Meet Danial Shimiaei, the director of engineering at high-end brand Mark Levinson. On our recent visit to the impressive Harman Luxury Audio site in Northridge, California, we got a chance to talk to Danial about his journey in audio, his taste in music and what makes the Mark Levinson brand so special.
What Hi-Fi?: What made you interested in hi-fi?
Danial Shimiaei: Probably when I was about 15 years old, a young straggly kid, I was bored and just walking around in a small town in northern California; and I went into a hi-fi store. It was there I got my first taste of listening to proper playback.
What did you hear?
It was a Pat Benatar record that had just come out and I was hooked. I could not believe what emotional impact music could have. It was a very, very dynamic song and just captivated me.
What was the first piece of music you bought?
My first two records were [Pink Floyd's] Dark Side of the Moon and Steely Dan’s Aja. Having been a foreigner that came to America and didn't speak English properly, I gravitated towards music that didn't have any lyrics, because I didn't understand them. So even when I was listening to music that had lyrics in it, I really focused on the music itself, the instrumentation, the frequency, the bandwidth and the dynamics. And of course, back then, without being educated in it, none of it was calculated for me.
What was your first hi-fi system?
My first hi-fi was my brother's record player and receiver, which were both Pioneers. I forget what speakers he had, but that was my introduction. I would just sit there for hours and listen to different types of music and try to connect with it and understand the movements. That's where it all kind of came together.
How did you come to work in audio?
I was still in high school and my first job was working as a component-level technician. I had a good acumen for electronics and started interning at a hi-fi shop in Santa Monica. The owner took me under his wing and taught me the electro-mechanical side of things. I first started with repairing turntables, then cassette decks and slowly started moving to more sophisticated parts of electronics, amplifiers and so on.
And at the same time, I had a friend who was a drummer. He was playing in a couple of different bands and one day he goes, “Do you want to be a roadie?” I was, "Okay, sure, I'll help you lug your drums around." I was maybe 16 years old, and we'd go to gigs and set up things.
How did you then end up working for Mark Levinson?
So it was a long journey. I worked in the music industry for about 15 years and then in film and TV post-production for about 20 years. Through that time I stayed on the technical side and was involved with building facilities, listening environments and recording studios, and so on.
About a year and a half ago, there was an opportunity because of the relocation of Mark Levinson to the Harman campus in Northridge, California and I joined the company.
What does your job involve?
I'm the director of engineering for Mark Levinson audio. I have a team of mechanical, electrical and software engineers that work on the future roadmap for the products and also any kind of sustaining engineering that is required.
What do you think differentiates Mark Levinson from its rivals?
Quite a bit. First of all, we have our DNA – the Mark Levinson DNA. There's circuit topology, what we take into account for circuit design and the integrity of the signal that goes through it. We also hold a lot of patents within the products that we manufacture and always look at how we can make something better. At the same time, we react to what the market is really looking for. In recent years there has been a lot of movement towards streaming and so we have the No.519 [music streamer], for example.
What is your favourite Mark Levinson product, past or present?
Wow, probably the new ML 50 mono power amplifier. Sonically, it's superior to any of the predecessors that I have heard, and the way it controls, and the clarity that it delivers is just superior. We've had a very limited run of demos at various shows, but everyone has just been absolutely floored by it.
Measurement or listening, which takes priority?
Listening. Measurements are necessary when we're doing the engineering work. But at the end of the day, you have to look at not just the chart or a number, you have really got to listen to it and see what it is capable of delivering.
What’s your reference system for comparing products?
Our own products are really our reference. One of the things that really speaks highly of our products is that you’ll find Mark Levinson amplifiers in pretty much every one of the research rooms used by the various Harman teams that are based here. We also use our amplifiers with appropriate JBL and Revel speakers (both brands are also part of the Harman Luxury Group) to make sure they work well.
Which rival do you admire the most?
I'm impressed with Classé. Very impressed with the products. All around, I think they are elegant.
What system do you use at home?
I have a Mark Levinson system. Currently, it's just the No.5805 integrated amplifier and a No.519 music streamer. The speakers are a very old pair of AMT ESS Heil.
What are your three favourite albums?
Ooh, that's a really really tough one.
I would say The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. Anything by The Police. And from more of a modern orchestral viewpoint, I really love Hans Zimmer's work.
What will the Mark Levinson products of 20 years from now look like?
They’ll be a lot smarter. We're obviously looking at pushing performance as much as technologies and the abilities within our supply chain allow us. However, there's going to be a lot of smartness about it, how we interconnect and how we interface with it.
Read our review of the Mark Levinson No. 5909 wireless headphones