Friday, June 18, 2010

Some New Evidence That Generation Y May Prefer Accurate Sound Reproduction


Sound quality in mainstream music recording and reproduction is all but dead, at least according to the media reports published over the past year [1]-[6]. On the music production side, music quantity (as in volume and decibels) matters more than quality and dynamic range. Record executives and producers are forcing artists to squash the dynamics and life from their music in order to be the loudest record on the charts [5],[6]. Listening to one of these albums can induce an instant migraine, making you wonder if the record companies aren’t secretly owned by the makers of Excedrin (see slides 2-4 in this article’s accompanying PDF slide presentation or this YouTube Video ).
On the music reproduction side, convenience, portability and low cost are the purchase driving factors in this Mobile-Ipod Age of entertainment; sound quality need only be “good enough” [3]. The problem is that no one seems to be able to define what “good enough” sound quality means for Generation Y. Given that they represent the largest and youngest demographic in terms of music and audio equipment consumption, it's important to understand the attitudes and tastes of these twenty-somethings before it's too late. Getting these Millennials hooked on good sound now, means they're more likely to upgrade the audio systems in their future homes and automobiles acquired as they grow older and wealthier.

A common belief being spread by the media is that Generation Y is indifferent to sound quality, or worse, they prefer the tinny, sizzling sound of low-bit rate MP3 over higher quality lossless music formats (slide 4). This is based on an informal study conducted by a Stanford music professor, Jonathan Berger, who over a 7 year period found his students increasingly preferred music coded in lower quality lossy MP3 formats over higher quality lossless music formats [1]-[5]. “I think our human ears are fickle” says Berger. “What’s considered good or bad sound changes over time. Abnormality can become a feature” [1].


While Berger’s unpublished study raises more scientific questions than it provides answers, nonetheless it has been widely reported by the media, and has captured the attention of consumer and automotive audio marketing executives, who ultimately decide what level of sound quality is “good enough” for Generation Y (slides 4-7). There's an increased risk that sound quality may become the sacrificial lamb for products targeted at Millennials (they can’t tell the difference, after all) with the savings diverted to more salient “purchase drivers” such as industrial design, more features, advertising, and celebrity endorsements.
If someone doesn’t soon stand up for Generation Y and show some evidence that they care about sound quality, its death may become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Some New Experiments on Generation Y Sound Quality Preferences For Music Reproduction
To this end, I recently conducted two listening experiments on a group of high school students (the younger half of Generation Y) to determine if their sound quality preferences in music reproduction were: a) consistent with those of older trained listeners used for product evaluation at Harman International, or alternatively b) indifferent or skewed towards preferring less accurate sound (slide 8).
Two research questions were asked in separate tests:
  1. Do the students prefer the sound quality of lossy MP3 (128 kbps) music reproduction over the original lossless CD version?
  2. Do the students prefer music reproduced through a more accurate loudspeaker given four different options that vary in accuracy and sound quality?
The students, who ranged in ages from 15 to 18 years, were visiting Harman on a class field trip (slide 9). A description of the listening tests and the results are summarized in the following sections.

Do High School Students Prefer Lossy MP3 Music Over Lossless CD-Quality Formats?
In the first double-blind listening experiment (slide 11), the students were presented two versions of the same program selection encoded in:
  1. MP3 (Lame 3.97, version 2.3; constant bit rate @ 128 kbps). Note that this a 2 year old MP3 encoder that may be more representative of what Berger used in his study.
  2. CD - The original lossless CD-quality version (16-bit, 44.1 kHz).
After hearing the same music several times in both MP3 and CD formats, the listeners indicated on a scoresheet which one they preferred: A or B. They were also asked to indicate the magnitude of preference (slight/moderate/strong), and provide comments describing the differences in sound quality they heard.
A total of 12 trials were completed in which preference choices were recorded using four different short program loops in three separate trials (slide 10). Three music programs and a recording of applause at a live concert were chosen based on their ability to provide audible differences between the lossy and lossless formats. The applause provided listeners a familiar acoustic signal that the author felt most listeners could easily judge based on its apparent naturalness.
The order of programs and MP3/CD formats was randomized by the listening test software to eliminate any order-related effects. Switching between A and B was performed by the test administrator via a custom Harman listening test software application. The listening test was conducted in the Harman International Reference Room, which provided a quiet, and controlled acoustic environment typical of a domestic listening room. Listening was done through a high quality, stereo playback system (JBL LSR 6336 with four JBL HB5000 subwoofers) calibrated at the listening locations. A comfortable playback level (on average 78 dB (B)) was used throughout the tests.
Two groups of nine listeners each participated in two separate listening sessions, which lasted about 30 minutes each.

