Trained listeners help fine-tune car audio

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

When it comes to car design, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. But with in-car audio, judgment is best left to experts. Right?

Not so, according to Harman. At the electronics company’s North American automotive headquarters in Novi, the refinement of car audio systems depends partly on the input of so-called “trained listeners.”

Harman owns a host of familiar audio brands, including B&O Play, which last year was selected by Ford to replace its previous audio supplier, Sony. So in developing sound systems for its forthcoming 2018 Expedition full-size SUV and EcoSport compact crossover models, Ford and Harman engineers joined forces to improve consumers’ listening experience with a new process.

With the essentials of the vehicles’ audio systems — multiple speakers, amplifiers and signal processors — in place, the engineers turned to teams of non-audio professionals, specially trained to give meaningful feedback on details of sound quality inside a vehicle.

After listening to reference sound tracks in a studio environment at Harman’s extensive Novi facility, learning how to distinguish elements of sound and discern unwanted issues like speaker distortion, the teams would evaluate the vehicles using the same audio tracks.

Ford acoustics supervisor Joe Kafati explains that the process of tailoring sounds for specific Ford models is very detailed and time consuming. “We are refining the sound experience over a 24-month period — as much as 1,200 hours per vehicle to get the audio just right,” says Kafati.

“That is a lot of time to be calibrating speakers,” notes Jonathan Pierce, Harman’s senior manager for global benchmarking, “but at B&O Play we have a good synergy with Ford, who understand the value of high-quality sound in the vehicle cabin.”

Pierce explains that the combination of conventional microphone and trained listeners’ analysis of a cabin’s sound system produces a more satisfying result than the traditional data-based approach.

So what are these listeners looking for? In the Harman studio living room environment, they listen for audio elements like high-frequency presence, midrange, bass, image location and reproduction of musical instruments, tonal qualities of male and female voices and many other factors.

Moving inside the vehicles, the listeners repeat the process. Using tablets to record their impressions, assess whether the sound systems reproduce the same music faithfully. “The listeners are expected to show how far the sound stage extends to either side of the cabin,” says Pierce, “and where vocal is coming from. They should be able to ‘see’ the singer in the center.”

Naturally, the quality and placement of speakers inside the vehicles is critical to this assessment. “We pay careful attention to the system architecture,” says Kafati, “the number of speakers and channels, where speakers are placed, making sure nothing blocks or colors the sound.”

Not surprisingly, the Expedition, with its three rows of seats, comes with a significantly more powerful sound system and larger speakers than the EcoSport. Despite the vehicle’s size and price differential, Kafati stresses that the quality of components used in the smaller Ford model is no less than that found in the Expedition.

The B&O Play automotive sound systems will be spreading to more Ford models globally over the coming years, while Lincoln works with Revel, another Harman audio brand.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at