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The Harman Tour Part 1 – Loudspeaker Audio


Harman was very gracious to have me over to their design and testing facilities in Los Angeles this week. The company recently went under a small facelift in the logo/branding department and has also been acquiring a diverse list of assets and companies over the years to further expand its reach into consumer, pro and enthusiast markets.

Harman’s reach is quite deep into all things audio. Most likely known around these parts for their AKG headphones or home theater amplifiers, the company also straddles studio monitoring and consumer facing speakers with their JBL brand and even luxury car audio with brands like Revel. At the heart of it all is an engineering team including Acoustic Research Fellow Sean Olive. Sean’s work falls on the more scientific side of audio, following a solid path of observational research and measurements with the goal of defining what sounds best to the masses. He has even helped developed the Harman response curve from countless tests from employees, press and even a team of “trained” individuals that all have to meet a minimum quality threshold before they are allowed to participate.

The facility located in the valley of Los Angeles is a virtual funhouse of scientific testing facilities and amazing feats of engineering. Tucked away in the back of the Harman International Business Campus, the large unassuming building is fully equipped with four anechoic chambers, reference listening rooms, theater rooms, and a wall of headphones. The reference listening room pictured above is one of several identical rooms that span the globe. These rooms are all exactly the same in terms of size and acoustical treatment, so an identical listening experience can be easily duplicated in one of their other research facilities be it in Detroit, Germany or Japan. For my time in the room it was utilized for a massively intriguing research presentation from Sean, touching on a large number of satisfying observations that would raise the interest any audiophile paying attention. Mixed in with all the ins and outs of his process rose some interesting takeaways that peaked my interest.

While exceptions do occur, according to Sean’s research people generally agree on what a good speaker sounds like (in terms of frequency response). Now, some options do exist should you put the curve in the hands of the listener. For example, given the opportunity to control bass and treble in a test, most younger listeners will boost both the treble and the bass. More mature sections of our population often choose to cut the bass and add treble (likely due to the hearing loss that occurs in that range with age). On the subject of bass, the visceral frequency appears to be quite an important factor while evaluating what good sound “looks” like. On a scale, collectively it ranks very high (33%) as an important contribution to what people find most pleasing.

I have heard rumors of tests with young listeners of the MP3 era claiming results that correlate early exposure with a preference for the low resolution sound. Apparently Sean had also heard of these claims and conducted some research of his own on the matter. His results seemed to prove otherwise, especially after a short education on critical listening was applied to the participant. This is probably the biggest audiophile mic drop that the hobby will ever see.

One of the most impressive tests Sean and the team conduct is a double blind comparison for loudspeakers. The experiment takes place in a custom built room with a hidden mechanical speaker shuffler. Recently renovated with a slightly tighter width, Sean says the smaller room size helps increase a greater sense of 1st reflection thus making the test more sensitive to the off-axis performance of the loudspeaker. An acoustically transparent curtain hides which loudspeaker you are listening to at any given interval. This brand/price anonymity helps remove expectation bias and through experience, Sean has concluded that being blind to the source actually makes listeners more sensitive to acoustic changes. Accuracy is important here. Not only can the researchers cull subjective observations from the subjects, but they also test for consistency in their responses. Surprisingly, lesser trained ears usually give higher approval ratings. The test is conducted utilizing a single speaker as their research shows that listeners are more discriminating of loudspeaker off-axis problems than listening in stereo or surround. According to the team, listeners can still gather a sense of spaciousness and air without a stereo image as a guide.

The test I ran through consisted of 4 bookshelf speakers of fairly similar pricing (but of course I didn’t know that when the test began). A test track plays for a short interval before moving to the next loudspeaker. The subject simply moves a slider on an iPad interface to indicate which he/she likes on a scale. The brand of loudspeaker is never known, but options are identified to the listeners as A/B/C/D through a series of 4 rounds, usually presented in a randomized order. Testing can also be setup so subjects can take control of the switching for more responsive comparisons between two speakers. So what songs from the hundreds of available audiophile tracks available does Sean and the team play as an reference? Diana Krall? Acoustic Hotel California? The Beat Hotel? My mind raced with all the possible options and their implications. The answer wasn’t what I expected. Tracy Chaplin’s Fast Car, 16/44.1 played on a 20 second loop. Why? “It’s the closest thing to pink noise” Sean explains.

Of course, audiophile leanings aren’t the only loudspeaker options Harman dabbles in. The showroom right off the main lobby is filled with home theater, desktop, Bluetooth and sound bar varieties for lifestyle and mainstream appeal. I didn’t spend too much time in the area demoing gear other than to loom over a pretty sweet looking retro-grill JBL Authentics L16 sound bar ($1k). The cube-ified front and sides, wood top and old school spikes make it look like it came straight off the set of the Wonder Years. Placed on the backdrop of audiophile black and grey I’d say it feels like a fresh breeze of sorts. It doesn’t have the side throw or passive radiators like the similarly shaped mini-me Riva options, but it does deliver sound from a 3 way design with a fair distance between L/R channels. Sean approached while I was standing over the item and took me through a quick feature set before delivering an optimistic “It sounds pretty good”. I like it, even if Bluetooth and soundbars don’t typically qualify as audiophile fare. And given Sean’s insights into the hobby, I’d say that’s one hell of an endorsement.

More info on the JBL L16:

[Part 2 of the Harman Tour Series – Headphone and Car Audio]

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