Listening Test Results: Students Prefer Music in Lossless CD Versus MP3 Formats
When all 12 trials were tabulated across all listeners, the high school students preferred the lossless CD format over the MP3 version in 67% of the trials (slide 16). The CD format was preferred in 145 of 216 trials (p<0.001).
As expected, there were differences among individual students in their ability to formulate consistent preference choices (slide 17). Nearly 40% of the listeners gave a sufficient number of preference choices (9 of 12) to establish a statistically significant preference for CD (p <= 0.054). Only one of the 18 listeners preferred MP3 over CD (7 versus 5 trials), although the preference was not statistically significant ( p = 0.19). Other listeners were either guessing, and/or were inconsistent in their choices. With additional training and trials, the performance of these listeners would likely improve.
On average, the magnitude of preference for CD over MP3 was also stronger based on the frequency of responses assigned to the categories of preference: slight, moderate and strong preference (slide 18). When CD format was preferred, listeners assigned a proportionally higher number of moderate-to-strong responses compared to when MP3 was the preferred choice.
The preference for CD over MP3 formats was relatively independent of the program selection (slide 19). CD format was preferred for all four programs, with only a slight drop (68.5 % to 63%) for program JW.
Finally, the comments given by the more consistent listeners (slide 20) reveal the nature of audible differences between MP3 and CD. The CD version was often described as sounding more dynamic and brighter, with more impact on percussive sounds. MP3 versions of the programs were described as sounding duller, dynamically compressed with swirling-pitch modulation artifacts on vocal and strings.

Do High School Students Prefer Neutral/Accurate Loudspeakers?
Given that the high school students preferred the higher quality music format (CD over MP3), would their taste for accurate sound reproduction hold true when evaluating different loudspeakers? To test this question, the students participated in a double-blind loudspeaker test where they rated four different loudspeakers on an 11-point preference scale. The preference scale had semantic differentials at every second interval defined as: 1 (really dislike), 3 (dislike), 5 (neutral), 7 (like) and 9 (really like). The relative distances in ratings between pairs of loudspeakers indicated the magnitude of preference: ≥ 2 points represent a strong preference, 1 point a moderate preference and ≤ 0.5 point a slight preference.
The four loudspeakers were floor-standing the models (slide 22): Infinity Primus 362 ($500 a pair), Polk Rti10 ($800), Klipsch RF35 ($600), and Martin Logan Vista ($3800). Each loudspeaker was installed on the automated speaker shuffler in Harman International’s Multichannel Listening Lab, which positions each loudspeaker in same the location when the loudspeaker is active. In this way, the loudspeaker positional biases are removed from the test. Each loudspeaker was level-matched to within 0.1 dB at the primary listening location.
Listeners completed a series of four trials where they could compare each of the four loudspeakers reproducing a number of times before rating each loudspeaker on an 11-point preference scale. Two different music programs were used with two observations. At the beginning of each trial, the computer randomly assigned four letters (A,B,C,D) to the loudspeakers. This meant that the loudspeaker ratings in consecutive trials were more or less independent (slide 23).

