Jodie Lampert’s 1974 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia is cherished among other reasons for being a year younger than Lampert herself. She drives it as much as she can during the summer. Despite all of its clamorous VW innards, the orange coupe is hardly a place to listen to music. The paltry audio experience would make Bob Seger move nightward.
Lampert happens to manage human resources in car audio at the North American headquarters of Harman, the global supplier that has gobbled up about a third of the car audio systems market. Harman’s premium brands like Mark Levinson, Bang & Olufsen, JBL, and Harman Kardon add a special cachet to cars from Dearborn to Italy, from Auburn Hills to South Korea.
At the 188,000-square-foot Novi office, Harman keeps 1,000 employees busy developing connected-car technology and innovative audio and infotaintment systems. A current example is the Revel Ultima 3D system in the 2020 Lincoln Aviator. With three rows and seven seats, this midsize SUV is quite an arena, so 28 speakers are deployed, including eight overhead.
To further distinguish the Aviator, a Detroit Symphony Orchestra violinist, violist, and percussionist recorded more than two-dozen audible alerts to warn of such problems as an open door or an unfastened seatbelt. The musicians worked on the Orchestra Hall stage, where they collaborated with sound engineers. “It was an improvisational exercise,” says DSO spokesman Matthew Carlson.
Consumers started to emphasize car audio as FM stereo broadcasts and 8-Track tape players became common in the 1960s. Aftermarket installations boomed, and automakers awoke to the possibilities of premium components.
Today, as road congestion increases and vehicles are reaching greater levels of autonomy — with passengers as well as the driver spending more “leisure time” in a vehicle — infotainment becomes ever more important. Branded systems are predominating even in mid-market vehicles. Harman works on dozens of vehicles, and teams are needed to establish the audio quality.
What distinguishes Lampert among her fellow employees is that she is one of 40 specially trained “listeners” on the Novi campus of Harman. Members of this cadre, who have gone through a multi-stage certification, visit the vehicle bays once a week or so, spend time listening in the newest model, and use proprietary software to deliver feedback to Jonathan Pierce, chief of Harman’s global sound quality effort. The trained listeners here and in Germany, Japan, and China consider every timbre change and every tintinnabulation in their ratings, which don’t vary that much across oceans and continents. Rather than cultural discrepancies, it seems the biggest differences in listeners’ observations relate to height. Tall and short passengers meet the sound waves at a slight variance in frequencies.
Pierce says the program includes the staff from HR and management on purpose. “We want people who are far from engineering because that’s who buys our cars,” Pierce says. Lampert, who claims no music background, required eight months to complete the training. Created nearly 20 years ago, the course is self-paced and utilizes software modules. Certification usually takes around three to six months and only about 30% of students complete the training. “This was not easy for me, the training, if I’m honest,” Lampert says. “I had a bunch of cheerleaders, my car audio team that would always come by my desk asking, ‘How’s it going, Jodie?’ The trained listener certificate is one I’ll always hang at my desk. I’m so proud of it.”
Other trained listeners are more like Pierce. “I started off in recording arts wanting to be behind the glass and close to bands,” he says. He ended up going to work for Harman 16 years ago and finding kindred spirits. “The people I started working with were very much like me. They were music lovers, musicians, failed musicians. I quickly found out that my passion was shared by my colleagues.”
Kyle Gutowski and Mark Pisaneschi both fall into the same category. Gutowski, a 25-year-old application engineer from Kettering University, introduces himself as “probably the biggest headphone geek you’ll ever meet.” He owns 27 pairs. Pisaneschi, 29, a graduate of Lawrence Technological University, works to design speakers, but is also a drummer and plays in a band during Harman’s annual Make Music Day in early summer. The band is called the Waveguides after structures that conduct and reflect energy in speakers. A pioneer in their development was Jagadish Chandra Bose, whose name carries its own luster in the world of high-fidelity audio.
Pisaneschi relishes seeing his work come to life and having a say in the final tuning. “It’s a really cool experience,” he says. For his part, Gutowski listens to determine whether the expanse of the sound, called the stage is too wide or narrow, how quickly a note comes on and goes away, how clean the bass sounds, and whether the cymbals and sibilant vocals at the high end are too bright.
“A car is never going to be a sound studio,” says Howard Becker, president of Becker Automotive Design, which produces luxury coaches based on production vehicles in Oxnard, California. “The shape, the materials, the dashboard — reflections of sound waves act in weird ways when they run into objects. The digital electronic capability of today’s most advanced approaches to straighten out those waves is very good.”
As Becker points out though, even mass-market automakers have budget restrictions to consider. Not so with clients such as movie studio heads and top performing musicians who “need to be in the most accurate high-quality environment possible listening to creations they’re producing.”
This is a far cry from 1963, when electrical engineer Richard Stroud graduated from North Carolina State University. Back then, cars had just one or two speakers and were steadfastly unwoofered. In 1971 Stroud went to work for Delco Radio, as it was known, in Kokomo, Indiana. He took a course from the late David Clark, another Lawrence Tech grad and the renowned former governor of the Audio Engineering Society who broadly influenced the auto industry. Stroud then developed and taught his own scientific listening method that isn’t so vastly different from the practice in Novi.
Stroud — now 77 — says, “A trained listener is not a golden ear but knows what to listen for.” His method has five major categories with many other sub-categories. To acquire the basics, you identify the center of the stage, gauge the preservation of depth information and degree of tonal balance, and determine whether the bass is appropriate for the listening level. “Tiny judgments,” Stroud says.
So, the question at hand is: How can the average person on the Lodge Freeway best take advantage of those 28 speakers that are installed throughout the Aviator? How can you be as good as the hertz-rangers in Novi or as Dr. Dre in one of Howard Becker’s limos? “You learn how to listen with a language, as strange as that sounds,” Stroud says. “I definitely recommend a scientific methodology.”
One approach is to download Harman’s “How to Listen” desktop software. Another option is to look in on the meetings of the Southeastern Michigan Woofer and Tweeter Marching Society. SMWTMS (pronounced “Smootums”), which currently has only a few dozen members, but videos of their meetings abound all across YouTube. Getting up to speed on technical topics, such as swept intermodulation distortion tests for auto loudspeakers, may be the best way to get the maximum value out of your premium system while simultaneously staying one step ahead of the neighbors. On the other hand, perhaps it’s good enough just to set your playlist to Billy Joel (or any of your
favorite artists) and move on out.