How Samsung plans to be the next Bowers and Wilkins
The name "Samsung" evokes images of phones, TVs and maybe even appliances. But the Korean electronics giant is betting big on audio, too. We got a look at the company's California testing lab where its sonic aspirations begin.
Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
ExpertiseTy has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast.Credentials
Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
Watch this: Samsung's audio lab: peek behind the double-blind curtain
"Have you heard of the TMZ?" asks Allan Devantier, the head of Samsung's new audio lab in Los Angeles. "Do you know what it stands for?"
"It's Thirty Mile Zone. See those buildings?" Devantier follows up, pointing out of the window. "They were built within the TMZ so that actors could live in them, and the studio wouldn't have to pay them a travel allowance."
Being close to the action was important for Devantier when he was location scouting for the Samsung lab in 2013. While Los Angeles is most well known as the epicenter of film, the city is also the headquarters for much of the United States' audio industry. Companies such Harman (where Devantier and many others at the lab worked), DTS, ELAC America and many others call the City of Angels home.
Since its inception, the lab has experienced substantial growth, starting with one employee and expanding to 20 as of mid-2016. Devantier tells me that the company is in the process of converting the vacant premises next door to add to its current facility, effectively doubling the available workspace as well as its research potential.
The California lab is the birthplace of the Radiant360 speakers, as well as the forthcoming Samsung HW-K950, the company's latest sound bar, which includes dedicated wireless rear speakers and Dolby Atmos surround sound.
On a recent visit to the Samsung labs, Devantier showed me around the facility and let me in on some of the projects the audio lab has been working on.
Devantier says his dream is to make Samsung's audio division a household name in the same way that its display products are.
"Eventually, when you think of Bowers and Wilkins, you think of Samsung. That's our goal."
Two dedicated anechoic testing chambers
The centerpieces of the facility are the two anechoic chambers: floor-to-ceiling rooms designed to eliminate audio reflections and echoes. These two rooms are designed to test the audio performance of everything from standalone speakers to wall-mounted speakers and televisions.
The first room is a large space with a walk-in entry, and it features wedge-shaped batts on all surfaces designed to soak up sound. On the entry gangway an engineer would place the speaker to be tested. On the far wall of the room is a remote-controlled microphone held in place by a wire strut which is also covered in fiberglass material to reduce reflections.
The mic can be used to test on-axis response or moved up and down to measure off-axis performance. Off-axis response is useful to test how a speaker responds when you're sitting off to the side, or out of the "sweet spot."
The second room, a Hemi-Anechoic Chamber, is designed specifically for wall-mounted devices such as TVs and sound bars. It features a hinged wall which includes a VESA adaptor for mounting TVs, and it can also accommodate other types of products. Devantier says this room is unique because it studies how the devices behave against a boundary -- something he claims his competitors don't do.
Listening rooms with a revolving hidden wall
The other standout of the lab is the double-blind testing area which is also used for "ears-on" evaluation of speakers and televisions. The speakers and other components are hidden by a pull-down, acoustically transparent screen.
But the niftiest trick Samsung pulled in the room we saw was the revolving wall. It allows the engineers to install four TVs on the same part of wall -- with a remote to cycle through them all. Doing it this way helps eliminate any perceived bias that lining them up side-by-side could potentially create. As well as allowing TVs to be mounted, the apparatus also includes a small shelf on each "wall" to simulate a media unit, and this can be used for sound bars as well.
We listened to two different TVs using the setup -- an older Samsung model and a 2016 unit which had been tuned at the audio lab. The 2016 unit definitely sounded better, especially with music. The sound was even sounding across the spectrum, while the older TV sounded overly sibilant and unpleasant with cymbals. While it was possible to see -- and hear -- when the TVs were being moved, the engineers say they are working to make the process truly "double-blind". It's a pity the people sitting in the audience won't be able to see the mechanism in motion as it was enjoyable to watch -- like seeing Optimus Prime and the rest of the Transformers "roll out."
Allan Devantier says he is proud of all of the products he's helped design so far at the lab, but says so far his highlight is the improvement they have helped make in TV sound quality.
"About two-thirds of people who buy a TV don't even buy a sound bar, and if we can give them better sound, then I think that's definitely something to be proud of."
In addition to in-room testing, the technicians also study the properties of materials used in speakers, both new and old. The staff achieve this through a combination of physical and theoretical modeling.
Colby Buddelmeyer, Samsung's principal audio engineer and an ex-Beats employee, says the Korean company has a philosophy of "get it done fast." He says that new software developed in-house has helped them to save countless hours of building prototypes. Moreover, Samsung's proprietary software was used to refine the "waveguide" on the Radiant360 speakers in a more cost-effective way than building models.
"It's great that we have something, a simulation, to show when things don't work so that we can concentrate on things that do work," Buddelmeyer adds.
The engineers at the California lab used a combination of software and hands-on testing to create a new kind of "full-range driver." The company claims the driver has a flat response from 500Hz upward. The tweeter is used in the brand-new Atmos sound bar that's due to come out in in the next four months.
As far as the future of the facility is concerned, Devantier says the lab is still in the process of expanding. He says the new space next door will help the company grow its capabilities, but he says he knows that the company won't achieve its goals overnight.
"As a group, we completely understand that you have to earn your credibility. Samsung just can't start advertising that 'oh, we have a great lab in California -- we make great sound now.' We have to deliver it time and time again. We know it's a long haul."
Given the topsy-turvy world of audio at the moment, Devantier's dream may just be possible. Several days after we spoke, Bowers and Wilkins itself -- one of the best-known audio brands in the world -- announced it had been bought by a small Silicon Valley startup.
But that just means that it's anybody's ballgame. And Samsung, like anyone looking to make it in Hollywood, knows it pays to dream big.