Sound is exactly half of the audio-visual experience and yet it is chronically overlooked, with great emphasis placed on visual quality. Sound comes second.
When you finally awaken to the power and emotional experience of high-fidelity sound, the scales are balanced. No longer do you shop for a TV with the bonus sound system thrown in. You won’t scoff at a premium price tag on a premium audio product, just as you wouldn’t sneeze at the sticker on the best quality TV screen on the market.
There are many ways to awaken to the art of sound – but none quite as invigorating as a Harman Kardon factory tour – with chief sound engineers on hand. Like proud BMW M executives, eager to have you test their metal, Dr. Sean E. Olive and Jeff Poggi of Harman Kardon were not afraid to let me ‘kick the tires’ of their very best sound systems. This included some time surrounded by their very finest speakers in an elaborate $1,000,000 home theatre setup (installation costs are included, in case you’re wondering). It also included some time behind the wheel of their car audio prototype, equipped with what is undoubtedly the world’s best car audio setup by any metric, including emotion.
The science of sound is complex and highly mathematical. Sound engineers spend years studying mathematical equations and formulae relating to sound before they ever make their way into audio development. As the world’s largest audio conglomerate, Harman Kardon have attracted the very best, and key personnel have stuck around for decades – including Olive and Poggi – allowing their unique talents to trickle into every product sold by the brand.
Dr. Olive and Mr. Poggi emphasized the importance of comprehensive sound reproduction – that is to say that sound capture, storage, processing and reproduction are all approached with the utmost attention to detail, backed up by a wealth of knowledge, analysis and testing. The ultimate experience of a sound system is only as strong as its weakest link. After graphing and analyzing the mathematics of sound, Harman engineers test the subjective quality of sound produced by their products through double-blind testing, often with third parties. Nothing is taken for granted, no stone left unturned.
A tour of the Harman laboratory revealed quiet rooms built specifically for sound testing – and at great cost. The walls are coated in foam protrusions designed to absorb and arrest sound waves. Even the floor is coated in this foam labyrinth; I was guided into the room on a wire-mesh gangway elevated floor. So elaborate, so thorough is their testing that Harman’s quiet rooms are built separate from the building complex, essentially floating as an island surrounded by the building complex – thus avoiding even the slightest testing interference from faint vibrations traveling through the adjoining walls and floors.
From outdoor hot-tubs to professional sound equipment installed in concert halls and movie theatres to home theatre setups to headphones and ear buds – Harman build all of their products to target the same clarity and authenticity of sound reproduction. Guided to a large sound laboratory I was led to stand in front of a ribbon of commercial speakers typically used in concert productions. This was a veritable ‘blow her clothes off’ sound system, powerful enough to feel the sound, not just hear it – and yet the nuances of the sound were still present, ringing out with crystal clarity.
Finally we arrived at the automotive sound lab. Two Lexus LS460s were parked inside, one with the current generation Mark Levinson Reference surround sound system, the other outfitted with the latest technology surfacing from Harman’s research and development labs. The prototype system doesn’t have a price tag, it isn’t for sale – yet. But when it goes on sale, I urge you to experience it – whether that entails a test drive or a ride in a friend’s car, or perhaps checking off the option on your new car’s order sheet – do what you have to do. You simply must experience this in-car sound stage to appreciate it, it’s otherworldly, alien technology, able to transport you by way of sound to concert halls and symphony orchestras around the world.
With Poggi sitting in the back seat, I was given a few sound tracks to sample from a mix of jazz, opera, rock, electronica and R&B. Starting with the beauty and powerful yet delicate sound of a female Japanese opera singer’s voice, the stunning recreation of her performance had me closing my eyes, seeing her appear in front of me.
Ending with “Party time” we rocked-out in the Lexus – suddenly transformed into a swanky night club. Poggi egged me on, encouraging me to push the system a little harder. I slowly turned the volume dial, increasing the power cautiously, cognizant of the potential this system had to rearrange my tympanic membranes. As the power increased the clarity and richness of the sound remained – there was no distortion whatsoever, even as my jeans began to vibrate against my legs.
Listening to such genuine sound reproduction is an emotional experience. As an artist hits crescendo you’ll feel part of the performance in the action of the room, transported in time – if you’re recreating the audio performance with the right sound equipment.
It’s curious, the correlation between sound and sight. When watching movie clips in Harman’s 1 million dollar home theatre it appeared to my eyes as if the picture was more vivid – yet I knew the resolution to be equal to previous viewing experiences. It was the audio that enriched the veracity of the movie – adding so much detail for my brain to interpret that my gray matter assigned credit to my eyes when my ears were owed the credit – fed by Harman Kardon’s incredible audio performance.
Should you someday attend the Sydney Opera House, you’ll be surrounded by Harman sound equipment as you enjoy a performance in one of the world’s preeminent concert halls. But you don’t need to travel to Australia to experience the finest of Harman sound; investing in a quality set of headphones or getting behind the wheel of your Harman-equipped BMW will provide a true high-fidelity sound experience – pure to the art of sound.
[Photo credit: Shawn Molnar]