Twenty years ago, a £4,500 car audio system would have immediately made you think of neon lights mounted underneath the car, a boot packed full of subwoofers, and bass that could be heard from ten blocks away. Today, performance audio in cars is a completely different affair, with manufacturers selecting audio brands they feel suit their sensibilities to offer their customers an elevated listening experience behind the wheel. Indeed, Bowers & Wilkins works with five leading automotive partners in bringing True Sound to life for drivers of BMW, Volvo, Maserati, McLaren and Polestar cars. To achieve True Sound in motion, Bowers & Wilkins forges its own path when it comes to developing its car audio systems with partners. Work begins early in the vehicle life cycle. Very early in fact. It’s likely that Bowers & Wilkins engineers see a new car long before it even looks like the finished article. Appropriate then, as Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers are acoustically developed first, before industrial design is applied later in the development process.
This early involvement means that traditional obstacles in loudspeaker placement can be overcome. Space is at a premium inside a car, and so working with counterparts at the car manufacturers, Bowers & Wilkins engineers strive to optimise the positioning of each transducer, or speaker, for the occupants. Further to this, control over the audio ‘stack’ is also achieved, meaning the entire system is designed as a whole. This is one reason a Bowers & Wilkins audio system cannot be retrofitted; it is part of the fabric of the car itself. We take the same approach with the current generation of Philips TVs with sound by Bowers & Wilkins. As with car systems, being part of that early development process is critical, if you want to shift perceptions in a category as we do. It is for this reason we have had enduring relationships with our partners, for example launching the first BMW with the Diamond Surround Sound System, the 7 Series, in 2015. 6 years and 6 vehicles (plus several derivatives) later, we have just welcomed the newest vehicle with Bowers & Wilkins sound, the iX.
Considering the car is the place where most people enjoy music outside the home*, it’s not hard to see why there is such interest in bringing superior sound quality to a vehicle’s interior. The car has a long tradition of music being a part of the experience. It’s the soundtrack to the perfect drive, and the company you need on a long journey home.
But – it is as much about the how as the why. Look inside a BMW with the Diamond Surround Sound System and you will find Diamond Dome tweeters developed from the technology found in 800 Series Diamond. In Volvo and McLaren cars, and on Philips TV models you can proudly see Tweeter-on-Top: a hallmark of Bowers & Wilkins acoustic design, found on our 700 Series and 800 Series models. Continuum mid-range drivers are also found in Volvo & McLaren, its unmistakable silver-coloured weave visible through the sculpted and acoustically optimised speaker grilles. These innovations lend authenticity to the implementation. And it doesn’t end there. Advances in the level of integration are evident in McLaren’s latest model for example, where the subwoofers are integrated into the carbon-fibre tub itself, enabling a stiffer mounting point for reduced bass distortion.
When Bowers & Wilkins launched its first headphones, the P5, in 2010, it marked the first product the company had made that wasn’t a loudspeaker. How, then, would a headphone live up to the Bowers & Wilkins name? In a word: consistency. Every product we make is developed and tuned by the same acoustic engineers, now based at Southwater Research & Engineering (SRE), U.K. This ensures that every model is aligned with the philosophy of True Sound that John Bowers prescribed decades before. That same group of talented engineers (and musicians – when time allows) also tune every car, every TV, to make sure it sounds like Bowers & Wilkins: as the artist intended. Moreover, they don’t just tune for each vehicle manufacturer, they tune each model individually. A Volvo S90 for example is quite different to an XC90 and so the systems are tuned and configured with that in mind. Only when a Bowers & Wilkins product is exceptional enough to have the wordmark applied does it earn its badge. Our partnerships’ products are no different; only when we have optimised every part of the system, and seamlessly integrated it into our partners’ product will we put our name to it. This includes visual integration. Whether the illuminated Diamond-Dome tweeter in a BMW or the woofer grilles in a McLaren, every component is designed to blend with and accent the aesthetic of the car we are in. It is that use of the brand name that makes Bowers & Wilkins so very special in this area – never just a label; we are always a very real part of the whole.
The systems don’t stop at hardware, either. Just as home audio has evolved to offer the listener more customisation, so too have in-car audio systems. Graphic equalisers and rock/pop/jazz settings have moved aside for more immersive and authentic sound modes – the most recent Volvo models equipped with Bowers & Wilkins can now recreate the experience of the iconic Nefertiti Jazz Club and Gothenburg Concert Hall. Enabled by speaker technologies, you can recreate the intimate feeling of Nefertiti, with its low ceilings, or the spacious grandeur of Gothenburg’s famous concert hall. Sound modes can also provide the listener with an experience conducive to being on-stage with the artist or optimised specifically for rear-seat passengers.
You might have recently caught an announcement from us that our partnership with Abbey Road Studios has extended from headphones and loudspeakers to include the in-car audio experience. We’ll keep a lid on that for now, but it re-enforces what is possible for the car-audio systems of tomorrow.
So, you may be a selecting your next Volvo, BMW, McLaren, Maserati or Polestar. Buying a new car can be complex and multi-faceted, meaning you may not decide on your next vehicle based on its audio system alone. But as you are sifting through the list of options, perhaps now knowing what lengths we go to in order to create True Sound with our partners might help shape your options list in favour of performance audio by Bowers & Wilkins.
*Sound United brand study 2021.