A Day of Harman-y
Upscale Audio visits the audio behemoth in Northridge
The Martin Lighting and JBL Professional demo room, or should we say demo hangar, at the Harman Experience Center at the Harman facility in Northridge, CA.
"We're a very science-based organization."
Jim Garrett, the senior director of product strategy and planning at the Luxury Audio Business Unit of Harman International, didn't really need to say that. When a tour of an audio brand leads you through three anechoic chambers, each larger than the previous one, a "Klippel testing" room complete with measurement laser, and a view of rapid prototyping using 3D printers, the science focus is pretty obvious. (More on Klippel testing later.)
What wasn't stated, but came through just as strongly, was the other side of science: heart and passion. Jim, just to take one example, is a multi-instrumentalist in a band. Throughout the day, people were heard talking about music and concerts any chance they got. The listening rooms at Harman look exactly like retail demo rooms. In them, engineers' eyes sparkled mischievously as they cued demo tracks that had us peeking at the iPad screen or pulling out our phones to fire up Shazam to note down the artist.
Even design choices were conveyed with love and humor: "We dressed the L100 for a night out on the town," said Jim about the shiny Black Limited Edition of the JBL L100 Classic.
Earlier in the morning, Dr. Sean Olive, senior fellow of acoustic research at Harman, who has authored over 50 research papers on the "Science of Sound', and whose work in audio perception and testing drives the development of major audio products, lit up as he talked about the Harman Target Curve sure, but he really lit up when he spoke of his audio system at home, built around Mark Levinson and Revel.
And by evening, An Nguyen, the principal engineer behind many great JBL speakers, became our soft-spoken hero as he demoed the creation that was our favorite product of the day: the JBL 4329P powered monitors.
Science and Passion
The "subjectivism vs. objectivism" debate is so overexposed it makes most of our eyes glaze over. Still, it was heartening at Harman to see how both subjective and objective methods contribute to a body of what Dr. Sean Olive calls "psychoacoustic knowledge."
Peeking into the largest of the three anechoic chambers at the Harman facility. Here, the speaker can be automatically rotated for on- and off-axis measurements.
Don't think, though, that listening tests are the "fun" part of the work. Dr. Sean stresses how difficult, time-consuming, and expensive they are, requiring trained listeners and excellent communication between the two hemispheres, as it were, of the design process. (Dr. Sean showed us the results of several studies that proved that while naive listeners and trained listeners often come to the same conclusions, trained listeners offer far more statistically useful and repeatable results.)
This careful mix of science and passion has been crafted over many years at this very location. The recurring joke during the tour was for Jim to refer to engineers as "new hires," only for us to find they've been with the company for over 30 years. And they have trod the same ground for all that time, with Sidney Harman having bought the 44-acre property back in the 1970s. At first a manufacturing location, it is now a Disneyland-esque Harman Experience Center and R&D headquarters. (And yes, being in Northridge, they did suffer a lot of loss and damage during the infamous 1994 earthquake.)
The Upscale Tour
The focus of our tour, since we are Upscale Audio, was on the luxury audio wing with special emphasis on JBL and Revel. But that didn't mean we were left out of the raucous fun. The well-planned, tightly coordinated day at Harman took us through a few extremes. From the spectacular aural and visual Martin Lighting and JBL Professional experience in the demo hangar (it really was that big) to the eerie and disorienting hush of anechoic chambers; from the graphs and numbers of the engineering departments to the joy of music in the listening rooms (and of movies in the half million dollar JBL Synthesis theater), the Harman team really proved to us that being "science-forward" doesn't mean you forget about passion and rich tradition, and nor does having that rich tradition mean you're afraid to throw outdated ideas out of the window and have fun.
As we walked through the very process of their creation, it became clear that JBL and Revel were perfect inverses of Harman's "science but with love" philosophy.
With JBL, tradition and history bring the passion, while the science ensures all of the rich characters in the component list perform to the highest level. Think of dialed-in large pulp woofers, horn-loaded tweeters, and lots of grainy wood forming right-angled cabinets, producing textured, hard-hitting playback.
