Dr. Sean Olive knows the secret to creating phenomenal sound lies in science. As HARMAN’s Acoustic Research Fellow, Sean is responsible for conducting sound quality research for the company’s consumer, professional, and automotive products. We recently caught up with Sean to learn more about his background in sound recording and his team’s recent research accomplishments.
Q: First, tell us a bit about yourself. How have your experiences helped shape you and your passions, and how did they send you down the path which led you to HARMAN?
A: It’s been a long journey, but what really sparked my interest in sound recording was simply growing up with music – it was all around me. I studied piano at the University of Toronto, and lived with some engineers who would build their own speakers and sound systems.
Before I was aware that science could be applied to music, recordings of both my final piano recital and jazz composition were ruined due to poor audio quality and misuse of the recording equipment. At the time, there weren’t any true standards to follow during the recording process. Upon graduation, I enrolled in the Tonmeister program at McGill University to learn how to make better recordings by applying hard metrics and detailed quantification to assess the quality of sound production.
Working with my mentor, Dr. Floyd Toole, at the National Research Council solidified my passion in audio and acoustics. Dr. Toole came to HARMAN as the Vice President of Acoustical Engineering in 1991, and I joined him here a few years later as the Director of Acoustic Research.
Q: Your research in the perception and measurement of sound and music reproduction helps create a better end user experience. Why are you so passionate about the audio experiences our products create? And how do you reflect that passion through in your work in acoustic research?
A: Music, science, and human behavior are some of my lifelong passions, so conducting research in the perception and measurement of sound is a dream come true. When I heard the abysmal audio quality of the recordings of my final piano recital and jazz orchestration, I decided to take matters into my own hands. There had to be a better way to ensure quality recording.
Dr. Toole took me under his wing at the National Research Council, and taught me almost everything I know about the industry and the science of acoustics. He started the Controlled Listening Test program at HARMAN, and now that he is retired, it’s an honor to carry on his work.
Q: There was an in-depth R&D process around the new AKG Audio N5005 in-ear headphone. Can you tell us more about what the process involved and the components that makes this model so special?
A: A few years ago, we were evaluating over-ear and in-ear headphones when we found that there was no consistency in sound quality between brands or models. We set out to identify what the optimal target response is in terms of sound quality, and to discover if we could predict listeners’ individual preferences using objective measurements.
Our researchers found that there are a few distinct trends in terms of the listener’s preferences, and that the “ideal” bass and treble levels depend on age, degree of hearing loss, and choice of music. Our design team then took this data and created the AKG Audio N5005 headphones, with customizable sound. The sound-tuning capabilities are truly one-of-a-kind – users can easily adjust the bass and treble levels based on their preferences. Each earphone also contains four balance armatures and one dynamic driver, so there’s no sound distortion.
The headphones also come with a few different tip options in varying sizes and shapes so that users can create a seal within their ear and can hear their music at the proper levels.
Q: Your focus on the customer experience goes even far beyond your work on the AKG Audio N5005. What can you tell us about your recent research that analyzes how headphone ratings and measurements can be used to predict listeners’ preferences?
A: Once we finished collecting the data I mentioned earlier on listening preferences, we created a statistical model that enables us to accurately predict listeners’ preference ratings of headphones. Now, we can take measurements of a specific headphone, input details about someone’s audio preferences, and determine with over 90% accuracy whether that person will like that particular headphone configuration. This used to be a very expensive and time-consuming process. With our new model, the process is much more efficient and cost-effective.
During this process, we also found that the current international standards that define headphone performance are extremely outdated. We’re petitioning to have the standards updated, so that we can improve audio benchmarks across the industry.
Q: What are other areas of interest for you?
A: Now that we wrapped up our headphone audio research, we have new standards for AKG and JBL headphones. Younger listeners prefer headphones with strong bass levels, so we’re developing new models with a more intense bass output. We’re also starting to work more with smart speakers, like Google Home and the Amazon Echo, and preparing to complete similar research on these types of products.
Q: What tips do you have for audiophiles who want to achieve the most pristine listening experience when on the move?
A: Always remember that headphones first have to fit you well and feel comfortable. One of the best ways to determine if they fit well is to listen to music with a lot of bass. If you don’t hear a lot of bass, put some pressure on the side of the headphones to see if the bass level rises. That’s a key indicator that the headphones are not properly fitted, but can easily be fixed by adjusting the headband or replacing the tip if you’re listening through in-ear headphones.
Q: HARMAN is hard at work in many other exciting areas outside of audio – including augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and autonomous driving. How do you see your work overlapping with those areas?
A: The sounds we hear are influenced by the size and shape of our ears and head. A lot of the directional information and cues we receive are affected by these qualities. We’re conducting research in this area so that AR and VR technologies can be personalized to your anatomy to provide a truly immersive experience.
There’s also a great overlap with the personalization of audio. In other words, if we can understand what your listening preferences are for headphones, we can apply the same settings to your car or home speaker systems.
Thanks in part to Sean’s expertise and direction, our research and development teams help ensure that HARMAN’s audio products and solutions always deliver our consumers with an unparalleled listening experience. Learn more about our premium audio solutions here and follow Sean on LinkedIn.