15 Minutes with Harman’s Audio Guru Sean Olive Page 2

S&V: What about “immersive” surround-sound formats such as Dolby Atmos, which can deliver a riveting experience with a proper setup? What’s the prognosis for broad adoption?
Olive: For commercial and home cinemas, I agree these immersive formats provide a very compelling experience. For homes, the hurdle will be convincing consumers to purchase and install the required seven to 20-plus loudspeakers and amplifiers in their living room. We’ve not had much success moving many consumers beyond two channels in the past 25 years. In the short term, it’s more likely that consumers will experience these formats scaled and rendered through headphones.

S&V: Double-blind listening tests conducted out of Harman’s world-class speaker testing facility in Northridge, CA have shown that listeners—both trained and untrained—prefer the sound of speakers with a frequency response that is flat, smooth, and extended. Given these findings, can you describe the personality, or “sonic signature,” of JBL vs. Infinity (both Harman brands)? And what fundamental traits do they share?
Olive: The goal for all Harman audio brands is to produce accurate, neutral sound that doesn’t distort or editorialize what the artist intended. Accuracy can be quantified using subjective and objective measurements. In practice, there are engineering, industrial design and cost constraints that will result in tradeoffs in bass extension, directivity, efficiency, and how loud a speaker will play before distortion.

Given JBL’s professional heritage, we place more emphasis on accuracy, efficiency, and how loud it can play without distortion. For the JBL M2 reference monitor, this is achieved by using a high performance compression driver, woofer, and waveguide optimized to produce a flat, smooth, and extended response. For Infinity loudspeakers, accurate sound is the goal, but there is less emphasis on efficiency and maximum output. JBL-branded automotive audio systems must achieve spectral and dynamic accuracy foremost. For other brands like Mark Levinson and Lexicon, a spatially immersive experience is an important feature achieved in the car through additional loudspeaker channels and Harman technology like Logic 7 and Quantum Logic Surround (QLS).

Sean Olive during a listening session at Harman’s world-class speaker testing facility in Northridge, CA.

S&V: What is the biggest challenge audio companies face today?
Olive: In my opinion the biggest challenge we face is innovating and adapting quickly enough to remain relevant and competitive in the marketplace. Many audio companies have come and gone over the past decade because they failed to respond to disruptive technologies and changes in how people listen to audio. Audio systems have become digital, portable, highly integrated, and increasingly are connected to the Cloud through music subscription services. The user experience is becoming become extremely important, and companies need to think beyond a remote control. The popularity of the Amazon Echo, a small, inexpensive wireless speaker that streams music and other Internet services via voice commands is an example of an audio product that caught many audio companies by surprise.

S&V: What sort of audio projects are you working on these days? Any new research you can share?
Olive: Our team has been focused lately on research related to the perception and measurement of headphone sound quality. We’ve conducted controlled double-blind listening tests on hundreds of people—both naïve and trained listeners—from different cultures and age groups. From this we identified a headphone target response that most listeners prefer regardless of age, culture, or training. The preferred headphone has a response that matches the response of an accurate loudspeaker measured in our reference listening room. This seems logical given that most music recordings are optimized through loudspeakers in a room.

S&V: Is there anything on the horizon that gets you excited? Or put another way: What’s audio’s Next Big Thing?
Olive: Virtual reality is finally becoming a reality. Audio will play a huge role in how successful the technology will play out. The more accurate and personalized the audio rendering is, the more realistic and immersive the experience will be. Accurate headphones with personalized spatial processing and head tracking will be necessary to get the best sound. Once people experience it, hopefully they won’t accept listening to stereo through their tinny laptop speakers.

Headphones with augmented reality will enhance the sounds we want to hear and suppress those we want to ignore. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I hope the audio industry will provide consumers perceptually meaningful headphone-loudspeaker standards that are common to both the recording and consumer audio industries. This might be the biggest advancement towards improving the quality of recordings and their reproduction.


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


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.