NYIAS

NYIAS 2015: Harman International and everyone else

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NYIAS_LogoThere were a lot of tremendously awesome things to see and touch (or not) at the NYIAS this year. Alfa Romeo’s vintage roundup was an extremely distracting highlight, and it was only one of many.

From a purely automotive side, there was quite a bit that was drool-worthy. Some highlights:

  • Ford GT “Supercar”. At $400k, this thing looks like it actually costs every penny.
  • McLaren 570S. It’s just a bit less than half the price of the Ford, and looks as exotic. Also, it’s not a Ford, so it’s probably actually worth it. The specs on this thing are insane, but the look of it says “bite me, Lambo”. The deck was so mobbed, I never really got a good shot of it, but it’s big track-only brothers (the P1 GTR in yellow-with-green and 675LT in grey) were absolute monsters.
  • Toyota’s FT-1. This thing looks just plain dangerous. I mean that literally — the doors are pointy. The whole thing looks like an anime illustrator’s wet dream, but the look actually works.

As for “The Project”, Alex and I learned some very interesting things about the intersection of high-end auto and high-end audio.

  1. Harman International is into just about everything. With the possible exception of Meridian and Burmester, Harman is the only serious player — especially so, with B&O now under new management. That is, it isn’t a terribly competitive space. Given Harman’s incredible investment, collecting all of the various brands, you have to assume that this is where they feel the money is in high-end audio. In cars. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to see that they’ve probably nailed it.
  2. No one in the auto industry knows anything about audio. There may be a couple of unicorns out there, but statistically, they’re irrelevant. The only audio stat these folks know is measured in watts.
  3. Audio-in-auto has not yet reached it’s Golden Age. The world of the aftermarket is probably “where it’s at” in terms of the purists’ pursuit of sonic excellence, but even in cars costing more than a NYC apartment, the audio system is almost never more than window dressing.
  4. Even with all that said, high-quality sound in an automobile is hardly the oxymoron that The Audiophile seems to innately believe. In point of fact, some of these systems are not only “very good”, they’re downright excellent, and at prices (added to the base, that is) that are embarrassingly cheap. That’s true even the “over the moon” audio systems in cars mostly likely to only show up driven by a Saudi prince. It’s refreshing, actually.

Over the next few months, I’m going to reach out to a few PR contacts I made to see if we can wrangle a few longer-term tests out of them. Mainly because I want a McLaren in my driveway. Or a Rolls. That would be superb. I’ll keep you all posted, to be sure.

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Alfa Romeo had the best-looking cars on the show-floor, and the models to prove it.

 

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High-end bourbon bar. Whistle Pig, anyone?

 

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Old friends John DeVore and Alex Roy, between interviews around “The Hoax”

 

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McLaren 675

 

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McLaren P1 GTR

 

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Elio Motors — 84mpg! More at: http://www.eliomotors.com/

 

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A “naked” Corvette

 

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Alex Roy, Police Impersonator, wondering if the cops will recognize him

 

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I have nothing.

 

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Yes, that’s a unicorn on a Nissan. ‘Nuff said.

 

 

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And people say I carry a big camera rig.

 

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John DeVore in an Aston Rapide

 

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Aston Martin DB9

 

 

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B&O system, with Bluetooth pairing off my iPhone, in a Rapide

 

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Vulcan Concept from Aston

 

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Toyota FT-1

 

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Random sighting: Michael Trei, John DeVore and Steve Guttenberg

 

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Toyota iRoad. It’s a one-seat electric 3-wheeler than … leans.

 

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Toyta FV2 Concept … thing. I think you stand on/in it. It also glows.

 

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Animated Cadillac drive train

 

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Ford GT

 

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NYIAS 2015: Maserati with Bowers and Wilkins

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NYIAS_LogoMany of my friends with car fetishes will wax poetic about the road-feel and handling of the new mid-engines Porsches, but all I hear is blah blah blah. Holy sh*t, was that a flipping Maserati?

Yeah, I got a thing for the Trident. I mean, hell, if you’re gonna drop over $100k on a car, you might as well look like a Boss.

Finding out information on the in-car audio systems, sourced from Bowers & Wilkins, however, was a bit challenging.

The optional package ($5,200) for the Quattroporte and new Ghibli are fifteen speakers in a 1,280 watt DSP-based system that makes heavy use of the woven Kevlar B&W cones. Finding that out, however, meant a trip to the only configurator. Which brings me up to a general comment about this show — almost no one on the floor had any idea at all about the details of the various sound systems that were available. It was like pulling teeth. When we actually found someone that knew something, we stopped and gawped.

Anyway, the system in these cars were not available for audition. Something about not wanting to run down the batteries or something. A pity, but not a surprising one and fairly common at the show.

