Nothing about the feeling of driving a Lamborghini is accidental. According to Maurizio Reggiani, the marque’s chief technical officer, the sensation springs directly from the noise of those 12 screaming cylinders. That high-pitched roar triggers excitement, a key component in a precisely calibrated chain of events that takes your ears, the car, then your stomach from zero to 60 in a little over two seconds.
“When you are in a super-sports car, the sound becomes part of your emotions,” says Reggiani. “It becomes part of your perception of speed. If you hit the gas, you expect to hear a tremendous sound that tells you you are accelerating really fast. In an airplane, when you hear the engines run, you think, ‘OK, my God, now we’re starting,’ and after that you start to feel the acceleration. This is exactly the conjunction between what you hear, what you anticipate your body will soon perceive and then what you actually experience.”
The sound of luxury has moved from abstract concept into strategically manufactured reality over recent years, as more and more brands at the highest end of various industries, from Champagne to haute horology, attempt to use our aural cavities to seduce us into a subconscious sensory relationship. Why? Because emotional connections are deeper and harder to break than logical ones. But what makes sound emotional? Is a feeling real when it’s been engineered by a scientist or implanted by a marketing consultant? And what form will sensory branding take in an increasingly digital world?
Daniel Jackson has been pondering these questions for longer than most. Indeed, it’s a factor of sensory branding (the field extends to scent, taste and tactility) that the majority of us will not consciously perceive its existence because it is subrational. Jackson, who started his agency, Sonicbrand, in 1999, works with clients including Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, YSL and BMW, as well as mass-market companies for whom he builds “logos in sound.” Aural branding hit “the mass adoption phase” about two years ago, he says, citing an Ipsos report that found that audio cues are significantly more effective at capturing consumer attention than visual logos or slogans. These mnemonics, such as the McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” ditty or the Netflix two-stroke drum beat, are now a mass-market must-have.
The approach is completely different at the luxury level, says Jackson, where the practice is not about advertising campaigns but making the sound of the product and the store environment as alluring as possible. A few years ago, Harrods, London’s iconic emporium, commissioned another sonic-branding consultancy, the Sound Agency, to do an aural overhaul. At the time, “every department was playing unrelated audio,” says Fran Board, the agency’s creative director. “There were clashes…. It was not communicating Harrods’ brand and quality.”
The agency installed a series of sound-scapes, “ambient background sounds” that, Board says, do not “distract you in the way that music might.” In the glassware department, the agency recorded the melodic tones made by the various vases and decanters themselves and used them to create a soundtrack. Now customers peruse sets of crystal tumblers while listening to “the manipulated sounds of glass,” says Board.
She describes soundscapes as “aural wallpaper”—pleasant but barely discernable. For luxury brands, the aim is the imperceptible seduction of the customer; the incentivization of purchase via the subconscious. “Soundscapes make people feel happier, calmer and more relaxed,” she says. “People enjoy their experience and are more likely to come back. Chances are that will have an impact on the bottom line.”
The sounds of products themselves also induce emotions that are often a learned association with the perceived quality of the item. Think of the feeling of anticipation triggered by the pop of a Champagne cork. (And while on the subject, the sound of Champagne being masterfully opened should not be an “obnoxious” pop, says Andy Myers, a master sommelier who works with famed restaurateur José Andrés, but a pffft, an exhalation “as quiet as a lover’s sigh.”)
An air hiss is also used by Apple in its packaging to create a sense of drama, says Jackson. “When you open the box for the first time, the way the air sucks out of it has been designed to sound like that,” he says. “It sounds very well engineered.”
We are often happy to pay more for a product we believe has been precisely crafted, and companies will go to great lengths to reinforce this impression audibly. Jackson recalls advising a luxury-car manufacturer to add extra motors to its electric windows, after customers complained they didn’t like the existing uneven tone. In terms of performance, the motor was perfectly adequate for smoothly raising and lowering the windows, he says, but uniformity of sound enhances our perception of quality. According to Jackson, the premium that customers will pay for a product that sounds really well made more than compensated for the cost of the superfluous motors.
