Playing music in a car has always been something of an afterthought. Which is perhaps why before Motorola sold its first Motor-ola radio in 1930, no one had conceived to play music in a vehicle for those first 44 years of the Age of the Automobile. However, the recent explosion of other computer-controlled activities on modern cars has meant unprecidented integration. Consequently, the audio system has become a very visible feature of the complex multimedia/info/entertainment centres found in the cockpits of every car.
Three general trends have emerged:
1. Many ‘ famous’ audio brands now have a substantial turnover in Automotive. However, they are seldom the focus of the end-customer’s choice; people buy a Mercedes because it is a Mercedes, rather than a way to get one’s hands on a well-appointed Burmester installation. Even though the car is almost a freebie, considering the cost of a full Burmester system.
2. Acoustic design matters – a lot. Car manufacturers are now designing their cars from scratch to sound good, embedding exceptional acoustics as a key design requirement. The leaders are Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.
3. Most audio brands are responsible from the digital output and beyond, and at the mercy of whatever head unit electronics do to the music.
You get a measure of how much of an audiophile geek you are when you realize that among the tens of thousands of visitors to a car show, you are probably the only one who looks at cars not as vehicles, but as ‘audio systems with four wheels and an engine’. Nevertheless, that is the very personal point of view that I had at the start of the Geneva Auto Show, in March 2015: to find out which systems played music better and to report my impressions as if they were any other audio component reviewed in Hi-Fi+.
Bang & Olufsen
B&O supplies Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes Benz. B&O provides some exceptional DSP engineering, neat and powerful amplification (its innovative ICE amplifiers pioneered at the turn of the century the onslaught of Class-D amplifiers of late), and an impressively stylish implementation of great acoustics technology.
B&O’s has a ‘three tiered’ ladder in its implementations: I listened to the ‘third’ and ‘second tier’ on a TTS and a new RS6 Avant respectively. They were simply fantastic. A thundering bass line, without the annoying blurriness commonly associated with top SPL in cars, but great control and precision, all the way up to the reflective lens tweeters. At top volumes, this example showed how much energy was punishing its structure. Definitely one to watch, but I wonder what the ‘best in class’ on the new Q7 sounds like…
Bowers & Wilkins
Great drivers, straight from their home speakers, convey a solid performance that does not disappoint. The Volvo XC90 system achieves an in-car audio performance pinnacle that was barely possible only a year ago. Doing away with the subwoofer enclosure, with patented technology developed in house, this system turns the whole car into bass cabinet, delivering B&W 802-grade performance on the road.
Starting 14 years ago as the supplier for the Bugatti Veryon, Burmester is now in the enviable position as the top-level supplier to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. The same drivers and, possibly, the same amplification is used throughout, but different Harman-derived head units give rise to markedly different musical performances.
The Porsche installations on the Panamera and Cayman benefit from a fresher design, more cubic volume, and more power. However, hampering them are the limitations of the head unit, which cannot accept 24-bit files.
Nevertheless, three of my personal ‘Top Five’ sound systems on wheels are Burmester systems in Mercedes cars. And all share a common characteristic: Audio optimization begins at the chassis design. Put another way, Daimler Group sells 400,000 finely-appointed auditoria per year, as a result.
Burmester and Daimler Group produce audio marvels like the C-Class, the S-Class, and the new Maybach 600 Pullmann: a €500,000, 6.5m long juggernaut of audio excellence, which is so far ahead of anything else I have heard this side of the Stravinsky Hall at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It almost doubles the number of speakers of the already impressive €15,000 Burmester High-End 3D Surround Sound System on the S-Class!
Burmester’s approach is a true marvel, albeit without any special quirk in the technologies deployed. It just uses dynamic cones, very well appointed. However, none feature Heil AMT (Air Motion Transformer) drivers, as one finds in their home products. Maybe next year.
Dynaudio is (or was) one of the OEMs for the Bugatti Veyron, last example of which sold for over £2m and was on display. It was impossible to approach the car, though, so no access. Still, we can all dream a little…
In the real world, Dynaudio is the non-exclusive premium audio system partner to the Volkswagen Audio Group, for the new Golf, the Scirocco, and the new Passat, which won the ‘Car of the Year’ Award on the first day of the Show.