But I’ll offer this — the inside of a Maserati is every bit as awesome as the outside. And that Ghibli, especially, has my name on it. I could hear it. Calling me.

“Hey, dumbass …”

Oh, yeah. Sign me up. No, seriously. Big, heaping bowl of I WANT THIS.

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NYIAS 2015: Jaguar with Meridian

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NYIAS_LogoIn eyes of teen-me, the Jaguar XJS was pretty much the greatest car ever made. The whole 12-cylinder engine thing was awesome and all, but it was the visual — all those swoops and curves — that got the hormones all skitter-scatter. Mmm, mmm. I think I might need to be alone for a while ….

I never did settle in and get one, though it was close once. There was this 2003 XKR coupe that that I was all a-twitter over, but I ended up taking a similarly-priced ’03 BMW M5 out for a spin, and that ended that. But here, some 10 years on, I still have daydreams about the yards of wood that made up the dash of that Jag, and all those swoops … [cough]. Yep. I’ll be fine in a minute.

After that period, Jaguar — like BMW — went through a couple of truly epically bad aesthetic choices and I completely lost interest and then lost track of the brand.

That changed this week. I mean, me. The brand has been chugging away whether I watched or not. And apparently, they’ve managed to stay afloat despite my ambivalence. Who knew?

The new F-Type, for example, is a stunner. The body is very reminiscent of what Aston is currently doing with the long-hood designs that Jag pioneered so many decades ago. In fact, the F-Type is eerily similar to what Aston is doing with the Vanquish, but for $65k (starting), the new F-Type is a whole lot more affordable.

Starting with the gimmicky door-handles, the new Jag is an exercise in luxury. I spent a little too much time licking stroking all the leather surfaces. Unfortunately (or happily, according to my wallet), the new car is only a two-seater, so that takes care of that little fantasy.

What I did find on the inside, however (aside from acres of leather), is a full-on Meridian sound system. It’s optional, of course, and there are two stages, but I can’t imagine anyone ever bothering with only the first stage and the second is only a $1k or so more than standard. For 2016, here’s the details:

The Meridian Digital Surround Sound System is an 825 watt, 16 channel stereo/surround system featuring a subwoofer and 16 speakers strategically placed throughout the vehicle. The system incorporates Meridian’s Trifield technology, a DSP algorithm specifically created for musical reproduction to deliver a consistent, concert-like experience to all passengers, expanding the sense of space within the cabin. Also utilized is digital signal processing technology and Meridian Cabin Correction™ which ensures clarity and definition to each instrument and vocal.

I spent some time in an F-Type R, with the windows up and the tunes cranked. Given the constraints, I was not just surprised, I was thrilled. Tight bass, good imaging, and a reasonable control interface had me imagining doing horrible things to my kids’ college funds. Well, maybe not horrible. They’re smart little rugrats. I’m sure they’ll get on just fine with loans, right?

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NYIAS 2015: Audi with Bang and Olufsen

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NYIAS_LogoThe new Audi R8, here shown in a space-gray, is a rocket and there’s no mistaking it for anything else. The price tag starts at $116k, so I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps more car?

This is one of those times when the parallels to high-end audio are useful — you don’t have to spend a lot, but if there’s a particular thing you do happen to be looking for, you’re likely to have to pay through the nose to get it. True “full range” in a loudspeaker, for example. Or, the ability to go from zero-60mph in less than 4 seconds. You know. Just as a random example. Yeah. Well, if you want that, that’s gonna be expensive.

So, the question then is, who’s really going to be adding a “serious” stereo to a car that’s clearly appealing to an entirely different demographic?

I have no idea. Me? I’d have thought that lux cars and sport-lux were a bit different here, but clearly the stats guys know better. And that’s why B&O has systems for a whole suite of Audi sport-lux cars. And not just them — I found very similar systems from B&O in the Aston Martin cars, too.

At the risk of over-simplifying, let me start by saying that the B&O-equipped cars were perhaps the finest-sounding of the lot. There was just something pure and relaxed about the sound that put it directly at odds with much of the crap auto makers slap into their lux boats.

The most distinctive thing is that up-firing tweeter popping up from the dash that they call the Acoustic Lens. Drawn from their BeoLab home loudspeakers, the design looks like a diffusor/reflector array, and one positioned to minimize beaming.

Traditional loudspeaker design dictates that the listener needs to be positioned within an acoustic ‘sweet spot’ in order to get the most from the listening experience. Our acoustic lens technology creates an improved sense of space and realism while maximizing the area in front of the loudspeaker where the sweet spot exists. Sound is dispersed over a 180° angle, so whether you are at the wheel or a passenger watching the countryside slide by, it will feel like you have a front row seat in one of the world’s best auditoria.

Class D ICE-power amps drive the speaker arrays, which can number up to 19, depending on the configuration and level of fitment.

