Interview: Harman on audio and sound technologies


Q&A with Harman International

Source: Harman
  • Audio systems are no longer viewed in a static, “ship it and forget it” way. They can be a continuously updated platform and used to extend the relationship between the consumer and original equipment manufacturer.
  • Immersive audio experiences such as seat-based or headrest-based speakers becoming mainstream applications remains a holy grail pursuit in the automotive audio space. Shared mobility is another driver for development. Providing multiple users their own unique audio experience, while minimizing the distraction to others, will be an important value proposition.
  • OEMs have an opportunity to provide some fun customization to operating sounds, for example, making an electric vehicle sound like an F1 race car. Harman sees further opportunities as the EV is recharged.

The in-car audio and acoustic experience will be a key differentiator in the increasingly connected, electrified and autonomous vehicles of today and the future. Sound-management technologies are rapidly evolving as OEMs look to add that X factor to their vehicles while enhancing the overall passenger experience.

Harman’s Ready on Demand is a software platform for delivering branded-audio value, feature enhancement, upgrades and monetization opportunities in an app throughout the life of the vehicle. To learn more about this and audio technology trends, we spoke to Jeff Rehm, director of Business Development, Software Products, at Harman International.

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

S&P Global Mobility: How do you set about creating a differentiated audio experience inside a new car?

Jeff Rehm: When it comes to differentiation, we want to be sure to do it in a way that provides real value to the consumer. One focus is expanding branded audio into a broader experience, including interactive visual elements. To do this in a manageable way, we developed Ready on Demand, a platform to leverage carmakers’ existing hardware to extend the user experience in a more engaging, interactive and personalized way. It is the only software product on the market offering improved audio value after vehicle purchase, allowing consumers to maximize their in-vehicle infotainment and audio systems when they choose — at the order stage, or months, or even years into ownership. The goal is to provide not only utility, but a much deeper, richer and more meaningful connection to the consumer.

What are the specific challenges in sound system design? And what role does the OEM play in the development process?

The perennial challenge we all face is managing the cost and complexity of the system. Delivering great sound on a restricted budget is never easy but we have found good success with our approach that focuses on providing value beyond cost. On the software side of the equation, the challenge is the integration complexity. When our software lives in an environment that is very dynamic, we must design it to easily adapt to changes in context, and quickly and flexibly integrate with the various OEM-backend systems (ecommerce, profile management, etc.). Ready on Demand was designed to manage this complexity and simplify the integration, reducing risk and improving adoption, speed to market and technical debt. Regarding the involvement of the OEM, this varies. We believe we have the opportunity to streamline the relationship, bringing new innovative ideas to the OEM and to market more quickly, by taking a proactive product-first approach to our business.

From interesting use cases such as engine-sound enhancement to various signal-processing algorithms, how do you see use of software evolving in this space?

In the past, many of these capabilities were deeply embedded and static: what you got from the factory was unchanging for the life of the vehicle. Today, we can do much more. First, where appropriate, we can put a “face” on these features, exposing them to the consumer and providing means to customize and personalize them according to their taste. Second, we can bring in new features and capabilities. Audio systems are no longer viewed in a static, “ship it and forget it” way. Now it becomes a platform that can be continuously updated and used to extend the relationship with the consumer, as well as providing interesting and creative business opportunities for the car manufacturer.

Do you see immersive audio experiences such as seat-based or headrest-based speakers becoming mainstream applications?

In a word, yes. This has been a holy grail pursuit in the automotive audio space for some time. Harman has been working on this steadily for several years and we are starting to see some real progress as evidenced by our Ready Together concept shown in 2022. This, among other customizable audio features, offers Personal Audio Headrests with adjustable immersion levels from two-channel stereo to full-surround sound. Like all advanced solutions, applications will start in higher-end vehicles that can afford the additional components. However, as the processing and component costs fall, we expect to see these solutions in mainstream family haulers in the not-so-distant future. Shared mobility is another driver for this technology. It is too soon to know but providing multiple users with their own unique audio experience, while minimizing the distraction to others, will be an important value proposition.

