Consumer demand for premium audio products is at an all-time high due to the rise of streaming services, HD formats and new and reissued vinyl. Music is literally everywhere and all signs now point to the need for richer, more immersive listening experiences.

A recent Nielsen study found that of the 93 percent of Americans who listen to more than 25 hours of music per week, a quarter of that time is spent listening inside the car, which creates a huge opportunity for automakers. Why not leverage that time to engage customers with best-in-class audio and entertainment – drawing them even closer to their vehicles and, ultimately, to the auto brand?

 

Drivers today now see their vehicles as a place where they can stay connected to their digital lives, including their favorite music. According to a recent HARMAN survey, a third of respondents believe quality sound is among the most important features in a car. To maintain a competitive edge and meet the growing demands from consumers, automakers are working to integrate next-level in-vehicle audio solutions offering unique features and technologies that bring the same – or in many cases, better – audio quality found in their living rooms into the car. 

 

Innovation is key to immersive experiences

Innovations in software, hardware, materials and audio source content are becoming the key components to improving the in-vehicle audio experience while ensuring a safer, more comfortable journey. As drivers spend more and more time in their cars, automakers need to continue to push the limit for new and inventive ways to make the experience safe and enjoyable. At the same time, automotive audio companies should look beyond great sounding speakers and consider how the overall audio experience can make the driving experience unforgettable. 

 

The demand for quality

The audio industry has experienced a dramatic shift to compressed, digital files enabling the sharing of music across a variety of mobile devices. In parallel, streaming music services are an increasingly common feature in today’s vehicles. In fact, Nielsen reports that each week across America, 67 percent of listeners get their music via streaming services. 

Compression of digital files has made audio more mobile than ever, but at the expense of sound quality. Technology is available to rebuild those audio details lost in the compression process, working in real time to restore the listening experience for music commonly accessed via MP3s, streaming players and satellite radio. The result? High-quality audio that sounds as the artist originally intended it, from any playback source – including the car.

 

Transformative Acoustics

More than ever, new technologies in surround sound are being applied to the vehicle cabin, providing an immersive audio experience for drivers and passengers alike. Through new signal processing techniques like intelligent identification, isolation and redistribution of audio streams, the idea of transporting vehicle occupants to the world’s greatest concert halls is now truly possible.

 

Connected living and evolving driving habits 

Today’s explosion of portable electronics and in-vehicle technologies like navigation, hands-free calling and Bluetooth connections have dramatically altered our driving habits and in-cabin experience. Navigation prompts and phone calls are important for drivers, but interrupt the music for passengers. Personalizing the in-cabin audio experience with individualized sound zones can alleviate the sonic clutter. 

 

Safety and comfort through audio

Noise distractions within the vehicle such as passenger chatter can increase anxiety for the driver and pose a potential threat to safety; however, many may not realize that engine-based white noise on the road and other road-based distractors can cause an onset of fatigue and stress for drivers as well. The issue of unwanted in-cabin low frequency noise also has been exacerbated by changes in vehicle design and power source. 

 

Today’s preference for multi-link suspensions, stiff bushings and wide, low profile types may improve vehicle dynamics but when combined, they can create multiple noise paths into the cabin. Audio technologies that not only improve immersive sound quality, but work to actually reduce unwanted noise and improve car safety are becoming critical to automakers. Using active noise cancellation technology can significantly reduce in-vehicle noise, helping occupants enjoy their drive while staying alert.

 

There’s no question that American motorists are spending more time in their cars than ever before – up to 280 hours a year by some estimates. While that’s exposure to a lot of unwanted noise from sputtering engines and crying babies in the back seat, it is also an opportunity to give drivers a new cabin experience through modern innovations in sound technology. The fight is on between automakers to integrate connected solutions into the vehicle and the question is who will be the winner? 

 

Chris Ludwig is the chief engineer of acoustic systems at HARMAN International, a maker of connected products and solutions for the auto industry and consumers.

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