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CES 2013: 3-D sound comes to the car

Bang & Olufsen and Harman both debut music systems that go beyond surround sound.

By Douglas Newcomb Jan 11, 2013 11:19AM

Bang & Olufsen in an Audi Q7.At CES 2013, 3-D once again created a big buzz, with tons of televisions and other video gadgets adding a third dimension to the movie-watching experience. And now 3-D is coming to the car -- but with audio, not video.

Audio suppliers Bang & Olufsen and Harman both showed off concept sound systems that use processing to create a sort of "holographic" effect that places the bulk of the sound above and in front of the listener, as opposed to surround sound, which tends to separate the sound front and rear.

To do this, B&O and Harman are adding significantly more speakers and amplifier power.

The Audi Q7 that was used to demonstrate the B&O 3-D sound technology at the automaker’s CES stand included 23 loudspeakers powered by more than 1,500 watts, and it added a tweeter in each A-pillar next to B&O’s trademark pop-up Acoustic Lens tweeters. The BMW 7-Series that Harman used to debut its QuantumLogic 3-D system pumps out 2,000 watts of power to 25 speakers, including five integrated into the headliner.

But it’s each audio company’s algorithms that are the secret sauce to creating 3-D sound.

Harman QuantumLogic 3-D uses the company’s patented digital-processing technology -- and the Logic trademark -- to deliver three-dimensional surround sound from virtually any source, ranging from low-bit-rate MP3s to CDs. B&O says its algorithm is designed to “dissolve the geometry of the car.” It also derives a 3-D sound from any source, and users can adjust the effect at the touch of a button. Starting in 2014, Audi will offer the B&O system on select models.

I didn’t get a chance to visit Harman’s offsite exhibit at The Palms. It’s hard enough just to see everything at the massive Las Vegas Convention Center, and even harder to get around the traffic-clogged streets during CES to go offsite. But I did listen to B&O’s system in the Q7.

The experience was impressive and created a layered, almost palpable sonic image from a piece of music, particularly with vocals. The effect was adjustable in three steps: 2-D, 3-D and 3-D+. Each step up made the effect more pronounced -- and more disconcerting, in my opinion.

I’m old-school and still prefer great stereo reproduction, especially since most recordings are still mixed for two-channel reproduction. Effects tend to alter the sound of a stereo recording in ways that I think take away from the original sound, rather than enhance it.

I’ve seen audio-processing technologies come and go over the years, and some, like Dolby Pro Logic, stick around. When it's released, we’ll see whether 3-D sound for cars has legs, or if it’s just another fad.

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