Last but most definitely not least is the extensive use of DSP technology to address all the pernicious and unavoidable aspects of space. Interestingly (and appealingly), there’s significant use of noise-cancellation (think, road and wind noise) to increase clarity without having to turn up the volume.

Very impressive.

In the R8, the B&O system is 13 speakers with 13 channels of amplification (550 watts) and 10 channels of DSP signal control. The S8 takes you to the flagship 19 speakers with 19 channels of amplification and over 1.4kW of power, and will set you back an additional $6,800 on your $115k land-yacht.

Gotta say, for $7k, that’s quite a system. And one delivered with the room “issues” already sorted? Ha. No brainer. Hello, “value”!

The only question: where the hell am I gonna get $120k for a car?

Happily, the B&O systems are available in most Audi models — and not just the crazy-expensive ones.

Aston Martin, BMW, Mercedes also carry B&O systems. More at Bang & Olufsen.

Interestingly, the car audio business was bought last week (during my visit to NYIAS, actually) by Harman International. This move brings Bang & Olufsen together with Bowers & Wilkins, Harman Kardon, Infinity, JBL, Lexicon, Mark Levinson and Revel Speakers.

Interesting to note is that Harman paid $156M for the lux business unit. What’s interesting? Well, the fact that the entire home-stereo market was recently valued at somewhere around $200M.

Car audio is big business.

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NYIAS 2015: Lexus with Mark Levinson

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NYIAS_LogoFinding an actual Harman-branded display at the NYIAS was like finding a unicorn. For the record, it was our second. Unicorn, that is. I’ll get back to that later. But for now, we have Lexus and the Mark Levinson sound system.

Seriously — we were shocked. Alex figured that Lexus would be a natural for this kind of thing, but after a cursory exam of the floor and several dozen blank stares later, we actually stumbled onto someone that actually knew something. Better still, someone that knew how to demo it.

Her name was Shauna and I thought she was just marvelous. Upbeat, smiling, curious and completely open with the edges of her knowledge, Shauna guided Alex and I through the system we found in the Lexus LS 460L

$1,580 is peanuts in today’s high-end audio world. Not so much when you add in the $80k base sticker price of the ultra-premium LS 460L, but the point is, this is one of those “duh!” kind of upgrades on a lux cruiser — I can’t think of a single reason not to opt in, based on the price alone.

The fact that the 19 speaker, 450watt 7.1 surround system was perhaps the best-sounding at the show shouldn’t hurt, either.

Shauna came prepped with a demo disc, an shtick, and an effervescent delivery — what we heard was tight bass, see-through midrange and a detailed top-end. Not bad at all. My ten-year-old BMW wishes it was this coherent.

She’d been told that this system “rivaled systems that cost more than $150k”, which is a load of horseshit, but given what was on display, I forgave the blatant hyperbole that the Mark Levinson team was shoveling out.

The actual details on the system (other than power and speaker count and the fact that everything is DSP’d) were as thin as everywhere else, unfortunately, but the proof in the pudding was in the eating, and this was an all-you-can-eat buffet of goodness.

There are M&L systems available for most Lexus models.

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NYIAS 2015: Mercedes with Burmester

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NYIAS_LogoAs a BMW owner, I’m not sure I’m allowed to like, much less fawn over, a Mercedes-Benz, but the new GT-S is going to have to be an exception.

Holy-cow, that thing is awesome looking. Of course, I may just be a sucker for that long-hood thing, but whatever. Shown here in testosterone yellow, the upcoming car is was easily one of the best-looking things at the show.

For those of us interested in high-end audio, however, the far more pedestrian C-Class and S-Class autos feature a shiny $6,400 system from Burmester. From the S-Class,

The Burmester® High-End 3D Surround–Soundsystem provides its unrivalled listening experience by virtue of 24 high-performance speakers and 24 separate amplifier channels with a total output of 1,540 watts. At the same time an intelligent combination of analogue and digital amplifier technologies leads to a particularly fine and natural sound together with high performance reserves. While sophisticated analogue filter settings allow the best possible fine reproduction in the mid-range and treble frequencies, the digital amplifier – despite its compact dimensions – masters the highest dynamic peaks. The result is outstanding sound resolution and fine acoustic detail, combined with impressive impulse reproduction. This provides a rounded, warm and substantial sound experience founded on an impressive bass range.

The new, three-dimensional listening experience provided by the 3D-Sound and created by the Burmester speakers integrated into the vehicle roof is unique. In addition to the two speakers in the overhead console, another speaker is accommodated in the overhead control panel. A 3D–Sound algorithm was developed specifically for the Mercedes–Benz S–Class to create the unique listening experience made possible by these overhead speakers. The aim of the developers was to add a subtle spatial effect to the outstanding listening experience.

