May 2017

Last November, Samsung announced it had purchased Harman International, parent company of AKG, Infinity, JBL, Mark Levinson, Revel, and other audio brands. Most observers speculated that Samsung made the move to get into the automotive electronics business, where Harman is a powerhouse. But a recent report from A/V industry insider website speculates that much of Samsung’s motivation springs from the desire to use Harman’s audio technology to improve its smartphones.

Brent Butterworth

There’s encouraging evidence for this viewpoint: Samsung announced that its new Galaxy S8 phone would include a set of AKG earphones normally priced at $99. They’re described as dual-driver earphones, with 8mm and 11mm drivers in each earpiece. (Given the sizes of the drivers, I assume they’re both dynamics, which makes these earphones unusual: almost all dual-driver earphones include at least one balanced-armature driver.) Samsung also announced that it plans to incorporate more Harman technologies into next year’s Galaxy S9.

So what does all this mean for the future of Samsung audio products, and of smartphone sound? In my view, it means exactly what signing up for a gym membership means: Improvement is a possibility, but is by no means certain.

Harman has produced the most interesting and important headphone research of the last five years, painstakingly blind-testing and measuring numerous headphones in an effort to learn what listeners prefer. The company’s researchers have come up with what’s widely known as the “Harman curve”: a target frequency response for headphones that will produce a sound that most listeners find pleasing and realistic.

However, it appears this research is just now starting to affect the design of Harman’s own headphones, sold under the AKG, Harman/Kardon, and JBL brands. I’ve spoken with a couple of headphone engineers at competing audio companies who admitted to me that they’d consulted Harman’s research -- it’s openly published, and available from the Audio Engineering Society website -- in the development of their headphones, then demanded that I explain why Harman seemed to be ignoring its own research.

It’s also worth noting that Samsung’s recent headphones have been generally quite good, with the Level On Wireless a particular favorite of reviewers. Samsung doesn’t seem to need advice about how to make better headphones.

As for technologies used in the smartphones themselves, I don’t see that Samsung needs much help there, either. I’ve measured the audio quality of several smartphones over the years, and the only thing that seems to make a big difference in sound quality is the quality of the internal headphone amp.

Samsung could certainly improve the audio performance of their phones -- iPhones typically put out about 4dB more maximum volume. But this is a matter of simple engineering: Samsung need only select a more capable amplifier chip, or allow the ones they use now to play louder. Samsung’s engineers don’t need Harman’s help to do that, especially considering that Samsung has orders of magnitude more experience in designing the ultracompact audio systems used in smartphones. I suppose some enthusiasts might expect that the engineers who work on Mark Levinson amplifiers and DACs will “tune” the electronics in future Samsung phones, but the whole notion of an engineer “tuning” an amplifier to get it to sound a certain way exists more in the imaginations of audiophiles than it does in actual product development.


There’s one incontestable fact: By a wide margin, Samsung now possesses more audio research and testing capability than any other electronics company. Samsung has long had impressive facilities at its campus in Suwon, South Korea, including a couple of anechoic chambers, and at least one excellent listening room with easily adjustable and highly variable acoustic treatments. Then, a couple of years ago, Samsung hired some of Harman’s researchers and founded a state-of-the-art testing lab in Santa Clarita, California. Now it also owns Harman’s impressive labs in Northridge, California, only 15 miles from the Santa Clarita facility. And, of course, both labs are staffed by some of the world’s most accomplished audio scientists and engineers.

But as you may have gathered from my first few paragraphs, the future impact of all this research capability on Samsung’s products is unpredictable. In any large company, all it takes to turn a great product into an embarrassment is one unchecked interdivision rivalry, one overzealous accountant, one powerful marketing person who chooses styling over sound, one tin-eared VP, or one team leader who can’t control a fractious group of engineers.

Anyone who’s observed the audio business for a long time has, at least occasionally, seen the most respected brands in audio release lousy products, and watched companies with little experience and/or few resources come up with amazing gear. The best audio products result from synergies of engineering, market research, industrial design, and management -- and getting all those things right is hard, whether your company has five employees or 500,000.

. . . Brent Butterworth