Saturday 30 March 2024

Expensive Audio & Medical Quackery: Mark Levinson promoting Daniel Hertz "C Wave Technology". And the Maria amps.

While perusing news updates the other day over Spring Break on my Google news feed, there was a suggestion to check out this YouTube video of an interview with Mark Levinson; apparently Levinson had something to say about "Let's Fix PCM Audio".

Clearly, this should be a fascinatingly insightful video, right? After all, we have one of the most well-known names in the high-end audio industry, and who doesn't want PCM "fixed" if indeed there is something to be done to improve the experience from decades worth of music!

Boy, was I disappointed by this "iconic" name in the audiophile world... Anyhow, grab a drink, have a seat. Let's talk about the many interconnections between technology, health, consumer psychology, and truth-in-advertising with this name and company.

First, for your viewing "pleasure", to start putting some thoughts in context, here is the video:


Let me be clear. As a consumer and hobbyist myself, I believe the rational high-fidelity audio pursuit is not a cult. Personalities and names do not mean anything more than potentially a person with knowledge and experience, with the ability to speak truth, honestly using his/her background. Sure, we might be interested if such a person releases or advocates for a product based on much respected previous work, but there is no reason to automatically assume the product is good. The name Bob Stuart has been floating among audiophile circles for decades and we know what he tried recently, likewise, less well-known names say silly things, and "golden-ear" reviewers have failed many times to express the truth about sonic fidelity.

So let's make sure to always put our thinking caps and magnifying glasses on and examine products through a more objective, sober lens. In science and technology, while we can certainly admire some amazing people who have enlightened our understanding of the universe, or designed/invented amazing products, there are no high priests, no prophets, no popes, no rabbis, no imams, no monks/nuns, and certainly no need for idols or icons that should be followed without question.

Let's talk about Mark Levinson (the man, not the brand name by Harman, ultimately owned by Samsung). I see that Levinson has a Wiki page but there's nothing there to suggest an electrical engineering degree or high-level electronics background through his career or even demonstrated in his own whitepaper. A previous Stereophile interview suggested that he hires others to design the electronics for him (people like John Curl back in the day). I see that Levinson wrote this with his ex-wife; not exactly "technical" in the audiophile sense... 😉

Clearly from what we see in this video promoting his recent company Daniel Hertz (Daniel is his father's first name and Hertz is his mom's maiden name), Mark Levinson comes across as a nice enough fellow but his statements are often empty, and at times worrisome.

Let's look at a few claims from that interview:

1. Supposedly "C Wave Technology" ("Continuous Wave") (1:50) is new, patented, and the concepts "out(side) of the box". And "we're the only company who can explain, measure, and fix digital audio problems and we have a patent and a solution". Really? The only company?

This announcement is supposedly "profound" and a "big story". But he goes nowhere with explaining what "C Wave" is as we later see.


2. "C Wave is an algorithm embedded in the software suite which is inside the chip" (7:25). Okay, sounds like it's a DSP algorithm of sorts, part of the device firmware maybe, and there are "2 boards" inside the amplifier incorporating C Wave; it's modular "like a Lego" based on "sophisticated architecture". Supposedly C Wave can even "fix" the sound of digitally mastered LP's as well.

Hmmm, how does that work with digitally-sourced LPs if we're connecting analogue playback from a turntable into the machine but this system supposedly "fixes" PCM? Since LP playback is clearly not PCM even if digitally mastered, this does not explain anything but adds confusion even before any further explanatory exposition. What's there to "fix"?


3. "We studied the effect of PCM audio on human physiology" (9:25). "It was astonishing". He then describes some test with "green rectangles, blue rectangles, and red rectangles". Supposedly representing individuals exposed to conditions of "no music", "PCM music", and "C Wave processed" and these subjects were tested for "central nervous function, kidney function, and liver function" (emphasis mine, 10:15).

Lo and behold, he then pulls out a laptop and shows some data on the screen to the interviewer with numbers in the "50's", "60's" - not bad for the no-music condition supposedly. Then for PCM audio, we get numbers in the "40's" and lower which are supposedly bad (12:50) - "they're terrible... what the hell happened here?" in a dramatic tone! And then of course "C Wave" fixes all of those bad results.

So, Mr. Levinson... Is this science? What is the procedure? What physiological tests are these that spits out such numbers? What units do those numbers even refer to? Why can't the viewer of this video have a peek at what's on the laptop screen? (We can, see below!)

Supposedly "this is what's called objective", proudly declared Mr. Levinson (14:05)! Well, I guess there are numbers on screen that supposedly represent some kind of continuous scale used to measure something among a few subjects. But without context, this is not an explanation of a scientific report! There's not even any hypothetical explanatory model here to link PCM music-listening to kidney and liver functioning; much less whatever neurophysiological/central nervous system horror story. Where's the logical mechanistic connection in any of this to even start exploring the validity of such claims? What is the hypothesis?

By the way, how do we even know the low numbers with PCM playback is a "bad" thing?! In medicine, lower numbers in some parameters for kidney function (like creatinine level) or reduced liver enzyme levels could represent improvement in organ health especially if you have an alcoholic audiophile among the test subjects. 🤫
[BTW, the last time I wrote about medical quackery intersecting with audio was back in 2022 in response to Stereophile's silliness.]