How do you see EVs influencing the design of the car audio?

In normal driving situations, we see an opportunity for further focus on sound quality due to the quieter cabin. There is also an opportunity to provide some fun customization to the operating sounds; for example, making your EV sound like an F1 race car. Where we see a larger opportunity is in use cases during the downtime when the car is being charged. The vehicle becomes a customizable oasis where the audio experience can play a large role in enhancing mood and overall comfort.

Increasing levels of electrification mean road noise or wind noise are more pronounced. How are you addressing that through your sound technologies?

Harman has been an industry leader with our HALOsonic line of noise-management technologies for many years. We continue to invest heavily in this area to expand the effectiveness of noise cancelation across a wider range of frequencies. We are also looking at system-level, cost-savings opportunities that allow the technology to proliferate into more mainstream applications as well. Wind noise is a difficult problem to solve from a noise-cancelation standpoint but solving hard problems is where the value is. We are working on some creative ideas and product concepts there but it is too early to discuss details.

Could you explain a little more about how you set about integrating your acoustic expertise to create a package for OEMs?

Harman is well recognized for its audio engineering expertise. Aside from optimizing component selection and tuning, we have found that one of the most effective ways to improve the overall audio quality of the vehicle is to collaboratively work with the carmaker in the initial design of the vehicle platform. Small — and often no-cost — improvements, such as speaker location and structural rigidity, can pay huge dividends in the quality and integrity of the final audio experience in the car.

On the software side, we are working with automakers to reenvision how to present and manage the audio features. In the past, it has been an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach that can ultimately end up devaluing the individual features. In the future, Ready on Demand will support a more strategic approach where we can leverage a common platform to provide a myriad of feature-package combinations. Ready on Demand will move product definition logic to the cloud in fulfilling the promise of an evolving and updateable vehicle using software, giving the OEM an enormous amount of flexibility in addressing market needs.

We are seeing more content being brought into the car. How can that happen smoothly without impeding the other electrical functions?

While more features and content are coming into the vehicle, we are also seeing the consolidation of the processing nodes that largely offset much of this complexity — at least from an electrical standpoint. On the audio side, we see new next-generation chipsets in the head units and domain controllers that now include powerful digital signal processors. These systems are being deployed in mainstream vehicles and, as a result, allow us to extend audio features that historically required expensive, specialized hardware, to more mainstream applications. It is a good-news story for us as it will dramatically expand the addressable market for many of our technologies. For the consumer, it means a significant improvement in the offerings of mainstream vehicles.

How important is the aesthetic design of the audio system for the consumer?

When we make a promise, we must deliver on it. For premium audio systems, we use the brand to communicate that promise: it should be something special, perhaps exclusive, and truly differentiated from mainstream products. Aesthetic design is incredibly important in those cases. It is about communicating authenticity and staying true to character. Our in-house design team, Huemen, is especially good at bringing that brand DNA to life in these applications. Whether it be material choices, colors and textures, unique grill designs, or specialized manufacturing techniques, they all play a critical role in communicating and reinforcing the essence of the brand and delivering on the brand promise.

How do you see design evolving in car audio?

At Harman, you will see car audio design evolve into a more all-encompassing, multisensory experiential realm. Again, we must get the basics right. The sound quality must be amazing or nothing else matters. However, we can also leverage that as a foundation and extend it in so many ways.

The increased processing capabilities of next-generation domain controllers and smart amplifiers will support a level of sound-field control and noise cancelation that could never have been achieved before, from a technology perspective. Harman’s emphasis on developing experiences rather than selling “technology” means we are highly focused on addressing the needs and pain points of the consumer. We are taking a page from the mobile phone and consumer electronics industries and viewing these systems in an extendable way. With Ready on Demand, we are building a platform that will enable the downloading of new features that were never dreamed of when the vehicle was produced.

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