Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Interview in Professional Sound: The Lack of Meaningful Loudspeaker & Headphone Specs

Last October,  I was in Toronto giving a presentation to the local AES section on the perception and measurement of headphones. After the talk, I sat down with Mike Raine from  Professional Sound for an interview. Some of what we discussed is summarized in this article called Sound Advice.

The theme of article is a recurring one that I've discussed before in this blog (see "The Science and Marketing of Sound Quality" and "What Loudspeaker Specifications are Relevant to Sound Quality?").  The bottom line is that the loudspeaker and headphone industry has utterly failed to provide consumers meaningful product specifications that indicate how truly good (or bad) the products sound. Read on to find out why.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree that detailed loudspeakers specifications (i.e. on-axis and off-axis frequency response graphs) are necessary to be able to objectively evaluate the performance of a loudspeaker. Without this data the consumer is completely blindfolded when shopping for these products. What's really sad is that, unfortunately, 99% of "consumer-oriented" speaker manufacturers do not provide this information. Even in the professional segment only a select few (e.g. Genelec) do. These are not good times for the home audio enthusiast.

    Since it is not possible for the consumer to understand what he's buying without this data, it is of course possible for manufacturers to easily sell bad speakers for outrageous prices, and I suspect this happens as a matter of course in consumer audio. There are some examples of that in Toole's book ("Sound reproduction: loudspeakers and rooms", chapter 18, pages 397-398).

    Sean: while I applaud your push for more specs, it is saddening to see that even Harman, a manufacturer which definitely knows better since you're working for them (and Toole was as well), doesn't seem to get it either. Harman owns JBL, Infinity and Harman/Kardon. None of them provides any detailed specifications for any of their loudspeakers. The only exception to the rule is *some* (not all) of the speakers from JBL Professional, such as the LSR4300 and LSR6300 series. I'm not sure that will last however as their latest additions (the M2 and Series 3 monitors) do not come with detailed specs, so they are actually taking steps backwards!

    As far as I know, Toole and you did a ton of research *for* Harman in the area of loudspeaker measurements and linking them to listener preference. It stands to reason that Harman used this research to design their speakers. Thus I'm guessing that Harman's speakers (at least the latest ones) measure very well with respect to the metrics that your research identified as important (on-axis and off-axis frequency response). Then WHY on earth are they not using these measurements as selling points? It makes no sense to me. They certainly already made the measurements while designing the speakers, so it costs them nothing to add the graph to the speaker's PDF spec sheet. Worst case the consumer won't understand the graph and will just ignore it, best case it will make him realize that he doesn't have to buy his speakers blindfolded if he buys them from Harman. There's a lot of incentive to do this and virtually no downsides. Yet they seem to prefer perpetuating the statu quo. Beats me. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a strong disconnect between Harman's engineering and marketing sides (left hand, right hand, etc.).

    With that in mind, while I find your intentions laudable, I fail to see how you plan to make other speakers manufacturers publish detailed specs when even your own employer seems more interested in keeping their heads in the sand. Pessimistic, I know, but unfortunately "objectivity" and "meaningful measurements" are not the first things that come to most people's minds when dealing with consumer audio.

  2. @Etienne Dechamps: Ouch! Can't say I don't totally agree, though :-)

    Apparently it is hard, even for the companies that do have good products to escape the mindset that has been holding back the audio market for so long. The whole business is contaminated with subjectivism and BS and there seem to be too few people who are speaking out against this. I wouldn't even use the typical consumer audio mags for peeling potatoes...

    I'm an audio enthusiast (I avoid the term "audiophile") and I stumbled upon this blog while reading other blogs. I was familiar with Harman because I knew about JBL and I use AKG headphones and a Soundcraft mixing desk.

    However, I didn't know Harman had such a rigorous speaker testing programme. I also didn't know Infinity was among the manufacturers that pay attention to frequency and power response - which is a shame!

    I usually prefer using pro or semi-pro stuff even for home cinema and music. I am currently using active B**ringer Truth series studio monitors. While they are not Genelecs or JBL LSRs, they are, in fact, very good for the price.

    I struggle when friends tell me they like the sound but don't want active monitors in their living rooms. I am highly skeptical of most "hifi" gear because there are so many strange or poorly designed products out there.

    The Infinity speaker used in the blind tests seems to be performing really well, but Infinity wasn't even on my "radar" as a maker of objectively good loudspeakers. There doesn't seem to be a lot of useful data on the Infinity web site either.
    Similarly, the JBL home speakers with large waveguides look as if they might have a good power response, but again - no measurements!

    On the other hand, B***ringer isn't any better. Their studio monitors perform well, as several independent measurements have shown, but they continue to publish mostly wild exaggerations ("unique waveguide technology", "industry standard") and buzzwords (their favourite one is "ultra"). Buzzwords do not impress me but the data would...

    So, there is much to do...

    Sometimes it *is* good to do good and talk about it :-)

    Kind regards,

  3. @Sean Olive: Thanks for publishing my pretty harsh comment :-)

    On a somewhat related sidenote: Have you guys seen the new COSMOS episodes with Neil deGrasse Tyson? I really enjoyed Carl Sagan's original series and I think the new series is great as well...

    Maybe it will convince some people that it is science which helps us understand the world, not superstition. Subjectivism in audio is only one aspect of this :-)