Sound systems

Car audio: how audio technology and improved sound systems improve music on the move

VSar audio was once the poor son-in-law of home stereo systems. While your couch could masquerade as an orchestral seat in the center of the sixth row, your vehicle offered a utility, static AM radio that rivaled the rumble of the engine, traffic noise, and damaged pavements.

Which cars have the best audio systems?

But lately cars have gained their own cinema-like audio features, thanks to advancements in noise cancellation, signal processing, and a move to install more speakers in the cabin. In the high end of the market, automakers have squarely crammed these speakers: Audi offers a Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system that produces 1,920 watts of sound through 23 speakers; Ranger Rover rocks a Meridian system with 28 speakers and 1700 watts; The Mercedes Maybach S 580 contains a Burmester 4D surround sound system with 30 speakers and two resonators in each seat, meant to make you feel like you’re sitting next to the bass drum in that of Verdi Requiem.

The technology is also emerging in cheaper vehicles. Volkswagen’s Passat and Arteon, for example, both produce 700 watts of sound through 12 Harman Kardon speakers. The compact Nissan Juke uses eight Bose speakers and a pair of 2.5-inch speakers in each of the front seat headrests to deliver a 360-degree sound panorama. “We always think of high-end luxury cars, like Cadillac, Porsche or Infiniti, as having these rugged surround sound systems,” says Bruce Sanborn, marketing director at Bose Automotive. “But now the consumer desire for these experiences is shifting to smaller segments and to what might be considered non-traditional segments of the market.”

Massachusetts-based Bose pioneered the factory-installed custom audio system with the 1983 Cadillac Seville; this replaced the hitherto usual FM radio with an eight-track tape or cassette player, either of which tended to unravel and infuriate audiophiles with the hiss of the tape. In response, companies such as Alpine, Sony, and Pioneer have stepped in with an aftermarket for audio, and stereo installation stores have sprung up on every corner. Custom systems for cars have now become almost standard fare, with the upper echelon led by Harman Kardon, Burmester, and McIntosh Labs.

To get an idea of ​​immersive sound, BBC Music Magazine invited me to try a 2021 Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring AWD on some of New York’s pothole-clogged and perpetually congested highways. The plush mid-size SUV (priced at $ 88,335 / £ 64,000) floats on air-slip suspension and is fitted with a 1,200-watt 28-speaker 3D audio system designed by Revel, the audio brand. upscale from Harman International. Its main feature is QuantumLogic 3D Surround (QLS), an algorithm that analyzes the audio signal, digitally separates instruments or vocals, and then directs them to the surround matrix speakers. Although it will take some research to locate it on the center touchscreen, QLS allows the driver or passenger to easily switch between three listening modes: a basic stereo mode; the ‘Audience’ mode, a little more lively and immersive; and “On Stage” mode, which delivers a halo of sound to the speakers in the pavilions, doors and rear, and which is perhaps most enjoyable for classical music recordings.

In Vaughan williamsThe tension-filled Fourth Symphony of (admittedly a bad mood for urban traffic jams), the absence of distortion and unwanted boom in bass and percussion was particularly noticeable. The system’s capabilities were then brought to life on recordings with wide channel separation. Using the ‘On Stage’ mode, Gabrieli’s antiphonic copper canzonas ricocheted from all corners of the tan leather cabin. Ennio Morricone’s theme for The good the bad and the ugly, his trumpet bands and ah-ee-ah-ee-ahseems to echo one of Sergio Leone’s western panoramas.

What about car speakers?

In most vehicles, speakers are added to provide clarity at high frequencies rather than pumping more bass, says Roger Shively, general manager of research and development at JJR Acoustics, an international company that designs and regulates car audio systems. “If you have an infinite number of speakers, you control the sound field,” he says. “It can get impractical and expensive, of course. But these increases typically involve overhead speakers to create a three-dimensional sound field.

