I just experienced one of the most amazing sound systems that that I ever heard in a car. What makes it so amazing is that it doesn't use a power booster, or equalizer, or better speakers, or anything like that. Instead, it's all done with software.
The inventor of this system is a guy named Tony Bongiovi, a brilliant recording engineer who's worked with a lot of the biggest names in music business: Aerosmith, Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Gloria Gaynor, to name a few. He also launched the career of his second cousin, Jon Bonjovi. He got his start back in the mid-1960s as a 17-year-old high school student from New Jersey who managed to wrangle his way into Motown Records as a recording engineer. That is a story unto itself but too long to recount here.
To hear Tony tell it, he used to drive around a lot of sub-compact rental cars and was always disappointed they did not come with better sound systems. So he set to work to figure out a way to improve the standard radio in the car to make it sound like a premium system. But he knew he had to do it in a low-cost way.
John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.
As long as a radio has a digital signal processing (DSP) chip in it, Tony can work his magic on it. All you have to do is download his software into that chip and it miraculously makes any sound system instantly sound a whole lot better. I'm not an audiophile, but even I can hear the difference, and what a difference it makes!
I fully admit that I'm in way over my head in trying to describe how the system works, but here's how Tony explained it to me. Basically, he's using digital power to aggressively modify the program material (music). He takes apart the frequency response characteristics, and processes it by modulating and modifying the signal to make it louder. Bongiovi says this leaves more "headroom" to play with the signal, because if you try to equalize the sound you run out of room in the amplifier or the speakers.
Since a car is sort of like a small room, there's not enough room to reproduce the dynamics of the sound the way the artist wanted it to be heard. So, he says, you have to modify the sound before you can play it in a car, otherwise it will exceed the design limitations of the speakers. So he uses the DSP chip to constantly modify and manipulate the sound. And by using acoustic coupling, he makes all the bass sounds respond in a way that makes it sound like the system has a subwoofer.
Bongiovi says that while there are some terrific premium sound systems in cars today, they achieved their premium sound with high-end hardware. He claims that no one has ever touched the source material before to get a premium sound.
But to get the full effects of his system he has to "profile" each model of car. That means he has to get in a car and listen to all types of different music from all different eras to make sure that any kind of source material will sound great. He says it takes six hours a day, five days a week, (and joking adds) that it takes two cases of beer to profile each car. That's a lot of beer. Tony has already profiled 250 cars! Once a car is profiled it's a simple matter to download the software into the DSP chip in the radio.
There are huge advantages for automakers to use Bongiovi's system. He wants $10 a car for an automaker to use his system, but that can be marked up to $400 a car at retail for a mid-premium system. As good as his system is, he admits that premium sound systems are still going to sound better simply because they have better hardware. Of course, there's nothing preventing anyone from using his software in one of those high-end systems.
But his system also allows automakers to save space, and cut cost and weight. Speakers have big heavy magnets on them and Bongiovi's system means a car can use smaller speakers with lighter magnets. Those speakers also save valuable "real estate" inside a car, something that interior packaging engineers are always fighting over.
Tony is a proud American and wanted to sell his system to the Big Three to gain a competitive advantage. At first they essentially told him to get lost, but now they're starting to come around. Unfortunately, in the interim another automaker jumped into the void. While I'm sworn to secrecy as to who that is, I can tell you it's one of the big Japanese car companies. And you'll see it in a new vehicle coming out later this year.
But if you're really interested, it's already available in the aftermarket as the JVC KD-S100 Mobile Entertainment system. If you get a chance, check it out, it is truly a transformational technology.
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