As official tour guide, Chapman takes visitors to the famed “Quietest Place on Earth,” and then to one of Orfield Labs’ reverberation chambers. Although not the “Loudest Place on Earth,” it’s plenty loud. Here products such as doors, windows, floors, and acoustical adhesives are tested for sound transmission (how much sound they block or let through) and given an OL rating.
For clients who want more than ratings, Orfield Labs’ Perceptual Market Research group measures the performance of consumer products and commercial buildings through the perceptions of buyers and occupants. Orfield Labs surveys the people who actually use your window or your door or your motorcycle—and the people who actually sit in your office building or your church or your concert hall—and then tells you not what those people think about the product or the building, but how they feel about it, and how that feeling may affect their buying decisions and their productivity.
Clients also come to Orfield to analyze various sounds: the hum of a dishwasher, the whine of a vacuum cleaner, the roar of a motorcycle, the whirr of a hard drive. Do they sound powerful, efficient, and expensive—or weak, ineffectual, and cheap? Do they “sound” like a smart purchase?
In 1991, Harley-Davidson came to Orfield for help. The company wanted to sell its bikes in Europe, but the Harley’s distinctive sound was too loud for European standards. Says Orfield: “They knew they had to quiet their bike, but they thought they’d lose all their branding value. They had millions of dollars’ worth of qualitative research that supposedly proved that.”
Orfield and his team recorded Harley bikes at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, then played 20-second sound bites for Harley riders in their studio, and had them rate those sounds. Participants were offered a selection of descriptive words (powerful, quiet, weak, robust, irritating, or energizing), and were asked to choose those that best captured their perception of those sounds.
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