When Engineered Engine Noises Are Fine, And When They’re Not
Fake engine noises can be very good, depending on how your ears are getting them.
“Fake engine sound sucks,” seems almost universally agreed upon among car enthusiasts, but the practice is pretty common in modern cars. By “fake engine sound,” I’m talking about artificially accentuating engine tones that serve no functional purpose beyond being entertainment. (Or making a turbocharged engine, which is naturally muffled as part of its design, sound more interesting.) This is usually done by acoustically tuned tubes and diaphragms, or by piping in sounds through stereo speakers.
I hear that all fake sounds are bad, and I heartily disagree. Some fake sounds are bad, and some are very good, and it usually boils down to whether or not said sound comes from a digital file.
Modern cars usually go for the enhanced or totally fake engine note because of ever-rising consumer demands for refinement and luxury. The amount of insulation and sound deadening treatments being baked into mass-market cars is impressive. With clever engineering, body sealants, and strategically placed high-density sound attenuating materials, cars are ever quieter, more isolated, less connected to the road and the machinery within. People want quiet cars when they’re cruising, and powerful, thundering sounds under acceleration. It’s hard to do both.
Since you can’t simply remove this insulation for higher performance models of a normal car, automakers turn to methods like fake sounds.
Even then, customers don’t want to trade refinement for performance. If anything, people want to have their cake and to eat it too. A wise Mazda engineer that I read in an internet article years ago once said that when people ask for rawness or feel, they actually want directness and response. People don’t want to feel raw machinery at work or hear the rocks pinging off of their seat, generally speaking. They want the car to cut it out when they aren’t having fun, and to turn it up when they are. Hence, piping in the sound when necessary.
That concept appeals to me greatly. I hate raw road noise. If I have a helmet on at the track, that bit of plastic and foam cuts out the most painful frequencies for my ears, even with the most hardcore car. When I’m driving on the street, I don’t need a race car. I want a road car.
Wind noise, road noise, they’re the most grating things to me in a car. I can handle a firm suspension or some mechanical vibrations. I just can’t do the tin-can feeling. On the flip side, I dislike dishonesty. I can make a clear distinction between acoustically enhanced sound and garbage that comes from the speakers.
The acoustically enhanced setup uses an actual tube from the intake that leads into a specially designed chamber in the firewall that boosts certain resonances of the engine. It uses real engine sound, and just gives it a bit of help getting to your ears through many layers of sound insulation. That is cool and I’m a huge fan of it. My 2010 Volkswagen GTI uses that same setup, as does the modern turbo Porsche 911 Carrera, the Subaru BRZ, and its most extreme application was the Lexus LFA. Yamaha designed the entire intake plenum of the LFA like the inside of an acoustic guitar, with strategically placed chambers and an acoustically designed firewall and dash that directs different frequencies to your legs and head via sound passages. How is that not cool? Also, nobody ever complains that the LFA “sounds bad.” Very much the opposite.
Another setup I take slight issue with, though certainly less so, is a separate diaphragm or rotary woofer that makes its own frequencies that gives the engine some “thump” over the normal engine note. It doesn’t use real engine sound, but it uses clever acoustic engineering to accentuate what’s already there. The current VW GTI and Jetta GLI use this setup, and the United States market Focus and Fiesta ST do as well. It’s placed in the firewall like the conventional setup, but it makes its own sound. I can tolerate this because it generates the actual bass frequencies needed to make an engine sound satisfying, unlike most automotive-grade in-car speakers.
I take the most issue with the speaker-based setup, however. I feel that it’s a cheap solution that rarely sounds natural, and I can spot it from a mile away. I already don’t like the newest 10th-generation Honda Civic Si that much. When Honda facelifted it in 2019, it added a sound program from the speakers that sounded so unbelievably out of place it was like a missed note in a familiar song. It ruined the car for me. Modern BMWs use the speaker setup to some success, or maybe we’re just acclimated to it. I still hate it. It isn’t real engine sound, and it’s often used strategically with just certain frequencies piped through the speaker to fill in missing frequencies in the natural engine sound—usually, the ones that “hit” a certain way to our ears and bodies. The video from 2013 below is a great demonstration of the effort that Ford went through to engineer the “sound symposer” on their products using acoustic tubing and what seems like a rotary subwoofer.
I might do another blog dissecting this video because it’s fascinating to see the old school stuff the engineers at Ford were working with in 2013. Look at those headphones! And all the bitchin’ photos of SVT Mustang Cobra Rs on the wall.
I’d prefer a car to be totally quiet and honest about itself, or spend the time developing a true acoustic setup, than using speakers to synthetically give off some personality. The speakers are grating and annoying, while the improved or assisted sounds work really well for me. It can often add to the experience without annoying the outside world, and keep the car nice and quiet for the rest of your time with it. The way I see it: give me real sound or give me death. Sure, help it along a bit, but don’t con me. Stop doing that stuff, automakers.
Then again, most buyers probably don’t care, and this “problem” will be solved when the market goes electric. Until it does, this is a hill a plan to die on—and hopefully, you’ll be able to hear me do it.