15 Minutes with Harman’s Audio Guru Sean Olive

"The problem is that the current standard audio specifications for headphones and loudspeakers are almost useless in terms of indicating how good or bad they sound." —Sean Olive

Harman International, the multibillion company that supplies infotainment technology to automakers around the world and owns such storied audio brands as JBL, Infinity, Revel, Mark Levinson, and Lexicon, to name a few, dates back to 1953 when Sidney Harman and Bernard Kardon founded one of audio’s most iconic brands, Harman Kardon. The pioneering brand, which introduced the world’s first hi-fi (and later stereo) receiver, started with a commitment to pursue high-quality sound. That commitment endures through the work of Sean Olive, a 23-year Harman veteran. In his current role as Acoustic Research Fellow, Olive leads studies related to the perception and measurement of sound quality and is responsible for sound quality benchmarking of Harman’s consumer, professional, and automotive audio systems. He is a past president of the Audio Engineering Society (AES) and, prior to joining Harman, was a scientist at Canada’s prestigious National Research Council. We recently caught up with Olive to get his take on the state of audio today and where things are headed tomorrow.

S&V: In an article you wrote for Professional Sound magazine a couple years ago you cited the lack of “perceptually meaningful” loudspeaker and headphone specs as one of your biggest pet peeves. Have we made any progress in this area?
Sean Olive: The problem is that the current standard audio specifications for headphones and loudspeakers are almost useless in terms of indicating how good or bad they sound. Often only the frequency response is given without any level (dB) tolerance or deviations specified—20 Hz to 20 kHz, for example. The world’s worst and best sounding headphone or loudspeaker would both meet that spec, which means consumers have no means of easily differentiating a good sounding product from a bad one based on its specification. Even if a level tolerance was given, a single curve still cannot describe the quality of the direct sound and early and late reflected sounds produced by the loudspeaker. What’s worse is the science to do better has existed for some time.

At Harman we can characterize and predict the sound quality of loudspeakers with 86 percent accuracy based on a set of comprehensive anechoic measurements. Our measurements are now the basis for a new ANSI/CEA 2034-A Standard: Method of Measurement of In-Home Loudspeakers so there is hope that eventually these will be adopted as standards for the industry. We are doing similar research to develop specifications for headphones that indicate how good they sound. So some progress is being made but there is still more work to do.

A recent study reported that 55 percent of Americans typically listen to music through their laptop or PC speakers, which generally produce nothing below 300 Hz. Consumers are missing out on one-third of music’s pleasure if they aren’t listening to full-range audio systems.

S&V: The headphone market is booming and traditional home speakers are giving way to soundbars and portable wireless speakers. What’s your take on the state of today’s audio industry?
Olive: We are living in interesting times. Since the 1980’s we’ve moved from large, analog, component-based audio systems dedicated to the living room to portable, digital, highly integrated, wireless speaker systems connected to the Internet. Physical media is being replaced by streamed music subscriptions, which means audio systems are always connected to the Internet. There have been growing pains from these disruptive technologies where sound quality has been sacrificed for portability, convenience, and low cost. But I see that changing. We are moving from low-res to high-res audio, or at least lossless. Premium branded audio systems have improved significantly. For many people, their cars now have more technology, loudspeakers, and better sound than what is in their homes. That has to change eventually. Audiophiles don’t want to live in their cars.

S&V: Should the audio industry (or individual companies) wage a campaign to re-ignite interest in “full-size” audio? Or is it more a question of whether anyone cares—apart from audio and home theater enthusiasts, that is.
Olive: That’s an interesting idea. In 2014, Harman produced a documentary film, The Distortion of Sound, which discussed the sound quality degradation in music recordings caused by lossy file formats like MP3. If there was a sequel it should focus on the distortion that occurs when you play high-res recordings through low-quality headphones, laptop/tablet speakers, and flat panel TV’s. A recent study reported that 55 percent of Americans typically listen to music through their laptop or PC speakers, which generally produce nothing below 300 Hz. So people are missing the bottom 3.5 octaves of music, including bass guitar, kick drum, and the fundamental pitches of the male voice. This degradation is worse than MP3. Our research has found bass quality accounts for 30 percent of the listeners’ preference. Consumers are missing out on one-third of music’s pleasure if they aren’t listening to full-range audio systems.

