[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
January 1998

Park Avenue High Fidelity

In the 1980s, before Reaganomics changed everything, I used to buy shopping centers and sell them to rich people as tax shelters. This activity proved gainful in the extreme, but in my case, short-lived. Nevertheless, during a brief period of newfound and undeserved wealth, I acquired certain luxurious habits, one of which has stayed with me through the years -- hi-fi.

Recently, I had cause to remember my first high-end audio system and how I came to own it. One summer day in New York in 1982, pal Ernie called to say he had gotten wind of an estate sale that offered a grand opportunity. A rich widow was selling a system left by her robber-baron husband. Rumor was, the system consisted of a lot of Mark Levinson gear (say, what—I had no idea of brand names at the time), and could be had for a song. Having generated a bit of tuneful liquidity, I decided to investigate.

Someone arranged an appointment for me to see Mrs. P, who lived in a massive co-op building on Park Avenue, the kind with liveried doormen and interior courtyards. I went up to see her in my work duds: Savile Row suit, Gucci shoes, Sulka shirt and tie; clothing as body armor. When I rang the doorbell, I could hear the clatter of high heels approaching over hardwood floors. A slim, auburn-haired beauty in her early 30s opened the door. I assumed it was the late Mr. P's daughter. The young woman thrust out a bejeweled and manicured hand. "Hi, I'm Mrs. P," she said. "Please come in." Caught, as usual, off guard, I sensed there was more to the story than Ernie either knew, or told.

Despite Mr. P's graciousness, I was ill at ease. For me, Park Avenue apartments have always had a formality that small talk cannot overcome. In her white toreador pants and lavender silk blouse, Mrs. P seemed mildly out of place, as well. What were we doing here? As if reading my mind, the lady admitted that she was from Long Island, that she and her husband had purchased the co-op four years before, that her children went to a nearby school, and that she was determined to hold onto the place at all cost. I could see her plans included my purchase of the late husband's stereo system.

We sat on facing sofas. Over tall glasses of Perrier ("Sorry, I can't offer you anything stronger"), Mrs. P confided that she had been modeling when she met her husband a decade and a half before. "I'm not as young as you think," she laughed, with a fetchingly wistful smile. "I'm Irish Catholic, my husband was Jewish. My parents were against it from the start, but Joel was the most determined man I have ever met and he got his way. I loved him, but even more," she said, "I admired him. He was a man of great character."

Dry-eyed and noble, she went on. "His legacy is his children. We have two, terrific kids. In a way, it's too bad he wasn't able to leave them anything but his name, and this apartment. We have no money."

She segued perfectly: "Would you like to see the stereo?" She led me into a spare room, which seemed to have cobwebs hanging down. I presumed this had been Mr. P's listening room. Now, it was used for storing memorabilia, including the stereo system which had been pushed up against a huge floral-patterned screen along the back wall. I later learned the screen was a loudspeaker system called Tympani IV. There were also some wooden pyramid shapes, capped by little black boxes, all made by a person named Richard Sequerra.

Then, I saw the components. There, in their dusty glory, were four Mark Levinson ML-2s, an ML-3, a set of monaural preamplifiers called ML-6, an LNP-2 crossover, bundles of cables with Camac connectors, and a rickety-looking record player with a cigar-shaped tonearm. The turntable, Mrs.P assured me, was not for sale, since she planned to keep the record collection. This was fine with me. I already owned a Denon direct-drive made out of metal and had no interest in a wooden turntable.

No doubt eons ago, this array had had a substantial value. However, to my untrained eye, the equipment seemed to be as quaint-looking and antique as an old Ford. The Mark Levinson gear even had Model T metalwork. I had just become accustomed to silvery equipment that shined, Carver, Denon, Harman-Kardon. This dust-covered stuff seemed like junk.

"How long ago did your husband die?" I asked. My impression was that Mr. P.s death had been recent, but the room seemed long-abandoned.

"It's been a year." said Mrs. P. "I've just now thought about selling the stereo. I'm told that everything works." She waved both hands. "It's the best money can buy. Joel always had to have the best."

An invisible fist tightened around my lapels. Did I want the best or not? "Do you have any idea what all this is worth?" I inquired. " I sure don't."

"Someone appraised it at $20,000," she said tentatively.

I grimaced, having no worldly idea one could spend so much money on audio.

"But I'd take half of that for a quick sale," she added.

Ten grand! Could this stuff be so dear? Although I owned real estate, supported a fancy net worth, and had cash on hand, $10,000 was more than I expected to pay for a used stereo system. I procrastinated by examining the equipment. The ML-2, with its massive heat sinks, looked too sharp to handle. I tried to heft the ML-3. ""Don't," warned Mrs. P. "You'll throw your back out." Too late.

"Joel kept fit, but he would never try to lift any of it." No fool, he.

"Was he an older man?" I asked, straightening up with a creak.

"No, about the same as you, late 30's."

A surprise. I had assumed Mr. P. was older.

"What did he die of? " I asked.

"He committed suicide," replied Mrs. P.

"I see." I responded, lamely. "How did he do it?"

Mr. P. pointed in the direction of the interior courtyard. "He went out that window right over there. Nine floors. He died instantly."

As if a distant bell rang, I recalled a newspaper report about the suicide of a Park Avenue wheeler-dealer. "What did Mr. P. do for a living?" I asked.

Mrs. P. looked me squarely in the eye. "He bought shopping centers and sold them to rich people as tax shelters," she said.

A chill arose. I may have gasped.

Mrs. P. nodded. "Yes," she said, repressing a sob with her knuckles.

"Do you know what I do for a living?" I asked in astonishment.

"No."

"Exactly what your husband did."

