Car Audio Systems: Just another marketing gimmick?(Article written for a car magazine)

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TheAudioGuy

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The car audio world is filled with a bunch of snake-oil. A lot of it is outright garbage. Some premium audio systems are measurable and subjectively much better than others, but most of it is just plain vanilla. Some victims of the placebo effect claim to hear a difference in quality and frequency even when an oscilloscope can barely even pick up the differences if any.

Audiophiles differ in their opinions of what makes a good audio system. Having studied the field myself for a fair few years now, I’ve come to the conclusion that a good audio system is one in which the cross over between low and mid frequencies and mid and high frequencies is what really defines a good stereo system. It’s not about the outright power like in the 1920W Naim Audio System found in the Bentley Bentayga and nor is it to do with the number of speakers like in the Mercedes Maybach S650 which has a whopping 27 speakers with 24 amplifier channels from Burmester. The simple fact is most amplifiers have either simple low or high-pass filters, or a configurable crossover for each channel set. The purpose of filters and crossovers is to provide the correct frequencies to each speaker. A low-pass filter blocks high frequencies, and a high-pass filter blocks the low. If the exact cutoff frequency is fixed, you have a simple filter. If you can adjust the low- and high-pass frequencies, you have a fully-featured crossover. This allows you to control the exact frequencies at which the sound crosses from one speaker to another because as we know, there are three basic types of speakers in any system; bass, mid-range and treble. Each of these speakers operates at a different set of frequencies, which combine together to produce one final sound output.

Now that the not-so-basic basics are out of the way, let me tell you in my opinion, why I feel car audio systems with big names like Bowers & Wilkins and Bang & Olufsen really don’t match their equivalent counterparts in their home audio division. Firstly, it’s to do with space. Volvo’s XC90 T8 Inscription has 19 speakers and 1400W of power from its Bowers & Wilkins Audio system which apparently after 1000s of hours of testing can reproduce the exact sound as that of the Gothenburg Concert Hall where Volvo are based out of. But let’s be realistic for a second. How can a 4.95m long SUV have nearly as much volume as any auditorium let alone the massive 500m2 Gothenburg Concert Hall? And space plays a huge part on the way sound travels in any particular medium or direction. Secondly, materials. One look at Gothenburg’s Concert Hall and one can easily point out two main materials being used; the soft fabric seats and the hardwood paneling on the stage, the floor, the walls and the roof.

Whereas in Contrast the Volvo has about one-millionth the amount of wood albeit, very fine grain non-lacquered wood inside it and the remaining majority of the interior is a bit of metal, plastic and a lot of very high quality leather. Again, sound is hugely dependent on the material in which it is produced from and materials through which it is reflected from as it reaches its destination, i.e., your eardrums. So how can a British audio manufacturer claim to make a sound system for a Swedish car that replicates a Swedish Auditorium? Don’t get me wrong; I am by no means just outright criticizing these car audio systems. I think that as sound system, it is everything and more you could ever need from an audio system. Albeit it’s the only super high-end car audio system I have heard till now. The Highs aren’t too high and the lows aren’t too low and the bass is just there when you try to pinpoint it out from the rest. More over, the speakers themselves are a treat to look at.

So in conclusion, I feel that these are just marketing gimmicks by both the car and audio manufacturers. You’re not going to get the same quality of sound from a $1,400 Bose Audio system in a 911 Carrera as you would with a base $3000 base 5.1 home theatre system or even a $1000 sound bar. On one hand, the audio seller is getting a lot of publicity through each owner of these cars with this system while on the other, the car manufacturers don’t have to go through the R&D headaches of creating a good system, which they can put their own name onto. In my opinion, just put the damn thing in Sports mode and listen to whatever induction and exhaust sound your car comes free with*.

* Subject to whether your car runs on old dinosaurs or Benjamin Franklin’s controversial discovery.
 

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kapvin

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Have you heard any of those systems?