However, a principle attributed to computing also applies to car audio: garbage in, garbage out. For a generation, FM broadcasters applied dynamic range compression, a leveling effect so the listener didn’t have to constantly turn the volume up in a Mahler symphony (although BBC Radio 3 made a point of not not process its signal). Then came audio data compression, used to limit the storage needs of audio files. Both can reduce the width of a stereo image and crush high frequencies. Car stereo manufacturers have developed technologies aimed at restoring musical details that have been lost by compression. Among them are Revel’s Clari-Fi and Bose’s SoundTrue, each acting as a kind of Photoshop for recordings.

How do new car audio systems mask road and wind noise?

When it comes to masking road or wind noise, automakers have historically turned to an underlay, thicker glass, or denser carpet padding. But these add weight to a vehicle, which in turn increases gasoline or battery consumption. Bose has therefore developed a number of branded technologies as alternatives. One is AudioPilot, which automatically adjusts the volume of the music to compensate for wind and road noise. New to the market is QuietComfort road noise control, which detects vibrations on the vehicle body caused by road surfaces and then sends a cancellation signal through the car’s speakers.

The constant refinement of noise cancellation technology also allows interior sounds to be modulated. Harman has a feature called ClearChat, which uses microphones and audio signal processing to aid in sound isolation, so that one person can make a hands-free phone call while others continue to enjoy the music. . Some engineers believe this area is ripe for development, as the directional microphones and speakers provide the ability to acoustically isolate passengers from each other.

There is an art and a science to tuning a car, of course. Elliott Scheiner is an eight-time Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer whose credits include albums by Paul Simon, Van Morrison, BB King, Eric Clapton and the Eagles. He also developed a second career as an automotive sound designer, working with Acura, the American luxury division of Honda. His design signature can be heard in the ELS Studio 3D 16-speaker, 710-watt audio system, which was developed with Panasonic and is available in several Acura models (sold primarily in North America, Hong Kong, and China). ).

The design process, according to Scheiner, takes into account everything from interior space to power supply. “In the TL 2004, we had seven speakers. It sounded good if you drove the car. But the system bypassed the passengers, especially in the back. “Ultimately we decided we needed to add more speakers. »Scheiner remembers a time when he had a car delivered to some client musicians, American rock band The Foo Fighters, expressly so that they could sit in the booth and listen to a mix from their last recording session. It became part of his mixing process. “I wanted a car where a producer, engineer, and artist could come in and say, ‘wow that’s it,’ he said.” I think the listener will eventually come to terms with what the artist, producer and engineer want. “

As General Motors plans to go all-electric by 2035 and Volvo announces it will convert its fleet to battery by 2030, automakers are in a race to break with their fossil fuel past. This, along with the promise of self-driving vehicles, should put more emphasis on audio design. “People are going to start paying more and more attention to the in-vehicle experience,” says Alec DeLeon, an acoustical engineer at Revel who worked on the Aviator. “If it’s an electric vehicle, suddenly you will have a much quieter experience. Drivers will want to listen to good music when they have a ride ahead of them. ‘

Meanwhile, 5G connectivity is gradually making its way into cars, with plans being made by BMW, Volvo and Ford in anticipation of an industry-wide transition to rapid networks. Calling up your favorite recording or playlist from a cloud server will become much faster. Roger Shively says that, for these reasons, automotive audio remains a vibrant industry. “The car itself has become loaded with features. The automakers have to have what everyone else has because that’s what sells the car now.

What about warning sounds for silent electric cars?

Automakers are increasingly creating “sound signatures” for interior chimes and as warning alerts for electric vehicles whose engines are not running. produce noise on their own.

For its growing line of electric cars, BMW hired Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer to create a sound that would alert pedestrians and cyclists to the vehicle’s approach. The spaceship-like humming effect changes pitch and volume depending on the speed of the car.

The Fiat 500, on the other hand, plays a real melody when the EV accelerates – in particular, a clip by Nino Rota. Amarcord. In a demo video, Fiat executive Olivier François compares it to a telephone ringtone and predicts that the sound will be customizable and “not the voice of a computer.” [but] the voice of the Italian creative spirit ”.

In 2018, Lincoln hired the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to record the sounds of some 25 vehicle characteristics, including door open and seat belt unfastened alerts. A starting chime in the Aviator features a soothing five-note marimba pattern and a syncopated alto riff. It’s a surprisingly organic alternative to the standard synthesized chime.