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[Interview] ‘Art of Listening’ – Harman Brings Sound Quality from the Professional Studio to Everyday Lives
The way we listen to music is changing faster than ever. Users now have a greater appreciation of the fact that music isn’t just a series of notes. Music is a total experience that encapsulates emotional nuances that deliver the artist’s message. We wanted to find out how to explore more holistic approaches to enjoy music in its emotional and creative perfection and how to listen more intelligently.
Samsung Newsroom spoke with Dr. Sean Olive, Acoustic Research Senior Fellow for HARMAN International, where he has worked since 1993. He directs the Corporate HARMAN X Sound Quality Group, whose research has mainly focused on the perception and measurement of sound reproduction including loudspeakers, room acoustics, automotive audio, headphones, and smart speakers.
Q. What are the current music listening trends especially amongst a young generation and how does the context of listening to music influence our experience?
Music today is heard under many different contexts and environments often serving as an accompaniment to daily activities such as exercise, commuting, work, and shopping.
Among Millennials, digital streaming of music has become the preferred means to listen to music. They listen to 75% more music on a daily basis than Baby boomers.1 A 2016 study from Northwestern University found that when it comes to music discovery, young people value convenience the most, favoring music services that are available across many platforms for easy access.
Moreover, new channels of digital music distribution such as music apps have made it easier for consumers to access a deeper catalogue of music from different artists and genres than ever before. Millennials in particular like to select their own tracks and tend to jump across platforms to hear the songs they like, and will skip songs they don’t like after hearing a few bars. We’ve moved from listening to entire albums from the same artist to listening to individual tracks from multiple artists across different genres, which has not only significantly affected our experience, it impacts how music is created, recorded and distributed.
Q. Does the equipment matter when we’re listening to music or does a great song suffice?
Good equipment can’t fix a bad song or performance but it can make it sound wonderful. Good equipment allows us to hear all the notes of the music from the lowest pipe organ note to the highest overtones of the piccolo accurately reproduced with correct spectral balance and dynamic nuances. There is nothing more exciting than to experience a Beethoven Symphony reproduced through your audio system at home at concert levels without strain or compromise.
Q. What are some practical tips on how we can improve the quality of the music we listen to on a regular basis, including improving our listening experience?
For headphone listening, the fit and seal of the cup or ear-tip is critical to hearing good bass. If sound leaks out of your ear you are less isolated from background noise and will hear less bass.
For loudspeaker listening, proper placement is critical to achieving balanced sound and stereo imaging. The stereo speakers should be equidistant from the listener at an angle of ± 30 degrees in order to hear instruments properly distributed between the speakers. Moving them 1-2 meter away from the walls can reduce excess bass or muddiness. The speakers should be angled towards the listening spot with the tweeter at the same height as the ears of a seated listener.
Q. What does a listener need to pay attention to when they choose the device on which they listen to music?
Many speaker systems, particularly portable Bluetooth systems have limitations in how much bass they can reproduce particularly at higher volume levels. To hide this fact they will sometimes add extra upper bass, or for active speakers, they will reduce the bass as you turn up the volume making it sound thin and anemic. Apart from that, listen to tracks with instruments that cover the entire spectrum and listen for how smooth and even-balanced the sound is. The spectral balance should be smooth and even and sound neither bright/dull, or too full/thin. When you turn up the volume, the balance shouldn’t change significantly or get harsh and fuzzy (an indication of distortion).
Q. HARMAN launched Lexicon SL-1 recently. What are HARMAN’s expectations for the launch?
Musicians are probably familiar with the Lexicon brand, which invented digital reverberation. This is truly a unique loudspeaker in that the sounds radiated from it range from a narrow focus for an intimate sound to a very broad omnidirectional pattern without a significant change to the timbre of the sound. This gives you the option of hearing a very focused sound or a very spacious sound depending on the choice of music, room acoustics or personal taste. The so-called stereo sweet spot can also be beamed to wherever the listener chooses to sit.
Q. With technological innovations in audio technology, can more people become audiophiles and learn to appreciate high quality audio production and subtle differences that elevate the music to another level?
It is clear from HARMAN’s sound quality research over the past 25+ years that most naive listeners can hear and appreciate better sound quality when given the opportunity to compare different products side by side whether it’s loudspeakers, headphones or lossless versus low-bit MP3 music. With the decline of brick-and-mortar audio stores replaced by internet sales there are fewer opportunities to test products side by side. So, we have to figure out how to educate and reach more consumers on what is good sound, better communicate the benefits, and make it easier for them to find and achieve critical listening. The opportunities are huge since audio is consumed everywhere (car, home, cinema, work, gym and on-the-go). For example, we are working on a consumer-focused version of our listener training software called “How to Listen” that we hope to make available soon.
Q. How can you meet the balance between professional level sound quality and popularization?
HARMAN makes audio products for both professional and consumers. The sound quality targets are essentially the same. Any film, television, or music track mixed on a JBL professional monitor or AKG headphone should sound much the same on our higher quality consumer products. The differences mainly lie in the industrial design, features and user experience.
Q. HARMAN recently opened a luxury studio in Munich, Germany. Could you tell us a little bit about the studio and the features of the studio that you want people to know about?
Dedicated to the Art of Listening, the new Luxury Studio celebrates and showcases HARMAN’s award-winning luxury audio brands through a uniquely immersive approach.
HARMAN’s Luxury Audio Group boasts five prestigious brands—JBL Synthesis, Mark Levinson, Revel, Lexicon and ARCAM—which together deliver the most advanced high-performance audio systems available anywhere in the world. The HARMAN Luxury Audio Studio was designed to serve not only as a billboard for these remarkable, award-winning brands, but to offer HARMAN’s customers and partners the opportunity to interact with them in a wholly original way.
Resembling a musician’s loft, the studio contains a stereo lounge with a vinyl record wall and a conference room. Everything in the studio was designed using materials chosen for their acoustic properties, with vintage layers and textures throughout the space. Completing the studio is a state-of-the-art JBL Synthesis 7.4.4 home theater with Dolby Atmos® to be used as a testing ground for HARMAN’s latest products while providing a luxury in-home experience certain to impress audiophiles and audio professionals alike.
Q. Is there any HARMAN technology applied to Samsung products?
Yes, one example is the new AKG Headphones like the N5005 and N700, and Samsung Galaxy Buds. These new products are designed to conform to the HARMAN Target Curves, which is based on HARMAN X’s research into listener sound quality preferences. The sound profile is very precise and refined, and preferred by the majority of listeners we’ve tested.
In addition, there are already ongoing collaborations between Harman and Samsung in Lifestyle, Professional and Automotive spaces. HARMAN’s expertise, technologies and markets are a natural compliment to Samsung’s so it only makes sense that such collaborations continue.
Q. What will the future look like in the way we listen to music?
We listen to music today more than ever, and this will continue. Autonomous driving is one example where humans will have more free time to actively listen to music with full attention. As we better understand the science of how music and our mode of listening affect our health and wellbeing, we will become more aware and motivated to become active listeners.