Surround sound in a car

Surround sound in a car

Just after my rant about not needing to listen to four speakers in a car because they don’t make quadraphonic recordings, BMW released their digital radio surround sound system (DAB).

Apart from some corporate self-congratulation, I don’t see the point. Surround sound is useful if you’re watching Black Hawk Down and want to get in the thick of the bullets whizzing by your head. But when driving around, I don’t have yearnings for it to sound like I’m in Mogadishu, so I’m not listening to the sound of artillery (or early ’90s German techno, which is remarkably similar). I haven’t heard BMW’s offering, so I can’t rubbish it or give it accolades with any authority. I can say, however, that surround sound’s effect is very dependent on where you’re sitting. There’s a sweet spot in the ‘sound field’ and that’s quite small. I would imagine that the small space in a car combined with the multitude of soft and hard surfaces would make sound reflections wholly unpredictable. Add to that the cancellation effects you’d get from engine and tyre noise, and to be consistent would be nigh on impossible.

So is it a gimmick, or a valid addition to BMW’s in-car entertainment arsenal? The other main enhancement is digital radio’s ability to broadcast extra information like traffic news. But you don’t need surround sound for that.

My feeling is that surround sound could be dangerous. We use our ears to localise sounds in the wider sound field using the difference in time between the sound hitting each ear, the difference in volume between each ear, and the phase shift in the sound wave as it travels around our head. We know if a car is overtaking us because often we’ll hear it in our right ear. We know if an ambulance is behind us because we’ll perceive it as coming from behind. But if our ears have to start dealing with random sounds from our stereo speakers appearing at random places, this could reduce our ability to accurately perceive other dangers around us as we become more likely just to ignore sounds.

Just after my rant about not needing to listen to four speakers in a car because they don’t make quadraphonic recordings, BMW released their digital radio surround sound system (DAB).

Apart from some corporate self-congratulation, I don’t see the point. Surround sound is useful if you’re watching Black Hawk Down and want to get in the thick of the bullets whizzing by your head. But when driving around, I don’t have yearnings for it to sound like I’m in Mogadishu, so I’m not listening to the sound of artillery (or early ’90s German techno, which is remarkably similar). I haven’t heard BMW’s offering, so I can’t rubbish it or give it accolades with any authority. I can say, however, that surround sound’s effect is very dependent on where you’re sitting. There’s a sweet spot in the ‘sound field’ and that’s quite small. I would imagine that the small space in a car combined with the multitude of soft and hard surfaces would make sound reflections wholly unpredictable. Add to that the cancellation effects you’d get from engine and tyre noise, and to be consistent would be nigh on impossible.

So is it a gimmick, or a valid addition to BMW’s in-car entertainment arsenal? The other main enhancement is digital radio’s ability to broadcast extra information like traffic news. But you don’t need surround sound for that.

My feeling is that surround sound could be dangerous. We use our ears to localise sounds in the wider sound field using the difference in time between the sound hitting each ear, the difference in volume between each ear, and the phase shift in the sound wave as it travels around our head. We know if a car is overtaking us because often we’ll hear it in our right ear. We know if an ambulance is behind us because we’ll perceive it as coming from behind. But if our ears have to start dealing with random sounds from our stereo speakers appearing at random places, this could reduce our ability to accurately perceive other dangers around us as we become more likely just to ignore sounds.

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