Sound Investment

"Ultimately," says audio maven Mark Levinson, the founder and president of the prestigious Cello Music and Film Systems, "the critical issue is how it makes you feel with your ears and your heart." He's talking about the exquisitely crafted and stratospherically priced music and home-theater systems his firm manufactures and installs in the penthouses, country estates, even mega-yachts of its customers. "It's a question," he continues, "of whether it makes you say, 'Yes! I want this in my life.' "

In truth, it's hard to imagine uttering any other words about the half-million-dollar showcase home-theater system arrayed around me in Cello's handsome Manhattan showroom. (There's another showroom in Los Angeles.) When Levinson, who supplies recording and mastering equipment to such studios as Polygram, Atlantic, and Sony Classical, fires up a CD of violinist Julian Rachlin, the sound is breathtaking, from the first scratch of the bow across the strings to the artist's sharp inhale at the start of a musical attack. I close my eyes, half-expecting that when I open them, I will see not inanimate banks of silver-burnished amplifiers and a pair of towering black speakers, but a flesh-and-blood performer enveloped in sweat and resin-dust.

A jazz bassist by training, Levinson began building audio equipment in the basement of his parents' Connecticut home as a young man "because," he says, "I was frustrated that I couldn't find a way to hear exactly what I played come out of a speaker." In the 1970s a line of high-end components he designed catapulted him to audiophile fame. (The equipment is still marketed under his name, though he no longer has any association with the company that makes it.)

His stylishly simple Cello components are hand-tooled in a New Haven factory, from the handsome seven-foot-tall Stradivari Grand Master speakers, which have 18 separate drivers (eight tweeters, eight midranges, and two 12-inch woofers), all the way down to the company's own line of specially designed, pinpoint-accurate speaker cables.

And then there's Levinson's signature piece, the Audio Palette, perhaps the world's finest equalizer. Built by hand from custom-made circuitry, controlled by a dozen exquisitely precise, hand-engraved aluminum knobs, the Palette allows the listener to coax the best sound from any recording. The Palette epitomizes Cello's unglitzy approach: no flashing lights, thudding "mega-bass," or twitching VU meters—just pure sound, classic design, and enduring value.

But Levinson did not create Cello to "sell boxes," as he derisively describes the high-end audio industry's predominant mix-and-match philosophy. "We design systems. We are audio-video architects. We custom-fit our systems to clients' individual needs and desires, in terms of performance and design."

That kind of preliminary-sketch-through-final-installation service doesn't come cheap: Most Cello customers pay between $200,000 and $600,000 for their systems—"though," Levinson notes, "we can make a stunning home theater for $50,000 too."

But Levinson makes no apologies for his heart-stopping price tags: "If there is a place in the world for the finest watch, camera, or musical instrument, why not for the ultimate in music and video reproduction as well?"

Cello Music and Film Systems, 41 East 62 St., New York; 212-207-4016. (As of April: 53 East 77 St.) 9080 Shoreham Drive, Suite 6, Los Angeles; 310-273-2203.