When I was in high school, the cool thing to do was replace your car’s crappy speakers with a souped-up system, complete with a seizure-inducing subwoofer in the trunk. I remember driving to soccer practice in a friend’s Toyota 4Runner, the sub bumping rap so loudly that my ears bled. Or close enough. Point was, loud was proud and quality didn’t matter.
A decade on, I’ve changed, and so have car audio systems. Major car manufacturers know that most people listen to more music in their car, traveling to and from work, than they do at home. From BMW to Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz to Lexus, all manufacturers equip their vehicles — especially the luxury market offerings — with powerful audio systems. But it’s not as simple as putting more speakers, amps and subwoofers in a car; there’s a science to it.
“The car is a very complex cabin environment — it’s a much different beast than a room,” says Jonathan Pierce, senior engineer of acoustic systems at Harman International, the parent company for audio brands like AKG Acoustics, Harman/Kardon, JBL, Mark Levinson and Revel. (Harman International was also recently bought by Samsung for $8 billion.) Cars in the mid-1900s had simple speaker arrangements — sometimes just a single speaker in the dash — and as the years progressed automakers placed more and more speakers, yet none were properly tuned to the automobile’s cabinet. Cars in the Aughts, with their analog amplifiers, also lacked acoustic sophistication. “The invention of a digital amplifier changed the game,” Pierce explains. “It allowed us complete flexibility in ways that we never really imagined.”
The car is a very complex cabin environment — it’s a much different beast than a room.
Basically, when you’re listening to a properly tuned home theater system, you can sit centrally — “on-axis” — to hear the best-quality audio. The problem in cars is that there’s no “on-axis.” Every seat in the car — front, back, left, right, middle — gets a slightly different, suboptimal listening experience. For example, drivers hear sound from the left speakers before the right speakers, and so on. The digital amplifier brought surround sound to the vehicle, Pierce says, but it also delayed times and allowed for individual frequency response smoothing for all the speakers. “Now we actually have the ability to make every occupant enjoy the same kind of sound quality.”
There are other differences between a room and car that audio engineers have to veer around. A car has sound reflections, with reverberations coming off windows and seats, along with miscellaneous rattles and engine noise. Pierce said audio engineers are able to compensate these things through benchmarking — controlled studies during development of the car. (Audio engineers have the benefit of early access, sometimes years in advance, to future car models.)
Not all cars will have branded audio systems; Base models of any vehicle will have fewer frills (lower technology, fewer speakers). But when you buy a new luxury car, you’re are also purchasing a specific sound system. Bose makes the systems for Cadillac, Burmester for Porsche, and Bang & Olufsen for Audi — and each system is a little different.
Mark Levinson, for example, makes the custom sound systems for Lexus’s high-end models, like the ES, GS, GX, LX and RC; and it prides itself on eliminating distortion almost completely out of their amplifiers. Revel, on the other hand, partnered with Lincoln and brought its Revel and Revel Ultima audio systems to the all-new Lincoln MKX. Its systems feature a technology called point source architecture, which position the tweeters and midrange speakers closely together for great sound fidelity. You’re getting a great surround sound experience from every seat in the cabin. (Makes sense, since Revel is best known for elite home theater systems.)
As for the next frontier of car audio, Pierce believes it’s height channels: adding speakers to the car’s headliner to add a sense of ambiance. It’d be a gateway for newer technologies, like Dolby Atmos, to deliver an additional dimension to car audio — think a concert hall–level experience, all while driving 65 mph. Pair that with an autonomous driving system, and you have a personal theater on wheels. And hell, that might even make traffic worth your time.