4. So how did they/he fix PCM? "That was done by creating a finely-tuned reverb algorithm" (14:45). And he uses the FUD-explanation of how PCM is "noncontinuous sampled waveform"; there are "spaces there". He then tries to explain some kind of presumably custom interpolation mechanism to smooth out those "spaces" which seems to be all his C Wave tech is. Is this "reverb" he's talking about just referencing the normal ringing we see in steep digital filter impulse responses? (Or maybe they did add subtle reverb, but that would be going beyond just filling out the "spaces"!)

After all these decades in audio, Mr. Levinson still does not know that proper digital playback is NOT discontinuous in nature? There are no spaces. There is no stair-step even. While each digital sample represents the amplitude level at a time point based on the sample rate, and the data can be quantized (eg. to 16-bit values), playback itself is continuous. While still continuous in nature, as far as I can tell, the only people who apparently want to hear stair-stepped, improperly interpolated PCM are audiophiles who spend extra money on NOS stuff like some R2R devices, brands like BorderPatrol, Audio Note and the like! Furthermore, over the decades, upsampling filters have been refined to be literally beyond excellent already (as discussed years ago).

Anyhow, supposedly creating this interpolation filter was "a real art to do" and "3 mastering engineers" helped him. Don't mastering engineers have better things to do with real music than go into the digital conversion nitty-gritty like tuning interpolation algorithms!? Levinson name-dropped: Ted Jensen, Tim GennertBurt van der Wolf. Apparently in describing van der Wolf, "24/192 to him is like MP3" (16:50).🤦 Supposedly Tim Gennert sent an MP3 in for C Wave processing and it sounded great. And Burt claimed "without C Wave it was like watching a good video picture of something, but with the C Wave it was like watching the real thing". Sure...

The Daniel Hertz company also has been selling the Master Class (€600, MacOS) music player software since 2014 which incorporates a version of C Wave. They call it "A+", and apparently this was all "patent pending" for most of the last decade until recently. Obviously the complexity of the algorithm is something that a decade-old Mac could already handle just fine, presumably associated with a bit of upsampling. If this was so groundbreaking, why has it not become a more recognized and prominent way of processing PCM in the last decade?

It's interesting to see in that Master Class link a reference to a "psychiatrist and therapist" friend who used LPs then CDs while doing therapy but I presume the CD sound wasn't adequately therapeutic. Hmmm, is this where he gets the ideas on brain/kidney/liver stress from!?
[Here's an interesting interview on Master Class from 2020. Levinson talks as if he "designed" his Class D chip amps, interpolation software, etc.? (2:15) And he claims he never liked listening to digital audio "ever" (6:10), yet in the Stereophile interview above, he was already excited about 24/96 so presumably he must have liked what he heard. And I think the digitally-recorded Live Recordings At Red Rose Vol. 1 SACD (2000, DR14) is still really good. According to this, the album was captured with a Sony DSD converter so it's digital even if not PCM.]

5. "The real problems of PCM have not been studied yet" (19:50). Supposedly "there is a connection between PCM digital audio and negativity" (presumably emotional negativity, or are we claiming potential brain/liver/kidney failure as well!?) that "the doctor discovered" (presumably his psychiatrist friend). Yet "there's no material to support anything I'm saying" - that's not helpful.

Hang on a sec... I thought Daniel Hertz already could "explain, measure, and fix digital audio problems" and Levinson even showed a laptop screen with those physiological problems quantified! Are we being gaslit?

So Levinson wants to "come up with an alternative universe in a sense" (21:15). Indeed! This is a new universe based so far on fantasy and hype as we can plainly see. He might have bankrolled the company but the way he talks is not that of a person who actually designs these modern high-tech products nor seems to understand the technologies. It's empty marketing speak.


6. Let's loop back then to near the start of the interview where he says: "Most audio is not very scientific and is very little art, it has become a world of how to make money from music lovers" (3:40). Wow! Considering the lack of science in this whole video and the kinds of prices being charged (the Maria 350 amp has been making rounds with some reviews including by dealers like this, priced at €12,000), isn't this statement more than a little hypocritical?!

"The first thing is honesty" (6:00), he says and then rambles on about how little he cares about profits (as opposed to the other guys in audio who presumably do) and he isn't about "schemes".
[I see that a few years ago he was also railing against the "mafia" in audio (8:30). At least he's correct at 14:50 when he said "What we think is real isn't always real"; I hope this also applies to himself.]
Who knows, maybe Daniel Hertz isn't about profits, but let us not forget that there was a time in history (see here and here) when the man Mark Levinson and his Red Rose Music brand did seem to squeeze out good profits from their China-made products:

Images from here and here.

The similarities in fact are not just skin-deep - the innards:

Images from here and here.

Even if there are significant upgrades to components, was the Red Rose amp worth more than 4x the price of the Dussun!? Red Rose Music I think closed around 2004-2005.


So, what do we know about C Wave and the Daniel Hertz amplifiers that incorporate this?

Let's now consider some facts and inferences we can make about C Wave and a product like the 2-channel Maria 350 amplifier (Maria is Levinson's mom's first name). Beyond the shiny knobs and plastic/acrylic/Perspex case, the amplification is based on a Class D system identified in the Daniel Hertz literature as the "Mighty Cat" DSP in collaboration with Renesas (ex-Intersil) hardware. As typical for Class D amps, there's a switched mode power supply inside. I see that the USB and coax S/PDIF digital inputs support up to 192kHz.

The plastic case, switching power supply, and Class D modules are why the box is reported to be surprisingly lightweight given the €12,000 price tag (CAD$17,750).

