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Sphere of influence: How Harman and Dr. Sean Olive are reshaping headphone sound

Behind the scenes with the head of acoustic research at JBL's parent company

D

r. Sean Olive and Harman are betting big on spatial audio. Really big. In fact, the centerpiece of their research is an ominous, 20-foot high steel structure that looks like something from a science-fiction film.

Harman is the parent company of legendary audio brands like JBL, AKG, Infinity, Mark Levinson, and Revel — and Dr. Olive is their longtime head of acoustic research. I recently toured the Harman Experience Center, where Dr. Olive and his team developed the famed “Harman Target” listening curve for headphones.

Dr. Olive took me through their working research labs, where Harman engineers are pushing the envelope of what’s possible in headphones. And where I witnessed the mammoth, moveable Hyperion Sphere in action.

Dr. Olive shows Jeff the sphere

Dr. Olive pointed to the 26 professional JBL loudspeakers (including four subs) that surround the massive Hyperion Sphere, all to help improve spatial audio. Tour images by Chris Michael.

A grand tour of the Harman Experience center

Many groundbreaking products have been dreamed up, designed, battle-tested, and brought to life in the Harman Experience Center (and the company's satellite centers around the globe). Products like the portable JBL PartyBox PA speakers that double as a traveling light show, Beryllium-infused Revel tower speakers, or wireless earbuds with a touchscreen case. The center also serves as a museum, demo space, and tribute to their collective audio brands.

Harman entrance

The Harman Experience Center serves as a product demo space and mini museum — and also features their working labs and product development area.

Entering the building, I was met with splashy displays featuring company history, along with new and vintage gear from Harman’s iconic brands. Among the memorabilia: several GRAMMY awards for technical achievements, an original 1950s AKG C12 microphone, and a framed JBL speaker driver from Bruce Springsteen’s 1996 Tom Joad tour, autographed by the Boss himself.

Jeff looking at guitars and poster

Harman is the parent company of legendary brands like JBL, AKG, Revel, and Mark Levinson, and has a rich history in car, home, studio, and concert sound.

Next, I was taken to a demo space the size of a concert hall, where JBL’s professional audio engineers tested out a loud, pulsing arena light show. Fog machines filled the room with a thick cloudy canvas, while multi-colored lasers danced to the hypnotic thump of an EDM soundtrack. When the smoke (literally) cleared and the lights came up, I was disoriented.

Harman demo space with smoke and lasers

I pressed the red button and a breathtaking laser show illuminated the room as smoke and bass-heavy music filled the air.

It was quite the mental jolt when the door opened, and the fluorescent lighting poured in. I squinted my way into the hallway, transported to the humble functionality of the engineering area. Then I made my way to Dr. Olive’s sparsely decorated office.

A headphone luminary, in his element

The idea of talking to Dr. Sean Olive was daunting enough, from his background alone. He’s a former president of the Audio Engineering Society who led arguably the most important study into headphone sound ever. On top of that, he holds an intense, focused stare and chooses his words with assured, thoughtful intent.

But in person, that intimidating front quickly melted away. A dry, rascally wit bubbled under the surface, contained by a tight, yet kind smile. He also never took himself too seriously.

Dr. Olive at CanJam NYC

Dr. Sean Olive, head of Acoustic Research at Harman and former president of the Audio Engineering Society.

Born and raised in Ontario, Dr. Olive is a classically trained pianist who approaches his work with a musician’s ear and a scientist’s sensibility. He’s passionate about sound and said he can be moved by the right song — but it’s just that he rarely gets carried away.

He shrugged off the notion that he’s become a luminary figure in the world of headphones. I pointed out that his seminar at CanJam SoCal was one of the high-end headphone show’s biggest draws, attendees hanging on his words with reverence. He quipped, “Most of them were probably there to complain about my work, as much as praise it.”