S&V: Do you think Hi-Res Audio will gain traction among a broader audience of music enthusiasts that goes beyond audiophiles?
Olive: In my opinion, Hi-Res Audio won’t gain a broader audience unless it offers demonstrably better sound quality and/or the recordings cost the same as the CD version. Otherwise, why will consumers pay extra for it? While high-resolution audio supports greater bandwidth and dynamic range, that doesn’t guarantee that record producers will use it responsibly and make better sounding recordings. The main problem with audio today is the lack of quality control in how recordings are mixed and monitored. There is no quality control or meaningful standards that define the performance of loudspeakers and rooms in which they are made and reproduced. A common loudspeaker standard shared by the professional and consumer audio industries would significantly improve the quality of sound

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COMMENTS
dommyluc's picture

He says what many have been saying about hi-res audio. Unless they can show a demonstrable difference in quality to regular recordings, whether it be vinyl, CD, or downloaded music files, and unless it can be comparable in pricing to CDs or regular downloads, it will fail.
Look, I am not saying there is no difference between a CD release of a work opposed to a 192/24 version, but there is, frankly, no recognizable difference in the same way that there is a difference between standard def video and hi-def video. When you look at a Blu-ray vs. DVD copy, the difference is recognizable and sometimes astounding, but when listening to many of the listening tests for hi-res audio vs. conventional recordings, if you must listen to the tracks multiple times to hear a difference in quality, then something is wrong with this picture. The difference should be immediate. Call me an idiot - and I am sure many will - but I have heard many hi-res recordings, but not one jumps out at me as being startlingly better than a conventional CD release. Hi-res has to blow people away in order to charge their premium prices, otherwise people are not going to replace a very good or great CD recording with a hi-res version that may cost 3 times as much to download as the CD you can buy on Amazon or elsewhere. And you can't blame everything on bad taste or bad hearing.

Mrsnikoph78's picture

Olive's comments are refreshing - one would think we can establish a "standard" for good sound without losing the tendency of companies to try and "tailor" products to certain people. Kudos for dishing on recording quality itself - this is by far the most critical variable in my listening enjoyment at this point - and the only one I can't "control".

I must say what bothers me more than the price premium for high-res recordings is the fact that MP3 albums are now sold at prices typically equal to CDs. I ALWAYS go with a CD as dollar for dollar I just can't spend more on a lesser recording - even if I am not 100% sure I can hear difference! Why the industry isn't selling FLAC or other lossless music is a mystery - as there one might be willing to pay for "convenience" without sacrificing quality (or re-ripping themselves if necessary).

BTW if there is one obvious reason that more people don't put together home theaters it is that they are too expensive, too complicated, and the ever-evolving features and standards are off-putting. Very good systems can be had for the price of a laptop or iPhone at this point, but somehow people aren't seeing that. They are only seeing the complexity plus the inflexibility of setup. Add to that a tendency for the sound quality to not impress (unless you either get a high-value system or spend closer to $5k) and how can you blame them for preferring soundbars and Jawbone speakers?

The audio industry needs to get real - premium prices for genuinely premium performances only. The AV receiver is ripe for a serious re-think - keep the beefy amplifiers but take a cue from today's computers and TVs acting as the media "hub". My AV receiver should be capable of replacing my computer's sound card OR give my living room the sort of ease of music browsing enjoyed on my tablet. People hate all the wires but, well. BTW my pioneer 5.1 setup was less than a SONOs Play 5, and I bet its room filling sound is way better. But the $500 for the Klipsch sub - you know, the one that REALLY pounds out the bass hurt to purchase, and frankly shouldn't have cost as much as the other 5 speakers. Bass is so important to the experience of music and movies, but as a key differentiator to lesser products, it should be a LOT cheaper, IMHO.

I'll keep investing in complex systems for as long as I am able, but in a society characterized by money-strained consumers, the focus should be on big value and "smart" easy to use products that still have the tweakability to find optimal sound in any room.

dommyluc's picture

I especially agree about the mp3 albums being nearly the same price as a CD. I also only buy CDs. I can make my own high quality mp3 rips myself (256 or 320 kbps). It's not exactly hard to do, as long as you use constant bit rate and a medium to slow encoding speed for accuracy. Hey, I know they may not sound as good as WAV or hi-res, but they can sound fairly damned good, especially in a car or from a portable music player or on a laptop or tablet. Isn't it strange that for countless years, we have listened to God-awful audio quality music over AM and FM, and now suddenly mp3 and other compressed formats are the scourge of the earth? I can also rip my own FLAC, Apple, or WMA lossless tracks, too. I cannot understand why people are so lazy or dumb they won't buy the physical copy and rip all the tracks they want in any formats they want.
I also, like you, love my modern AV receiver. I use my Onkyo to stream, via Ethernet hardline, all of my music I have ripped to my PC's HDD in WAV format (also have everything ripped in 256kbps mp3). Music heaven, and this is from a guy who wore out TWO Sony 400-disc CD changers. LOL!

ednaz's picture

I'm a huge fan of full range, high definition audio. As a former musician (classical, jazz, rock), my standard is, does it sound like it did when I was in the middle of it. I've spent a lot of money on my audio system, headphones, and portable sources, to get there. When it sounds like it did when I was on stage in Symphony Hall in Boston, I'm not just enjoying the music, I'm INSIDE the music. Pure joy.