Dynaudio’s 700W-strong amplification and drivers for its top system are a very welcome surprise. At a price that is less than half of the B&O equipping the Audi RS6 – the same platform – it achieves 80% of that performance and is certainly a very valid solution for playing in all musical genres. It provides a technologically complete basis for strong musical emotion, albeit not the musical epiphanies one would expect in the more performance-orientated ambiance of the Audi.
James B. Lansing would probably be proud to see creations bearing his brand equip cars like the new Ferrari 488 GTB, and another host of prestigious brands. However, I am not so sure that when a new owner of a 488 GTB, having shelled out around £250,000, will feel when discovering that a JBL system, not very dissimilar in performance, can be found in the frog-like interior of a Smart FourTwo, costing in the vicinity of £10,000!
According to industry sources, the Harman brand Lexicon is the power behind the unbranded, excellent musical experience you can have in a modern Rolls Royce – among the best appointed places where one can play recorded music, on wheels or not. One of my Top Five.
A quintessentially ‘English Sound’ brand, Meridian can be found in equally world-famous English icons, such as Jaguar, Range Rover, and McLaren. However, in normal conditions, the marriage does not seem to work as well as it could. None of the systems can deliver the fantastic capabilities they are engineered for, not even the 21-driver, 1.7KWatt system in a Range Rover.
The case is at its clearest with McLaren. Since the introduction of their extraordinary two-seater, the MP4-12C, media and owners alike have lamented (unjustifiably, in my opinion) that the basic and optional (both Meridian) sound systems were bad. Fortunately, with the 650S, McLaren has started to do justice to its Meridian setup, in part because its head unit finally gets to play the first rung (44.1KHz) of the 24Bit high definition scale.
On the Jaguar Land Rover Group cars, a new set of 24/96kHz head units are available, but, inexplicably, only in the cars equipped with their base, unbranded, audio system, and not into those bearing a Meridian system. The result is that the cars play competently, but unremarkably.
I hear from Meridian that things are set to change, and that it is only a matter of “engineering cycles” that are obviously longer in automotive than in audio, and that soon Meridian will be able to play their systems like they should. The change could not come any sooner.
This was the sound system I spent most time in the company of, as I was fortunate to be offered a test drive of a Bentley New Mulsanne Speed; a 2.4-tonne limousine appointed with the best Naim system available. In my mind two things were crystal clear: 1) That car is stupendous, and 2) Naim Audio should insist on a better head unit to feed into its otherwise excellent system.
The Italian loudspeaker maker is present on one car alone: The Pagani Huayra, a £1.4million, 230mph dream car made in a proprietary material called carbotanium – a weaving of titanium into carbon fibre. Its Flash-Gordon-like cockpit embeds an unspecified head unit that plays 24/44.1 files. Barely enough as a first step, but, coupled with excellent electronics and ultra light drivers built from exotic materials, all made in Vicenza, the car sounds amazing. Timbral quality is where you’d expect it: at the top – a sound very like the excellent smaller speakers in their lineup, but with a a fraction of the weight (low mass is a main design objective on this car).
Several cars have unbranded ‘premium’ systems. Apart from the Seat Cupra and The Tesla S, none impressed.
Tesla deserves a few words, for its unique approach. Even its basic system does its work, adequate for overall balance, timbre, and sound pressure it can generate. Tesla has the advantage of having internalized its design of the multimedia entertainment system. The vast majority of the car’s interaction goes through a 17-inch, vertically mounted touch screen that was developed by IT giant, ViewSonic. From a pure musical performance, however, the upgraded system is definitely worth considering in a luxury saloon like the model S, but it still leaves the purist computer audiophile dissatisfied, because it could have been made to perform ever so much better than it currently does, with so little extra effort.
One general note of disappointment
I believe I can only praise one head unit installation (the Harman system in the Mercedes S-Class, C-Class, and Maybach) for being truly able to play high-resolution sources without glitches. Even though they do this by downconverting all higher-resolution data into a 24/96 file before processing.
All other installations without exception presented glitches that ranged from the minor nuisance to major catastrophe. But better systems are coming, and coming fast…
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