After walking around Harman’s engineering offices and labs, the work is hard to discredit. “Much of our latest research is into spatial audio,” he explained to me. Formats like Dolby Atmos aim to create a 360-degree sense of direction in music — even in headphones.

That’s where the Hyperion Sphere comes in. It’s a larger-than-life measurement tool that helps Harman home in on how we perceive distance and direction. And it’s a major part of the company’s research into headphones and other products, like sound bars and car speakers.

Before he took me to see the sphere, though, Dr. Olive put me to work. He handed me the hefty manikin head from a state-of-the-art audio measurement tool. The Bruel & Kjaer 5128 Head & Torso Simulator (HATS) costs $40,000. And while I didn't strain to lift it, it did feel a little precarious carrying it around the unfamiliar lab area.

Jeff holding Manikin head

Dr. Olive (somehow) trusted me to hold the $40,000 B&K 5128 Head-And-Torso Simulator headphone measurement rig — it was heavier than it might look!

The B&K 5128 is modeled from the measurements of 44 different people and is widely accepted as the new industry standard for measuring headphones. But Harman and Dr. Olive couldn’t help but tinker and modify. They’ve developed their own model heads and ears, based on over 350 testers they’ve managed to bring into their labs, spanning different ages, sizes, and demographics.

“We’re also re-examining and refining our Harman Target,” said Dr. Olive. “We’re looking specifically at in-ear headphones.”

What is the Harman Target headphone curve?

Dr. Olive became well known to headphone enthusiasts after the release of the Harman Target listening curve in the mid-2010s. This distinct balance of frequencies was the result of Harman’s nine-year study into listener preference based on exhaustive user tests. He developed the study along with a team of colleagues that included fellow Harman distinguished engineer Todd Welti.

The Harman Target informs Harman’s own sound tuning from their entry-level models to the flagship Mark Levinson No. 5909 wireless noise-canceling headphones. (Harman is also a major brand in Samsung's lineup, and they used the Harman Target to tune their high-profile Galaxy Buds2 series of earbuds.)

It’s led to more consistent sound for headphones across the board. Before the Harman Target, headphone tuning was all over the map.

“If a headphone is tuned to the Harman curve, it doesn’t mean everyone will like it,” explained Wirecutter audio journalist Brent Butterworth on his podcast. “But it allows you to say, ‘I like a little more low-end than the Harman curve,’ as opposed to just claiming [a set of headphones] ‘sounds pretty good.’”

Dr. Olive with graph.

Dr. Olive leading a seminar at CanJam NYC, where he explained there are actually three different "versions" of the Harman Target.

The Harman Target has become the starting point for tuning headphones — not just at Harman, but industry-wide. It was an emperor’s new clothes moment for some, leaving even some uber-expensive “esoteric” headphones exposed. In the years since, headphone sound has matured throughout the entire landscape.

A background in speaker research

For Dr. Olive, it almost felt like déjà vu. When he first started out in acoustic research back in the 1980s, loudspeakers were in their own Wild West era of sound tuning. In fact, Dr. Olive told me, “At the time there were sound signatures attributed to different geographic regions — like ‘West Coast’ and ‘East Coast’ sound.”

Under the learning tree of Floyd E. Toole at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada, Dr. Olive learned a more scientific approach to sound reproduction. This government-funded organization is dedicated to the research and development of several sciences, including psychoacoustics and audio. Toole, a legendary former Harman engineer who literally wrote the book on sound reproduction, was at that time the Senior Officer of the NRC’s Acoustics and Signal Processing Group.

He led what many call the seminal study into loudspeakers and created more universally accepted guidelines when it came to tuning. Boundaries were set for the frequency response most preferred by people listening to speakers in a room. It created a target listening curve.

Dr Olive holding headphones in lab

Dr. Olive's studies at Harman have led to a more consistent sound for headphones across the board.

A "circle of confusion"

Dr. Olive’s path to acoustic research at NRC wasn’t quite conventional. As an undergrad at the University of Toronto, he studied piano and earned his Bachelor’s degree in Music. But at his final recital, a gut-punch snafu changed the course of his studies.