Added to that, I found the following tidbit on the bass system:

A leap forward in audio quality, FrontBass takes advantage of the S-Class bodyshell by utilizing the rigid front frame members as resonance chambers for twin under-dash subwoofers. In addition to providing rich, precise bass throughout the interior, the design saves weight and frees up space in the cabin and doors.

Alex and I spent some time playing with the controls on the Burmester system, and while the touch/feel of the system was intuitive, I did wonder at the aesthetic for the screen — looks decidedly aftermarket. Think: Garmin. I didn’t “get it”. Quite frankly, I didn’t “get” the sound, either — it was bright, thin and pretty much horrible. Alex, cringing all the while, quickly flipped through the screens to get to the EQ and sure enough, some jackass had jacked up the treble and bass into a horrible rictus of a classic “V” shape. What the hell? How did no one notice?

With sanity restored, we managed to pair a phone and fiddle, but I couldn’t shake the tinny aftertaste.

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NYIAS 2015: Lincoln with Revel Speakers

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Alex Roy and Kevin Voecks, in a Lincoln MKX cockpit

NYIAS_LogoI’ll be honest, Lincoln isn’t really a car brand that crosses my mind. Pretty much ever. There was the Town Car, which was a hilarious wonderful car to rent (which I got to do about half a dozen times about 10 years or so ago). The Continental (being relaunched) is iconic. But if you asked me about current brands, I’m not sure I’d have listed Lincoln in the top 20. Assuming I could even name 20 car brands.

On this, the first of the two press-only days at the NYIAS, I found Alex Roy and John DeVore lounging about in the Lincoln demo room, waiting on Kevin Voecks. Kevin, whom you may or may not know, is the designer for Revel Speakers, a brand with several entries on Stereophile’s “Recommended Components” list. Revel was launched by Harman International at some point in the not-too-distant past, but has continued to offer up compelling and full-range loudspeakers to the home audio enthusiast for pretty much the entire time I’ve cared about high-end audio. They’re very good. Enough said.

What I didn’t know is that Revel has been tied to Lincoln, and is part of Ford’s efforts to resuscitate the brand.

Starting with the all-new MKX, announced here at the NYIAS, the Revel system is integrated from the get-go, and not in any way an afterthought bolt-on upgrade. From the press release:

Uncompromising acoustics and award-winning home theater audio quality comes to the Lincoln MKX through the available Revel audio system.

The Revel Ultima system is standard on Lincoln Black Label editions and available on Reserve models. It features 19 speakers with point source architecture, positioning the tweeter and midrange speakers close together for superior audio quality.

Further performance and refinement is provided by QuantumLogic® Surround Sound technology, which offers three listening modes – stereo, audience and on stage; patented Clari-Fi™ technology offering advanced, real-time music reconstruction for all compressed audio sources; and a 20-channel high-voltage hybrid amplifier for class-leading dynamics and optimized transparency.

A 13-speaker Revel system designed for the ultimate audio quality experience is available on the all-new Lincoln MKX Select and Reserve.

We got a chance to visit briefly with Kevin as he talked about his new toy. Unlike most high-end in-car audio systems sourced from, well, wherever, the amplification in the MKX is “hybrid” in the sense that it’s Class D for the bass and Class A/B for everything else. A DSP surround system makes enormous strides in addressing the challenges of being inside a closed space.

My verdict? This is a complex system with an elegant interface and easily the best sound I’ve heard in any Ford brand ever. 

No, it’s not perfect. The sound stage (which has options for normal 2-channel “stereo”, an enhanced stereo mode called “Audience” and a full-bore 360° surround setting) was excellent but clearly better from the front-seat but with only a minor drop off as you moved to the back. Bass response was thumpin’ and a far cry from the silliness of most aftermarket sub mods, but whether or not it could have been tighter without rattling bolts out of the subchassis is unknown. All in all, very impressive.

No word yet on pricing or availability.

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Side door speakers, with wave-guides, in upcoming Lincoln MKX

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Alex charms the Lincoln PR rep into letting us borrow it for a short trip

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Revel Speakers Ultima

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A new Continental?

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Audio, an Auto Show, and The Cannonball Run

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According to Google Maps, the distance between Manhattan and Redondo Beach is about 2,800 miles. Following the respective speed limits and abstracting away from pesky things like stopping for fuel or the necessities of nature, Google is confident that such a drive can be completed in 41 hours, point to point.

Reality, of course, is a little different.

There will be traffic. If you don’t travel over a holiday or weekend, there will be at least one and possibly three “rush hours”. There will be weather. Variable road conditions, including construction, potholes, lane closures. You’re going to need fuel, so that means a stop, which means an average of zero-miles-per-hour during those 5+ minute stops, which means making up that time. You have to eat. You have to do whatever it is your body usually does with food, once it’s finished with it. And there’s that little issue of sleep. Continue reading

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