Today’s Mark Levinson brand of electronics traces it lineage back to 1972 when Mark Levinson (the man) founded Mark Levinson Audio Systems (MLAS). The company’s first product, the JC-1 preamp (named after its designer, the great John Curl), jump-started the entire American high-end renaissance in the early-to-mid 1970s. Along with Audio Research and Magnepan, MLAS paved the way for the creativity and innovation in high-performance audio design that continues more than thirty years later.
Unlike those two other pioneers of the American high end, which to this day are owned and operated by their respective founders, the Mark Levinson brand has been produced under a succession of corporate umbrellas. Founder Mark Levinson left the company in the early 1980s to start Cello. Madrigal Audio Laboratories, the parent company that owned the brand for much of its existence (1984 to 1995), sold part of the company to the giant Harman International in 1993. (By chance, I was at the factory on a tour the day the announcement was made to the employees.) The link between Madrigal and Harman was no accident; Madrigal CEO Sandy Berlin had been Sidney Harman’s right-hand man during the decades that Harman became a behemoth by buying smaller audio companies. Madrigal continued to operate independently until 1995 when Harman bought the remaining interest in the company. The Mark Levinson brand is now part of the Harman Specialty Group, which comprises Mark Levinson, Lexicon, and Revel.
Perhaps the biggest shakeup in the company’s history occurred in October, 2003, when Harman closed Madrigal’s venerable Middletown, Connecticut, factory and moved all production to the Lexicon factory in Massachusetts. This move took dealers and customers by surprise, and resulted in a complete cessation of production for several months. Some products were out of production for more than a year as the new factory ramped up. By mid-2005, however, the company was back in full swing.
The question on everyone’s mind was whether the Mark Levinson products made in the new factory were true to the original intent of its founders, as well as to the engineers and product-development managers who made the brand iconic during the 1980s and 1990s.
Which brings us to the subject of this review, the Mark Levinson No.326S preamplifier and No.432 power amplifier. My aim is to not only evaluate these products in and of themselves, but to discover whether the traditional Mark Levinson design and build-quality, meticulous attention to every detail (down to the shipping boxes), and distinctive sonic signature are embodied in the new products. Has this venerable marque become merely a boutique brand under Harman? Or does Harman’s financial stability provide a platform for a new era in creativity and innovation that is true to the brand’s great legacy?
This project is of particular interest to me; I lived with and reviewed a number of Mark Levinson products starting in the late 1980s and became quite familiar with their designs and sonic signature, as well as with the company ethos. Madrigal Audio Laboratories was second to none in explaining to the press the intricacies of its products, the meticulousness with which it built its components, and the passion that drove new development.