The sounds of science
Engineers, musicians and other experts come together to tweak, imagine, and hammer their way to achieve the world’s best sound quality
In a corner of an underwhelming office park, in Valencia, California, Samsung is making a serious strategy play.
Here, in 2014, Samsung Research America established, and more recently expanded, an audio lab for designing and testing audio components and speaker prototypes — both for standalone speakers and TV-sound systems.
Granted, Samsung is not strongly associated with high-end sound, but that’s what this lab and its team wants to change. Yes, sound is the next category that Samsung is applying its “number one in the market” ambitions to.
In 2013 it brought in industry heavyweight Allan Devantier — formerly of audio specialists Harman — to head and handpick his team. Last year, Samsung also announced its intention to acquire Harman, and the deal has since been approved by Harman’s shareholders and both EU and Korean competition bodies. It still has to overcome some hurdles, but should the deal go ahead, its reported worth is US$8bn.
Back in California, Devantier has pulled together a strong group of 20-plus sound engineers, professional musicians, and related experts to tweak, imagine, and hammer their way into that aspirational “number one” slot.
The lab itself is a bit of a surprise. Samsung buildings tend towards sharp lines, with minimal clutter, and strong use of corporate colours. This space, on the other hand, has a practical and research-focused feel, with tools and parts scattered on most surfaces, and — fittingly — iconic music posters of Jimi Hendrix and U2 prominently displayed on its walls.
Machines compete for space at the lab and one can see why it recently extended its space into a neighbouring warehouse. In the adjoining warehouse it is putting up custom-made fittings for its audio work.
Devantier says the lab has been able to expand its space and team quickly. “We have the best audio engineering studio in the world, because of this commitment from Samsung,” he says. The company is already getting returns on this investment: this is the same team that produced its popular Radiant360 speaker and HW-K950 Atmos soundbar.
Testing audio output is the key to its success. Devantier takes a technology-led approach to this, and has argued for audio output testing, in articles and academic papers, in the face of a strong and widely held opinion that you can hear things that can’t be measured. People who take that view, Devantier suggests, simply “can’t measure their products properly”.
The lab’s first chamber is covered wall to floor in triangular fibreglass and wire structures that prevent sound reflections and echoes. In the middle, Samsung has rigged up a microphone that moves through 360 positions, to capture sound all around a free-standing speaker.
The second is a hemi-anechoic chamber, with sound absorbing materials on all surfaces but the chest-high door. Here it can mount speakers against this surface to mimic the sound of an output source against a wall — just like the setup of TVs and soundbars in your average home.
In the next room, we’re greeted with various speaker cone components being computer-mapped for frequency response. Weak points and bends in the cones create distortions, so they use a couple of machines to visually report these areas of distortion.
Though Samsung is innovating the structure and design of some speakers, Devantier stresses that there is a limit to its ability to shrink these devices — the laws of physics.
While TV screens and mobile phones continue to get slimmer and lighter, speakers still need to move a sufficient quantity of air to create sound, especially when it comes to bass. Instead, the team is focused on monitoring cone position and performance, so that they can push these cones to their limits consistently.
Despite the operation being tech-led, Devantier hasn’t excluded listeners from the testing and bench-marking process that every prototype undergoes. The lab has listening rooms with rotating speaker and TV mounts, to which it regularly invites trained and untrained listeners. Up to four speakers or TVs, including those of competitors, are mounted, rotated randomly, and obscured from vision, for blind listening and ranking sessions.
The result, says Devantier, is that real-world listeners tend strongly towards the same devices that achieve good technology-tested results — and, crucially, more expensive units are not necessarily the best options on the market.
* The writer visited this facility as a guest of Samsung.