Why car hifi should be taken seriously

How many hours do you spend in your motor each week? It’s small wonder so many cars offer upgraded hi-fi systems these days – and often, the sound on offer is a revelation

If you think upgraded car audio is all about sound-off competitions and battered Beemers booming their way down the high street, you’re out of date.

Serious car hi-fi is one of the biggest growth areas in audio right now, with respected brands such as Bang & Olufsen, Bowers and Wilkins, Dynaudio and Naim working alongside some of the most illustrious names in motoring to deliver sound quality even a hardened audiophile would consider impressive.

So why is this happening? According to Richard Leopold, Bentley’s head of product marketing, “A few years back there was a lot of talk about people being able to use their cars as somewhere to work – but in reality, our cars are being used as an escape route from the hustle and bustle.

"In that sense, the audio experience ?is a big part of the pleasure factor. You can listen to music without being distracted by other sources of sound and, of course, you’re also able to benefit from a very controlled environment”.

Sound is important once again
Naim’s managing director Paul Stephenson concurs: “Sound quality used to be great in cars. I remember listening to in-car valve radios that were superb. But somehow, over the years, sound got worse; it became less of a priority. ?"Now, it’s coming to the fore again”.

So, what drives a car manufacturer to approach an audio brand in the first place? In some cases, it’s a simple case of choosing a name that prospective buyers are likely to identify with: it’s no surprise that Bose, surely one of the most well-known names in audio, has also achieved such success in the car audio business, and to an extent Bang & Olufsen’s rise to prominence is equally easy to understand. But what of Bowers and Wilkins, Dynaudio and Naim?

“We searched for a natural technical partner, and Bowers and Wilkins met our requirements perfectly,” says Matt Jones, Jaguar technical specialist for audio systems. “We wanted an audio system with no compromise, one that could transparently play back any material faithfully. We realised that, from the start, the audio team at Bowers and Wilkins wanted to deliver exactly the same thing.”

High-quality, hand-crafted and engineering-led

Bentley’s infotainment manager Ian Kendall agrees: “A key task was finding the right partner to deliver our vision. We wanted someone with high-quality, hand-crafted, engineering-led solutions, and Naim seemed an ideal fit. The fact that they were British and relatively local was helpful, too. And we’re immensely proud of the results. What we’ve created is a hi-fi in a car, not a car hi-fi in the traditional, clichéd sense”.

Packaging's the problem...
Once the correct technical partnerships are in place, it’s time to address the key obstacles to delivering good sound in a car. Some of these are obvious – noise, for example – but by far the biggest hurdle is packaging. Here, a lot depends on how early in the day any prospective audio system can be planned into the development process of the car itself.

According to Naim’s Stephenson, “When we first got involved in the Bentley project, it was almost a finished chassis, so most speakers were in a pre-defined position. Kendall adds: “We had to work around the speaker location constraints that were already there in our existing cars. You might find it hard to believe, but there’s a lot of stuff to get into a car like this. However, as we look to carry on this process in future cars, we’ll be able to bring Naim’s expertise into our designs at an earlier stage.”

The Bowers and Wilkins development team encountered similar issues working on Jaguar’s XF saloon, but in the striking new XJ luxury car (above) things are set to be very different.

Says Jones: "In the past, we've designed a car and then added speakers. This time we haven’t done that: from day one, we’ve worked to create a fully integrated system”.

...Positioning is the key
Stuart Nevill, applied research engineer at Bowers and Wilkins, echoes that: “With the XJ, we had a large influence in key factors such as speaker location, as can be seen in the final design of the car’s cabin. We were able to put our speakers in the near-optimal locations to provide ideal soundstaging, complete with large grilles that don’t obstruct the sound at all”.

B&W's distinctive Kevlar drivers in the new Jaguar XJ

This apparently simple development should confer huge benefits. A car’s interior actually offers loudspeaker engineers some advantages: its acoustic space –the total volume of air that the loudspeakers have to drive – is constant and predictable, as is the acoustic make-up of the space itself.

To ensure that this advantage ?is fully exploited, you need to place speakers where acoustics dictate they should best work, which doesn’t always sit well with the aesthetic and packaging considerations facing car designers.

But not with the new Jaguar: according to Jones, “Getting all 20 speakers in their ideal locations really sets the foundation for what we’ve delivered with this car”.

Of course, even if the speakers are correctly located, you might not be. Here, DSP (Digital Signal Processing) can help, by working to shift the soundstage to the driver’s advantage.

Bentley is proud of the ‘Naim Audiophile’ mode it offers: it provides the most recognisably ‘hi-fi’ sound we’ve heard in a car – and one that should impress even a hard-nosed enthusiast.

Jaguar is equally bullish about the new XJ’s powerful suit of DSP and surround processing (as a world-first in a car, it offers Dolby Pro-Logic IIx and DTS Neo:6 modes), but it’s the Audyssey MultiEQ XT equalization, as found on high-end AV amps, that should help lift this system on to an even higher plane.

We’ll be the first to test it later this year – watch this space.

This article, along with reviews of in-car systems from VW and Volvo to Jaguar and Bentley, appears in the new issue of the What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision Ultimate Guide to High End Entertainment, on sale now.

You can find it at Asda, Borders, Sainsburys, WH Smith and WH Smith Travel, plus selected independent newsagents.

Or you can subscribe online.