Bowers + Wilkins Bring HiFi Sound to Volvo

We visit the British audio brand factory and drive the 2018 V90 Cross Country

by Andrew Maness

It was at the New York International Auto Show a few years back that we developed a keen interest in the British speaker company Bowers + Wilkins. Since getting a quick demo of their system in the then new second generation Volvo XC90, we wanted to spend more time with it to find out what made it worthy of the praise that was being heaped upon it by jaded automotive journalists. There was good buzz about the system right from the start, and after a total 12 days spent driving two different variants of the 2018 Volvo V90 Cross Country equipped with the sound system, it’s evident why that’s the case.

First and foremost it’s important to understand that the participants in this venture are well-suited to one another and, after visiting each of their respective headquarters, we can attest to the mutual admiration between the two companies. Unlike a great deal of the competition within their markets neither is currently, nor have they been in the past, in the habit of designing for the sake of design. For B+W the modus operandi is “Make it sound great, then consider the design” and for Volvo it’s, “Make it safe, then consider the design.” For B+W, great sound means delivering the most honest representation of a composition as it was recorded. This is what makes for a truly impressive HiFi audio system and oddly enough what turns some people off HiFi. If a recording isn’t very good, then that’s going to come through on a set of high-end HiFi speakers, not everyone wants that. Many people are happy with the highly compressed and filtered sound of earbuds or laptop speakers. The illusion of high-quality audio is easy to produce with lots of bass and volume.

For many people, spending $3,000+ on a pair of bookshelf speakers isn’t realistic. It’s interesting, then, that 30% of buyers choose to equip their Volvos with the $3,000 B+W system on models when possible. That’s a high take rate, and a reasonable price considering all the technical expertise possessed by B+W—they do not simply put their name of some speaker grilles and call it a day. The British brand is also candid about the fact that they don’t work with just anybody, and their automotive partners are carefully selected.

Volvo came to them, asked if they’d do a high-end system for their vehicles and B+W agreed only because they were given free reign to design the system to their standards. This means that the system mimics placement and employs materials found in their loudspeakers. This translates to a teardrop diamond-coated tweeter mounted high in the center of the dash that’s properly facing the cabin instead of the windshield as tweeters in most other cars do. Signature kevlar mid-range speakers at the top corners of all four doors do the bulk of the heavy lifting and as is the case with their loudspeakers the kevlar has been left in it’s natural state, so there’s a nice pop of yellow behind the silver grilles. The bass speakers are appropriately mounted low and work together with a rear mounted subwoofer to deliver a powerful and seriously clean punch.

In the world of car design, particularly interior design, it’s increasingly rare when anyone but the beancounters get their way. Volvo however had the good sense to let the engineers at B+W do what they do best and work closely with their own team in Gothenburg to install a system that is worthy of the Bowers + Wilkins name. The scrutiny is understandable as when you are in the business of selling hand built $60,000 speakers and you count Abbey Road and Skywalker Ranch as clients, reverence for your name is rather important. From all my time spent behind the wheel of the V90 Cross Country, to sitting in a B+W sound experience room hearing a variety of genres I was treated to new experiences with familiar music.

On our drive down from London to the B+W headquarters in the southern coastal town of Worthing, we actually visualized the arrangement of Bowie and his band on The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Being able to place sound and get a sense of space is the true gift of HiFi and to accomplish that in a contained environment like the cabin of a car is impressive. Not because a car is a bad place to listen to music either, because it’s not. For the engineers at B+W it actually couldn’t be better, they have all the information about the space, materials and general position of the listeners. These are all variants when it comes to home audio, but in a vehicle the parameters are set. So if the system has been engineered correctly, a car is actually among the best places to enjoy music.

Clarity is a word that gets carelessly thrown about when discussing HiFi and while there are varying degrees of what it can mean in terms of sound reaching your ear, we now have a new definition following the visit to B+W. We have heard “The Ocean” by Led Zeppelin hundreds and hundreds of times. The cut that made it on the album famously begins with Bonham counting the band in, “We’ve done four already but now we’re steady…” On the B+W system, there’s a vocal bleed through of an earlier recording that is audible just before Page comes in on the guitar. It’s there because they couldn’t properly erase the tape and so they just recorded over the previous takes and until hearing it on a B+W system, it was inaudible for us.

That’s clarity, that’s the magic of HiFi and why B+W do what they do. It’s not about numbers, but rather about the visceral experience the product delivers. This is also true of Volvo, who have long-been less concerned with being the makers of the fastest or most powerful cars and more interested in delivering a well-balanced automobile that’s suitable for many variations of life. Now having seen firsthand what goes into this collaboration, we’re very much looking forward to seeing what they do next.

Images by Andrew Maness