Greg Turnidge

Greg Turnidge

While the automotive audio market is dominated by some well-known brands, smaller technology firms are attracting interest from OEMs. In this interview, Greg Turnidge, CEO of Blueprint Acoustics (Bluacs) explains how a niche Australian company is developing audio solutions for next generation vehicle platforms.

Could you give us some background to your business, its history and size?

Sure. After many years of research work on perfecting sound reproduction, Blueprint Acoustics or Bluacs was set up by Zel Velican, the inventor of the Fresh Air Speaker technology. That was back in 2009 in Melbourne and we now have facilities here in Australia and Sweden. The business really got started after Zel's initial success in the design and production of low-frequency speakers with Whise Acoustics. These designs were licensed to Alpine Electronics' UK office for the 2007 Volvo V70, 2003 Jaguar XJ Portfolio and Aston Martin.

Today we focus upon research and development, intellectual property management, audio speaker component development and technology licensing across all audio divisions whether that be consumer, professional or automotive.

Bluacs has developed a particular expertise in creating low distortion sound reproduction especially for sub-150Hz product applications. Due to the packaging and weight restrictions of passenger cars, it has previously been hard to achieve this in the automotive space.

We now have a clear objective and that is to focus on becoming an acoustical technology powerhouse, whether it is in relation to automotive, consumer or professional sound applications. We will do this by firstly, solving long standing problems in reducing or eliminating harmonic distortion in sound reproduction and secondly, by improving the acoustic performance of speakers in a low-cost fashion.

What is the technology you currently offer to achieve this and how does it differ from your rivals?

I'll just give some background to provide context. Automotive manufacturers are deploying increasingly complex electronic media, communications and entertainment systems in their vehicles. This has resulted in an ever-growing competition between products for space, weight and power with quite significant implications for car audio systems. Low frequency sound, think bass, is an essential part of any quality sound system and it is particularly challenged in this competition for space, weight and power. Despite the rise of premium sound systems, sub-woofers in particular, due to their space requirements, are usually optional products and they are often placed in the vehicle's rear parcel shelf/boot areas. That's not ideal because you want that space for luggage or increasingly energy storage.

Bluacs' Fresh Air Speaker (FAS) technology resolves this space and placement issue by using the vehicle's outer cabin boundary as an infinite baffle, thereby overcoming the trade-off between speaker box size and sound level or power needed. The result is a loud and clean low-frequency sound in the vehicle cabin, all from a small, lighter weight and less power-demanding speakers with a minimum of sound distortion. The last part might surprise you but it's a really important advantage as it means our subwoofers can be placed in unusual places in the vehicle and still deliver the desired quality sound output. For example, in the wheel-well or cowl box.

You nominated some prominent OEMs in the introduction. Who is using the FAS technology today?

Three OEMs have adopted the technology to date. It has been on offer to the market since 2009 and has also been successfully deployed with Land Rover, Honda and most notably Volvo in Sweden who claims to have the most advanced car audio systems in the world today.

Could you update us on which models have the FAS technology fitted?

The cars that a FAS speaker is currently being installed in include Volvo XC90, S90, Land Rover Discovery and Honda Pilot.

How difficult was it to convince them and what are the challenges to switching to this technology?

As with all new technologies the challenge is to convince the OEMs that the technology can really deliver the claimed benefits and no matter whether it is the powertrain, materials, suspension or audio, it is hard to convince engineers to try something very different. Now though the technology has been around for seven years and we can demonstrate that there are no specific road blocks to switching to this technology today.

In the early days, engineers would ask us about the impact of externally porting the sound system on the vehicle shell and if there was a potential for road sound, insect, water or dirt to penetrate the vehicle cabin. Any such challenges have been systematically worked through by our licensees with a number of vehicle manufacturers to their satisfaction so we are now in a stronger position to help engineers, faced with ever stringent weight and package restrictions to deliver decent sound.

What are the advantages for this technology in the automotive application? Can you describe or quantify the benefits you can offer?

