All ears for the future of in-car audio
From mobile music studios to flying-saucer noises, Mark Smyth gets the lowdown while visiting Harman in Munich
Imagine a world where cars drive themselves and you can catch up on work, watch a movie or read a book while stuck in rush hour traffic on the N1. Now imagine the inside of your car can be a real creative space, somewhere you could make music, for example.
There’s a lot happening inside the labs of Samsung-owned Harman in Munich, and we went to check it all out. You might know Harman Kardon from the audio equipment in your house or the speakers in your car. However, more people have Harman equipment than you might realise. We were surprised to find that Harman owns famous brands such as JBL, Bang and Olufsen Automotive, Bowers and Wilkins, and a host of others. In fact they provide more than 44% of in-car audio systems to manufacturers around the world. That figure’s set to increase since Ford has switched to them from Sony.
So they know a thing or two about creating great sound, which is why they have created a BMW i3 with an interior you can “play”. Like gesture control that you might use to adjust the volume in a BMW or Audi, sensors inside the car monitor your hand movements as you hit invisible drums or create a crescendo of sound.
There’s an electronic keyboard on the dash and a control pad so you can mix various beats together. We’ve all smiled at someone singing in the car or tapping their fingers to a tune on the steering wheel, but this takes driving music to a whole new level.
We’re not there yet, of course, as it’s just a demo project, but in-car audio is big business, and whether you stream music, listen to podcasts or still use CDs, our audio experience is a big part of car ownership.
Typically a car has a life cycle of about five to seven years and it’s a designer’s job to make sure a car launched today still looks good in seven years. It’s even harder for those who design and engineer audio and infotainment systems. Seven years ago some audio systems still took cassettes — remember those? Today your system might connect instantly to your smartphone and stream your favourite station. The technology and its functionality is changing at a rapid pace. Just think how often your phone updates.
Philipp Krejci, director of Harman AudioWorx, explained to us that the company has created a tool suite that works across devices and operating systems. He points out than in the past you used to have to change hardware to perform an upgrade, now you tweak using software. That’s true for tailoring the sound to match a certain car and Harman works extensively with auto manufacturers on their prototypes.
We took a look at the system developed for the latest RS6, and the number of parameters is incredible.
“We hold the recipes for different car brands,” says Gregorz Sikora, director of Harman Accoustics Engineering. He says there is an expectation of how a system should deliver. “It’s a bit like cooking — we have components but it’s how we put them together.”
The RS6 Avant is a good example. Opt for the panoramic roof and it completely changes the acoustics. The system needs to account for it, but also needs to be able to deal with the change if an unblind is in place. The Avant is different to the sedan too. Every model, every derivative, every option, all need to be catered for in the way the audio system is set up. It’s way more complicated than you might expect.
Fortunately software does help. Over-the-air updates will allow navigation maps to be updated, but they can also be used for audio systems, and in particular how we interact with them. Want to add a concert-hall setting? That could be possible and tailored to your car. You’ll be able to download in the car or via an app.
That app can also move with you, meaning you can get into a rental car at the airport and apply your own personal audio profile to the car. It’ll be great for car-sharing services if they ever take off in SA.
Then there are electric cars, where your audio system is pretty much all you will hear except for the kids arguing with each other in the back seat. Electric vehicles (EV) have a whole different set of parameters, but it’s not just about the sound inside the car. Legislation in many countries around the world requires EVs to have an Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System (AVS) that makes a noise at speeds below 20km/h to protect pedestrians, particularly those who are visually impaired and rely on being able to hear a car coming before crossing the road.
Harman is working with manufacturers such as Tesla and others to determine the best sound an EV should make. It’s a serious matter, but they’re having some fun with it too. We checked out a Tesla Model S with the company’s new Halo Sonic system fitted that has speakers in the front and rear to alert pedestrians of its presence. It could make a traditional engine sound or something more like a flying saucer.
The sound can be tailored by each manufacturer, much like you can recognise a Porsche 911, a Volkswagen Golf GTi or a Subaru WRX when it’s travelling along the road.
It was fascinating to see what’s going on with car audio behind the scenes and the lengths audio and car companies are going to. This brought us to one final question for the experts: just what type of car design provides the best in-car audio experience? According to Sikora, it’s a two-door coupe. Just another reason to want a BMW M2 then?