Does music need a physical form?

An interview with Jason Gokavi about the design of the Mark Levinson № 5105 turntable

“Streaming represents the joy of discovery, whereas listening to vinyl is the joy of art.”

Nowadays, record players are seen as somewhat old fashioned. Nevertheless, in recent years this analogue device has been accumulating a growth fan base of vinyl devotees who are always in search of the perfect sound. There was great surprise in the Red Dot Award: Product Design 2021 when Harman, a company mainly known for manufacturing speakers, headphones and car audio systems, for the first time entered a turntable in the competition. The jury was so impressed by the Mark Levinson № 5105 that it awarded a Red Dot: Best of the Best for top design quality. 

We spoke to Jason Gokavi, one of the designers responsible for the Mark Levinson № 5105 at Huemen, the design agency for Harman.

The jury commented on the Mark Levinson № 5105 record player

“The Mark Levinson № 5105 turntable is characterised by perfection in technical detail and design, fine-tuned to optimise the audio experience. There is nothing that disturbs the purist overall impression, which provides an appropriate stage for its sophisticated technology. ”

Does music need a physical form?
One reason for the renewed popularity of turntables is the analogue moment, that ritual of picking out the record and wiping it off, placing it on the record player, positioning the cartridge and watching the needle as it slowly moves to the centre. Another is of course the sound quality of analogue recordings. That is pure and unadulterated listening pleasure. That’s not to say that streaming is not a pleasurable experience. Streaming has put billions of listeners all over the globe in touch with music that they would never have otherwise heard. My way of explaining it is that streaming represents the joy of discovery, whereas listening to vinyl is the joy of art.

Maybe streaming represents consumerism, while listening to music on vinyl is about pleasure?
In a time when instant gratification is seen as the norm and access to a whole world of music is available at the touch of a button, there is something about the Zen-like pleasure that we connect with vinyl. In a way, putting on record and listening to it is a form of digital detox.

What’s more important in the luxury audio segment: technology or design?
An uncompromising balance. There’s no doubt brands like Mark Levinson are all about refining technology to perfection. But their iconic design elements also have a key role to play. One of the core principles of the brand’s DNA is purpose-driven design, meaning that no detail is added to a product unless it somehow improves its performance. This philosophy is also reflected in the aesthetic. Each feature is there for a reason, and that reason determines precisely how the feature is designed. Wherever there are undefined elements, we look for design-based solutions, and we make suggestions whenever we think we can improve on something. This results in an optimised design process based on working closely with our electrical and mechanical engineers.

Jason Gokavi celebrates the total of 44 distinctions for huemen at the Red Dot Award: Product Design 2021 with a Red Dot Moment

The engineers make a key contribution to creating the perfect sound experience. How much scope does this leave for you as a designer without changing the character of the sound?
We work around the limitations placed on us by the audio performance. In the case of speakers, this is quite limiting, but the nature of the design of Mark Levinson components means that they offer a certain degree of flexibility. Some dimensions are set in stone, for example compliance with the standard rack width, but within these limitations we have huge scope. Admittedly, we are lucky to work with people who listen closely and trust our design decisions. This allows us to implement our concepts in almost the same way as we had suggested at an early stage of the design process.

Listening to music is a sensual experience. To what extent is this also true of the Mark Levinson № 5105 turntable?
When customers try to define the Mark Levinson sound, they often describe it as soft as silk, with a dark-black, natural silence from which emerges every detail of every note in recordings with precise timing and huge power. We have also taken this into consideration in the design, by using a few select design elements and focusing on the functional components in order to allow them to shine. The design prompts listeners to trust the performance of the № 5105, while also ensuring that the turntable fits seamlessly into its surroundings and draws attention chiefly through its reduced and subtle design.