidelity of the Daniel Hertz system showed me, for the first time in 34 years of listening to Parker, that the guy really was capable of getting a great sound out of his instrument. His alto had some of the full, smooth, gutsy sound of Ben Webster’s tenor but with Parker’s characteristic subtle upper-midrange edge intact.

Hoping to find the limits of the 18-inch woofers’ capability, I played the Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, better known as the “Organ Symphony.” It was easy to believe what I heard; lots of good 18-inch woofers can reproduce the recording’s 16 Hz deep bass tones. But I couldn’t believe what I saw. I could easily see movement in the 12-inch woofers, but the 18-inch woofers barely seemed to move, probably partly because they’re so large and partly because the big, ported speaker enclosure is tuned to a low frequency.

A 1978 Levinson recording of drummer Bill Elgart — one I’ve heard on lots of systems — blew me away with its dynamics when Levinson played it through the M1s. As anyone who’s played in rock or jazz bands knows, drum kits can be shockingly loud at close range, but such dynamics are seldom captured by home audio systems. With this system, it sounded like I was sitting about 6 feet from Elgart’s kick drum. I have to admit it was actually a little painful, but there’s no denying it was realistic.

Over my objections, Levinson played an Usher tune called “Burn,” just to show me that the system worked as well with hyper-artificial modern pop recordings as it did with audiophile recordings. It did — especially in the bass, which sounded massive yet completely tight and well-defined. I’m confident that even Usher never heard his own tune sound this good.

The cost

Levinson is famed as much for his systems’ cost as for their quality, and the Daniel Hertz gear is no exception: An M1-based system starts at around $150,000. I can almost see the Comments section start to fill with derisive posts as I write this.

Yet Levinson’s goal isn’t just to sell ultra-expensive gear. Even more, he wants to bring great sound quality to low-priced products. (About 20 years ago, Levinson was the guy who turned me on to the $279/pair Acoustic Research M1, the first good speaker I ever owned.) After playing the Daniel Hertz system, he demoed how the digital mastering technology he created in conjunction with digital amp chip supplier D2Audio could make an inexpensive set of Logitech desktop speakers sound like — well, not like the Daniel Hertz system, but a hell of a lot better than the speakers sounded on their own. But more on that at a later date; Levinson’s still in the process of commercializing the technology.