Mercedes-Benz & Harman-Kardon super systems
by Danny Kaey on December 02 '08
Accompanied by the lovely Larkin Hill (Mercedes Benz’s West Coast PR Lead), I spent some time attempting to elevate my auditory nerves in form of Harman-Kardon’s latest and greatest Mercedes super-systems. Harman-Kardon, once associated with top-flight Hi-Fi gear (Citation anyone?!) is among the few high performance audio companies that have successfully ventured into terra nova, otherwise known as premium car audio. Tuning each equipped Benz individually, the HK system is supposed to be a real treat for the automobile, er, music enthusiast.
I have to admit: I am a big fan of the latest Mercedes design cues; they manage to keep in tact the rich history and heritage of Mercedes automobiles of the past, whilst also moving the line forward with new stylistic elements and cues. First up was the simply awesome CL600 coupe, or yacht on four wheels (calling this merely a coupe would understate the value of this experience dramatically). I’ll leave it up to each individual to make up their own mind, alas; I can’t think of anything more luxurious this side of a Rolls-Royce Phantom. The CL600 has virtually every creature comfort feature you could possibly think of, all packaged and executed flawlessly. Heated and ventilated seats? Check! Seat massage? Check! Like I said, this Merc’ has everything. As that commercial once put so eloquently: “anything else would be uncivilized”.
In keeping with self imposed Hi-Fi review policies, I pulled out my typical DK compilation disc filled with various cuts of groovy tunes, silly beats and the occasional twister. Those who have been following me for the past six years know that there is no better way to test a music system (any music system) with real music as opposed audiophile approved (great sounding) well, er, stuff. Without further ado, I loaded up my disc into the exquisite dashboard of the 600, which consists of HK’s top of the line DSP controlled 11 speaker 600w setup, featuring HK’s proprietary 7.1 Surround Logic decoder.
Essentially, any disc or input is converted to 7.1-pseudo surround (except for native DVD-A surround discs or movies), which HK claims is supposed to give the listener the perception of listening to surround sound. One obvious benefit I discovered during my encounter was how easy and intuitive the entertainment system was to use. The Comand’s massive center console mounted LCD display acts as the central communications unit, where you can easily set typical audio parameters as well as turn the 7.1 surround up-mix on or off (too bad the new myCOMAND wasn’t part of this experience yet!).
Getting good sound inside a car is always a major challenge. Historically, this is one of the main reasons why we are only now beginning to see high performance audio companies enter this difficult, yet lucrative market. After all, you wouldn’t want your carefully crafted image tainted by a mediocre, so-so automotive audio experience. The days of merely slapping a fancy brand name onto a product for the sake of getting exposure are long gone (Pierre Cardin anyone?), thus the reluctance of such companies to enter this market. Fear not, as digital signal processing, DSP, will do the trick. Suffice is to say that purists amongst our flock need not continue reading, as none of the auditioned systems run off of anything but full DSP control (and you thought bass and treble controls on your favorite pre-amp are a big no-no!?).
Digital signal processing allows precisely the tricks of the trade so detrimental to good sound in you car. For example, up-converting two channel stereo to 7.1 surround; taking into account the overall cabin space, distances and other mischievous surroundings to actually make stereo sound as good as it does. Believe me, it is quite a miracle of modern engineering. Further, FEM analysis and modeling allows for each speaker to be integrated individually for optimal sound. It’s actually quite extraordinary how far we have come in terms of high-fidelity music playback in your car.
I played track #1 off my disc – 2raumwohnung’s Da Stehst Du. This purely electronic cut starts off with a pulsating bass line, which carries the whole tune. Add a healthy dose of spatializers, sequencers, glides and punchers and you have a groovy tune fully layered with a wall of sound. Having been spoiled by the wicked good B&O system from various Audi’s and Aston Martin’s DBS, I must say that the presentation in the CL600 was rather superb. Spacious, with layers upon layers of electronica becoming present, though the sound was distinctly warmer than the Audi system, which has a tendency to sound cold, precise and analytical in comparison. Bass (in this stationary demo) was quite good as well. Taught, firm and with good if not excellent definition (haven’t found a car audio system that excels in this area yet) you’d be hard pressed to find faults.
Another superb cut was Dean Martin’s Baby Won’t You Please Come Home off his Dream With Dean disc. Hard to believe this recording is 40+ years old so well preserved are his vocals and backing instruments. Now that voice – if ever there was a better crooner I haven’t heard of him – is truly amazing. Through the HK system, Dino came across alive and right there with you. Perhaps the quintessential feature of the DSP’s 7.1 up-converting processing is its ability to make two-track stereo sound palpable, real and there. Awesome stuff!
Next up was Goldfrapp’s Pilots, the best James Bond song that sadly never was one (note to the producers of the next Bond: check it out!). This cut has everything, from suave, classy arrangements, to those Bond typical horns and strings kicking in at just the right time. Then of course there’s Alison’s vocals. This song gets me every time, it has to be one of my all time favorites. DK is off to la-la land. Hop in the CL600, set the cruise control to 140 (hey, let’s give ourselves a click or two headroom) and point ahead – or in Trekkie lingo: engage! Who needs a home audio system and warm sofa for two? Here again, the HK 7.1 up-mixing does its magic quite supremely. Alison, strings and all take on a believable stage in front of you, stretching far and wide across the dashboard, seemingly into the car next to you. Sweet stuff.
Finally, there’s James Taylor’s magic cut Fire And Rain. Somehow or another (I plead the 5th) I managed to sneak myself a copy off the master tape which makes this album sound better than any other commercial version available. A far more compact recording (which the HK’s system thankfully leaves in tact) than the previous Pilots you still get a sense of who’s who. Here again, JT’s vocals are well preserved and positioned appropriately through the system. Guitar, left; vocals center; drums and string slightly offset to the right. Listening for Russ Kunkel’s drum set coming in about half way through the track, you can almost feel like sitting inside the world’s biggest sub woofer – no dynamic compression or other faults, except for a tiny hint of lag. Nicely done indeed.
Following the CL600, I spent some time in the AMG C63 and AMG SL 63, both of which whilst offering a similar HK system sounded decidedly different – undoubtedly, the cabin space in the SL63 is far smaller than either the CL600 or C63, thus everything seems more compact in size and you don’t seem to get quite that soundstage width and depth as the other two cars (due to my short time on hand, it may also have been a setting or two which I missed … hopefully a more in-depth road test will clarify this). Ultimately it appears as though Mercedes and Harman have a solid product on hand, which should provide the listener with many happy and stress-free moments while on the road to work or play.
I hope to be able to write up some of the other cars in greater detail during an actual road test – all other things being equal, getting good sound in a stationary, parked vehicle is fairly easy these days. It remains to be seen how these Harman Kardon systems will hold up at freeway speeds and around town. Meanwhile head down to your favorite MB showroom and give these systems a spin – they rock!
PS: look for a follow-up article on MB’s all new myCOMAND system shortly… stay tuned!PPS: see ya!