This amplifier incorporates DSP capabilities and can be programmed using an app in Windows 11 (as per promo material). I suspect when sold as a system, paired with speakers like the Daniel Hertz Eva (€7,000 alone), the amplifier DSP is likely programmed to boost the low frequencies hence the "matched" package to improve on certain short-comings of the small 2-way 1" silk tweeter and 6" rear-ported mid/woofer.

The "Mighty Cat" name is just referring to the audio DSP software module (ie. upsampler, EQ, crossover, etc.) running in the SoC incorporating a Renesas D2Audio 24-bit fixed-point DSP + PWM controller - a chip like the Renesas D2-74083.

In fact, we can see the Renesas "D2-74083" chip number on the Mighty Cat image from the Daniel Hertz company.

[Note: Internally, this chip processes the audio data from digital to PWM; there's no traditional DAC inside. However, analogue inputs will all be digitized by the ADC into PCM for 24-bit digital processing. Notice that even the most pure-analogue source such as full-analogue provenance LP playback will have to go through a 24-bit PCM intermediate inside the chip. Hardcore vinyl audiophiles take note!

Furthermore, that internal Renesas ADC is spec'ed at THD+N -81dB, dynamic range 94dB, operating at 48kHz; it's not hi-res. Depending on the power amplifier quality which this chip then feeds its PWM signal to, this may not be a limiting factor. The D2-74083 part has been discontinued since late 2023 but currently available Renesas D2-92643 SoCs are no better for ADC performance. Hopefully they spent a few more bucks to put in a better ADC.

This is important because in this video, the dealer claims he was comparing the Maria 350 amp's "DAC" (more appropriately, digital in) with other DACs probably with their analogue out plugged into the amplifier's input. He said that comparatively, the other DACs sounded bad - no surprise! I suspect he did not understand that those analogue inputs on the Maria were likely re-digitizing down to less-than-CD-quality resolution, thus any hi-res DAC plugged into it will sound compromised.]

We have seen dramatic demonstrations by Levinson of his DSP, with all kinds of obvious loudness and EQ changes since 2012 such as with little Logitech speakers. No surprise that DSP can improve the sound using EQ compensations for low-quality speakers:


Output power for the Maria 350 is reported as 350Wpc (8Ω) and 500Wpc (4Ω) but there are no specifications for frequency or distortion figures. Therefore, it's not unreasonable to think that this is likely at 10% distortion which is common with Class D makers when they want to push the headline watts to attract consumers. Renesas itself is not known to build high-fidelity Class D amps; their technology like HVPAK amps would not be impressive for hi-fi.

So if not from Renesas, the Class D power amp modules then need to come from other OEM sources. This is very likely the case because the older Daniel Hertz M9 integrated amp as reported hereannounced around 2014 (sold from 2015-2016 according to HiFiEngine), had a similar power rating at 200W (8Ω) and 400W (4Ω), and used a similar but slightly slower Intersil D2-71083 chip (the name "Mighty-Cat" again used to refer to the DSP software). The power amplifier section in the M9 was from Hypex, likely the UcD400 based on the wattage numbers and age.

Daniel Hertz M9 - here's a manual, notice that the front Power Status LED on the right will turn red if signal clipping is detected. I'm told the Maria amp has the same red clipping indicator. Good feature.

Daniel Hertz Maria 350

Given the obvious similarities in design and features, the Maria 350 looks like a redesigned M9 in a black shiny acrylic case rather than brushed aluminum. The M9 is listed in the old review at MSRP of €5,950; much less expensive than the Maria 350 currently (€12,000) so it would be interesting to know what accounted for the price doubling in the last 10 years. Technology naturally deflates in price in the open market. I'm sure if the Maria incorporated some newer technologies like GaN Class D modules, Levinson would be all over that in the marketing!

I did a little further digging into the online material and see that Levinson has a solo promotional video here (and on YouTube), continuing to make claims on the "health" benefits as well as his "Avatar Test" results supposedly conducted "with $13,000 health diagnostics software". Here's what one of the results looked like from the video:

As you can see, this rectangle is red and numbers <50.
Must have been listening to bad PCM recording.
 🤣 

As suspected, what they're measuring is based on an alternative view of human physiology; a pseudoscientific "energy medicine" perspective which includes acupuncture, Reiki, Qigong, etc. These kinds of practices have been embedded in our culture both in Western democracies and Far East so they're unlikely to ever disappear or be tightly regulated, just like the massive dietary supplements industry even though the benefits generally are tenuous at best when tested. 
[On a side note, even within the hospital system here, there was a movement to incorporate stuff like "therapeutic touch" by nurses back in the early 2000's, as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine, among other alternative therapies. I've noticed this dying down since the 2010's.]
What we see in the diagram are acupuncture points - Ki 3 for "kidney meridian", Lv 1 for "liver", and ND 1b I guess for "central nervous system" although I couldn't find any reference to the last one. They're basically looking at skin conductivity.

The Avatar Screening system.

The Avatar Health Test System website is rather sparse. Here's a little more information from "The Holistic Practice" website; none of the links at the bottom of that page worked. More information on "Electropuncture According to Voll" (Reinhold Voll 1909-1989, and book) which is the basis of this.

From a medical science perspective, I do not believe there is validity to speak of measurements at acupuncture meridians and then directly claiming that there's "physiological stress" on the liver, kidneys, or brain/nervous system. Not only is this bad medicine, but it has no purpose to serve in the development of engineered audio devices like amplifiers and DACs. Levinson claims his testing is "objective" and widely applicable to everyone - I think he needs to get accepted into and then start his medical school training first. 😐

Also in that video, he indeed confirmed that some of his thinking came from his psychiatrist friend who "used music in his therapy"; this is all coming together in a rather unsophisticated way, I'm afraid. Does his psychiatrist friend believe PCM music literally stresses the liver and kidneys, or was it just the mind, I wonder?

