A word about Harman International
Harman International, which most people refer to as Harman, is an American audio electronics company. It was founded in 2007, but it became a subsidiary of Samsung Electronics in 2017. The researchers working for this company attempted to design the ultimate, best-rounded sonic signature for headphones, which resulted in the infamous Harman Curve.
What exactly is the Harman Curve?
The Harman Curve represents the most versatile sonic signature that can appeal to the vast majority of music listeners. After extensive tests and studies, Harman researchers have taken the best from established sonic signatures, addressed their flaws, and came up with the unique Harman Curve signature.
In comparison to the standard ‘Flat’ sonic signature, Harman Curve features a boosted bass range and elevated treble section. This sonic signature was developed in 2012 with Sean Olive at the head of the research team.
Harman Target Tests and Research
Music tastes, sensibilities, and perception are all subjective categories, so meticulous tests were required for Harman Curve to be distinctly different from the established sonic signatures.
In simple words, blind tests on numerous individuals were the crux of the Harman Target research. The researchers were interested to find out more about what test subjects both preferred and weren’t particularly satisfied with; although most individuals reacted differently, a common ground was found, which was used as the foundation of the Harman Curve.
The importance of the Harman Curve
The established sonic signatures have been tried and tested over decades, but given the fact that both the music industry and technologies within it have changed drastically, a new, fresh approach was needed.
Each of these almost ‘traditional’ sound signatures was meant to cater to the needs of specific groups of people; a couple of sonic signature types that were slightly more versatile could appeal to larger audiences and music listeners, but none of the types could fit every style and genre of music.
For example, the Flat sonic signature type was meant for studio workers and recording musicians; the Balanced type is a bit better for live performing musicians and some audiophiles; people who wanted something different (but not necessarily better) could find what they were looking for with a Brith-tuned set of cans.
V-shaped signature emulates a live concert atmosphere while the Extra Bass sound signature is generally preferred by lovers of electronic and dance music.
That being said, all of these sound signatures have their benefits and shortcomings. Harman Target was meant to fit the tastes and demands of both rockers, metalheads, jazz enthusiasts, blues musicians, and casual listeners of R&B, pop, and tamer music genres.
The Harman Target and Traditional Sonic Signatures
In a nutshell, Harman Curve shares certain similarities with each traditional sound signature type aside from the Flat response. Each frequency range is either scooped or boosted, some of which are drastically enhanced, and some of which are almost completely eliminated.
In this section, we’ll compare the Harman Target with established sound signatures, but before we do it, let’s take a look at its parameters:
Harman Curve Parameters
Despite the fact that there have been several different versions of Harman Curve in the period between 2013 and 2017, all of them have a very similar graphic representation:
- The bass frequencies are boosted between 2 and 8 decibels, slowly descending on the dB scale until the 100 Hz mark is reached
- The lower midrange is scooped by 2 to 3 decibels until the 400 Hz mark is reached, after which they return to 0 at the 1,000 Hz mark
- The high frequencies are boosted by 9 to 11 decibels, peaking at 4,500-5000 Hz, after which they plummet to –5 decibels at 10,000 Hz, proceeding with the decline to –15 dB at 20,000 Hz
Harman Curve & Flat Response
The Flat response features all frequency ranges lined up in perfect harmony. All of the ranges are left untouched, sitting at 0 dB from start to finish. The instruments, voices, and noises sound exactly the way they were recorded.
With the Harman Target, the ultra-low range is slightly boosted, the lower midrange is slightly scooped, the mid-upper range is drastically boosted, and the ultra-high range is eliminated. The responsiveness and dominant nature of the bass frequencies are evened out with minor tweaks while the volatile, borderline unpredictable nature of the highest frequencies is tamed and negated.
It’s safe to say that Harman Curve has almost nothing in common with the Flat Response aside from the middle section (1,000 Hz), which is the only point where the EQ sits at 0 dB in both cases.
Harman Curve & Balanced Response
Contrary to popular belief, the Balanced tuning is not just a ‘slightly tweaked Flat response’. All of the frequency ranges are boosted – the lowest bass range, the middle section, and the super-high frequencies are boosted the most while the lower treble and the upper midrange are just slightly elevated.
The bass is strong and dominates the surrounding frequency response ranges; the emphasized middle section makes sounds and noises that are usually lost in the mix now clearly audible while the amped-up ultra-high range can sometimes be too overwhelming for a pleasurable listening experience.
Harman Curve has almost nothing in common with the Balanced response. With Harman Target, the bass is slightly amped, whereas with the Balanced tuning it’s drastically elevated; the midrange with HT is neutral while it’s fairly emphasized with the Balanced sonic signature. Finally, the Harman Target snuffed out the ultra-high frequency response while the Balanced tuning puts a heavy accent on it.
Harman Curve & Bright Response
The Bright-tuned sonic signature is arguably among the least popular ones. While the majority of other types tend to hide recording mistakes and imperfections (or at least represent the recording without any tweaks), the Bright response makes them even more pronounced and audible.
