A Visit to the Samsung Audio Lab

Most AVS Forum members (and the general public) know Samsung for its top-tier TVs—not to mention its highly regarded smartphones, tablets, and major household appliances. And while the Korean giant has also made many audio products over the years, that’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Samsung.

That could soon change now that the company has established a dedicated audio lab with the express purpose of bringing Samsung audio products—especially speakers—up to the level of its TVs. A few weeks ago, I was among a group of journalists invited to visit the facility in Valencia, CA, just north of Los Angeles. Now in its third year of operation, the lab currently occupies 8500 square feet, including two anechoic chambers, and the company plans to increase that to 18,000 square feet with a third anechoic chamber.

Working within its walls are 20 audio professionals, including three with PhDs, seven with Masters degrees, and eight active musicians, representing a combined total of 300 years of audio engineering and research experience. Heading the team is Allan Devantier, VP of Audio R&D, who started the proceedings with a presentation about the approach they take in designing new audio products.

Allan said that if you perform good measurements on a speaker in an anechoic chamber and conduct well-designed, blind listening tests, there will be a strong correlation—he claims around 85%—between the objective and subjective results. That is, if a speaker measures well under those conditions, it’s very likely to receive high marks from listeners in a blind test.

To address the objective side of the equation, the Samsung team developed an extensive measurement suite that includes many individual measurements at different horizontal and vertical angles with respect to the axis of a speaker. The results clearly indicate the high and low frequency extension, the octave-to-octave balance, spatiality, resonant characteristics, and acoustic interference among other parameters in a sphere around the speaker.

These measurements are performed in one of two anechoic chambers. One is a 4-pi chamber, so called because there are no reflective surfaces in any direction—including the floor, which is a mesh screen suspended over the same deep absorbers found on the walls and ceiling. The term “4-pi” comes from the formula for the surface area of a sphere, which is 4(pi)r^2, indicating that there are no reflections from any spherical direction within the chamber.

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The 4-foot foam wedges in the 4-pi anechoic chamber prevent virtually all sonic reflections. (Photo by Mark Henninger)

The other anechoic chamber is a 2-pi chamber, so called because it has a solid wall, which means there are no reflections from any hemispherical (half-spherical) direction around that wall. This chamber is used to measure TV and on-wall speakers.

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The 2-pi chamber has a wall that swings out so a TV or on-wall speaker can be mounted on it, after which it swings into the chamber for measurements. (Photo by Mark Henninger)

In both cases, measurements are taken with several microphones mounted on a complex mechanism that automatically moves them to different locations with respect to the speaker for each measurement. The entire process is controlled by a computer that also records and tabulates the results.

On the subjective side, blind evaluations with trained and untrained listeners yield similar results, but a smaller number of trained listeners can get to those results faster with less deviation. Interestingly, trained listeners also tend to rate products lower overall. The listening/evaluation team at the lab includes 19 members—17 males and two females ranging in age from 25 to 58 and representing five nationalities. All have had a hearing test to determine the profile of their hearing response and undertaken the Harman How To Listen and/or Philips Golden Ears training programs. Finally, they have all passed an audio-evaluation exam with a score of 70% or better.

Blind tests are conducted in a room equipped with the Samsung Listening Test System (SLTS), which includes a large turntable on which several speakers or TVs can be mounted. A black, acoustically transparent screen is lowered in front of the turntable so the listener can’t see the products. The turntable moves different products into the same position so location can’t bias the results.

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The TV in the center of this photo is mounted on the central turntable, which spins around to bring different products into the same position. (Photo by Mark Henninger)

The SLTS uses one turntable permanently mounted in the middle of one wall and two portable turntables that can be used to evaluate several different pairs of speakers; all three can be used together to evaluate different LCR setups, and the rotation of all turntables is controlled by custom software. Samsung plans to buy more turntables to allow switching between entire 5.1 and 7.1 systems, but for now, the surrounds are evaluated in static positions behind portable acoustically transparent curtains.

This is similar in principle to the Harman Multichannel Listening Lab (MLL), in which speakers are strapped to moving platforms that shift the position of the speakers behind a black acoustically transparent screen. However, the MLL can’t easily switch LR or LCR sets, much less 5.1 or 7.1 systems (though Harman says it’s better to evaluate speakers in mono, an approach that Samsung starts with). In any event, it seems to me that turntables are much more efficient than sliding platforms back and forth.

We also got to visit the facility’s transducer lab, where—as the name clearly implies—speaker transducers are developed and tested. Engineers can simulate the behavior of new designs in a computer and perform strobe analysis, in which a flashing strobe light shines on a transducer vibrating at a slightly different frequency so it appears to be moving in slow motion. They can also drive prototypes to destruction in order to observe their failure modes.

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The transducer lab is where engineers design, simulate, and test speaker drivers. (Photo by Mark Henninger)

We got to hear a couple of demos while we were at the Samsung Audio Lab. In the SLTS room, three 65″ Samsung TVs were mounted on the central turntable, which we couldn’t see behind the black screen. We listened to a few moments of Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters” on each one. The first one sounded pretty good, while the second one was crisper but somewhat peaky, and the third example sounded mellower and smoother. It turns out that the first one was a 2014 7000 series (our hosts didn’t know the exact model), the second one was a 2015 JS9500, and the third one was a 2016 KS9800.

In the next room was the HW-K950 Atmos soundbar system ($1500), which was developed at the lab and includes the soundbar itself, two wireless surround speakers, and a wireless subwoofer. (The HW-K850 omits the surround speakers and lists for $900.) The soundbar reproduces the LCR channels, each with two 2.5″ drivers flanking a 30 mm tweeter, as well as the front LR overhead channels, each with two more 2.5″ drivers pointing up to reflect from the ceiling in a so-called Atmos-enabled configuration. The surround speakers use the same 2.5″ drivers, one pointing forward and the other pointing upward in an Atmos-enabled configuration, while the sub uses an 8″ driver. Each driver in the entire system is powered by its own class-D amplifier.

Of particular note are the tweeters, which cross over to the woofers at 400 Hz, much lower than in conventional soundbars or center-channel speakers. This is said to create wide, even dispersion and eliminate the comb-filter effect that usually results from placing a tweeter between two woofers. We were told this is the most important aspect of the soundbar.

Another important consideration is the directionality of the upfiring drivers that provide the overhead channels. Dolby specifies that these drivers should be inclined 20° from the vertical and there should be acoustic occlusion to prevent sound from the driver to leak directly into the room without reflecting from the ceiling. The Samsung team addressed the second requirement with a deep waveguide that begins immediately at the driver’s surround, leaving no gap at its front edge.

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The Dolby Atmos-enabled upfiring drivers are mounted in a deep waveguide that helps keep their sound from leaking directly into the room. (Photo by Mark Henninger)

We watched and listened to the Amaze Dolby Atmos trailer as well as a clip from Mad Max: Fury Road and “Babylon Sisters” upmixed to 5.1.4. Sitting in a chair close to the centerline of the system, the soundstage was fairly large and well integrated, and the overhead effects were apparent, but not as good as I’ve heard with other Atmos-enabled setups. We were also encouraged to get up and walk around the room. As I did, I noticed that the character of the sound changed, but not nearly as much as other soundbars might.

It was a fascinating visit, and I thank Samsung for inviting me. I look forward to seeing—and more importantly, hearing—what this talented team does to elicit the best possible sonic performance from Samsung audio products.

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