In September, we received an invitation from Philips to visit their iLab in Leuven, Belgium. It was a small group invitation, with only me, Lieven, Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity and Jude of Head-Fi. As we were having dinner on our first night in Leuven, I told Lieven that we’re lucky to be included in this very small group along with people who I consider my seniors like Tyll and Jude. It was a very special trip, not only because of the great crowd and enjoying Belgian beer, but ultimately because of the qualitative information we got from the Philips iLab.
This time, Philips is introducing two new models: the L2 which is an update to the L1, and the M1BT which is a Bluetooth equipped version of the M1. The L2 will sell at the same price as the L1, so this would be a replacement model rather than a higher priced model. A short word on the L2: I think they’ve managed to do two things: one, make the L1 look old and outdated. Two, significantly improve the sound quality. In fact, the sound quality jump is HUGE-HUGE-HUGE. Phenomenal engineering there from the Philips team.
Aside from the new product previews, the biggest treat of the trip was getting to see the development process at Philips. Personally, it was a highly educational experience to me. It definitely succeeded in convincing me that Philips is REALLY serious about making good quality headphones (and also confirmed by the new L2). I was extremely satisfied to see the commitment from the in-house engineering in developing their headphones.
This article will attempt to re-tell the story of the things I learned from the presentation from the iLabs team in Leuven.
DISCOVERING THE IDEAL SOUND SIGNATURE
Just as we know, headphones come with different sound signatures. We enthusiasts may describe this as a Sennheiser sound or a Grado sound. Well, Philips have a pretty neat way of describing this and I’m going to quote this directly from their power point:
“The flavour of sound.
Just as the flavour of a particular food is a combination of different tastes,
sound is also made up of different ingredients.
Everyone has their own preferred balance of sweet, salty, and sour that makes up their personal taste, and sound can be thought of in a similar way.”
Using one of the most fascinating tests I’ve seen, Philips was able to discover the sort of sound signature the market prefers.
As pictured in the power point, the tool allowed people to move the center circle around which would change the sound to the four corners of Powerful, Bright, Warm, and Clear sound signatures. The closest to a corner they get, the more extreme the signature application would get. During the presentation, they demoed the test to us through a pair of speakers to let us hear what each corner represent, both through our hearing as well as the EQ curve.
The real tests are performed using headphones, and the corners don’t have the labels in them and that they switch around the placement so that for instance, Warm is not always at the low left corner. Applying this test to 200 people in Europe and 200 in Asia, they were able to determine where the majority of the consumers felt the ideal sound signature to be.
They would then apply this tuning preference to the entire Philips line up, with the exception of some models like the O’neill line that favours more powerful bass. They also noted that sound precision is highest on the Fidelio line up. While not everyone may agree that this sound signature is the perfect signature for them (personally, I prefer a signature with less treble and heavier bass, but that’s just like how I like my coffee dark and thick), I can affirm that the final target sound signature obtained by Philips should be a very popular sound signature. No polarizing Sennheiser or Grado sound here. This *should* be a pretty well accepted HiFi sound signature by the masses. It’s not a bass-head sound, mid-centric, or treble-happy. It’s well balanced and it’s good.
Next page: Test for Golden Ears