Insights / Audio & Mobility
”The whole car industry is in disruption mode — and that’s a great opportunity for spatial audio advancements”
On how spatial sound is taking over the car industry
4 Jul 2023

If you’ve watched a movie, played a triple-A game, or streamed music lately — chances are that you’ve seen the Dolby Atmos logo flicker by somewhere on the screen. Developed by audio and visual company Dolby Laboratories, Atmos is a technology that turns surround sound into spatial sound. Simply explained, spatial sound means that audio is interpreted as three-dimensional objects with neither horizontal nor vertical limitations.

The technology is complex, and for the rich soundscape to fully strike a chord, listeners need to either wear headphones or have access to a multiple-speaker room with ceiling speakers, like a cinema or a music studio. But recent technological improvements in electrification and audio mean that another soundscape works just as well — the car. Up-and-coming car manufacturers like Lucid, NIO, Polestar, and XPENG are taking after classic car brands like Mercedes Benz, Volvo, and Lotus in implementing the technology in their speaker systems.

We sit down with Andreas Ehret, the senior director of the automotive department at Dolby, to get a grip on spatial sound on the road.

Some musicians say that the car is the best possible place to listen to music, second only to the music studio. Why is that?

— It makes perfect sense, and there are at least three reasons I can think of. First is that you are in a shielded private space. And that means you can really do what you like; you can turn up the volume and set a pace that you like. you can put yourself in the best possible comfortable situation, and that’s private to you.

— Secondly, you are in a fixed seating position. The car’s audio designer knows where your ears are. If you’re in a living room or a hotel lobby the listener can be positioned in so many different places. A fixed seating position and fixed speakers enable a controlled environment that’s calibration-friendly.

— Finally, the ten to twenty speakers are naturally placed around you. If you’re in a living room, it’d be hard to fit speakers behind, on top of, in front, and next to you without trickling over cables or ruining the interior. It’s all set up and ready to go. 

Speaking of that, what is required from a car to enable Dolby Atmos?

— The current requirement is that the car has to be capable of internet streaming so that you can hook up Atmos-enabled services like Apple Music. The streaming client should be implemented in the head unit of the car so that we can work with the car manufacturer to make sure that the implementation works. 

And how many speakers are needed?

— The Volvo that we’re sitting in now has around 20 drivers, and a few of the more extreme versions like some Mercedes Benz models have 39. Today, the technology is quite flexible and works from twelve, all the way to over 30. Our long-term vision is that we can bring this experience to basically any car, as long as you have a set of speakers that are positioned around the car. 

How does the electrification of the car industry improve the listening experience?

— An electric car is obviously a lot quieter, which makes for a better listening experience. But I think the interesting point I would make is the whole car industry is in disruption mode. Starting a car brand and manufacturing a car, like the motor, gears and everything is much simpler with an electric car. It’s allowed a lot of new players into the market that’s good for us because it means these new brands have a quicker design cycle. They also have a much simpler supply chain and it’s easier for them to actually design and implement new technologies. And that’s, of course, a great opportunity for us and spatial audio advancement as a whole.

And to end on a personal note, what is your ideal music to listen to with spatial audio when driving?

— One that I’ve come to enjoy is Nils Wülker, a German contemporary jazz artist. He has these beautiful melodies that will offer a calming and relaxing driving experience when surrounded by them.

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