“The pop of a cork—you weren’t born thinking that was a great sound. It wouldn’t give newborn babies an emotional high, but it does for many adults, as it leads to expectations.”
The windows are a perfect example of how sensory branding penetrates our belief system at an unconscious level. If you merely tell people that extra-special engineering has gone into a product, their rational brains may doubt your veracity. If you make them hear it and feel it, they are much more likely to trust the “evidence” of their senses.
Our responses to sound are part primal, part learned, says Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. “There will be a more innate response to certain sound qualities, and then there is an acquired response to the sounds that we learn come to signify something,” he explains. “The pop of a cork—you weren’t born thinking that was a great sound. It wouldn’t give newborn babies an emotional high, but it does for many adults, as it leads to expectations.”
When developing the clasps for her men’s bags, Melissa Morris, founder and designer of Métier, a boutique leather-goods brand, says she deliberately aimed to evoke an “acquired” sound, that of “a vintage Porsche 911 door closing. It just has this perfect ‘clunk’ to it, and so I was trying to mimic that.” Morris spent three years prior to the launch of Métier in 2017 capturing this sound on the metal hardware that secures a small pouch for essentials inside all Métier travel bags. “I re-engineered the springs so it really feels satisfying when it closes,” she says. The result is a blend of sound and tactility that “feels solid and secure and expensive… it just has weight and unctuousness to it.”
In other industries, imitation does not equal flattery. Laurent Perves, Vacheron Constantin’s chief marketing officer, condemns such mimicry as a heretical departure “from the codes of high watchmaking.” A watch chime, he says, “should sound like a watch chime,” and the only association he will admit is a musical one.
Audemars Piguet consulted musicians when developing the chimes for its Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie series of minute-repeater wristwatches, which launched in 2016 after a decade-long research program. The aim was to “define quantifiable criteria for the ‘optimal’ sound,” says Michael Friedman, AP’s head of complications. Though specifics of the research are confidential, he says that the company “explored aspects of neurology and biology.”
The resulting Supersonnerie watches are built on the principles of guitar design, encasing steel gongs that are connected directly to a soundboard, instead of the more usual mainplate, so that vibrations are unimpeded by screws and other components, while a silence regulator dampens the whirring of the mechanism.
Each of the timepieces has a “unique sonic blueprint,” says Friedman, which the company records and analyzes. Vacheron Constantin takes this concept one step further by storing the sounds of every watch in its Les Cabinotiers minute-repeater range at Abbey Road Studios in London. Clients, says Perves, like the fact that the “particular soul” of their watch, its sonic DNA, has been preserved for posterity. Every customer is presented with a digital visualization of the sound waves of their watch’s chimes, enabling them to “see” the sound.
The interplay between different senses has influence over our experiences. And the power of this response lies in the fact that we are highly emotionally receptive to sensory stimuli but very bad at differentiating between senses, says Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, who specializes in psychoacoustics, or the perception of sound. The brain, he says, “disintegrates” during a multi-sensory experience. “It doesn’t have that differentiation, really. In the end, it’s an emotional response.”
For this response to pack a punch, the senses have to be flawlessly congruent, says Jackson. “As soon as one of them is off, you perceive that something’s not quite right, not quite real.” This multisensory symphony is most fully realized in the driving experience, where sound—at least in theory—synchronizes with mechanical function. “Every noise must be associated with something that happens physically,” says Lamborghini’s Reggiani, and its discrete function must be “sharp and defined.”
As such, there are no good or bad sounds per se, as long as they are genuine, says Renzo Vitale, BMW’s creative director for sound. His customers want to hear the exact “moments of evolution of the machine” as you “accelerate from zero to 150,” he says, adding that the perceived accuracy of sound is integral to BMW’s “made in Germany” identity.
