Turn up the volume: automakers target audiophiles to increase sales

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In 2005, when producer and music engineer Elliot Scheiner was working with the Foo Fighters on “In Your Honor,” he had the rock band sit in an Acura TL parked outside the studio.

“We would finish a mix and go to the car to listen,” eight-time Grammy-winner Scheiner told ABC News. “We listened to the album for two weeks in the car. We would come back, make changes and go back to the car. We mixed these records based on the Acura.”

The Foo Fighters were immediately captivated by the TL’s immersive, crisp and precise audio system that Schenier helped design with a team of Panasonic engineers.

“David [Grohl] went out and bought a car, he thought it was so amazing. [Eagles guitarist] Joe Walsh bought one too, ”recalls Schneier. “All the artists have estimated [the system] was the most incredible representation of what they do. “

Automakers – even the most traditional ones – have increasingly turned their attention to high-end and high-end audio systems to attract buyers.

Scheiner, 74, continues to work closely with Panasonic on Acura’s exclusive ELS Studio system. The most advanced ELS system, Studio 3D, now features 16 channels, 16 speakers and 710 watts, a powerful upgrade from the TL’s seven-speaker 5.1 system. For Acura’s second-generation TLX sedan, Twin Telford subwoofers have been added to significantly reduce and eliminate rattling and parasitic vibrations and ensure accurate playback through the sedan’s 17 speakers.

“When you put a speaker in the car, the sound is completely different,” Panasonic engineer Mark Ziembe told ABC News. “The car changes it, colors it. We’re trying to get rid of that car noise.”

Techniques such as dynamic enhancement, motion control and EQ are applied in the tuning process to ensure that an Acura “looks more like a studio,” Ziembe said.

“We want the people who buy these cars to be intimate with the artists,” Ziembe said. “We want people to get in their cars and make it a sanctuary.”

Cadillac decided to partner with AKG, an acoustics engineering and manufacturing company, on the revamped Escalade SUV.

“We really wanted to take Cadillac and the audio system to the next level and be different, to be unique,” ​​Chris Lata, Cadillac Escalade Engineering Group Manager, told ABC News. “It was global research and we had a lot of different proposals. AKG is a Grammy-winning studio.”

The Escalade’s AKG Studio reference system comes with 36 speakers and 28 channels that provide a rich acoustic environment for passengers. Lata said figuring out where to place and strategically integrate the speakers – the A-pillar, the headliner, the doors – was a challenge in the massive Escalade.

“We worked closely with AKG on the tuning… there was a lot of tuning, listening assessments, testing with the windows down, at highway speeds,” he said. “The speakers had to be placed in the places and locations that provide the best studio experience and an immersive feel. “

He continued, “When you walk into an Escalade and listen to the AKG system, it’s almost like hearing the music differently for the first time. We recreated the live experience as if you were sitting in the studio. or stadium. “

Brian Moody, executive editor of Autotrader, said automakers are focusing on high-end audio systems to set themselves apart from audiophiles and consumers who spend more hours of the day inside their vehicles.

“When you hear music the way the artist intended it – the subtlety, the breath, the crunch – it’s a huge improvement in your day-to-day life,” he told ABC. News. “In the modern world of cars, it’s no longer enough to say I have cooled seats and leather and a sunroof. Automakers take audio more seriously. High-end systems are becoming more about brand and exclusivity. “

These systems may even matter more than a vehicle’s performance stats or the latest tech gadgets, Moody explained.

“Millennials don’t care that a car has a V8 engine,” he said. “My 18 year old son is much more interested in the sound quality of a car than the quality of the ride.”

Tim Gunkel, sound and acoustics development engineer at Mercedes-Benz, said he sees more and more young people looking for high-end audio systems rather than engine size in their luxury vehicles. Mercedes is currently the only automaker to offer a high performance 4D stereo system where “you can really feel the music, feel the impact of the bass, when you are sitting in the seat,” he told ABC News.

The 4D surround system, developed in partnership with renowned German audio company Burmester, took five years to design and is only offered in the flagship Mercedes S-Class sedan. The state-of-the-art system includes 31 high-performance speakers, eight additional exciters and a system output of 1,750 watts, allowing the driver and passengers to hear the rhythms of music through the whole body, not just the ears.

“Burmester is linked to many famous Berlin musicians and music producers,” Gunkel noted. “Our customers tell us they love the sound system so much that they go in the car to listen to their music.”

British automaker McLaren first teamed up with the venerable Bowers & Wilkins, also UK-based, in 2015 for the 570S supercar. McLaren’s sound engineers had to create a perfect audio system for its discerning customers while also accommodating the sounding turbocharged V8 engines of the supercars.

“At higher speeds you hear a lot of noise coming from external sources,” Matthew Dryden, senior engineer for McLaren audio systems, told ABC News. “The system adjusts the low frequencies to counter wind and tire noise … the sound is the same but the user doesn’t notice it.”

McLarens tweeters feature Nautilus diffusers – spiral channels that dissipate reflected sound waves – and each speaker fits seamlessly into the sleek, modern cabin of the supercars. McLaren also chose Aramid Fiber, a premium speaker technology known for its rugged nature, responsiveness and tonal qualities, in its Speedtail hypercar and GT.

“More and more consumers expect the sound of a vehicle to be what they have in their homes,” said Dryden. “We want our customers to take long trips and enjoy the audio experience.”

Karl Brauer, executive analyst at iSeeCars.com and a self-proclaimed audiophile, said a small but growing subset of consumers are willing to pay thousands of dollars more for better dynamic systems. The best way to test a vehicle’s audio system? Put the cell phone away and plug in a USB drive to get that raw and pure experience, according to Brauer.

“The number of speakers in cars has become a big point in marketing material,” he told ABC News. “Don’t be fooled by the specs – you have to listen to the quality of the system. And hardware execution is even more important than hardware.”

For attorney Greg Kovacevich, Acura TSX’s ELS Studio system helps him disconnect and survive his long commute to work in Southern California traffic.

“I sit like cattle most of the time and want good sound and a comfortable seat to have fun with,” he told ABC News. “Top quality sound is much more important to me than very precise handling or even fuel economy. “

Kovacevich said he has sampled various audio systems made by other automakers, but keeps coming back to Acura, with plans to purchase the new TLX soon.

“The system is so well designed… Elliot is amazing. The only place I listen to music is in the car,” he said.

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