Remember that old coffee slogan –”The best part of waking up…”? Well to paraphrase, the best part about being asked to attend an event at Harman Kardon’s Southern California offices is that you’re going to see new products in an environment where audio (not video) is king of the hill. Which to many, is as it should be.
Now Harman knows audio better than I and the fact that they’re producing product in the U.S. Deserves respect as well as unabashed admiration as a business. I’m expecting to see some new products in a setting where the audio can perform well — realizing that the audio performance rooms they use for testing and consumer performance issues isn’t going to be opened today. And with mobile devices seeming to take over, what is going on might be a real question in the world of audio.
So I’m more than happy to sit through an informative lecture to start in HK’s auditorium, flanked by others who are also attending, so as to get some details as to just how important audio is to the consumer. It’s a popular misconception that digital audio, often bad as it is, has become an accepted norm, I’m finding out. All age groups can differentiate and appreciate quality audio when presented to them. I wish I could have spent some time in the testing areas that Harman Kardon maintains at this location — as an example, they can do blind testing of audio speakers because the speakers move out into position before those listening and then are replaced in the same position by the next one. And the speakers aren’t seen by those listening either.
But while I muse on this, there’s plenty of graphs and charts and proof being presented on the wall screen about audio and consumers — but the take away is that the quality of audio is just as important to today’s audio listeners as it always has been. And that the “Gen Y” or “Millennium” or whatever you want to call those in college and just out, understand that you only get quality out from quality in. So while MP3 may be an easy low-rez way to hear music with inexpensive (read: cheap) earbuds, no one is being fooled. And that those aspiring to buy the pricy celebrity-endorsed headphones are also realizing that the quality found in some of them are an important part of the equation as to why to get them.
With this understood, we exit the auditorium and enter the showroom. It’s the new stuff that’s on display here — some has been out fro a while while other products are just now getting exposed to the public. But since products here are more “display” than “play,” we’re ushered into a room with good acoustics and a brace of sound bars at one end.
I recognize the S16, as I reviewed it earlier. So I’m more interested in seeing just what is going on with the new S30 model that’s a bit longer than the S16 and has a lot more technology working (although it also has a wireless subwoofer in play).
A scene from Tron: Legacy is played — basically two opponents are attempting to “kill” the other with flying “frisbees” that bounce off a glass-like setting. The audio is switched between an unnamed sound bar and the S30 – two things are immediately noticed about the way the Harman Kardon sounds. The first is that there’s a greater feeling of “depth,” as if the sound field is much wider and the surround effect seeming more effective. The second thing is that the audio has, for want of a better way to describe it, sharper edges that delineate the music from the sound effects from the dialogue from each other. Think of it like being able to pull out and separate the ingredients from a cake, while still enjoying all of them in a single bite.
Now I get how the S30 is doing its “magic,” because there’s 16 transducers in the sound bar, with 11 individual amplifiers working. And that the new algorithms having the “surround sound” are able to eliminate the problems of phasing that often sticks out in a person’s ear to betray the “simulated” effect (note: I do not suggest sticking a sound bar or anything into a person’s ear).
We’re now ushered into another room, again acoustics are being enhanced through sound dampening material that can be seen on the walls. An upgraded version of the JBL OnBeat Air, which we’ve reviewed, is there: it’s the OnBeat Air Xtreme. As in being physically larger to more easily handle holding an Apple tablet, while maintaining the “Airplay” feature that allows music to be streamed to it. And from what I hear, it’s obvious that the audio components have been significantly beefed up — it sound good. Really good.
But the main focus of the room is at one end — the MAS 102. This is a desktop mini-system (or “micro” if you should so choose) and consists of a svelte receiver that contains a CD player. With two speakers accompanying it. Now you know that 2.1 systems like this often have surround sound technology working. No exception here.
But more importantly than that is how it sound — amazing, is how it sounds. Two speakers creating a “phantom” center channel is now done all the time, but the MAS 102 does it like gangbusters. As an example, a mono recording of Frank Sinatra is played (Capitol Records). You not only hear Frank singing “between” the speakers as you’d expect, but the orchestra appears to be coming from behind him. The kind of separation and audio quality of the sound is pretty astounding for such a little setup. And to prove this was no fluke, other songs are played, from Ella Fitzgerald to Nora Jones. Not only are the vocals as crisp and clear as you’d want, but the sound-field appears to your ear to stretch past the speakers. Heck, there was one solo trumpet moment that seemed to be coming from in front and to the right of the right speaker. If I had a big enough knapsack with me, I would have grabbed the thing and run out. But since I would have been caught and jailed, we’ll leave that as a burst of imagination. And while the MAS 102 isn’t inexpensive, it isn’t costing thousands of dollars either. This is one Father’s Day present you’d want to give yourself — whether you are a Dad or not.
So since I’m coming perilously close to committing theft, I’d better leave. You might think that video is the king of home theater’ the be all and end all reason for entertainment at home. It’s time to get back to the audio portion of the program by considering just which Harman Kardon product you’re going to get to replace what you have. At least that’s what I think. Because just “good” audio isn’t good enough when it can be “great.”
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.