43 B&W in Volvo S90
There’s a truth to car audio that most car manufacturers just don’t get; good installation trumps good equipment every time. I listen to lots of car audio systems and they vary wildly even when built with the same hardware. I’ve listened to Bose systems in some cars that are brilliant, in some that are nothing particularly special and in a few that are simply dreadful. No matter what you may think, good audio is achievable in most cars, something you could ponder when next listening to crappy sound quality while jammed in traffic.

Most factory-original sound systems are average to bad. Marginal power, poor speakers badly placed. The worst I’ve heard was in a base model Subaru, but then most Subaru systems are pretty ordinary and even its premium McIntosh system is nothing special against the bulk of premium offerings.

Coming across factory-original audio that sounds great, truly great, is so rare that so far this century there are only three that I recall as standouts. The first was in 2000 by Harman/Kardon, in a Saab 9-5 Griffin. It had a centre-channel speaker mid-dash that was set up brilliantly. Harman does some great in-car audio and its Logic7 systems are reliably good. The second was the Mark Levinson system in the original Lexus RX330 of 2003, designed into the car from blueprint stage, and the third is in a car I’ve just got out of after a week of driving around in what sounded like a big pair of headphones, a Volvo S90 with the optional ($4500) Bowers and Wilkins system.

This has an increasingly common feature in premium systems, listening modes that can be set for the driver alone, front seat occupants or the whole cabin. I set it for driver and it was so good I let my passengers lump it. Once again the centre channel is exactly right – the singer is dead in front of you and the soundstage is wide with accurate placement of the orchestra. (Aside: Why do so many people think music in a car should come from the rear? Do they turn their backs to the stage at concerts?) The highs are utterly crisp and clear, the bass is muscular without being overwhelming and the mids tie it all together. And the louder you turn it, the better it gets.

43 B&W P7 aAs I was coming off this high a pair of B&W headphones arrived for test, so I was very kindly disposed towards them. These are cordless Bluetooth P7s ($600), B&W’s second cordless offering after the $450 P5s and both utilise Bluetooth AptX. But unlike the on-ear P5s these are over-ear models that many people, me included, find more comfortable.

They come with an embossed leather carry case, an audio cable for non-Bluetooth connections and a USB to mini-USB charge cable; the on-board rechargeable battery is good for up to 17 hours. There are buttons for volume, pause and skip doubling as phone controls, and an on-off that also controls Bluetooth connection (press rather than slide). At 323 grams these are on the heavier side, probably why clamp pressure is tighter than normal. Even so they’re comfortable.

43 B&W P7 cThe P7s sound good on Bluetooth only until you use the hard-wired connection. Then the mid and high-ranges come out more crisply and you appreciate how much better the bass is controlled. The sound is unapologetically bass-oriented, too much for my taste but then most people like more bass than me, and on Bluetooth this can affect definition to the point where Yo-yo Ma’s cello sounds like it has too many coats of varnish. With the cable such vicissitudes evaporate.

It would be handy if the supplied quick start guide gave to a clue as to where to plug the cable in. After pondering this for fully ten minutes I discovered that one must remove the left earpad (it attaches magnetically) to expose the plug and then swing the cable through 90 degrees before snapping the earpad back on.

In an ideal world I’d take the sound and comfort of Sennheiser’s annoyingly finicky PXC550s ($630) with the much greater user-friendliness of the B&Ws. Come to think of it, nah, I’ll take the Volvo.

Published January 2017


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