Next on the sonic hierarchy of desirability comes “a kind of thrilling feeling,” says Vitale. “So if you are giving a specific type of acceleration on the pedal, and the engine is responding to you in a very exciting way, then you get excited yourself.”
Then comes differentiation—the unique sound of a marque. BMW’s watch-word is “elegance,” achieved by smoothing out “anything that creates a disruption,” says Vitale. Elegance is lost, he says, “if you have a sudden, abrupt change.” For example, if you pump the gas pedal, “you have this kind of very tough sound that is related to a change in acoustic pressure [resulting in a] roar in the pipes.” The aural smoothing he applies to alleviate such disturbances is like the work of a sculptor, he says. “I like to say that we sculpt the sound. If you think of Michelangelo’s Pieta, and you look at all the curves that he’s done on the marble, everything is so extremely, beautifully smooth.”
Much has already been written about the sensory differences between traditionally powered vehicles and EVs. But in fact, the shift from authentic mechanical sound to electronic augmentation happened long ago. Many countries impose limits on noise pollution, forcing sports cars in particular to reduce the decibels emitted by their engines. The effect, combined with increasingly sophisticated sound-proofing technology within the body of the car, means that drivers can no longer naturally enjoy full aural feedback, so most manufacturers pipe reproduction “engine” sounds into the cabin, usually through the speakers. “We’ve been faking sounds of engines for the last 10 years,” says Jackson.
Car manufacturers are uncomfortable with the term “fakery,” but they do admit to acoustic enhancements. Most have a sports mode, which amplifies engine sound. Lamborghini ups the volume structurally by “increasing the stiffness of the engine support,” says Reggiani, leading to greater vibration and an amplification of authentic physical sound.
Down the road at Maserati, sound modulation is more of a hybrid affair. According to Melania Califano, one of the marque’s sound specialists, Maserati “reconstructs the missing sounds” by way of a sensor placed on the engine. The sensor transmits vibrations to “an electronic control unit,” which uses software to “amplify the right frequencies to get back the Maserati sound,” she says, describing the resulting symphony, which is played through the speakers, as “something natural, plus, let’s say, artificial.” At BMW, Vitale refers to this reconstruction process as “Photoshop.”
Elsewhere, the sound of luxury is actually the sound of silence. Or close to it. At Bentley, Andrew Jackson, a technical expert in sound quality and design, says there’s a power inherent in “a smooth, deep quiet.” It has to be a pregnant sort of silence—one that implies “endless reserves of power. Like a resting beast.” The trick is not to go too far, he says, because “if you’re put in one of those chambers where you can’t hear sound, it’s quite uncomfortable.”
A similar philosophy reigns at Rolls-Royce, where “customers want a cocooning experience that separates them from the outside world,” says Gerry Spahn, the company’s head of corporate communications for North America. In the Ghost, this ideal is taken to the maximum. “The pitch of the windscreen, even the finish, reduces noise from outside,” he says. “Windows are double-paned; tires are filled with foam.” In fact, “we fill any hole with foam,” right down to the tiny spaces containing wires. Spahn reckons the average Ghost carries “about 220 pounds of sound insulation.”
Initially, “little things like squeaks in the seat” disturbed the resulting vacuum, “so we added resonant sounds back in and eliminated all dissonant sounds.” The result is that “the parts now work together to create an orchestra.”
The trickiest instruments in that orchestra, says Vitale, are doors, to the extent that one of his colleagues did an entire Ph.D. on the sounds they create. “We broke down the effect chains of all the components that are responsible for this one sound,” he says, and “developed a psychoacoustical model” to evaluate customers’ responses. Vitale, who is also a pianist and composer, even studied the beginning and end of each, known as the transients, working out how to approach each one’s “specific solidity,” asking, “Is it more like a ‘P’ or more like a ‘B,’ or an ‘F,’ or an ‘S’?”
