Harman’s Golden Ears: Stefan Varga (left) and Greg Sikora

Harman’s Golden Ears: Stefan Varga (left) and Greg Sikora

Designing and developing a car audio system for a certain model is a complex process. Hitting the right note in the small car segment is particularly challenging for acoustic engineers with lots of things to consider. Changing the seat material alone can alter the acoustics in an otherwise identical cabin. Audio specialist Harman has worked closely with Ford to develop a premium sound upgrade for the new Fiesta. To learn more, we spoke to Greg Sikora, Harman 'Golden Ear' and Senior Manager, Head of Acoustic Systems Engineering Europe, Car Audio, and Stefan Varga, Harman 'Golden Ear' and Senior System Engineer Acoustic, Car Audio at Harman International.

The new Ford Fiesta comes with a premium sound system. Is this a growing trend to offer such features in compact cars?

The user experience is becoming an increasingly important differentiator for brands.

Greg Sikora: Yes, this is certainly a trend that is expanding. Automakers are recognising the importance of audio and sound management solutions as a critical part of today's in-car experience, in all levels of vehicle. In cars of the future, this is set to continue as user experience becomes an increasingly important differentiator for brands. And consumers are looking for that experience from branded audio. More than half the respondents to a recent IHS Markit survey said they would prefer to have a branded car audio system in their new vehicle, with 81 per cent indicating that this would influence their vehicle purchase decision.

If you think about how much time people spend in their cars commuting to work and travelling about in their day-to-day lives, the car is where we listen to music the most. On average, 62 per cent of people listen to music in their car more than anywhere else, with this rising to 70 per cent amongst 18-24-year olds.* Due to the amount of time we spend in them, vehicles are increasingly becoming connected hubs to improve our entertainment and productivity experience while on the go, with audio playing a major part in this.

Can you provide more details on the car system in the Fiesta?

Stefan Varga: Certainly. Ford and Harman announced their partnership towards the end of 2016, with Harman enlisted to bring elevated music experiences to Ford's vehicle models through the B&O PLAY brand. The all-new Fiesta is the latest model to receive B&O PLAY treatment, with an exceptional 10-speaker high-performance system that delivers 675 watts of total amplifier power across nine channels, which give an even distribution of precise sound throughout the car cabin and protects against distortion even at high volume.

For the first time, the new Fiesta features a centre speaker and a subwoofer. The 63mm centre speaker is set right on top of the dashboard and is particularly important for creating a precise sound stage from left to right. Meanwhile, the Digital Signal Processing (DSP) Amplifier controls equalisation, distribution of audio signals and timing alignment across all speakers to ensure that the music is heard rather than a single loudspeaker. A wide frequency range and excellent dynamic behaviour ensures that rapid changes in volume and speed can be reproduced precisely and that all the details of the music are revealed.

As I mentioned, sound management is also crucial in today's vehicles and this system features Adaptive Volume to compensate for different noise influences inside and outside the car, so the overall listening experience remains consistent.

How long did the system take to develop?

Stefan Varga: We started working on the Fiesta's audio system two years before the start of production. It's crucial that there is a close collaboration and open dialogue between Harman's audio engineers and our partners at Ford to achieve a truly great system. It's also very important to be in close communication with the OEM's product management and design teams to define the right parameters for the speaker positioning, design and tuning. We do that right at the start.

How important is the aesthetic design of the system for today's consumer?

All B&O PLAY products are created to be visually appealing, from up close, from a distance and from varying angles.

Stefan Varga: Consumers find branded audio appealing, so having clear branding and iconic design is all part of this. The aluminium logo badge is the core design element for B&O PLAY and is surrounded by a unique radiating hole pattern that supports the acoustic transparency to reach an optimal sound performance. All B&O PLAY products are created to be visually appealing, from up close, from a distance and from varying angles. From an aesthetic perspective, even the system elements that can't be seen – such as the DSP amplifier under the passenger seat, or the subwoofer in the boot – are created with the same ethos. Clean lines and simple shapes result in the iconic product design that comes with B&O PLAY.

With programmes under ever-increasing time pressures and more virtual testing, can you respond to those challenges?

