Jerry Harvey Audio Factory Tour

The humidity in Florida is no joke. Stepping off the plane from Los Angeles (where single-digit dryness keeps ash both on your body and your house’s roof from recent wildfires) the 70 per cent plus humid alternative makes anything above 80 degrees feel like a sauna. The hardcore locals will tell you its no big deal to wear jeans, but the feel of clingy fabric makes any option other than shorts a non-starter in this reviewers’ humble opinion. 

All things being equal, the Uber to JH Audio’s headquarters located in downtown Orlando wasn’t so bad. The drivers demeanour was pleasant enough, however the reoccurring playback of Backstreet Boys songs prompted me to search for the car’s display. To my great surprise, the playback was coming from a full album CD. I had no idea that fans of boy bands actually bought whole albums, rather than merely listening to variants of popular music from previously curated Top-40 lists. I am sorry to say the non-hits from the rest of the CD were fairly poor, even when staring through a candy-coated, light-hearted lens of pop music. My slight discomfort ended soon enough however, as the three level brick building of 111 West Jefferson Street greeted me with open doors only three songs in. 

JH Audio has always been a rock-leaning company. Founder Jerry Harvey helped first pioneer the implementation of balanced armature driver technology in IEM’s while working with Van Halen as a stage tech. Under the Ultimate Ears brand and now his own namesake, the production and performance side of audio has been very receptive to his straightforward proposition of custom high fidelity listening embedded inside the ear canal. So why middle-Florida instead of any music-oriented mecca like LA, NY or even Nashville? At one point Jerry produced acoustic products for the airplane industry (he is actually an avid private pilot) and the location initially proved to be favorable for that market. However, as JH Audio grew in different directions the company now has resellers and “artist relations” roles filled in all major metropolitan areas, but the main thrust of IEM production still happens in Orlando.   

I was promptly greeted as reception by Reseller Account Manager Tyler Guest. The affable character of my tour manager was symbolic of much of the tattooed rock-ensemble of both Harvey and his current management crew, now headed up by Shawn Bassett as COO and Harvey’s daughter Jaime Harvey acting as Chief Financial Officer. The whole scene lacks the somewhat stiff seriousness of traditional audiophillia, but still manages to stay serious about the meticulous task of day-to-day business. Guest himself started as a technician, a role that appears vitally important to the whole production process. JH Audio inhabits the third floor of the building, slicing one wing off for offices and leaving the rest for shipping, storage, curing and fine tuning of custom molds. While a big chunk of the business is firmly rooted in the custom realm, the facilities also produce the evolving line of universal-fit options that are managed and distributed by DAP-maker Astell & Kern. 

The main boardroom in the offices faces the fairly large production area that houses the bulk of technicians. Equipped with the JH “Fly Girl” on one end, the shipping area lines the opposing side and leads into the rest of the manufacturing area. The first stop on our tour was a quick look into the storage room for ear molds. Unlike some of JH’s competitors, the company has not transitioned over to full in-ear scanning technologies which can replace the more traditional pink ear goop impression which therefore requires such a holding space. According to Guest, this is because JH has not been fully satisfied with the results of the current state of this technology, still in its early years of implementation for this scenario. The molds do have their limitations, and JH does not store molds forever – which is just as well for most applications.

After a few years molds can shrink and ears can change slightly, getting the perfect fit is a delicate business. In the interim, the company does employ 3D scans of the molds they receive to move them into the digital realm. The newest universal iteration of the flagship Layla (designated AION) incorporates a 3D-printed chassis to house drivers and direct sound channels, but the main construction of their custom shells is still a poured acrylic design, as opposed to full 3D-printing of the entire outer piece. My own experience with either the less intrusive ear scanning tech compared to the goop-based option is varied. Initial fits have been both good and bad with both technologies, but in my limited data set, goop has delivered more canal-friendly results overall.