The FAS operates essentially as if it was in a huge box, approximately the size of the car cabin volume which is orders of magnitudes larger than a boxed speaker. The result is a FAS designed speaker that achieves very high efficiency, or demonstrates high sensitivity relative to its physical size. This allows the speaker box to be smaller, taking up less cabin space, lighter and potentially significantly lighter.

For those interested in power consumption, it has been demonstrated to require significantly less power to achieve the desired sound pressure level in the car cabin.  Probably the best evidence of these advantages is provided by one of our licensees, Alpine Electronics, which identifies up to 86 percent volume reduction, and up to 80 percent weight reduction with a ten times increase in SPL in the low-frequency band. In one customer application, the FAS takes up three-litres of space and weighs 2kg, this compared to the previous subwoofer at 17 litres and 10kg. This yielding increased output at 20Hz-40Hz with 20dB and reduced distortion.

The consequence of these advantages is design freedom (including the potential to eliminate the need for door speakers) and standardisation. FAS technology is a platform enabler so that the same part can be used in multiple vehicle models saving development and tooling costs. In addition, OEMs have identified that, where required, it is ideal for noise cancellation in the 10-150Hz range. This makes it a very dynamic and versatile technology.

What role did Alpine play in developing the FAS?

They were instrumental in the initial development of FAS speakers. Working with Alpine we jointly explored the speaker configuration for a particular application for Volvo. Alpine has subsequently undertaken the speaker development on its own. As Blueprint is the technology development company, we have only supported the implementation efforts for Alpine as a Tier 1 supplier. 

What cars is this most suitable for?

It can fit any kind of vehicle where the manufacturer wants to offer a high-quality sound system. Most importantly, it is a scalable system, from low-cost entry up to premium high SPL applications. For example, one customer is developing an entry-level system based on three speakers and a four channel IC amplifier in the head-unit with outstanding performance. Even better, the FAS technology can offer additional cost savings with a woofer application that eliminates door connections, speaker grilles etc.

You say FAS can fit any vehicle although we're just seeing it at the top end of the market. Could you elaborate on its scalable potential?

The main reason that it is appearing in top end of the market cars is that this has been the target market for Alpine since they were the first to license the technology in 2011. This is not to say that it would not have wider application, and we are aware of the technology beginning to be applied as a platform for one OEM's complete model range (the name is confidential) and relates to the 3-litre version you have questioned. This relates to applying the Fresh Air technology in a woofer version in the front of the vehicle, as opposed to a sub-woofer version which tends to be more of an option or premium vehicle application only.

Alpine has suggested the following based on their designs: 86% volume reduction (space); and 80% weight reduction.

Some carmakers are aligned to specific audio brands. Are brands able to use your designs and what is your relationship with the big audio suppliers? Does your product have to be branded in any way?

That is actually how we work. We license this technology to the audio brand companies rather than deploy it ourselves. Bluacs is aware of the strong relationships between vehicle makers and specific audio brands and tries to work constructively within those relationships.

To date, licenses have been made with the audio companies on an exclusivity basis with respect to nominated vehicle makers. This means the audio brand companies take responsibility for the design and integration of the Fresh Air technology into their overall audio system offering to the automotive manufacturers.

Under the terms of our licences, Bluacs seeks acknowledgement of the source of the intellectual property in any product promotion and with general patent recognition on the product itself. This means that product branding remains with the licensee and under the normal arrangements with their customer. So if we can do that then we can work with anyone.

Is there a pipeline of further innovations?

Bluacs is constantly working on new technologies and products to enhance the listening experience of the audio consumer. Our research focus has been and always will be on minimising the impact of harmonic distortion on sound reproduction. Given the biggest challenges in this regard have traditionally been in low-frequency speakers we have developed a world-class expertise and technologies that provide quality sound combined with high output capability. But it is not confined to that, extending to mid-range and high-frequency speaker products as well. While our technologies have been developed for general audio applications many of them would be applicable in automotive audio and some of them enhance the benefits arising from the application of the FAS technology. It's a little too early to talk about these but Bluacs intends to present them in product formats to potential customers within the next 12 months.

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