HARMAN Professional Solutions has a long and rich tradition of working with the film industry, from speakers and amplifiers in theaters to monitors and processors used in the post-production of the films themselves. After eight decades of working hand-in-hand with studios and cinemas, HARMAN knows how to create great movie-going experiences.

James B. Lansing (1902-1949), circa 1925. Photo courtesy Lois O’Neil.

HARMAN’s history with the film industry goes all the way back to when talking pictures first began to take over from silent movies in the 1930’s. With the advent of this new capability to use sound to wow audiences, the movie business needed to outfit all of their theaters with sound systems. Unfortunately, the loudspeaker systems that were developed all had significant limitations in bandwidth and accuracy.  To ensure moviegoers would have a great experience, Douglas Shearer at MGM Studios organized a team to create a cinema sound system that could alleviate the problems and improve the performance.

James B. Lansing, the future founder of JBL, was asked to join the team and create the loudspeaker drivers for that system.  Lansing had started manufacturing radio speakers back in the 1920’s, and his high-performance woofers and high-frequency compression drivers were cutting edge at that time. The Shearer Horn system that Lansing helped develop for MGM was a resounding success, and the Shearer team was awarded a special Scientific Technical Award from the Motion Picture Academy in 1936 in recognition of the achievement.

Lansing’s career in speaker development continued, as did his involvement with the movie business. He went on to be the Vice-President of Engineering and the key loudspeaker designer for the Altec-Lansing company in the early 1940s.  While there, he created the “Voice of the Theater” cinema speakers which became the next standard for the motion picture industry. Lansing eventually began James B. Lansing Sound in 1946—which we now know as JBL—and the company continued to push the envelope in transducer design, developing cinema speakers for companies like Westrex, Ampex and Todd-AO.

During this same period, other innovators began developing technology that would also eventually become part of HARMAN Professional Solutions. In 1947, a year after Lansing formed JBL, an Elkhart, Indiana minister named Clarence C. Moore founded the International Radio and Electronics Corporation (IREC), a reel-to-reel tape recorder manufacturer that would eventually become Crown Audio. In 1949, IREC created a ground-breaking invention: a tape recorder with a built-in amplifier. When they released their first solid-state standalone amplifier in 1964, it quickly became the company’s main line of business, and the company began supplying the world’s most reliable high-powered solid state amplifiers to a variety of markets—including the cinema industry.

A few years later in 1971, MIT professor Dr. Francis Lee helped found Lexicon, a digital audio product manufacturer that immediately became known as an industry leader in digital signal processing, digital reverb and hard disc recording technology. Throughout the 70s, Lexicon products became stalwarts of the recording industry as well as film post production. At the same time, JBL began developing new and innovative studio monitors, making Lexicon and JBL a well-known post-production duo that continues to be used to this day.

In 1981, HARMAN JBL engineers demonstrated a new system concept to the cinema industry: the JBL Bi-Radial® constant-directivity horn technology.  With its uniform direct-field coverage and constant power response, what became the JBL 4675 system was soon embraced by the industry as the next standard, and in 1984 it was installed in the Motion Picture Academy’s Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, the industry’s reference theater.

Of course, it wasn’t only the Goldwyn Theater that saw value in the JBL 4675. The 4675 was also selected as the first THX® Approved speaker system.  Crown’s DSI amplifiers were later given the world’s first THX certification for DSP-enabled amps, with Crown working closely with THX to help define the certification process.

During the same period, Lexicon remained a mainstay in cinema post-production with products such as the Lexicon Model 1200 Time Compressor/Expander, an innovative tool that allows technicians to speed up or slowdown speech without adversely affecting pitch (an unheard of technology at the time), as well as the renowned PCM reverb units and Prime Time delays.

"Academy Award" and "Oscar" image ©AMPAS®

“Academy Award” and “Oscar” image ©AMPAS®

In the 1990s, HARMAN took cinema innovation even further with the introduction of the JBL 5674, the first modern 3-way screen channel system, and in 1996, the Goldwyn Theater was updated again with JBL 5674 three-way speakers and custom JBL surrounds and subwoofers.  Soon, further JBL research led to the development of the ScreenArray® system that positioned a 3-way speaker in a filtered line array configuration designed specifically for cinemas. The speakers included innovations such as Screen Spreading Compensation to deal with screen dispersion effects and Focused Coverage Technology for more precise angular coverage.

In 2001 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored HARMAN engineers with a Technical Achievement Award “for the engineering and design of filtered line arrays and screen spreading compensation as applied to motion picture loudspeaker systems” as employed in the ScreenArray systems.  They also recognized the HARMAN engineers who had developed the earlier 4675 system standard with a Scientific and Engineering Award “for the concept, design and engineering of the modern constant-directivity, direct radiator style motion picture loudspeaker systems.”

In 2006, HARMAN began developing a technology called QuantumLogic, with research into a variety of applications from automotive to lifestyle. In 2015, Lexicon released the QuantumLogic Immersion (QLI) processor, an innovative solution that provides cinemas with an immersive sound experience with up to 32 channels of surround.

HARMAN innovation continues on to this day. Products from JBL, Crown, Lexicon, BSS and more can be found in studio post-production, exhibition theaters and professional cinemas worldwide, including Warner Brothers, Technicolor and Dolby screening rooms, and The Directors Guild of America, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and Pacific Theatre’s Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.

What do you think is the most important element to a great cinema audio system? Let us know in the comments.

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3 comments

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  3. Fei ZHANG

    Hello, Mr. Davis,

    This is Fei from HarmanPro Shenzhen China, who is about to translate this particular news into Chinese for our local promotional use.
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    Now this amazing story puts me under pressure with the translation: how can I make it like-wise interesting and moving to local Chinese readers…..