Results: High School Students Prefer More Accurate, Neutral Loudspeakers
When averaged across all listeners and programs, there was moderate-strong preference for the Infinity Primus 362 loudspeaker over the other three choices (slide 25). In the results shown in the accompanying slide, as an industry courtesy, the brands of the competitors’ loudspeakers are simply identified as Loudspeakers B,C and D.
As a group, the listeners were not able to formulate preferences among the three lower rated loudspeakers B,C, and D, which were all imperfect in different ways. For an untrained listener, sorting out these different types of imperfections and assigning consistent ratings can be a difficult task without practice and training [5].
The individual listener preferences (slide 26) reveal that 13 of the 18 listeners (72%) preferred the Infinity loudspeaker based on their ratings averaged across all programs and trials.
When comparing the student's rank ordering of the loudspeakers to those of the trained Harman listeners (slide 27), we see good agreement between the two groups. The one exception is Loudspeaker C, which the trained listeners strongly disliked. The general agreement between trained and untrained listener loudspeaker preferences illustrated in this test is consistent with previous studies where a different set of listeners and loudspeakers were used [5],[6]. As found in the previous study, the trained listeners, on average, rated each loudspeaker about 1.5 preference rating lower than the untrained listeners, and the trained listeners were more discriminating and consistent in their ratings[5],[7].
The comprehensive set of anechoic measurements for each loudspeaker is compared to its preference rating (slide 28). There are clear visual correlations between the set of technical measurements and listeners’ loudspeaker preference ratings. The most preferred loudspeaker (Infinity Primus 362) had the flattest measured on-axis and listening window curves (top two curves), and the smoothest first reflection, sound power and first reflection/sound power directivity index curves (the third, fourth, fifth and sixth curves from the top). The other loudspeaker models tended to deviate from this ideal linear behavior, which resulted in lower preference ratings. Again, this relationship between loudspeaker preference and a linear frequency response is consistent with similar studies conducted by the author and Toole [9],[10].
Finally, sound quality doesn't necessarily cost more money to obtain as illustrated in these experiments. The most accurate and preferred loudspeaker - the Infinity Primus 362 - was also the least expensive loudspeaker in the group at $500 a pair. It doesn't cost any more money to make a loudspeaker sound good, as it costs to make it sound bad. In fact, the least accurate loudspeaker (Loudspeaker C) cost almost 8x more money ($3,800) than the most accurate and preferred model. Sound quality can be achieved by paying close attention to the variables that scientific research says matter, and then applying good engineering design to optimize those variables at every product price point.

Conclusions
A group of 18 high school students participated in two double-blind listening tests that measured their sound quality preferences for music reproduced in lossy (MP3 @ 128 kbps) and lossless (CD quality) formats, as well as music reproduced through loudspeakers that varied in accuracy. In both tests, the high school students preferred the most accurate option, preferring CD over MP3, and the most accurate loudspeaker over the less accurate options.
While this study is still in its early phase, these preliminary results suggest that these teenagers can reliably discriminate among different degradations in sound quality in music reproduction. When given the opportunity to hear and compare different qualities of sound reproduction, the high school students preferred the higher quality, more accurate reproduction over the lower quality choices.
The audio industry should not discount the potential opportunities to provide a higher quality audio experience to members of Generation Y. The popular belief that they don’t care about or appreciate sound quality needs to be critically reexamined. This data suggests there are opportunities to sell good sounding audio products to Generation Y as long as the products hit the right features and price points,. The audio industry should also provide these consumers the necessary education and information (i.e. meaningful performance specifications) to identify the good sounding products from the duds. Science can already do this (review slide 28), it’s simply a matter of making the information more widely available.

References
[1] Joseph Plambeck, “In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back,” New York Times, May 9, 2010.
[2] Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, “Could a Pair of Headphones Save the Music Business?” Financial Times, June 12 2010.
[3] Robert Capps, “The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine” Wired Magazine, August 24, 2009.
[4] Dale Dougherty, “The Sizzling Sound of Music,” O’Reilly Radar, March 1 2009.
[5] Nora Young, Full Interview: Jonathan Berger on mp3s and “Sizzle”, CBC Radio , March 24, 2009.
[6] The Loudness Wars: Why Music Sounds Worse, from All Things Considered, NPR Music, December 31, 2009.
[5] Sean E. Olive, "Differences in Performance and Preference of Trained Versus Untrained Listeners in Loudspeaker Tests: A Case Study," J. AES, Vol. 51, issue 9, pp. 806-825, September 2003. (download for free courtesy of Harman International).
[6] Sean Olive, “Part 1 - Do Untrained Listeners Prefer the Same Loudspeakers as Untrained Listeners?” Audio Musings, December 26, 2008.
[7] Sean Olive, Part 2 - Differences in Performance of Trained Versus Untrained Listeners, Audio Musings, December 27, 2008.
[8] Sean Olive, “Part 3 - Relationship between Loudspeaker Measurements and Listener Preferences”, Audio Musings, December 28, 2008.
[9] Floyd E. Toole, "Loudspeaker Measurements and Their Relationship to Listener Preferences: Part 1" J. AES Vol. 23, issue 4, pp. 227-235, April 1986. (download for free courtesy of Harman International).
[10] Floyd E. Toole, "Loudspeaker Measurements and Their Relationship to Listener Preferences: Part 2," J. AES, Vol. 34, Issue 5, pp. 323-248, May 1986. (download for free courtesy of Harman International).

