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Can Mark Levinson Fix The Sound of Your iPod and MP3s? Print E-mail
Wednesday, 22 March 2006
Recently, I visited one of the industry’s most famous and outspoken icons, Mark Levinson, at his New York loft, home to Red Rose Music and, as I was to learn, quite a few new projects. The one that was most compelling to me is Levinson’s Burwen Bobcat, which is a software and/or hardware solution to fixing the sound of sources that don’t sound as musical as we might expect from analog sources or, even better, the live event. One of Levinson’s long standing arguments is that digital music in a variety of forms is unnatural-sounding and even possibly has ill effects on your health. His software sets out to correct some of that and makes your music sound better, too. Dick Burwen was the mastermind behind the Cello Audio Palette and has a deep resume as an engineer. The Burwen Bobcat software (soon to be available to purchase for download) works in the digital domain to remove the “digital hash” from your music, be it a low res MP3 or even an SACD that wasn’t mastered fully in DSD. Using the processor on your PC and levels of EQ, the Bobcat really does a nice job adding depth, three-dimensionality and space to music that can many times sound flat. A-B tests are a piece of cake with easy access right on the screen, allowing you to hear the difference the Bobcat makes. It was easy to even the untrained ear to hear the difference and, more importantly, when you rip your music to your drives, you can choose to make them into Bobcatted MP3 files, which preserves your changes and allows you to get them onto your iPod. It is important to note that the software is a PC-only application designed around Windows Media Player. iTunes is a closed-architecture program, making it hard to add such functionality to a Mac. Levinson has letters from Apple users on his website with hopes of lobbying Apple into adding iCat and other elements of his software to iTunes.

Levinson has a nifty integrated USB digital-to-analog converter and 50-Watt amplifier built into a small upright audio component that can easily connect to your computer and then output to the speakers of your choice. The integrated amp/DAC Burwen Bobcat suite is priced at $1,500. For $3,000 you can purchase the Genius integrated amp/USB DAC/headphone amp with 2 analog inputs and line out. Both items are a bargain considering the price points for Levinson’s Cello gear in years gone by. Red Rose also has an affordable small speaker called the Sprit that is a nice match to the integrated amp. All of these products and a range of speakers are on display at Levinson’s loft on Seventh Avenue by appointment.

Other Projects
Like a Buddhist mad scientist, Levinson had a number of other projects under development including his own surround sound format. Callisto, as it is called, flies in the face of contemporary thinking (imagine that from Mark Levinson) by abandoning the center speaker and creating a surround field that has the rears mimic what the fronts are doing. Levinson muses that he is constantly frustrated with the traditional surround modes, as they focus so much of the critical dialogue into the center speaker when it is the least capable speaker in your system. In a large movie theater, center speakers have the same power as the left and right speakers, but center speakers in many home theaters are not able to output at the same level. Levinson’s solution uses more capable speakers and, of course, the Burwen Bobcat to get what Levinson suggests is a more engaging surround experience.

Taking his new surround concept to the masses, Levinson has been tinkering with an integrated furniture concept that has speakers and electronics built into a very smart-looking low cabinet. Just plop a plasma on top and you are rocking. Because the system is run on a PC, there is no need for a big remote system. Everything works in surround.

In the end, Levinson is like a New York artist you can visit with and sample his vision of what is what. Opinionated doesn’t even start to describe Levinson, but it is fun to hear his thoughts and see his experiments and new products. Unlike in years past, when you needed to be a multi-millionaire to afford Cello gear, the Burwen Bobcat software offers the music enthusiast the chance to own a real Levinson at a price that almost anyone can afford.

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