Greg Sikora

Greg Sikora

Bang & Olufsen branded audio products are available in a range of Audi, Aston Martin, BMW and Mercedes-Benz car models. Greg Sikora, manager acoustic systems engineering, Bang & Olufsen automotive audio at Harman lifestyle division explains what such OEMs expect, how it is staying premium in an increasingly commodity market and whether the rise of electric and hybrid cars will impact our listening habits. The automotive business of Bang & Olufsen was acquired by Harman in May 2015.

Who are you supplying with audio equipment and what is your strategy?

We are supplying Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz/AMG and Aston Martin. That includes the new Aston Martin DB11 that will be on sale later this year.

Our strategy has always been to work with selected, premium car manufacturers for Bang & Olufsen in-car audio systems and we will continue with this. We want to work with those OEMs who share the same passion for design, performance and craftsmanship as we do and historically that tends to be from the premium makers. Most audio brands talk to the OEMs about the importance of the sound when proposing solutions for new cars but we want to offer car owners a little more. We think there needs to be a genuine pleasure of owning a car with our sound system, before you even get in it. So when you walk up to the car, you get a glimpse of our Acoustic Lens or you see the brushed aluminium speaker grilles on the parcel shelf. Then it's lighting of the LEDs behind the grilles that attracts your attention, all before any sound is emitting. It builds a sense of anticipation: the about to happen and elegant design conveys technology and performance of what is inside.

Your speakers seem to be more prominent in the interior design than some of your rivals. Do you meet resistance from car designers who want you to have a less conspicuous presence in the car?

I would call it more a kind of 'happy marriage' - we know designers can be very protective about their designs but so far we actually have found that they want to have our design attributes and want to make them a feature of the interior. Some of our technologies such as our Acoustic Lens need to be packaged at the start of the development and are a very visual feature.

Like every supplier, we sometimes have to push for the 'real estate' in the car of course. There is more and more safety, comfort and electronics equipment that competes for the space in the doors or instrument panel but I think the designers actually like to apply our technologies and will work closely to find solutions.

One important aspect is that design is never limited to pure visual aspects, it is always closely connected to the sound performance. One example: In the Audi R8 we specified CosCone speakers that are half the depth of conventional speakers, freeing up space. That`s why the dialogue between acousticians and designers is necessary at the early stage of development in order to achieve our common goal of creating an awe-inspiring experience in the car.

So you are closely aligned to Audi but not exclusive to that brand in the way Mark Levinson is to Lexus. Do OEMs not want exclusivity from you?

Some car manufacturers are looking for exclusivity but more importantly, they want a brand that complements their own. They seek brands that their customers enjoy owning, and not just in the car. Bang & Olufsen is a brand with a strong heritage of sound performance, design, craftsmanship and luxury perfectly fitting with our automotive partners. Let me give you the example of Aston Martin. We've been working with Aston Martin since 2008, fitting a range of its cars with premium audio systems, including the Vanquish, Vantage, Rapide and DB9. Our two brands have a lot of synergies in terms of engineering, design and manufacturing, both striving for perfection and the relationship has grown very close. We equally partner in areas of PR, marketing and events. Customers like these links and seeing both brands together at events, in the showroom etc. It confirms that we aren't just branding an audio system but have co-operated with Aston Martin.

Can you tell us more about the audio system in the DB11?

Each Bang & Olufsen system is a bespoke development for the marque and the specific model and it's the same for the Aston Martin DB11. The Bang & Olufsen BeoSound DB11 has 13 loudspeakers, mounted in enclosures including two front tweeters. These feature our Acoustic Lens technology and a 13-channel BeoCore amplifier with our efficient Class D ICEpower. It took around 400 hours to tune this system with our engineers spending a lot of time undertaking static and dynamic audio assessments on both a subjective and objective level. Then our expert listening panel analyses the sound and experience. Only then do we get final sign off.

We have spoken with your rivals about how listening preferences have changed and music has become more compressed and lower quality. Do you struggle with these aspects when seeking a quality sound?

While it's true our listening habits and the way we consume music have changed with the advent of portable music devices and streaming services that allow people to access their favourite music anytime, anywhere, our research shows that listening preferences have not changed. Listeners of all ages and in all regions of the world prefer better quality sound. While the menu of high bit rate and uncompressed digital music files is growing, compressed audio still makes up the majority, especially in vehicles.

Our goal is to give people the best possible listening experience, independent of the music source they select. We can do this by employing the best technology we have. For future Bang & Olufsen car audio systems we will have access to technologies like Harman's Clari-Fi music reconstruction algorithm that very effectively restores a quality listening experience to compressed digital files. And in any scenario we will look to create the best cabin environment for listening. That might be through using better hardware and software solutions, like on-board vibration sensors or strategically placed microphones in the car working with advanced algorithms running in our amplifier, or like current state-of-the-art solution VNC [Vehicle Noise Compensation] as in the Audi SQ7 and other Bang & Olufsen systems. The Audi SQ7 has on-board microphones constantly measuring the system's sound and adjusting it to compensate for detected external and internal noise. 

We are moving more and more towards more immersive sound fields that bring 'height' into the car. The Bang & Olufsen 3D Advanced Sound System I mentioned in the Audi SQ7, or the Bang & Olufsen 3D Sound System in the new Audi A5 Coupé take the horizontal dimension of conventional surround sound and introduce a height dimension, a feature not included within traditional sound sources. We can do this using the intelligent sound processing algorithm Symphoria. This technology even impresses the most experienced 'Tonmeister'.

You might know that 'Hotel California' by The Eagles is used by many audio companies as a demonstration track. Our engineers have listened to that track probably more times than it has been played by the band but one told me that by bringing in the height, it created an acoustical illusion and he heard things he'd never heard before, such as the breathing of the artist. That's pretty incredible that we can still uncover this detail in the car.

We can see how a luxury saloon or SUV can afford to have a multiple speaker system and amplifiers but can you offer good sound in a lightweight premium electric vehicle?

The remainder of this interview is available on just-auto's Global light vehicle instrumentation and cockpits market - forecasts to 2030