Published On: May 2, 2011

The Best Seat in the House Isn’t in Your House: A Look at Bowers & Wilkins’ Jaguar Sound System

Published On: May 2, 2011

The Best Seat in the House Isn’t in Your House: A Look at Bowers & Wilkins’ Jaguar Sound System

Unless you are actually in the industry, and perhaps even then, chances are that you spend much more of your music-listening time in your car than you do in your home. Bowers & Wilkins designed their Jaguar sound system with this in mind.

JAGUAR_XKR_CU.gifHow much time do we really spend listening to our beloved two channel or home theater systems? Be honest. Now, how much time do we spend in our cars? Living in Southern California the answer to that last question is a lot. For instance, my commute from my home to my former employer’s office was a whopping 36 miles – one way – and while that may not seem like a lot to some of you, the time it took me to traverse 36 miles was anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes. That’s right, I said an hour and a half to two hours one way; that means round trip I was spending close to four hours in my car each and every day I commuted to work. That’s 20 hours a week, 80 hours a month or 960 hours a year. Now let’s revisit my first question, how many hours do you spend listening to your two-channel or home theater system? For me the two didn’t even compare.

Additional Resources
• Read more unique content like this in our Feature News section.
• See similar stories in our Industry Trade News section.

It’s no wonder so many high-end audio manufacturers are getting into the automotive space. Lexus has Mark Levinson, Hyundai has Lexicon and now BMW, Audi, Aston Martin and Mercedes AMG all have Bang & Olufsen. And Bose, well they’re pretty much everywhere else. So it should come as no surprise that Jaguar has partnered with a high-end audio company of their own: Bowers & Wilkins. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of high-end car stereos; however I have found most of them to be quite dreadful, for while the components themselves may be top flight, the conditions in which they’re asked to perform are anything but. Example, my old 2008 Corvette coupe with its Bose sound system sounded horrid because of the Vette’s inferior build quality and lack of proper sound dampening, leading me and several of my friends to dub it the “rattle wagon.” Of course when you turned the stereo off and mashed your foot on the accelerator all was forgiven but a lot good that does when you’re stuck in traffic. The same held true for my 2006 Mercedes SLK 350 and even my 2007 Mercedes SL55 AMG. Both systems sounded good while parked in my driveway but turned ugly at speed. Even my 2007 Land Rover LR3 suffered a similar fate. So I wasn’t holding out much hope for Bowers & Wilkins new surround sound system found in all three Jaguar models.

Boy was I wrong.

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As equipped, my review XKR carried a sticker price of a little over $100,000, which is up from the XKR’s base price of $96,125. Of course if you don’t need the XKR’s 510 horsepower, supercharged V8 engine you can save yourself a bit by going with the base XK starting at $83,000. The extra cost for my car came in the form of 20-inch Kalimnos Alloy Wheels ($5,000), a special order leather option ($1,000) and Adaptive Cruise Control ($2,300), bringing the total to $104,800 after fees and such. I was pleased to find (for I thought it was an optional extra) that the 525-Watt, 7.1 Bowers & Wilkins surround sound system came standard with the XKR. The Bowers & Wilkins stereo is also standard with the less expensive and less powerful XK model; in fact it’s standard in all but the lowest XF sedans, where it carries a $2,000 up charge. The Mark Levinson upgrade for a Lexus ISF or the Bang & Olufsen package for an Audi S5 coupe will cost you roughly $4,000 and $805 respectively. Even stepping up to a Bose sound system will result in you having to purchase a higher trim level, which in the case of my Chevrolet Corvette meant I had to come an additional $2,600 out of pocket for “better” sound. While the XK and XKR may be costly, the addition of the premium sound system adds a little something to their value.

Accompanying the Bowers & Wilkins speakers is a six-disc in-dash CD changer with WMA and MP3 compatibility. Sorry, no DVD here. There is a portable audio interface (aka iPod adaptor) present along with a USB input, both of which are located in the XKR’s center console. Bluetooth is standard as is HD Radio and SIRIUS Satellite Radio (subscription not included). The entire system is controlled via a seven inch full color touch screen monitor located dead center of the dash, with track skip, volume and input controls also being found on the XKR’s steering wheel.

Read more about the Jaguar B&W system on Page 2.

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But how does it sound? In a word, excellent – though like your home system the car’s interior (the room) plays a huge part in how the system reacts. Most car audio systems lack subtlety and texture, not to mention air and natural dynamics. A lot of automotive sound systems miss what makes your home system great because of a lack of sound dampening or in the case of my former Vette, poor build quality, resulting in too much ambient noise from the outside world or worse, mechanical sounds emanating from inside the cabin itself. The XKR solves this problem by being one of the quietest cars I’ve ever been in. For example, sitting in my listening chair with virtually everything in my house turned off, the ambient noise in my room is between 39 and 43dB on my SPL meter. Sitting inside the Jaguar XKR at the park-n-ride lot less than 50 yards off California’s North 14 freeway, the ambient noise inside the cabin was 44dB. Sitting in the same parking lot with the engine idling and the AC set to 65-degrees (on an 80-degree day), the noise inside the cabin peaked at 60dB, with its average being more in the mid to low 50s. Standing just outside the Jaguar XKR’s cabin in the same parking lot next to the 14 freeway my SLP meter read an average of 84dB with peaks between 92 and 94dB. To say the XKR’s cabin is quiet is an understatement for even while driving at the posted speed limits, with revs steady at around 2,500, the ambient noise level hovered in the mid to low 50’s.