And with even more digging, here's the C Wave patent:
Notice the "PMC" typo in the title. As you can see, it's describing a type of vague interpolation mechanism along with a weak EQ applied:
"A further feature of the present invention is also applying equalization settings, with Q setting at −0.26 or near it, a 40 Hz frequency setting at +0.2 dB or near it, a 2 kHz frequency setting at −0.2 dB or near it, and a 12 kHz frequency setting at +0.2 dB or near it."
I have no idea what a negative Q setting is, I assume it's another typo - not encouraging. We could plug those numbers into the parametric EQ in Roon to get this:


Notice it's a very subtle effect with low, broad Q, and a slight "smile" shape with bass and treble accentuation. Feel free to listen for yourself.

In the patent documentation, he also included some of those odd "health" measurements as illustrations. Wow, the things that get patented these days! This at least was more novel technically and represented something (whether useful or not has of course been debated).

It's fascinating how beliefs change over the decades within cultures and subcultures (of which audiophilia would be an example). A few years ago, the typical audiophile seemed to shun Class D amplifiers and espoused the idea of leaving the signal untouched, "pure". Here we are with Mark Levinson claiming his expensive, but plastic amplifiers are the "ultimate", he has the technology to "fix" PCM, yet under the hood, all we're seeing is likely just a kind of DSP interpolation filter (the nature of which I'm sure we can look at with an impulse response), running off Renesas SoC (less than US$20 chip) with integrated PWM controller, embedded subtle EQ'ing (likely stronger EQ'ing when paired with small speakers like the Eva), and OEM Class D amp modules, perhaps Hypex like that Daniel Hertz M9.

It would be fascinating to crack open the Maria 350 to look at what's inside for that €12,000 asking price!
[To be clear, of course there was never anything scary about DSP nor Class D even back in the days when audiophiles had all kinds of reservations. As they evolved, these were technologies destined for high-fidelity audio systems given the benefits they brought to the table - including lower prices supposedly!]
Beyond the Levinson interview(s), his asking price, and questionable health benefits, there are also the recent advertising videos. Getting the word out through YouTube reviewers like Steve Huff who parrots claims (like the remarkable "Mighty Cat chip") focusing almost exclusively on esthetics, delivered in a calm, relaxing fashion, with spa-music in the background, the spiritualism-turned-Shopping-Network vibe is probably consistent with Levinson's target lifestyle consumer with good amounts of disposable income. Maybe some of them even have faith in those health benefits being pushed:


Huff seemingly has no problems describing audio products in an ethereal fashion like how the system shines as "light from the dark", is "hauntingly musical", or "pure hifi magic" mixed in with the usual subjective audio talk about "treble extension" or "mid-range warmth", etc. There's repetition of the claim about 30Hz bass from the small ported 6" woofer Eva. Let's see the frequency response from the Maria amp and in-room from those speakers. Then, let's examine the distortion produced by those poor 6" mid/woofers when pushed to play 35Hz - I think Huff will find that there ain't no magic here! 

Alas, as good as the Daniel Hertz systems are to Huff, they seemingly weren't quite good enough for him to declare them "HiFi Speaker System of the Gods". 😵

Anyhow, I feel a little bit bad for the interviewer Jaap Veenstra in the first video at the top, enduring such an interview from supposedly an icon of audiophilia. Seriously, how can anyone with even a little knowledge about audio technology not see right through the vacuousness of those answers? I think a good interviewer with journalistic integrity would be responding with probing questions to see if there's depth to those claims - that's not what the vast majority of these interviewers in the audiophile media do. I believe this is a serious disservice and perpetuates the lack of substance in most audiophile publications whether in print or online. Without honest probing, interviews and reviews would be incapable of helping audiophile hobbyists separate out what is hype versus true advancement. IMO, this has been a problem for a long time unfortunately.

Until there's something demonstrated and potentially verified, there's nothing likely amazing here technology-wise from Daniel Hertz. And if there is... Well, less talk and just show us, Mr. Levinson.

Never mind the hype, but mind the snake oil, and the salesmen, dear audiophiles.

Back to Spring Break. 😎 Happy Easter, and I hope you're enjoying the music!

--------------------

Wait a sec! There's even more recent material that came to light...

Even more expensive than the Maria 350 is the Daniel Hertz Maria 800 (4-channels for biamping, 350Wpc 8Ω, 500Wpc 4Ω) advertised online at Audio Excellence listed at CAD$44,400 - about US$32,500, elsewhere MSRP €30,000 - more than twice the price of the Maria 350!

Here's a video created by the dealer showing off the Maria 800 and matching speakers system:

[Audio Excellence has other videos with "golden ear" listening impressions of the smaller Daniel Hertz Maria 350 + Eva speakers - hereherehere if you're curious.]

And the dealer's presentation at the Montréal Audiofest 2024 last week accentuated Mark Levinson's history in the audiophile world, the Mighty Cat, C Wave, etc.:

[Interesting that he's using some Madonna "Vogue" in QSound for the demo and talking about the contrast between Joni Mitchell's 1969 vs. 2000 versions of "Both Sides, Now" which makes for an engaging presentation - audio show presenters, take note!

