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BOWERS & WILKINS Audio In The New VOLVO XC90


I love Volvo cars, so I am biased as hell - about the cars. I have driven a 340 GL 1.4, a 340 GL 1.7, a 360 GLT 2.0, a 740 2.3 turbo, a 940 turbo and now I have a 30k miles XC70 4x4 with a 2.9 petrol engine, two turbos and Polestar loony-Swede engine remapping. I have got over half a million miles trundled in total but I am still in healthy fear of my 329bhp/480Nm monster. I can tell you that Volvo have ALWAYS cared about audio, even legendarily fitting a make of speakers into their cars that the trade talked about and hated because they ‘were too good for OEM’. The ones in my 940 were offensively good and played head units from Pioneer, Parrot and Kenwood through the years and 275,000 miles, still working well when I scrapped the old girl.

I miss her yet… (“You CAN’T fall in Love with a car, Sir!’) Larry at Darryl’s motors, Croxley - the BIZZ garage in Herts, for owners of older Volvos…

In the Eighties, I used to drive to the Costa Brava in the 1.4 to go to Camping El Maset. A hillside site with tiny terraced plots under trees in a Catalan village called Begur. I had two pairs of six by nines and a woofer in the parcel shelf and so much luggage crammed into the car, that I could barely see out the back. (I NEEDED to keep the boot cubic free- for bass.) When I got to Palamos in the evenings to cruise the tourist streets, windows down and music pumping, it was not the bar owners but I that were the winners in the attention stakes. One had a black whale tail RS Sierra Cosworth parked out the front of his ebony-themed bar, one had a white one outside his chrome and white establishment. The punters looked up from al fresco tables in amazement as I crushed the bar’s sound systems…

It was slow by comparison to modern cars but I had a ball. A loud one.

When I had my 740 audio system installed by Audio Hero Paul Richardson (lucky stiff, for ever grateful) I was granted a bonkers MONTH-LONG loan of a 960 3.0 saloon by the folks at Volvo Car UK. This was while mine was destined to go in Max Power magazine (of which I was ICE editor) and the saloon got a mention. An in-line six-cylinder petrol block, it didn’t half GO! That system was very crisp indeed.

And now, Volvo have got themselves one heck of a sexy product in the new XC90. I was able to kick a question upstairs at Volvo Cars in Sweden, thanks to Ben in the UK corporate office, to ask for some ‘whyfore’ from the higher ups and got a word from Henrik Svensson, Audio Systems Manager at Volvo Cars who said, “We wanted to raise the feeling of luxury and exclusiveness in Volvo’s cars, and saw Bowers & Wilkins as a perfect partner with its strong heritage in high-end audio. As well as the sound quality – a vital contributor to the luxury experience in a car – we also felt that certain design elements from Bowers & Wilkins, for example the acoustically precise central tweeter, were a good fit for our interiors. Bowers & Wilkins’ philosophy when it comes to sound – that it should be a pure listening experience – reflects Volvo’s human-centric approach.” I really liked that!

A bit more local to me and more at the consumer end, another executive type, Matt Wharton of Sentinel Volvo, a shiny posh dealership in the Seven Sisters road (who sold me and service my XC70 Polestar) said of the ‘90, “A massive upgrade on an already good product. Which has brought the XC90 onto a new technology platform for a new generation of cars.”

Matt is also the guv’nor of another, separate business - Brayden Motor Company. They are THE utter saviour of many an owner of a venerable Volvo. For Brayden’s supply everything from new plastic buttons to affix to the seat belts, (for keeping the buckle handy, despite super-strong inertia-reels) to hard-to-find panels and lamps. Their oldest lamp in stock is for a 144. They are a great outfit and support Volvo’s vital-to-me longevity brand value like real heroes. They are durable.







And with the XC90, when you order yours, you can tick a three thousand pound box that says “B&W speaker system”. I have been a reviewer of high end home theatre speakers for a long time and have great relationships about the speaker industry in the UK, including Bowers & Wilkins. Such that regular readers may know that tests of audiophile car audio source units for Talk Audio have been listened to on a set of B&W LM1 ‘Leisure Monitors’, presented to me when I went to the press event they held when their first automotive system went into the Jaguar XF.

Also, I have visited their factory to hear these…






€65,000 a pair….

So I have a handle on quality car audio, B&W’s product and how they make it, as well as a working knowledge of the Volvo product. My worlds looked to be colliding with this car. So it was time to call up Volvo Car UK and Bowers’ PR folks and ask nicely…..

So much fail at being cool. I was excited to take delivery of the XC90 at my home but not as thrilled as to be able to take it to Steyning on the coast. Not to the factory but the far more posh Research Establishment. There, to have Stuart Neville, the engineer who designed the system, answer my questions on video…outside the front door. It was white silk gloves journalist-handling skills. I felt honoured to be honest. It’s a B&W thing and they have always done it for all of us.

You cannot even park there, they removed bollards for my filming… Here is the video.