From a logical standpoint, the Harman Curve aims to provide the most pleasurable, most comfortable listening experience, which is a direct opposite to what the Bright sonic signature aims to do. The latter puts the listener in a very peculiar position, far removed from the comfort zone, introducing loud high frequencies on an otherwise well-balanced and represented soundstage.
In simpler words, human ears can’t tolerate high frequencies as well as they can withstand lower ones. That’s why the noise of nails scratching a table sends shivers down our spine while the booming vibes of heavy bass on an EDM concert make us dance.
The first and most notable difference between these two sonic signatures is that Bright response features remarkably boosted ultra-high frequencies and decently amped treble while these are the ranges that Haman Target strived to put as deep below the radar as possible.
The second prominent difference is that Haman Curve offers a slightly boosted bass for a bit of extra groove and percussiveness while Bright sonic signature doesn’t touch it at all. The middle range of both sonic frequencies is roughly the same, which is the only similarity they share between themselves.
Harman Curve & V-Shaped Response
Another sonic signature that has very little in common with the Harman Curve is the V-shaped tuning. This is where attempts to define sound with words may fall short, as the V-shaped signature was for the longest time considered one of the most pleasurable for lovers of live music.
Essentially, this sonic signature type got the name after its graphical representation – both extremes are highly emphasized, and slowly descending to the scooped midrange. The boosted bass strives to emulate the loud percussions of the rhythm section of a live band while also putting heavy accents on the high frequencies of singing.
Other instruments are also represented fairly well, although the guitars and basses sound a bit more precise given the extra headroom. This headroom is precisely the reason why so many people love this tuning, as the songs can ‘breathe’, expand and retract at times, depending on the mix and the quality of the recording.
Now the Harman Curve creates a relatively similar environment, but its approach is significantly different. The emphasis on the extremes is not nearly as strong as with the V-shaped signature, but it certainly plays a very important part. The ultra-high frequencies are trimmed down, making the highs a bit easier to tolerate.
Instead of scooped mids, the Harman Target reduced the loudness of surrounding ranges – the upper bass, and the lower treble. The lowest of the high frequencies are elevated for dramatic effect while the problematic ones are made to be barely audible.
Harman Curve & Bass-heavy Response
The sonic signature that quickly became the default in electronic music is the Bass-Heavy frequency tuning. With the middle and high sections left untouched, the ultra-low and low ranges are elevated, effectively dominating the entire soundstage.
Very little details can be heard with a pair of headphones that is tuned this way, which is excellent for ‘hiding’ imperfections and flaws of poor-quality recordings. However, the narrow focus of this tuning makes it great for a handful of tightly related music genres.
The Harman Curve was designed to appeal to everyone, not just fans of electronic music. It’s different from the Bass-heavy tuning in almost every way imaginable, aside from the fact that both tunings share the same specs for the middle section.
Harman Curve & W&S Response
The stairway-shaped graphic representation of the Warm & Smooth tuning puts a heavy accent on the bass, a slightly strong emphasis on the treble, and a solid bump in the treble section. The higher frequencies are left untouched, but it’s almost as if they were lowered due to the vehement nature of the amped lower frequencies.
In contrast to the Bass-heavy sonic signature, the Warm & Smooth tuning offers a bit more versatility and does not put as heavy accents on the lowest frequencies. However, these two are fairly similar EQ-wise, which means that they are different from the Harman Curve for the same reasons, but in a slightly different capacity.
The W&S sonic signature leaves very little room for the songs to breathe while Harman Target offers an abundance of headroom.
Two types of Harman Curve tunings
Even though it’s a novelty on the market, the Harman Curve cans are already available in two different types, including the Free-Field Response and the Diffuse-Field response.
This type of Harman Curve cans offers a very peculiar type of sound, to the point that it seems too perfect to be real. This adaption of the Harman Target was developed in what is called the ‘anechoic’ chamber, which is essentially a room that does not produce any echoes.
In simplest words, sounds and frequencies change each time they ‘echo’ or bounce off of solid structures or obstacles. By creating a set of headphones in an environment that eliminates this factor, the sounds remain as pure as they could possibly be.
The unnatural ambient of the testing field allowed researchers to fine-tune every little detail to perfection, but the problem is that such environments are far from common.
The polar opposite of Free-field tuning is Diffuse-Field tuning. Instead of testing the cans in anechoic chambers, the grounds were remarkably reverberant in this scenario. Headphones with this version of Harman Curve create an ambient where the sounds practically assault our hearing senses from all possible directions.
EQ-wise, the elevations, and roll-off frequencies aren’t as pronounced as with the original Harman Target. The treble section is slightly brighter while the other ranges are leaning towards the flat tuning.
Senior editor for Ultimate-Guitar, passionate about good music and quality gear. Bassist. King Crimson fan. Travel enthusiast. Compulsive buyer of Bose headphones and old Fender amps.