You don’t have to buy a premium car to get the benefit of a premium sound system.
Ford recently announced that it is partnering with connected car tech and audio specialist Harman to introduce an entirely new audio setup for their cars, called B&O Play. The exclusive arrangement will see new Ford vehicles equipped with higher-end audio systems starting next year.
Phrases like “dynamic tuning” and “elevated experiences” were being used to describe it all. Because, really, how do you describe sound using written words without waxing poetic? In hopes of understanding it better, we went in search of an expert.
The man we found wasn’t just any audiophile. He made an appearance on BBC Radio London with a two-turntable disco mixing console of his own design and creation; when he was 11! He’s been working on making cars sound better since the days when mullets were a trend.
His name is Alan Norton and he is the Senior Technical Leader, Audio Systems at Ford. Here’s What he had to say in our exclusive interview with him:
Autofile: What is your background and what do you do at Ford?
Alan Norton: I’ve had several years of engineering audio systems, and in 2011 I moved to North America; where I’ve been leading global entertainment electronics until a year ago. The position I have now is actually part of advancing research and I’m working on further down the roadmap - both our affiliations with music broadcast and other technology partners, and then also looking at system content and the development of strategies for where we’re going in the future.
AF: What is B&O Play?
AN: B&O Play is a brand which was created by B&O - Bang & Olufsen. [A company] that’s 90 years old, [with] a lot of heritage. A Danish company that’s always prided itself on innovation, technologies, and extremely high impact designs. They had the first Bakelite radio, for example, with rounded corners which was a revolution at the time.
B&O Play is a brand which [was] created in 2012. The idea is that it’s focused more on the portable – a fresher, younger brand is the way I would describe it. If you take a look at the consumer products, they are extremely highly engineered designs, and also very practical. The value is in what you touch, feel, hear. If you compare a B&O Play product to its counterparts from other brands, you always find everything it’s doing, it’s doing slightly better, and has a quality edge on it you won’t see elsewhere. So, Harman acquired the automotive applications for B&O Play. That’s their part of this story.
AF: So Ford’s relationship is ultimately with Harman, but using one of their automotive audio products, which in this case is B&O Play.
AN: Yes, that’s right.
AF: If I’m not mistaken, upmarket Lincoln uses Revel which is also a Harman product is it not?
AN: That is absolutely right. That was also one of the things I was involved in when I first moved to North America. One thing I’d say about that is that Harman has a huge core competency in terms of engineering, but what it’s very good at is keeping the brands very separate and letting them all have their own proper identity.
Revel is a very high-end, [costing] $20,000 for one pair of some of their better speakers, audio brand. And that was something which we very much wanted… it fitted very well to the aspirations we had for Lincoln. When we’re setting targets and signing on a Revel system it’s a different group of people, the engineering support is the same, the actual personalities and people behind it are quite different.
B&O Play has the Danish influence. And is much more targeted at being accessible, if you will, which is why we found it to be a very good match for the Ford Brand.
AF: How does B&O Play compare to what Ford is currently using in its existing vehicles?
AN: Sony has been our branded partner for something like 16 years. I want to say upfront, there is nothing technically wrong with a Sony system. From an architecture point of view they’re not dissimilar, there’s an amplifier and speakers which are packaged in the vehicle.
What makes B&O Play different is that we’re really leveraging Harman’s expertise in vehicle integration. So you’ll see, when the products do start to be revealed, there’s been a lot of attention paid to the execution, positioning of speakers, that kind of thing. Ultimately a B&O Play system is going to have a sound signature which is tailored to each vehicle and has its roots back in the B&O Play brand.
AF: Can you speak about what components mke up a B&O Play system in a Ford vehicle?
AN: I can only talk very generally about that just now; at some point in the future I can share all the details. There will be higher quality designed loud speakers and a significant number of them; [it will] vary from vehicle to vehicle. Technically, things like linearity and distortion of the driver units is a very critical factor and we’re leveraging Harman’s design capabilities to ensure that we get a high standard there.
Every system will have a DSP, a Digital Signal Processing, base amplifier that takes over the job [done by any] unbranded system. The actual sound signature, the equalization, and ultimately the sound signature of the system is controlled by the DSP amplifier.
AF: For an average user who’s not an audiophile, who hasn’t had nuanced experiences with various listening profiles, what can they expect to hear differently in a vehicle that is equipped with a B&O Play system?
AN: The most significant thing they’re going to find is that they probably won’t get to the limits of the system. So [for example] as you turn up the volume on a smaller system it’s going to start becoming strained as it gets louder. And that’s simply because of physical limitations of the components. You’ll find that the B&O Play system, will play – pun intended, probably (chuckles) – loud and very clear.
The bass will be very impactful without being something that becomes annoying over time. For the average user that’s just enjoying music and not paying attention, what they’re going to hear is the music. One of the things that I often say is that the best kind of audio system in a car is one where you can’t hear the audio system but you’re listening to music. And that’s the experience we’re ultimately trying to achieve.
AF: Will the B&O Play system be standard on all Ford vehicles going forward, or will it be something buyers will opt into on a spec sheet?
AN: I can’t specifically answer that for a couple of reasons. One, we haven’t finalized it. And secondly, it’s different by market. It’s a global application to the product. It’s basically the same throughout the world, but when you get it, on what trim levels et cetera, is not the same. [It will be an option or come as part of a trim level upgrade.] It’s not going to be on the base vehicle.
AF: So it will be an upgrade over what a base setup would be?
AN: Yes, definitely.
AF: How would you say Ford’ B&O Play system compares to some of what your competition is using?
AN: It will be extremely competitive. One of the key parts of the process we have when we engineer, before we launch a vehicle, is that we have a process called benchmarking. Essentially what we have is a set of very repeatable and revealing pieces of music and those are played by what we call ‘trained listeners’ and they have a ranking system for various aspects of the system that they’re listening to.
We don’t only do this for Ford vehicles, we do this for competitor vehicles as well. So ultimately we know if we take any system, I won’t name a brand, we’ll have put those through the same process as the Ford system. We’ve done that with our current products and we’ve set targets for B&O Play which puts us at the top of that pack. Best in class is ultimately the goal, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.