Not every vehicle requires this level of subtlety. At Mercedes-Benz, fans of the rugged G-Wagon SUV enjoy driving a car that announces its presence audibly, with a locking noise like the reloading action of a pump-action shotgun and a door that requires a full-force slam. Both have become signatures, says Peter Schoren, head of product management and sales for Mercedes-Benz G-Class.
The G-Wagon was first built in 1979 as a commercial vehicle, so acoustic insulation was not a priority for the central-locking system. “Throughout the years, the G-Class was further developed into a more luxury segment,” says Schoren, “and the customers got used to that sound. And today they just love it.” The crunchy clunk-clunk-click was preserved during a 2018 redesign, he notes.
The original door, designed to be purely functional, was completely flat, meaning that at high speeds it would rattle. To fix this, engineers angled the top half of the door slightly inward, so when closed the angled half would be forced flat, creating a tension that kept the door firmly in place. The slam required to close this pre-tensioned door is “a very particular, very, very specific sound,” says Schoren. For customers, the appeal lies in a form of acoustic contrarianism. “The people who buy a G-Class, they want to be different.”
In the US, new regulations on external sounds for pedestrian safety are expected later this year. Door-sound geeks will probably remain untroubled by legislation. Electric engines are another matter, and it remains an open question as to whether legacy manufacturers will pump out replica combustion sounds or perhaps compose different soundtracks to accompany a battery-powered drive.
At BMW, Vitale is working with film composer Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, The Dark Knight) to create the sound of the electric i4M, which will be released next year. Early results, says Vitale, are “ethereal,” with “strength and power, but also sovereignty, grandness and elegance.” On the BMW website, a preview trailer sounds like a whizzy, sci-fi engine as reimagined by Dolby—exhilarating and dynamic but not totally divorced from the sound of a conventional engine, and not dissimilar to the aggressive swoops of the all-electric Porsche Taycan Turbo S.
Departing even slightly from the sound of BMW’s thermodynamic heritage was a hard sell internally, says Vitale. The initial response was “as if you had, you know, a cat in front of you and then suddenly it sounds like a bird. [They were] like, ‘Wait a minute.’ So we had to really reset the mindset, and it took a few years.”
At Karma Automotive, a boutique California luxury electric carmaker, engineers have embraced the natural silence of an electric battery in the GS-6 series hybrid, with a few bells and whistles. When the car dips below 18 miles per hour, it emits a passenger-warning sound that a spokesman describes as “an electronic whooshing noise.” Inside the cabin, digital chimes sound as the car cycles through drive modes, and when the BMW gasoline engine kicks in to support a depleted battery, it’s announced by a specially tuned “exhaust note,” which the spokesman described as a “sporty yet refined burbling.”
Tesla’s all-electric cars have dispensed with aural driving feedback altogether and allow drivers to upload whatever sounds they like to the speaker system via their Boombox feature. Both Tesla and Porsche utilize an internal audio system from DSP Concepts, whose cofounder, Paul Beckmann, says he is seeing “tremendous interest in integrating voice controls into vehicles. Want to change the A/C? Use ‘Hey, Porsche.’ Want to know the weather? Ask ‘Hey, Google.’ ” He expects that EV drivers will use software to “create custom audio experiences in their vehicle,” including immersive experiences provided by brands. Or maybe they’ll simply watch movies. It seems possible that autonomous cars may become just another passive digital-entertainment space, in the way that our homes have become over the past 18 months.
Cars, which have been augmenting “real” sounds for years, are now at the threshold of an endlessly customizable world, where the soundscape is downloaded by the consumer. For many marques, authenticity is quickly disappearing in the rearview mirror, and it’s hard to see how individual acoustic identities, currently so highly prized, will last. At the same time, luxury manufacturers in other rarefied industries now hack into our senses using both digital and mechanical tools, eroding the distinction between augmented sounds and “real” ones. As our ability to perceive authenticity fades, the risk for luxury brands is that the emotional connections they crave will no longer be real but replica.