Harman/Kardon co-founder Sidney Harman dies, aged 92

Sidney Harman, the co-founder of what became one of the world's largest home entertainment electronics companies, has died. He was 92.

Harman's career encompassed owning the company – three times! –, a spell as under secretary of Commerce in president Jimmy Carter's administration, and most recently ownership of influential magazine Newsweek.

He was also a fan of classical and jazz music, and became a leading philanthropist in Washington, where he gave $19.5m toward the creation of a home for the city's Shakespeare Theatre Company. The Harman Centre for the Arts, which includes Sidney Harman Hall, was opened in 2007.

Harman was born in 1918 in Montreal, where his father worked for a hearing-aid company, and grew up in New York after his family relocated there when his father changed jobs.

After graduation, he worked for the David Bogen Company, a maker of public address systems, where he became friends with his boss, Bernard Kardon. After trying to persuade their employers to get behind their plans to make domestic music systems, the two left to found Harman/Kardon in 1953.

Harman around the time of the founding of Harman/Kardon

From the start they tried to make audio equipment, until then comprising separate – usally home-built – components and very much the preserve of the enthusiast, into more domestically acceptable receivers.

As Harman later said, 'Because the separate components were combined on a single chassis, the risks of electrical interference and hum would be significantly reduced.'

Harman bought out his partner in 1956, when Kardon wanted to retire, and in 1958 the company made the first stereo receiver, the Festival D1000 (above).

In the 1960s, Harman merged his company with cable TV manufacturer Jerrold but, after a series of disagreements, Jerrold boss Milton Shapp bought Harman out.

Harman used the money to invest in another company, eventually taking that over and using the finances he'd built up to buy Harman/Kardon back again.

Harman International, JBL and Infinity

Over the years, the company bought brands including JBL and Infinity, and as well as the home audio equipment, became known for its high-end car stereo systems.

Harman International became the parent company, and it would go on to buy up other famous names such as AKG, Lexicon and Mark Levinson.

And in the late 1960s it began working with a small, new company which was developing ways of reducing noise in audio systems. Along with just about every manufacturer these days, Harman/Kardon's products still use technology from that company, which was called Dolby Laboratories.

In 1977 Harman sold up to take a post in the Carter administration, buying his company back at the end of the Carter presidency in 1980 from then-owner Beatrice Foods, which had paid around $100m for it. When Harman bought it back, he paid $55m.

By then, Harman/Kardon had been sold off by Beatrice to a Japanese company, and it took Harman another five years to bring it back into the stable.

However, he never lost his interest in politics, and in 1998 he supported his wife's unsuccessful bid to become governor of California.

Harman resigned his role at chief executive in 1992, at the age of 73, but remained as chairman. In 2001 he changed his title to executive chairman, then chairman emeritus.

Last year he agree to buy Newsweek from the Washington Post Group for $1, after a three-month bidding process for the loss-making title.

Way back in the early days of the company, Harman astutely pinpointed his target customers: he said that colleges were 'were the breeding grounds for a generation who loved the music and felt that the best way to listen to it was in the dorm with our equipment.

'Harman Kardon was the symbol of hip, the mark of the cognoscenti.'

As a result, generations of Americans – and many users around the world – have grown up listening to Harman/Kardon equipment, and the products of Harman group companies, from home stereo and surround-sound equipment to PA speakers at huge rock concerts and the sound systems in the likes of Mercedes and Rolls-Royces.

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Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.