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Review: Audi and Bang & Olufsen premium sound systems

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by Danny Kaey on March 17 '08

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I must have uttered “Sportscars for your living room,” our SonicFlare tagline, hundreds of times over the past half year or so.

It all began rather unassumingly when I visited the North American headquarters for Bang & Olufsen, the famous Danish premium lifestyle home audio manufacturer, headquartered in Chicago last fall. That same day I was able to sample B&O's and Audi's top of the line masterpiece.

 

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Masterpiece?  Considering I sat inside Audi’s stunning A8 flagship with the W12 engine and premium B&O sound system, my mind could have wandered off to so many other places: as a car nut (in my other life I would by now have been a crowning Formula 1 champion, had it not been for … oh… that’s a long story) on top of being an audio / music freak, there certainly were plenty of distractions that could have taken my mind.  The B&O system, a $7800 option on the A8, was immediately welcoming, dynamic and engaging, while showing no signs of typical automotive environment short falls – boomy bass, loosy-goosey treble and sucked out midrange.  Refined SonicCircle sound comes to mind, much like the recently reviewed Transporter music-streaming device. 

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Sure enough, much has changed in the world of high-end audio in the automotive environment.  I vividly remember my dad taking his new Benz (the supreme of all Benz’s as far as I am concerned: 450 SEL 6.9) to a “specialist” shop to get the stock el-cheapo stuff ripped and replaced with a top of the line Blaupunkt system (back in the day when Blaupunkt actually was high-end) – that my dear friends was ca. 1980, literally eons ago in automotive speak.  Today, most every premium automobile manufacturer has at least one if not more premium audiophile quality sound systems to offer: B&O in the Audi, Burmester and Bugatti, Bowers&Wilkins and Jaguar, etc.

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Of all the German premium automobile manufacturers, Audi has quickly established itself as the force to be reckoned with.  Sales are up, no - make that WAY up - thanks in part to stunning styling, phenomenal performance and that special thing, German engineering.  Combine that with the clever engineering and understanding of all things audio via Bang & Olufsen and you have a dynamite combo on hand.  Fast-forward to October, when I was invited to track test Audi’s latest fall collection of insanely great performance automobiles: the RS4, S5 and the R8.  Naturally, each of these fine cars had the respective B&O system, except for the RS4, which featured Bose’s top of the line audio system. 

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The RS4 is a high-revving (8.2k redline) 420hp monster, which in the proper hands yields excitement and fun like no other convertible I've driven in recent memory.  Most amazing of all, you can enjoy decent music with the top down and the wind deflector up; in fact, that’s how I drove it around the track.  Of course, at break neck speeds, listening to the stereo seems a somewhat silly prospect, which is were the fabulous engine sound more then makes up for.  The deep growl that emanates all the way to redline is unlike your screaming for murder screech say a Ferrari V8 produces.  Quite joyful and musical, I would pin it around Vivid on the SonicCircle – ha! Just kidding.  Once back down to more mundane speeds, the premium Bose system sounds quite nice, considering the typical problems a car has, much less a convertible.  I’d put it right there in the Emotional SonicCircle; everything is rather sweet and overly warm; perfect for something late night with Dean Martin, less so for say the latest Rammstein CD.

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The S5 is Audi’s latest car and what a magical ride it is: a coupe of healthy proportions, it rides on the next generation A4 platform.  The lines are striking as they are smooth; there are no sharp angles anywhere (an Audi trademark since the dawn of the new era, the Audi 100 in 1982) and the car feels right at home anywhere from the long stretches of I-5 north to the coolest, hippest Hollywood party on Sunset Boulevard, not to mention Mullholland Drive with its twists and turns. 

The S5 shares the same V8 platform as the RS4 and R8, however, here it is slightly detuned with a bit less power (350hp) and a flatter torque curve.  The B&O system it was installed is a fully spec’d sound system, however, it does not feature B&O’s headline splashing “Acoustic Lens” system as in the A8 and recently announced Q7.  No less spectacular, the B&O takes the sound to the exact opposite of the premium Bose system: Intense.  Of course, the acoustic space in the S5 is also the exact opposite of the RS4 cabriolet, thus there’s more acoustic room for Audi’s and B&O’s engineers to play with. 

