Each year, Americans collectively spend 70 billion hours behind the wheel. Three out of four Americans listen to audio in the car – and get this – half of all listening time occurs in the car, according to Edison Research Share of Ear 2018.
It is no wonder that car audio is an important consideration for car shoppers. In fact, most audio systems that people have in their cars are exponentially better than what they have in their homes. This is due to the controlled design of the vehicle; the sound system can be tailored to be spatially immersive specifically for this fixed environment, whereas a home set up must be sophisticated enough to adapt to any architectural layout.
This is why we at HARMAN are so passionate about continually raising the bar for truly transformative in-car listening experiences – and a big part of this experience is being able to ensure that all the energy and emotion of a musical performance translates to the vehicle environment.
To that end, HARMAN has been engaging with music industry veterans in an open dialogue to foster a connection between how the art is created and how it is best reproduced in the place where people experience it most. Last month, the annual AES conference held in New York, brought together esteemed experts from the automotive and music recording industries for a panel called “Sound Reproduction on Wheels: How to Serve the Art,” which was moderated by our own Dr. Rafael Kassier, Manager of Subjective Evaluations at HARMAN.
The diverse panel consisted of Frank Filipetti (legendary 7-time Grammy winning mixing engineer), Darcy Proper (4-time Grammy winning mastering engineer), Richard King (13-time Grammy Award winning recording engineer and educator), Alan Norton (Senior Technical Specialist for Ford Motor Company) and Mark Ziemba (Principle Engineer, Panasonic Automotive).
The group sought to answer important questions as:
- What are the expectations from the music professional for music playback in the automotive context?
- How can car audio engineers improve automotive sound systems so they deliver the music experience that the artist intended?
- What is important to consumers about music playback in the car, and should this influence how music is produced and mixed?
- How can the audio and music industries foster a better understanding of each other’s goals to “deliver the art” in the best way possible?
The discussion evolved into a spirited debate about how much is too much when it comes to the technological sophistication of today’s systems with digital signal processing (DSP) and dozens of speakers defining the upper tier of premium audio. For the music industry professionals on the panel, less is more. It’s all about letting the music through – especially the emotion of the voice.
Rafael pointed out that car audio engineers are prioritizing this through the tuning process. If it’s a HARMAN premium audio brand (JBL, Harman Kardon, Bang & Olufsen, Bowers & Wilkins, Revel and Infinity), the systems are also differentiated through specific architectures, technologies, materials, design and signal processing that ultimately offers a user experience that reflects the specific brand DNA. And for certain projects, both HARMAN and Panasonic car audio engineers have collaborated with famous music producers to help tune vehicle systems so every listening experience is as the artist intended. For example, the Harman Kardon system in the 2019 Ram 1500 pickup received the special touch of Grammy-award winning Nashville music producer Dave Cobb to create an optimal audio environment.
Another important aspect of a car audio system that both sides of the conversation agreed on is providing spacious, immersive sound. How that is best achieved – whether through speaker placement or DSPs or a more “old school” set-up – is still up for debate, but it’s a challenge that HARMAN is deeply focused on as we continue to innovate technologies like Quantum Logic 3D surround. But certainly all panelists shared a strong preference for the “off-center stage” paradigm where the sound stage is as wide as possible across the vehicle’s instrument panel, with the center of the stage towards the center of the vehicle hood. This is opposed to an “egocentric stage” paradigm where the stage is centered in front of the listener, which can provide a less spacious listening experience.
Another major challenge that comes with car audio is the fact that the younger generation has been brought up on low end audio thanks to MP3 files, streaming and the ubiquity of earbud headphones. As such, many of today’s current and future car shoppers arguably don’t have the same appreciation of premium audio as previous generations. By working together to best “serve the art” and continuing to have an open dialogue, the music and automotive industries will be more successful in helping future generations experience and understand the “goose bump effect” of listening to a great high-res audio sound system in one of the most accessible locations to do so – their vehicles.