The performance itself went well, but Dr. Olive was heartbroken when he listened back to the recording. He heard all thumps and low notes, and nothing from the upper register. The piano had been recorded from below, with only two microphones underneath in the front and back.

So, he made it his mission to prevent this from happening to others. He switched his studies to sound recording for his Master's degree at Montreal's McGill Univeristy. That's how he started working with Floyd at the NRC in 1985 as a student in their recording engineering program.

Piano recital program

The program for Dr. Olive's Graduate Recital (University of Toronto, 1982). The poor recording of his piano performance eventually led to his career in psychoacoustic research.

“Floyd worked closely with McGill [University],” Dr. Olive said. “He had a student exchange program and knew he could trust the recording equipment and methods there.” It helped eliminate what Toole called the “circle of confusion.”

“If you don’t have measurements or standardization when you’re evaluating speakers that we make,” Olive explained, “you don’t know if the recordings are good — unless they were made over good speakers.”

Enamored by Toole’s approach to audio, Dr. Olive joined the team. He wrote his Master’s thesis on “first-order sound reflections,” and eventually became part of Toole’s core research team. He even introduced the enduring, full-range Hi-Fi test track, “Fast Car,” by Tracy Chapman — still used in research and product demos in 2024. The NRC at that time had one of the few state-of-the-art anechoic listening chambers in North America, so Olive rubbed shoulders with many legendary engineers and speaker designers, including Paul Barton of PSB.

“I traveled through the whole circle! I started off as a musician and that got me into sound recording. Then, I met Floyd, and that led to [my career in] sound reproduction and psychoacoustic research,” he said. “I like to call it my own circle of confusion.”

Floyd Toole and Team

Architects of the Harman Target headphone studies (L to R): Omid Khonsaripour, Todd Welti, Olive, and mentor Floyd E. Toole. Photo from Dr. Olive's collection.

Toole left for Harman in 1991 and Dr. Olive followed him to California soon after in 1993. The two forged a longtime comradery that lasts to this day. He’s currently working on chapters for the fourth edition of Toole’s book — this time with a large section on headphone sound.

He also meets up with Toole regularly, to discuss audio, ice hockey, life, and their other shared passion — Napa Valley wines. The two speak in a shared language, where descriptions of a bottle and a piece of audio gear often overlap. “We describe wine in terms of the frequency response, and we both know what each other means,” he said, smiling. “A lot going on at 4kHz — that’s where the tannins are. And if it’s if it’s thin wine? It’s like an overtone speaker — like a bandpass.”

The Harman Target studies of the late 2000s/early 2010s

Dr. Olive led me in and around the labs where his team spent nine years conducting research (and hundreds of user tests) on listener preferences. When headphones started to take off in the the late 2000s, Dr. Olive and team saw an opportunity to improve their performance. He felt that headphones of the time added too much sonic coloring, when he believed listeners actually wanted transparency.

The goal was to create a baseline sound signature for headphones that “most resembled the sound of flat speakers in a room” he said. When producers, engineers, and mixers are creating music, they are reacting and making sonic judgements based on the room. But most headphones and earbuds close your ears off to create what’s essentially a “dead,” resonance-free room, in essence an anechoic listening chamber. And nobody really listens to speakers in a room like that.

Harman listening tests

This photo from the mid-2010s shows a group of users completing Harman's listening tests, that helped shape the Harman Target headphone listening curve. Photo from Harman International.

To get the same impact and energy of listening to speakers in a room, you need to boost and tame certain frequencies. But what is the right amount of compensation for headphones? That’s what Harman was determined to find out. So, they invited hundreds of people into their labs, for nearly a decade.

Using Toole’s “blind listening” testing method, they removed brand names, price, and other factors that could cause bias. And they had listeners of all different backgrounds and experience listen to different sounds — white noises, pink noises, jazz music, and of course some Tracy Chapman — and choose their preference.

