🔥 Hot Off The Press! Get Our NEW JC Whitney Magazine + Catalog

Search JC Whitney

How Car Sound Systems Are Entering the Spatial Age

About JC Whitney Editorial Team

Meet the JC Whitney Editorial Team, your go-to experts for automotive insights, from in-depth car culture articles to the latest in vehicle tech.

More from JC Whitney Editorial Team

Audio technology has made huge strides forward in the past several decades. While surround sound used to only be achievable by literally surrounding yourself with speakers, new developments in audio tech have made it possible to achieve 3D fields of sound coming from a single speaker fixed in one location. This is the age of spatial audio, and the new technology has now made its way into modern vehicles.

What is Spatial Audio?

Spatial audio is a technology that creates a three-dimensional sound experience, making it feel as though the audio is coming from all around the listener. Unlike traditional stereo audio, which typically uses two channels (left and right) to create a sense of width, spatial audio adds depth and height to the sound, creating a more immersive and realistic listening environment. This is achieved by simulating the way sounds reach the human ear in real life, taking into account factors such as the direction, distance, and the acoustic properties of the environment.

The technology works by using advanced audio processing algorithms and, often, multiple speakers or headphones with built-in sensors. These sensors track the listener’s head movements, allowing the audio to adjust in real-time, maintaining a consistent and accurate soundstage. For example, if a sound is meant to come from behind the listener, and the listener turns their head to the right, the audio will adjust so that the sound appears to come from the listener’s new left.

Spatial audio can be created using various techniques, such as Ambisonics, which uses spherical harmonics to represent sound fields, or object-based audio, where individual sound sources are treated as distinct objects that can be positioned independently in three-dimensional space. These techniques require specialized equipment for recording and playback, as well as compatible software to process the audio.

The development of spatial audio has been driven by advancements in technology and the growing demand for more immersive experiences in entertainment, such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and 3D movies. The concept of creating a three-dimensional sound field has been explored since the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the late 20th and early 21st centuries that significant progress was made, thanks to the digital revolution and the miniaturization of electronics. Today, spatial audio is used in a wide range of applications, from home theater systems and gaming to live performances and installations.

Spatial Audio in Cars

The implementation of spatial audio in modern vehicles has become a notable trend in the automotive industry, aiming to enhance the in-car entertainment experience. Spatial audio in vehicles is designed to create a more immersive and enveloping sound environment, making passengers feel as though they are in the center of a concert hall or surrounded by the action in a movie.

Several premium car brands and models have been pioneers in integrating spatial audio systems. For example, Mercedes-Benz introduced the Burmester High-End 3D Surround Sound System in their S-Class models, which features speakers strategically placed throughout the cabin, including in the ceiling, to create a three-dimensional sound experience. Audi has also been a frontrunner with their Bang & Olufsen 3D Advanced Sound System available in models like the Audi A8, which uses Acoustic Lens Technology to disperse sound evenly throughout the vehicle.

Having spatial audio in a car changes the audio experience significantly. Traditional car audio systems typically focus on providing clear sound to the front seats, often neglecting the rear passengers. With spatial audio, the sound is engineered to envelop all passengers, providing a more balanced and cohesive listening experience. This is achieved through a combination of advanced speaker placement, signal processing, and sometimes even head-tracking technology to ensure that the sound remains centered and immersive regardless of the listener’s position in the vehicle.

The inclusion of spatial audio in cars also allows for a more personalized listening experience. Some systems offer the ability to adjust the sound focus, so passengers can choose to have the audio centered around them or spread evenly throughout the cabin. Additionally, spatial audio can enhance the clarity and detail of the sound, making it easier to distinguish individual instruments in a piece of music or the direction of sounds in a movie or video game.

The integration of spatial audio in modern vehicles represents a significant step forward in automotive entertainment, providing passengers with a more immersive and enjoyable audio experience during their journeys.

Spatial Audio & Aftermarket Sound

Spatial audio in cars can work with aftermarket sound systems, but the implementation and effectiveness can vary depending on the compatibility and quality of the components used. In addition, it’s crucial to note that only cars that already have spatial audio integration built in, such as the Mercedes Benz S-Class, would be able to accommodate aftermarket adjustments. Aftermarket sound systems offer a wide range of customization options, allowing car owners to upgrade their audio experience according to their preferences and budget.

When incorporating custom sound system components into a spatial audio setup, it’s essential to ensure that the new components are compatible with the existing spatial audio processing technology. This may involve selecting speakers, amplifiers, and digital signal processors (DSPs) that are capable of handling the multi-channel audio signals required for spatial audio. The placement and calibration of the speakers also play a crucial role in maintaining the intended three-dimensional sound field.

Having custom sound system components can change the nature of a spatial audio experience in your car by potentially enhancing the overall sound quality, clarity, and immersion. High-quality aftermarket speakers and amplifiers can provide a more accurate and detailed reproduction of the audio, while a well-tuned DSP can optimize the spatial effects for the specific acoustics of the vehicle’s interior.

It’s important to note that achieving a successful spatial audio experience with aftermarket components often requires professional installation and tuning. Incorrect placement or calibration of the components can disrupt the intended spatial audio effect, leading to a less immersive or unbalanced listening experience. Therefore, working with experienced professionals and using high-quality components is key to ensuring that the spatial audio experience in your car is enhanced rather than compromised by aftermarket upgrades. Given that spatial audio is currently only a native feature in higher-end luxury cars with high-quality speaker systems, changing to aftermarket speakers may not be worth it for most drivers. In the future, however, as spatial audio technology becomes available in a wider range of cars, it may become a significant upgrade to install aftermarket sound systems compatible with the spatial audio tech.

The Next Innovations

The world of automotive audio is constantly evolving, and with the advent of spatial audio in cars, several other innovations are on the horizon. One such innovation is the integration of voice-controlled virtual assistants, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated. These assistants are not only capable of controlling the audio system but can also interact with other vehicle functions and connected devices, providing a seamless and intuitive user experience.

Another area of innovation is the use of advanced noise cancellation technology. This goes beyond traditional methods to actively monitor and neutralize unwanted sounds from the engine, road, and wind, creating a quieter cabin environment that enhances the clarity and immersion of the audio system.

Personalization is also a key trend, with systems being developed that can adjust the audio experience based on the preferences and profiles of individual passengers. This could include personalized sound zones, where each occupant can enjoy their own audio content without disturbing others, or adaptive sound systems that adjust the audio settings based on factors such as vehicle speed and occupant positions.

In addition, the integration of audio with other sensory experiences is becoming more common. For example, some luxury car manufacturers are exploring the concept of “soundscaping,” where the audio system is used to create an ambient environment that complements the visual and tactile aspects of the vehicle’s interior design. For example, when you press a button activating the headlights, the car could play a tone seeming to emanate from the dashboard, or from the front of the car.

The rise of electric vehicles (EVs) is driving innovation in automotive audio. As EVs are inherently quieter than their internal combustion counterparts, there is an opportunity to redefine the in-car audio experience, both in terms of entertainment and the use of sound for safety and feedback, such as artificially generated engine sounds or acoustic vehicle alerting systems for pedestrians.

The future of automotive audio is likely to be characterized by a combination of technological advancements and a greater emphasis on personalization and integration with other vehicle systems.