BTW, QSound's impressive for '90s era immersive DSP.  If you have a chance though, have a listen to Madonna's Immaculate Collection remix including "Vogue" as multichannel/Atmos stream to a surround system for the 21st Century experience! And Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now came out on DVD-A back in 2000 with its tastefully done 5.1 24/96 mix. This is a good track to test center channel integration as they planted her voice nicely in that center anchor position. This is the best that you're going to experience of her mature, smokey vocals.]
Notice the testimony of the audiophile attendees interspersed in the video (and this silly hype of the hype, presented in fancy slo-mo video!). Beyond the Chiara speakers which could be good I guess, what electronics were they listening to and apparently excited about? Well, there's this picture showing us the inside of the Maria 800:


On the digital mainboard (left), it looks like there's an XMOS USB controller bottom left that takes USB input and likely converts it to I2S for the D2Audio/Renesas. The larger D2Audio chip in the center would be that Renesas SoC running the "Mighty Cat" / C Wave processing. D2Audio was acquired by Intersil, then Renesas. The mainboard has the label "© 2016 Elegant Audio Solutions"  - so the Daniel Hertz company is based in Switzerland, proudly "Hand Made in Venice, Italy" in fairly large script lettering stamped on the acrylic enclosure to impress folks, and designed in Austin, TX?

As for the amplifier section (right), we can see that those two switching power supplies are Hypex SMPS600N400's. The 4 mono modules (right bottom) appear to be Hypex UcD400 OEM, not even the newer generation NCORE amps. While as end users we cannot buy these OEM modules easily, you can find them occasionally on eBay for less than US$150 each, and the Hypex power supply around US$200 each. Clearly this is not modern state-of-the-art Class D electronics. Rather, the board design, SoC, amplification and power supply components originate from the early 2000's into mid-2010's. The Maria 800 seems similar to the 2017 Daniel Hertz M11 amp in functionality with the same MSRP €30,000, but missing the line/record outs and S/PDIF coax out, stuck in the lightweight Perspex enclosure.

Since the Hypex UcD400 modules are rated 1% THD at 400W into 4Ω, the fact that they're calling this 500W implies the spec number is pushed to something like 10% distortion as suspected. I would not be surprised if the Maria 350 also uses the same Hypex modules, just a single power supply and half as many channels.
[Given the consistency we're seeing with these amplifiers (Maria, M9, M11) using the Renesas D2Audio chip and Hypex modules, I wonder how they're connecting the PWM output to the Hypex UcD which as far as I am aware only accepts analogue input. 
Unless there's an undocumented way, presumably there's a PWM-to-analogue converter in there? I'd have some concerns about the fidelity as this likely degrades performance. Definitely need measurements to check the fidelity of these amplifiers regardless of subjective claims by dealers/reviewers/audio show goers!]
If you're in the market for these products, of course go have a listen first and make sure to use the digital USB or S/PDIF inputs for best performance (avoid analogue input with extra ADC step). Who knows, maybe they are the most amazing sounding amps and speakers for your listening tastes...

I can certainly see the benefits of having a simple one-box DSP ± bi-amped digital crossover Class D integrated amplifier. Nonetheless, I believe some claims being made are simply false, the advertising hype is strong. While there's nothing wrong with the sound of Hypex UcD amps, I think Daniel Hertz (Mark Levinson) is asking a lot of money for this kind of technology in the mid-2020's!

31 comments:

  1. About twenty years ago (2004 or 2005) I had an interesting experience that may add a bit to this story. It was a one-on-one session with Mark Levinson, in which he presented his then-latest product called Burwen Bobcat (here's a piece in Stereophile that dates it to 2005 after all: https://www.stereophile.com/news/050205red/index.html). The premise was then not about PCM. Instead, the product was about 'improving' MP3s. The setup was a fairly expensive DAC connected to a computer. A computer ran Windows Media Player (the only supported software) and all the magic happened, as far as I can remember, in a WMP plug in. The idea was to 'restore' 128k MP3s to something close to that 'true analog audio experience'.

    The 1-1 session was very similar to this latest endeavour. "MP3 bad, analog good, poor sick MP3 listeners, happy analog listeners'. Mark was persuasive, he had charisma. He talked about very similar stuff like red rectangles, blue circles or whatnot. He demonstrated how original MP3s made me weak and transformed ones (with a plugin) made me stronger. I was young and easy to fall for grand ideas. Even then I was not convinced.

    The Bobcat was initially sold as an expensive DAC+Plugin combo. Then, as far as I remember, they sold a plugin separately for like 500 USD. So this story is quite old. It seems like 'transforming MP3s' makes a little more sense than 'better PCM'. But even 20 years ago audiophiles obviously did not listen to MP3s. The current sales pitch better understands the target audience. Thanks for your post, it brought some memories.

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    1. Cool background Konstantin!

      Interesting article in Stereophile, good for Wes Philips reporting on that exchange he had with Levinson and the refusal to discuss much at all of what the software did until further pressed to talk about reverb and EQ.

      I guess I must have missed that Burwen Bobcat chapter in audiophilia; maybe because I never listened to MP3 128kbps which I never thought was good enough. Even back then in 2004-2005, I had always at least encoded to ~200kbps VBR.

      I see in Dick Burwen's Q&A:
      https://www.burwenaudio.com/Questions_and_Answers.html
      talk that the software upsampled to 88.2kHz. I guess that might have been challenging back then with old Intel Pentium processor while adding EQ and maybe some short reverb in the process presumably with 32-bits resolution. Hey, I guess if the audiophile likes the DSP effect, good for him.