I have; and they can sound amazingly good. In my car, I have a "mid-market" Harmon/Kardon system with "only" 16 speakers and while it is not the last world in articulation, I have never felt the need to upgrade it till now

Since I have built DIY systems for cars and had after-market systems installed in cars, allow me to contribute my 2 pennies based solely on my limited experience

From an audio designer's point of view, what's great about a car is that it's a well-defined predictable space. to take your example, 1 Volvo XC-90 will sound almost exactly like another, trim levels and passenger clothes notwithstanding. this allows a designer to simulate reverb, delays, and frequency response to mimic different spaces. No home audio designer, no matter how bespoke can ensure the same level of predictivity. everyone's house is different rooms are different, furniture is different and speaker placement is different. so much more difficult to be predictive. (this is also why, some speakers sound boomy in some rooms and bass shy in the others, they are designed with different targets). So on the first cut, it's much easier to optimise for a car, and once done, all units of that model will sound the same.

In a car, where the nightmare for an audio designer begins is the distance of the speaker-driver from the listener's ear. For sound to be coherent, all the sound should arrive at the ear at the same time (which is why good full-range drivers sound so special). in cars, with multirange drivers, it becomes difficult. What makes it doubly complicated is that with DSP, while it can be trivial to optimise for one position, the fact that cars are multi-seaters and need multiple sweet spots which are quite far away (relative to speaker & ear distances). So if you optimise for the driver, the sound can become fairly loose for the co-driver and the rear passengers. Still with the right positioning (And dsp), a good front stage is possible for both front occupants, but the rear passengers then dont get good sound.

So the solution lies with multiple speakers, delays, and response modelling to get 4 sweet spots. is it perfect? not really. , it ensures that each seat is a bit tweaked. Think of it like 4 zone air conditioning in a car.

I do agree with some of your statements: car audio is full of snake oil (but no less than Home audio). and yes, the USD 3k upgrades aren't really worth 3k, but again if you do a component-wise analysis of high-end audio. it would be the same.

Ps - (I haven't heard the Volvo. But I have heard some Burmester in an S-Class and H/K and B&W in Beemers. At the other end of the spectrum, I have heard the audio in tata Nexon, which is a budget customisation by Harman, and it sounds quite good for its price, even without a sub.)
 

TheAudioGuy

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Have you heard any of those systems?

Yes, I have heard the B&W systems in the XC60 and XC90 and Harman & Kardon system in the latest Volvo S60. Aside from these I have heard the Burmester and Harman & Kardon in some of the AMGs from Mercedes Benz. I even got a little taste of the Bose audio system in a Porsche 911 once.

I completely agree with your opinion that a car is a much easier and predictive space to design an audio system. But that does not necessarily mean that they are better than the Home audio counterparts. I personally felt that they did not sound nearly as good as even bookshelf speakers paired with a half decent amp.
 

Lizard King

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The car audio world is filled with a bunch of snake-oil. A lot of it is outright garbage. Some premium audio systems are measurable and subjectively much better than others, but most of it is just plain vanilla. Some victims of the placebo effect claim to hear a difference in quality and frequency even when an oscilloscope can barely even pick up the differences if any.

Audiophiles differ in their opinions of what makes a good audio system. Having studied the field myself for a fair few years now, I’ve come to the conclusion that a good audio system is one in which the cross over between low and mid frequencies and mid and high frequencies is what really defines a good stereo system. It’s not about the outright power like in the 1920W Naim Audio System found in the Bentley Bentayga and nor is it to do with the number of speakers like in the Mercedes Maybach S650 which has a whopping 27 speakers with 24 amplifier channels from Burmester. The simple fact is most amplifiers have either simple low or high-pass filters, or a configurable crossover for each channel set. The purpose of filters and crossovers is to provide the correct frequencies to each speaker. A low-pass filter blocks high frequencies, and a high-pass filter blocks the low. If the exact cutoff frequency is fixed, you have a simple filter. If you can adjust the low- and high-pass frequencies, you have a fully-featured crossover. This allows you to control the exact frequencies at which the sound crosses from one speaker to another because as we know, there are three basic types of speakers in any system; bass, mid-range and treble. Each of these speakers operates at a different set of frequencies, which combine together to produce one final sound output.