In terms of musical performance, the XKR’s quiet cabin meant I heard more of the music more of the time without having to result to drastic increases in volume. Also, the XKR’s cabin helped retain Bowers & Wilkins’ trademark sound; a sound I know all too well for I use Bowers & Wilkins’ flagship 800 Series Diamonds as my reference loudspeaker in my home system. The Bowers & Wilkins’ speakers inside the XKR sounded more like monitor loudspeakers placed upon the dash than mid/bass drivers resting in a door, thanks in part to the various DSP settings, which include Dolby ProLogic II. The DSPs can be defeated; however because of the tight quarters and off-center listening position I don’t recommend it. I should point out that besides faux surround sound settings you can also “aim” the center imaging within the cabin to favor all passengers or more importantly the driver. For the bulk of my listening I kept the sound agreeable for all passengers, which in an XKR means you plus one.

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Getting back to the system’s sound, I was surprised by how open and airy the upper frequencies were. Most cars’ high frequency response is non-existent, beamy or brittle. Not the case with the XKR for its high frequency performance possessed a staggering amount of detail, air and decay. At higher volumes the tweeters had it in them to compress a bit and could sound a touch harsh with certain source material, but overall and when played at reasonable volumes the aluminum dome tweeters of the Bowers & Wilkins system were more than up to the task. The midrange, a Bowers & Wilkins staple, was lush without a great deal of artificial warmth and retained the focus, tone and presence I’ve come to expect from the brand. The bass was taut and plenty deep without being annoying, possessing true impact and scale without losing sight of the textural details that add dimensionality to any performance. If you’re accustomed to or like the sound of a couple of woofers rattling around inside the trunk of a 89 Honda Civic then I’m afraid the Bowers & Wilkins’ sound, specifically its bass performance, isn’t going to be for you.

Another surprise about the sound was just how coherent it was. A lot of component speaker systems fail to blend with the various other drivers throughout the cabin – a fate that did not befall the Bowers & Wilkins setup. From the lowest of bass to the highest of highs the sound was largely seamless and presented, like I said earlier, much in the same manner as you would expect from a pair of compact mini-monitors mated to a separate subwoofer. Dynamics were incredible, thanks in part to the ultra quiet cabin, and there was even a soundstage, albeit small. Most importantly the sound was always enjoyable and not too critical of the source or source material, a must in my book given that the majority of music played back through such a system will most likely come from a portable device such as an iPod.

The main issue I had with the sound system itself wasn’t the Bowers & Wilkins speakers but the wonky head unit charged with controlling them. In a world of Microsoft Sync and hands free command, the Jaguar’s head unit and touch screen control is shamefully dated and clunky – two things you don’t want in a six-figure automobile. Back in the early 2000’s when the new XK and XKR were introduced the touch screen interface was crazy-sexy-cool but today its slow response time, animated controls and poor resolution are not only unbefitting of a luxury automobile but downright dangerous, especially when making hands free phone calls, for there is virtually nothing “hands free” about it. There are hard controls for basic commands like cabin temperature but to control items such as the seat warmers or to set a specific temperature you’re going to have to use the touch screen. Likewise for the XKR’s trip info and vehicle information, both of which are buried way down in the various onscreen menus. Happily, Jaguar’s new XJ sedan remedies many of the issues that plague the XK and XKR, leading me to believe that future models will benefit.

So, has the best seat in the house become the driver’s seat of our cars?

Well, if you’re fortunate enough to drive a 2011 Jaguar XKR – perhaps, for while it isn’t equal in terms of its sonic performance when compared to its freestanding brethren, it’s surprisingly close in many regards and wholly enjoyable. Not to mention the cabin literally cocoons you in comfort and luxury that makes sitting in traffic a somewhat pleasurable experience if you have the right playlist. Plus, when the roads do open up there’s 510 supercharged horses waiting in the wings to add a bit of spice to the experience, not that you’ll really hear the XKR’s Aluminum V8 for the cabin could easily double as a isolation chamber. While I could go on about the XKR’s driving dynamics, automatic gearbox and ultimate appeal, the fact remains that for long trips or blasts up the coast, the XKR is pretty hard to beat. While its six figure-ish asking price may seem steep, if given the choice between it and, say, a pair of Wilson Audio Alexandria X2s ($135,000 per pair) or a six figure reference system, I’d choose the Jag every time.

Additional Resources
• Read more unique content like this in our Feature News section.
• See similar stories in our Industry Trade News section.

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