22 comments:

  1. The analysis is fatally flawed. Speakers are designed for specific placement relative to room boundaries, different speakers being designed for different placement. Then some so-called self-designated "expert" positions them all in the same place for comparison purposes! The study is useless!

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  2. It would be interesting if some "modern production" music (e.g. some of the names form the pills picture) was included. Non existing dynamic range and sound production targeted at lower quality listening devices could have some influence on the results.

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  3. While it is nice to know that the Gen Yers and recognize quality sound I think far more important is whether that recognition will be enough of a factor to drive purchase decisions. Purchases are drive by a number of factors only one of which is sound quality. First there is the factor of cost. Even the cheapest speaker in your lineup cost more that 3 Ipods And to assemble a functional system one would also have to but at least a source component, an amplifier and various cables. Next there is the space consideration. As a long time audiophile I am fortunate enough to have a dedicated sound room. The most common comment I get when playing the system for friends is "Wow this sounds great, but my wife would shoot me if I ever tried to take over this much space i the house." Think of it this way In just about the space it would take to store 35 CDs you can put a Bose SoundDock and a 160GB Ipod that will hold in the area of 3000 albums (At a cost that is just about the same as the Infinity speakers used in your test.) The last (and in my opinion most important) factor this that of social/lifestyle preferences. While the Gen Y group could hear a difference while sitting one place and listening, this is not how most Gen Yers consume their music. For them is most often music on the go. A great sounding living room system does them no good if they have no intention of ever sitting in the living room for more than 5 minutes at a time. Also, the appreciation of good sound requires attentive, focused listening. And again then forced to go this, even the Gen Y group could hear and appreciate better sound. But the reality is that there is a good chance that for many of the high schoolers tested this was one of the few (if not only) time that they actually sat down ad paid serious attention to sound quality (or even just music for that matter.) For most people in that age bracket music is little more than background noise for other activities. That doesn't mean that they can't enjoy music, but is does mean that their "good enough" standard will tend to be considerably lower that it would be for someone who sits down and listens to music as a primary activity.

    So the biggest question is will the preference for better sound expressed by these high school students inspire them enough to dedicate the financial and space resources required to set up a traditional home music system or will the “good enough” mentality take over a drive them to settle for something cheaper or more physically compact. And while financial and space considerations will most likely become less of an obstacle as the group gets older the question will still remains as to whether a traditional home music system will meet the requirements of these aging Gen Yers from a lifestyle perspective.

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  4. I am very glad you did this test
    as it gives a finer balance to what you can find about the subject in Internet.

    I hope Mr. Berger shears his paper with details
    as your finding clearly show a different results

    your findings are fresh air to me

    Thanks for aplying science to Audio

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  5. Hi Tmazz:

    Those are all valid points, and good questions that hopefully will be soon answered. Ultimately, the audio industry has to offer Gen Y products with the right price and features, as well as offering sound quality.

    Sound quality needn't cost a lot. There are trade-offs in sound quality related to frequency response, bass extension, and maximum SPL (and distortion/ amplifier power). Out of those three subattributes, it's only bass output and higher SPL that cost a lot of money (more expensive transducers, larger box volume, or more amplifier power).

    If Gen Y doesn't want to pay for loud bass and high SPL you can still design a decent, sounding, small-sized powered loudspeaker for less than the $500 loudspeaker in the listening test.It just won't play as loud or maybe have as much bass as a more expensive well-designed loudspeaker.

    There are engineering solutions to solve the sound quality/design/lifestyle issues you raise. The first step is finding out whether Gen Y cares enough about sound quality to design such products, which it seems they do.

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  6. Thanks Valentin. The unbalanced perspective about sound quality and Gen Y in the electronic/print media is what motivated me to do this.

