Can in-car audio ever really sound like hi-fi?

Wed, 23 Jul 2008, 11:39am

I've just got back from the British Motor Show. Why? Quite apart from the fact that I've been helplessly in love with all things automotive since, ooh, birth, it's also because I'm increasingly getting involved in reviewing in-car audio systems, both for What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision, and for our sister title, What Car?.

That's why my show highlight was sitting in a Bentley Flying Spur enjoying its new Naim audio hi-fi system, a £5000, 1100-watt upgrade option that, on my first listen, appears to be worth every penny.

Thing is, despite my best efforts – and those of my esteemed colleague Mr Everard – we weren't able to get hold of a review sample of the new Bentley in time for it to appear in an in-car audio review section in the Ultimate Guide to High-End Entertainment (on sale July 31st, since you ask).

Missing out was a blow – and having just heard it at the Motor Show, I'm even more frustrated that it didn't work out as planned, because on first impressions, this is a genuinely fabulous in-car hi-fi system. In fact, it could be the best of the lot.

Now I fully appreciate I'm talking about a fearsomely expensive luxury car most of you will never sit in, never mind own. Believe me, I'm in the same financial boat as you.

But I'm still thrilled that Bentley decided to enlist Naim's help to devote so much effort to delivering good-quality sound in the car, simply because it means more people are being exposed to the concept of proper hi-fi – people who otherwise might choose to spend their money on other things.

And personally, I think it's a wonderful thing that someone has chosen to construct it in the first place, if only because it would have been much easier not to. After all, and as I commented to Stuart McCullough, member of the board for Sales & Marketing at Bentley, Naim isn't as well-known as, say, Bang & Olufsen or Bose, both rightly respected for their in-car audio systems on a wide range of vehicles.

His response? "We're not overly concerned about high-street recognition. We chose to work with Naim because it's like us: small, tightly knit, adaptable and blessed with an impressive track record in its field. It's a great fit and blends with our brand values 100 per cent."

I'm also well aware that some will always believe that no matter how well-engineered it is, an in-car hi-fi system will never actually sound like hi-fi. Sorry, but that notion is thoroughly out of date. Forget your boom'n'bang preconceptions: I reckon the Bentley Naim system sounds just like proper hi-fi, and just as importantly, just like Naim kit ought.

It's fast, taut, expressive, dynamic when necessary and always rhythmic; it doesn't necessarily go super-deep, but the bass it generates is of the highest, most articulate calibre; and it always – whatever you're playing, from CD to compressed MP3 file – plays a tune.

The full niceties of its performance can wait for a proper review, but based on what I've heard so far, this could be something very, very special indeed. Mr Everard is heading up to Crewe for his own extended listening session next week: I can't wait to hear what he thinks.


Hi Andy

Couldn't agree with you more.  Mercedes worked very closely with Harmon Kardon to develop a bespoke system to go in the new S and CL Class cars.  The result: a fabulous quality of sound perfectly balanced throughout the car, whether it's CD, SACD, DVD Video, or DVD Audio.  In fact, I recall Andrew Everard writing up about this development a couple of years ago in another magazine (clasical music).  So I'm not surprised that other manufacturers are doing the same thing, and why not?  i get to enjoy it almost every day whenever I'm driving!

Unless you have passengers who share your taste in Dvořák, would an IPod, quality headphones and lossles tracks not accomplish the same result for a lot less?  Oh, I'm missing the point here aren't I?

Yes, totally.

As a Bentley and Naim owner I hope we will see your esteemed review in the September issue Mr Everhard, in time to reach me in the States.  Being driven in the rear I would appreciate more dynamic rhythm for a change.

Pardon??!! Laughing out loud

Well Sarah, I'm sure the team will be flying out to ensure you get driven home in style

Not likely to have a review for a while, due to Crewe not having spare cars available ATM. But having had more of a listen over the past couple of days, and spent some time getting to grips with how Bentley see the system and how it fits into the whole package on offer, I am now even more keen to give it a thorough test.

I had the privilege of hearing the system yesterday at the motor show, demoed by Roy George, who I believe led the project at Naim. In my opinion it is very good indeed and I would like to congratulate all concerned on what they have achieved.

Let's hope it makes a few more of the people who can afford a Bentley appreciate what the UK hi-fi industry has to offer.


John Dawson (Arcam)