More than 50 million automobiles on the road today are equipped with HARMAN car audio solutions and infotainment systems – that’s 35% of the world’s cars! It’s a milestone we reached based on more than 70 years of experience in leading acoustic design, tuning, and signal processing advancements for car audio applications. To learn more about the car audio design process, we asked Bill Wyman, Vice President of Integrated Marketing, Americas at HARMAN, about the factors that go into making superior in-car sound systems and how our teams work closely with automakers to design the perfect audio solutions to fit their customers’ needs.
Q: The pandemic has increased car sales as well as sales of premium car audio systems. What insights can you share about the factors driving these trends?
A: It’s interesting to see how quickly this sales rebound happened, especially in car audio. Coming into 2020, we were already experiencing headwinds from the massive push toward bikes, ride-shares, and other avenues of public mass transit. The benefits of these options are obvious – they can have positive effects on the environment and in some cases be more cost-effective than owning a car. Then the early stages of the pandemic halted car sales overall. When lockdown measures started to ease, people started to realize that – from a safety and health perspective -- the options they used to rely on, like the subway or Ubers and Lyfts, were less appealing and it was more preferable to have their own space when commuting.
That mentality is also accelerating the popularity of the features within the car itself. For example, in 2019 the car-shopping mindset was very much “transportation first.” People still cared about aesthetically-pleasing and nice-sounding in-car features, but getting from Point A to Point B safely was the number one consideration when selecting a car. Now, we’ve experienced a mindset change from transportation to ensuring an enjoyable space. The buying process is now more similar to how people think about outfitting their home – they want somewhere they can feel comfortable or be productive. The car is transitioning into what we at HARMAN refer to as the “third living space,” and audio plays a huge role in creating these types of environments.
At the end of 2020, Car Audio experienced the 2-3 most successful sales months in our recent history. Commutes are starting up again as people continue to return to the office, so an increasing number of people are spending more time on the road and listening to podcasts, music, or the radio. They expect powerful, clear audio from the systems in their vehicles. All of these factors have helped contribute to the increase in demand for branded audio systems.
Q: What should customers look and listen for when evaluating a premium car audio system when they’re buying a new car?
A: There are a couple different ways to think about this process. The first is by looking at what you “should” look for, and then there is the broader, consumer-centric way to think about it. Either way, you have to start by evaluating 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, the visual impact of the design; our Bang & Olufsen, Revel, Mark Levinson, AKG, Harman Kardon, and JBL systems all have genuinely beautiful design elements. Our Bowers & Wilkins system features a tweeter on the dashboard which is sure to grab any driver or passenger’s attention. Does that 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 it is to connect to Bluetooth, what is the process like to switch from FM radio to streaming through your phone, just to name a couple. So, these hardware and UX-factors also play a large factor to how consumers are perceiving the audio system.
When it comes to evaluating the audio quality, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone has their own sonic preferences; the person who prefers podcasts will tune their system differently than someone who only listens to electronic or dance music, for example. This is actually where our idea for Personi-Fi originated.
Q: Can you tell us more about the process you and your team go through when working with an OEM on the development of a new audio system or approach to their car audio offerings?
A: Before we even start to discuss speaker placement, tuning and design, we start by gaining a deeper understanding of the OEM brand and what they are trying to communicate to the consumer. 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, and the number of speakers – these are all the details that impact the sound characteristics. This decision making process can start up to five years before the car even hits production. Even things like engine size and the body of the car itself comes into play. A few years ago, we partnered with luxury carmaker Lincoln to provide a state-of-the-art Revel audio system that would create a true sanctuary in the car. After working with the design team, our audio engineers recommended a full redesign of the Lincoln doors! To their credit, they were up for the change and we went through twelve different iterations before landing on the perfect door for the perfect audio experience.
Q: Let’s wrap up with a personal question – what are some of your favorite songs to listen to in the car?
A: When it comes to cranking up the tunes in the car, I can always count on Bruce Springsteen for the perfect road trip soundtrack. I love all of his albums, especially Born to Run. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is always a sure bet!