Stefan Varga: The tuning process for each derivative incorporates an element of objective testing using highly sensitive measuring equipment to support teams under time pressure. The first 80 per cent of the tuning process is completed with a Harman proprietary technology. Using a series of microphones, it measures the sound within the cabin to work out the optimum position for speakers and adjusts levels to provide an audio solution. This can be completed quickly, saving hundreds of manpower hours in the development process and gives time for our engineers to focus on perfecting the final 20 per cent of the process with the human ear.

With space at a premium, are you guilty of taking up valuable package space?

An effective audio system needs to be delivered at a cost-effective price point that won't have a detrimental effect on what is typically an entry-level vehicle.

Greg Sikora: We have to be very mindful of how each component is packaged to take up the least space possible and add as little weight. In today's cars, particularly in hybrid and electric cars, weight is a major consideration. Additionally, in the compact car segment, price sensitivity is an issue. An effective audio system needs to be delivered at a cost-effective price point that won't have a detrimental effect on what is typically an entry-level vehicle.

With margins tighter on smaller cars, does Harman offer technologies for smaller cars that are more affordable?

Greg Sikora: With decades of experience and a multitude of audio brands under the Harman name within the car space, we are successful in offering enhanced audio systems in compact vehicles for a range of OEMs. These partnerships are tailored to suit the style and branding of the manufacturer. For example, MINI has Harman Kardon audio, smart features JBL audio and, as we've already discussed, Ford now has B&O PLAY. Each delivers the experience of a high-quality branded audio product at the appropriate price point.

You also mentioned weight. Can you tell us more about the importance of this in relation to audio and how you are resolving the issue?

To support weight reduction, we've developed GreenEdge technology, which looks at the whole product design rather than just swapping out materials.

Greg Sikora: Generally, weight has a significant affect on rolling resistance and therefore the efficiency of the vehicle. It affects all components, including the audio system. To support weight reduction, we've developed GreenEdge technology, which looks at the whole product design rather than just swapping out materials. For example, if we can reduce waste heat then we can also remove the cooling fan or heat sink from the design for a lighter and more efficient product. This has the potential to reduce the weight of a car audio system by 27 per cent and deliver power savings of up to 80 per cent.

We're also using intelligent Class D Amplifier techniques and smart speaker design to help reduce weight, as well as reusing the speaker outputs in the new Fiesta of the existing head unit instead of making the amplifier bigger for more channels. Combined, these developments are something that's particularly appealing to OEMs working on EV or hybrid vehicles.

What future technologies are under development for sound systems that look to solve weight and package issues? Could these be relevant to EV?

Greg Sikora: We have a number of novel technologies that respond to these issues. Firstly, there is Harman KiNETiC, which offers an intelligent array of super thin and micro-size speakers that have been developed square in shape to increase the active surface area by nearly 30 per cent without changing the required packaging. Its actuators can be scaled between 4.4 mm and 7 mm in depth and the surface areas range from 0.64 cm² and 10 cm². This leads to unprecedented levels of high-fidelity sound and eco-efficiency without the packaging limitations and integration complexity associated with traditional loudspeakers. The result is a new degree of freedom in industrial design and a new level of premium sound for the growing small vehicle segment.

We also have X-core woofers that prevent speakers from vibrating in the door.

We also have X-core woofers. It is a woofer technology that prevents speakers from vibrating in the door. The benefit is that it's possible to make doors lighter without the risk of rattling etc.

I would add Harman SUMMIT, which is powered by an innovative System-On-Chip (SoC) concept. Launched in 2017, SUMMIT Next gives manufacturers the freedom of a truly scalable system strategy. Part complexity is minimised and it enables OEMs to provide consumers with an ever-expanding array of new and more personalised in-car experiences that are seamlessly upgraded via the OEM's digital storefronts and companion apps.

Both are particularly appealing to OEMs for EVs, hybrids and compact cars, as weight and space are high priorities for developing consumer audio and entertainment experiences in these vehicles.

*Harman audio survey of 2,022 US drivers ages 18 and over, 2014. 

Auto market intelligence
from just-auto

• Auto component fitment forecasts
• OEM & tier 1 profiles & factory finder
• Analysis of 30+ auto technologies & more