"Really? When will you men ever learn?" she said cryptically. At that moment, any chance I had of making Mrs. P, Mrs. S. seemed to have gone out the same window as the deceased.

Mrs. P composed herself. "Who's your anchor tenant?" she asked, referring to the dominant store in a strip center.

"Savemart," I replied.

"You're lucky," she said. "Joel specialized in Grandy centers. When Grandy declared bankruptcy and closed all their stores, the banks began to foreclose. Joel held on for as long as he could, investing everything to save the centers. He went broke before he could re-lease the Grandy space."

I had no idea a similar fate would befall me years later, but I could imagine the roller coaster ride Mrs. P had taken. She was a beauty queen from Long Island who had married a go-getter and lived the life of a trophy wife for a dozen years. Now, with the clock striking twelve for Cinderella, she was looking for help. I was her man.

"Mrs. P," I began.

"Call me Kathleen," she said.

"Kathleen, your husband's stereo may be worth more than $10,000," I said, "I don't really know. But I'm willing to take a chance that the system is worth at least that much. I'll pay your price and try the equipment in my home. If I like it, I'll keep it and that will be that. But, I may decide to sell it right away. If I do sell the system, and net more than ten thousand dollars, I'll send you the difference. Does that sound fair?"

Kathleen took my hand and shook it once, firmly. "It's a deal," she said. "How much of the ten thousand will be in cash?"

The next day, I installed as much of Mr. P's stereo system as would fit in my studio-loft apartment, and felt alienated from the outset. The sheer mass of equipment dominated my living quarters. It was difficult to set-up, requiring bi-amping and bridging. Before I could play any music, I had to turn on nine switches. The Mark Levinson equipment had an aroma I did not like. It reminded me of the steel mills and railroad tracks of western Pennsylvania where I grew up. My apartment began to smell like Pittsburgh.

The sound was nothing I could appreciate either, all dark and somber, befitting Park Avenue. I hated the loudspeakers and banished them to the hallway. The ML-2s were annoying. They ran too hot to touch and shut themselves off for no apparent reason. Ernie measured them and found that all four were down 3 dB at 18k. No wonder they sounded so lush--they had no highs. The only piece of equipment I enjoyed was the ML-3, which Mr. P. had used as a bass amplifier to drive the Tympanis. I tried the ML-3 full-range on my brand new Vandersteens. Low notes rattled the glass in my apartment and the one next door. Despite a big, diffuse midrange, the 135-pound ML-3 was truly a fun piece of equipment, the one I kept the longest.

Furthermore, I was disturbed by imagined memories that came with the equipment. As I flipped the many switches, I could picture Mr. P. in Savile Row suit, Gucci shoes, Sulka shirt, sitting down to play with his stereo system. The image oppressed me. Except for the wife and kids, I was re-living Mr. P's life. The drop from my seventh floor apartment was adequate.

In 1990, I had a chance to re-evaluate Mark Levinson equipment without the baggage of accrued memories and found it quite to my liking. But as an audio neophyte in 1982, I couldn't relate to the ML series and chose impulsively to rid myself of it. A few weeks after buying Joel P.'s system, I called a used equipment dealer who bought everything, less the ML-3, for $7500. Later, I learned that the ML-3 was an "old" one from the first production run. Even though improved versions were in production, the most I could get for an early unit was $1500. When the smoke cleared, I netted minus a thousand dollars playing with Park Avenue equipment. Yet, I always felt guilty for not sending Kathleen more money. The equipment would have been worth a lot more to the right buyer, which I learned to my chagrin months later. Even now, ML-2s find willing buyers. For years, I repressed thoughts of Mrs. P and my precipitous behavior.

Recently, however, I banged an ankle into an ML-3 right here in Paradise, and a flood of memories returned. I had gone to Don Roberto's house to install a new compact disc transport in the audio/video system he is re-doing. Someone had hauled the ML-3 out of its wall cabinet and left it in the shadows. Rubbing my ankle, I perused the amplifier's vault-like appearance. An industrial design that had seemed ancient to me in 1982 looked classic in 1997. The ML-3 was finishing up 14 years of service but had a timeless appearance, rather like Kathleen P. Taking the place of the ML-3, was a technological wonder, a small, lightweight, cool-running multi-channel amplifier which cost a sixth of the Mark Levinson's retail price in 1984. Furthermore, the Starlight amp sounds better than the older amplifier in every parameter.

The only thing the new amplifier lacks is romance. I can't imagine the buyer of a practical, low-cost Starlight amp winning the girl of his dreams, building a real estate empire, making and losing millions of dollars, and then exiting through a ninth-floor window. The high rollers who pioneered the high-end audio hobby sometimes did. Not only the buyers crashed and burned. Some of the early hi-fi designers and manufacturers lived dangerously, as well. Names to mind include John Iverson, Andy Rappaport, Jim Bongiorno, Dave Belles, and of course, Mark Levinson. These fellows all had a common passion, class A power amplifiers--the real kind, the kind that turned on, played music, and blew up in class A, sometimes taking the business with them. After the ML-2s, I owned a dozen solid state amplifiers which ran scaldingly hot and operated (mostly) in class A . I can vouch for the magic of brute force. Paraphrasing Norma Desmond, we didn't need technology; we had class A, then.

Presently, I am listening to four new Mark Levinson pieces in a system that can be fired up by pressing one button. The components have no discernible smell, and sound magnificent. They run comfortably warm and are reliable. Their prices are high, but not the highest. If I were forced to own only one system, this would be it. Nevertheless, the Mark Levinson brand name will always remind me of an earlier life, when Park Avenue apartments, trophy women, and the best hi-fi money could buy were lures to ambition. Maybe it's just as well I am out of the real estate business and living on the ground floor.

...James Saxon
jimsax@soundstage.com 

 

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