Creating the Perfect In-Car Audio System Is a Complicated Engineering Battle
Long before your car rolled off the line, it was the subject of a pitched and sometimes furious battle. As with the majority of human conflicts, this one concerned the command and control of space—in this case, the territory between your car’s windows. There were at least four great antagonists involved, because every square inch in the cockpit is prized.
Seasoned automotive enthusiasts know about the friction between designers, who want everything to look like a concept car, and engineers, who want practicality in assembly, service, and daily use. Beneath that titanic struggle there is a smaller, yet no less intensely fought duel, where audio engineers wrestle over dashboard real estate with their counterparts from HVAC like Marine Corps tunnel rats engaging the Viet Cong 20 feet underground.
“Sometimes, there’s a chance to get a midrange speaker up onto the instrument panel,” Tobe Barksdale, chief audio engineer for the automotive division at Bose, says wistfully. He is a veteran of many conflicts in which the same issues recur with frustrating frequency, and always for the same reason: Often, the ideal places to put a speaker in the front of a car are also ideal places from which to blow heated or cooled air. That gap between the steering wheel and the A-pillar? The audio guys want to use it to help build the stereo sound stage—but it’s also the best place for angled vents to defrost the door glass.
What about the flat section of the dash at the base of the windshield? Given a handbreadth of room, the people from Bose or Harman or Panasonic can toss a few tweeters in to make you think you’re at Carnegie Hall or Red Rocks. . . but you did say you wanted your car to cool down quickly in summer, right?
When push comes to shove, it’s usually the humbled audio engineers who have to beat a hasty retreat from a triumphant HVAC team. Yet the fact that there is any debate on the matter indicates a genuine sea change in the way automakers view the in-car sound system. Until 1969, when the Becker Europa introduced drivers to the joy of hearing two tinny little speakers instead of one, the typical car radio was a low-fi affair, using fragile glass tubes to amplify a single four-inch cone placed wherever convenience dictated.
A few disastrous attempts at the automotive phonograph aside, it wasn’t even possible for motorists to choose their own music until the late Sixties, with the integration of eight-track and cassette players. Still, the sound quality was worse than bad. The Studio 54 crowd might have had audio ecstasy at home from McIntosh amps powering Bose 901, AR, or Advent speakers, but once they got into their Cadillacs or Mercedes-Benzes, they were confronted with the same low-wattage experience as everyone else.
By 1982, that problem was under attack from two fronts. General Motors believed that increased audio fidelity might ease the pain of downsizing, so they worked with Amar Bose to create the Delco/Bose system for Cadillacs. The HVAC mafia had complete control of the instrument panel back then, and the door cards of the Eighties were too flimsy to provide a solid mounting surface for high-grade speakers, so Bose developed self-contained, vibration-resistant enclosures for the doors and rear deck panel that had both amplifier and speaker in a single unit. The resulting sound quality was a cut above, and it whetted consumer appetites for a true audiophile system on four wheels.
Meanwhile, the German and Japanese automakers had settled on the “DIN”—Deutsche Industrie Norm, or German industrial standard—for in-dash audio equipment. This didn’t make the factory-fit stereos any better, but it allowed a wide variety of aftermarket providers to create hi-fi equipment that could replace them. Alternately, in the case of Honda and a few other automakers, the cars were shipped to dealers “radio-ready,” offering yet another profit center and enabling people to add a cassette player or extra speakers at the point of purchase.
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
Land vehicle, Vehicle, Car, Automotive design, Vehicle door, Luxury vehicle, Personal luxury car, Executive car, Mid-size car, Rear-view mirror,
Almost immediately, a cottage industry of stereo installers sprang up, with products ranging from quotidian in-dash cassette and CD-player replacement units to exotic high-dollar amplifiers from Soundstream and Rockford Fosgate, designed to win competitions for both sound quality and sound pressure. Just as important, names like Alpine and Blaupunkt became luxury brands in and of themselves, yet another signifier that could set you apart from your neighbors or co-workers. No monochrome 560SL or Andial-modified 911 could be considered complete without the addition of a $5000, 500-watt “boomin’ system,” regardless of what it did to the already-limited storage space. Stereo installers flourished, opening satellite stores and shops in dealerships to handle a wave of work.
Yet the writing was on the wall for them as early as 1996, when the new Ford Taurus combined HVAC and stereo functions in an ovalized Integrated Control Panel that admitted no postsale modification. The manufacturers were tired of dealing with electrical-system warranty issues and watching companies like Alpine and JL Audio earn money from their customer base.
That ’96 Taurus offered very different levels of audio excellence: a basic radio with optional cassette for the entry-level GL, and a CD-changer-capable, six-speaker affair for the upscale LX. If you wanted the nicer system, you had to spring for everything else, presaging a current state of affairs in which manufacturers frequently bundle the higher-quality audio that customers demand with a bunch of expensive gingerbread most could take or leave. Sometimes you have to jump an entire car company to get the good stuff: Panasonic makes the unbranded “premium” systems in Hondas, but only Acuras get Panasonic’s highly regarded ELS brand.
