The Art Of Noise: Lusso Reviews Harman Audio
The one-time junkie’s catalogue of plaintive pop folk, including such Adult Orientated Rock gems as Fire and Rain, Sweet Baby James and You Got A Friend, historically fitted into my general taste for the more nuanced, knowing music that comprised the West Coast sound of the 70’s and 80’s Los Angeles studio era. Beautifully constructed, great session playing, sparkling, natural production…
That was until June 11th 2010 that is, sitting in a small, darkened room in Northridge, Los Angeles staring at nothing more than a curtain – after that, it was over: forever. “That’s Why I’m Here” is the languid title track to his 1985 album. A plaintive examination of old allegiances, lives gone in different directions, a mid-life audit on fame and having to be a friend to some, and a star to others, and a husband to one… a nice song, a toe-tapper. Listened to on repeat for 2 hours? Grating. The same 16 bars? On a loop? Again and again? AND AGAIN? Not so much.
Normally, this kind of scenario may prelude a piece on the latest CIA interrogation method.
“Yeah, Sheik Mo” in Cell 34 will spill the beans, if we hit him with some intravenous Joni Mitchell, but apparently I’m actually at the Harman International Research Facility, one of the world’s biggest and most influential audio equipment manufacturers. The man responsible for the ‘‘Death by Taylor’’ session is their chief acoustic engineer, Sean Olive; an acerbic, deadpan Canadian, possibly aware of the irony of his olive-coloured shirt. Sean is leading a number of jet-lagged hacks through the intricacies of psychoacoustic training. That is to say, he is replicating the regime that Harman’s elite team of “listeners” go through to best identify sound deficiencies in speaker designs.
“Objectivity is the name of the game.” Steve drolly informs us. “Harman is one of the few companies that puts the science into its testing…you need dedicated listeners and the right equipment. And we’ve put millions into it. As far as we know, what we do is totally unique.”
So we are forced to listen to that exact same segment of music, played over and over again, and again, on different makes of speaker. Behind that curtained wall is a custom-built speaker-moving rig ensuring the source of the music will always be from the exact same spot. The rig moves the speaker cabinets into position fast, so you can still remember what the last speaker sounded like and the curtain ensures the look and design of the cases won’t influence our opinion, nor will its position in the room. In short, there will be no “psychological biases”.
We have been given a lecture into the esoterica of identifying issues across the entire bandwidth of a music signal, and the correct lexicon – words for timbre colouration and frequency response: spectral-balance, nasal, forward, muffled (problems in the bass), tubby (the same), tizzy (tweeter issues), width and envelopment (all to do with lateral reflections). Please remember – I’ve flown in the night before from London. And yes, it was on the best in show carrier, Air New Zealand, who are great, but this isn’t my idea of an effective jet-lag cure. Then he drops us 12 bars of Tracy Chapman’’s “Fast Car”.
“Yeah, the Chinese always ask ‘Who is that guy?'” chuckles Sean.
My eyelids start to scream. I’m ready to talk.
Turns out there are no such things as “Golden Ears”, those mythological geniuses who can tell you what’s going on in the 20mhz range, for example. Whilst juggling. You just need to train people into knowing what they should be listening out for. And you should probably employ the guy who wrote the book on psychoacoustics and subjective listening. Luckily, Harman does. Dr. Floyd E Toole (the actual book, called “Sound Reproduction – Loudspeakers and Rooms” sits on a stand next to him) has hung up his lab coat, but he still does still have some strong opinions about the traditional methodology for appreciating hi-fi.
“Rooms create bass. But all rooms are different. The science is making this a non-issue. We have to take subjectivity into account of subjectivity. Historically measuring ‘good’ sound has been tricky – there are a number of graphs and statistics that we could measure – but normally people just listen, pour a drink or 3 and say, ‘hey, that sounds pretty good’. Our job is to collate opinions that have meaning…”
Historically, Sidney Harman, the founder and one of the fathers of modern hi-fi, discovered his favourite hobby was buying up other small, specialist audio companies. Harman now has a big family of medium to high-end brands including such household brands as Infinity, JBL, Mark Levinson and Revel, covering the full spectrum of sound from music and film recording and live concert equipment, to home cinema and iPod docks. In 1953, Sidney had founded his own brand with Bernard Kardon and the pair went on to create some of the most celebrated hi-fi of the last 40 years.
It’s no surprise, then, that Harman Kardon has been associated with Apple. They created the famous transparent iMac sub-woofer and stick system and you can see the cross fertilisation in the companies shared belief that you innovate through ground breaking research married to cool design.