      Very interesting theme though over the decades! I guess Levinson has some kind of obsessive need to add reverb and EQ to his music in order for it to sound good to him. And thinks that everyone should follow in that belief? (While selling his expensive software/hardware!)

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  2. Mark Levinson claims to fix issues with PCM sound, yet the patent claims (i.e. what the patent prevents entities other than the patent holder from implementing) are for processing of analog data.
    Claim 1 starts with "receiving an analog audio signal as input from at least one source of audio signals; performing a digital to analog conversion by converting the analog audio signal to a digital format;" and none of the other claims are regarding processing of existing PCM audio data.
    Additionally the claims recite the measuring of physiological functions of a listener.
    Since all steps/elements of a claim have to be performed by a single entity in order to infringe (as far as I remember from a former life in which I worked in patent law), applying the signal processing steps described in the patent to existing PCM audio would, in my understanding, not violate the patent.
    I first suspected that these limitations in the claim (i.e. start with ADC, measuring of physiological reactions) were changes made to get any allowable claim at all. This is not uncommon in patent proceedings - start with the maximum you want and then modify based on examiner responses so that you can at least claim a patent, even if it does not cover any relevant scope. It may still be good to impress customers and spread FUD against the competition. However, the ADC as the starting point and the biosensors are there in the originally filed claims as well. So no idea what the drafters were thinking.
    Additionally, I read the "AVATAR TEST" data shown in Fig. 4A & B as not even supporting the claim in column 3 that "health is improved compared to listening to no music" (no matter that the measurement methodology is hocus). The values here generally fall between those in column 2 ("PCM digital audio") and column 1 ("no music").
    I did not have the motivation to read the summary or detailed description, but even from a cursory examination the overall patent is shoddily drafted, appears to have no practical scope, and that fact that it was granted is a good example for the abysmal examination quality at the USPTO.

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    1. Hey gzost,
      You're a better man than I for digging into that patent deeper and the various columns of those tables. It was so poorly written (even that "PMC" typo in the title) that I really could not seriously spend too much time in the text beyond a cursory read and reviewing those diagrams; picking up that little EQ thing they wanted to incorporate into the process.

      Yeah, shame on the patent office for letting such a shoddy piece of work "pass".

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  3. Glad Påsk Arch,
    Fascinating and disturbing. Yet another attempt to fool the unwary audiophile. We have seen this played out before on unsuspecting gullible customers. Buy an affordable good sounding product, slightly alter the front panel design and triple the price. Same same but different! Class D amplification must be so tempting for many hifi brands. Relatively easy to source and build, put it in a fancy box, does not require much inhouse savvy and with clever marketing you can charge exorbitant prices. And on top of that claim your product houses some hitherto unknown technology (insert some flowery technobabble) that will not only give you sonic bliss but also alleviate any organ stresses you have had to endure whilst listening to everybody else’s products.
    I enjoyed reading the comments on this YouTube interview. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPEzu3V3Ets&t=519s I have faith again in humanity that so many were unimpressed and critical of the claims made.
    On the Daniel Hertz web page, you can listen to the before and after, on several well-known tracks. https://danielhertz.com/products/master-class#hear-it-mc
    I believe I can easily replicate the effect by using filter presets or some parametric equalization with a healthy dose of gain/loudness.
    Thanks for the article, Arch.
    MIchael

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    1. Copied from a DIY Audio forum comment, apparently from the White page. ''With pure analog, music lovers say they can get lost in the music, but it’s not the same with PCM digital audio because stress stops emotion. Another effect of stress is that it lowers the immune system which is what keeps us healthy, and causes deterioration of human response. Lowering the immune system is not desirable.¨ We are all slowly dying a digital death. Who knew? // Michael

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    2. "Happy Easter" to you too Mike,
      Yeah, I bet that promise of "organ stress" relief goes a long way to entice some consumers in certain demographics!

      I had a listen to those Master Class demos and definitely they're level boosted with EQ tweaking happening (like clear bass accentuation, I wondered also if a little compression added to bring out background sounds).

      I guess PCM audio (not just music) must be the cause of all this incivility and "negativity" in the world! Beware digital audiophiles (and PCM-sourced vinylphiles), we're all going to be suffering from mental illness, maybe dementia, need liver transplants, and dialysis if we keep listening to this stuff unless we fork over a few "G's" to Daniel Hertz (aka Levinson) in order to restore health. 😨

      Thanks for the Public Service Announcement, Mr. Levinson!

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  4. I'm just sooo done with high-end audio BS like this Levinson swindle. That guys shameless among an army of flimflam hucksters. He needs to put the glory days of audio component mysticism behind him. I get the value in artistic design, warranties, and customer service but it's foolish to think that your getting better sound with these high-end boxes. Didn't folks learn from that Mobile Fidelity LP mastering scandal that these magical claims are baseless? MoFi is still kicking so apparently not.

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    1. Hey Doug,
      I think it's good for audiophiles to just spend some time thinking about what "high-end audio" really is.

      Many companies seem to use the term as code for "expensive products", with pretensions of being "high class", with the incorporation of myths about sound quality so that they can differentiate themselves from otherwise excellent fidelity products that don't call themselves "high-end".

      Some brands do seem to incorporate excellent workmanship, research and unique products that could demand higher MSRP (eg. Børresen M speakers?). Alas, I don't think Daniel Hertz is among this class.