This differentiation is made easier by the fact that audio packages are now designed-in during the earliest stages of a vehicle program, often to manufacturer specs that verge on draconian. “The aftermarket crowd would be amazed what we do with regards to power requirements and weight,” Barksdale says. “Our amplifiers and speakers are extremely efficient and draw very little power, which, in turn, reduces alternator load and promotes fuel economy. And for a compact car, we can do a whole audio system in three kilograms.”
Manufacturers’ obsession with weight extends down to the thickness of power wires, says Brad Hamme, senior manager at Harman International. “We’re now able to deliver an audiophile-style experience at 10 kilograms. And, of course, unlike the aftermarket, we have to test it at every extreme of temperature and vibration that the car might experience. We’ll play a system at 100 degrees ambient, then quickly drop the temperature to 40 below, then go back up. There can’t be any problems with that, no matter how many times you do it.”
Through subbrands including Infinity, JBL, Lexicon, and Mark Levinson, Harman provides everything from flyweight six-pound audio systems in European microcars to the stunning Revel Ultima system that debuted in the 2016 Lincoln MKX. Each Harman brand has its own “sonic signature,” based on consumer expectations. JBL buyers prefer dynamic bass response, while Mark Levinson customers want to be able to identify individual instruments down to string materials in a symphony performance. Toward that end, and for general quality control, the company employs trained “Ears,” expert acoustic engineers, who regularly calibrate with baseline automotive systems before grading the newest efforts. Each system gets thousands of hours of listening before being released for production.
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
At Hamme’s urging, I took the brief qualification test to determine if I could become a trained Ear. Sitting at the center of a specially designed acoustic reference room, I listened to snippets of audio, then answered questions about the EQ curve that was applied and the prevalence of certain frequencies in each snippet. Things went well until we reached the higher frequencies. After years of playing music in public and sitting in race cars, I simply couldn’t hear the high end. Hamme was appropriately sympathetic. He then showed me some of the exhaustively detailed feedback from the Ears, who can easily distinguish between a body-panel resonance at 300 hertz and one at 100 hertz. They isolate and corner problems with the sound the way Dog the Bounty Hunter collars perps—without mercy or pity. Is that fancy budget mono car amp grille killing the treble? Or is it being poorly fitted on the assembly line, causing a resonance that turns a clear note into a distorted one? Only the Ears know for sure.
Black, Vehicle, Car, Automotive lighting, Automotive exterior, Automotive design, Headlamp, Grille, Auto part, Carbon,
Acoustic engineers know that the sonic characteristics of a room can make or break a sound system; that’s why classical musicians like to record in medieval churches, which were painstakingly designed to preserve the clarity of a human voice, and it’s why the upscale audio dealers insist on precisely positioning the Magnepans or Larsens in your listening area for you. “A car isn’t the ideal place for music,” Hamme notes, “but we do have an advantage compared to traditional audiophile companies: Our ‘room’ is always the same.”
In the early phases of car design, reference microphones are placed throughout the interior and detailed measurements are taken. The digital-signal-processing units in Harman systems can modify the sound in a way that looks great on a computer screen, but that’s just a starting point. After that, it’s up to the Ears. Using the same seven tracks—“We’re about to add a Bruno Mars song,” Hamme says—the Ears evaluate just one or two cars each week, periodically cleansing their palate by listening to music in a reference room that represents Harman’s ideal take on sound quality. After job one, production cars are wheeled in for quick spot checks, particularly with regard to “integrity,” which means rattle and hum.
Panasonic has a uniquely qualified Ear: Elliot Scheiner, the famous recording engineer and mixer whose work on Steely Dan’s Aja helped create an album that is still considered a gold standard for evaluating audio systems. Panasonic employs a cadre of listeners, but Scheiner’s word is final. “When I heard ‘Black Cow’ in the new [Acura] RDX, it took me right back to the day we mixed it,” he says.
That RDX debuts an innovation that is coming to audio systems everywhere: ceiling-mounted speakers that direct sound at a driver’s ears, rather than their left leg. The Burmester system in the Mercedes-Benz S-class also features overhead speakers. In the case of the RDX, they amount to a packaging miracle, because the speakers have to share a two-inch vertical space with the side-curtain airbags, rollover structure, and sunroof mechanism.
Other advancements deliver big-speaker punch from small packages: The Bose Panaray system in Cadillac’s CT6 uses an array of four-inch speakers placed back-to-back and side by side under the front seats to create the illusion of a massive subwoofer from a package the size of a three-ring binder. Harman is experimenting with arrays of tiny speakers, each just an inch or so in diameter, that can go anywhere in the car and combine to create massive, airy spatial effects. Each of the audio engineers with whom I spoke hinted at a future in which drivers could “download a venue” and have a personal experience identical to, for example, hearing a punk-rock concert at the original CBGB—while their baby sleeps in the back seat. Some are already doing it; the Bowers & Wilkins system in the Volvo XC90 has a setting intended to re-create the acoustic qualities of the Gothenburg Concert Hall.