A Visit To Harman Academy, Home of Revel, JBL Synthesis, Lexicon, Mark Levinson and More!
John and Joel have been bugging me for ages to write something about my experience at the Harman Academy this past June, but I’ve been at a loss about where to begin. Is there anything new to say? What superlatives haven’t been used yet? I’m sure it’s been said before, it is absolutely a Disney World for AV guys -- “Experience the amazing Multi-Channel Listening Lab!!” “Hear the wonders of tone sweeps!” “Bask in the isolation of the anechoic chambers!” Kidding aside it was a genuine privilege to experience firsthand things I’ve been reading and hearing about for years.
Readers of past newsletters will know that the Harman Academy is a two-day training opportunity for dealers that Harman hosts at their HQ in Northridge, CA. What separates Harman from other manufacturers is that the Academy isn't merely a training on their product line. It is an in depth look at how Harman brands Revel and JBL create their products as well as the principles of acoustics, both creation of sound and room acoustics, which guide that creative process. I wish it had been a week-long trip but it was generous enough of Harman’s staff to give us as much of their time as they did.
DR. FLOYD TOOLE
The Academy started with a talk by Dr Floyd Toole, one of our heroes here at The Screening Room, about his time at the Canadian National Research Council, his research in acoustics, and how he created the loudspeaker testing processes which lead to his being hired away by Harman and given the opportunity to continue his industry-leading research while applying his knowledge in the manufacturing world. Dr Toole’s experience covers the history of Hi-Fi.
Highlights of the rest of the day, for me, included being treated to talks from Dr Sean Olive about how room characteristics affect speaker sound and placement; from Principle Engineer Chris Hagen about JBL’s line-up (and a great demo of the new JBL L100 Classics!), how testing in an anechoic chamber works and their use of the Klippel testing software; and a visit with Revel’s Principal Engineer Mark Glazer who showed us around his lab, discussed his approach to speaker design, and demonstrated Harman’s large anechoic chamber.
DR. SEAN OLIVE - PRESENTATION ON CONTROLLING VARIABLES DURING SPEAKER LISTENING TESTS
JBL ENGINEER CHRIS HAGEN SHOWS OFF THE JBL 4367 AND L100 CLASSIC
REVEL ENGINEER MARK GLAZER IN HARMAN'S LARGE ANECHOIC CHAMBER
BLOG AUTHOR DAVE CARTY'S ATTEMPT AT A TARZAN YELL FOILED BY ANECHOIC CHAMBER
One of the things I find most engaging about Harman is their iterative process of product development and their willingness to share that process with the entire audio industry, in the true spirit of science (seriously, Harman publishes their findings as peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals). We witnessed a striking demonstration by one of their lead engineers, An Nguyen, who showed us how they test cones and domes using a laser to reveal any break-up modes that can result in audible resonances. The results of the test could be seen in real time to pinpoint any areas of the cone that might be improved to increase efficiency / linearity.
ENGINEER AN NGUYEN
VIDEO OF THE LASER SCANNER IN ACTION
Undoubtedly the most famous part of the Harman Lab experience is the Multichannel-Listening-Lab where they test the outcome of all this work with double blind listening tests. In the MLL you sit in a darkened room where you compare the sound from several speakers which you can’t see and tell the engineers which ones you liked and why. Harman has an apparatus that can change out and place each speaker into the exact same listening position within three seconds so your memory of the previous speaker’s sound is still fresh. The speakers are also level matched so that one isn’t louder than the other (this is important as we tend to judge a louder speaker as sounding better). The experiment is “double blind” in that Harman doesn’t choose the order in which the speakers are heard so neither the participant nor those conducting the experiment can affect the outcome. They gave us the full “in the dark” experience comparing three different bookshelf speakers.
SENIOR ACOUSTICS RESEARCHER OMID KHONSARIPOUR DEMONSTRATES THE SPEAKER SHUFFLER IN HARMAN'S MLL (Multichannel Listening Lab)
I wish everyone could demo speakers under the same circumstances as it strips away all the trappings and you are left with raw performance. One of the most interesting takeaways for me was a conversation the group had after the demo. It seems that, collectively, we were largely afraid we wouldn’t be able to pick out the Harman speakers or worried we wouldn’t make “the right choice”. Given that we were guests of Harman this is somewhat understandable as none of us wanted to be “the guy” who picked the competition or couldn’t hear any difference. What is fascinating about this reaction is that it is entirely not the point of the exercise! The MLL tests aren’t a contest. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter which speaker you choose as long as you choose the one that sounds best to you. That is result they are interested in. And if you don’t happen to pick a Harman product what interests them is why you didn’t and can they use that information to help improve their product. Harman has performed these tests for decades, collected the results, and applied that knowledge to refine their speaker design. [As an aside I suppose I should report the results of the MLL experiment and say that opinions in our group were universal – the Revel speakers were preferred by all]
VIDEO OF THE MLL SPEAKER SHUFFLER IN ACTION (MUSIC REPLACED TO AVOID COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT ISSUES)
The second day’s activities took place at the home of Kevin Voecks, Harman Luxury Audio Group's Manager of Acoustic Technologies along with Mark Glazer, Revel's Chief Engineer for the unbeaten Revel Salon 2’s, and were a bit more relaxed/informal and included some of the most amazing food I’ve ever eaten (they don’t call it the Harman Luxury Academy for nothing)! We began with another address by Floyd Toole who spoke about, among other things, the need for setting standards for speaker performance (similar to the standards used in video by organizations like SMPTE) and the nascent work that is being done to define those standards. When you hear Dr Toole speak about the subject is seems almost criminal that we have gone so long, and continue to exist, without establishing even a base line for audio standards which allows for the perpetuation of the myths that continue to cloud the Hi-Fi industry.
The day continued with a broader demonstration of the Revel speaker line up including outdoor speakers (the XC line) listening to a lot of different content on a lot of different speakers. There was a lot of seat-trading so everyone who wanted got a chance to sit in the “sweet spot”. Being of a somewhat reclusive nature I took advantage of the sweet spot during lunch while everyone was socializing and, at his invitation, ran rampant with Mr Voecks' audio library to listen to as much different content as I could while I had the chance.
FRONT OF KEVIN VOECKS' DEMO THEATER WITH PROJECTION SCREEN RETRACTED
The afternoon was less sonorous but no less interesting with an overview of amplifier technologies which provided a basis to move into a history of the Mark Levinson company and an in depth look at their line of amplifiers. Afterward we received our training certificates and ended the day with a Q&A.
As I mentioned at the beginning I wish the visit had been longer -- at least another day. I hope to visit the Harman Academy again – they also have a training for room calibration that I would LOVE to attend.
WRITER DAVE CARTY AT KEVIN VOECKS' HOUSE