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Like a catchy pop-song hook, synthetic engine noises are playing on repeat

When I try to explain to ‘non-car people’ how important an engine note is to ‘car people,’ I always get the same, puzzled look.

Like most consumers, utilitarian drivers value things like efficiency, reliability, and practicality over excitement, heritage, and charisma. For us, though, it’s about the total experience, and that includes the soundtrack.

Given our passion for all things automotive, it’s easy to see why the motoring community has reacted so emphatically to the synthetic engine noises found in some new cars. However, it’s important to discern that not every manufacturer handles them in the same way.

Speaking with different voices

The issue came to light most recently with Ford’s EcoBoost Mustang, where the vehicle’s Active Noise Control processes, amplifies, and layers engine tones over the engine’s revs, canceling out harsh turbo notes via the stereo.

You can hear the Mustang’s isolated backup vocals below via Cobb Tuning, sounding something like the beginning of a dubstep track.

At the other end of the sports car spectrum is Porsche’s Sound Symposer, which is currently making racket in the 991-series 911. Porsche’s system is mechanical in nature and uses a valve in the intake manifold to pipe flat-six-flavored noise directly into the cabin (see header).

The BMW M5 is also a bit of a lip syncer, as an exterior recording of the car’s engine is captured and played through the car’s stereo via something called Active Sound Design.

Related: BMW i8 review video

The final type of system out there is highlighted by the Lexus NX and IS 300h, and it’s called Active Sound Control (ASC). Unlike the previous methods we’ve discussed, ASC uses a dedicated speaker to reproduce engine tones.

Volkswagen’s Soundaktor actually does the same, but Lexus includes a small dial near the gauge cluster to alter the level of sonic enhancement inside. To me, that’s kind of like leaving the tag on a toupee, but I digress.

Lexus ASC

(Photo via Lexus Blog)

Each version, no matter the manufacturer, does essentially the same thing. The fact remains, however, that different companies market these features in completely different ways, with some not marketing them at all.

Wrapped in different packages

For instance: Lexus’ ASC. The knob may be a little silly, but the company put it out there in the open. BMW, Porsche, and Audi have acted similarly, including blurbs about their designs in media packets and promotional material. Volkswagen, always one to embrace quirkiness, even gave its design a cool name, wrapping it up as a premium feature to augment the tonal pallet.

Conversely, when I spoke to Ford engineers about their system during the 2015 F-150 first drive event, there was trepidation. They didn’t shy away from explaining the equipment, but they didn’t bring it up on their own accord either. Clearly, there are different philosophies at work here.

Related: Ford’s 2015 Mustang EcoBoost plays the game of ‘give and fake’ with engine sounds

What it really comes down to is disclosure. Dressing up a turbocharged four-cylinder to sound like a V6 is one thing, but when a journalist has to pull a fuse to figure out the noise isn’t genuine, there might be a problem.

A lie of omission is still a lie, as they say.

In fairness, Mustang Chief Engineer Dave Pericak did explain the process to Car Magazine in 2013. “We don’t create an artificial sound,” he said. “We don’t pluck one off the shelf, we bring in the real sound, process it, and play it through the car’s speakers.”

Sounding Off 

Like with cars themselves, it’s hard to formulate a simplified opinion on augmented engine sounds when there are so many factors at play.

If I were driving, say, an EcoBoost F-150 V6, I honestly don’t think I’d mind. It’s an ergonomically designed pickup truck after all, so the stereo overdub seems more like an enhancement of driving comfort rather than a game of smoke and mirrors. I might be disappointed that the V8 soundtrack is a fib at first, but I struggle to see myself really caring after a week or so.

In a sports car, things change. The bellowing roar of a tire-roasting fastback on the brink is the stuff of which kids dream. Whether it started with the Mustang vs. Charger chase in Bullitt or Gene Hackman’s frantic weaving in The French Connection, that stuff follows you into adulthood. Sound is part of the appeal of motoring, and when it’s not entirely real or honest, something’s lost.

Conclusion 

For some, this may be much ado about nothing. Most mainstream music uses some form of autotune or pitch correction, so why can’t our cars?

Tough as it may be to accept, ‘fake’ engine noises are probably here to stay.

Don’t expect a V12 Ferrari to pull a Milli Vanilli any time soon, but continuing improvements to sound deadening and the bitter articulations of high-efficiency turbo powerplants will likely encourage automakers to use this technology to keep cars scoring high.

I, for one, will be keeping my window down so I can hear it for myself.

Are fake engine sounds a big deal or just a bunch of white noise? Let us know what you think in the comments.

(Header photo by Car and Driver)