Sonos’ multi-room offering is so extensive it offers a wireless speaker for every space in your house. Over the last few years, it’s extended its reach even further by introducing portable speakers to take out of the home and on your travels. Heck, it’s even teamed up with IKEA to put a speaker in a photo frame. So what’s the next natural step? Take Sonos into your car, obviously.
But Sonos hasn’t dropped its first-ever in-car sound system in any old automobile. It has teamed up with Audi to produce the Sonos Premium Sound System for its all-electric Q4 e-tron.
Some cynics might think it’s just a glorified branding exercise. Of course, there’s no harm in getting the Sonos branding out there and into Audi cars, but Sonos has got itself a reputation for producing some of the best wireless speakers you can buy, delivering excellent sound quality for the money. Hopefully, this trend continues with the Premium Sound System inside the Audi Q4 e-tron.
The Sonos set-up is available for the standard Q4 e-tron and the slightly sleeker Sportback version.
If you go for the top spec Vorsprung trim, the Sonos system comes included as part of the package. Otherwise, you’ll need to tick the box for the Comfort and Sound pack (which costs £1295). Besides Sonos, you also get a reversing camera, advanced parking system and adaptive cruise control. Go on the Audi car configurator and you’ll actually see the system there as a £395 option, but unfortunately, it can’t be added separately.
The Q4 e-tron’s standard Audio Sound system features eight speakers (including subwoofer and centre) and 180W of amplification, while the Sonos Premium Sound System ups the speaker count to 10 speakers. Four tweeters and the centre speaker are driven by an amplifier built into the car’s infotainment platform. A separate eight-channel booster is responsible for the four bass loudspeakers and the subwoofer in the luggage compartment. Together, the two amplifiers deliver an output of 580 watts.
Also built into the system is what Sonos calls its Sonamic Panorama algorithm, developed by the Fraunhofer Institute in Munich. The algorithm is supposed to place individual sound sources on a “virtual U-shaped sound stage” so you get more of a feeling of being in the middle of a performance. Put simply, it uses standard stereo recordings to generate three-dimensional surround sound.
The focal point of the Q4 e-tron’s infotainment is its 11.6-inch MMI touchscreen. On our UK-spec car, it’s positioned to the left of the steering wheel and angled in slightly for the benefit of the driver. We found the angle and position a little awkward, especially when trying to focus on information over on the left hand side of the screen. Besides this screen, there’s also Audi’s virtual cockpit, a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster that stares the driver in the face from behind the steering wheel. Here you can see information for the navigation and media, although if you’re using CarPlay or Android Auto you still need to give your attention to the main touchscreen.
On the plus side, the icons are big and bright, and the sub-menus are relatively easy to navigate. The 10.1-inch screen resolution is 1540 x 720, while the 11.6-inch screen option (Audi’s largest to date) ups this to 1764 x 824 and makes for good-looking graphics, especially when you’re looking at album artwork. It can be a little bit laggy at times, though, and actions such as switching from CarPlay to the car’s sound settings can result in a slight delay and jolt before the screen changes.
Peer down and to your left and you’ll see a touch-sensitive circular pad down on the centre console. Slide your finger around clockwise to turn the system volume level up and in the opposite direction to turn it down. Alternatively, you’ve got touch controls mounted on the steering wheel. It’s set up like a D-pad, where you press up or down for volume or left and right to skip track forwards or backwards – press the control in the direction you want and you get haptic feedback. Pressing down in the middle mutes the volume.
You can slide your finger across to skip tracks and up and down to change volume, too. It works okay, but combining the two methods of control feels a bit like overkill and perhaps it would be better off just doing one of these well. Also, the control pad isn’t particularly nice to use and we found ourselves muting the volume a couple of times, even though it felt like our fingers were pressing on the right area.
System set up
Dive into the sound menus and you’re greeted with some basic adjustments. There’s treble, bass, balance/fader and focus (which allows you to focus the sound at the front of the vehicle, or have it equally dispersed if you’re carrying a full complement of passengers).
We keep the treble and bass settings at their middle position and prefer the focus of the sound to be on the ‘all’ setting as the system sounds more at ease. Focus brings a bit more information and intensity to the front of the cabin, but to us, the ‘all’ setting is better balanced.
Having the Sonos system onboard opens up a new sound setting that you don’t find on the standard system, ‘Panorama’. We’ve seen Audi systems offer a 3D effect before, especially if the car happens to have speakers built into the A pillars. The Q4 doesn’t have such speakers, so it has to simulate the effect.
The Sonamic Panorama algorithm, to give its full name, alters the width of the soundstage and attempts to introduce an element of height. You can flick between low and high settings or simply have it turned off.
You can hear the sound stretch up in front of you, leaving the vocals sounding a little recessed. For us, the high setting takes things a little too far and compromises the soundfield, robbing it of clarity and dynamic reach. We found the low setting much easier to live with, although we tended to listen with the feature turned off.
During testing, we’ve been lucky enough to hear the standard system and the Sonos alternative, so the big question is: did we hear a difference? And if so, is it a positive one?
The short answer is yes. The Sonos system sounds more direct and focused. All the elements are locked into place whereas the standard system and its placement of things and the precision with which they’re deployed are quite vague in comparison. There’s more of a purpose to the Sonos system’s sound which in turn makes it more exciting and interesting to listen to.
In fact, the Sonos system in the Audi Q4 e-tron shares a lot of the character traits we’ve heard from its wireless speakers.
This means you’re treated to a detailed, balanced and neutral sound that’s not aggressively bright, nor is the bass unruly or leaden. The delivery is snappy and lively with the system producing excellent large-scale and low-level dynamics which helps classical tracks such as Holst’s Jupiter really make the listener sit up and take notice. The track’s driven along at a good pace too, thanks to the system’s excellent rhythmic ability and sense of timing. Compared to some of the Bang & Olufsen systems we’ve heard in Audi’s smaller cars in the past, the Sonos seems to offer greater drive and more dynamic impact, making things more fun to listen to.
Play Muse’s Dead Inside, and there’s a real sense of authority to the hefty drum kicks but that contrasts with the crispness of the rest of the drum kit and percussion. Every element sounds clear with the system digging out plenty of information for the listener. Matt Bellamy’s vocal sounds dramatic and expressive, and matches up nicely with the boisterous nature of the track.
Some might feel the standard set-up lacks a little impact in the bass, but you can adjust this in the settings. With some systems, it usually doesn't take much more than bumping things up a couple of notches to send things over the edge, but with the Sonos set-up, it subtly increases the amount of bass and allows you to do a bit more fine tuning.
When we heard Sonos was making the move into the automotive, we were wondering whether it would be able to maintain the standards set by its wireless speakers. But, faced with a new environment, new constraints and new challenges, Sonos seems to have navigated them all without issue. Its first in-car sound system is a complete success and the fact that Sonos is coming to the Audi A1, Q2 and Q3 at some point bodes extremely well for the future.