Once initial molds are received, negatives of the shape are made with a silicone material, cured then filled with the requested material for the IEM order. In most cases this is an acrylic compound which hardens under UV exposure. This technique is applied at many stages of the earphones construction, from shaping to application of the final faceplate. At this introductory phase, UV-blocking plates are placed on either end of the negative mold, allowing the outside edge to hardened, but leaving the inside material in a liquid state.

This loose material is then simply poured out, rather than having to be carved out with additional steps. After an initial sanding and removal of excess acrylic, the shell moves on to various stations for installation of drivers, electronics and audio delivery passages. 

At this stage of construction (and many in between) the earpiece is measured for consistency to the master curve. These curves are considered highly confidential to most IEM makers and also the reason you don’t see any appear in this article. There were a few bits about the construction area that some InnerFidelity readers might find interesting however. Most of the crew, did in fact, have a pair of JH IEMs in use during their shift. For the measurement, a Focusrite USB interface was used for A-D conversion (from microphone into the computer) and a Schiit Magni Uber 2 for amplification into the earphone.

In terms of overall size, the total personnel assembled the day of my tour was bigger than MrSpeakers and even Ultimate Ears, but about the same size as Audeze (at least the day I was there). It may be hard to speak to the overall volume of the company, but from what I saw things seem to be humming along quite nicely in the custom business for JH. 

Much attention has been given to not only the response curve for individual models, but in the case of JH, phase alignment as well. Branded as freqphase™, each IEM has custom configurations for different tube lengths and materials, the technology has recently evolved into a 3D-printed chassis for some of the internals in the latest Layla AION universal ($3,500 USD). Layla AION, distributed by Astell & Kern, now features the slimmest profile to date, inside of a machined carbon fiber shell. The shells are one of the few items not handled directly at the offices in Orlando, but still machined in an area just off site. 

One of the final pieces to fit over the acoustic puzzle is the faceplate. JH can handle just about any material and image for the lid, and even employs a solid group of artists and graphic designers just to handle all the bespoke requests that come in. They have tackled many tasks of all sorts, shapes and colors.

Some you may have seen, while others ship off to lucky audiophiles never to see the public eye again. Still others end up back in the limelight on stage, in the ears of artists from everyone to Bruce Springsteen to Lady Gaga. One of the more nuanced executions is a stacked wood aesthetic, Kickflip Signature Design. The multi layer execution found throughout the piece (not just on the faceplate) has been created from various materials, including recycled skateboard decks.

Of course, creative types have long sought out unusual materials of various origins. Rare metals such as gold, silver and all manner of crazy concoctions have been utilized by artists and common man alike to adorn their playback devices that are as unique as a fingerprint. 

If you listen to our interview with Jerry Harvey in the InnerFidelity Podcast No.8, he mentions his critical role in R&D (which has been a central force within the company) to continue in the near future. However, his use of teams in both design and development is growing in order to help shift some of the “heavy lifting” from his plate into the well-oiled machine that he has created over the years. It seems like only a short time ago that the company started courting the audiophile market, but quickly grew into a legacy of sorts thanks to Harvey’s extensive experience and ever-evolving aspirations for the products he creates. From the looks of things, his machine is now running at full steam and the facilities are a hotbed for both the delicate manufacturing and artistic expression that naturally emanates from musicianship. I’d say it's a pretty unique proposal amidst the awkward polos and double “e”s of the rest of hifi - doesn’t hurt the branding one bit either. 

Back in the Uber on the way to the airport there was no noteworthy music choices other than Top 40 radio. It was almost enough to make me pop in my pair of original JH 16s, which I still own and use during travel – despite having a rotating roster of review items to get through. Harvey and his team have built a solid product and a solid business. It’s a story that has been subject to many changes, realignments and even cheap facsimiles as the market tightened around them. Sure, they live a niche market, but “owning the space you're in” is a solid business model employed across the board by many successful brands. Harvey was one of the first, and his company has managed to stick around while so many others have come and gone in a short period of time. But most evident from my visit to the Orlando home base, is that the company has managed to survive, thrive and even drive the market in new directions.

COMPANY INFO
JH Audio
111 West Jefferson Street, Suite 300 Orlando, FL 32801
(866) 485-9111

X