Virtualizeer Test App

Users could score whether they liked or didn’t like boosts or dips at different frequencies. Image from Dr. Olive's personal collection.

“We found that on average, the [Harman headphone curve] closely matched the preferred in-room frequency response of a loudspeaker,” Dr. Olive said. But there are actually three “flavors” of the Harman Target. A smaller, but significant number of people prefer a bump in the higher frequencies, while another group prefers more bass.

The Harman Target looking forward

Now we have some accepted guidelines. And the fact that there are some variances shows that there’s some wiggle room for creative license. Still, Dr. Olive and his colleagues have been disappointed to find that some cling too closely to the Harman Target — dismissing headphones for slight divergences without even listening to them, while others have rejected their study altogether.

In the years since the research was published, things have changed and evolved. First off, The B&K 5128 HATS has become the new accepted industry standard for measuring the frequency response in headphones. And there’s no easy way to correlate it to the Harman Target, since it was created using a completely different measurement rig.

Meanwhile, spatial audio has emerged on the scene in a big way thanks to Apple — placing a huge emphasis on how well we can perceive direction in sound.

Plus, there have been some legitimate questions about the where the upper mids peak — and even about the scientific method behind Harman’s separate target for in-ear headphones.

Pushing the sonic envelope, from all angles

Harman’s current research spans two extremes. On the grandest of scales, there’s the Hyperion Sphere, so large that it occupies its own lab. But they are also focused on the most intimate listening environment — the shape and geometry of the ear canal.

It’s all about how to identify and account for everyone’s physical differences and listening acumen. So, when they constructed the massive sphere about four or five years ago, they were eager to get real people to sit inside.

There are 22 JBL 705P pro loudspeakers (plus four large subwoofers) strategically placed around, below, and high above the listener. “We have an arc of speakers that go 180 degrees, and there's a speaker every 15 degrees,” said Dr. Olive. “It allows us to measure people's head-related transfer function, or HRTF.’”

In the sphere

The Hyperion Sphere helps measure how our ears and brains perceive directionality in sound.

HRTF refers to how your brain detects direction and distance based on the relation of the sound to your left or right ear. “If we couldn’t tell where things are coming from, we couldn’t survive,” said Dr. Olive. It’s an important component for any type of music that’s trying to convey a sense of directionality — but it’s essential for spatial audio mixed for Dolby Atmos.

Improving spatial audio

Thanks to the HRTF, you can listen to Dolby Atmos music and other spatial formats through headphones. The headphone version of Dolby Atmos is not the same as what you get from a home theater setup — or the Hyperion Sphere for that matter — where real speakers surround you and sound objects can be placed all around. In headphones, the Atmos version is mixed down to stereo with spatial cues to give you a sense of direction and location.

These cues “trick” your brain into thinking it’s hearing something coming from one side or the other, playing on the way sounds hit your left or right ear. Dr. Olive says in general, if a set of headphones is tuned for accurate stereo sound, it will also deliver the proper sound localization cues for our brains and ears. Which is why headphones tuned linearly to the Harman Curve make for good spatial audio headphones.

I can attest — he’s onto something. I’ve auditioned the JBL Tour Pro 2s, and their spatial audio performance is quite impressive. It was almost uncanny how these low-profile earbuds could transport me to a sprawling symphony hall.

JBL Tour Pro 2 true wireless noise-canceling earbuds

The JBL Tour Pro 2 earbuds have spatial sound settings that you can access on the case's touchscreen.

But Dr. Olive still sees some areas where headphones can improve, where they don’t quite match the experience of Atmos through a full speaker setup. Like in the “height” channels area — above the head. The only way to really mimic overhead sound through headphones is to boost the higher frequencies, which often comes off as bright.

“When you have trouble localizing something, or if there's confusion, it’s because the imagery is localized higher than it is,” said Dr. Olive. “I think it's a natural human response for safety. If we're not sure where a sound is coming from, we look up.”

