All aspects of automobiles have evolved remarkably. A few decades ago, you had to spend time under the hood adjusting carburetors, filing points and gapping spark plugs. With the advent of fuel injection, electronic ignition and iridium spark plugs, there’s little for an owner to do under the hood. Once an afterthought left to the aftermarket, audio systems have now become an integral part of interior design and vehicle operation, part of an infotainment system. The latest step in the evolution of car audio is the rise in prominence of branded premium surround sound systems. Car makers partner with high-end audio brands to offer premium sound systems tailored to their vehicles.
Toyota and JBL have taken a deeper dive together with the infotainment system in the new 2019 Avalon. The two companies recently invited a group of journalists for a rare tour of the Toyota Motor North America Research & Development campus in York Township, Michigan followed by a presentation at the Novi, Michigan facility of Harman International, JBL’s parent company. Toyota and JBL opened the doors and brought out the experts to highlight the unique collaboration involved in developing and implementing the Entune 3.0 Audio Plus with JBL w/Clari-Fi and App Suite system for the new Avalon.
Toyota has four main R&D locations in the United States: Toyota Information Technology Center in Mountain View, California; Toyota Technical Center in Gardena and Torrance, California; Toyota Arizona Proving Grounds in Wittmann, Arizona; and TMNA R&D in York Township and Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Michigan locations originated in 1972, and currently employ 1,448 team members. York Township handles vehicle development planning, safety testing, engineering design, rapid prototyping, robotic welding and prototype manufacturing, and is home to an electromagnetic chamber. The campus also includes a new Toyota Supplier Center Purchasing Headquarters facility, a beautiful modern building that opened in 2017. It’s where Toyota manages purchasing for all of its North American production.
Our tour of TMNA R&D included visits to a few of its specialty departments. In the Toyota Electrical Lab, we experienced a semi-anechoic chamber, a room that is designed to control and minimize sound reverberation in order to create an environment where engineers can test and tune voice command systems. Next door, we saw a reference audio room, an acoustically neutral space set up with an audio system that allows engineers to listen to reference audio tracks to compare sound quality to the audio that they are able to deliver in a vehicle. Adjacent to the Electrical Lab, we were granted access to the Electromagnetic Compatibility Chamber (ECC). The ECC is a big rectangular room (about 80 feet long x 40 feet wide x 20 feet high) that is super-insulated against electromagnetic interference. Highly absorbent cones and panels line the walls and ceiling, keeping radio waves, cellular signals and other stray electromagnetic emissions from penetrating the space. A test vehicle is positioned on a turntable/dynamometer, and engineers can then bombard it with specific wavelengths to see how they affect the vehicle’s onboard systems. They can also measure any electromagnetism that the vehicle puts out during operation. The ECC would fit right in to a futuristic science fiction film — it’s a mind-blowing technical space.
Finally, we passed through the Toyota Collaborative Benchmarking Center (TCBC), a room where auto parts are displayed on rows of shelves. The TCBC is like a library of competitive vehicles, which are disassembled and catalogued by an outside vendor so Toyota engineers can inspect, measure and benchmark them while developing a new or updated model.
Avalon and JBL
This tour merely set the stage for Toyota and JBL’s joint presentation about the development of the 2019 Avalon.
JBL became involved in the design of the Avalon’s sound system much earlier than Toyota has ever involved an outside audio partner before, with the goal of developing Toyota’s best audio system to date. In order to achieve this result, the engineering team had to develop a process that went way beyond picking parts off the shelf and fitting them into the car.
The team set targets to challenge vehicle systems two classes up from Avalon: The B&O systems in the BMW 650i and Audi A8; Burmester in Mercedes-Benz S550; and Lexicon in Genesis G80. The overall performance goals were for system integrity, spectral accuracy, dynamics, spatial imaging and features. They then benchmarked direct competitors, like the Bose systems in Buick’s LaCrosse and Nissan’s Maxima, Harman Kardon in Kia’s Cadenza, and even the JBL system in Toyota’s own Camry to assure that their targets would be best in segment.
Hardware, Structure and Software
Three aspects of audio system were addressed: Hardware, structure and software.
Fourteen speakers are arranged throughout the Avalon cabin. Four free-standing horn tweeters are mounted in the A- and B-pillars. Five wide-dispersion mid-range speakers live in the door panels and dash. Two wide-dispersion woofers are in the front doors, and two wide-dispersion speakers are in the rear doors. A dual-voice coil subwoofer is mounted in the package shelf behind the rear seat. A cigar-box-sized aluminum enclosure lives beneath the front passenger seat, housing the 1,200-watt HID12 amplifier and the brains of the system.
With this array of hardware selected, the Toyota/JBL team focused on structure and specific speaker placement. The inner door panels were sealed, creating an acoustic chamber that reveals cleaner, more powerful bass response. Sleek horn enclosures were integrated into the pillars, sending the directional high-frequency sound waves toward listeners’ ears. The package shelf was engineered to support the subwoofer securely, and to minimize buzz, squeak and rattle (BSR). The subwoofer was also positioned to take advantage of Avalon’s trunk, using it as a speaker enclosure to maximize output.
JBL’s software team contributed advanced technologies that made their Toyota debuts in the Avalon: Clari-Fi and Quantum Logic Surround. Clari-Fi is a sound processing software application that is designed to rebuild audio signals lost in the digital compression process. MP3 codecs chop down the audio information above 10,000 hz to save bandwidth and file space on the assumption that most listeners can’t hear sounds in that wavelength. Applying the Clari-Fi algorithms to an audio feed boosts the level of information that gets translated, and can audibly improve sound quality in real time, especially with low resolution source material. Quantum Logic Surround is a technology that creates a 7.1-channel surround audio listening experience from any listening source. These technologies, together and separately, can deliver a much richer, more enjoyable listening experience with the right source material.
Demonstrations inside the 2016 Avalon revealed the final results of this collaborative engineering effort. Based on a subjective listening experience, the team has achieved its targets. The quality of sound reproduction inside Avalon rivals premium audio systems in luxury competitors, with brilliant fidelity, musicality and tone. Even high volume levels can’t rattle the system, with no noticeable distortion or lack of clarity. While the effectiveness of Clari-Fi is more apparent with low-resolution source material, it doesn’t interfere with listening pleasure when the source material is of high-resolution and quality. Response to Quantum Logic Surround is a matter of taste. It can sound great on some material, horrible on others — it really depends on what you’re listening to, and how you want to experience it.
After the TMNA R&D tour and Avalon presentation, a short drive took us to Novi and Harman International’s facility there. Harman, a division of Samsung since 2017, is the parent company of JBL and a bunch of other audio brands: Harman Kardon, Mark Levinson, Lexicon, Infinity, Revel and many others. We toured a few Harman labs, including a reference room that is connected to a garage listening space that allows for rapid A/B testing.
If this is the next stage of surround sound system development, we’re in for an era of superior listening experiences in our cars.