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  5. "In science and technology, while we can certainly admire some amazing people who have enlightened our understanding of the universe, or designed/invented amazing products, there are no high priests, no prophets, no popes, no rabbis, no imams, no monks/nuns, and certainly no need for idols or icons that should be followed without question."

    Shoot, just as I was about to recommend you for a sainthood. Saint Archimago certainly has a ring to it...and you've really put in the miles to deserve it ;)

    And I know you have to be dead before you get to be declared a saint, but in your case they'll make an exception, surely ;)

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    1. LOL Mr. MB,
      St. Archimago - "Patron saint of audiophiles for protection against a lifetime of treacherous predatory snake oil."🛐 does have a fun ring to it.

      But seriously... Put in a good word when it comes time for the Pulitzer for the category of "Audiophile Investigative Reporting and Speaking Out Against Bulls*it" would be just fine! 🤣

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    2. Amen to that :)

      Speaking of snake oil...Today is April Fool's Day, the only day of the year that the claims of snake oil salesmen should sound "normal". But it probably serves as a reason for them to keep their mouths shut for a day, because all the pranks and foolery hit too close to home, and saying anything today would risk exposing their modus operandi ;) The rest of the year is one long April Fool's Day for snake oil salesmen...

      Thank heavens we have you to shine the light and show us the way! :)

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  6. Just as you think hi-fi craziness couldn't reach a new low, here it is... Maybe we should start keeping ambulances parked at the door of Audio Events, in case someone has kidney failure? Why would anyone sane of mind would claim their products have health benefits other than maybe some peace of mind?

    Ironically, in my humble opinion, if there's something the the hi-fi industry has improved drastically in the last 10-15 years is precisely PCM playback. I've tested several new streamers in the 500€-1000€ range recently and what DACs and PCM decoding have achieved in this price range is astounding. Basically, perfect. What makes me sad is he'll probably make a living of selling these idiotic products...

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    1. Hey Jorge,
      Given the typical older-age demographic at audio shows, we definitely have to be careful about acute hepatic and renal failure! Plus be mindful of mental breakdowns from the "negativity" of PCM. Dangerous, scary stuff...

      I agree about the comment of PCM playback improvements over the last decade. Overall a clear improvement in lower noise, better jitter (not that it was all that scary of course), broad compatibility with wide range of samplerates, and many options for streaming!

      Levinson is 77 years old now with many decades of selling stuff like this. My assumption is that he must have a significant nest-egg for retirement whether these Daniel Hertz models sell well or not.

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  7. Also, when you see you who is promoting this (Jay's iyagi and Steve Huff), that says it all - these are not proper reviewers, but a "outsourced marketing department".

    Anyway, it's always very interesting to read your posts, Happy Easter!

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    1. Interesting observation Jorge... Clear shift over the years in the way things are marketed these days with the move to "media outlets" like YouTube channels with IMO minimal actual testing or objectivity.

      I see that Stereophile has a series of posts on the Montreal Audiofest by Robert Schryer but have not seen one on the Audio Excellence / Daniel Hertz room yet. Wondering if that's coming?

      Over the years, I have seen the videos by Audio Excellence Canada. I think most of the time they're pretty good (so long as one keeps in mind that they're gear dealers). Alas this stuff on Daniel Hertz not some of the better episodes.

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    2. Yes, YouTube is the new channel these days. People like Jay or Huff just happen to discover a new unbelievable product every single week, how lucky are they? Not every industry has this rate of innovation! Customers arrive at stores these days, they don't even want to hear a product because they already decided it's great because a guy on YouTube said so... Maybe it's not so different from what happened years ago with Audio magazines, but it's still not ideal. For some reason, audiophiles are surprisingly happy to let others decide for them!

      Stereophile are usually careful about these subjects, one of the most reasonable media out there. Maybe they pretend Hertz wasn't at the show :)

      I'll check their YouTube, it's news to me. I also like to follow some stuff on the Tube, there's people there take make good content, fortunately!

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    3. I think it'll be interesting watching how this all evolves. In the past at least it was maybe every few months that we might run into yet another "best amplifier ever" article.

      These days with the much quicker cycle and numerous YouTube websites, it's on hyperdrive! So much to watch, so much to buy. :-)

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  8. The subject is not totally new...read this article published in 1981 in dB Magazine

    Dr. Diamond again renews his claim that the digital recording
    session maybe a stress producing experience.

    https://www.worldradiohistory.com/hd2/IDX-Audio/Archive-db-IDX/IDX/80s/DB-1981-01-IDX-40.pdf#search=%22medical%22

    Page 39

    Good read

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    1. Fascinating article Blogue!
      Thanks for bringing this to attention. I bet you that's the psychiatrist friend that Levinson's referring to.
      John Diamond (1934-2021)
      He has lots of belief in that "life energy" idea.

      And here's the 3-page article in dB 1981 called "Human Stress Provoked by Digitalized Recordings" for those who want to look at the procedure and further details.

      Back in 1981 he would have only had access to digitally-recorded vinyl to "test" so these would have been early Soundstream (16/50), Sony PCM-1600 (14 or 16-bits, 44.1kHz), or 3M (50.4kHz) recordings. I wonder if his thoughts changed over time with different technologies or did all digital recordings get universally labelled "bad"?

      He also has a website and we can read his 2003 and 2006 postscripts on that original article.

      Gotta say that the belief of digital audio causing "reversal of the listener’s usual ethical and medical standards of belief" is a pretty out-there idea! His claim is that it's not about the content itself (hey, I can imagine some questionable speech and behaviours coming out of too much listening to morally questionable music, I suppose). Rather just that the digital process on audio frequencies affects human ethics/beliefs; weakening the "life energy"?