A (head) trip inside the sphere

When a tester sits inside the sphere, they wear special ear plugs that have a microphone built into each tip. The mic rests inside their blocked ear canal to measure sound sources as they come from different directions. A noise signal is played from each speaker in the sphere, and the mics capture and record the frequency response at each angle.

I sat in the sphere sans ear plugs and mics, just to get a feel for the experience. I heard a series of noises cycle through the speaker array relatively quickly. Harman uses a series of beeps, pink noise, and then white noise.

The first few go-throughs, I was very conscious of my brain trying to do the work. Told to keep my head still, I could feel my eyes and muscles instinctively want to follow the sounds and noise. Then, the chair would rotate about 15 degrees and start the process over again — to capture new measurements from new angles. And I eventually eased into the experience.

Jeff in the hyperion sphere

I sat in the center of the sphere as Senior Acoustic Research Scientist/Engineer Justin Zazzi led me through a series of perceptual listening tests.

Harman also did perception testing when users were inside the Sphere. Each person was given a laser pointer, so they could point to the individual speaker they thought each sound was coming from.

Harman would then compare the user’s accuracy in the sphere to the directional sounds played in headphones, Atmos sound bar systems, and even Atmos car stereo systems that Harman has under development. (Their concepts were under wraps at the time but included optimizing sound for the driver and each specific passenger, with speakers in the head rests.)

It could seem excessive — or obsessive — to use this larger-than-life structure to develop headphones or products for the intimate confines of your car. But Dr. Olive explained that it is crucial to the survival and growth of spatial audio that they tighten up on the sound reproduction side. He knows most people are introduced to spatial audio through headphones, so it’s important to get the experience right.

You only get one chance at a first impression — and Dr. Olive is invested. “When [spatial audio] is done well, it’s hard to beat,” he said. “It can make stereo sound limited.”

From massive sphere to in-ear headphones

After I spun back around to the front and completed the cycle of sound tests, I hopped down to Dr. Olive, next to a table full of manikin heads. They were similar to the B&K HATS (Head-and-Torso-simulators) I held earlier, but with different sized heads and more detailed facial features. “Our goal in this project was to measure 350 people. Different ages, genders, races, and nationalities.”

It took a while — the bulk of these listening tests happened deep in the pandemic, so they really could only bring in one participant at a time. While they had the person, they took full advantage. “We also did a 3D scan of [each participant’s] head and their torso,” said Dr. Olive. “We eventually reached our goal of 350 people. So, we have a pretty good set of HRTFs that represents the whole population.”

Harman combined the acoustic measurements of the HRTF with the scans of the different heads and bodies. They used the resulting data to determine an “average” HRTF. They then identified the head and ear scan that best matched it. And since they had the scan in their computer, they could actually print it — to create “Archie,” the manikin head that is most “average.”

“Archie is short for archetype,” explained Dr. Olive.

Manakin heads

Harman has custom made several HATS manakins — including "Archie" (far left) — based on measurements and 3D scans of over 350 different people.

Now that they have Archie — his head, ears, and torso — they can use him to better develop speakers and headphone drivers. When they place Archie in a real listening room, with walls, ceilings, furniture, and sound reflections, they can measure more accurately. “We can capture the 'Binaural Room Impulse Response'," said Dr. Olive. “In other words, how the reverb of the room hits the ears.”

Taking these results and applying them to listening studies, they’ve found that measurements taken with Archie are more true to life than less-personalized measurement rigs. Listeners are better able to pinpoint where the sound is coming from and get more of feel for the room. Harman can apply that information as they develop headphones, through tuning, physical materials, and digital signal processing (DSP).

Olive said this has improved sound localization and directionality for spatial audio. It should particularly help further solve those pesky problem areas like height channels above the head or sounds that travel front to back. So it’s really quite the breakthrough — in an area that’s already grown leaps and bounds in the last four to five years.

But how does this research translated to in-ear headphones, where the sense of room and resonances are removed altogether?

