2014 Audi RS7, 2015 BMW M3, 2015 Hyundai Genesis, 2014 Mercedes-Benz S 550. Click image to enlarge
Review and photos by Peter Bleakney
At our recent mega luxury car group test, we were afforded the unique opportunity of sampling some pretty fine audio systems back-to-back. Naturally, this inspired a group test of its own, focusing in on what is the mercurial ascendance of in-car sound.
Horsepower, torque, acceleration numbers and g-force figures may grab most headlines, but for many luxury vehicle buyers, speaker count, wattage and brand name of the car’s sound system are just as important. And in most cases more relevant.
The days of crap audio in premium vehicles is gone. Within the past decade, we’ve seen automakers pair up with name brand audio providers just like teenagers before the prom. Bentley is with Naim. Lexus has been in bed with Mark Levinson since 1998. Audi is banging Bang and Olufsen. BMW likes Harman Kardon. Hyundai snagged Lexicon. Merceds-Benz is packing Burmester.
Of course, this is not a monogamous scene. Like some musicians (not me, honey), many audio providers move around. They may live at one house, but they like a little action on the side – Bose being perhaps the most promiscuous.
This audio test is far from scientific. After all, music and the appreciation of sound quality is a highly personal thing. Yet, here are three factors that make this exercise plausible.
A) I’m not deaf. Despite almost four decades of being a professional musician, I’ve still got a cute earring – sorry, acute hearing – and having spent more than my fair share of time in a recording studio, I think I have a pretty discerning ear.
B) Most of these systems were tested back to back, with the exception of the Harman Kardon in the BMW M3 and the Bang and Olufsen in the Audi RS7, which were tested against each other on a separate day.
C) CD only please! FM, satellite radio, MP3? Uh, no. I used the same reference disc – an extremely well recorded offering from LA jazz-funk outfit Fourplay. Yeah, hardly rockin’, but the crisp highs, rich lows and incredible separation of this recording provide a crystal clear window into the reproduction qualities of high-end audio.
A couple of other testing notes. The systems were initially tested flat – meaning the EQ settings (bass, treble and sometimes middle) were neither cut nor boosted. Let’s face it, the engineers who toil for months (and sometimes years) on these sonic wonders tune them to run flat. The thought of us bozos cranking the bass and treble up to 11 must give them hives.
I’m not assessing ergonomics or ease of use here – strictly sound quality. And to put this into perspective, every one of these systems is pretty damned awesome. It’s just that some are more excellent than others.
Readers will note that some test vehicles were not equipped the best available systems offered for that model. That’s the way the press car chips fall.
Finally, the vehicles were stationary. There are just too many variables when ambient noise enters the equation – and low-end clarity is usually the first casualty.
Here they are in order of my preference. The vehicle’s bass (sic) price is in parentheses.
2014 Porsche Panamera Bose audio. Click image to enlarge
2014 Porsche Panamera S e-Hybrid ($113,300) with Bose Surround-Sound
This system features 14 speakers including a 200-watt active woofer, 9-channel amplifier and a total output of 585 watts. I’ve heard some great Bose systems, but this upgrade in the four-door Porsche sedan is a bit heavy on the mid-range, lacking some of the rich lows that balance and round out the sound. I also found the top end a little forced – it wasn’t delivering the transparency found in the better systems. Cranking the bass helped (oh yeah, not supposed to do that) but it still sounded a bit one-dimensional. This is a complaint you could level at most Porsche cars (not the Cayenne however). Porsche asks $1,820 for this Bose upgrade.