But I do listen through my computer speakers from time to time, and sometimes on cheap earphones or headphones (although I do try hard to get the best cheap.) Interestingly, if I'm not paying critical attention, I don't notice the lack of bass or the thin treble. Because while your ears capture sound waves, your brain interprets. Just like you miss all kinds of typos in your writing, because your brain corrects them, your brain also fills in the missing or unpleasant sound with the sound I know should be there. Listening through less than optimal systems doesn't mean we're hearing it in its worst form.

If I showed you stop lights in your peripheral vision, and swapped the colors around randomly, you'll swear that the top light that was lit up was red, when in fact it was green, or purple. I've been part of experiments testing that. If the ONLY way someone is listening is computer speakers, that's one thing, and a concern. But if it's a way someone listens because of expedience, but listens other times through rich realistic sources - then we know the brain is doing the work to make us happy under sub-optimal listening conditions.

Dreyka's picture

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDZcz-V29_M

The Distortion of Sound is a hack documentary that mistakes lossy encoding algorithms like mp3 with dynamic range compression. It is an embarrassment to Harman and very disappointing to see Sean Olive talk as if it has any credibility. Hi-Rez audio is exactly the same which isn't going to make an audible difference anyway.

The real problem is masters and excessive dynamic range compression. When new albums are released from DR3 to DR6 it isn't going to matter whether it is 16 bit or 24 bit when it isn't even using close to the full dynamic range of 16 bit. Worst still many hi-rez albums are actually just upscaled and just a cheap way to make a buck of audiophools. A scummy business all around really.

There is absolutely no way hi-rez is going to catch on with average consumers. They want convenience and streaming at an affordable price. Hi-Rez is just a way to extract more money from audiophiles by getting them to rebuy the albums they already have.

The one area that is really exciting for headphones and the real endgame is positional audio/binaural simulation which requires head tracking to work well. Getting headphones to sound like speakers and an Atmos/DTS:X setup is where things get really cool considering that high quality headphones are vastly cheaper than the equivalent speaker setup where Atmos/DTS:X is just a high end home theater niche.

I'd love for Harman to do research into headphone + subwoofer or tactile transducer integration. Headphones can't do that full body bass experience on their own that you get from a subwoofer. I know a few sound designers/audio engineers who have tried that with VR and loved it. It seems room scale VR with multi subwoofer integration looks very possible.

VR of course is great because is places a priority on simulating room environments in real time which is something that was never a huge priority in video games before but has become much in VR.

Mrsnikoph78's picture

You are right - the abuse of dynamic compression is public enemy #1 in many popular recordings today - the "loudness war" at work. If the recordings don't sound good, neither do the speakers or whatever other fancy gear you've invested in.

Most modern albums I look at, even a 24-bit 48 khz version I bought recently (Radiohead), still show compression, and still show clipping! Yes, I paid a little more for a larger file. Because curiosity overwhelmed me. I won't make that mistake again. Smarten up musicians / record studios - don't sell us file size, sell us a better master!

Another fact of life involved Grimes' Art Angels. The CD was horribly compressed, but showed no clipping on its worst tracks. When I ripped it to Mp3 myself, the process introduced major clipping into every single track. I'm not sure it truly sounds worse, but the "static" "pop" can be heard and it ruins the whole experience (I guess I would hate vinyl!). I didn't realize that this could be happening to millions of tracks being sold online, and I don't understand why. DO Mp3s, by default, utilize slight dynamic compression? That could be a big factor. Otherwise, a nice sounding CD usually yields a nice sounding Mp3 to my ears.

On an unrelated note, I feel bad for "knocking" bluetooth or wireless speakers. I actually own a few. But despite the "streamlining" some companies strive for, I'd prefer always to have devices with displays (to tell you what the heck is going on - particularly to aid in wireless setup), and always at least one legacy hookup or two (so one could always hard-line in another source or device).

The Pioneer SMA-4 was an awesome sounding speaker, loud, bassy, and surprisingly "realistic" voices etc. But the wireless integration was so hit-or-miss we gave up on it for the USB connection. It was easy to setup provided you can interpret flashing orange, blue, green, and purple lights. A display with a menu would have been far, far smarter. And tone controls. Or, I guess, a normal 2.1 stereo. : ) Once more I'd point out that for $300 bucks I got a pair of Pioneer BS22s, an 8 inch sub, and a small stereo receiver. Plug in my phone with a convertor cable and I got all the Internet and digital music you could want. I'll take that over any fancy, overpriced gadget speaker out there. Its a rocking setup and unfortunately totally overlooked.

Markoz's picture

Sound bars and headphones are a natural corollary of a lack of space and money. For young (and even middle-aged) people in my city (Vancouver Canada) the high cost of housing means living in condos, apartments or townhouses where space and sound pressure level constraints mean a 5.1 system played at a decent volume level is out of the question.

At least headphones can deliver good sound at a reasonable price (and without angry neighbours pounding on your door).

WildGuy's picture

Very good interview. Interesting read and good comments made by members too.