An anechoic chamber “in reverse”

There’s an eerie stillness when you enter an anechoic chamber. These rooms are constructed for true measurements of speakers, so they’re treated to be void of any outside noise or internal sound reflections.

As we entered the largest of Harman’s chambers, I found myself nervously chatting — the way you might during a horror movie — just to fill the tense, unsettling quiet.

The anechoic chamber is probably the closest thing we have to what it’s like to stick an earbud into your ear. In fact, the ear canal is almost like an anechoic chamber in reverse. But unlike the chamber, the human ear is less predictable. “The shape and length of the ear canal is very important to sound,” said Dr. Olive, “and each ear canal is more unique than a fingerprint.”

Jeff and Dr Olive inside anechoic chamber

I became noticeably and eerily aware of my heartbeat inside the ultra-quiet anechoic chamber.

Todd Welti, Dr. Olive’s cohort on the original Harman Target studies, designed a model ear. He took ten sets of headphones and measured them on 15 people, "which gave him his ground truth,” said Dr. Olive.

From there, he took pictures of the pinna (inner ear) and 3D printed them. Harman’s ear has a more pliable, fleshy design that better mimics a human ear — and all the fit issues that come with that. “We're trying to predict what the effects are of your ear canal on the sound,” said Dr. Olive. “And then compensate for it.”

Criticism of the Harman Target

The extra attention to in-ear headphones was spawned in part by some criticism of the Harman Target in-ear curve, released years after the over-ear version. And even though it allows for even more variance to listener preference, the in-ear target has not been been met with the same acceptance as the original over-ear curve.

This is reductive, but the argument is that Harman leaned heavily on the results of their over-ear studies to extrapolate a listening curve for in-ears. Dr. Olive bristles at this notion.

“The only thing people challenge me on is the inner curve of the Target,” he said, referring to the upper midrange area. “There’s a [popular headphone reviewer] named Crinacle who just hates it.”

Dr. Olive said he was caught off guard when Crinacle interviewed him at CanJam NYC 2023 in a now-viral YouTube video. “He started attacking the inner target curve,” he said.

The meat of Crinacle’s argument is that the over-ear study was large — and public — in scope. Hundreds of users were able to adjust treble and bass, and home in on what they preferred. For the in-ear target, the research was closer to the vest — and perhaps more controlled by Harman. And he’s not happy with the resulting curve.

“[Crinacle] thinks that there is too much energy in the ear gain region, which is around 3kHz,” said Dr. Olive. “So, [he thinks] it sounds a bit bright but harsh sometimes.”

He’s not alone in this, according to Dr. Olive, who’s heard others share this sentiment. He feels that underscores just how much of an acquired taste in-ear-headphone-sound can be — again, ear canals are more unique than fingerprints.

Jeff with B&K rig

Harman's Senior Director of Intelligent Audio Jeff Baker explains the shape and physics of the ear and how it captures sound waves.

“So, I mean, some of what [the critics] say is true,” said Dr. Olive. “That's why we're doing this ear canal research. We want to sort of get to the bottom of it and hopefully have a personalized solution.”

Is the Harman Target dead? The premature eulogy

There’s also the “greater good” argument of the Harman Target. If it’s truly a “measuring stick” for the entire industry, what does the rest of world do when Harman has moved on to their own measuring tools? There is no publicly shared and published target for the industry-standard B&K 5128 measurement rig (that $40,000 manikin head that I hefted around the labs earlier), so it’s not as easy to tune a headphone using the Harman Target as a barometer.

Resolve, another leading headphone expert, posted a YouTube video with the tongue-in-cheek title “Say goodbye to the Harman target.” The actual content of his video was less "doom and gloom" and instead a nuanced discussion of how to move forward without public data from Harman. (Resolve also introduced and explained the concepts of "HRTF" and "diffuse field" to a wider audience.)

