How to make your car sound bigger
Technology can, if you want it to, make your car into a sound Tardis. Really.
Will cut his teeth as a designer on Evo magazine, before slinging a U-ey and writing for them instead. When he's not writing he can be found trying to stop Wagtails defecating on his old Range Rover.
I am sat in a small room. It’s well insulated and padded. It’s the sort of room that someone like me, a person with two-left ears, thinks is the perfect place to listen to music. No disruptions, no reverberations, no echoes.
But it’s clear that I am no expert when I ask ‘why?’ after a group of audio experts tell me they can make this room sound just like a concert hall. A flick of a switch and suddenly our voices echo slightly and the music that’s played sounds like it’s from a live and uncut album, not the pristine over-produced studio one.
This is Harman’s Virtual Venue. It comprises an array of sophisticated tweeters, amplifiers and… errr… actually, that’s all the speakers I know. There's a selection of microphones too. All the audio that’s captured in the room goes through the same complex algorithms as the music, so that when it’s played back to us, it’s like we’re in the Munich concert hall.
It’s playing with my sense of space slightly because, although I can see the walls close by, I can’t hear them. So, when I am told such trickery can be performed within a car, I ask the same question as before, but with even more fervour. ‘Why?’
Many of Harman’s in-car systems already have all the hardware to replicate different environments. They often have built-in microphones so that audio levels can adapt to changing situations and create a ‘stability of the sound image’. It also means that the audio system doesn’t need calibrating for every engine variation, too. A diesel Audi A6 Avant can have all the same hardware and setup as an RS 6, and the system will automatically adjust to the extra noise made by the car’s V8. Don’t worry though, the microphones listening are not connected to any sort of network, so your private business within your car is still private.
But back to the big question: why? Well, it can be used to give the impression that a car’s interior is bigger than it is. Not concert hall big — that would be ludicrous even if it is possible — but ever so slightly bigger than it is. Or perhaps, if it was a particularly large car, a Rolls-Royce Cullinan for instance, make it seem slightly smaller. It's very clever tech.
Personally, I think all your senses should be treated to honest stimuli if you're driving. Ok, perhaps smell and taste aren’t so important, but sight, sound and touch definitely shouldn’t be messed with while you're operating a car.
But how about in an autonomous car, whenever they become a reality? Oh yeah, that’s absolutely fine. Perhaps I’d feel queasy if I were whooshing down the motorway in what sounded like the Sydney Opera House, I don’t know, but that I’d happily try it.
Virtual Venue pairs perfectly with another of Harman’s autonomous car-specific technologies found in its Ultimate Sound Machine. This is a BMW i3 packed with digital instruments. There are drum pads on the back of the seats for the rear occupants to play, a keyboard on the dash for the passenger to tinkle and a steering wheel that activates noise when you tap it, just as you might while listening to music in traffic.
The best bit, though, is the gesture control in the centre of the car that, as you raise your hand, intensifies of the music. This means you can enthusiastically conduct tunes with your hands from the driver’s seat. And you wouldn't want to only entertain an i3 with your music, would you? For that, you want an entire concert hall.
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Well, nearly. We can't all afford to build Harman's state-of-the-art sound lab, but if you want audio in your car and are on a slightly lower budget, then how about this little dongle? It plugs into your 12V socket and lets you do the Bluetooth and USB thing from your phone, then sends it to your stereo as an FM signal that you can tune into from the radio. Nice.