The basic upshot is that this system option offers tremendous value for money, for the quality of output. I wrote an article for CAR magazine, called ‘The Great OEM Rip Off’, once, that was all about how aftermarket car audio specialists could do you better value and quality of result for your perfectly-integrated installation, than the people who sell you your car.

That is now over. In new Volvos, anyway.

So what ‘zackly does this system comprise? To start with, we have four sets of semi-active speakers. A passive-crossover controlled set of mids and tweets all round in the doors. Now add the centre and two upper height surrounds, also two-way passive, at the back. Each door has a weird non-standard 170mm bass driver, a six-and-three-quarter. So, in the same real estate, B&W are getting a serious actively driven low end driver with more area than a six-and-a-half. Finally, back this up with a ten inch carbon fibre ‘Fresh Air’ sub woofer, vented to the outside world for its back-wave. This makes it a true infinite baffle woofer.





The tweeters are all equipped with the Nautilus technology back-wave absorption, tapered tube, so uniquely a B&W thing. All are one inch - 25mm in diameter. On the dash top, amidst the sexy Bowers & Wilkins laser-engraved speaker panels, with holes and dots lined up so you kind of get the perforations somehow fade as you reach the panel’s edge, that tweeter is a straight tube and looks thus for all the world like the top of a B&W 802.

Those are only £11,000 a pair but do have vapour-deposited DIAMOND tweeter diaphragms. Yes, for B&W, “Diamond” is not a model line name for vanity.

But that doesn’t impress me. I know that works. What gave me Techbumps™ (goosebumps caused by technology) was that Bowers & Wilkins have remade the wheel and curled their Nautilus Tube tech up behind a car tweeter! I have not seen the thing uninstalled. I wanted to claw the panel apart with my damn teeth if need be, I was so keen to see its butt - but you don’t do that to press cars.

The mids are all Kevlar, a material that is as B&W as the seaside. These are four inch, or 100mm in the front soundstage, that is doors and centre, while the rear doors and high-roof surround speaker installations have smaller three inch or 80mm Kevlar mid-drivers. Each set of mid and tweet has an amp channel and the four midwoofers and carbon fibre ‘Fresh Air’ woofer in the bodywork each get their own channel of power from nineteen channels of efficient Class D amp power, hidden away in the guts of the car.





Here’s a prettier rendering. Gosh, I would love to hire the graphicist who did this, to make me system diagrams for editorial use.




The really delightful thing is that B&W recognise that the big old XC90 cabin (way bigger than my estate XC70, that may not have been able to munch the new oven AND washing machine that I collected while having the car for the fun of it rather than have delivered) was the best to show off their systems, acoustically. It sings best in the XC90 4x4, while also being an option on the saloon S90 and super-new estate version V90.

Now the last and most amazing thing for me, was the collision of espionage over years and top PR help. For the PR folks from HARMAN, who have a lot to do with the electronics in the car, (after all, B&W do not make amplifiers) have been able to connect me to a very high tier OEM supplier. I refer to that Fresh Air subwoofer in the car.

Bowers know how to make bass. http://www.techradar.com/reviews/audio-visual/hi-fi-and-audio/hi-fi-and-av-speakers/bowers-and-wilkins-db1-969859/review yes, that’d be me, by the way. But not in cars, as you cannot put a 44kg, 97lb woofer in the boot. And Volvo and Harman and B&W all meet up at a woofer, provided by Alpine in the UK as a supplier to manufacturers, that was in turn licensed from an Australian company.

I admit that I have been sat on the knowledge of the existence of this device since I spotted some in a heap at Alpine HQ, obviously OEM items. I asked nicely and was told it was ‘Non Disclosure Agreement’ (NDA) stuff, so I refrained rather than upset Alpine. But I was told about the woofer on camera and you can see my face go OOOH!
I have been given the chance to talk to the folks Down Under to get the skinny on this woofer but have been a bit shattered super-late at night and there’s a fat nine hour time difference. It started to delay the feature, so I will get that interview but I think best so as not to ungruntle any of the stalwart companies that have been part of making this superb offering as a factory option that I will write about it separately.

What it does is provide a bottom octave of sub-bass and some true meat for big bits that really do impress you and make you aware that there is over a kilowatt of muscle in the system. It keeps the realism and scale of music and thus outperforms most every other high end OEM system I have experienced before. And I have heard Ferraris, MacLarens, Lamborghinis, Lexuses, (Hobittses?) Bentleys, Rollers and Audis.

All I can say is that the sound of the B&W speaker option in the XC90 is worth every single penny and I have cut out that article from CAR magazine and I think I shall eat it raw, with no dressing. The processing is another whole thing and is great fun, as well as offering the best choice of options, including driver-selfish. That part alone is better than all the others, too. Wollen sie speilen das auto-tune im Gothenburg, ja?

If you can afford it, this will make the eventual resale of your car as easy as falling off a log.


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