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What you get is a dynamic, tightly focused, slightly cooler presentation, yet without the edge and in your face glare of the Precise group.   The graphic display allows you to further customize the sound via powerful DSP: from a strictly 2-channel optimized setup to quasi surround sound; care for more driver oriented ambience?  No Problem.  Surprisingly, rear passenger sound was the equal of sitting in the captain’s chair; really, no matter where you sat, the presentation was much the same. 

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The S5 drives beautifully, if a bit nose heavy and (too) fool proof: Infinion Raceway has a couple of interesting and challenging turns that could quickly yield precarious situations to the inexperienced motorist.  Fortunately, the driving aides and overtly “pushy” nature (ie. massive understeer) of the S5 saves you from virtually any situation you could think of.  Getting a quick lap around the track is best done with earlier than usual turn-in, clipping the apex just right and flooring the throttle a split second or so sooner, with the growl of the mighty V8 building up to the 7k redline. 

The R8 on the other hand is a totally different beast.  A true mid-engine sportscar by nature, it has a nearly perfect balance.  Understeer has been tamed quite a bit, the car is pretty much dead-on setup wise, or at least, as good as it can be given the nature of the target audience.  An absolutely gorgeous car, I can’t recall the last time I was being pulled over and chased down (!) by other drivers asking to be photographed and taken for a ride.  

S5070033_small.jpgAudi has hit one so far out the ballpark, it’s absolutely amazing, to say the least.  The V8 is virtually the same as in the RS4; ie. you get the full 420hp output and same 8200 rpm redline, with a peakier torque curve.  Shifting is done either manually via a 6 speed gated clack-clack shifter or Audi’s fantastic 6 speed DSG double-clutch system.  I’ll take the DSG over the manual any day of the week, thank you very much.  Purists may disagree, alas, I feel that the modern nature of the R8 is predestined to be mated to the DSG, which, when down-shifting, automatically blips the throttle to match engine revs.  Shifting is nearly instant, yet, without the usual single-clutch type clunks and shudders you typically feel in such semi-automatic systems.  What can I say, the R8 is one-helluv-a-car, I would own one in a heartbeat, if I had the spare 130k sitting around.  The sound system is a two-way street – what’s your preference, hearing the throaty V8 behind you, or Beethoven’s 9th?  Hint: even with the B&O system surrounding you, it’s really either or, rarely both.  I suppose cruising down Sunset or Wilshire as you jet to your next agent meeting or audition (ha!), I’d have the sound turned up to 11, enjoying the Intense type SonicCircle sound. 

Ultimately what sets these cars apart is that they are superb at the track, Sunset Boulevard, Trader Joe’s or the trip to Fingerprints record store, right here in Long Beach.  Every part of the experience has been carefully, no masterfully, tuned to relieve the driver of anything not absolutely necessary for the drive.  Couple that with a no-brainer sound system (navigation inclusive) on each of these cars and you have yourself a bona fide, near perfect car experience.  Simply put, everything works and works well.  Incidentally, look for a more in-depth analysis of the Audi and B&O marriage in these fine pages shortly.  All that remains is the tie-in to the home audio system once the car is parked in the garage.  Fortunately, you’ve come to the right pages, ‘cause that’s our métier. 

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Comments

So where's the picture of the darn speaker? =\
The R8 really does seem to be an amazing car, based on everything I've seen. It's good to hear it has a worthy sound system too. Nice pics.
The R8 IS really that good... no doubt the S5 is the more practical car, alas, you get great sound in either of them, unless you spring for the A8... the size of the cabin, the genius of the DSP controlled system makes for a transparent listening experience from any seat - this holds true for any of the B&O equipped Audi's. I'd go to a local Audi dealership and go for a test drive...
She sure looks pretty!
Count me jealous of your day at the track. That S5 is really beautiful. Audi pulls off the curved character lines on the sides -- with most manufacturers it looks borderline or entirely goofy (Enclave/Veracruz for ex.)