Harman automobile audio CES 2016
Sound is a tricky thing. If you don’t own all of the parameters, then you can’t fine-tune the experience. One of the few places that such control can be engineered into design is the automobile.
I had the opportunity at CES to look at a couple of upcoming offers from HARMAN International Industries (NYSE: HAR) that will provide automobile makers with new options to help attract buyers. Consumers will benefit from better sound, improved mobility, and integration of their audio-based entertainment, and passengers will find themselves as first-class recipients of the new luxury user experience. Sound is no longer just about the driver.
Infinity Voyager Drive: Rethinking Entry-Level Car Sound
The first car I sat in was a prototype Ford Fiesta with a very unusual looking Infinity sound system mounted in the console.
The first thing I noticed was a bowl-shaped hole in the console. That missing bowl of electronics turned out to be a very portable Bluetooth speaker, known as the “puck” that, when paired with an iPhone or Android device, brings sound into the home or acts as a portable speaker for picnics or beach parties. The design is inspired by research into Millennials who find electronics and music to be lifestyle experiences that cross various boundaries. The Millennial driver doesn’t want to see their car as a separate thing from all their other things.
As the driver strolls toward the car, he or she can bring their Bluetooth speaker with them, already playing their favorite Christina Perri tune (we are, after all, Only Human). Drop the Bluetooth “puck” into the dashboard, and the car’s audio system takes over the sound — the Bluetooth speaker takes over the job of center-channel among the sparse speakers. Software expands sound inside the Fiesta.
For economy cars, putting speakers in the doors adds costs and complexity that doesn’t necessarily improve the sound. With the Infinity Drive, there are only two components, the console speakers and the subwoofer.
The subwoofer is another Millennial inspired design. Like the console, it too sports a disk-like depression. If the car is off, placing the Bluetooth speaker “puck” into the subwoofer transforms into an in-trunk sound system for tailgating. But that’s not the end of it. Disconnect the power, and the “subwoofer” becomes a portable boom-box. Simply lift and separate.
The Infinity Voyager Drive assumes modest means and tight integration of lifestyle. Its design helps keep costs down for the automaker, and the various components could become the single stop for car owners who only want a single audio solution — keeping their costs down without the loss of functionality.
Summit Car Audio: The Luxury Sound Experience
But not everyone is on a budget, and if they are, some have much larger budgets. On the high-end audio experience, I found myself enveloped in the plush leather of a Lexus and the Harman Summit Car Audio sound system.
To some degree, cost is an issue here as well. While the demo offered the full-blown Summit experience, the modular system can be configured with various add-on modules that increase options (and costs). It appears that this modularization is available to both the manufacturer and the consumer. If the manufacturer doesn’t offer enough audio umph, then as a consumer, compatible aftermarket installs can up the features and capabilities.
While I sat in the driver’s seat, with a Windows Surface tablet leaning against the console, the app-enabled vehicle presented itself. Rather than embedding all of the options into the car’s software, is already more complex than it needs to be for many drivers, Harman’s design removes high-end audiophile features to a tablet, where an app controls the nuance.
And I mean control. Have kids in the back enjoying a video. No problem. Their personal sound zone is directed at the rear seats, while front seats hear little, if any, of Sponge Bob’s singing. Receiving a phone call features the same kind of personalized sound isolation. The driver experiences a “cone of silence” that isolated him or her from other audio. If the call is for the daughter in the back seat, switch the zone to her, and full audio is restored to the driver while the young lady in the back takes advantage of the focused audio of the phone call.
Other features of Summit Car Audio include:
- Virtual Venues, which acoustically transports vehicle occupants and their favorite artists into celebrated performance spaces from around the globe;
- Connected Jukebox, multiple device connections allow every passenger to add their favorite tracks to the drive playlist, in real-time, directly from their seat;
- QuantumLogic Immersion surround sound with Immersion Control, a high-end theatre quality surround sound experience that can be precisely customized to fit individual preferences, from zero to 360° and everything in between;
- Personal Bass Impact, invisible seat transducers, proprietary tuning, and customization capabilities for deep, stirring bass that passengers can feel as well as hear.
Software rounds out the features with Clari-Fi, that reconstructs music by filling in what the compression algorithms remove, and active road noise cancellation. Harman has taken all of these capabilities down to a single chip design. Auxiliary devices act as amplifiers, but all of the features originate from a single circuit board. Some of this software will likely be sold as a service, much like Sirius-XM. While you pay for the service, the premium feature remains in available. Stop paying and that feature goes away.
The Connected Car
Software as a Service requires connectivity. As Wi-Fi increasingly connects automobiles, the car becomes just another device in the “internet of things.” Using either wireless carrier connected to 3G or beyond, or waiting to get into range of a home or business Wi-Fi network, both Harman solutions are designed to stay up-to-date via software updates delivered over the air. No need to run to a dealer for an update. Harman will manage the sound system independently of other software in the car, and owners/lessors will be free to select features available to their system.
The Future Shape of Sound
Like most technology, we are in the middle of a cascade from luxury to commodity. A few years ago, the technology in the Ford Fiesta example might have been expected in a luxury car (I frankly want that removable amplifier in the Summit solution). And once the engineering costs associated with the Summit technology are recouped, these modular subscription features make as much sense in the mid-sized automobile as they do in premium or luxury cars.
What is clear from both of these examples is that automobile audio will enhance personal audio in the future, not a separate system of players or radios. Our personal devices will integrate with the car. We will need to manage only one set of playlists, backup only one set of files. When we bring our music to the car, the audio system will take hold of it and make us want to spend more time in the envelope of sound that engineers can create when they own all the pieces. If the price of oil keeps dipping, we may well find people spending more time behind the wheel, spending more quality time with their tunes.