    Cheers
    Sean

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  7. Dear Sean,

    I think it is a safe assumption that 20 somethings don't generally have the funds to purchase, or space to keep high quality audio equipment, as often as they have the space for an Ipod and earbuds. Young folks with good hearing should easily beat us old folks with worn out hearing consistently. I am glad to see we now have scientific research to back up the claim that sometimes the people who are in the publishing business must write stories quickly despite a lack of expertise on the subject, and as a natural consequence, get it wrong. Is anyone surprised? :) While some may find surprising that $3800 buys sex appeal, not good sound, those folks have not worked in the Audio business long either. Just because people have funds, it does not make them sound aficionados. As long as some assume if it is more expensive it must be better, there will be people ready to take their money. Please don't misunderstand my comments. I do not wish to be snide or rude. (I am told that comes naturally) I am a big fan of your work and Floyd's. Could it be you are both cynics like myself?? :) There must be a reason! :) Thanks again for giving reason and rationality a voice Sean.

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  8. There was some reaction in a German technology blog about my study here. This is a German-English Google translation:
    http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.wiwo.de%2Ftechnik-wissen%2Fgefahr-aus-dem-kopfhoerer-434054%2F

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  9. You should do another test...but not with 128kbps mp3. Try either of these lame vbr presets - v2 which is supposed to be transparent, or v0, which is an even higher bitrate. I do agree with some of the commenters, though. Most people my age listen to music on the go and/or are satisfied with $30 computer speakers. I have a very entry level system, but I definitely can't stand low bitrate lossy audio. Most of my rips in the last few years have been in flac, though. No need to do lossy considering how cheap hard drives are nowadays.

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  10. Hi Phillip,

    That would be an interesting test to do and might better represent what kids use today. The main purpose of this test was to try and replicate the MP3 128 kbps settings that Berger used several years ago, which involved some guessing on my part since he didn't publish his data or respond to my emails. It was important the listeners heard artifacts because those are what Berger said his students preferred.

    I'm glad to hear you don't like lossy audio with audible artifacts. Now we just need to move you into some better speakers and headphones. I can help you when you're ready :)

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  11. Hello Dr. Olive,

    I remember when 128 kbps mp3 was considered the norm. Fairly ridiculous considering the advances made since then, but it was an early part of mp3's life...not to mention dialup was still more common back in the day. Some people today are actually still satisfied with it - probably people who listen to music on youtube and the like.

    I do believe that doing a v2 test would definitely represent what most kids use today, especially since a large portion of them pirate some if not all of their music. V2 is the scene standard for pirated mp3 albums. I know that a large number of people purchase music from itunes as well, but I don't know what kind of aac encoding settings are the norm from there. That would be nice to have tested alongside mp3 and the actual disc (or a lossless encode). I know that aac is technically superior to mp3, but have never tested it myself since I'm much happier buying the actual cd.

    Anyway, I'd love to have your input on upgrading to some nicer headphones and speakers, but that'll have to take place in a few years after I pay off my credit cards :D

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  12. Hi Phillip,
    We will look into a V2 test. iTunes downloads are AAC 256kbps which I believe they call Itunes Plus. It is pretty transparent for most people most of the time.

    Thanks again for your suggestions, and good luck with paying off those credit cards :(

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  13. Domes and cones outperform electrostats, yeah right...
    The proper title would be:
    "Some New Evidence That Generation Y May Prefer Accurate but lifeless, mechanical Sound Reproduction" - because that`s what they have been served with all of their lives.

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  14. Cheap domes and cones outperform electrostats, yeah right...

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  15. Sorry Anonymous,
    Even old fart audiophiles from Generation Baby Boomer prefer cone and domes compared to the electrostatics evaluated in this test. It seems that when biases are removed from the test, good sound is readily recognized and appreciated, regardless of age and training. The measurements clearly tell us why: in this case, the electrostatic has serious resonances and a poor frequency response compared to the better designed cones and dome speakers.

    In this test, (see http://seanolive.blogspot.com/2008/12/loudspeaker-preferences-of-trained.html) over 300 listeners - both trained and untrained - preferred cone and dome speakers over the electrostatic M under blind conditions. The "untrained" listeners included audio dealers, students, marketing/sales and audio reviewers who as a group, all rated speaker M dead last. Again, the preferences are completely predicted from the anechoic measurements.

