'Electric cars may herald the sound of silence, but that brings with it a unique advantage'

Increased listening pleasure is one of the few upsides Dickie can see to the proposed shift to all-electric power

Dickie Meaden opinion

Confession time. I have chosen cars on the quality of their hi-fi. Actually that’s not quite true. I’ve never purchased a car on the strength of its sound system, but I have definitely been swayed by the quality of a car’s stereo. Especially when it comes to choosing a long-term test car or deciding which group test contender I want to take for the long drive home.

You might expect a horny-handed son of coilovers to always pick bhp over watts-per-channel, and Side Slip Control over subwoofers, but I’ve always felt that the combination of the right tune through a great in-car hi-fi can elevate any driving experience to something very special indeed.

Sometimes it elevates your speed, too. I recall a moment from my distant youth, when a piercing siren and flashing blue lights added an uncannily rave-like but ultimately unwelcome dimension to my spirited enjoyment of The Prodigy’s Their Law while travelling at 102mph down the M40 in an E38 740i BMW. On my subsequent appearance in Banbury Magistrates’ Court, when asked if I’d like anything to be taken into consideration, I decided against claiming it was Liam Howlett wot made me do it, and instead passed them a begging letter from my editor. I took the six points and drove home to the soothing tones of Radio 3.

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Increased listening pleasure is one of the few upsides I can see to the proposed shift to BEVs, as their inherent lack of mechanical noise will focus engineers on ever-better ways of suppressing those unwanted sounds that persist. With little or no wind noise, comprehensively muffled motor whine and – I’m hoping – wheelarch liners that don’t sound like you’ve tipped a bucket of pebbles into a tumble drier when you drive over loose chippings, our cars could be the perfect soundstage in which to enjoy music. Just as there have been huge advances in the definition of our televisions, so there are potentially game-changing technologies being developed for in-car entertainment systems. Not only via speaker technology and sound processors, but also via new recording formats and streaming partnerships that promise truly immersive sound.

If you’re old enough to feel a frisson of excitement at the memory of breaking the gold seal on a Maxell XLII ‘metal’ cassette tape, or still wonder how the hiss-reducing Dolby button worked, then you’ll know massaged sound is nothing new. One radical concept is the speakerless 3D sound system being developed by Sennheiser and Continental. Branded ‘Ambeo’, the Ac2ated Sound technology vibrates surfaces inside the vehicle to produce sound instead of using conventional speakers. I have some experience of what I like to think inspired this concept. Being married to a former editor of Max Power means I’ve heard systems that not only vibrate the interior of the car they’re fitted to, but those of the cars around them, along with your internal organs.

Aston Martin speakers

Unlike Mrs Meaden’s tricked-out Peugeot 205, which had its brittle plastic trim pummelled by shock waves pulsing from a dustbin-sized subwoofer, Ambeo uses special actuators to excite specific surfaces, such as the A-pillar trim, door panels, roof lining and rear shelf, so they emit sound at different frequencies. The theory is that because the car’s interior effectively is the speaker, you’re entirely enveloped in the sound. Another upside is because there aren’t any speakers in the traditional sense there’s no need for speaker enclosures, so the system is incredibly space-efficient. It’s also much lighter. Two important benefits when you consider the struggles engineers face in both packaging and in reducing the mass of inherently heavy BEVs.

Another system of note is Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. The Japanese tech giant has been cagey about the details, but it features 33 speakers, some of which are believed to use a mix of conventional speakers and actuated panel tech not dissimilar to the Ambeo system. It also promises sound engineered in a way that maps the listening environment and positions vocals, individual instruments and even the sound from a live audience anywhere inside a 360-degree spherical space.

A prototype version of the system was incorporated into Sony’s impressive Vision-S BEV concept car, shown at 2020’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. This would suggest the revolution is coming to production cars. The question is when.

It’s all a far cry from screwing a pair of Goodmans speakers to the parcel shelf or filling your autochanger with half a dozen CDs. I’m more technophobe than technophile, but even I’m excited about just how rich, detailed, immersive and experiential good music will sound in the not-too-distant future. The Thrill of Listening? You heard it here first.

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