Bang & Olufsen makes beautiful music at Geneva auto show

At the 2012 International Auto Show in Geneva, Bang & Olufsen representative Bjarne Sorenson gave CNET a tour of audio systems in the new Aston Martin DBS, Mercedes-Benz SL AMG, and Audi A3.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
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Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Bjarne Sorenson, Bang & Olufsen's Automotive Technology Director, is a very lucky guy. As we sat in the Aston Martin DBS listening to music, he described the approval process for the company's recent work with BMW. As BMW was putting the final touches on its new 6-series, Sorenson got to spend a few days driving the Autobahn at 100 mph in the car, making sure the optional Bang & Olufsen audio system produced the same perfect sound at high speeds as it did at a stop.

Sorenson has also been lucky in launching Bang & Olufsen's automotive practice about eight years ago, as automakers spent the last decade scrambling to sign deals for branded audio systems in their cars. His practice area has grown to a significant part of Bang & Olufsen's business, with placement in cars from Aston Martin, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW.

Hidden under the cargo floor of the Audi A3 is this big Bang & Olufsen subwoofer. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

At the Geneva show, Sorenson gave me a tour of the systems in three different cars, providing an excellent opportunity to hear the different implementations. We started at the bottom, with Bang & Olufsen's latest work in the all new Audi A3. I had previously been impressed how Audi is giving the A3 as much available tech as the higher end cars in its line-up. The inclusion of a Bang & Olufsen audio option, which Sorenson said would go for 900 euros, is further evidence that Audi will leave no car behind.

For the new A3, Bang & Olufsen 14 speakers and a 705 watt amp with 15 channels. In front, the doors each hold a woofer and a mid, with tweeters mounted in the A pillars. A subwoofer sits under the floor of the cargo area. Missing from this system are the acoustic lenses, which have become a signature for Bang & Olufsen.

Ensuring the tone controls were all flat, Sorenson played his test CD. Most of the music we listened to was jazzy, featuring a balance of guitar, percussion, and some vocals. The system reproduced the music with strong detail and timbre. On a track with an acoustic guitar, I could hear the musicians fingers slide along a nylon string. From high volume to low, the music came through cleanly, without losing background elements.

Aston Martin let Bang & Olufsen place the mids high up on the doors, contributing to the audio system's excellent sound. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The next car we went to was the Aston Martin DBS, which Sorenson said was his favorite of the work Bang & Olufsen had done in the automotive space. This car, one of Bang & Olufsen's earlier efforts, has 13 speakers, with two being acoustic lenses that rise up from the corners of the dashboard. Two amps power these speakers, one with 250 watts going through 13 channels and the other with 750 watts and five channels.

In this car Sorenson again put in his test CD, but initially chose a track that was nearly all drums. Turning up the volume, I was blown away by the presence of the sound, the sense that each drum hit was happening right in front of me. The depth was astonishing, letting me hear the different types of drums and the full range of sound each produced. A symphonic piece we listened to showed the extreme detail of this system. I could hear the distant sound of the musicians turning pages in the music, and a woodwind player taking a breath before setting off on a solo.

Listening to the tracks we had heard in the A3, the audio quality was clearly superior in the DBS, a much more expensive system.

These acoustic lenses, normally hidden, rise up from the dashboard when the stereo is turned on. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

For the last part of the tour, we got into the Mercedes-Benz SL AMG. For this roadster, Bang & Olufsen used 12 speakers and a 940 watt amp. It has the acoustic lenses that rise from the corners of the dashboard, a center speaker mounted between the seats facing forward, and woofers that have actually been designed into the footwell space of the car.

For this part of the tour, we were hampered by the open top and the crowds of people around checking out the car. Instead of using Sorenson's CD, we tried a USB drive I was carrying with MP3 tracks compressed at 320 kilobits.

Playing a track by Adele, her voice came out as clearly as I have ever heard it, the system reproducing vocal tones nicely. The production on this album, 21, is not very good, though, flattening much of the backing musicians' work. The deep bass guitar of a track by The XX was reproduced very well by this system, the low tones coming out with enough pressure to be felt, yet not causing speaker rattle.

Sorenson suggested Bang & Olufsen was being very selective about the automotive brands with which it would partner, focusing on the European luxury market. He expressed no interesting in working with Lexus, for example. It also seemed the company will not cheapen the brand, the system in the A3 about as low as it would go.