But the questions remain: are we destined to go back to the Wild West of headphone sound? Does Harman — or Dr. Olive himself — feel the weight of this responsibility?

Dr. Olive was frank, but optimistic. “The last couple years, as a company, we’ve become a little more cautious,” he said. “There’s been some pushback from different business units and legal to publish less, or [to keep proprietary technology and research] a trade secret — or at least patent it before we publish it.”

Jeff and Dr Olive inside movie theater space

Before leaving, we enjoyed an epic Atmos home theater experience with Dr. Olive, courtesy of several JBL in-walls and under-the-seat subwoofers.

However, he’s quick to point out, “the Harman Target is out there…and everyone’s using it.” It might take a little extra legwork for other companies to incorporate it into their processes and test equipment, but it has been publicly available for many years. And Dr. Olive himself has grown even more active than ever in the headphone community, often discussing new breakthroughs, industry trends, and AES papers on social media.

He often leads his CanJam seminar with a slide that quips, "rumors of the Harman Target's demise have been greatly exaggerated." You could say the same thing about Harman’s commitment to the higher cause of improving sound altogether. Dr. Olive has given presentations all over the globe. He’s visited Dolby’s headquarters and conferred with mixing engineers on spatial audio. And he’s met face to face with critics and headphone experts — including appearances on videos with both Crinacle and Resolve.

Dr Olive seminar at CanJam SoCal

Dr. Olive broke down Harman's latest ear canal research during his seminar at CanJam SoCal.

It's all to gain perspective, to set things right, and to quench an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He said that when he enters a conversation or debate, he has the confidence that he’s put in the work — but sees another opportunity to learn. To make sound reproduction that much better.

He’s been impressed by the current headphone scene and how much more educated the listeners are now when it comes to sound and measurements. He credited social media and pointed out that when he was doing his speaker research at the NRC, or even when he started at Harman, there was no internet to speak of. He finds this generation’s headphone consumers are more informed, at a younger age.

“I get a lot of feedback on the research,” he said. “Some of it is noise, but a lot of it is actually useful.”

The drive to keep improving

As fascinating as it was to talk to Dr. Olive and his colleagues, at a certain point, you can look at it all and think, “why bother?” What is there really to learn about audio that we haven’t already discovered? Don’t things already sound “good enough?”

Well, I'm not the one to judge — after all, Crutchfield has spent the last 50 years trying to improve the world’s sound one car, room, or outdoor space at a time. (And I don’t think anyone in our community of DIYers and tinkerers will ever be completely satisfied.) But an outsider might wonder what keeps a person like Dr. Sean Olive driven after all these decades.

Part of it could be to respond to critics, to prove the naysayers wrong. But the Harman labs felt like a hubris-free zone — and Dr. Olive took criticisms in stride. Maybe it's spatial audio, moving beyond the restraints of traditional stereo, that has rejuvanated the passion for progress.

But I think there’s another reason that Dr. Olive and his colleagues go to such lengths. When Dr. Olive went from describing scientific method to telling his personal journey with audio, I noticed a sudden shift in body language. Even after all these years, he slightly recoiled when he explained how poor the recording of his college piano recital sounded. The disappointment still visibly gnaws at him.

Perhaps that's why he seems as breathless about the research he’s doing today as the research he did 40 years ago. It’s as if he owes it to the musician, to music itself. He’s often lamented how music has been relegated to the background, something we put on while we do something else. Perhaps if it sounded as good as possible — better than it does right this moment — it would once again demand the same kind of attention as, say, a movie or prestige TV show.

Jeff and Dr Olive part ways

Outside the Harman Experience Center, Dr. Olive took a moment to reflect on his past and experience before we parted ways.

Dr. Olive enjoys comparing speakers with wine when talking shop with his old pal and mentor, Floyd Toole. But he admitted that it’s not the best analogy. “Speakers [and headphones] are really like the wine glass,” he said. He then paused before adding, “They should be transparent and shaped in a way that highlights the true color, heft, and complexity of the music.”

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