I was fortunate to be able visit the world headquarters of Harman Kardon International this past Friday. My tour guide was the Director of the Acoustic Research, Corporate Technology Group, Dr. Sean E. Olive. We had lunch and then returned to the 8500 Harman building on the campus located in the San Fernando Valley. I had driven by the company numerous times when I lived and went to school in Northridge, but to finally see behind the scenes was a special opportunity…all thanks to Dr. Olive.
Our first stop after lunch was the John Eargle home theater, named in honor of a very well respected audio engineer and the author of many texts on the recording art. The Harman home theater is a relatively small room with two rows of raked luxurious leather seating, a big screen with projector and a typical theatrical surround sound system. The rack of equipment driving the whole thing was in the rear of the room. There was a high-resolution demonstration Blu-ray disc playing in the Oppo BDP-95 (I wasn’t surprised to see one of my favorite machines amidst the other equipment).
Sean had the AIX Records HD-Audio sampler that I had brought along and we put it into the Oppo unit. Everything in that theater is control by an iPad equipped with a number of applications so that it can be used from the best seat in the house. So as my disc was making its way through the FBI warning and animated logo, Sean and I sat down in the second row. I started by playing “On the Street Where You Live” sung by Steve March Tormé, a standard arranged by his dad for “dektette”. The sound of the brass on this particular track is amazing, especially the trumpet solo by Dr. Bobby Rodriguez at the end.
I wanted to move between the three different audio mixes, which I can easily do with the standard Oppo remote control (using the AUDIO button) but was unable to do with the iPad control app. The app didn’t include ALL of the buttons that are available on the actual Oppo remote. It wasn’t until Sean dug out the Oppo remote that I was able to demonstrate the stage”, “audience” and “stereo” mixes in quick secession. The people that programmed that app came up a little short. The buttons on the remote are there for a reason.
The next stop was the “blind” speaker evaluation room. The clever folks at Harman designed and built a listening room that can change which speaker you’re listening to and maintain the exact physical location. They do this with a series of speaker sliders (see the figure below) that can quickly retract one speaker, slide it out of the way and then replace it with a different make and model. Of course, this is all done behind a sonically transparent black curtain and under the control of the operator via computer control. It works.
Figure 1 – The speaker evaluation room at Harman with the “swap out” mechanism.
Sean played a looping selection of a Steely Dan track (which sadly was edited rather poorly causing a rhythmic bump at the edit point) through three different speakers (this evaluation was done in mono, but the system can work with stereo pairs as well). The room was dark. All you could see was his selection screen with the letters A | B | C on it. I listened twice to each speaker and selected speaker B as my favorite. The curtain was rolled back and the brands were revealed.
Speaker A was a small B&W model 684, speaker B was a JBL model and speaker C was a comparable small driver floor standing model from Klipsch. It was nice that I preferred the JBL since I was in their facility. It really did deliver a more uniform and pleasant sound.
The last stop was the large playback room with the M2 studio monitors and a Benchmark DAC1. Sean saved the best for last.
We’ll talk about that tomorrow…