Now that the not-so-basic basics are out of the way, let me tell you in my opinion, why I feel car audio systems with big names like Bowers & Wilkins and Bang & Olufsen really don’t match their equivalent counterparts in their home audio division. Firstly, it’s to do with space. Volvo’s XC90 T8 Inscription has 19 speakers and 1400W of power from its Bowers & Wilkins Audio system which apparently after 1000s of hours of testing can reproduce the exact sound as that of the Gothenburg Concert Hall where Volvo are based out of. But let’s be realistic for a second. How can a 4.95m long SUV have nearly as much volume as any auditorium let alone the massive 500m2 Gothenburg Concert Hall? And space plays a huge part on the way sound travels in any particular medium or direction. Secondly, materials. One look at Gothenburg’s Concert Hall and one can easily point out two main materials being used; the soft fabric seats and the hardwood paneling on the stage, the floor, the walls and the roof.

Whereas in Contrast the Volvo has about one-millionth the amount of wood albeit, very fine grain non-lacquered wood inside it and the remaining majority of the interior is a bit of metal, plastic and a lot of very high quality leather. Again, sound is hugely dependent on the material in which it is produced from and materials through which it is reflected from as it reaches its destination, i.e., your eardrums. So how can a British audio manufacturer claim to make a sound system for a Swedish car that replicates a Swedish Auditorium? Don’t get me wrong; I am by no means just outright criticizing these car audio systems. I think that as sound system, it is everything and more you could ever need from an audio system. Albeit it’s the only super high-end car audio system I have heard till now. The Highs aren’t too high and the lows aren’t too low and the bass is just there when you try to pinpoint it out from the rest. More over, the speakers themselves are a treat to look at.

So in conclusion, I feel that these are just marketing gimmicks by both the car and audio manufacturers. You’re not going to get the same quality of sound from a $1,400 Bose Audio system in a 911 Carrera as you would with a base $3000 base 5.1 home theatre system or even a $1000 sound bar. On one hand, the audio seller is getting a lot of publicity through each owner of these cars with this system while on the other, the car manufacturers don’t have to go through the R&D headaches of creating a good system, which they can put their own name onto. In my opinion, just put the damn thing in Sports mode and listen to whatever induction and exhaust sound your car comes free with*.

* Subject to whether your car runs on old dinosaurs or Benjamin Franklin’s controversial discovery.
I don't have extensive knowledge as yours. My only experience is with Burmester in S class when I was getting my C.

It had a lush, luxurious and sparkling sound. But after a while I realized that it was synthetic and colored and not quite natural. I guess the babu in the back seat of the S class is rarely an audiophile, and would be pleased with gimmicks.
 

TheAudioGuy

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I don't have extensive knowledge as yours. My only experience is with Burmester in S class when I was getting my C.

It had a lush, luxurious and sparkling sound. But after a while I realized that it was synthetic and colored and not quite natural. I guess the babu in the back seat of the S class is rarely an audiophile, and would be pleased with gimmicks.
Yes the rising and rotating Tweeters need to stop. They're quite tacky to be honest and will be unnecessarily expensive when they eventually fail.
 

reignofchaos

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TBH that Volvo system is the nicest out of the stuff I have heard. Heard that, the Burmester in merc, B&O in Audi, meridian in a range rover and Mark Levinson in Lexus. The Volvo one was the cleanest and most balanced. However again it's a car audio system and heavily processed by a DSP so is not the most nuanced unlike home systems.
 

kapvin

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I don't have extensive knowledge as yours. My only experience is with Burmester in S class when I was getting my C.

It had a lush, luxurious and sparkling sound. But after a while I realized that it was synthetic and colored and not quite natural. I guess the babu in the back seat of the S class is rarely an audiophile, and would be pleased with gimmicks.
Of course, everyone has different tastes, but I found it quite nice. Could it be possible that the virtual surround sound was on? I know that in my car(not an MB), it defaults to HK's Logic7 Surround, everytime it goes to service and gets a firmware update. luckily it's so horrendous and miasmic that it is easy to identify that it is on and turn it off for better sound. S class is in a different league and Burmester has much more of an audiophile reputation, and likely to be better, but still, I've yet to see a surround sim that improves the music. the Salesman may have kept it on to "impress" you
 
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