      Does not appear to be in any way "orthodox" medicine. 🤔

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    2. To add to this, indeed, confirmation that it's Dr. John Diamond who is the inspiration for the discussions about PCM being non-therapeutic. Thanks to a friend who texted me today, here's a 2-part series by Scott Wilkinson back in 2013 interviewing Levinson:

      https://hometheaterhifi.com/features/musician-vocalist-artist-interviews/mark-levinson-for-the-love-of-music-part-1/

      https://hometheaterhifi.com/features/musician-vocalist-artist-interviews/mark-levinson-love-music-part-2/

      Interesting read. Like in many complex things in life, there are elements here I certainly agree with Levinson on - SACD being mainly Sony wanting an anti-piracy format rather than doing their best with sound quality, solid-state better than tubes (including the importance of output impedance on frequency response), frequency response most important, "high-end audio-cable business is mostly a farce", and importance of center channel.

      But there are other things I'm not so sure about - the "psychological effects" of PCM (even up to DSD-Wide resolution) being perhaps the biggest that results in all kinds of downstream claims as discussed.

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  9. Hej Arch,
    I noticed that you changed the picture to an even better representation of the article you wrote. Wherever do you find all your brilliant illustrations? Are they AI generated? I used to subscribe to the now no longer published Science magazine. (1979 – 1986) It too, contained wonderful, evocative images that made the reading experience so enjoyable.
    On a different topic , The Washington Post in January published an article on the Ken Fritz saga. This was commented on the back page of the latest Stereophile issue and covers even more disturbing revelations about this man’s tragic obsession with Hi-Fi and its toll on his family. To paraphrase Stereophile, his life and ambitions liken more a Greek tragedy than a somber 19th century sonnet.
    Cheers
    Mike

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    1. Hey Mike,
      Yeah, I thought I could do better with that illustration so fired up my Stable Diffusion on the RTX 4090 GPU plus had a look at what Bing Image Creator could do for me.

      Illustrations are typically a combination of AI-generated and some Photoshopping. For example, I added most of the text for the image headlines and the illustrations.

      Yeah, saw that Ken Fritz article on Stereophile. I think they stole the Ozymandias reference from my article in late January!

      Yeah, definitely a tragedy - Greek or otherwise!

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  10. The digital stuff is idiotic. But your Red Rose comparison needs a bit of context, probably.

    My guess is that the price spread between a Dussun amp (from Aliexpress ?) and a Red Rose import is probably not that remarkable when you consider that Levinson was operating a brick and mortar store in well trafficked cities such as (I think) Chicago and NY. Providing service and warranty work, along with paying rent and salaries.

    The fact that his operation went belly up certainly makes whatever after the sale service he might have provided moot. But then again, if you ordered the amp from China, along with shipping, and had to pay to send it back for warranty repair you'd be in a similar situation.

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    1. Hey there mp,
      Good point about the brick & mortar nature of Red Rose back in the day. I'm sure they spent quite a bit of money on those stores at a time when large home hi-fi audio on a decline as broadband Internet, portables like iPods, and streamers gaining steam among consumers.

      This would have been before our current AliExpress kind of sales I think. Interestingly, the 6Moons review with a price of $1,600 listed a US Distributor (AAA-Audio - based in Newton, MA, defunct since 2011) so presumably shipping costs at least for US sales (70lbs beast!) might not have been as bad. Looks like we had this Dussun amp being sold in parallel around the same time to the Red Rose Affirmation.

      400+% mark-up still seems pretty high though... If they were willing to sell at US$1,600, wonder what the production cost would have been!

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  11. Yes it’s me again Arch,
    I came across this and as we were discussing the claim that digitized music can affect the body, I thought this could be apt.
    Sewell, S., 2011. Between Body and Sound: listening to the digitized body. Body, Space & Technology, 10(1). DOI
    http://doi.org/10.16995/bst.96
    Cheers
    MIke

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    1. Interesting but weird stuff Mike,
      Looks like some kind of philosophy-of-art paper and ideas where they're talking about digitized samples of body sounds embedded in "music" recordings!? (Sounds of surgeries like liposuction, etc...)

      Too deep and maybe a little too "artistic" for my tastes man, perhaps veering into the grotesque side of modern art?

      Maybe someone can explain what sentences like this in the conclusion mean: "While a focus on affectivity returns a power to the body that it has perhaps lost under the surgeon’s knife and in much of the poststructuralist discourse surrounding cosmetic surgery, Hansen’s theories have been criticized for their lack of attention to the social." 😵‍💫

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    2. Hi Arch, Yeah sorry. I admit I only skimmed the paper but thought the title sounded promising. Reading it properly now I have to agree that it is wierdly odd. That conclusion makes no sense. Reads like a failed google translate.

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  12. "the brand name owned by Harman"
    actually, it is Samsung for 8 years. BTW, I remember Samsung commercials about bio-tv which kinda makes us healthy unlike other crt TVs.. OMG, how it was stupid and cheap, take a look: https://youtu.be/JaWTmcrk3Yo?t=76

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    1. Thanks E1DA,
      Right... Samsung ultimately owns Harman International.

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  13. A friend sent me this link from J. Gordon Holt on the Levinson HQD speakers from 1984:
    Mark Levinson HQD loudspeaker system

    Now that's real audio journalism. Not the low-ball sales job of these last 20+ years!

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