Meet the Mark Levinson audio engineer mastering the art of listening for the purest sound in every Lexus
As a company, Mark Levinson has an uncompromising devotion to audio clarity, which has led them to become one of the world’s leading hi-fi manufacturers. Two decades ago, they partnered to become the exclusive provider of high-end sound systems for Lexus, a car brand they believe mirrors an ethos of precision and commitment to quality craftsmanship.
“If you look back over the last 20 years, it’s really incredible how Lexus and Mark Levinson have improved things step by step,” says Savion Thomson, Audio Engineer at Mark Levinson “In Japan, we use the word ‘kaizen’ for continued improvement - those little changes that make it one percent, two percent, three percent better - we are always striving to create a new standard.”
Savion’s specific role within this partnership is to ensure each sound system is uniquely tuned for optimal audio quality in every individual Lexus model. “At Mark Levinson, we talk about the music being alive. We are passionate about delivering sounds in a really pure, unfiltered way,” says Savion, from his studio in Nagoya, Japan.
“Suppose you went to see the New York Philharmonic and heard an amazing piece that you want to relisten to in your car; we would want you to be transported back to that night. For me, that means creating a sound with no distortion, reproducing frequencies accurately, choosing high quality parts to do those musicians justice and using software that doesn’t get in the way - you need to have a straight line to your experience.”
When Savion was eight years old, he wanted to be an artist or a scientist but never imagined his passions would lead him into a career that would allow for both. “I’ve always been interested in the arts, but I was also interested in science - to me that just meant how things work,” says the Michigan- born audio engineer. “We treat science like it’s an art. Vibration and, in turn, sound are a part of being alive; they are very rhythmic and mathematical but also a part of chaos.”
Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Savion’s childhood was filled with music. His mother, who was raised in Detroit, would regale stories of Motown and sing in the house. “There was a song for everything; a song for waking up, a song for going down the stairs and we would sing to each other.” It became clear to Savion’s parents early on that he had an ear for music and a memory for pitch. “I’ve always been interested in music, I’ve always felt like music is just there,” Savion says. “If somebody sang something, I could play it back on the piano by ear, so they put me in piano lessons.”
Savion would go on to pursue audio engineering at the University of Michigan, developing a keen understanding for what the human ear can hear, and in turn, how this is translated to the brain. “My training in acoustics and psychoacoustics really helps in this job.” This lifelong journey is part of the driving force behind Savion not only striving for technical accuracy, but the way in which he subjectively tunes each vehicle to maximize the sound experience.
A single day can see Savion taking thousands of meticulous measurements using multiple microphones for just one vehicle. “However, the only real way to know the difference between okay sound and amazing sound, to experience what’s really possible, is to just go listen,” Savion explains.
For the ultimate test, he takes to the road, balancing what is being played on the sound system with the noises the car and road deliver. One particular piece of music he returns to again and again is the live recording of Adele at the Royal Albert Hall in London. “You can hear the edge of her voice almost like she’s cutting through a veil. When I close my eyes and I get the feeling that she’s really in the car with me, then I know I’m getting close.
But is there such a thing as the perfect sound? “Perfection is up to the individual. I don’t think there is one perfect environment”. “There’s no copy and paste for us,” Savion says of Mark Levinson and Lexus. “Every vehicle is designed as unique and special, we spend thousands of hours tuning each, the perfect balance is hard to find, but we definitely strive for it.” It’s a lengthy and considered approach that delivers something beyond an auditory experience; “It’s about unlocking something you didn’t know was there,” says Savion.
“Tuning Mark Levinson systems for Lexus has to deliver more than just playing audio. What’s the one or two parts that’s not perfect yet? How do I get there? Piece by piece we chip away so we can say, ‘okay, this is the new standard.’” The culmination of these ongoing efforts to finesse the technology for Lexus ensures that every driver receives an enhanced audio experience that’s unrivalled. As Savion explains, “You know when you hear great sound because it’s just a pleasure. The only way to experience the difference is to listen.”