Originally published December 29, 2014
2014 Audi RS7, 2015 BMW M3, 2015 Hyundai Genesis, 2014 Mercedes-Benz S 550. Click image to enlarge
Originally published July 18, 2014
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.
2014 Lexus LS Mark Levinson audio. Click image to enlarge
2014 Lexus LS 460 AWD ($87,950) with Mark Levinson Reference Surround Sound
This system comes as standard equipment in Lexus’s flagship sedan. Lexus states their engineers and Mark Levinson audio technicians spent over 2,000 hours tuning the system that features 19 speakers (including a 10-inch subwoofer), 15 channels and 450 watts with “speaker architecture” designed to deliver 7.1 surround sound. It provides an excellent listening experience, showing an even balance right across the audio spectrum. At this level, I’m looking for an all-encompassing richness that envelops the listener with no sonic peaks or dips. In keeping with the Toyota/Lexus experience, this ML system is all about smooth, silken delivery.
2015 BMW M3 ($75,000) with Harman Kardon
Standard issue with the all-new BMW M3 and M4 is an impressive Harman Kardon system that seems to suit the car’s personality to a tee. It’s powerful, smooth and a touch organic. Juice comes from a 625-watt DSP amplifier that powers 16 speakers – seven tweeters distributed around the dashboard, front, side and rear of the cabin; seven mid-range speaker similarly placed; and two bass woofers under the front seats. Logic 7 processing provides the surround sound action. Along with bass and treble controls, there is an eight-band graphic equalizer if you really need to mess with the sound. I found a slight boost to both low and high frequencies gave the sound more dimension.
2015 BMW M3 Harman Kardon audio. Click image to enlarge
Frankly, at this level of audio reproduction we’re splitting hairs. Anyone listening to a well-recorded CD in this M3 will be convinced it can’t get much better.
That’s before you put the car in Sport+, hammer the throttle and whip through those seven twin-clutched gears while the 425-hp twin-turbo 3.0L straight-six pins you into the gorgeous sport seats… oh crap, wrong story.
2014 Jaguar XJL AWD ($96,490) with Meridian Surround Sound System
Our Jag tester came with an $850 Meridian upgrade that boosts the speaker count of the base system from 14 to 20 (including two subwoofers), and sees the wattage jump from 380 to 825. Everybody has a fancy name for their digital processing that brings on board a 7.1 surround sound experience. British audio experts Meridian (well, it has to be British, eh what?) labels theirs Audyssey MultiEQ sound equalization technology. Call it what you want – it works. This is a hugely impressive system that washes the cabin in a highly nuanced sonic experience – it seems to expand beyond the leather and aluminum, creating a concert hall feel.
I can’t imagine what the 1,300-watt 26-speaker Meridian Reference system does.
2014 Jaguar XJ L Meridian audio & 2015 Hyundai Genesis Lexicon audio. Click image to enlarge
2015 Hyundai Genesis 5.0 Ultimate ($62,000) with Lexicon
The redone flagship Genesis sedan comes with an impressive 900-watt 14-speaker Lexicon system with Logic 7. You’ll hear the term Logic 7 bandied about quite a bit in the audiophile world. This surround-sound technology was originally created by a team of Lexicon engineers for professional recording use. In essence, Logic 7 takes a standard stereo recording and creates a surround-sound simulated multi-channel experience by utilizing a sophisticated matrix and digital algorithms.
Here we have 12 channels, and as would be expected of Lexicon, this system delivers an all-encompassing and extremely accurate audio landscape.
2014 Audi RS7 Bang & Olufsen audio. Click image to enlarge
2014 Audi RS7 ($115,000) with Bang and Olufsen Advanced Sound System
As a package, the RS7 and optional $6,500 B&O audio are a match made in high-tech and high-art heaven. This crazy rapid luxo-hatchback is haute voiture on a stratospheric level, so it seems fitting that the pricy audio upgrade should announce itself on startup with a pair of metallic sculpted tweeters that rise phoenix-like from the dashtop. As does the LCD interface screen.
Here, the visual theatre meets its sonic promise. These tweeters with “acoustic lens” technology are designed to spread high frequencies evenly throughout the cabin. The system delivers over 1,200 watts through 15 speakers, including a rear subwoofer and centre tweeter. Automatic real-time adjustment of equalization and volume compensates for changing condition. To these ears, this B&O might be the most technical sounding system of the group tested, delivering an unprecedented clarity across the complete audio spectrum. One might argue it’s a bit clinical, yet the obvious obsession to detail creates an experience that floors you. Just like the car.
2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Burmester audio. Click image to enlarge
2014 Mercedes-Benz S 550 ($108,200) with Burmester
Well, the newly anointed king of the luxury flagship heap also gets a mighty impressive 13-speaker audio system as standard kit. Mercedes-Benz asked sonic tinkerer Dieter Burmester to tag along while they developed their new S-Class. He worked with Benz for over two years, designing and building his sound system while they designed and built the car. (And it should be noted I’m slumming it with the base system. There is an optional High-End 3D Surround Sound experience with twirling and lighted tweeters, 24 speakers and 24 amplifiers that runs $6,900.)
Base or not, the Burmester system in this Merc fills the cabin with a concert-like experience. A nine-channel 590-watt DSP amplifier does the heavy lifting, but I’m betting much of the nuance and warmth comes from the combination of both digital and analogue filters. Woofers are mounted in the longitudinal beams in the footwells of the driver and passenger “This is the best position as these deep tones can really spread out and fill the space” – so sayeth Burmester.
It makes the already big cabin feel huge. The sound is rich and even with no peaks or valleys in the spectrum. In short, perfectly natural – the kind of hi-fi audio that fully encompasses but never tires. The fact that the Merc’s cabin is tomb quiet contributes to the aural love-in. Burmester says “I want to bathe in the music and I don’t want anything to disturb this moment.”
The beautifully filigreed metal speaker covers on the doors? Visual icing on this multi-tiered sonic cake.