    Science works.

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  16. Hello Dr Olive,

    I am a "Sound Engineer" of about 20 years experience, currently teaching audio production (live sound and studio recording) at undergraduate level. I am researching/seeking a topic for my Masters Degree in Queensland Australia. I am very interested in your work. One area I have considered for my Masters is exploring some aspect of the effects of various levels of sound reproduction fidelity on listener's appreciation and enjoyment of music. I wonder if you know of anyone who has designed test situations for comparing the enjoyment (rather than preference) of music subjected to bit rate reduction techniques. Another question that springs to mind (maybe a reverse phase approach) are you aware of any research that explores the possibility of an annoying noise being made less annoying (i.e. less 'real') through bit rate reduction?

    I would certainly appreciate your patience and input as I go through this exciting time in my personal and professional development.

    Sincerely

    - charlie.macneil (NOSPAM) AT gmail.com

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  17. Hi Charlie,
    Most perceptual studies on bit rate reduction I am aware of have measured it in terms of its degradation on sound quality. Typically they use the ITU-R 5-point degradation scale for small audible/inaudible differences and the 100-point ITU-R scale for larger audible difference. These studies typically have a reference sound (the original uncompressed program) so the assumption/hypothesis is made up front that the bit rate version is lower quality.

    Few studies have looked at perceptual effects of bit rate reduction in terms of "preference" (mine being one) or "enjoyment". I'm not sure how you define "enjoyment" since for me greater "preference" ratings usually implies "greater enjoyment."

    I am not aware of studies that have used bit rate reduction to reduce the annoyance of noise. Most perceptual encoders operate on the basis of whether something in the music is perceptually audible or inaudible: if a component of music is below the threshold of audibility, that part is thrown away. The perceptual encoders cannot discriminate between those parts which are musical and those which are not (e.g. noise, hum, audience coughs). If the annoying sound is audible (and by definition "annoying" would mean it is audible) then it will remain audible after it has been encoded into the bit-rate reduced version.

    There are algorithms (e.g. CEDAR Noise reduction) that can reduce noise, hum, etc which are used extensively for restoring old recordings and other applications.

    Cheers
    Sean

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  18. First time I've ever seen Bob Dylan grouped with Metallica & Red Hot Chilly Peppers - shame on you.

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  19. Dear Dr. Olive:

    I'm thrilled to have stumbled across your blog; it gives me great pleasure to know that Harman's legendary acoustic research -- and advocacy for a science of acoustics -- is surviving. I had my doubts when the most important loudspeaker scientist of the 21st century, Dr. Floyd Toole, retired, and Harman radically contracted its phenomenal line of Infinity loudspeakers. May I ask you to comment on that contraction? The Primus line certainly outperforms its direct competitors (such as Polk, Klipsch, etc.), but that's no consolation for audiophiles who loved the higher-end Infinity products Dr. Toole developed such as the Beta, Interlude, Intermezzo, and Kappa 200/400/600 (European) lines. I can appreciate not being able to support such a multitude of audiophile lines in this economy, but it seems as though there isn't even *one* such line left. Furthermore, after championing the necessity of scientifically equalized subwoofers (via RABOS), all such subs have been deleted from the Harman family of products. This feels sad. There were discernible differences between a high-end Infinity speaker like an Intermezzo or Kappa 200/400/600 (where cost did not constrain the choice of crossover components, baffle design, or cabinet size) and an entry-level Infinity speaker like an Entra or Primus. What is an audiophile to think? With best regards, and huge admiration for all you and Harman Internation have given us, I remain your fan,
    --Art

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  20. Dr. Olive? (A month later?) Best wishes, --Art

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  21. Hi Art
    Sorry for the delay in response, and thanks for your comments. I am saddened too by the decision to no longer offer more expensive Infinity speakers but I guess that was a business/marketing decision based on the fact that that market is in decline. Small, slim speakers that go on the wall or disappear is what sells these days. If you want high-end floor standing speakers I'd suggest you look into the new Revel Performa: they are excellent.

    I/We still think that equalizing subwoofers (or using multiple ones) are critical to getting good sound in the room, and I hope that will become a standard feature in the all subs in the future. But they have to be easy enough to set up and calibrate that people actually use them.



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