Engineering audio experiences for the road ahead

What does it take to design sophisticated car audio systems for a multitude of brands? And what might the world of in-car entertainment offer us on our commute in the decades ahead? Premium audio manufacturer Harman has the answers.

Oct 15, 2021

Chances are, even if you haven’t made a note of it, it’s likely you’ll have experienced Harman sound quality at some point in your travels. More than 50 million vehicles on the road today include Harman car audio within their feature sets – that’s an impressive 35% of the world’s cars.

Mind you, Harman has been actively developing acoustic design, tuning, and signal processing specifically for in-car applications for over 70 years. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising that so many auto manufacturers partner with Harman subsidiary brands such as Bang & Olufsen, JBL, or Harman Kardon itself when looking to give customers an audio experience for the road that is a cut above.

What factors do Harman’s engineering teams bring to each carmaker when looking to design the perfect audio solution for a particular brand?

“Before we start discussing speaker placement, or tuning and design, we start by gaining a deeper understanding of the brand and what they are trying to communicate to the customer,” says Bill Wyman, Harman’s Vice President of Integrated Marketing for the Americas.

“We ask about the brand philosophy: is it rooted in luxury or performance? Tradition or innovation? This way, we can match the right brand from our portfolio with their brand. From there, we get started on the physical and sonic design elements. The materials, shape, placement inside the car, the number of speakers – these are all details that impact the sound characteristics.”

Bill says this process is never rushed through. The audio system decision making process can start up to five years before a new car even hits the production line. The process always works best when Harman’s engineering team is involved from very early on in the overall design project.

“Even things like engine size and the body of the car itself come into play,” he continues. “A few years ago, we partnered with the Lincoln brand in the United States. After working with the design team, our audio engineers recommended a full redesign of the Lincoln’s doors. To their credit, they were up for the change, and we went through 12 different iterations before landing on the perfect door for the perfect audio experience.”

When it comes to what customers should look and listen for when evaluating a premium car audio system, Bill says there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every individual will have their own preferences, especially where pure sonic enjoyment is concerned. However, audio that looks great and is logical to engage with while on the move should remain key elements of the selection process.

“You have to evaluate what people think about when it comes to audio. There are many components that technically aren’t part of audio solutions that consumers still consider part of the overall system. For example, our Bowers & Wilkins system features a tweeter on the dashboard which is sure to grab any driver or passenger’s attention. Does the tweeter improve the audio performance? Yes, but the bigger impact is the visual moment that is shared between the car, the driver, and passengers.

“Consumers also think about factors like usability: how easy is it to connect to Bluetooth? What’s the process like to switch from FM radio to streaming through your phone? These hardware and user-experience factors also play a large part in how consumers are perceiving the audio system.”

And in a post-pandemic world, those user experiences are factoring into the lives of more and more customers. While the trend towards ridesharing and a greater use of public transport was very firmly on the rise pre-COVID, the need for a safe, more individual place in which to commute in the wake of the pandemic has seen private vehicle usage once again become popular. Harman has recognised this trend towards the private vehicle as a place for solitude and space, naming it a ‘third living space’.

“People were spending more time in their homes las year and relied heavily on their own cars instead of public transport,” explains Bill. “Drivers and passengers started turning their attention to models that provided an enjoyable in-car experience and begun using that as a benchmark to purchase a car. Car audio plays a huge role in creating these types of environments.”

Transforming the car into a ‘third space’ and taking the wants and needs of digital consumers into account means Harman is always exploring what might come next for in-car audio entertainment. Studies show that at least 60% of consumers expect their cars to deliver more than just transportation, and nearly half look to their cars to help them safely multitask.

Harman’s research suggests that people often find themselves with downtime in their vehicles, whether waiting on friends, an appointment or collecting children from school and sports practice. While playing games on a smartphone is a common pastime in such situations, Harman says technology could allow a car interior to be transformed into an immersive multiplayer arena through specific audio packages integrated with two-way communication between vehicles and high-resolution OLED or QLED displays.

Similar high-fidelity sound technology could also turn a car’s interior into a creative space to rival a professional recording studio, says Harman, utilising features like Harman’s Personal Audio Headrests and multiple in-car cameras to help create social content. A vehicle’s virtual assistant technology could then utilise apps to prepare the content for publishing, with the driver or passenger uploading their content from controls in the infotainment system, or from the steering wheel.

“The car-buying process is now more similar to how people think about outfitting their home,” concludes Bill. “They want somewhere they can feel comfortable or be productive.”

With Harman handling the science and engineering behind the future of music on the move – and much more besides – ‘everyday’ commuter vehicles and premium performance cars alike are set to deliver truly immersive audio experiences, wherever we travel.