August 2016

Recently, while working on an article that sought to pick the best of a bunch of wireless speakers, I was struck by a question put to one of the article’s writers by a manufacturer’s PR rep: “Why wasn’t our speaker chosen?”

Brent Butterworth

On one level, it’s reasonable for any PR rep to expect that his company’s products will be picked as among the best. After all, most audio products get good reviews -- and they should. Decades of research and innovation have resulted in an audio industry that, for the most part, delivers competently designed products. Sure, bad speakers still appear now and then, but most new speaker models are at least pretty good, and easily capable of providing an entertaining experience in your living room. And really, how many bad amplifiers and DACs are there? Hook up all this stuff in your home and you’ll almost certainly have a nice experience -- just as, cheap little Bluetooth speakers and $30 headphones aside, reviewers usually have a nice experience when they test a new audio product.

On another level, though, the PR rep asked the wrong question. Ideally, what any audio manufacturer should ask, at least of themselves, is: “Why should our product deserve to be chosen as one of the best?”

I have more insight into this question than do most reviewers, having worked for Dolby Labs and been involved in licensees’ product development and in Dolby’s own planning. More recently, I’ve consulted on the development of more than 50 audio products. I’ve witnessed the inevitable compromises -- and outright mistakes -- that companies can make, and I understand the reasons for them.

(Note: I consult only for product categories I don’t review, such as soundbars and professional audio products. Nor do I review any products made by companies I work for. These rules mean that I accept only a small fraction of the consulting work I’m offered. If it weren’t so fascinating and challenging, I probably wouldn’t do it at all.)

All of the companies that I or my colleagues in the consulting biz have worked for want to make good products; obviously, they’ve spent the money to hire us in the hope of achieving just that. I would also say that competent engineers are involved somewhere in the development process of nearly every audio product. What, then, separates the great products from the merely good? From what I’ve seen, great products are usually created by professionals who ask themselves, “Why should our product be chosen as one of the best?,” and whose companies support them in discovering the answers to that question.

But even when the question is asked, the answers are often inadequate. Often, it’s “We have great engineers.” But everyone does. Sometimes, it’s “We’ve gotten great reviews.” But so has everyone else. Other times, it’s “Our brand has been winning acclaim for decades.” That may be true, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the company’s new products. Sometimes, it’s “We use blah-blah-blah technology.” But it’s rare that a proprietary audio technology or design gains a product a big advantage over its competitors.

“Why should our product be chosen as one of the best?” The serious answer is: “Because our development process submits all products to extensive, unbiased evaluation by personnel outside the engineering department, and we don’t ship anything until it equals or beats its top competitors.”

I first witnessed such a process when, about 20 years ago, I visited Paradigm. The company had set up a good listening room with a speaker switcher capable of matching levels, and a piece of thin fabric draped across the front quarter of the room to hide the speakers from a panel of listeners. Those listeners, from various departments of Paradigm, judged every speaker to hear how it performed relative to its competitors. According to the executives who then ran the company, Paradigm would approve no product that couldn’t beat the best then available on the market.

This process has been taken to even higher levels by Harman International, which has gone to great lengths to develop a program to train listening panel members, and has spent more than a million dollars developing a listening lab with motorized switchers that can move speakers in and out of the same positions in about a second. More recently, ex-Harman engineers have set up a similar lab for Samsung in the Los Angeles area.

That’s not to say that any of these companies is incapable of producing a mediocre speaker. Corporate politics constantly threaten to turn great products into merely good ones. Engineers may be forced to use industrial designs with internal acoustics that make it impossible to achieve excellent sound quality. Accounting can demand cost reductions that cripple a product after its design has been refined. Marketing and sales executives who lack experience in judging sound quality may insist on having a voice in the voicing, so to speak.

The idea that most audio products deserve to be listed among the best, or to get glowing reviews, is as absurd as every child in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon being above average. Most audio products deserve good reviews -- as long as they’ve been designed according to accepted engineering practices, and to return a reasonable but not exorbitant profit, they’ll work just fine. The few products that deserve great reviews are those that have been developed by people who have contributed their passion, their hard work, and their resistance to compromise; who have the humility to submit their work to be judged by unbiased parties; and whose employers have given them the time, the resources, and the freedom to get it right.

. . . Brent Butterworth