Revel, on the other hand, is science-first, with the passion coming from linear and neutral designs that step aside and let the music do all the talking. Think of Deep Ceramic Composite woofers, Acoustic Lens-guided beryllium tweeters, and tight, curved cabinets with playback that's clean, fast, and linear.
For us audiophiles, enamored as we are with brands run by a single aging master out of his workshop in rural nowhere, the glossy sheen of mass-market production can cause us to overlook, or even be suspicious of Harman. But during our tour, we were pleased to see figurative grit in the corners and the fingerprints of a craftsman on everything they touch. We came out with renewed respect, and we'd love to share that with you.
Upscale's stock of Harman brands features JBL, Revel, Mark Levinson, and Arcam. Call and talk to one of our sales team about which Harman product will sing in perfect harmony in your system.
Jim Garrett, senior director, product strategy and planning, Luxury Audio, Harman, on the right, and Kevin Deal, president and founder, Upscale Audio, with the JBL Paragon, a stereo loudspeaker with 15" woofers, two massive compression drivers, and two HF radiators. Notice how the compression drivers point at the curved baffle to maximize dispersion.
We Learned Some New Words
The vice president and GM of Harman Luxury Audio, Dave Tovissi, joined us a few times on the tour. During his introduction, he taught us two new words.
"Luxsumer," a portmanteau of "luxury" and "consumer," describes the new wave of audio customers who want high-end sound and expensive products but don't want to get involved with boxes, cables, racks, and so on. The rather impressive JBL L75ms all-in-one caters to this exact segment.
Though "newstalgia" has appeared in design blogs for a couple of years, it was new to our team. In fact, when Dave first used it, our resident regional-accent enthusiast (sales associate Joel Bennett) went to work trying to figure out what state Dave might be from, but we later realized it was another coinage, a word referring to the retro-modern revival we've often talked about in this space... a movement whose low-point is barn-style sliding doors in the house, and one of its highest-points is the JBL L100 Classic.
'Newstalgia' on Sale, But Not For Long
Save on the JBL L100 and L82 until August 31 and September 4, respectively.
When Mark Glazer, principal engineer at Harman, bolts down a driver in the Klippel testing rig, he'll push this speaker cone to the very edge of its ability. He aims a laser at a pre-determined point on the cone and goes over to the computer to start the test by playing various tones through this disembodied speaker part held down in a padded room.
The laser measures driver movement, and the "reverse transduction" of the motor is also tracked (the electricity generated by the cone moving back into place).
The test gives Harman great insight into the performance and linearity of the cone and surround materials, which allows the performance to be maximized to the very edge of the material's ability. While this is especially useful in creating perfect matches between amp and driver in active speakers, it also offers excellent insight into crossover and cabinet design for passive speakers.
This sort of high-tech testing has led to the "newstalgic" return of the JBL classics, the L100 and L82. These speakers play with a level of detail, attack, and control you'd expect in 2023, yet have character, grain, and sheer fun factor that drops you right back into the 1970s.
Save $880 a pair on the L100, but only until the end of the month. You have a few more days, until September 4, to save $550 on the L82.
JBL L82 Classic Loudspeaker (pair)
JBL L100 Classic Loudspeaker (each)
Don't Miss the Harman Tour Video!
The photo above was taken just before the stormy spectacle that is the sound and light show in the JBL Professional and Martin Lighting section of the Harman Experience Center. Here, Kevin commits some thoughts to his phone camera, and Andriy Semenyuk, our video producer, catches us mesmerized by all the equipment.
Andriy is working on the final video as we speak. Make sure you've subscribed to our YouTube channel and get the alert as soon as it drops!
Top Sales and Deals!
Here are the noteworthy sales and offers we have going right now. Note: there are further terms and conditions; this is just a summary. To get all the details, contact our sales crew on website chat, via email (email@example.com), or call 909-931-9686.
FINAL WEEK! Until August 31 JBL L100 on sale.
Until September 4 Wharfedale Linton stands are included with the purchase of the speakers.
Until September 4: JBL L82 on sale.
Until September 21: Arcam summer sale. 20% and more off the SA10, SA20, SA30, and PA410.
Until September 30: Balanced Audio Technology is offering a full original retail price trade-in on your old stereo electronics for any new BAT product.