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Samsung and High End Audio

Paul Wilson examines a newcomer to high performance audio…

I recently happened across an article in Digital Trends magazine reporting that Samsung is apparently going to devote a considerable amount of time, resources and not surprisingly, cash to being the number one manufacturer in the world for – you guessed it, “high end” audio. Not only have they made the announcement, they have opened a facility and even hired a staff of engineers to begin work. According to the article, they have hired talent away from such companies as Harman and Beats by Dr. Dre. And then there’s Samsung’s announcment on Monday that they would be acquiring Harman, hook, line and sinker…

AR-Samsung-Small-Format.pngIf you may possibly be thinking that Samsung isn’t a name you would associate with high performance audio, and Beats isn’t especially a high end manufacturer, although Harman certainly has brands that are, then your thoughts almost mirror mine. 

I have a Samsung flat panel TV. I also have a Samsung washer and dryer. If I so choose, I could have a Samsung Wi-Fi enabled refrigerator that takes pictures of the interior and emails them to me when I’m at the store. I can also have a front end loader and even a crude oil tanker. Samsung is a very diverse manufacturer of a wide variety of products. While I have no doubt that they have the resources to build amazing gear, my main question is why? 

When you look at the industries where Samsung is a market leader or somewhere close, the sales volume in numbers of units are in the hundreds of thousands to the millions. Just think about how many cell phones they make each year. For products that lack high unit sales, like front end loaders, the annual sales dollars will be in the millions. Why aspire to be a market leader in an industry that probably will struggle to build yearly numbers of units in the thousands, and depending on the component cost, more realistically in the hundreds? On average, how many $50,000.00 speaker systems are built by any one company and sold each year? I certainly don’t have definitive information on that statistic but I’d wager to bet it is not by weekly tractor trailer loads. There will naturally be varied definitions of what should define the term market leader. Would that definition be strictly numbers of units sold, or products at a lower price point, or world class sonics, or a higher price point and lower volumes? 

AR-Washer-Dryer.jpgAn R&D facility has been opened in Valencia, CA and staffed with about twenty scientists, engineers and PHD’s to achieve Samsung’s stated goal of being number one in the world in audio. This new R&D facility has not one but two anechoic chambers and the core mission is to develop products that have measurements as near perfect as possible before production even begins. Once prototypes are built, they will be voiced to achieve the specific sound that the team of designers feels is best. Only then will production commence. The team’s leader is convinced that designing by measurements alone will allow them to build speakers in the top 20% of any speaker in it’s particular category. 

So what, you ask, has this illustrious facility thus far designed that has seen it’s way to production? To be quite honest, it is at this point I became a little confused. Only two products so far, a multi room speaker and a Dolby Atmos enabled sound bar. The article noted the price of the sound bar as a “mammoth $1500.00.” Sound bar? This is the path to being number one in the world in sound? My own definition of “high end” audio does not especially include sound bars which are more closely associated with home theater. I would think it fair to say that manufacturers of $200,000.00 plus speaker systems are not yet shivering in their boots. 

Now of course, and to be perfectly fair, reading this article might certainly provide different meanings on the content. Perhaps the writer associates “high end” audio as something quite different than my own definition. Maybe this facility seeks to one-day produce six figure speaker systems for true audiophiles and the sound bar is a place to begin. I suppose anything is possible. 

AR-Trust.jpgTaking the question of a behemoth like Samsung entering the audio world one step further – what would it take to imbue a sense of belief and acceptance of a company that makes smartphones and oil tankers also making something you would consider adding to your multi thousand-dollar audio system? Could you ever be accepting of a product made by such a company?

Engineering chops? Check. Financial Strength? Big check. Production and manufacturing excellence? Check. All the requisite pieces of the puzzle seem to be there to actually design and manufacture a product. Here’s a question. If a company that makes, oh, lets say table lamps suddenly announces it will start manufacturing automobiles, would you be faithful enough to buy one or would you write them off? 

I see this as an ambitious effort on Samsung’s part. Then again, this is a company that has not reached the size and power it has by playing it safe. They are well run, respected and and manufacture highly accepted products regardless of the particular product category. So the real question is – are you the audiophile that tends to be faithful to brands you know and respect, or conversely, are you open to trying something new? 

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